It has been more than 40 years since the man held an ice pick to my throat. “Push over. Shut up or I’ll kill you,” he said.
I was wearing a blue polyester long-sleeve shirt and print culottes. It was broad daylight, in the parking lot behind my building.
In those days, we called ourselves victims. Today, we call ourselves survivors.
I avoid parking lots. I don’t get out of my car if anyone is around. Look at me the wrong way and my heart starts beating. Fast. It comes back. It always comes back.
In a 90-minute Instagram Live, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., described her day of terror and her fear that she would be killed. Without going into detail, she said she was a survivor of sexual assault.
It made perfect sense to me. When your life has been threatened by someone, when you have gone through terror and humiliation, it comes back.
Decades ago, when I wrote a book about how the legal system fails rape victims, I was accused of celebrating “victimhood” by a distinguished critic who read the first five pages and didn’t care about the rest. The New York Times reviewed the book in the health section, as if being raped was a disease that I needed to fight.
In those days, people rarely talked of such things. My mother warned me: Don’t tell anyone; decent men won’t want you.
I told everyone. Well, not everyone, but I have been teaching law for 40 years, and I teach rape law. The first years, I had to put together my own materials. “Can you really find enough material for a whole class?” one colleague asked. I could. The Harvard Crimson wrote a story about this 28-year-old law professor who had announced to her class of 132 men and eight women that she was a rape victim. The next day, the death threats began. The man claimed that he was my student, and he was going to really rape me.
As if I had not really been raped already.
I had a radio show in Los Angeles. I told my audience. More death threats. I gave a speech at The Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida, about sexual assault. When I checked in, the receptionist told me that someone had left a gift for me — a designer jacket laced with needles. I didn’t want to know if the needles contained HIV. I gave the speech, but I had extra security.
I knew that if I were to ever back down, I might not get up again. So I didn’t give in. Which doesn’t make the fear go away.
It is always there. No wonder AOC was terrified during the attack on the Capitol. It is easy to forget that she is only 32 years old. I have no doubt that her threat load beats mine any day. She is courageous. She gets up every day and goes to work, where her every move is scrutinized and judged. Her colleagues call her names. She soldiers on.
The man she was afraid was after her turned out to be a Capitol Police officer. But he didn’t identify himself. He was a man who was looking for her. What he saw was not a powerful member of Congress, although she is surely that. He saw a terrified woman reliving her own private terrors.
In those moments, we are victims, caught in our personal hell.
And the next day and the day after and the years after that, we survive. AOC survived. She never mentioned her assault. Maybe her mother warned her, as mine warned me. But this week, she publicly joined the sisterhood of survivors. Welcome. We are everywhere. And we will be heard.
SUSAN ESTRICH is a lawyer and political commentator.