Content warning: The following text describes an instance of assault, which can be disturbing or triggering for some readers. Please find resources listed at the bottom of the article.
At 4 a.m. on Sept. 2, 2019, my then–best friend assaulted me. He struck me twice that night. Once across my shoulder, the sound echoing across the Harnwell College House's elevator hall. Once on my right arm, just above my elbow, before punching the wall in front of me—his face inches from mine—as he screamed about what a huge fucking bitch I was.
We had gone to a frat party with a few friends earlier that night. All of us were drinking and dancing, but he got so drunk that the fraternity cut him off. When we tried to move him away from the bar, he flailed his arms around and shoved us off. When the night was winding down, only he insisted on staying. Not wanting to leave him behind, we half–dragged, half–persuaded him out.
As we walked down Locust, a commotion erupted. For reasons unknown, he had gotten into an argument with the students walking behind him. He stumbled and screamed, “Fuck freshmen! Fuck freshmen!” We didn't know if that group really was first years, but they weren't happy. As we walked into Harnwell, where he and I shared a suite, one of the maybe–first–years yelled at us, “Fuck you, man!”
He slouched across from me in the elevator, and my mind wandered back to the many times before when he had become so angry about leaving a party that he took it out on others. I then remembered a concert that we were planning to attend together, and I suddenly realized that I wouldn't be able to stop him from drinking too much there or from fighting strangers.
Leaning against the elevator, I said, “H, I don’t want to go to the concert with you anymore.”
His head popped up, and he shouted, “You don’t? Well, fuck you!”
His vitriol shocked me out of a reply.
Earlier that night, he had been aggressive, like he often was when he was drunk. He'd given me a "friendly" but hard slap on the shoulder. He'd grabbed me by my face, which burnt from the force of his slap. That night, as we left the elevator, I was fed up and annoyed. I said, “H, don’t fucking hit me again.”
As if taking my words as a challenge, he reached his arm out and hit me.
He struck me so casually. He didn’t even look at me, as if my words required him to assert his dominance. But he hit me so purposefully, so violently, that the pain increased even as he walked away. The whack of his palm echoed.
I froze, stunned, and could not stop myself from crying. “He can’t just hit me,” I said. “Did he just hit me? He can’t do that. He can’t just hit people.”
Meanwhile, he went to lay down—belly up, like a child—on the ground in front of our suite. As if my cries were a lullaby, he closed his eyes, his face slack. One of our friends came to comfort me, patting my arm. Exhausted and angry, I said, “Fuck you, H. I’m going to bed.”
That was when he jumped up, blocked my way, and began to scream, “Fuck me? FUCK YOU! Why are you such a huge fucking bitch?” He struck my arm. “I’m so fucking nice to you! Why are you such …”
He began punching the wall right next to my stomach. A substitute, perhaps. He was still flailing and screaming when our friends grabbed him around the midsection and dragged him away. Someone else led me—speechless by then—to a different floor. Behind me, he screamed on.
When I woke up the next morning, my shoulder was throbbing, and the previous night felt like a nightmare. He had already left—gone to one of the many community events that he had helped plan. Later, I heard that he was telling people there, “Man, last night was wild.”
The day after it happened, the thought of covering for H never actually crossed my mind. When I called my mother on the phone that morning, I tried to downplay it, but I broke down. “他不可以打人啊,” I cried, the familiarity of our language enveloping me. “他再怎么样也不可以打人啊!” He can’t hit people. No matter what happens, he can’t just hit people.
He had shouted so loudly that people woke up throughout our hallway, including our RA, who at first thought she was in the midst of a nightmare and then immediately called security. There was never any hiding what he did, but not everyone saw it that way.
That afternoon, minutes before I was due to meet with the RA, our suitemate called me. I had known this man since our first year. Like H, I thought of him as a brother. He consoled me at first. He was kind. Then he said, “You absolutely have the right to do what you want. You do. But I just wanted to let you know what the consequences could be if you tell them what he did. He probably can’t live with us anymore. He might get suspended. This could go on his record forever.”
Later, this same man knocked on my door to tell me that H was going to be here at a certain hour to pick up his stuff, and that I should not be here then. He was curt, solemn, and did not meet my eyes.
A few days later, a mutual friend told me to talk to H. “There is a second side to the story,” she said. “Every story has two sides. You need to know his side of the story. You can’t just assume.”
It’s funny. A few days ago, while protesting the assault committed by a Castle fraternity brother, I encountered someone who said the same thing.
“There is a second side to the story. You don’t know the other side,” he said before walking away into the Castle chapter house. Many people seem to have used these words lately while tearing down posters or sowing doubt. It’s funny because everyone uses “the second side” defense, until you ask them to explain what that second side actually is. Then they clam up.
