It’s 3 a.m. and I am sound asleep when a strange man slips through darkness to the front door of my duplex. He unscrews the bulb from the porch light, the concrete beneath his feet abruptly smoky with shadows. The turned knob doesn’t yield. Locked. I’ve reconstructed this event so often, it feels like my own memory. How the man edges down the side of the house to the sliding glass kitchen door. How he jimmies the lock and works the glass open an inch before it sticks against the wooden rod in the track. How he slips on through shadows to the carport.
My bedroom window sits high off the ground. The man drags over a table left behind by a previous tenant and scattered with broken ceramic flowerpots. He sweeps the pieces out of the way with a sleeve while I dream of plates clinking in a kitchen restaurant. He hoists himself onto the table and kneels to peer in at me, curled on my left side in my white sleeveless cotton nightgown. I’ve left the window open although it’s winter. I sleep better in the fresh air. A fan hums in the corner.
In this memory I can only see myself from outside, through a lens I don’t want to inhabit, the eyes of a stranger who slices my screen neatly with his knife, leaving only an aluminum frame. No ragged edges. No incomplete grids. Here is the part I’ve never been able to imagine: did the man enter the room, or did he remain at the window? My sense of time and space are so distorted, I’ll never be sure.
Finally in my memory I return to my body. I look out through my own eyes at a senseless, blinding nothingness, a bright and penetrating light, blurred and flaring through my myopia and astigmatism, but with a steady central core. I lift my hands to push it away, not sure who or where I am. The light wavers, steadies, instantly downgraded from a supernatural force to an extension of a shaky human hand. Dragged to my senses, I sit up. I emit a hoarse animal noise meant to be a scream.
The light swings away. Scrambling, a voice, sounding like it has every right to be here. It’s the voice of a repairman searching for a fusebox and stumbling on me instead. It’s the voice of a disgruntled date who thought I was leading him on but has decided to be gentlemanly.
“All right, all right, I’ll leave her alone,” it says, affable and bemused by the hysteria of abruptly awakened women, patiently waiting for me to get myself together. “I’ll just come back later.”
And then he’s gone, as if no one was there in the first place, as if it were all a strange dream. I fumble for my glasses. The walls and furniture abruptly reappear, reclaimed out of the blur.
Now, many years later, I remember how I closed the window with one hand while with the other I extracted a crumpled sweatshirt and jeans from the floor. In the kitchen, I ran water over the dishes in the sink.
No, wait, I thought, I have to call the police.
But tell them what exactly? That there was a man outside my window, or right inside it? That there was an intruder? But if I didn’t see him, was he really there, did he even exist? And if there actually was a man, but his entire body wasn’t physically in my bedroom when he blasted that light into my eyes, was he really an intruder?
I reached for the phone book to look up the emergency number.
Oh, I thought. 911.
Red and white lights flashed in my driveway. An officer stood in my doorway. He reported evidence of multiple efforts to enter my house. The front door, the sliding door, the screen. “He cut out your bedroom window screen,” the officer said.
But, he went on, tone reassuring, the guy was just a peeping Tom. I stared at the officer, perplexed: Why cut out the whole screen if your goal is to simply gaze through a window? Why carry a knife at all?
The officer shrugged. The man had done this before, but he left when residents screamed. He didn’t return. He just committed minor vandalism. He just looked. The officer’s language was benign. The officer did not use words like intrusion, harassment, stalking, intimidation, threat, attempted rape. The officer filled out an incident report. He didn’t check the box for Crimes against Persons. He checked Crimes against Property.
The confusion of those early moments reverberated through my life for years after. If nothing happens, how can it be a trauma? Yet, after the officer left, it felt like a wire had been threaded through my body, pulled unbearably tight by ceiling lights, headlights, lamp light, lightning, by clock hands pointing to 3:30 a.m. By acquaintances who said, “You must have made someone really mad” and “Thank goodness you weren’t hurt,” and “Don’t live in fear,” despite the fact that the stranger at my window had promised to come back. Occasionally the wire loosened, at least a little. When an old friend said, “Oh!” upon hearing what had happened, and seized my chapped hand between her two soft ones. After an appointment, five days after the Flashlight Man, with a counselor at the rape crisis center.
And then it went taut again when a man inexplicably lunged at my car one night only weeks later at a stoplight on a deserted street, screaming, arms flailing, teeth bared. When men followed me the next week in a mall parking lot, yelling, “Looking sexy tonight, baby. I want to fuck you.” Women, I concluded, should not go out after dark. Or stay home, either.
