Answering another early-morning call to the sexual assault hotline

The pager wakes you at one am, just after you’ve drifted back into a dream—except that you can’t really sleep on call anymore; you’re always on alert, like a mother anticipating a newborn’s cry. After the beeping, you curl into a ball with your face against the pillow and groan, then turn on the light and get out of bed. There is no time for lingering. You walk to the kitchen phone, wrap your robe tighter, huddle next to the heater. You hope this is the last call until the morning shift takes over. You could use a respite.

It’s the evidentiary nurse at St. Joseph’s Hospital, the switchboard lady says and then connects your call. You’ll most likely go on medical accompaniment with this one, offering support services for another survivor of sexual assault. No telling how long it will take. We’ve got an eighty-year-old woman in the waiting room, says the nurse on the line. Third attack on a senior this month. She doesn’t know you’ve already talked down a suicidal teenage girl, far exceeding the suggested twenty-minute phone limit, before counseling a mother who recently found out her boyfriend had molested her son. You contact someone for backup in case the pager beeps again and slip on the clothes you set aside before bed. On the twelve-minute drive to the hospital, headlights fuzzy in the distance, all you can do is fend off the dread of what you’re about to face—and think of sleep.


When I saw the classified ad for a position at the local rape crisis center, I hoped the job would be mine. I had prior experience working in violence prevention in San Francisco, which surely qualified me to facilitate educational workshops in the rural county where I’d just moved. After I was hired, I visited junior and senior high schools with an associate four or five days a week, in addition to trading fifteen- to twenty-four-hour on-call shifts with ten coworkers and a handful of volunteers.

On the school visits, my colleague and I fielded the usual questions—Doesn’t a girl ask for it if she’s dressed like a slut? Why would a guy let himself be raped? Don’t most people lie about being assaulted?—as if we hadn’t heard them dozens of times. Teachers were impressed with our ability to discuss taboo topics and present material that openly addressed adolescent concerns, and our outreach efforts were often rewarded, like when a rowdy group of twelve-year-old girls handed us a thank you note after a workshop on sexual harassment, their signatures scrawled in bubble print at the bottom. Or when, during the break, a quiet boy in the back asked to talk about the bullying he hadn’t felt safe revealing to anyone before. Sometimes we encountered students outside the classroom: once, I was summoned to the ER closest to the Indian reservation, where I met a teenage girl with a broken nose and eyes bruised from her boyfriend’s fists. Oh, it’s you! she said with relief, recognizing me from my visit to her high school. Her situation reflected a statistic we’d cited in her tenth-grade class: people are four times more likely to be sexually assaulted by someone they know than by a stranger. I could only reassure her that she was not to blame.


You drive through town, past the pawnshops, Rent-A-Centers, and motel marquees advertising clean rooms, cable TV, and senior discounts. Lumber trucks rumble down the two-lane highway, carrying redwood trees piled on their backs like slain animals after a hunt. The furred bark hangs like skin from limbs and trunks—freshly torn from swaths of forest. Beyond the nearly empty parking lot, spotlit through thick fog, the hospital’s double glass doors slide open then shut to enclose you in a drone of florescent lights.

At the end of a quiet corridor, a police officer answers your knock at the door. He resumes his stance in one corner of a narrow intake room while the nurse sits behind her desk in the other. She introduces you to a woman who could be your grandmother—short silver hair, eyes wide behind bifocals, stooped shoulders under her buttoned-up blouse. The elderly woman accepts your brochure describing services available twenty-four hours a day, including legal advocacy should the case go to court. Then you take a seat next to her, in the row of chairs usually filled by family and friends. You’ll be her only support tonight.       


The first time I ever set foot inside a courtroom, it was to accompany a rape survivor on the witness stand. Since I couldn’t touch or make eye contact with her during her testimony against her boyfriend, I sat next to her in silent support. But as she detailed the ordeal of her multi-day captivity and sexual torture at his hands, I stared down the accused to deflect his glare. The goal was to de-escalate his visual intimidation or, conversely, his efforts to bond with her—both common ploys used by batterers to undermine their victims.

She and I had waited together for interminable hours in the courthouse hallway. We made small talk while she picked at her tattoo-covered skin. Through missing teeth, she hissed about the fucking hippies next to us—a group of young activists who had demonstrated against the clear-cutting of old-growth forest by the region’s largest lumber company. Like her, they were being called to testify against their assailants: police officers who had restrained them and swabbed their eyes with pepper spray as punishment.

