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April 30, 2012

The Scars You Don't See

A brutal attack nearly killed event planner Jennifer Gilbert two decades ago, but a bold career move gave her reason to celebrate again.

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Photo Credit: Peter Yang

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I WAS A SMILEY 22-YEAR-OLD with long hair and dimples. I remember exactly what I was wearing — black flats, a tan linen wraparound skirt from Ann Taylor, and a black T-shirt. As I walked along, I caught my reflection in store windows, checking out how I looked: a sophisticated woman who felt proud and invincible after a year of working abroad.

I'd been back from London just a week when I took the train into downtown Manhattan to visit my friend Andrea. The doors to her building were propped open because a couple of men were there working on their motorcycles. I cruised through the front door without buzzing to get in, and smiled and waved at the men. The hallway was empty.

I rang the doorbell, then heard a noise. I looked to my left, and walking toward me down the hallway was a man, about 250 pounds and carrying a backpack. It was odd, I thought, the way he was walking right up against the wall, on a beeline to run into me. I rang Andrea's doorbell again. The man's head was down, looking toward the floor, and then his gaze — just the eyes — shifted up. What I saw in those eyes was terrifying. It wasn't lust, or drug-fueled rage, or insanity of any kind. It was pure hate. Looking back on it now, the most amazing thing about what happened next wasn't the attack, it was the way my brain worked. I kept thinking the entire time. Never once did I stop calculating what might come next. Never once was it a blur.

There was a sharp, medicinal smell, and I opened my eyes to bright light overhead. I was awake, which meant I was alive. Oh, my God, I was alive. The doctor saw that I was conscious, and the first words I could think to say to him were, "I'm here."

I was silent while they finished sewing me up. I don't know exactly how many stitches it took. Most of my wounds were punctures. I was told I was lucky that the attacker had used a screwdriver and not an ice pick or knife — if he had, I'd be dead. As it was, the screwdriver sank into me but didn't slice on its way out. But the force of those punching wounds was like being beaten as well as stabbed. If I had to guess, I'd say there were close to 40 stitches — at least 15 of those just to sew up my neck. They used surgical glue for the puncture wounds. For weeks after, I'd need to use a walker.

I remember the first time I saw my parents after the attack. I was already out of the ER and in a hospital room, and I must have been in a tremendous amount of pain. The nurse had pulled a curtain around my bed, so I heard my parents' voices before I saw them. I'd been so alone, so convinced that I was going to die. I'd been ripped to shreds and somewhat sewn back together. They still didn't know that someone had tried to kill me. So the first words I said to them — the first words it occurred to me to say — were: "I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine."


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