Redefining survival: life after assault

Corinne+Engber+poses+for+a+silhouette.

Corinne Engber poses for a silhouette.

Andrew Atkins

Editor’s note: This story is the first of continued coverage surrounding assault on college campuses. In an effort to open the conversation about assault, Corinne Engber has allowed The Kent Stater to use her full name and share her story. 

Corinne Engber survived.

She was in a small lounge on the second floor of her dorm, across from her room. A glass wall faced the hall. The lounge only had a couple pieces of furniture. The other person in the room was a man she had just met. He pinned her against the wall, pulled her hair and forcibly kissed her.

“They say either fight or flight,” she said. “Sometimes you just freeze.”

Engber, now a senior English major, said she was sexually assaulted the day before classes began her sophomore year at Kent State in 2014.

When she got back to her room, Engber said she started crying and didn’t know why.

Over the next four days, Engber went from her resident assistant to her residence hall directors and then reported the assault to the police.

Even though Engber said she was sexually assaulted, the police report categorized it as disorderly conduct. Under the Ohio Revised Code, the specific legal categorizations of sexual assault include: rape, sexual battery, gross sexual imposition and sexual imposition. Each of these crimes contain distinct definitions, such as sexual conduct, which denotes penetration, and sexual contact, which denotes contact with erogenous zones.

Kent State Police Sgt. Nancy Shefchuk said sexual assault is the general term often used but is not the legal classification for any sex-related crimes.

“We have to fit these very specific definitions,” Shefchuk said. “We resort to (disorderly conduct) because these definitions don’t fit … I’m not going to call a sexual imposition a disorderly conduct, when I could have called it a sexual imposition.”

While the justice system operates under these very specific definitions, Kent State’s Office of Sexual and Relationship Violence Support Services (SRVSS) website defines sexual assault as “sexual contact without a person’s consent. It covers a range of acts, from unwanted touching and fondling to attempted and completed rape. What these acts have in common is a lack of consent.”

Engber didn’t press charges, she said, because she didn’t have the money for a lawyer. Plus, she said the emotional burden was too much.

“I defined it as sexual assault because it threatened my bodily autonomy and made me feel like I was public domain just for existing in a space as a woman,” she said. “I have trouble with interpersonal relationships and sexual relationships because of it. It affected me in a way that was more intense than just a physical assault.”

Engber said she didn’t want to talk about or deal with it.

“You just feel dead inside,” she said. “You don’t want to do anything. People always get on me, like ‘Why didn’t you press charges?’ Everybody’s got an opinion. I just didn’t have the energy. I just wasn’t strong enough.”

Some of Engber’s friends told her to get over it, including her roommate at the time. She told Engber she should feel lucky it wasn’t worse.

“It (was) a week later,” she said, “and I (felt) like (there was) something wrong with me. And this girl — who was my best friend at the time — she was kind of like ‘Yeah, you’re over-reacting about this, like I’m kind of tired of hearing about it.’”

Engber said she doesn’t have to be grateful her assault wasn’t worse. “That’s not how it works,” she said.

Stephanie Orwick, support services coordinator for the SRVSS office, said the culture of victim blaming is “alive and well.”

“Unless you’ve been through it, or unless you have an understanding or background in it, you’re not (going to) understand,” Orwick said. “We still live in a culture where nobody wants to talk about rape. Nobody wants to talk about sexual assault. We know the numbers are so statistically high that it is happening so often, but we just don’t want to talk about it.”

Engber said she would often scream herself awake from violent nightmares about being sexually assaulted, stabbed or eaten alive.

“With sexual assault, you feel like … you’re an open Wi-Fi network. You can be accessed by anybody,” she said.

Following her assault, Engber began to carry a pair of scissors with her for protection. Now, she said, she carries around an item similar to brass knuckles.

Outside of classes, Engber works part time off-campus. Her co-workers love to scare her, she said, because they think it’s funny to see her react.

One night, she said, a co-worker of hers — unaware of Engber’s own experience — began talking about how difficult it would be to report a sexual assault.

“To a lot of people, sexual assault is hypothetical,” she said.

When she’s working, Engber often flinches and takes a step back when someone makes unexpected physical contact.

Outside of work, she said she flinches less because there are not as many instances of potential physical contact, making it easier for her to avoid.  

Even so, Engber sometimes flinches around her friends. Some of them — like sophomore English major Ollie Swasey  — understand her reactions.

“She keeps to herself when she’s triggered,” Swasey said. “I don’t like to bother her when she gets triggered … I give her space, and I give her support at a distance … I know it’s not her fault; her trauma isn’t her fault.”

For those who don’t understand Engber’s experiences and triggers, their reactions often frustrate her, she said.

“They get really offended because it’s inconvenient for them,” Engber said. “If your mental illness or mental disorder is not in a neat little box and with easy-to-deal-with symptoms that are consistent, people get really uncomfortable.”

The symptoms for each sexual assault victim are different, Orwick said.

“A lot of times the things you’ll see are … confusion … trouble concentrating, difficulty with memory,” she said. “Some people might not know that’s from trauma. They might just be like, ‘I’m just having a bad day, I haven’t had enough coffee, why am I so tired.’ You hear a lot about the fatigue — or the opposite end, where they can’t fall asleep —  because again, the hormones are jazzed up.”

Long-term effects of sexual assault can include depression, anxiety and hypervigilance, Orwick said. The subconscious aspect of the hypervigilance can affect a victim without them recognizing it.

“If your assault happened in a yellow room, you might not recognize that on a conscious level. But then your class might be in a yellow room and you’re like ‘Why is my heart beating so fast, why am I so uncomfortable, why am I having a hard time studying in this room?’” Orwick said.

Today, Engber’s “bad days” are fewer and farther between. On the days they do happen, she listens to music, throws soft things like paper towels or screams into a pillow.

“I write a lot of poetry,” she said. “I have a therapist on campus who’s amazing … Time just helps. I have a lot of supportive friends.”

Now, Engber has applied to Emerson College for graduate school and is waiting to hear back. She’s passionate about literature. She’s working on her poetry for her honors thesis and is the poetry editor for Brainchild Magazine.

For victims who feel hesitant about coming forward with their story, Orwick wanted to share her advice.

“Be comfortable with the hesitation,” she said.  “Everything happens on your own time. You will know when it’s right. You will know when you want to go to counseling. You will know when you want to join a support group. You will know when you want to disclose to your family.”

Victims can also get resources without reporting their trauma to authorities. Orwick said if a survivor is not ready to tell his or her story, they don’t need to do so to receive resources.

Engber said her advice is that it’s okay to say no.

“Say no to sexual situations or situations where your refusal might make someone uncomfortable,” she said in a text message. “Listen to your gut. Don’t be afraid of hurting someone’s feelings if it affects your well-being.”

Engber said her greatest piece of advice for sexual assault survivors is to talk about it.

“We’re all just people. And nobody’s gonna react to trauma in a nice, palatable, clean way,” she said. “Talk about it. . . So many people don’t talk about it. And you have to feel the feelings.”

It sucks, Engber said. “It hurts.”

“It makes you want to die. It makes you feel like you are dead. But you have to talk about it,” she said. “Even if you don’t report, coming forward and talking about things can really help in your healing process.”

Andrew Atkins is an assigning editor, contact him at [email protected]