When I was a young attending pediatrician at a well-known medical institution, a female medical student confided in me. She said that her previous supervisor, an attending physician in Internal Medicine, had sexually assaulted her. She didn’t know what to do—should she report this man? Should she stay silent?
The male doctor, more than 20 years older, had been friendly from the start. She found his interest reassuring at first. She thought she had found a mentor. But then, she said it became creepy: he asked if she had a boyfriend, made innuendos about her clothing and cosmetics, stared at her breasts. Sitting at a computer while she stood beside him in a deserted nursing station, he stroked her buttocks. She said she felt frozen, unable to move away. Mercifully, a nurse came down the hallway towards them, and he removed his hands. He didn’t acknowledge what he had done and she pretended it didn’t happen. She said she avoided being alone with him for the rest of her rotation. She guarded against any physical contact, making sure there was no “accidental” brushing of hands or grazing of arms. She always sat away from him, using other people around them as barriers.
She asked me what I would do in her situation.
This is what I said to her: You can report him to Human Resources or to the Department of Medicine. They have to investigate. They will question him. They will question you. They will ask intrusive questions about your personal life. He will claim that you manipulated him, that you enticed him for a good grade. You are a third year medical student. He is the Vice Chairman of Education. Who do you think is going to win? Other departments will hear about what you did and they will be harsher on you than other students. There is even a possibility that they will conspire to fail you out of school. What are you willing to lose for your principles?
I gave her this advice because I had been in her situation.
As a third year medical student, my first clinical experience was General Surgery. Specifically, a rotation through a Level One Trauma Center that involved 24 hours on, 24 hours off. Every other day of non-stop running down to the ER for gunshot wounds, stabbings, accidental amputations transported by ambulance or helicopter; then rushing those same patients to the OR for emergency surgery, scrubbing quickly with Betadine and retracting back muscle, fat, fascia for hours standing as still as I could, not getting in the surgeon’s way; then finally making the rounds in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit, diligently monitoring vital signs like central venous pressure and heart rate, reassessing the Glasgow coma scale from 1 to 10, adjusting the dopamine drip rate. All those patients with so many lines protruding out of them, their details inevitably entangled and confusing.
For one week, I was assigned to follow a first year surgical resident, spending over 24 hours in his company every other day. This male resident said little when we were first introduced; he seemed shy. But as the hours progressed, he asked me if I had a boyfriend. I was grateful I could be honest: yes. As the days progressed, he said, “Too bad you have a boyfriend,” and then he said, “You should go out with me. I have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do,” (perhaps he thought I would be impressed because I was Korean-American). I laughed loudly and pretended he was joking, moving away when he stood too close or brushed up against me or put his hands on my arms or back or shoulders. But I started to pray that we would be too busy each night with trauma cases to go back to the on-call room. Mostly my prayers came true.
Then one night, I found myself walking down a hospital hallway with him, dreading each step. “Do you want to know what goes on in these call rooms?” Sleep, I answered. He told me about the trysts between doctors and nurses as he opened the door, then looked me up and down and said, “We should do the same.” I laughed but heard the tremor in my voice, the thumping of my heart so hard I was sure my chest was shaking. I rushed to the bunk bed and started to climb the ladder. He put his hand on my shoulder. I froze. “I’m taller. Besides, I like sleeping on top of you.”
I lay on top of the sheets, my hands clutching my belly, the blanket coarse and scratchy beneath my body in thin blue scrubs. I wanted nothing in the way if I had to escape. I stared at the wooden slats of the bed above me, terrified of closing my eyes. I knew my screams would not be heard down the deserted hallway. I resigned myself to being raped. And I knew I would not report it. I had heard about a female medical student who had alleged sexual assault against an attending a year or two before. No one believed her. She didn’t graduate. When the resident’s pager beeped, I jumped up and ran to the door and had it open, before he was even sitting up in bed.
I never went back to that call room.
I attended medical school in the 1980s and people didn’t talk about sexual assault, let alone sexual harassment. I foolishly thought my experience had been unique. That men in medicine didn’t really behave in such horrifying ways. Even as I witnessed it. Sitting at a large table in the hospital cafeteria with several male surgical residents, I remained mute as they critiqued every female body passing by—the flaws, the face, the breasts, the thighs. I said nothing as they objectified women’s bodies as though it were a game—the more lewd, the more points. I stood by as a male surgical resident gawked at an unconscious, naked, young woman splayed on the operating table, and said, “What tits and ass!” When he saw me looking at him, he said, “Man, I would fuck her if she wasn’t a whore.” I looked away. And the male attending surgeon, who was supervising this resident just shrugged. Not one word about how that male resident was dehumanizing a female patient with his sexual gaze and his words, and making me complicit in her debasement. And I said nothing. I had not yet heard of Audre Lorde: “My silences had not protected me.”