Despite our combined efforts on the witness stand, her testimony wavered. Months later, long after the charges were dropped, I saw her while I was strolling along the little beach near the rented cottage where I lived alone. I recognized her by her blonde mullet and bad teeth. When she walked past with her abuser, I averted my gaze, hoping that neither one would identify me. We hadn’t known we were neighbors.      


Now the nurse asks the woman who could be your grandmother to describe the details of the assault: Did he masturbate? Penetrate? Use a foreign object? Ejaculate? Was it anal? Oral? Vaginal? Or all of the above? You know the investigating officer pursued the same line of questioning with her before you arrived; there are protocols law enforcement must follow in order to warrant an evidentiary medical exam and to prosecute for forcible rape.


Mandated by law to report any suspicion of abuse, I grew accustomed to filing several reports each week to Child Welfare Services or the police. In theatrical presentations for school-age children, we emphasized their right to say no, to go away from any uncomfortable situation and tell a trustworthy adult—and to keep telling until someone believed them and did something about it. During post-session “talk time,” there was often a line of children waiting, eager to speak about a topic most grown-ups turned away from.

Once, a young girl told us how a neighbor played fun games, but when he began stroking her legs, it made her feel weird. She said this without any hint of shame on her face, but with the rare self-assurance of someone who had experienced a positive outcome. Her teacher confirmed that after her parents had called the cops, the guy was charged with lewd and lascivious acts upon a minor for grooming the girl toward molestation. When I grow up, I want to be one of those people who go to schools and help kids, the girl told me, reinforcing my conviction that our presence was beneficial.

Sometimes things didn’t turn out so well. Upon realizing that her secret could not be kept strictly between us, a fourth-grade girl began backtracking on her story. First, she said she loved her father. She didn’t want him to get into trouble. She didn’t want to break apart her family. Next, she insisted that he would stop touching her if only she said no. Finally, she claimed it wasn’t really him. No, it didn’t really happen. She was sure it was just a dream.

That afternoon, the girl’s mother called in a panic and claimed, My daughter says you were mean to her, that you wouldn’t stop asking questions, that you forced her to talk. I’d done nothing wrong, but the allegation unsettled me. I knew that the rare times kids lied about abuse, it was most often a retraction—either to protect an adult or absolve themselves of the guilt for telling. To protect the girl’s confidentiality, I repeated our agency policy: I cannot confirm or deny whether anyone here spoke with your child. Clearly her disclosure had exposed something the family wanted to cover up.

Later that week, I accompanied a girl of the same age to a preliminary hearing. How small she looked as she testified to multiple counts of anal rape by her adoptive father. Did you cry? the female defense attorney cross-examined. I wanted to cry, the girl answered with a solemn tone. But the tears—they just wouldn’t come.


Back in the adjacent exam room, the old woman holds open her blue paper gown while the nurse uses a black light to scan her frail body in the darkness, searching for semen or saliva the naked eye would ordinarily miss. It’s amazing what they can find these days, the nurse says in a singsong voice that sounds too upbeat for the occasion, as if she were leading children on a treasure hunt. With tweezers, she gathers a few fragments—fibers or hairs for DNA samples—and deposits them, like the woman’s clothing, which the woman won’t see again, into paper bags marked with a case number for the attending officer, who stands sentinel on the other side of the door.


When I was in the fifth grade, there was a neighbor in my suburb who strutted across his front lawn in his underwear whenever I passed by. Another man stood naked at his living room window, exposing himself to my brother and me on our way to school each morning. And there was ballet. Three times a week, I carpooled with several other girls across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco. Our mothers drove us toward the city skyline and past the peep shows on Broadway, where we stared at the sign with the famous topless dancer’s ’s’s neon nipples lit up like cherries atop a North Beach milkshake. Through the swinging glass door of the ballet school, we skipped, wearing our short-sleeved leotards over pale pink tights. In the lobby, an old man often sat alone on a sagging couch, where he made himself a fixture amid the peeling paint.

If we had enough time before class, we’d race down the block to the corner store to buy candy—unless the old man in the lobby enticed us to come close, one palm revealing a handful of sweets as he patted the empty space beside him. I remember my reluctant compliance, akin to the obligation to kiss an old relative one hardly knew. Held tight against that old man’s side I’d sit, trapped under the weight of his arm around my shoulder. My body would go rigid under tapered fingertips that ever so lightly touched my skin, slowly encircling the flat nipples on my little girl chest. Over and over, with a movement so subtle no one else ever seemed to notice. Until one day, one of our mothers—maybe mine—warned us not to accept candy from the old man anymore. But there he remained in his felt hat and plaid pants, still smiling and winking as we walked by.

