I’m Jane Doe. Isn’t that what we call the unidentifiable dead, those silenced souls that no one nearby recognizes?
I have, of course, another name, but for a long time, Jane Doe felt more mine. Before Jane, there was also the Watcher. Until recently, the three of us lived together — wrapped up in one terrified bundle, just trying to survive. Sexual assault/abuse does that — it creates broken survivors, their identity shattered, each fresh fragment left to find their own way forward. It stays with you forever, impacting your relationships and ability to trust.
To this day, it drives my reactions to intimacy and has irreparably changed who I could have become without it.
When I was little, I was a Watcher. One of the quiet, serious ones, always off to the side, observing. Trying to solve the puzzle of what makes people do and say the things they do and say. Why some of us are kind, and others, not so much.
Despite becoming masters of the study of human nature, Watchers aren’t the best at making friends. We don’t approach, so it’s up to you to find us. Most often, you don’t, which is ironic, as Watchers make the best kind of friend. You learn a lot through all that watching — how to be a good listener, how to empathize with another person’s point of view, how to anticipate their needs.
While some Watchers are born from the womb, others are created by circumstance. Watching born out of neglect or abuse. Watching for survival.
That was my first big Watcher lesson. Never stop watching. You never know what you’ll miss. What you can’t afford to miss.
At thirteen, I joined my town’s swim team. I was a natural, winning races at each regional event. I fell in love.
Another teammate had caught my Watcher’s eye. Although one of the oldest, she didn’t train as hard as the rest of us. Each practice, we’d start our assigned laps, and soon after, she’d pull herself out of the pool to sit on the edge. The coach would come over and massage her legs.
For a long time.
One of those times, I’d gotten water in my goggles and stopped at the end of the lane to clear them. I noticed he was rubbing her legs awfully high today.
He saw me watching. “She has leg cramps; finish your laps,” he snapped.
I blushed and returned to my swim, glad he didn’t think I had leg cramps.
When I got home, I told my parents I wanted to quit the team. My stomach twisted with regret. Yet every Watcher knows — avoidance is the best defense.
When employing watching as a means of protection, every Watcher understands that it all comes down to the balance of power. Who has influence over the other, over their future? Who is the more experienced? Who might have designs, needs, or desires directed toward the other or pain they want to share? Who is more likely to try to outwit, to manipulate? Who is entrusted to do the right thing and might not?
Around sixteen, all the girls at school bloomed. We’d become women, at least physically.
There was one girl, Kristie1, not particularly pretty, but she really owned her new frame. She walked with the confidence of a girl that knew the boys were watching. Not watching as I watched; theirs was a hungry, confused kind of watching.
They watched, but none of the boys laughed at the bad jokes Kristie liked to tell. I’d noticed one of our teachers always laughed, though.
Over time, their laughter turned into playful shoves, then hugs. He’d put his arm around her waist and she’d push him off, but she always smiled.
Years later, in my twenties, I ran into a past classmate. She was excited to share a secret.
“Did you hear? The science teacher in high school — a woman from the class below ours accused him of sexual assault back when she was fifteen. Now, others are saying similar things. I can’t believe they’d bring it up after all this time! Guess we dodged a bullet. He always was a bit creepy, remember?”
My Watcher and I remembered him and Kristie.
I didn’t date in high school. All my watching had taught me a few things about how some boys reacted to pretty girls — once again, I chose safety through avoidance.
The summer before university, I took a job at the local theme park. A boy on my crew asked me out to the movies. He seemed gentle and shy, setting off no Watcher flags, so I said yes.
Everything went as expected, at first. My parents were impressed with how courteous he was when he picked me up. “The perfect gentleman,” my mom whispered as she helped me into my coat. That remained true until the movie was over and we were driving back home. He took the wrong turn, and I told him so.
“I know, but I thought we’d park for a bit.”
I didn’t want to park. Turns out, he wasn’t so interested in what I thought about the whole idea. Soon he was climbing all over me, his popcorn-breath kisses making me gag, his hands too free.