I wish I had spoken up.
I wish I had told that female medical student to speak up.
Because when you live with the pervasive message that it is not only acceptable but encouraged that men can enact their violence, their desires on women, then you believe it is true. That you, as a woman, are worth nothing. You deserve whatever violence a man inflicts on your body. And because you believe you brought this violence on yourself, you marry a man in medicine who abuses you.
That is what I did.
His initials are SS. Another red flag I will be reminded by a therapist many years later that I ignored. The first time SS threw a dish at my head we were living together, not yet married. I was sitting at a rickety table-for-two, the metal feet at the bottom of the wood stand barely able to support its weight. I can’t remember what we were arguing about. I was crying and he was saying, “You’re mistaken. You don’t know what you’re saying,” his voice calm.
He had generously cooked dinner that night: frozen chicken fingers thawed in a toaster oven along with tater tots, all served with ketchup. I was post-call from working 36 plus hours at the hospital but he was not so he offered to wash the dishes as well. I had showered before dinner, my shoulder-length black hair wet. Wisps of my damp hair brushed against my cheek as the dish whizzed past me and shattered on the wall. Red globs of ketchup splattered on my neck.
This is not happening. I am in a nightmare. I will wake up.
“What is wrong with you?” he screamed, his face crimson, his hands pounding the rim of the metal sink.
I sat motionless, willing my body to grow smaller and smaller. Invisible.
“Why do you have to be this way?” His rage flared and consumed all the oxygen in the room.
I kept my head down, my eyes tracking him under lowered lids.
He ran to the kitchen door, flung it open, and stomped onto the brick patio. He snatched a terracotta pot off the ground, arced it over his head and smashed it. He did it again and again. The clattering and screeching of ceramic shards bounced off red brick and echoed into the night.
It’s my fault. I asked him to forgive me.
“Please don’t make me lose my temper again,” he said, his voice quiet and heavy with disappointment.
I still remember the pattern of blue flowers on the wallpaper of that kitchen. The half-open flowers seemed cheery, the leafy green stems curving and spiraling up to the blank white ceiling. A part of me is still sitting at that rickety table, staring at the lavender-blue petals on the wall.
We met in medical school. I was on the rebound from my first love affair—something that should have happened to me in high school or college. SS was not tall, not good looking, which was actually in his favor since I wanted nothing to do with a handsome man. He seemed nice and funny—he told me he had been the class clown in high school. I didn’t agonize over whether he loved me or not. When he said, “I love you,” I felt relief. And I responded, “I love you too.” Because one day, post-call, feeling grungy and beyond tired, I had come home to a clean apartment. When I thanked him, he said, “I want to spend my life taking care of you. I love you.” I thought I had found my prince charming. Never mind that he did not clean my apartment ever again.
Then I became pregnant. In my last year of medical school, I had already committed to a pediatric residency in another city. I turned to SS for support and guidance because I could not go to my conservative Korean parents. He said, “I love you and want to marry you. But a baby is not what we need.” He sounded logical, reasonable. “You would have to quit residency. Do you want to give up everything you’ve worked for?” he said. Not once did he talk about the possibility of him giving up his medical residency to stay home with our child.
“I’m only thinking about what is best for you,” he said during one of our gut-wrenching talks about abortion. “We must marry in the Catholic Church because it’s important to my mother and to me. A baby will ruin everything. I just want what is best for you.” He said those words with such sincerity, his voice earnest, his face a study in contemplation.
I had an abortion. And I clung to him like a lifeline: I was supposed to be with SS; he was the father of my child. On June 25, 1994, I stood in a Catholic church in a white dress, holding his hand, and vowed to love and honor him and forsake all others.
My throat burned. But I was in denial. My head didn’t ache; my muscles weren’t sore; I didn’t have a fever. Just the feeling someone was cauterizing the back of my mouth with a torch whenever I swallowed. But on the plane, I felt alternately hot and freezing cold. By the time I got off the Air Train at JFK, I was dragging my red suitcase so slowly everyone was passing me by. I got on the E train to Penn Station; I didn’t even think of taking a cab. I stared at the giant train board at Penn Station—the next New Jersey Transit train to Newark was 40 minutes away and then I would still have to take another train to the suburb where we lived.
I called SS.
