The Scars You Don't See
By Jennifer Gilbert
Photo Credit: Peter Yang
THIS IS WHAT PEOPLE SAID to me after the attack:
At least he didn't get your face. At least you're alive. At least you weren't raped. I learned that this is what "at least" means: Move on. Get over it. Let's not talk about it. It could be worse, so it must be better.
This is what I asked myself after the attack: Was it something about me, how I looked, how I was dressed? Did I smile at him or say hello? What if I had turned around and seen him, told some big man on the street that someone was following me? Why didn't I notice I was being followed? Why didn't I notice he was right behind me? What terrible thing have I done in my life that I deserved this — have I not been a good enough person? In what universe is it OK for this to happen to someone?
The questions ran around in my head, a constant series of mental laps. Did I do something? Did I not do something?
I always imagined my grown-up life in big terms: successful career, handsome husband, huge family. Even though the girl who dreamed of a fabulous New York life had been destroyed that afternoon, the dream itself remained. My task was to figure out who the new me was who could make that dream come true, then rivet together my new personality without the slightest perceptible weakness. That was the only way I would be able to survive my fears without anyone on the outside being the wiser.
The result of my rebuilding was an assemblage of contradictions, all hidden beneath my shiny skin. I was a fearless fearful person. I was isolated but afraid to be alone. I was terrified of things most people take for granted — especially sleep — but the stuff that others approach with trepidation didn't even faze me. New career choices, job interviews, selling, cold-calling — that was nothing to me. I knew what it was like to almost lose everything, so the day-to-day things that cause the average person anxiety? Please. What's the worst that could happen to me — the interviewer wouldn't hire me? This is not scary stuff.
Three months after the attack, I got a job with a small event-planning business. I didn't have the faintest idea what I was doing, but I worked constantly, never taking a vacation. On some level I must have known that the more I kept moving, the less I had to think. No longer was I the nice, dimply, happy-go-lucky girl from the suburbs. The new Jen was fierce and on top of things—Type A-plus-plus. I faced down all opposition — the attacker and anyone else in the world who tried to tell me I couldn't do everything that I set my mind to. I looked them all in the eye, thrust back my shoulders, and said, You picked the wrong girl.
Around this time, one of my biggest clients, the owner of a popular club in the city, offered to be my partner in my own event-planning firm, which I'd already named in my head — Save the Date. Though I had put away all those old fantasies of a blissful future of having it all, maybe the universe would let me have this one thing, my own bouncing baby company.
The launch of my company was a welcome distraction — even if the timing was a little ill-advised. I'd managed to put a semblance of a life together — at least superficially. But internally I never dealt with the attack. The district attorney expected that it would take three years to bring my case to trial, but somehow I managed to put that knowledge on a shelf and pretend it didn't exist.
It's surreal to remember that while I was barely controlling my fear of the trial, I was also doing my day job. Neither my staff nor any of my clients ever knew I'd been attacked, much less that I was about to testify in a trial. So while I was trying to hold down the urge to throw up, I was simultaneously booking Christmas parties, choosing hors d'oeuvres, and managing my clients' freak-outs over their goodie bags. I was 25 years old, but the enormous mental and physical pressure on me made me feel 100. Other women my age were making their youthful mistakes, getting drunk in bars, doing their walks of shame the next morning. Meanwhile, I was starting a company and testifying in an attempted murder trial.
My strongest memory of the trial — other than my actual testimony — is of almost unbearable suspense. Because I was a witness as well as the victim, I wasn't allowed to sit in the courtroom and listen. The case lasted for weeks, and the wait for my call to testify was agonizing.