The rape crisis counselor told me that the man with the flashlight had been active for years, with fifteen to twenty victims in the last couple. He had variously been called the Flashlight Burglar, the Flashlight Voyeur, the Flashlight Intruder, or the Flashlight Molester. Lately, there had been a spate of bizarre crimes. Another serial intruder, known as the “Ether Bandit” or the “Ether Bunny,” broke into houses and knocked women out with ether-soaked rags. I stared at the counselor in disbelief.
In August, six months before the Flashlight Man’s intrusion, I had moved to Springfield, Missouri, following a divorce and MFA graduation, having lived alone only six months of my adult life. At 26, blithely taking for granted my safety, my indestructibility, I’d unknowingly relocated to a city that was home to a shadowy nighttime world where women were routinely terrorized by men generally regarded as mere nuisances, as small inconveniences, committing quasi-crimes that had no name. If you burst into someone’s bedroom in the middle of the night and hold a flashlight in her eyes, if you knock her out with an ether-soaked rag, is it a real assault? A microassault? A miniassault? I missed the veil of denial that had previously obscured my vision. Willed myself to do what everyone said I should do: just get over it. Move on.
Willed myself, then resisted. Forgetting, letting go, felt complicit, like glossing over an underground culture that routinely invaded the space and dreams of women. And just as the heart wants what it wants, the body does what it does. For months, I woke every morning at 3:30 a.m. I moved to an upstairs apartment in Springfield, and a few years later to another upstairs apartment in Nebraska, and a few years later to a townhouse with upstairs bedrooms in South Carolina. It was nearly ten years before I could fall asleep on a ground floor again, and over the next few months, I developed vision-related issues that I would always associate, accurately or not, with that flashlight in my eyes.
Many years later, my line of sight once again narrows to a pinprick of light when for a long moment blackness closes in, my peripheral vision disappearing in a swirl of dizzy pain. This time, it’s my own fault. It was my idea to go tubing, which I regret the second I find myself pummeling down an icy lane, vision tunneling to one fixed point, the end of the run. My innertube slips and skitters from one side to the other with enough momentum, it feels, to sail over the mounds of snow marking the lane’s edges and crash into an adjoining one. As frigid wind jackhammers against my head, feeling like a form of violence, I picture bodies piling up. My head pounds and spins. And then, at the bottom of the run, the innertube glides to a merciful stop.
At the top of the hill, a row of figures in bright puffy coats waits poised to barrel toward me. Panicked, I struggle to my feet, slip on a ridge of ice, and go down, left arm shooting out to catch me. And that’s the moment my world abruptly, senselessly narrows to a blur of light fuzzed by darkness, a field of snow and ice, a lodge an impossible six feet away. Someone slides an innertube beneath me and drags me out of harm’s way.
It takes my boyfriend more than an hour to reach the ER on the snowy roads. Every turn and slide jostles my arm, and even though I whimper every time, the doctor immediately pronounces me “tough.” I’m not tough enough to agree to have my elbow popped back into place without anesthesia. Later my friends tell me that this is irrelevant and translate “tough” to “badass.”
I feel like a whole different person than that young woman who encountered a man with a flashlight in the middle of the night thirty years ago and hundreds of miles away. I’m a different person than the one who slept on top of the comforter with a baseball bat by her side for six months, the one who regularly waked to find herself obsessively sleepwalking to check door and window locks. But I think of her, my younger self, as I try to find a comfortable position, my arm encased from palm to upper arm in fiberglass so that in dreams I’m once again sleeping with a baseball bat. I can’t crawl under the covers, because when I move they tangle around me like a whole body cast from which it’s hard to free myself, and so I lie on top of them, headlights traversing my wall, my clublike weapon of an arm carrying me back to the months after the Flashlight Man.
And I keep thinking about that aftermath, when I felt so paralyzed I struggled to make it through each day, because now, once again, I’m slowed down, incapacitated. I can’t type, can’t cook, can’t exercise. Idly, I calculate the years since the Flashlight Man and arrive at an impossible number: thirty. Thirty years: since then I have lived a whole life. One in which I flew to China and adopted a daughter by myself and raised that daughter alone, lost jobs, found jobs, moved to new states, made new friends, fell in and out of love, tripped over my own feet, fell on ice.
I think of myself as someone willing to take mild risks, but now, encumbered by the cast, I am secretly nervous about driving and terrified whenever I have to wade across slippery ground. My boyfriend is endlessly kind and sympathetic. He drives me places, offers me an arm on icy surfaces, cooks for me, rubs my feet, and never tells me to stop living in fear. Nobody points out that my injury is my own fault. People are kind enough to ask me about my cast all the time—so much so that I get a little bored talking about it.