In the fall of 2008, we went to New Orleans for a long weekend because he was being paid by a pharmaceutical company to attend a “symposium”: code for staying at an expensive hotel and meals at expensive restaurants like Emeril’s so the company could thank their most prolific lecturers and prescribers of drugs. All of his expenses were covered. All we had to do was pay for my airfare. So I found the cheapest ticket, one that required me to go to JFK on the return, not Newark, the airport near our home in New Jersey. It was a hundred dollars cheaper. SS applauded my frugality. Even though he knew I would have to spend over two hours getting home from JFK to New Jersey by public transit. He was going direct to Newark Airport and then a car service twenty minutes home.
SS didn’t answer his cellphone or the house phone. I pictured him under the rain head of the glass shower enclosure in our slate and marble bathroom and longed for steam to unclog the congestion and pressure building in my head. I got on a NJ Transit train to Newark. By the time I hit the large echo of the center of the station, my body was coated with sweat from a raging fever. I bought chamomile tea drenched with three packets of sugar—glucose to keep me going.
I called SS.
When he answered the phone, I could barely speak, my voice just above a whisper. “I can’t hear you,” he said. I repeated myself. “Are you sure you can’t take the train home? I just got back from a run and I need to cool down before I take a shower.” I pleaded. “Why don’t you drink your tea? You’ll feel better and then you can take the train home.” He hung up. I wiped my tears. I drank my tea. I got up and started to drag my suitcase to the ticket machines. I became dizzy. I sat back down.
I called SS.
Instead of his previous cajoling tone, his voice had an edge: “I’m cooling down. And I still have to get in a shower. And then it’s going to take me another 20 minutes to get there. It would be easier if I just picked you up at the train station here.” I cried. “Fine, I’m coming. But you’re going to have to wait.” He didn’t show up for almost an hour. I apologized when I got into the passenger seat. He sighed; he wouldn’t look at me. I broke down, my body shaking with sobs. The tea in a paper cup jostled in my left hand from the vibration of my body quivering. The now tepid liquid escaped from the drinking spout of the lid and spilled onto the center console of his Mercedes and a few drops fell onto my leather seat.
“Oh no, I’m sorry,” I whispered. I leaned forward, opening the glove compartment looking for napkins to wipe up the drops.
“Look at what you’ve done!” He screamed.
He threw his clenched fist at me. I jerked away, protecting my face. His fists landed on my shoulder, arms, and rib cage, his arm hinging and unhinging at the elbow again and again. Like a hammer. Knocked out of my hand, the paper teacup landed on the floor, soaking the carpet. I covered my head with my arms, hunched against the window, pressing my body as far away from him as possible. He screamed about how he was always sacrificing for me and our children, how he did everything for us never for himself, his voice screeching and reverberating in the stale air of the enclosed car.
This isn’t happening. I am in a nightmare. I will wake up.
I told myself those things even though, for years, he had rages in which he screamed until his face turned purple. When he threw anything within reach—a cup of mismatched pens and pencils raining like missiles, a leather belt that snaked like a whip, drinking goblets that became glass shards. When he would imprint smudges of yellow and green on my arms that turned black and blue. When I would run up the stairs and lock myself in the bathroom while he pounded on the door.
And I stayed silent.
Ironic, but he was the one who left in 2011 because he was dallying with several women. I don’t think I could ever have left. I was too damaged, too dangerously invested in the narrative that we were a happy family: husband, wife, and two children. And SS convinced me that I was the problem. I was “anti-social”; I was “depressed”; I had “no friends.” My mother had tried to kill herself and my family was dysfunctional. I was more than ready to take blame—I thought if it was my fault, then I could fix it. A therapist once pointed out that I, being a masochist, was perfect prey for a charming narcissist like SS. He also pointed out, that in being a masochist, I was being arrogant: I thought I had more power than I really did.
SS spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers so he wouldn’t have to pay child support for our children. At first, he tried to say that he loved them so much but he couldn’t “afford” to pay support. Then he got re-married and had two more children. Then he stopped pretending he was poor. But it didn’t make up for the fact that I went to court—Supreme Court, Family Court, Bankruptcy Court, Appellate Court—44 times over seven years. With 15 justices, judges, support magistrates, and custody referees involved in those court battles.
I wish I could say that I transcended those experiences. I did not. I wish I could say that I did it smiling and with grace and aplomb. Nope. I wept in frustration until I was hiccupping. I hated every second of it. I hated every sleepless night before a court date, the bile rising in my throat, the feeling that I was suffocating, that my heart would beat right out of my chest because I was so terrified. I hated every judge who refused to see what SS was doing to our children and refused to find him in contempt, even though it was the fourth time—not counting the seven previous sessions during our divorce trial—we were appearing in front of her because he refused to pay his court ordered obligations.
