Guest Post: I Was Sexually Assaulted Aboard an Amtrak Train #itsourstory

This post is a departure from my regular posts. I have decided to use this platform to allow rape and domestic violence survivors to tell their stories. These posts are not censored or edited, but come straight from the survivor. Some survivors need to tell their story in a safe place, and many others need to know that they are not alone, nor are they to blame. It’s important to me to provide that connection. I chose #itsourstory to spread the word for two reasons: no matter how isolated you feel, you are never alone and this is part of our culture, our society, and it belongs to all of us. If you would like to contribute, you can find more information here.

Always one for adventure, I jumped at the chance to travel across the United States to see one of my dearest friends when the opportunity presented itself. Needing a chaperone for her kids soon to travel home after a visit with their father across the country, she volunteered to pay for my ticket if I was willing to accompany them. In late July we made the trip from West Virginia to Montana without incident. The lack of wi-fi and patchy cell phone service, I indulged myself in the chance to crochet and read and leisurely play cards with the kids and some new friends. Through time and distance, strangers become friends and the close proximity bred a strange sense of familiarity between people whose paths may otherwise have never crossed.

Three days after our journey began we arrived in Montana, none the worse for wear. Two weeks passed in both spectacular and ordinary ways. I fell in love with Glacier National Park, faced my fear of being eaten by a bear and braved the heights of Going-to-the-Sun Road to take in some of the most breathtakingly beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. When my friend returned to work for several days on end, I settled into the very ordinary kind of routine I have at home. The last morning in Montana, I got word that my son had a car accident that left him unharmed but totaled our family van. I had grown tired of being out of my own bed and was anxious to get home to my family.


When I boarded the train that Tuesday morning, I found a seat next to a lady in her 60s who was taking a nap against her window. I put my things in the overhead rack and sat down gingerly so as not to wake her. Despite my best attempts, she woke and made me feel welcome to be her seat-mate. We talked about our respective dogs and politely chatted on and off in the way that strangers do when they’re making someone’s acquaintance. Her stop to get off of the train was around 1 am and though I was enjoying her company, I was wearying of the aisle seat and looking forward to stretching out to sleep a little. At her stop, we wished each other well and I occupied her seat by the window before her feet hit the sidewalk.

Quiet time on the train began around 10 o’clock leaving the car dimly lit by the runner lights along the floor, illuminating the aisle. I made my way downstairs to the cleanest bathroom I could find to remove my contacts and brush my teeth. On the way back up to my seat, I stopped and pulled my thick, purple, fuzzy blanket out of my suitcase. I remember thinking that it was actually quite hot, but I knew if I was to sleep at all, I would need something over me. In my seat, I lifted the footrest and shoved my carry-on bag containing my snacks and crocheting project underneath. I threaded my arm through my purse, curled up against my pillow propped between my reclined seat and the window and spread the blanket out over me and promptly dozed off.

Throughout the course of the night, time became a bit fuzzy. The movement of the train would become coarse and shake me partially awake. The last stop I remembered was Minot, ND which stuck in my brain because of all of the terrible ways people tried to pronounce it. On waking, I’d remember that I was on the train, reposition my pillow and try to fall back asleep. At one point I woke to a disturbance by a man across the center aisle and one row up. I could hear him talking and see him holding his cell phone over the seat back to the guy in front of him. The large black man turned around and said “Man, you’re talking in your sleep. Sit down and shut up.” He would sit down and be quiet only to erupt again a short while later. This went on for a while with no idea how much time lapsed in between each disturbance for several cycles. At one point, I woke from a semi-sleeping state to him yelling “Goddammit!” “Goddammit!” When I opened my eyes he was making a motion as if spanking someone across his lap, but there was nobody there. Then suddenly, he was standing in the aisle, shoulders rolled back looking up the aisle towards the front of the train. There were young women traveling alone and young mothers with small children in our car. I was concerned that he might scare someone or hurt someone or himself. Taking a cue from the assertion that he was talking in his sleep by the man in front of him, I leaned forward and said, “Hey! You need to sit down. You’re going to hurt yourself.” I instantly regretted it, as he spun around, wild eyed, hair sticking straight up and plopped himself down in the empty seat next to me.