You missed a clue, my Watcher said. My mind raced as I struggled to get out from under him.
Then a bright light shone through the backseat window, followed by a loud rap. My date sat up and rolled down the window.
“Everyone alright in here?” a firm voice asked while shoving his head through the window.
“Yes, officer, my girlfriend and I are fine.”
“I’m not his girlfriend; it’s our first date.” While thankful for the police officer’s arrival, I was still in shock and couldn’t seem to say more.
“I think it’s time you took your date home, young man. Now. I’ll follow you.” Relieved there would be no further repercussions, my date nodded, and soon I was home, safe in bed.
My parents asked a few times why I never went on a second date with the nice boy, but they didn’t seem to hear me when I said he wasn’t so nice after all.
Watchers are a curious sort. Unfortunately, whenever our Watcher fails, we tend to blame ourselves. Failure of the approach doesn’t encourage us to abandon it; it reinforces the need to embrace it. It heightens the need to become more vigilant, to improve our watching skills. So we don’t fail again.
During my university undergrad, I rented the basement apartment of a lovely couple who lived in the older neighborhood adjacent to my university campus. A short ten-minute walk, the area was full of families with young children; it reminded me of my childhood home.
I ended up with two evening classes that year, and my Watcher was immediately concerned about walking home alone after dark. This was the late 80s, decades before universities began instituting “safe walk home” programs. Reminding myself it was a family neighborhood, I nevertheless always walked with my keys between my fingers (as suggested by a friendly female professor), and I was careful to keep alert until I reached my apartment door.
Within the first week, I realized that the streets’ appeal by day made them more sinister at night. There were too many full bushes lining the sidewalk, and the smaller homes were packed close together, creating dark alleyways and hiding spots. The streetlights were dim and cast long shadows. I switched to walking down the middle of the road each trip, preferring the street’s openness to the sidewalk’s riskier surroundings.
By late October, after several uneventful weeks, I’d relaxed my Watcher instincts. The night I was grabbed, I was deep in thought, reliving an exciting debate from that evening’s lecture. My assailant ran out from the cover of the bushes to grab me from the side, intent on dragging me back toward the shadows.
I was lucky that night — my Watcher may have been snoozing, but I believe it was my position in the middle of the road that made an attack from behind challenging, which was why my assailant chose to run straight from the bushes. He locked on to my right arm and backpack, but my left arm was still free — the one holding the keys. I managed to bring them back over my head and into his flesh (his neck, I think, although I can’t be certain), causing him to loosen his grip on my arm. He began cursing — a strange, whispered rage. Wary of wakening the neighbors, no doubt.
I managed to wriggle free of my backpack. My throat felt strangled (whether by his arm or my fear, who’s to say), yet somehow, I found the breath to run — again, down the middle of the street.
It was only once I reached my apartment door that I looked back and saw no one there. Perhaps I’d injured him more than I thought. Either way, I’d left him behind, along with my backpack.
When I reported the attack to the campus crisis center the next day, I was unsure what to expect. Empathy, a call to the police, a discussion of other attempted rapes in the area (in case I could provide new information) — some sort of support, surely. I didn’t anticipate hearing that “I seemed fine now” or that “pretty girls walking alone can’t be surprised by such things” and “there wasn’t anything to be done.” Then she said, “it would have been better” if I’d been able to provide a detailed description of the alleged attacker.
“Perhaps, if I hadn’t run, I could have described him better,” I retorted, but the crisis staffer was not sympathetic to my anger.
I was discouraged from filing a police report. “Best get a car. Safer than walking home,” the woman taking my complaint offered in closing, her attempt at helpfulness. Then she dropped her notes of our conversation into a bulging cardboard box beneath her desk.