Yes, Justice Barbara Jaffe, I’m talking about you.
And I hated feeling so helpless. So afraid.
Then our daughter dropped out of college over Thanksgiving 2014, only months after she started. I was the only parent who had gone on college tours, labored over the Common Application and all its intricacies with her, held her hand as she clicked open admissions decisions from eight different colleges. And only a few weeks after she withdrew, SS proposed a deal in which I would give up claim to $48,000 and in return, he would not file for yet another Downward Modification of Child Support, and he would drop his Appeal of the Judgment of Divorce in Appellate Court, which had already granted him four extensions. It was unlikely he would be successful in either of his attempts, but I didn’t negotiate. I agreed to his terms. I thought if I gave him what he wanted, he would stop his relentless bullying.
I was wrong. After I agreed to his proposed deal, he came back and said that he also wanted me to take child support payments out of Support Collections Unit. It had taken me three years to get the Office of Child Support Enforcement to garnish his wages. Three years of no payment or partial payments. I said, absolutely not. When hell freezes over. I had agreed to all his conditions. But he wanted more. And when I wouldn’t give more, he walked away from his own deal.
That was when I knew.
SS was never going to stop. It wasn’t about money. It was about control—imposing his will, imposing his narrative. And I had better learn how to combat him. I wish I could say that I stood up and put my hands on my hips and said, “Bring it on.” With assurance and confidence. Nope. I dreaded what petty and vindictive thing SS would do next. I dreaded the churning of my stomach, the need to close my eyes and force myself to exhale. To keep breathing. But a mantra sprang up in my head: I refuse to live in fear. I had to keep saying it over and over and over again. Before I started to believe one word. Before I thought it was even possible.
In October 2016, SS filed a Writ of Habeas Corpus in Family Court of the State of New York, claiming I kidnapped our son because we moved to Oregon. Instead of being grateful that he didn’t have to pay private school tuition any longer, SS went after custody of our son. Even though their relationship had frayed to the point that our son had not seen him for the previous three years. SS wanted to maintain his façade of a loving father, regardless of his actions to the contrary. And despite our son calling him, begging SS to withdraw his Writ, he refused.
I wasn’t a lawyer. I didn’t know what I was doing. But I didn’t have the money to pay a lawyer anymore, so I appeared in court by myself. Because now, I was more stubborn than afraid. In court, I gripped my hands so tightly my nail beds were white, my neck tensed and my shoulders clenched so hard that the muscles in between felt like concrete, not flesh.
I refuse to live in fear.
Shockingly, the judge appointed an attorney for me. And he yelled at SS. I had never heard a judge do that before. And the judge yelled at SS’s attorney—also the first time I ever witnessed that in over 40 times in court—about how inappropriate it was that a Writ was filed against a mother who had sole legal and physical custody of a child. SS’s attorney tried to confuse the judge by saying that our expired parenting plan had stated neither of us would move without the consent of the other. The judge reminded her that our most recent custody agreement was entered on November 10, 2014—in which SS sold custody of our children to me for a credit of $20,000—and that took precedent over the parenting plan of 2012. He said, “How could you bring a Writ like this into my court!” At which point, SS’s attorney threw SS under the proverbial bus. She claimed that SS had filed the Writ by himself.
I could not believe what I was hearing. Finally. Finally, a judge had seen through his manipulations and his lies and his half-baked excuses. SS was losing his narrative power. I remember thinking: This is the only good thing about November 9, 2016.
Alas, my victory was short-lived.
In April 2017, I had to go to court again—the Supreme Court of the State of New York. Because SS was thwarted in Family Court, he decided to go back to the same judge in Supreme Court who had presided over our divorce trial in 2012. Because the white, female judge loved him as he spun charming tales on the witness stand. And she had been so favorable to him—she had factored less than half of his actual income in determining his child support obligations. Although we had been mired in Family Court for over four years by then, SS went “forum shopping” and the judge let him get away with it. She agreed to hear his Motion to Terminate Child Support for our 16-year-old son.
I refuse to live in fear.
I represented myself. In Supreme Court. “Highly unusual,” said a lawyer from a non-profit, which helps victims of domestic violence as he gave me some legal advice. I wrote an Affidavit in Opposition and gathered other Affidavits and Exhibits, all of which came to 97 pages. Then I practiced my oral arguments, pacing around and around my apartment, practically wearing a circle into the wood planks: “He has no legal basis to stop paying child support for a minor.” When the judge cancelled oral arguments, at first, I was offended. Then my body started shaking and I fell to the floor with relief.