Then up the wooden stairway, we’d leap to our second-floor studio, where our teacher demonstrated perfect form as she pivoted, her eyes never straying from a point in the mirror. In our flat pink slippers—pointe shoes were reserved for older girls, whose ankles could withstand the weight—we maneuvered our bodies across the wooden floor. With a touch or a tap, our teacher ensured our proper alignment in an arabesque. She instructed us to extend the leg in a développé and to keep the toes pointed in changement. Pull in that stomach. Round the tailbone. Square the hips that have not yet blossomed.


Once the old woman has been eased onto the exam table, there is the usual placement: feet on metal stirrups sheathed in potholders for comfort, and the awkward scoot-scoot on crinkly paper to bring the pelvis closer to the edge. The nurse sits on her swivel stool, gently opens the woman’s knees wide, and warns that the speculum may be cold before slipping it inside.

 I haven’t done this for a long time, says the woman. You stand near her shoulder, turning toward her face, and offer your warm palm for her wrinkled fingers to wrap around. I’m fine, she keeps repeating, but she stares up at the ceiling and holds your hand so tight her knuckles go white. She does not loosen her grip as the nurse swabs her cervix with long cotton Q-tips and drops them into sterile tubes on a metal tray. Just as the woman begins telling you about her grandchildren, the nurse notices a silver-dollar-sized bruise on an inner thigh and asks, Is this where he was pinning you?  

 That’s when the nausea hits you—a baseball to the belly—with no warning at all. Your body grows tingly, and the edges of the room darken then disappear as if you’re standing at the end of a tunnel and peering in to make sense of the shadows. Amid this infernal buzzing, it’s hard to comprehend what anyone’s saying, so you just concentrate on staying upright.

You try to say something, to get the attention of the nurse, but your brain can’t connect the words to your tongue. Surely she will notice your labored breath and muffled speech, or the beads of sweat collecting on your pallid face. You finally manage to mutter something unintelligible, pry your clammy hand from the old woman’s grasp, and lurch for the door to escape the confining room. Staggering past the police officer, you stumble like a sleepwalker down the still-silent corridor. Inside the bathroom, fingers clasping the porcelain sink, you slump to the floor then place your head between your knees and breathe. Buffered by the cold linoleum, you sob until the pins-and-needles sound begins to recede.


What can you do to take care of yourselves? Our supervisors repeated this mantra at weekly meetings. But no amount of exercising, journaling, or walks in the woods eased the cumulative effects of the work. There was simply no end to the onslaught. Even my dreams—the mind’s way of processing and purging—were punctuated with perpetrators. I look at men differently now, a coworker admitted. I don’t even want to sleep with my boyfriend anymore.  Sometimes I succumbed to watching hours of television or devouring potato chips and onion dip for dinner. I gained twenty pounds the first year of my job and started grinding my teeth—my jaw so tight it felt as if it was wired shut. During the second year, I spent weekends crying on my boyfriend’s couch. By the third year, I was turning down invitations, insulating myself from the social arena, where the world appeared sane to everyone else.

When I finally sought counseling and contemplated quitting my job, the therapist said it wasn’t uncommon for those working on the frontlines to identify with survivors’ feelings of violation—a kind of battle fatigue she labeled “secondary trauma.” She noted that my recurring dreams of defecation were a reminder that a person can only digest so much.


Back in the intake room, the old woman stands in fresh garments she was instructed to bring for the police ride home. You apologize for your untimely departure during the exam, making up some excuse about a bathroom emergency. She smiles, ever the polite patient, and confides, If I had known it would be like this, I wouldn’t have called.

Driving back in the misty shroud of darkness, past the dollar store and tattoo shop and used car dealerships, you hear the echo of her parting words amid the din of the roaring trucks. Even if the pager stays silent for the few remaining hours of night, you know it isn’t enough time to rebound from the impact. Soon you’ll resume work, go to another meeting, discuss the week’s caseload, and set off for another school.

About the Author

Nicole R. Zimmerman

Nicole R. Zimmerman holds an MFA in writing from the University of San Francisco. Her essays and reportage have appeared in anthologies and newspapers, such as The Best Women’s Travel Writing and the Los Angeles Times, and in literary journals, including South Loop Review, which nominated her nonfiction for a Pushcart Prize.

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