Conversations with… Jess Kitching (Subject: Overcoming Sexual Assault)

** trigger warning – this post talks about the aftermath of a sexual assault**

The introduction to this interview and questions were written by Janet Kitching, Jess’ mum.

When you become a mum and they place that little bundle into your arms, apart from experiencing an overwhelming and all consuming rush of love, you simultaneously take on the responsibility for this new life- you become their guardian, their protector, you nurture them and you keep them safe.
This feeling never goes away however old they are.
This is my daughter’s story.
This happened to her.
I felt I had let her down because I didn’t protect her- not once but twice!
I did what I could to get justice for her but it didn’t happen. It was so frustrating and I lost faith in the “system “.
But I never lost faith in her.

I know that Jess will never ” get over” these traumas in her life and in a way, strangely, that’s a positive because she has not let them define who she is.
She is a confident, determined and empowered woman.
She is funny, quirky, independent.
She is kind, caring and empathetic.
She is my daughter.

In your own words, can you describe what happened?

When I was a teenager, I was sexually assaulted. I always feel like I have to add ‘I wasn’t raped’ after that statement as if that makes what happened better, even though I know it doesn’t. I was a typical geeky, shy teenager who loved reading and hadn’t discovered the world of makeup and beauty products yet. I was at a bus stop going to meet a friend when it happened. I didn’t tell anyone for two years until I saw the man who assaulted me on my way to school. I held it together until I got inside the school building, then I completely broke down. My head of year took me into her office where I told her what was wrong and then she rang my mum.

I really struggled talking about what had happened. After years of successfully keeping it to myself, I was furious at myself for getting upset and admitting what had happened. My head of year tried to get me to explain what had happened and she was brilliant with me, but I just couldn’t say the words out loud. I was sent home where my mum and brother tried to get me to talk. Eventually I did, but I remember it being a long battle with a lot of crying on all of our parts.

We rang the police who came to my parent’s house. It was clear from the start that one of the officers didn’t really believe me simply because I had kept it to myself for so long. Nowadays I think people are more understanding of victims not speaking up at the time of the event, but back then sexual assaults were not openly discussed or reported on in the news so I felt there was a lot of mistrust and judgement aimed at me for keeping quiet. This one officer only seemed to ask me about why I had said nothing and what I expected to happen from speaking about it years after the event. I didn’t expect anything – I just wanted everyone to stop talking about it, to leave me alone and let me carry on pretending that it didn’t happen.

My reluctance to open up meant that dealing with reporting it was hard. I dreaded it every time I had to talk my experience or deal with the police. I had to do an e-fit of the person who had attacked me and a video statement, but the reality was that getting a prosecution so many years after the event was unlikely. Plus after so long blocking out what had happened, my memory of the event wasn’t perfect. I was asked questions like what I was wearing at the time and the specific time of the event, but I couldn’t remember details like that. After my video statement, I remember the police officer saying that I was emotionally unreliable, and that pretty much sealed the deal. My case was dropped by the police, but that wasn’t the end of it for me.

Why didn’t you tell someone what had happened at the time?

There are a few different reasons why I didn’t. One big factor was something that happened a few weeks before I was assaulted. I had reported an incident to the police where a man sat next to me on the bus and behaved really inappropriately towards me. I remember looking around at the other passengers, seeing people catch my eye and watch what was going on but not help me even though I was clearly uncomfortable and upset. I was a young teenager and terrified – I didn’t know what to do. When the man finally got off of the bus, two people asked if I was okay – one girl even said she wanted to help but was scared if she stepped in he would act that way towards her. I went home devastated. I remember feeling really disillusioned by the fact that even though people had seen what was going on, no one stepped up and helped.

I reported the incident to the police, but it went nowhere. They told us that the buses don’t often have CCTV so that they didn’t think it was worth checking out plus that because an event called the Mela was on at the time that they didn’t think they would be able to identify the man in question as he might be from out of town. The police officers were sympathetic, but they didn’t really do anything. It was almost like a ‘sorry that happened but to investigate this is a lot of effort for something that won’t result in a prosecution’. I fully understand the difficulties the police faced, but this experience did impact my desire to tell them anything again.