I can’t wait to have the cast removed. To shed the weight, unravel the constrictions. To watch the pinpoint of my life expand so that I can once again range freely. I call the doctor’s office, jot down the appointment time. Hang up, do a double take at my calendar: I’ll have my cast removed on the exact date that marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Flashlight Man.
“Thank god you weren’t injured,” people said after the Flashlight Man, but while I wait to get my cast off, many projects halted by my inability to type, I consider this: Was I injured back then? My eyes were never the same after that night. I thought maybe it was psychosomatic. The spring after the Flashlight Man, I fought bouts of severe eyestrain and fatigue that could knock me out for for days, and my night vision deteriorated. More than ten years later, an ophthalmologist shone his penlight into my eyes and blared his big lights down at me as I tried not to flinch, and then he said, “You have ocular nerve damage.” And with that, he jotted down notes on a card and made me a pair of graduated lenses containing a prism that eliminated my eyestrain almost completely. Some years later, my eyes would experience posterior vitreous detachments, an inevitability for all of us as we get older but something that happened to me at a younger age than most. The fibers of the eye’s gel-like substance, the vitreous, pull away from the retina. It doesn’t harm vision but can increase floaters, as it did to an annoying degree in my case, though eventually I got used to them.
I asked my eye doctor whether there was any possible connection between my eye issues and the Flashlight Man. A flashlight, the doctor replied, is unlikely to create long term damage, unless the light had the intensity of the sun. So maybe it was just a coincidence that nerve damage set in soon after the Flashlight Man. It’s entirely possible that it was just my extreme near-sightedness that led to the early vitreous detachments. Whether the flashlight was in any way a catalyst is likely one of many questions, like floaters that persist on the periphery of my vision, lights and shadow that drift and pulse, that I’ll never entirely know the answer to.
In my late twenties and early thirties, I volunteered at two rape crisis centers. I wrote an essay about the aftermath of the Flashlight Man, and then a collection of essays. In my mid-thirties, when I became the parent of a traumatized post-institutionalized child unable to relax her self-protectiveness, I likely understood her better than I might have otherwise. Years went by. I hope, that over time, I became a braver, stronger person.
And yet I kept running into my younger self in unexpected places. I was startled to find references to my own terrifying moment in not one, but two, books. While reading an award-winning memoir about a harrowing home invasion, I ran across a mention of an essay I’d published years before, telling my story. The author dismissed my encounter with the Flashlight Man as nothing but “a slit in a bedroom screen, a flashlight shined in the eyes. . . .what horrible things happened to other people and didn’t happen to the narrator.” A few years later, I again stumbled upon my experience in another memoir, this time about a brutal rape, by a woman I had vaguely known years before. She wrote about an acquaintance who’d once felt “menaced” by “a flashlight shining through her bedroom window and into her face” and who expressed more horror and outrage “than I felt the incident deserved. She’d been terrified, and I could understand that, but no one had choked her, or held a knife to her face and told her to take off her jeans.”
Certainly, the latter part of this was true. I remembered mentioning my experience to the author, two-and-a-half years after it happened, still deeply shaken by the notion that there was a whole secret epidemic that targeted women, that had, for some reason, targeted me. “I think it’s safe to say there’s more than one person doing this,” a crime analyst had told a Springfield newspaper reporter in the early 90s. And now, so many years later, I still find it disturbing—that it existed, that we pretended it didn’t, that we just wanted victims to shut up until they had some real violence to report.
Some nights I stare at my cast and wonder if my arm is really there inside this contraption, if, like Schrodinger’s cat, it exists at all. Against all advice, I stick a pen down my cast and am relieved to feel my skin.
During the hours that would normally be filled by work, it occurs to me that newspaper archives are much more readily available now than in the 80s and 90s, when I had to take motion sickness medication to scroll through rolls of microfilm at libraries. I wonder whether anyone was ever charged in relation to the Flashlight Man’s crimes. The key words flashlight in eyes bring up numerous articles about the flashlight molester, voyeur, burglar, or intruder of Springfield, Missouri, as well as references, from the early 2000s, about a “flashlight rapist” in Louisville, Kentucky, who also blinded the women he attacked with a flashlight. He was eventually caught and charged with several counts of rape, sodomy, sexual abuse, and attempted rape.
