Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

MEADVILLE — When I arrived in Meadville, I was thirsty for nature and finding a sense of place in my new town. My landlord suggested Ernst Trail.

On a sunny summer afternoon in August 2012, I took off on my bike to discover what the trail had to offer. As I rode along with the creek sliding beside me, I felt a subtle then sharper prick of anxiety. I’m alone. Water on one side, no exit on the other. I have no idea how long the trail goes or what terrain lies ahead.

It wasn’t a traditional flashback; more like a visit from a ghost of trails past.

As a college student in France years ago, I was training for the Paris Marathon. In those days, you wouldn’t see many people running for fun. My friends warned me not to go alone. It’s dangerous, they’d say.

It’s ridiculous, I thought. I’ve been running alone for years in all kinds of weather, on sunny days and moonlit nights, on forest trails and country roads.

One day, I switched my routine, opted for an afternoon run rather than a morning one and chose a path I didn’t know. A high wall bordered one side and a river rolled along the other.

As I stretched, a man asked me if I were going jogging. Odd. The French don’t normally spontaneously address strangers. I ignored him. He annoyed me, gave me the creeps. When I looked up again, he was gone. I surveyed the trail. Weird. No sign of him.

I dismissed the tiny voice that told me to pick another place to run. Another voice rationalized that I was being paranoid, that I’d let all my friends’ fears get inside my head.

Well into my run, I noticed the man standing in the middle to the trail, arms stretched wide to block my path. This guy is really annoying, I thought. I knocked his arms down as I ran past him.

He ran after me. What a jerk, I thought. When he grabbed me from behind, putting his hands around my neck, I still considered him a nuisance not a threat. I broke his hold and decided to break into a sprint.

He followed. As he chased me, he shouted all the things he planned to do to me in the most vulgar French terms. I scanned the trail ahead. I didn’t see an exit and I realized I couldn’t outrun him.

I stopped, turned to face him and stood my ground. C’est quoi ton problème, I asked.

He answered by lunging at me and wrapping his hands around my neck a second time. It finally occurred to me that he wasn’t kidding. He meant me harm.

I grabbed him and started to fight back. He released his grip and looked me dead in the eyes. On se verra, he said in a soft voice. We will see each other again. He turned and walked away. I ran and called for help.

The police were no help whatsoever. As I filed my report at the station, the officers gathered around the desk, leaned in, insisted I repeat all the foul things the man had said to me. They insisted that I was mistaken. Silly American woman. A French man wouldn’t do such a thing. They implied he was a foreigner. They implied they knew what young American women were really like.

They took me out in their police car hours after the assault to help me look for the man. They made sure I understood I’d wasted their time.

I wish I could say that was the only time I’ve been assaulted; it’s not. I wish I could say that the police were kinder, more understanding. They weren’t. I wish I could say they believed me and wanted to help me. They didn’t.

Each week when I write this column, I wrestle with how much of my personal life and experiences I want to share. I wobble and waver as I walk the fine, tight line between revealing enough to make a story authentic and relatable and protecting my privacy — and myself. This week, I decided to share this story when I read that President Barack Obama had launched an initiative to combat sexual assault on college campuses.

A story by the Associated Press noted that “Obama signed a presidential memorandum creating a task force to protect students from sexual assault, with a new White House report declaring that no one in America is more at risk of being raped or assaulted than college women.”

Last semester, the student newspaper, The Campus, published a story that Allegheny College had formally reported three sexual assaults in three months.

Cited in the AP story, the White House report, “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action,” stated that “one in five women have been sexually assaulted at college but that only 12 percent of student victims report it. The report was compiled by the White House Council on Women and Girls.”

As a woman, college professor and journalist, I want these statistics to be heard as a call to action, just as the president heard them.

As a young woman and college student years ago, I got a friend to walk the trail with me the day after the assault. In the struggle, the man had stripped the chain with my grandmother’s gold cross from my neck. I wanted to recover it.

What do you think he wanted? As we walked the trail. I asked my friend for his thoughts on the attacker’s intentions.

I think that guy wanted to kill you, he said.

That stranger didn’t take my life though he did take something precious from me. I don’t go for moonlit runs anymore. And occasionally, when I’m alone I’ll get spooked by a visit from a ghost of trails past.

I didn’t find my grandmother’s cross on the trail and it would be many more years before I learned to trust the tiny voice that warns me when things are off — the gut feeling, some call it. I monitor my surroundings and I pay attention to that voice.

Soldiers call it situational awareness.

We’ve got a situation on college campuses.

Note: Consider the actions at one campus: Project Unspoken was created as a summer intern project at Emory University’s Office of Health Promotion’s Respect Program. Watch this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eCCaKuWQLp8.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.