In eighth grade, a man on a bicycle followed me as I jogged down the streets of my neighborhood. Halfway down the isolated road I usually avoided, I felt that tingle on the back of my neck. I looked back and saw him just off in the distance, riding slowly.
I sped up, telling myself I was being paranoid. But when I looked back, he was keeping up with me. Every few strides, I turned my head, trying to seem casual, but there he was, closing the gap while still keeping some distance.
I wanted to race home, but worried he would then know where I lived. My father was an out-of-state trucker and my mother, little brother, and I were often home at night alone. When I turned a corner and glanced back again, he was staring back at me. This time he grinned.
I panicked, but started coming up with a plan. I slowed down, walked up to a stranger’s house like it was my own, and gave him enough time to ride past me as I made my way to the front door. Then I stood there for a while before finally glancing down the street. He was riding around in a circle, lingering at the corner.
In that moment, I knew he had figured out what I was doing, and my blood ran cold as I pressed my finger to the doorbell.
I waited. Rang again. Down the street, I saw he was waiting, too.
An eternity passed as my mind raced with what to do if no one answered.
Finally an elderly woman pulled the door open slowly, looking at me strangely. I tried to explain why I rang her doorbell, but I was having trouble. I was out of breath. I was scared. A weird jumble of fear, relief, confusion, and guilt were strangling my voice. She looked down the street, but by that point, the man was gone.
The woman stared at me like she didn’t know what to do, and I was no help with my feet glued to the cement, wondering if he was hiding around the corner, waiting for me. Just then, a younger woman walked by. The old lady called out to her, and then pointed to me. This younger woman turned out to be the mother of a girl who rode my bus. She walked me home.
Stop freaking out, I remember telling myself. My vision blurred with tears I didn’t want her to see. Nothing happened.
Years later, I worked as a back-office cashier at a supermarket, where a male stock clerk repeatedly leered at me through a long window in the door. I could feel when he was there, and when I’d look back, he’d flick his tongue between two of his fingers and press himself against the glass. When I finally told an older woman I worked with about it, she told me he was harmless.
Don’t freak out, I remember telling myself this time as well. Nothing happened.
A few years after that, I got a phone call late one night when I’d just come home. A gruff voice on the other end told me he knew I’d just gotten home because he was watching me. I stayed up most of the night, double-checking doors and windows, listening for sounds. After that, when I’d come home at night, I’d rush from my car to the front door, opening it, entering my house, and closing the door behind me as quickly as possible.
Don’t freak out, I remember telling myself, yet again. Nothing happened.
The man on the bike, the guy at work, the stranger on the phone; they were not all the same person. But they were all men who felt empowered to do this. They all felt it was okay. They were all told that it was, in small and big ways, by a society that encouraged it in those same small and big ways.
Nothing happened, I’d told myself.
But something did, right? Things like this happen all the time.
In The Fall of Innocence, a story about a girl who survives a brutal attack but struggles with its rippling effects in the years that follow, I wanted to speak truth to the often constant danger that surrounds girls. And to show the lasting results of living in such an environment.
I don’t want girls to have to live in fear. I don’t want them to have to paint their nails in drug-detecting nail polish before a night out. I don’t want them to have to walk with their keys in their hands, positioned to jab at the eyes of an attacker. I don’t want them to have to be hyper-vigilant of every step, every breath they take. But this is the environment we as a society create for our girls. These are the ways we begin to oppress them.
It’s not their imagination. It’s not their fault. They’re not overreacting. And society needs to take ownership of this reality and reckon with it. And not only admit to it, but sit with that discomfort and be willing to understand the many, many ways we have failed and sacrificed girls.
This book, Emilia’s story, is my way of asking you to sit with that reality and discomfort for a while. To feel the struggle and threat of what it means to be a girl in our society.
And then to stand up for girls like Emilia. For all girls, everywhere.