Extended Author’s Note & Victim Impact Statement: Thirteen Ways of Looking

Colum McCann > Collected Works > Extended Author’s Note & Victim Impact Statement: Thirteen Ways of Looking

On the 27th of June, 2014, I was assaulted in New Haven, Connecticut, punched and knocked unconscious after trying to help a woman who had also been assaulted along a busy city street. I was hospitalised and spent much of that summer in and out of doctors’ waiting rooms from various physical problems that arose directly from the assault.   

Some of the stories in Thirteen Ways of Looking were written before the assault and some of them were written afterwards.   (For example the punch in “Thirteen Ways” was dreamed up long before the incident, but Beverly’s recognition of her attacker was written long afterwards, and of course all editing of the stories was done afterwards with full knowledge of the impact of the attack.)   I received instant support from people around the world who wrote to me detailing similar occurrences and expressing their abhorrence that the man had not only assaulted me, but, even worse, attacked his wife and left her lying on the street.       

Ironically at the time of the attack I was at a conference for the non-profit organization, Narrative 4, an organization that uses story exchange to promote the value of “radical empathy.”  (narrative4.com)   Some newspaper reports drew their headlines from the apparent irony that I had little empathy for my attacker.  They were briefly correct.  At that stage, I had little or no empathy for him.  I did, however, have empathy for his wife who had been beaten, and anybody else who might have come across his fist.

He attacked me from behind after the situation seemed to have been resolved verbally.  I had walked away, glad that the situation had ended peacefully, and was on my mobile telephone to my son when the attacker circled the block and snuck up behind me in the most cowardly way.   

It’s safe to say that I’m fully recovered now, though there are times I still think about the punch behind the punch, that little rattle that goes on in my skullbox whenever I walk down a crowded street.

After the arrest of my attacker, I was given the chance to write a Victim Impact Statement by the courts in Connecticut. I have been asked on several occasions to publish the text of that statement, but have not done so until now. (Indeed the statement was one of the things—after months of creative paralysis—that allowed me to start writing again).   I hesitated to publish the statement for reasons that I wanted the stories in “Thirteen Ways of Looking” to stand on their own.

However I hope that the statement might, in whatever small way, help contribute to any debate we might have about violence and the toll it takes on so many people.  

The following is a text of my statement delivered to the court on October 9 2014.  

Victim Impact Statement

By Colum McCann, October 9, 2014

I want to express my deep thanks to the court for the opportunity to present a victim impact statement and for allowing my voice to be represented in a moment of important decision.  I truly wish that I could offer my statement in person, but I trust in the depth and substance of the judicial system to weigh these words as carefully as I hope I can present them on the page.

On the evening of the 27th of June I was attacked and knocked unconscious outside the Study Hotel on Church Street in New Haven.   I was blindsided by my attacker and hit from behind. I suffered multiple injuries.  My cheekbone was fractured.  I had severe contusions over both eyes.  Several teeth were broken.  I had earlier attempted to help a woman who herself had been knocked to the ground.  On seeing that I was unconscious, my attacker ran away.  I woke up as I was being hoisted into an MRI machine in Yale New Haven hospital.   I will never forget the hollow sound of that machine.  Nor will I forget the kindness and decency shown to me by the EMT technicians and medical personnel.   

In the months since then, I have spent countless hours in hospital rooms and doctor’s offices. I contracted shingles across my optic nerve.  I developed high blood pressure directly attributable to traumatic stress, and suffered a heart arrhythmia.  I experienced severe headaches.  I have had to spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with insurance companies and other medical institutions.   I was forced to cancel national and international speaking engagements.  The experience severely affected my work as a novelist — for long stretches, I have been unable to write.   

My family and friends and I suffered what I can only term as a series of punches behind the punch.  Yet I am not here to turn justice into revenge.  More importantly, I am not interested in seeing justice aligned with silence.

I have forgiven my attacker, but I will never – ever — excuse him.  My forgiveness will not come at the cost of silence.  He assaulted his wife on a public street.  Moments later he assaulted me.  And now he is attempting to assault the judicial system by claiming that he should remain unpunished because he is, by his own account, a first-time offender open to rehabilitation.  I do not object to the notion of clemency, but I would like to point out that there is no such thing as a first-time victim.  To be a victim is permanent.  To be a victim is absolute.

My attacker ran away …. and now he wants the rest of us to look away.   

In the U.S, statistics show that a woman gets assaulted every nine seconds.   That’s two million assaults every year.   Half a million hospital visits.   It is the number one cause of injury to women in the United States.  It is also one of the crimes to which we remain stunningly silent.  Already in the few minutes that I have stood here to speak,  a woman has been punched, a woman has been kicked, a woman has been raped.  We cannot un-punch, we cannot un-kick, we cannot un-rape.   

Our collective crime is to allow the original punch to take our voices away.  If we keep quiet, we lose.

I do not want my attacker to have jail time.   I don’t believe that incarcerating him will help in any way.   I have no compunction to hurt him any more than he has already hurt himself.   

However, I do feel that if he was to escape without a conviction, in an attempt to walk away with a clean record, as if nothing at all ever happened after his double assault, that justice will not have been served.  I believe that he should carry this record around as a reminder to himself of what he is capable of doing and undoing.   In terms of sentencing, I would like to recommend that it be something that would aim towards an identifiable moral good – to have him perform community service in a shelter, or to volunteer at a late-night emergency ward, in addition to financially supporting an organisation that doesn’t allow for silence when it comes to the abuse of women.

I would like for him to know what it feels like to be that person who waits nine seconds between the punches.  I would like for him to understand that it can, in fact, feel like an eternity when you have been punched.   And most of all I would like for him to know that if he chooses to do it again, I will — alongside many others — step up and make him stop, because he and his ilk should not  be allowed to coldclock the rest of us into silence.

The attacker was sentenced in May 2015 in the Connecticut court system.   He pled guilty to Assault 3rd, Reckless Endangerment in the First Degree, and Breach of the Peace.  He received a sentence of 2 ½ years suspended sentence (with three weeks jail time) and 3 years of probation. The judge noted in her remarks that she hoped the defendant fully appreciated the fairness and compassion that was shown in the author’s communications with the court.