By Amy Paulin – As an elected member of the New York Legislature for the past 17 years, I have fought for laws to defend and protect the rights of people throughout the state. For the people who voted for me, I am their voice in government, their advocate.
But sometimes it’s easier to be someone else’s champion instead of your own.
At 14, a young adult whom I knew and trusted lured me into his car, pulled the car into a back alley and sexually assaulted me. Paralyzed with fear, I was powerless as this older man ripped away my childhood innocence, leaving me to try to understand what happened, who was at fault and what to do.
My road to politics started early in my teens living in Brooklyn. By the time I was 14 years old, I was already involved in political organizations. I used to go to the local Democratic Club with one of my close friends whose father was active in politics. Afterwards we would join some of the members of the club for coffee at the diner. They were in their 20s and always made me feel part of the crowd. Even though I was barely a teenager, now I belonged to this cool older group and my opinion mattered. One night, none of my usual friends were around and one of the club regulars offered me a ride home. He was also 20-something but he seemed so normal, so non-threatening. I saw him practically every week and had gotten to know him, so I trusted him. Little did I know he would soon use that trust against me.
I think he pulled the car into an alley. Or maybe it was a schoolyard. Like many rape victims, I can’t recall all of the details, although I can still feel the darkness, the pitch black and the seclusion. There was no one around, no one to see us as he took from me what I wasn’t ready to and didn’t want to give. Afterwards, I went home and didn’t tell anyone what had happened.
Unfortunately, my story is not unique. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 5 women will be raped or sexually assaulted in their lives, often by someone they know and trust. Frozen in fear, they can’t defend themselves. So many survivors of sexual assault are wracked with guilt and anger. They – we – are plagued with feelings of helplessness, shame, second-guessing and self blame when in reality the only person who is at fault is the attacker. Also like me, most of these survivors will never report their assault and their perpetrators roam free.
“I honestly don’t know what healing looks like, only that I was not going to let that night shatter the rest of my life.”
Experts say recovery from sexual trauma takes time and the healing process is painful. I don’t know how long it took me to heal. I honestly don’t know what healing looks like, only that I was not going to let that night shatter the rest of my life. He had already taken enough from me and I resolved he wouldn’t take any more.
I spent the next few decades reclaiming my power by tapping into this inner core of strength. Refusing to be forced into another unwanted situation or to be told that I couldn’t do something overpowered everything else. Eventually I got married and had children, moved to the suburbs and became a staunch advocate for women’s rights. For a time, I even worked as the executive director of a battered women’s shelter. The original feeling of defenselessness I had at 14 became a wellspring of determination to help others who were vulnerable too.
In 2000, I ran for a seat in the New York State Assembly. Into my third term, I was approached by a group to sponsor legislation eliminating the statute of limitations on rape. Maybe it was avoidance or a fear of what others would think of me if they knew, but after all this time I still hadn’t breathed a word of my assault to another soul – not even my husband. It didn’t click for me why this bill resounded so deeply for me. I only knew that it was going to be a game-changer for thousands of New York women who were still waiting for justice from their rapists.
So I pushed for this bill. Hard. I approached it academically by preparing debate notes complete with statistics and quotes from experts highlighted with colored Post-it tabs. I came to an important meeting with all of the other Assembly legislators to discuss the legislation armed with my binders, ready to argue and make my case.
The strangest thing happened when I opened my mouth to speak. Instead of rattling off percentages and numbers of other victims, I started telling my story for the very first time – to a room full of stunned colleagues. From that deep place of resolve that got me through the tough times and kept pushing me ahead, I finally shared what happened that horrible night so that my colleagues could understand that rape and sexual assault could happen to anyone at any age and in any place.
In the end, the bill did pass and was signed into law, making New York the only state in the country to allow rapists to be brought to justice regardless of when they committed their crimes. Not only is it an important law for women, it’s important for me. I see now that by tamping down my experience and not acknowledging the truth, I never allowed myself to completely heal. I am gratified to know that by finally sharing my experience I was able to take something so awful and turn it into a positive for others.
After 40 years of silence, I found my voice.
This article previously ran on The Telegraph and is republished on Women You Should Know with the express permission of the author. This article and video are a part of the Real Women Real Stories series, which features women who recount personal stories of trauma they have survived. To learn more or support the series click here.