These memories were fresh in my mind when I was assaulted. I remembered how no one had helped me when I was on the bus, I remembered going home and telling my family who were crushed by what had happened. They wanted me to be safe and happy, not scared. Seeing their hurt over the last incident, which was mild in comparison to my assault, made me worry about how being told this again would hurt them. I didn’t want to be responsible for upsetting them again, for us to go through the ordeal of talking to the police for nothing to happen. I couldn’t stand the thought of putting everyone around me through another awful situation for nothing to come of it.

In a weird way, I felt like my silence was the only thing I could control in the situation. I had been powerless to stop it happening, but I could stop it affecting and ruining things for the people I loved. It was a warped way to look at it, but keeping it to myself made me feel like I had some form of power over the situation. I couldn’t be a victim if I didn’t tell anyone what had happened, so I didn’t.

What was it like keeping this secret to yourself?

Keeping this secret was incredibly tough. I am really close to my mum – she’s my best friend – and there was so many times I wanted to tell her, but I remembered the upset she had gone through before and the anger she felt that someone had made me feel so unsafe and I just couldn’t do it to her. I wanted nothing more than for her to be able to hug me and tell me it was going to be alright, but I knew that what had happened wasn’t alright and that it would effect me forever.

On the surface I was fine because I carried on with my routine of going to school and coming home, but I pretty much lived in fear. I was scared it would happen again, scared people could look at me and sense something had happened, scared that people would find out. I am incredibly lucky to have the family that I do and I didn’t want things to change. I have always been a daddy’s girl and I was terrified that if this came out he wouldn’t see me like that anymore. I didn’t want people to look at me differently. I just wanted to be the same Jess I always was, not Jess the victim.

In a lot of ways, I withdrew. I kept my friends, but I kept them at a distance. At the time when they were dating and having their first kisses, I kept myself to myself. I would go to house parties, but I was never one to get drunk or have a drunken kiss. I threw myself into my schoolwork. I never really opened up about myself. If you wanted me to listen, I was there, but I never asked for you to return the favour. I was terrified of going anywhere by myself. If I was going to meet friends, I made sure I travelled to and from a place with someone or I wouldn’t go. I stopped going to after school clubs because it meant I would have to travel home alone and at a later time. On the outside I seemed fine – just a bit of a geek – but inside every choice I made was one to try and protect myself.

Once you had talked about what had happened to you, how did your life change?

After everything came out, I got to the point that I just wanted to leave my ‘old life’ behind. Even though my school were incredibly helpful and let me go to the nurse’s office if I felt overwhelmed, I found it really hard being there. Everything felt like a reminder of what had happened and what I had tried to keep quiet. I didn’t know who it was at the time, but one of the girls I had been close to had told other people in my year group what had happened to me. What had happened changed my life completely, but it had been treat like gossip by someone I thought was a friend. I hated feeling like people were whispering about me or looking at me differently, and hated not knowing who I could trust.

I did really well in my GCSEs and decided to leave school to study at Leeds City College. For me, I needed to get away from the place that reminded me of the day I broke down and my secret came out. I just needed a fresh start.

It was hard to leave my school. I had some brilliant friends there who were incredibly supportive, but I withdrew from them so much so that we don’t really speak now. I kept in contact with them a little at first, but over the years I focused on becoming a ‘new’ version of myself and we lost touch. It’s something I still feel guilty about to this day because they really were brilliant when I was struggling, but being around them was hard. They reminded me of a time before, a time I wanted to go back to.

How did leaving school and the memories of what happened make a difference to yourself and your life?

Going to college was the best thing I ever did. I had a tough time with the friend I mentioned before because she told people at college what had happened to me which kind of ruined my ‘fresh start’, but forcing myself to travel to a new city every day and meet new people really boosted me. I made some incredible friends during my time here, some of whom are still my best friends to this day. Just proving to myself that I could get myself from one place to another by myself and nothing bad happen was a huge step for me.

