U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster speaks out about personal experiences with sexual assault

Monitor staff
Published: 6/22/2016 1:54:17 PM

U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster kept silent about the sexual assaults she had endured as a young woman for nearly 40 years.

On Tuesday night, the 59-year-old congresswoman from Hopkinton broke her silence to her husband, family and the world. Her hands clasped on the lectern on the House floor, Kuster launched into a speech detailing one of her most painful memories.

“I was an 18-year-old student, going to a dance at a fraternity, to enjoy the evening with friends,” she said. “We danced, we listened to music, we enjoyed the party. Until one young man assaulted me in a crude and insulting way and I ran, alone, into the cold, dark night.”

“I have never forgotten that night,” she added.

In an interview Wednesday, Kuster said the incident was “related to a prank” and involved a physical assault with sexual connotations.

“The intention of it was humiliation of me, and it was a physical assault on my being,” Kuster said.

She still remembers the shame and embarrassment she felt as she abruptly ran out of the fraternity house.

A few years later, at age 23, Kuster was working as a legislative aide on Capitol Hill. She went to dinner with her then-boss and a “distinguished guest of the United States Congress.”

She sat between her boss and the guest at a restaurant when she felt the visitor’s hand on her underneath the table.

“Suddenly I realized he has his hand under my skirt,” she said. “I didn’t have the presence of mind to get up and go to the ladies room, I just froze.”

Now, Kuster can clearly call this incident workplace harassment, but at the time it was happening, “we didn’t have a word for that.”

Just months after the incident at the restaurant, Kuster was walking the three blocks home from a diner to her apartment when she was assaulted and mugged. She fought free from her attacker, ran away and never reported the attack to police.

“I never told anyone that, either,” she said. After it happened, she remembered thinking, “Stupid me, I can’t believe I walked home alone.”

Kuster didn’t talk about the assaults with anyone. But the trauma she carried still showed up in different ways.

“I was constantly in fear for my own personal safety,” she said. “I took all kinds of precautions, not going out alone.”

She still hates being home alone. She has woken up screaming from bad dreams of people grabbing her in the night.

When she wrote down her memories for her Tuesday speech, she broke down sobbing.

“It was a real catharsis for me,” she said.

Kuster said a couple of things motivated her to go public with her story after so many years of silence.

The first thought came reading the lengthy statement by the woman known to the world as “Emily Doe,” who was sexually assaulted by Stanford swimmer Brock Turner last year.

The Stanford case sparked outrage earlier this year after Turner was given a six-month sentence for the sexual assault. Prosecutors had recommended a six-year sentence.

“The message we hear and the message the court sent in Stanford is that we are not safe, we are not secure and we do not deserve to be free,” Kuster said. “Free from sexual assault, free from rape, free from rude, crude, obnoxious, offensive assault on our body, our being, ourselves. We are all Emily Doe.”

Kuster said the second thing that spurred her to action was hearing so many stories of trauma from New Hampshire residents suffering from opioid and heroin addiction. Touring the state’s treatment and recovery centers, she’s heard a common theme.

“I was struck with how many of those conversations related to trauma, particularly sexual harassment and sexual trauma in their lives,” she said.

Kuster said she knows many more colleagues and friends who experienced similar assaults as young women, and also kept quiet.

Kuster wonders if she and many others who were assaulted 40 years ago had spoken up at the time, whether the country would still be grappling with the issue.

“Our silence for the last 40 years . . . has contributed to an environment where we don’t talk about it,” she said.

Sexual assault on college campuses and high schools has taken the national spotlight in recent years. The Stanford case was just the latest of many, but it was one of the first where a victim published such a lengthy and detailed statement about her experience.

Kuster has worked for years on the issue of campus sexual assault.

“I feel very strongly that we’ve got to do better,” she said.

Kuster also has two grown sons, and she and her husband always had frank discussions with them about respect and boundaries growing up.

“They knew that this was a topic I was extremely sensitive and vigilant about,” Kuster said.

But until this week, her sons never knew why.

As she made her way into the House chamber on Tuesday night, Kuster’s phone buzzed with text messages from her boys, saying, “We’re so proud of you.”

Anyone who has experienced a sexual assault in the state can reach out to the New Hampshire Sexual Assault 24-Hour Hotline at 1-800-277-5570.

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, enilsen@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)

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