fucking fight. [an interview with nicole burrows]

NB3

On surviving a knife attack, the process of pressing charges, and the power of trusting your instinct. 

There are layers and layers of material to get mad about. Even from my perspective—as a listener. As the beer-clutching fool across the table from her. As one who was never there in the first place, but who—years ago—heard her story, and has yet to forget it.

We’re tucked into the city’s finest dive, under a cackling speaker blasting Christmas carols at full volume. While she speaks, among blinking strings of holiday lights, and a bizarre shark mural, I tally my own mental list of fury:

There’s the fact that she was attacked. At knifepoint. Within blocks from both her favorite haunt and apartment. The fact that interrogating cops recorded her words incorrectly—words that inevitably, as her case was being built, came back to hurt her. The fact that once they caught her attacker, a second struggle began—one threatening her own integrity, her own reputation, her own rights.

There’s the fact that after a lighter-than-expected sentence, her attacker hired a personal investigator to track her down. The fact that this was within the ‘Freedom of Information Act,’ and that at best, her highly advised ‘strategy’ was simply to disappear. To be invisible. To try and remain ‘un-stalkable.’

There’s the fact that three different witnesses saw the attacker trying to bash her head against the sidewalk. The fact that of the three separate accounts, no one intervened, no one called the police, and each reportedly assumed it was ‘just a domestic dispute.’

There’s the fact that his defense attorney’s tactic was simply to pin her as ‘the drunk slut who had it coming.’ The fact that her attacker never did admit to his crime—the fact that he never will have to. Then, there’s the fact that he’s back out there again, walking the streets of who knows where, freely functioning in society.

The list of ‘reasons to be livid’ truly is endless, and yet—while our discussion definitely embodies a wide variety of emotions—anger never once flares up from her end of the booth.

Deck the Halls starts as Nicole leans forward. “Look, I’ve always been a very ‘fuck you, you’re not the boss of me!’ kinda person,” she laughs. This happened over 12 years ago—obviously I’ve had a lot of time to process it—but I decided fairly shortly thereafter that this wasn’t going to define me.”

‘This’ being such:

During some nondescript Tuesday night in Louisville, Kentucky, Nicole finished a couple cocktails among close friends, and opted to call it a night. As she lived within blocks from the bar, she thought nothing of the solo stroll home. She turned a corner, stopped to rummage around in her purse for a lighter, and suddenly felt two arms around her neck. “Someone grabbed me from behind and flashed a switchblade in front of my face, and said ‘you’re going to come with me.” She pauses.

“Well?!? What did you do?” I inquire, white-knuckling my pint.

She shrugs, “I said, ‘Nope. I’m fucking not.’”

What followed next was the fight of her life. The fight for her life. “He tried to drag me off the sidewalk,” she explains, “and he was a lot bigger than me, so I remember thinking ‘okay, I can’t do this if we’re standing’ so I kicked his legs and he fell over. He kept hitting my face, and grabbing my hair, trying to smash my head into the concrete—I think to just try and get me to black out.”

At this point, my only contribution to our conversation seems to be “What did you do!?”

Again she shrugs,

“I just fought. I fucking fought with everything in me.

I did everything I could do. I scratched his face, I grabbed his eyes, I was screaming. He’d try to cover my mouth—I’d smack his hands away.” She continues, “I think at some point, he just decided I was more trouble than I was worth. He slashed down the side of my face with his knife, and ran off.”

Fucking Joy to the World starts above us. I swig my IPA. Anxiously twirl my ring around my middle finger.

In total shock, Nicole spent the next several minutes digging around in the dark for her glasses. At some point, after realizing she needed to get out of there, she ran back to the pub for her friends. “I remember just walking in, and the bar falling silent. I cut through the crowd and found my friends, and was like ‘hey guys I think I was hurt. I think I lost my glasses…’ and they were like ‘WHAT THE FUCK!?’”