As soon as he spoke, I knew that the assumption that he was sleep-walking or talking was dead wrong and that he was in fact very intoxicated. He confirmed it by leaning towards me and whispering, “I’m a little drunk.” Making light of it and hoping he’d return to his own seat, I replied, “You don’t say.” I laughed awkwardly as I do in situations where I’m uncomfortable and told him that I hadn’t meant to interrupt what he was doing an explained I was only concerned that he was sleep-walking and would hurt himself or someone else by walking through the train. It was clear he had no intention of returning to his seat anytime soon. As some sort of protective mechanism, I made awkward small talk with this drunk man in spite of the fact that all of my internal alarms were going off. He told me his name which wasn’t very uncommon, but I made a mental note. He told me he was heading to Fargo because it was his daughter’s 16th birthday. I told him that I had a 16 year old son. I felt in some way that by maintaining a conversation, I was preventing him from focusing unwanted attention on me as a person, so I tried to keep the focus on him. I asked why if he was traveling from one town to another in the same state that he would go by train instead of drive, and he explained to me that he had lost his license. I didn’t pry and he didn’t volunteer, but I assumed that it was alcohol related. I remember asking him if he had a ride from the train station, both agreeing that he was in no condition to drive. I tried not to make eye contact, but out of the corner of my eye I would see him rub his hands through the top of his hair. Wearing a wife beater shirt, I could see his arms were large and strong, intimidating. Even in the dark I could tell his skin was ruddy, possibly the mark of long-term alcoholism or maybe he worked outside. I wasn’t scared yet, but I was unnerved by his presence.

The assistant conductor went through the train a short while later to tell passengers destined for Fargo that their stop would be in about half an hour. He stopped at the empty pair of seats belonging to the man who was now seated beside me and I said, “He’s over here!” and waved frantically behind his head so the conductor would know I wanted him to go. He gently suggested that he go back to his seat and gather his things so he was prepared to get off in Fargo, but he still did not go.

Eventually, I was able to encourage him to return to his seat. Always an obedient and courteous citizen of the world, I did not spread myself or my things out across the seat next to me in case we made a stop and another passenger was in need of it. It was a decision I would regret.

I busied myself for a short while trying to calm the adrenaline down that had been surging due to this temporary unexpected and unwanted companion. Sleepiness won out and I fell back asleep. When I woke next, it wasn’t to the pleasant rocking of the train or the sound of a fellow passenger’s snore – but to a man’s face hovering inches from my own, leaning over me, I gasped so loud I was sure that it woke everyone on the train, but there was little or no reaction from anyone around me. Being in the window seat with my footrest up, I was trapped. The only way out my seat was to climb over the lap of this man who was intent on invading my person and space. Still leaning forward with his breath in my face he said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Emphatically I said, “It’s alright, but you SCARED me!” At this point his body is lowered into the seat but his upper body he reached around me in a hug and saying, “Thank you for being my friend.” I instinctively put my shoulder out to prevent a full, frontal hug, wrapped my arm up around his bicep and patted his shoulder and said, “You’re welcome” while trying to pull from his embrace. He didn’t want to let me go, so I pushed and he released his grasp but never leaned away. I said, “I’m not comfortable with you touching me.” He said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” But while he was doing this, he patted my shoulder with one hand and my knee with the other, thankfully most of me was shielded under my fuzzy purple blanket. I pulled the blanket up under my chin so my whole upper body was covered. He tried to hug me again, each time I refused, telling him I didn’t want him to touch me. Each refusal would start the cycle of apologies over again. He patted my hair and said I was a beautiful woman. I repeated that I was not comfortable with him touching me. I leaned away from him as far as I could towards the window and he stroked my face saying I had a pointy nose. His hands would not stop moving. They were reaching over and around, patting my knee, on my hair, on my face. Adrenaline coursing through my body, I turned sideways in my seat, blanket still covering most of me to face him and told him again, “I asked you NOT to touch me.” He leaned back in his seat and pushed his hips forward, adjusted the waistband of his shorts and zipped his pants. Suddenly aware of what he had been doing with his left hand while he repeatedly attempted to put his right arm around me, I was horrified. I said, “You need to go back to your seat.” He wasn’t resisting verbally but he wasn’t leaving.

Out of the corner of my eye, I had seen someone standing near the stairs wearing a hiking type backpack and they started to move towards us. It was a young woman in her early 20s and she asked me if I was alright. The drunk’s attention was immediately focused on her, and I shook my head no. I knew instantly that she wasn’t going to leave me. She suggested that he get his things together because we were almost to Fargo and he said that his things were together. She said it looked as if I didn’t want his company and that he should probably go back his seat. He leaned towards me and in a loud whisper he said, “She’s a cop!” She insisted that he go back to his seat and he decided as the train slowed into the station at Fargo to heed her advice.

