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Sexual Assault Awareness Month: SING Until Your Lungs Give Out, an essay by E.K. Johnston


April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and one of the books we’re using to start a conversation is Exit, Pursued by a Bear, which follows the difficult decision high schooler Hermione Winters faces after being assaulted at cheer camp. Today, author E.K. Johnston shares another story – this one her own – and an important message to remember.


(I was going to blog about something else for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but then the Jian Ghomeshi verdict came down—and was as disappointing as expected. So here I am, writing angry again. I’m so sick of being “timely.” I want Exit, Pursued by a Bear to be dated ASAP.)


I don’t tell this story to very many people (congrats, Internet. You’ll be persons five though a billion!).

The guy who assaulted me was singing when he did it.

I was perfect, of course. It was the middle of a room full of people. I had plenty of witnesses. They all heard me say “No,” and “Don’t,” and “Stop.” They didn’t know I had frozen completely. They only saw me when I thawed.

Meanwhile, I’d forgotten everything. I was bigger than him. I could have thrown my weight forward and got free of his hold. I didn’t do that. I stood there while he sang and wouldn’t move his hands. And then, finally, I snapped.

There’s a bit at the end of Miss Congeniality where Sandra Bullock has to improvise a talent at the last minute, and so she does a self-defense demonstration on Benjamin Bratt. I forgot almost all of that. I forgot the part where she tells you how to brace, how to pull, how to use your hip as a lever. But there’s one more thing after that.

He was singing. And I remembered how to sing.


Solar plexus (my elbow, as hard as I could, and he leaned back which gave me space to turn around.)

Instep (with my steel-toed boots. He let go. I could have stopped. I didn’t.)

N (as my knee was coming up, I realized that I’d forgotten what the N was, but it didn’t matter because)

Groin (he went down like a sack of bricks, and couldn’t even writhe on the floor.)


(N is for “nose”, btw. It’s probably for the best that I forgot. I would have broken his whole face.)

When I was throwing up in the bathroom a few moments later, I was furious with myself. I wasn’t mad because I’d hurt him (he couldn’t work the next day). I was mad because I had instinctively apologized.

(Did I over-react? Yes. Would I do it again? I REALLY WOULD. Though if I did it again, I would not apologize.)

There is a part of me in every book, in every character. I gave Hermione four-and-a-half minutes of self-doubt and loathing and no dignity or self-control, all set to a goddamn power ballad. She didn’t do what she was supposed to either. She didn’t scream.

But later, later, I let her remember how to sing. The good way. With her voice and her heart, and not with her knees and elbows and fingernails.

Because you don’t do what you’re supposed to. There is no “supposed to.” There’s a moment where you’re very, very scared, and sometimes the moment swallows you and sometimes you claw your way through it. What I want, more than I want almost anything else, is for there to be a person there who throws a rope. A person who cheers you on. A person who boosts you up. And then, when you are out of the hole, I want a whole freaking arena of people who believe you. No matter what you did when it happened.

I’d settle for a decent justice system.

Until then—and for as long as people call my novel “timely” —I will use my voice and I will use my knees, and I will sing.


Thank you for sharing, E.K.


Learn more about Exit, Pursued by a Bear.


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