The earliest references to a Springfield attacker with a flashlight go back to the 1970s, though I doubt that these have anything to do with the wave of crimes that surfaced fifteen years later. These began in July 1986, when a sixty-three-year-old woman was awakened by a flashlight. The man at her bedside “asked her to show parts of her body.” In June 1987, another woman woke to a flashlight. The man at the end of her bed made “obscene suggestions toward her” but left her “physically unharmed.” There had been, according to this article, several such incidents that summer, committed by a suspect who entered houses by cutting door and window screens.
A headline from August 1987 reads, “FLASHLIGHT VOYEUR BUGS CITY WOMEN.” For the tenth time in two months, a man had “entered a house to look at a woman.” At the end of that month, another headline blares, “FLASHLIGHT MOLESTER MAKES RETURN TRIP TO CRIME SCENE.” In this case, the man with the flashlight visited a twenty-two-year-old twice in one night and “sexually molested” her, the “eleventh burglary since mid-June in which police suspect the flashlight molester.” The article notes that the same man might also “be responsible for several peeping Tom incidents.” In early September, a thirty-three-year-old woman was awakened by a gun to her head and subsequently sexually assaulted; she lived in the same house where, only a couple of months before, a man had climbed through the living room window and shined a flashlight into the eyes of a thirty-one-year-old neighbor, “made sexual remarks,” and fled. The next related headline, also from September, says, “INTRUDER TRIES TO PULL UP WOMAN’S NIGHTGOWN.” As in most of the other cases, she screamed and he got out.
The first report of the man with the ether-soaked rags appears in November 1987, pulled up by my keywords because in one incident he shined a penlight into someone’s eyes. At least eight times, this man had broken into houses and knocked his victims unconscious. Their ages ranged from eight to eighteen. I remember that even the rape crisis center told me that the “Ether Bandit” had attacked multiple “women,” but these were not, by any stretch of the imagination or the AP Stylebook, women. Town jokes about the “Ether Bunny” had revolved, it turned out, around an attacker of children.
In June 1988, the Flashlight Man was back. A twenty-seven-year-old woke at 3 a.m. to find a man standing over her bed shining a flashlight. Same story: She screamed. He fled. My own encounter happened more than a year later, in February 1990. The next incident in the newspaper was in May 1990. I had clipped that one and subsequent articles. Among these reported incidents was a return visit to a previous victim. A man stood at the foot of women’s beds and masturbated, ordered them to show him their legs, or pulled down blankets himself. In one case, the man said, “My name is Steve. I didn’t touch or rape you. I’m just passing through.” In an incident later that summer, the man identified himself as “Steve John” and attempted to assault a seventy-two-year-old woman. It gives me a fleeting sense of creepiness that my boyfriend, who has taken care of me through my one-armed ordeal, who was, in 1990, raising two children on a farm nearly a thousand miles away, is named Steven John. It’s insidious, the way that the anonymity of one man behind a flashlight can serve to implicate all men: If you never see his face, how do you ever trust anyone again?
While no other headline quite approaches the minimization of “FLASHLIGHT VOYEUR BUGS CITY WOMEN,” they continue to downplay the significance of the incidents (WOMAN UNINJURED IN BREAK-IN), more than forty since the spring of 1988 “in homes where women living alone have left their doors and windows open.” I remember the scratch marks on my front lock and the broken sliding glass door lock, signs of someone determined to get to me long before he found my open window.
I expect to find more stories through the 90s, but they end in 1991, before I left Springfield, other than one episode, from the mid-90s. Two women were awakened by a flashlight and, according to the verbs chosen by the reporter, terrorized, assaulted, threatened, cursed at, and scared; eleven years later, based on DNA evidence, an arrest was made. But there’s no sign that this particular man had any connection to the flurry of activity over the four-year period in the late 80s and early 90s that eventually fizzled out.
As I scroll through newspaper.com, my keywords stop calling up articles and instead I’m clicking on a long string of flashlight ads and descriptions of “light blue eyes.” I’m about to close out the site when I happen upon a report from February 1988. Shortly before 4 a.m., a thirty-one-year-old woman in the 1900 block of East Page Street in Springfield woke to a light in her eyes.
I do a double-take. No, I think, I lived in the first house on the 2000 block of Page Street. I was twenty-seven. It was February 1990.
And then I realize that I’m reading about something that happened to someone else. On my street, within a block of my house, exactly two years before my own experience.
The assailant who woke her with his flashlight was naked. He held a knife to her throat and threatened to kill her if she didn’t cooperate. He raped her and threatened her again.
And somehow, no one, no police officer, no newspaper reporter, no longtime Springfield resident, ever mentioned this to me.
I was told: He didn’t enter houses.
He didn’t physically attack or otherwise harm anyone.