After three months, she issued her ruling: “To respectfully refer the matter to Family Court.” I actually gripped that stupid piece of paper with both of my fists and shook it. As though I could change what it said. It took me weeks to see the positive aspect of her ruling: Don’t come back here anymore. Maybe she no longer loved him. Maybe she didn’t believe his “alternative facts” any longer.
Ever so predictably, SS went back to Family Court. I represented myself. Again. And the Support Magistrate yelled at me. Again. This was also predictable. Most of the judges, the support magistrates, and the custody referees I appeared in front of saw me as the problem: Why wouldn’t I let SS do whatever he wanted? Didn’t I know my place as an Asian woman? Couldn’t I see that he was a white man and therefore right?
I did not remain silent. I don’t mean to imply that it was easy. Every cell, every sinew of my body braced for impact. I felt like vomiting. And my voice was shaking. But I opposed his attorney’s argument to stop child support payments. And the Support Magistrate had to uphold the law. As much as it aggrieved her because she didn’t like me: “You don’t know when to keep quiet!”
In speaking up, I empowered myself. Nobody was going to do it for me. As much as I wished and hoped that I wouldn’t have to do the excruciating work myself. I had thought if I behaved like the stereotype of the quiet Asian woman the courts expected, the patriarchal system would reward me for my silence. I was wrong. I should have listened to Audre Lorde, “Your silence will not protect you.” In going to court again and again without a lawyer, I often had the sensation that my chest was being crushed and I didn’t have the strength to hold up my own head. Every single time was excruciating. But I doggedly kept going. And ever so slowly I built, block by block, my own house. Even though those judges and lawyers were dismissive and hostile, I didn’t have to listen to their narrative. And I didn’t have to adhere to the story SS was telling. I could choose my own story—I wasn’t born a kick-ass feminist, but I could become one.
I like to imagine that a part of me is still sitting at the rickety table-for-two staring at the blue flowers on the wallpaper of that kitchen in that house SS and I lived in before we married. I think about the possibility that I could have gotten up from that table, walked down the hallway to our bedroom, packed a suitcase of my things and left that night. That possibility makes me believe in a parallel universe. Where it actually happened. That I got away from him. Before our marriage. Before the years and years of unhappiness. And the years and years of brutal divorce.
But then I wouldn’t be the person I am. Even though I hated the things he did, I became a better person. No, I don’t want to thank him. And there was a cost to me becoming a better person: two frozen shoulders over a period of five years, irritable bowel syndrome, crippling migraines, post traumatic stress disorder. And more grief and oceans of loneliness than any human should endure. I wish I could take back what happened to me. And if there were a parallel universe in which I never marry him, I would jump into it in a heartbeat. I am not trying to champion suffering. I am not talking about finding meaning in suffering. Suffering sucks.
I know that I would not be as self-aware, as vocal and opinionated, as strong a person as I am now. My theory is this: sometimes life beats the shit out of us. And either we choose to learn and evolve. Or we give up and die. My theory of evolution. Some of us prolong our destruction over years and decades, our lives unraveling yet we do nothing to change or adapt. Some of us take years and decades to realize truths about ourselves, but we evolve. We find ways to forge new selves. It took me almost 20 years and then another seven years after that, but even someone like me, so damaged, so in denial, can change and transform.
Transformation. Adaptation. Evolution.
I can choose a new narrative, one in which I am a survivor not a victim. I can choose to tell the story of a woman who spoke up. I can re-invent myself, not as a failed doctor or a battered woman, but as a writer. I can choose the narrative of survival and resilience, of heartbreak and joy, of grief and recovery, of truth and beauty.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” said Joan Didion. A friend once told me that she was trying to turn “the flaming wreckage” of her life into a story. Perhaps everyone has a flaming wreckage of a life. We can choose to watch it burn. Or we can take the jagged pieces and make a new life with the repaired seams evident, stark and startling and beautiful. The story of my life doesn’t have to be either a catastrophic mistake I made in marrying a narcissistic sociopath or I lived happily ever after. It can be: I made a catastrophic mistake in marrying a sociopath and I still lived happily ever after.
It is possible.
Helena Rho, a former assistant professor of pediatrics, has practiced and taught at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the Johns Hopkins Hospital, and the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Her work has been published in Creative Nonfiction, Crab Orchard Review, and Slate. She is writing a memoir, Leaving Medicine.