From there, her crew flew into action. An EMT-turned-barkeep insisted (and re-insisted) she head to the hospital. Others split off searching for the attacker. A couple of close friends collected her things from the sidewalk scene—one even found her frames. It was at the hospital, while covered in dirt and pressing a towel to her bleeding face that the necessary interrogation with attending police began. “It was really awful,” Nicole explains.

“You never really think about what you have to go through—as a victim. And it just…doesn’t stop.”

“You mean with the questions? With their tone? What doesn’t stop?” I press.

“Well yeah, they asked a lot of questions, because, you know, they’re trying to get enough information to build a case, so they can go try and find the guy. But, it was questions covering things you can’t really describe. Like, ‘how tall was he?’ Well, I don’t know. He attacked me from behind, he was at least a head taller than me. But the last thing I have from that scenario is specifics, you know?” She continues, “I understand they have to get it all while it’s still fresh in your mind, but you’re not in the mind place to be doing it at that moment.”

To add further insult to injury, the cops incorrectly captured her statement—a move that inevitably came back to hurt her case. “I said he was a head taller than me, and I’m 5’,” she explains. “They wrote down 5’5”, but a head taller than me would be 6’. And the guy was 6’. So, it’s all open to interpretation.”

Despite the inconsistent reports, the attacker was caught within a week. Nicole identified him from a packet of mug shots, after which a whole new process kicked-off. “His lawyer interrogated me with things like ‘well, people say you were drunk,’ or ‘we have witnesses saying you were dressed like a slut.’

By this point, I’m beerless, speechless, and looking for a fight. “WHAT!?”

“Oh yeah. I mean, that was their whole line of reasoning. They didn’t even try to say he didn’t do it! They just tried to say I was a drunk slut. And really,” she continues, “my whole thing was a) define your terms and b) so what if I am?!”

“Define your terms?” I prompt.

“Yeah, like, okay I had two drinks. I wasn’t drunk. I wasn’t getting into a car. Those two beverages were within my legal right. So, what constitutes being ‘a drunk?’ Or, you throw the term ‘slut’ out there—well, what exactly does that mean? I was wearing a skirt to my knees and a t-shirt, so… I mean, is that what makes somebody a slut? And while we’re at it, can someone please define ‘promiscuous’? Because that’s another label they tried to smear me with, and I sure as fuck would love to know whether that pertains to a certain number of partners, or years one is sexually active, or what.’”

Another tactic the attacker’s defense team tried: claiming he was only interested in Nicole’s purse. To this, she scoffs. “Look I know that he was not at all interested in my purse. Do you think I would have gotten stabbed in the fucking face if he wanted my purse? He was dragging me to a second location to rape me and to kill me. And I know that. I know that.”

We digress for a second to the sweet, overhead serenade of O Holy Night. “One of the ways I tried to process this all, after it happened, was to learn all about it. To read everything I could find about it. And really, I’m incredibly lucky that I had all of these innate, totally necessary instincts already in me. Because,” she continues, “statistically speaking, if someone is trying to take you to a second location, they are going to kill you. I mean, the numbers don’t lie. If someone wants your purse? You fucking hand it over. If they want you to come with them, you’re better off dying there, on the street, than you are dying in some back alley, because at least, maybe, there would be someone to help you.”

However ridiculous his defense lawyer’s approach, Nicole inevitably opted not to go to trial. She explains, “I agreed to let him take a lighter sentence. We settled on 18 months, which, given that it included the time he was in custody, really wasn’t long at all.”

“Why didn’t you take him to court?” I inquire.

She pauses. “You know, I would have gone to court. I had no problems with pre-trail preparation. But really, I just didn’t want to subject my parents to that. It was really awful for them—having them have to see me called all these things.” She adds, “Ultimately, I wanted him to serve some time. So when an 18-month sentence was offered, I signed off on it.”