He ran when his victims screamed.
He didn’t return.
Back then, I didn’t have a database to discover that none of this was true.
When people see my cast, no one ever says, “But is it broken?” They don’t withhold their sympathy before they learn the extent of the injury. But when a man terrorizes women in the early hours of the morning, the first question is one meant to evaluate the legitimacy of the trauma. “But were you raped?” people ask. If a man shined a flashlight through a “slit” in a screen, if he’s “just looking,” does that make his actions not part of a continuum of sexual violence? Do his actions instead constitute some kind of random nonsexual curiosity? And is it a break-in only if the broken locks give way and he leaves mud on your carpet? Is invading a woman’s bedroom and waking her abruptly, eerily in the night, an assault only if it’s rape? Is a woman entitled to subsequent trauma if the intruder fondles her or issues orders? Is she entitled to trauma if he carefully walks the line between crimes against property and crimes against persons?
I devoted so much energy to these questions, back before I spent nights in the ER as a rape crisis counselor: with a French exchange student, her skin nearly translucent in the hospital’s harsh light as she joked with me and then shifted gears to describe with precisely focused anger an acquaintance rape. With a scrappy woman with finger-shaped bruises and a gravelly voice, a look of distaste briefly peeking through the polite veneer of the nurse who performed the rape kit. With a teenager who kept heaving great sighs and asking with increasing desperation when she could go home.
All of that back before I became the parent of a toddler who raged and shrieked for hours every night, dark eyes full of not anger but terror, then, at sixteen, lay in bed with a headache that pounded for six months while light through her purple curtain bathed her face the color of a bruise. Back before the vitreous detachments in both of my eyes: white lights pulsing at the periphery of my vision, replaced by smoke that drifted in front of me, rising when I blinked, flying off to the side when I turned my head as if blown away by a sudden wind. Smoke that turned to scribbles and scrawls, that pixilated blank pages and sunlit windows, spinning whorls and strings of pearls, floaters that I eventually stopped noticing the way you stop noticing dead bugs on your windshield.
Now, a lifetime later, I’m still puzzled by years of PTSD. Why else have I spent hours combing through newspaper archives as if to convince myself I had every right to be disturbed, why else have I paged through old journals, looking at the patterns of my eye damage? Am I trying to ensure that I earned my place on the hierarchy of trauma, even if ranking people’s traumas is an impulse I wish I could resist? But when someone says, “I know just how you feel, one time a guy looked through my window,” doesn’t some part of me want to say, “Were you asleep, did he have a knife, did he try to get into your house, did he promise to return?” When our culture minimizes traumas on every level, from the most brutal rape or the most horrific home invasion to more hazy violations, who doesn’t feel defensive, vying to have their experience taken seriously?
On the thirtieth anniversary of the Flashlight Man, a nurse slices down my cast with a metal wheel, making two long seams, peeling away fiberglass and cotton to uncover an arm locked in the same position for the last several weeks. My arm is thin and pale and useless. When I try to move it, darkness closes around me. I think I’m going to pass out. My boyfriend finds a wheelchair and pushes me out into sunlight. He waits patiently while I transfer myself to the car. He drives me home and fetches ibuprofen and goes off to the pharmacy for prescription pain meds. It’s two days before I can stand without dizziness, a week before I can move my arm without searing pain, two weeks before I can return to work, and not once does my boyfriend, or anyone else, tell me to just get over it.
Nancy McCabe is the author of six books, most recently Can This Marriage Be Saved? A Memoir, which explores the story of her ill-advised, ill-fated youthful marriage through hermit crab essays and extended metaphors. Her books also include From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood and the novel Following Disasters. Her short pieces have appeared in numerous magazines, including Prairie Schooner, Gulf Coast, Massachusetts Review, Fourth Genre, Newsweek, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, received a Pushcart, and made notable listings eight times in Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She directs the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, and teaches in the Spalding low-residency MFA program and online for the Creative Nonfiction Foundation.
Tain Leonard-Peck writes poetry, plays, and short stories, and is completing his first novel. He is also an actor, artist, musician, model, and competitive sailor, skier, and fencer. His work has been published in literary journals, including the 2020 Anthology of Youth Writing on Human Rights & Social Justice, TAEM, Sleet Magazine, The Elevation Review, Idle Ink, Crack The Spine Magazine, The Riva Collective, Molecule, Multiplicity Magazine, Czykmate, and others. He won an honorable mention for the Creators of Literary Justice Award, was a finalist for #ENOUGH: Plays to End Gun Violence, and won the first place Poetry Fellowship to the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing