The Sexist

Nancy Schwartzman on Confronting Her Rapist

THE LINE — It Was Cooperative from Nancy Schwartzman on Vimeo.

In 2004, Nancy Schwartzman flew back to Jerusalem to confront the man who raped her. Three years earlier, Schwartzman was living in Jerusalem by way of New York City, working at a cultural institution, and getting plenty of film footage on the side. Then, a co-worker raped her after a night out. Schwartzman quit her job, flew back home, and slowly processed what had happened. When she finally returned to Israel to sit down with her rapist, she had a hidden camera and microphone in tow.

The result of that videotaped conversation is "THE LINE," Schwartzman's 24-minute documentary about the way we process all the forms of sexual assault that don't adhere to the model of the stranger jumping out of the bushes. After completing THE LINE, Schwartzman launched an international sexual assault awareness campaign by the same name, which asks young people how they define their own "line" in terms of sexual consent.

I interviewed Schwartzman about the experience of confronting her rapist, her advice for survivors who want a face-to-face, and how a hidden camera can make all the difference.

SEXIST: What went into your decision to confront the man who raped you?

NS: I started reading Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery, this really amazing survival book. It talks a lot about post-traumatic stress and how natural it is to want to have a face-to-face with the person who caused you harm. I started videotaping and interviewing a lot of survivors, and I would ask them questions for hours and hours. What did you feel like you lost? What changed for you? But then I had these questions that no one else could answer but him. Why did it happen? Why did you do it? Did I do something to indicate that I wanted this? It was all sort of caught up in the miasma of self-blame. These survivors were not going to be able to tell me why he did it. I started doing a lot of homework on restorative justice and transitional justice. I researched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, where many victims of human rights violations actually met their offenders. For some people, it was really useful. And for some, it was completely re-traumatizing. I did about 6 to 8 months of research and preparation for this meeting before I went.

How did you set up the meeting? What did you tell him you wanted to talk about?

NS: He and I worked together at this really wonderful cultural institution in Jerusalem. I had a close friend who was still here. I would be in contact back and forth with her, and she would tell me, ‘Yes, he’s still here. He still works here.’ I got his e-mail. I sent him a letter just saying, 'I’m coming back to Jerusalem, and I’d like to see you and talk to you.' It was just super general and open.

Before you confronted him, had you spoken to him about the assault at all?

NS: He tried to talk to me after the assault a few times. He was unsettled with how we left things. He wanted to keep telling me, and himself, that everything was fine. The day after he raped me, he came up to me in front of a group of people and pulled me aside. Literally the next day. I didn’t even want to get within ten feet of him. He said, ‘About last night. We were really drunk.’ He was already covering his ass the next day. I said, ‘Don’t talk to me in front of anyone. We’re at our place of work. Don’t talk to me at all. Last night you raped me, and I don’t want to talk to you ever again.’ Ten days later, he tried again. I think he was feeling uncomfortable that I was hanging out and talking to other people and avoiding him; we were still working together for 6 weeks after the assault. He was feeling left out. He knew I was very upset. He wanted to regain some control over our social situation.

Why was it important for you to go back and confront him again a few years later?

NS: Time had passed, and your mind really, really plays tricks on you after an assault. I was still confused as to what happened and why it happened. I said, ‘OK, you raped me,’ and he looked stunned, and then three years go by. I needed to know what happened and why it happened, on a political level. Politically, what’s going on? Why are these rules not clear to him? Maybe I have a different set of cultural norms than he does. I went into analytical mode and filmmaker mode, and I started thinking about capturing this potentially fascinating conversation to use in a larger piece of media. He could apologize. He could accuse me. He could take responsibility. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I wanted to give him one more chance to give me some reason.

What did it feel like to sit down with him?

NS: I had so many feelings going through my head at that moment. It was really powerful to see this guy who I thought was a monster. I was so terrified of him, so scared to look him in the eye again. When I saw him again, I just saw him as a person. He’s a person that I’m making really uncomfortable. And I liked that, you know? I was super confused throughout the process, because I witnessed his humanity. I realized that he’s not a monster. There were times when he tried to convince me of what a great guy he is. I was not convinced, but part of me felt torn, so it was disturbing, too.