She signed off, and he was sent off. But, for the next several months, Nicole retreated into a painful cocoon of PTSD. “I barely left the house. I chain-smoked and drank bourbon all day. I lost a dangerous amount of weight. I stopped paying bills. I mean, it became fairly clear that I wasn’t functioning.”

I ask, “What happened? What was the breaking point?”

“I just realized I was drowning. One day I called my parents and was like ‘I can’t do this and I need your help.’”

“Did they help?”

“Instantly. My dad bought a flight out from Tucson, packed my entire apartment into a storage unit, tucked me into his car and said ‘Alright hon, we’re going on a road trip. Where to?’”

The father-daughter team took their time driving from Louisville back to Arizona. Nicole smiles, “We stopped at every single giant ball of twine along the way. It was really amazing. Plus, you know, at that point I really didn’t know much about my dad—he was kind of the stoic, man-of-few-words type. So, that trip sparked this whole new level to our relationship.”

After a couple of months regrouping under the comforting roof of her parent’s home, Nicole took a new stance on the situation. “I chose to celebrate it.”

Celebrate?”

“Fuck yeah celebrate.” She continues, “For the first couple of years, I turned it into this ironic holiday of sorts. I called it my ‘Stabiversary.’ I’d go splurge on a nice dinner and champagne…”

She trails off, likely distracted by my own open-mouthed, expression of shock.

“Look,” Nicole states, “I decided I wasn’t going to see this as ‘the day I became a victim’ or ‘the day this horrible crime happened to me.’ This was the day that I saved my own life. What’s cooler than that? Fucking nothing.”

Jingle Bells kicks up. I immediately order another round. She continues,

I saved my own life.

And that’s the way I chose to spin it for myself. I took the negativity away from the situation.” She pauses, “Otherwise, I would have just sat in it, you know?”

While this proactive, constructive outlook took Nicole to a certain point, time—a lot of time—took care of the rest. “Look it was hard—really hard. I can tell the story now in a way where I’m removed from it—where it’s part of my past in a way that anything is a part of anybody’s past. It’s become a piece of my history—rather than something I’m actively reliving.”

She pauses, “But you know, in the beginning it wasn’t that way. I had a really hard time sleeping. Of just letting myself relax. I had incredible anxiety. I couldn’t even talk about it without getting flashbacks. And yeah, I probably spent too much time alone, drank too much, all of that. But you just have to get through it. It takes time. You put your head down and get through the days, until you can get enough distance from it—for it to kind of take the sting away.”

When ‘the sting’ eventually lessened, Nicole began speaking about it. With friends. With a therapist. Eventually, with younger girls looking for a role model. “You know, I was this 97-pound girl who beat the shit out of this big, tall dude,” she exclaims. “I realized people really admired that. So, I talked to girls about how important it is to know how to fight, to nurture and develop those survival instincts. I tried to portray it as positive as possible, in a ‘hey if I can do it, you can do it’ kind of way.”

“The way I see it,” she continues, “everything in my life is so great now. And everything is built on something else. So, if that horrible thing hadn’t happened to me, I probably wouldn’t have moved to Tucson to live with my folks for a bit. If I hadn’t moved home, I wouldn’t have reconnected with one of my childhood best friends, who lived in Seattle. If that hadn’t happened, I never would have come to visit her here. I never would have fallen in love with the city. I never would have jumped at the chance to move in with her, when six months later she needed a roommate. I never would have met John, (her now husband and baby daddy).” She adds, “It’s like and, and, and. My whole life—built from this one thing.”

“Sure, maybe my life would have been super amazing in a totally different way if it hadn’t happened. But,” she states, “there is no way I’d have the life I now have if that hadn’t happened. And so, rather than just let it be a horrible thing that defined me, I just decided I’d take ownership of it. I’d celebrate the positive things that I could take from it.

God Rest You Merry Gentlemen sputters through the speakers. Nicole smiles, “I decided I’d take the power back.”

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