I continued growing in confidence at university. I went to the University of Huddersfield, meaning I had to once again meet new people and travel to a new place. I still lived at home, but going there pushed me out of my comfort zone again. I studied English Literature and felt my passion for reading and writing coming back – I even wrote my dissertation about the role of silence in literature which allowed me to claim back some power over the way I handled the situation and explore the idea that silence can be a strength.

During my time at university, I got into a long term relationship. When most people were figuring out relationships and dating in their teen years, I was trying to keep my head above water and keep my secret so I missed out on a lot of young dating experiences. I didn’t have my first kiss until I was almost seventeen, I have never ‘pulled’ at a party or in a club and the friend who had told people about my attack came on my first proper date because she convinced me that I wasn’t ready to date on my own. I was pretty clueless when it came to relationships and struggled a lot with self confidence, but this relationship made me who I am today. Even though I am no longer with this person, they will always be someone really important in my life because they showed me that I was loveable. They didn’t let my attack define me and refused to let me let it define myself. This relationship taught me a lot about myself and about moving forward from what happened.

You came a long way from where you were. Does the assault still affect your life?

Even though I have come a long way from how I used to be, my attack will always have an affect on my life. Simple things like going to the cinema involves looking at the film certification and seeing if sexual violence is featured. If I watch a film or a TV show that even slightly references rape or sexual assault, I get really, really upset. The scene will stay with me for a long time after I have watched it and I really struggle getting away from it. I can have nightmares or struggle sleeping.

When I go out, especially to new places, my mind is always in some kind of overdrive. I always make sure I make note of exits. If I see people who are acting suspiciously, a big group of men, are being overly loud or are ‘hitting’ on me, I avoid them. I am never the last one to be dropped off in a taxi and if it’s a case of getting public transport home at night, I make sure someone will meet me from the bus stop or station.

Home is my safe place, but even then I have to have the doors locked and windows shut to feel safe. When we moved to Sydney, it was really important for me to find somewhere that I felt safe as I would be working from home. For me, that meant somewhere not on the ground floor and with people around. Things that aren’t a consideration for most people become a big concern for me, but the older I get and the more I realise that not everything is ‘scary’, the better things are becoming.

Do you feel proud of yourself for who you now are?

I am incredibly proud of how far I have come. I used to think that what happened would always define me, but now I see how there are so many other things about me that are more important to who I am than being sexually assaulted. I used to let it rule me, but I am at a point where it doesn’t have the same power over me that it used to. Of course I have bad days and knock backs, but I stood in front of a classroom of 32 children and taught them every day, I travelled America and Australia, I went and did things I always wanted to but never thought I actually could.

To live in Australia and to write has always been my dream, a dream that I didn’t think I would go for because I felt so low in myself at times, so to be here doing it makes me so proud. I don’t think I would have got here without the world class support system of family, friends and my fiancé, but I do feel incredibly proud of what I have overcome and the person I have turned into.

Why did you decide to do this interview?

Talking about my assault is something I have considered for a while, but the final push came when a person I connected with on Instagram suggested interviewing myself so that people got to know me more. I felt a little fraudulent having these incredible women sharing their stories with me every week and helping so many other people while I kept silent. I can say ‘I was assaulted’, but to talk about the event and the effect it has had on me is something I still struggle with, but then I remembered how I felt like I was the only person in the world that this had happened to and didn’t want anyone else to feel alone in this experience.

What would you say to someone who had been sexually assaulted and was struggling to talk about it?

You’re not alone. However scary and isolating it might feel, you’re not alone. You’re not defined by what happened, either. It’s a part of you, but it’s not all of you. Talk when you’re ready, but know that telling someone doesn’t make this get worse. Even in the hardest times after I had told people, it was never as tough as carrying the secret by myself.

If you could describe your outlook on life, what would it be?

Now I see why so many people I interview struggle with this question – it’s a hard one! Keep looking forward, keep working towards your goals and keep being a good person – the rest will fall into place.

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