He pulled a white collared shirt on over his “wife-beater”, gathered his things and headed towards the steps. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. As soon as he was out of sight, I was on my feet looking for a conductor.
The events that unfolded after his exit were equally as traumatic as the assault itself. When seeking help, I was met with negative and dismissive attitudes and a general lack of concern for my well-being. I have a feeling that this is pervasive in society as a whole, but it was magnified by the strange self-regulating culture created on a train.

I heard later that on his exit, the perpetrator face planted on the ground while missing the final step. Likely around the same time, I had made contact with the train’s young assistant conductor. He was small in stature and wearing a hat that looked ill-fitted for his head. He was walking through the car pulling tags from the exited passengers to indicate which seats were now available. I caught him near the stairs and told him that the man exiting the train wearing a white shirt had assaulted me. He pulled his neck back to take a look at me and hardly missing a beat continued on with what he was doing, saying “I wish you had said something while he was still on the train.” Immediately on the defensive, I told him that I had been unable to get out of my seat without climbing over the man’s lap and that when he had come through earlier and I called him to my seat I tried to signal to him that I didn’t want him there. Without a moment more of questioning, without ever asking if I was alright or if I needed anything, he moved on with what he was doing and never looked back. He never said one more word to me.

I returned to my seat and called my husband. It was somewhere around 3 am when I woke him frantically trying to explain what had happened. Not one to wake up easily, he listened groggily to my story about what had happened. Once he knew that the man was no longer on the train, he told me to take a Rescue Remedy so I could try to get some rest. It was clear that he did not comprehend in the sleepy state he was in the severity of the situation. Once we hung up, I texted him and asked him to call me as soon as he woke.

The rest of the night was spent fitfully fighting sleep. I didn’t feel safe even though the man was long behind us in Fargo. I was angry at all of the people seated around me who did nothing to help. I wondered if they heard what was going on and if it was possible that they slept through my pleading with this man to stop touching me. My mind darkened and I wondered what else he could’ve done that they would’ve been willing to overlook under the guise of “not getting involved” or “minding their own business”. I was anxious and angry and restless.

The morning light brought a shift change and a female conductor. When she passed through my car, I stopped her and told her that I wanted to report an assault to someone. Even I questioned the use of the word assault since I had incurred no physical harm, but I could not think of a better way to concisely articulate what had transpired in the middle of the night. I received uninvited and unwanted attention from a stranger who continued to touch me while I told him to stop. The conductor told me that she would find out how I could do that and get back to me. She brought me the name and number of a dispatcher that I was to call when I had a good phone signal. That dispatcher put me in touch with Detective Eric Romano who was immediately adversarial. He asked if I was hurt. I told him that physically I was unharmed – I had no wounds or injuries, nor did he touch me in a sexual way, though I believed that was his intent. I explained that he had his pants unzipped and he was stroking himself while he was trying to put his arms around me, but I did not see his penis. He asked me why I hadn’t screamed “if” it was so bad. He asked me point blank what it was that I wanted Amtrak to do about the situation. This indicated to me that his immediate concern was liability for the railroad and not for me or other women passengers on the trains. I told him that I didn’t know exactly what I wanted other than to take the assault seriously, reassure me that I was safe as I continued traveling on the train and to do what could be done to prevent this situation from happening in the future. I also wanted them to locate this particular man and prevent him from doing the same thing on the train that he told me he traveled regularly to another woman in the middle of the night which I suspected could potentially have a very different outcome.

While on the phone with the detective, my cell phone signal dropped. It was just as well because instead of feeling supported and assisted, I felt as if *I* was being interrogated. I texted my husband and asked him to call the detective for me – which he did. Later that day when I had a better signal, as my train got closer to the Chicago station, Detective Romano called to let me know he was putting a female officer on the train at the station before I was to get off to take a statement from me.

The female officer was formal at first and had a great deal of information to take down in a short time. After taking my statement on the train, I was asked to come with her to the police station in the Chicago terminal and write a statement out in my own words. I was tired, dirty and hungry and all I really wanted to do was check in to the hotel, take a bath, get some food and sleep in safety. I asked if I could type up the statement and send it to them in an email and was told I could not. This process of reporting a perpetrator and asking for an investigation into what happened and how to prevent it in the future was not friendly to the victim and my torture continued. I followed the deputy to the police station, wrote my statement, had a little water and another hot, miserable hour later, she helped me to the curb to get my cab to the hotel.

