Charles City Press, 9-20-18
I remember one time when the screams changed everything.
It was about 30 years ago, in Iowa City. A female college student was walking home from an evening of studying at the library, right down busy Burlington Street.
Out of nowhere, she was grabbed. She was pulled. Along the street, there was a small parking lot with U-Haul trailers, and a man — bigger and stronger than she was — was violently, forcefully trying to drag her into one of the open trailers. His intent, we can only assume, was to sexually abuse her.
She fought back, but he was too strong, and much more forceful than she was. There wasn’t much she could do, except to scream.
And boy, did she ever scream. She gave it everything she had. If sound could light up a town, Iowa City would have burned to the ground that night.
I was a college student, sitting in my apartment about a block away, drinking beers with three of my friends, watching a Chuck Norris movie, our windows open because there was a nice breeze. And those screams immediately brought us all to our feet.
Those were real screams, we were hearing. In a college town at night, you hear lots of screams — screams of delight, playful screams, screams of entertainment — you can tell they aren’t real screams. These screams — these were real. Someone was in trouble.
One beat of listening, looking at each other. Then we all rushed out the door, down the stairs and outside toward the direction of the screams. A couple of other people had heard the screams as well, and were running toward them from the opposite direction.
As we arrived, the assailant decided to abandon the girl. He jumped into his minivan. Two of my friends actually jumped on the van as it was speeding off, and yelled for him to stop, pounding their fists on the hood. He didn’t stop, and they fell off.
All four of us got a good look at the assailant, as did the other two people who had come to help. We all also got the plate numbers.
A cop arrived quickly. The girl was a little bruised, a little bloody, a lot shaken.
I don’t know why my friends and I reacted the way we did. We were not the type of witnesses the cops expected. Maybe it was the Chuck Norris movie, inspiring us to try to be heroic. Or maybe we were just four guys who, at that moment, knew what was right.
Every one of us was able to identify the assailant from a photo. Every one of us remembered the plate numbers, which belonged to the assailant’s vehicle. The assailant, by the way, was the chief of police in a small town near Iowa City, a well-respected family man. But that didn’t matter to us. It took two trials, but we all testified as witnesses, and eventually the guy went to prison.
It wasn’t easy. Even with all the physical evidence and seven eyewitnesses, it took a lot to convince a jury that a wonderful family man could do such a horrible thing.
All of us were attacked personally, our credibility questioned, but none of us got it as bad as the victim did. She was shamed and vilified. She was accused of being confused, of just seeking attention, of having a bone to pick.
She was just walking home from the library, after studying. She didn’t ask to be dragged into the life of this “family man.”
So it didn’t surprise me, last weekend, to hear that an adult, professional woman is claiming that something like that happened to her, long ago. And it didn’t surprise me that this woman is claiming that a U.S. Supreme Court Justice nominee, and respected family man, was the culprit. In fact, none of the accusations made over the last year as a part of the whole “me too” movement have surprised me.
I’ve heard those stories. Through college and even in high school, I was surrounded by that culture. I heard men in their late teens and early 20s boast about doing exactly what this woman has described.
In fraternities, in dorm rooms, at parties — I heard them explain how they had a system, a way to get girls alone. Methods to get them slightly intoxicated, and separated from their friends, and all alone with one guy in a room. They were coached, to get young girls into a situation where it was only her word against his, a situation where his version of events would seem rational and her version would seem irrational. It was planned that way.
I heard women tell those same stories from their point of view, harrowing stories exactly like her story, more than a dozen times. They were sometimes told they were confused, mixed up, exaggerating. They were told they had the wrong guy, that they had a bone to pick, that they were just seeking attention.
And honestly, I have no way of ever knowing if the story she tells is completely true. And if it is, I have no way of knowing for certain if her assailant was who she believes it was, and neither do any of you.
And there is no doubt, there are politicians on both sides of the aisle using this situation for their own political purposes. That’s what politicians do, that’s what they’ve always done. But not one of them knows the truth, either.
All I do know is that her story is all too familiar. She claims he forcibly held her down, and handled her, and when she tried to scream for help, he covered her mouth so roughly that she feared it would kill her. And so, she couldn’t scream.
Somewhere out there at that party, there was someone who would have heard that scream, someone who would have been sober and morally balanced enough to recognize that her scream was a real scream. That someone would have come to her aid. Because there are always people out there — people you don’t expect — who will help. People who will do what’s right, if they hear the call, even at a drunken high school party.
But her assailant knew that, too. He was coached, he was well aware that if the sound waves of her scream escaped that room, his fun would be over. He knew exactly how to cover a mouth to stifle a scream, how to cover a mouth so roughly that the mouth’s owner would fear for her life, and stop trying to scream.
He covered her mouth so forcefully that she couldn’t scream out for more than 35 years. But she’s screaming now, screaming for her life. And we’re being told that she’s confused, mixed up, exaggerating; that she has the wrong guy, that she has a political agenda, a bone to pick; she’s just seeking attention.
But listen to the screams. They could be your daughter’s screams. They could be your sister’s screams. Those are the screams of a helpless 15-year-old girl in trouble, a girl who was forced to be silent before, a girl who is screaming for us to help her now.
The question is not whether her screams are real. We know they are.
The question is, are we finally going to help?