Yes, It Happened to Me...I Was Sexually Assaulted on the Subway

I am trapped, and that's how he wants me. 

Jeremy Barton

Jeremy Barton


Some might think New York City is an odd oasis from California, but undisturbed subway rides allowed my mind to wander the way it never could in Los Angeles traffic. I was in my 20s, relatively young to my transplant to New York City, when I rode the subway half a dozen times a day for multiple part-time jobs. I worked with patients in community mental health clinics throughout the city, and with this hectic schedule, the subway afforded me an ironic luxury of being lost in my thoughts. 

I was heading uptown on the 1 train. It was crowded, although not unbearably so, with pockets of room in the subway car for people to shift and pivot, and I quietly stood leaning into the pole and my reverie.

But, my mind’s private drifting stops quickly into my commute. Pressing on my body and my mind is some sort of disruption, and I suddenly feel pinned. I am trying to find the source of the pressure; it seems to be coming from behind me. I try to adjust my frame, but I can’t seem to create more space, and my body registers an inflexible force, unyielding against my effort to resist. I look up into a face, hoping recognition and empathy, but a blank stare looks back at me.  I am beginning to feel myself enter a state of panic; I am trapped, and that's how he wants me. 

A fellow straphanger notices my struggle and offers her hand, and I take it, relieved but confused. My back is now to the man with the blank stare, but he stays close. I can feel my body going into some form of hyper-vigilant mode. I can’t see the blank stare man, but I seem to know that he is moving toward me. It’s as if I can feel his breathing and his body heat as he gets closer, leaning into me. I think I feel his hand slowly start to rest on my left butt cheek. He’s taking his time though, adding the slightest increase in pressure to confuse my body’s instincts until his hand rests on my body, holding as if my body belongs to him. I turn to see his hand retreat quickly.  

My face turns hot, my breathing is shallow and quick, and my heart is racing, so I am clearly angry and frightened. Why then do I stay silent? Despite my outward stillness, my mind is loud with questions: What do I do? Do I yell in the quiet subway car for help? Do I pull that red emergency lever that I’ve never seen anyone pull? Does this count as an emergency? My body is telling me it is an emergency, but my mind keeps telling me to keep quiet and don’t make a scene. I am worried about being too loud and disruptive.

At the next stop, he gets out. It’s not my stop, but my body is out of the car, tracking him. My mind has no plan, but my physical pursuit doesn’t relent. He steps into the adjacent subway car, standing close to the door again, like he did with me.  

Now what? Do I pull him out of the car? Do I yell for help? I still can’t open my mouth to say anything or even figure out what I would say. But as I fight with my inhibitions, I hear another man speaking. “Miss, can I help you?”  The stranger pulls out a badge from under his sports jersey. “Are you ok, Miss?” 

I answer his question casually, in what seems like an unending effort to deny that I need him to speak for me. “A man in there touched me,” I say. “Come on.  Everyone touches everyone in this city. Don’t make it a big deal,” I say mocking myself in my head. Thankfully, the man with the badge does not mimic my self-critique. Stepping toward the subway car doors, he confidently asks, “Can you identify the man?” I point to the man with the blank stare, and he is pulled out of the car. Now, two other casually dressed men have joined us, their gold badged necklaces resting on the outside of their street clothes. 

These men with hidden badges stand on the subway platform and watch women when they exit the cars, as they know that women use their bodies to speak about these crimes, not words. In evidence of their clarity of what my body told them, none of them question my conviction of what happened.

One of the them asks me if I am willing to press charges, reminding me of future threats to other women. I feel myself sinking into a familiar place of uncertainty. “How much time is this going to take? Do I have to go to the precinct? I don’t have time for this,” loops repeatedly in my head. I’m unable to stop the need to make this unreal: “Did this really just happen to me?” I want to believe that if I say nothing, it will go away in my mind.

I know I shouldn’t retreat from the scene nor what my body knows to be true, but I don’t want to be here, and I don’t want to be a victim. Giving my statement to the men with badges, and watching the man with the blank stare be led away handcuffed, only leaves me with more self doubt: Am I really ready for this? 

I wish I could say my story ends with how much the judicial system helps with these self-doubts, but everything seems to feed it rather than assuage it. The depositions and attorney meetings require me to go over minute by minute details of the event, checking facts and consistencies of my report. 

And there are uninvited visits to my home by a woman hired by the defense. She stands in my doorway and tells me personal information about the blank stare man in an effort to pressure me to drop the case; he is poor, ill, and in need of care. Familiar with how easy it is to push doubt into denial, she pulls at my effort to help people like him to nudge me just over the edge. The district attorney tells me casually that personal pressure is commonly part of the legal defense strategy. 

Then there is the court testimony in front of a judge and jury with cross examinations by the defense. All the while I am flooded with the question “Did this really happen to me?” I am trying to stay steady under the pressure of the questions to my perceptions, but nothing about this experience is objective or provable, and everything can be framed as a misperception. I am uncertain if I can allow my body’s outrage to be louder than my mind’s silencing, leaving my self doubt as the strongest prosecutor in the room.  

The blank stare man is found guilty and given mandatory counseling, at my request. The District Attorney and the police remind me of the importance of my persistence, which they tell me is rare in these types of incidents. But, I leave feeling unsure of myself. In the moment, my body was clear of what happened, but time and space have a way of healing my wounds so much that it’s now hard to hold onto what I physically felt so strongly then. 

If I don’t feel frightened or angry anymore, I question if I ever did.  Despite the guilty verdict, my self-doubt leaves me continuing to feel like a silent victim, going through the motions of speaking up while simultaneously trying to conceal my mind’s disbelief of what my body registered.

I try, over the years, to tell myself that I was strong to report this crime and that I was right, but my words are hollow and cliched. Sometimes I even tell myself it’s ok that I might have sent an innocent man to therapy. Who couldn’t use a little counseling anyway? I laugh at my own way of simultaneously prosecuting and defending myself. 

A few years later, I am riding the subway, seated this time and enjoying the undisturbed wandering of my mind again. I look up and make direct eye contact with the blank stare man sitting across from me. I feel the intensity of his gaze. My mind can’t determine how I would know someone with such a penetrating glare, but my body does. It’s him. 

My body is back in the crowded, but not unbearably so, subway car several years back. But today, I lean toward the man with the blank stare and into my own instincts, not letting my mind have the last word.  Locked in our stare and waiting for my stop, I finally tell myself “Yes, it really happened”. 

Alexis Tomarken is a psychologist in private practice in NYC and a psychoanalytic candidate at NYU’s Postdoctoral Program in Psychoanalysis. Most of her publications have been in scholarly journals about grief and end of life issues.