I had a car — sitting on the street in front of my apartment. I’d chosen to walk to my classes as it was under ten minutes with a direct path connecting my subdivision to the campus. Additionally, a campus parking pass was a little out of my budget. Now out of options, I began driving to campus the next day, a round-about route that took thirty minutes each way by the time I accessed the university entrance, found student parking, and walked to my classes on the other side of campus.
Years later, with more life experience behind me, I reflected on the entire exchange and realized the crisis center employee had been more concerned about the university’s reputation than my safety. She was unfit for the job. I had not spoken to the right person. I wish that I’d reported it to the police, that I was not raised to be a “good girl” who accepted the word of people in authority without question. Perhaps I could have instigated police patrols, some possible protection for future victims. We all know my attacker came back to try again. I’ve lived with the guilt of that someone else’s fate ever since.
The day I visited the crisis center, I found my backpack lying in the middle of the street on the way there. One strap had torn from the seams and bent the wrong way like a broken arm. Cars were carefully weaving around it, although some ran over the loose strap. After a break in the traffic, I entered the street to pick it up.
Later, when leaving the center, I struggled with the remaining strap. It hit me that I felt just like my backpack — discarded in order to leave the nasty incident behind.
Watcher’s lesson learned. You had to look out for yourself — no one was coming to your rescue. Your success or failure at avoiding assaults depended on you. Alone. You had to plan and monitor your risks every day. Every single moment. Be prepared.
Shortly before my thirtieth birthday and fresh off a four-year on-again/off-again relationship, I rejoined the dating world. For the last decade, I had only dated people that I met through friends or family. However, watching had become a very lonely existence. When a man I meet in the local grocer asked me out, I agreed despite knowing very little about him.
The date I accepted took me to a lovely restaurant, one with lots of candles and waiters that sniffed. He surprised me by asking questions and listening to the answers. He seemed to look past the pretty face and curves I tended to hide and wanted to get to know me. I talked more than I had in ages, my Watcher days temporarily forgotten.
When the evening ended, he asked to come in for a cup of coffee before driving home.
There was no police officer passing by to knock on the window this time. My apartment was on the basement floor, the unit above empty. I fought, matching his determination with my own. I would not lay still and watch while he took what had never been offered to him.
Eventually, a neighbor noticed the apartment door was ajar and called my best friend, Willow2.
When Willow drove me to the hospital and they tried to admit me, I was still in shock and couldn’t give my name.
“That’s alright, sweetie. You can be Jane Doe for now.” The admitting nurse gave me a hug, one that didn’t end until I started to hyperventilate, sobbing without air.
Yet, when she left to get the paperwork, I fled out the hospital doors and into the fresh night air. Willow followed, protesting, unable to convince me to go back inside. “Tell them who you are, who he was. It will be okay, I promise,” she whispered, grasping my arm. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. My Watcher and I had failed. Was it our fault, yet again? Who would understand? Better to remain Jane than to claim my own horror that no one would believe. I’d seen and heard enough to know how court cases based on accusations like mine could unfold.
I made Willow drive me home. I lay in the shower until it ran cold, crawling into bed just before dawn.
I’m a Jane Doe.
I’ve been her since I was a teenager. Sadly, I’ve endured many other Jane Doe experiences (including a two-date-turned-stalker that persisted for nine years in my twenties and several abusive relationships since then).
I always dreamed of the demise of Jane Doe — that she would cease to be a part of what it means to be a woman. Over my lifetime, I’ve crossed paths with countless others with similar stories, providing them an ear and compassion. Watching, listening, but not telling. I know more Jane Does than I know anyone else.
The hospital was over twenty-five years ago. I recovered, found a job I loved, eventually married. Then, through the gift of founding a healthcare business, I found my voice as well — a new confidence born from the responsibility of serving others. It provided me the push I needed to get out of the shadows of the Watchers’ world. It forced me to begin talking and sharing my ideas, to build my own vision to hold up for others to see, align with, and support. It allowed me to weave positivity despite the hard lessons of the past. Empathy, validation, and compassion were the building blocks of my teams’ success and of my healing. Good can prevail.