Did the hidden camera change the way you felt about the confrontation?

NS: I wouldn’t have done it. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the camera. What had happened the night of my assault was between us—there were no witnesses. It was just me and him. He could just negate what I considered my truth and my reality, and he did try and negate it many times after the assault. So the camera was coming in for me as my witness. I knew that it was going to tell the truth. The camera is objective. It was going to record what I said and what he said. I felt much safer with that camera. I didn’t feel alone. I also had a goal—go in, say what you need to say, give him a chance to speak, see how he behaves, and then decide how you’re going to use that footage. I felt so much safer that he couldn’t manipulate me, and if he had—look, it’s on my camera.

What was it like to go back and watch the footage?

NS: I absolutely fell in love with the footage. I had this very tangible thing in hand, and it made me feel like I had purpose. I felt so dedicated to doing something with it. It was such a unique piece of evidence. I loved how the images were breaking up in the wireless receiver, I saw it as a metaphor for the disconnection between us. I feel like it’s pretty inconclusive conversation, but I have that visual representation of his body language, his visual discomfort, and I can edit it and use it however I want. I was so convinced proof was in the pudding that now, no one is ever going to doubt that he raped me and knew that he was doing. But after I shot it, I spoke to a friend who was like, “yeah, I think he just doesn’t get it, it must just be cultural differences.” That plummeted me. I couldn’t get out of that rut for like a day. It was such a roller coaster. Even when you have someone on tape, people are still telling you he didn’t get it. It’s cultural. That’s why. People will still find reasons to doubt.

Last year, Ask Amy answered a letter from a reader who wasn't sure if she was raped, and Amy instructed her to go ask her rapist what happened. I thought, 'That's a really bad idea!'

NS: It took me three years after my assault to make the decision to go back. I spent one year completely in denial about what happened to me. I spent a year writing non-stop about what happened to me. And then I spent a year interviewing and researching. I did so much work determining all the possible things that could happen if I went back. I said, these are the 20 things that could happen: He could yell at me, he could cry, he could beg forgiveness. I did role-playing. I went through so many scenarios in my head. I walked in there saying, what if he apologizes? What if he’s really truly sorry? Was I prepared to forgive him? Would I go back on my righteous desire not to forgive him? He did not apologize, so that was not a problem. . . . But had I gone to him soon after the assault and said, ‘What happened?’ He would have said, ‘Nothing. You were great in bed and it was really fun.’ Seriously, he said that three years later. I did a shitload of work to prepare for this. You need to be so clear about your story, and you can’t go to him to have him tell you what happened. I went to him to find out, well: What the fuck is his version of events? What is his script? What has he been telling himself for the past three years?

What advice do you have for people who are thinking about confronting?

NS: . . . In the New York state justice system, there is a mediation program for victims and perpetrators. I spoke to a man there for a really long time while researching options for a subject in my film, who was assaulted in New York City by a stranger. And he told me that he was always really clear about the kinds of people he says 'yes' to and those he says 'no' to. The desire to meet always has to come from the victim. Sometimes rapists, in prison, will say, ‘I want to talk to the victim. I want to tell her why I did what I did.’ No—it has to always come from the victim. Then, he does a lengthy assessment of the perpetrator to determine if they’re willing to take responsibility, to see if the conversation is going to be re-traumatizing or productive. I think that’s a very important thing to think hard about. Is this a person who is going to listen? I would start by writing—write lists of how you remember your story. What that story was, what your grievances are, what you lost. I left my job that I really loved because I couldn’t be in the same room with him. I lost the opportunity to be in Jerusalem. I paid for that ticket home, I paid for therapy. All of these things that that instant does to you. I went through the process as if I was going to have an official victim offender meeting with a mediator that I didn’t have. There’s so much preparation that goes into it. Will he be a willing partner in a dialogue? What do I want from this experience? Do you want someone to come with you? You have to be super clear about your goals or expectations.