The next afternoon after I was rested and relaxed and had met with a friend for lunch, I boarded the train with a better disposition. I was determined to have a good trip and to put the previous bad experience behind me. Arriving to my car, I was met by the attendant who checked my ticket, scrawled a number on a scrap of paper and instructed me to take that seat number. In the two trains on my way to Montana and the first leg of this trip, all seating was open allowing passengers to choose their own seat mates. As I took my seat by the window, my assigned seat-mate, a male passenger took the seat next to me. Uncomfortable with this arrangement, but deciding to make the most of it, we began casual conversation that put me at ease. However, I knew I was not going to be able to fall asleep seated next to this man. He was getting off the train around midnight and I was hoping for a more suitable arrangement.

Shortly after departure, I went to the lounge car to get something to eat. It wasn’t very busy. I sat down to eat with another woman when the attendant of my car entered. I approached while he was preparing several cups of coffee and explained that I had been assaulted by a man while I was sleeping on the train I was on the day before. I told him that I was presently seated next to a man who was departing in a few hours, and that while I was alright with that arrangement for the time being, I asked that he please not seat a man next to me after he left. The lady running the snack bar overhearing our conversation looked extremely concerned, but the male attendant told me that he was not going to be working at that time of the night. Period. He did not try put me in touch with anyone. He did not tell me he’d make a note of it for the next attendant. He did not offer to help me in any way whatsoever. Basically, I was on my own.

I was in the bathroom removing my contacts and brushing my teeth when the train slowed to a stop. I knew this was where my seat-mate would be departing and was filled with anxiety at being caught off guard with an empty seat next to my own. By the time I made my way through the throng of people exiting and entering and back to my seat, a young man in a hoodie was reclining in the aisle seat next to mine trying to sleep. He begrudgingly moved his legs to let me in and then slunk back down into his own. My heart started racing, the anxiety over this potential overnight seating arrangement was causing me a tremendous amount of stress. I practiced deep breathing and kept telling myself that I was alright. I tried to convince myself that this guy seated next to me was on the train going from one destination to another just like I was and that he had little or no interest in bothering me. I grabbed my pillow and propped it against the window in much the same posture I had been the previous night. The gentle sway of the train helped me relax though I was far from sleep. My new seat-mate unaware of the distress his presence was causing me was sleeping soundly when his arm dropped and inadvertently hit my hip. Before he could retract his hand, I had grabbed my purse and made a dash for the lounge car.

People in the lounge car were playing cards and using their computers and having conversations under the bright lights. I tried to sit in one of the seats facing a window where other people were stretched out with their pillows and blankets obviously for the night. I couldn’t get comfortable and decided to move to a table. I was exhausted again and on the brink of some sort of a breakdown when a female conductor, one I had yet to see entered the car. When she got to me I burst into tears. I explained–likely very incoherently– why I could not return to my seat. She told me that the men she worked with were sometimes idiots and that she never seats a woman next to a man. She told me she would find me a seat and she did, two seats in fact. Nobody else was seated next to me for the rest of the trip.

 

Amtrak needs to take these things seriously. They should have a protocol for female passengers traveling alone not to have to sit with men they don’t know and consistently enforce that.  They should do more frequent *safety checks*.  There should be instructions to passengers about the respecting the privacy of other passengers and remaining in their own space.  For CRYING OUT LOUD – they need armrests that can be put down when you are sitting next to someone who is a stranger to you.  It makes it so that you are basically sitting in a loveseat shaped space with someone you don’t know!!!!

The police, I think are bound by the law – but I felt like I was being accused instead of having someone with compassion and sympathy respond to me. I am thankful that they did put a female officer on the train to meet me face to face. I didn’t mention this above, but the first *detective* that I spoke with assumed that I was a child because I have a youthful voice.

 

Note from Amanda: The author of this piece wrote it shortly after her trip, which was in August. As of today (11/2/2014), she still has not heard of any kind of resolution from either Amtrak or the police department with whom she filed the report.
ETA 11/4/2014: The Amtrak police did ban the guy from Amtrak for life – but Amtrak has not offered any apology, compensation or resolution to this incident.
ETA 11/6/2014: The author has been contacted by Amtrak and they will be pursuing this. She also found out the man was not banned from Amtrak for life. He was just denied use of his return ticket for that trip.

THE NATIONAL DOMESTIC VIOLENCE HOTLINE
1-800-799-7233
THE NATIONAL SEXUAL ASSAULT HOTLINE
1-800-656-4673
THE NATIONAL TEEN DATING ABUSE HOTLINE
1-866-331-9474

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