As a boss whose door was always open, I learned to listen more, share more, and watch a little less. By my late thirties, I’d grown strong enough such that, when confided in, I could embrace the opportunity to speak with confidence. I am proud to say that without hesitation, I was able to encourage three friends in abusive relationships to leave their situations, and in one case, seek professional help that was vital to her recovery.
When a head injury forced me to sell my business a few years ago, I tried to stay positive. I fought through the recovery period and found new ways to continue to share messages of compassion, courage, and survival — including a return to my first love, writing.
Yet, until today, I was still a Jane Doe.
Ironically, I had completed the first draft of this piece a few months before the MeToo movement began. I’d worked up the courage to send the story to a journal, then hesitated when the world started to shake. Still shadowed by old rules, I didn’t feel it was my time to tell.
Fifty-some years ago, when I was growing up, society was busy teaching girls not to complain; we were the caregivers, the people-pleasers, the ones who worked behind the scenes. We nurtured and served. We were good girls. That said, I must concede that my mother and grandmother were ahead of their time — although as a child growing up in the late sixties to eighties, there were plenty of other examples on television, in my community, and at my school to remind me of my place. Luckily for me, the woman of my family encouraged their daughters to find a career, to be independent. I still have the copy of “Girls Are Equal Two” (Dale Carlson, 1973) that my mother gave me, which, while now outdated and somewhat naive by today’s standards, shaped my perception of my potential.
Yet, they didn’t teach us to tell. Despite all the equal rights fought for and earned by our mothers, my generation was encouraged to keep quiet when men abused their power or treated you like an object instead of a person. To be clear — I know many, many good men. This is not intended to be a man-hating rant. These are just the facts, as I experienced them, regarding just a few of my encounters with malevolent men. At the time, I thought my Watcher had failed me. I now know that none of it was my fault. Statistically, one in three women globally3 will experience physical or sexual assault in their lifetime.
As a girl raised to be silent, instead of sharing my story when MeToo broke, I watched the news with pride, blinking back tears, as other women finally spoke up loud enough to be heard. I applauded them as they found the support and strength to raise their voices.
For the last decade, I’ve encouraged my daughter to use her voice. To speak up if she feels or sees something that’s not right. To be an active observer, even a disrupter when the situation calls for it. To form her own opinions and to be proud of the unique parts of herself. To forget about fitting in — to be a force all her own.
Yet, sadly, still, I passed on the need to watch. To be aware and to trust her instincts. To be safe.
Why share a snapshot of my experiences now? Last year I sent a fiction version of this story to a few journals and had several kind editor reactions, encouraging revisions. They helped me to consider a nonfiction telling — so I could hopefully add to the conversation. Scratch that — what I want to say, what I want to own, is that we need to stop raising Jane Does.
I know I chose not to and that I succeeded. My daughter is resilient, confident, and not afraid to be her own person. Most importantly, she’s not afraid to speak up when she sees something that’s not right. She is a Watcher, sure, this is sadly a necessity even today for all women, but she’s also an active bystander — and carries a little less fear than her mom.
As my little girl turned eighteen and I prepared to watch her head off into the world, it occurred to me that if I could let her go, then perhaps, I could release Jane Doe as well. The time had come for Jane and me to part ways. So, at fifty-five, I’m saying goodbye — by letting this piece leave me and entrusting you, dear reader, with it.
Goodbye Jane. Let no one claim you for their own.
Now, let me re-introduce myself. I’m a Watcher and a survivor, and my name is Cheryl.
- Other than the author, names have been changed to protect the privacy of people mentioned in this piece
- As above in footnote 1
- Recent sources for this statistic: a) World Health Organization website, 9 March 2021, Joint News Release, “Devastatingly pervasive: 1 in 3 women globally experience violence.” b) United Nations website, 24 November 2019, Human Rights, “A staggering one-in-three women experience physical, sexual abuse.”