What have you heard from other survivors who have considered confronting their attackers?

NS: I don’t want the film to be a call to confront, like ‘Go do it! It’s going to make you feel better!’ This is absolutely my personal experience. . . . I’ve heard from survivors who have said, ‘I met with my father who abused me, and it was horrible.’ I’ve heard from survivors who said, ‘I spoke to the guy who raped me and he laughed in my face and walked away.’ They were completely re-traumatized by the experience. It’s confusing, because if you were assaulted by someone who is very manipulative, they will attempt to manipulate you when you meet with them. And it’s not always as productive as they want it to be.  What it comes down to is: How do we confront people who do us wrong? How do we do it safely? How do we take the burden off our own shoulders? How do we let them know this was absolutely wrong?

  • Lindsay

    I have a suggestion. Do you think it may be a little less unsettling for readers who are survivors (I am one of these) to change the headline to "...On Confronting Her Rapist"?

    That way I don't feel prompted immediately to think of confronting *my* rapist. Which I did and found quite traumatic, though perhaps also useful.

    Putting that thought out there quickly before I've actually finished reading the article. Going back to do that now; may have more thoughts after.


  • Amanda Hess

    I can do that, Lindsay. Thanks.

  • JfC

    That snippet of tape was chilling. The guy reassuring her/himself that he wasn't a bad person...

  • BanjoDavid

    I am a 57 year old man who was sexually abused by my uncle Frank when I was a kid. He was married to my mother's sister. It took me years of therapy, 12 step meetings, and learning to out him as a child molester. I wrote letters to all in my family, telling of the abuse. Mostly I got silence, but one cousin talked about his own molestation by uncle Frank.
    The letters went out in 1993. In 2002, I went to see uncle Frank. I was prepared to accept an apology, if he had one.
    He blustered and denied.
    I told him he was a horrible person, and my parents had wanted to see him dead.
    I told him it wouldn't end after he died, that I would piss on his grave.
    When I went to his funeral in 2004, the husbands of 2 of his daughters thanked me for writing the letters, and that they had kept the kids away from him after I had written in 1993.
    I haven't needed to piss on him, but these kinds of stories bring the pain up again.
    That's what Post Traumatic Stress is.
    Good luck in your healing.

  • Lindsay

    Thanks, Amanda.

    I find it really amazing that she did this. I definitely want to catch a screening of it when it's in DC – looks like that's May 12.

    It's heartening to read, in a more mainstream context than the zines I'm familiar with, about people doing this sort of thing. Schwartzman is very rightly clear that it isn't guaranteed to be a good experience, which is super important and I'm glad she emphasizes that. It's really up to the individual survivor and it's a weighty decision to make. One thing I'd like to add is some personal safety consideration.

    It's tough because I would never say "don't do this – what if he freaks out and starts stalking or harassing you, or worse?" The last thing any of us need is to further be ruled by our fear. On the other hand, a person who's committed assault has already proven to be unpredictable, and not so concerned with respect of boundaries or safety, so it's hard to say for certain how they'll respond after the initial conversation. In my experience, a calm conversation was followed by months of backlash. So that's something can happen, something to weigh against the potential benefits. I guess for Nancy, it probably wasn't as much of an issue since the person was in Jerusalem, and she wasn't (for long).

    Anyway, I appreciate that she's survived, healed herself, done such a brave thing in confronting him, and made this film about it all. I look forward (however uneasily) to seeing it.

  • Nancy Schwartzman

    @Lindsey - Great point, I had the thought, too, about the possessive in the title. And yes - the idea that someone who is unpredictable, violent, and dishonest, may react in a threatening, dangerous matter is something I weighed carefully. Friends were in the next room, we met in public space - and we live 8,000 miles apart from each other. Proceed with caution, for sure.

    @BanjoDave - Thanks for sharing, glad that other members of the family thanked you for speaking out, and that by doing so you protected other children in the family. Someone has to do it, and it is certainly not easy, nor do you get much support along the way, but rewarding.

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