In the only conversation I had with H since the assault, he claimed that he remembered nothing from that night—that he had blacked out while he was at the party.
I asked him, "Why? Why me? Why did you hate me so much? And if you did, why couldn’t you have just told me instead of using such a painful method?"
He couldn’t answer. All he said was that he didn’t know, and he didn’t remember. He had issues. That was all.
Instead, he promised many things. He promised that he would go to Penn’s Counseling and Psychological Services, that he would alert his work, that he would tell his frat he can’t drink anymore, and that he would quit drinking entirely.
“Actually, well,” he said, “I’m going to stay sober for at least this semester, and then maybe just like a beer or two at a party or something next year.”
Harnwell House Dean Viraj Patel, Student Intervention Services, and the Division of Public Safety (DPS) all reached out to me about what happened that night. DPS asked me if I wanted to file an official police report, and I said no.
I don’t know if H kept his other promises, but three weeks later, I saw him at another party. Drunk. When we made eye contact, he ducked and hid under the bar until I walked away. It would have been such a funny scene, like a real–life whack–a–mole, if it hadn’t been so sad.
When our then–mutual friend told me to listen to his side, I asked her, “If he had hit you, would you forgive him?” She said yes.
Turns out, all of our friends could forgive him, but they couldn’t forgive me. It wasn’t long before I noticed him surrounded by our old friends at events that we had once planned to attend together. Friends who, since the assault, avoided me more and more. Friends who stopped inviting me to places, talking to me, and answering my texts. Meanwhile, his face appeared over and over again. In person, online. As if nothing had ever happened.
When I reached out to a couple of people, their responses were surprisingly uniform. They wanted to give me space after the assault. Space for me, but not him. They didn’t have time to hang out. But that was just for me, of course. There was plenty of time for him. Most of all, they emphasized the same sentiment: We have just drifted apart, and you can’t blame us for not hanging out with you.
That was their way of saying it—not hanging out with you—as if they had simply left me alone on the playground. But there was a before and an after. Before the assault, I saw these people every day, every week. We went out together, did homework together, cooked together, ate together. After the assault, I saw many of them once, and then never again.
Today, H has sat on the boards of some of the biggest cultural organizations at Penn, many of which are aimed toward our shared Asian American identity. Now, these are organizations and events that I cannot attend unless I want to face my assaulter. Our formerly mutual friends—today, just his—have since told me to think about his feelings instead of just my own, like a selfish person. They've told me to stop antagonizing everybody by bringing this up, and to stop viewing all men through such a negative lens. Not all men are bad, they said. They told me to believe that everyone has goodness in them.
Yes, the man who hit me has goodness in him. Even today, I want to believe that’s true. H is the man who sat with me in the emergency room when I had the flu our first year. He’s also the man who hit me so hard that my shoulder was sore for days after. He can be kind and funny. But when I close my eyes, I can still hear the sound of his hand connecting with my skin. He's loved by our community, and in reporting him and refusing to forgive him, I am rejected by it.
The case of Brock Turner infuriated the world five years ago, but people often forget that his family and friends—39 men and women—wrote letters defending him, blaming his actions on alcohol or the school’s party culture. These supporters argued that 20 minutes shouldn’t define his life. Before my assault, I never thought that something like this could happen at Penn. But I also never realized that sometimes, the same people infuriated by Brock Turner might be the ones writing letters for someone else.
When I first reported my assault, I was worried about navigating the system, but I never thought that I would face backlash from my own friends and community. These are the same people who campaign for feminist issues, who champion minority causes, and who would never have forgiven Brock Turner. These are the people who watched my assaulter hit me, who pulled him away as he thrashed and screamed. If these people can prioritize and forgive H—a man who cited intoxication for his actions yet continued to drink—then what chance did I have? What chances do any of us have?
The HELP Line: 215-898-HELP: A 24–hour–a–day phone number for members of the Penn community who seek help in navigating Penn's resources for health and wellness.
Counseling and Psychological Services: 215-898-7021 (active 24/7): The counseling center for the University of Pennsylvania.
Reach–A–Peer Hotline: 215-573-2727 (every day from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., texting available 24/7): A peer hotline to provide peer support, information, and referrals to Penn students.
Penn Violence Prevention: PVP provides confidential support and resources to students affected by sexual violence, relationship violence, and stalking.
Public Safety Special Services: 215-898-6600 (active 24/7): Trained personnel offer crisis intervention, accompaniment to legal and medical proceedings, options counseling and advocacy, and linkages to other community resources.
Penn Women's Center: 215-898-8611 (Monday–Thursday 9:30 a.m.–6:30 p.m., Friday 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m.): PWC provides confidential crisis and options counseling.