On October 20, 2012, a 21-year-old woman boarded a Southbound 4 train in the Bronx at around 3:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning. She was heading home from a party. She was tired, and she briefly fell asleep, her arms instinctively crossed over her bag to ward of thieves.
Her purse was the least of her worries.
A man, maybe 30 years old, in a faded jean jacket with a receding hairline, boarded the train, sat down next to her, put his hand up her skirt, and sexually assaulted her.
A fellow passenger saw it happening. His response was to take out his phone and videotape it.
That 18 second video went viral.
Two years later, the woman on the train has come forward to speak. Her name is Elisa Lopez. She is not a nameless subway passenger in a skirt. She is not a YouTube video. She is not a blurred face. She is you, she is me, she is your sister and your best friend. And after two gut-wrenching years filled with depression, PTSD, therapy, medication and hours of emotional rebuilding, she has found her voice. Because while the thousands of people who clicked on her assault video (it was featured on AOL and Gothamist, among others) likely returned to their everyday lives after viewing, Lopez's world was turned upside down.
"My goal is to bring attention to how dangerous it is to be a bystander," Lopez said via a press release issued by anti-street harassment organization Hollaback! "I just want to tell my side of the story because all anyone saw was a drunken-skirt-wearing-Latina who 'shouldn't sleep on the train.' I was a human being that was violated and no one bothered to intervene."
When speaking with Lopez, it becomes clear just how deep that violation has gone. I interviewed her over the phone just a few days after she released a YouTube video of her own, titled "My Sexual Assault: On the Train and in The Media," and her pain and suffering are evident in her voice. She told me that she had fallen asleep on the train, and when she woke up, a man was trying to kiss her, his hand on her leg. Her self-preservation instinct kicked in, and she punched him; then fight-or-flight took over and she fled the train. By the time Lopez made her way to the subway turnstiles, she was hysterical.
"I knew something had happened but I wasn't sure what. I was more upset that nobody helped me," she says. A day later, on Monday, a friend called Lopez, alerting her to a video that was making the rounds. "She said her coworker had seen a video, said, 'Check this out' and showed it to her," Lopez recalls. "And she recognized me. I watched it, started freaking out, was crying, sick to my stomach. I was at work. A friend came and took me to the police station."
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Depression set in. Nightmares, night terrors, night sweats. She could no longer ride the train -- friends drove her to school or gave her cab fare. (Eventually Lopez took a medical leave from college.) A member of the Air National Guard, she worried that if she asked for help, she might get kicked out.
But she did ask for help, eventually seeking treatment through a local Vet Center. She is improving, but there are still days when she's afraid to leave the house. The experience has motivated her to pursue a career in art therapy, because "drawing helps me. I draw illustrations of people, things I see." She also loves using watercolor. Her National Guard supervisor is supportive, and, she reports, "proud of me for finding my voice."
Somehow, despite the thousands of people who have seen the video, Lopez's assaulter remains at large.
"I'm tired of being afraid," says the 23-year-old, who feels a kinship with the blurred faces of Steubenville, of countless college campus rapes. "I hope people walk away with some kind of courage and hope."
If you recognize Lopez's assaulter, please contact Crimestoppers at 1-800-577-TIPS.
Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.