Meghan Conley on her assault, continued self-defense, and beating racist commentary to the punch

Two weeks ago my friend Meghan Conley was beaten up and sexually assaulted in Portland’s West End. I found out by way of seeing a picture of her bruised face on Facebook, the same way that thousands of other people found out.

Meghan put up a fight until the man who attacked her finally gave up and ran off. He remains at large. Meghan works as an Administrative Assistant for photographer Kevin Ouellette and they went to the scene of the crime a couple of days afterward to capture her portrait there. Ouellette shared the photo on Facebook and from his one upload, the image was shared nearly 1,000 times.

I talked with Conley about the aftermath of the assault, the public response to her post-attack photograph, and why she felt compelled to beat racists to the punch, so to speak.

Notes: Meghan has written two blog entries about the attack, one here and another one (which we discuss at the end of this interview) here.

The suspect is a black male, between 18 and 23 years old, 5’6″-5’8″, 170-180 lbs. He was reportedly wearing a dark watch, winter cap, dark jacket and jeans at the time of the attack. If you have any information about this attack, you’re asked to contact the Portland Police Department at 874-8479.

How did that photograph come about?

I had a concussion and a giant black eye, and to a certain extent, the black eye was kind of awesome. I had never been punched, and all things considered, it all ended pretty well for me. I was feeling pretty badass and so I work as an admin assistant for a photographer, Kevin Ouellette, and I told him that I wanted to go back to the spot where it happened and document it. It was like, I just want to feel like a badass because I am here and I am okay and this shiner is really something to look at. The original intention was not for public consumption, the original intention was just to document it for myself and so we went back and looked at the photos after we took them and Kevin said “I don’t have to share these [on Facebook, which Ouellette does with many of his shoots], but I think they’re awesome photos. If you don’t want to share them, that’s fine.” And I thought about it and thought, they are awesome, and I do want to share them.

My only real regret is that there isn’t really a filtering mechanism for how it then got shared, and I know that photos like that can be really triggering for other victims. I feel like those pictures are kind of an extreme way of getting information out, but I feel like they communicate very quickly and clearly what’s at stake and what the situation is.

What kind of things were you hearing from people who had seen the photo?

A lot of really cool responses came out of this. One of them came from a woman who sent me a story that her daughter wrote. She said the girl usually writes about flowers and cat hospitals [laughter], but she wrote this story that was like, “What Pacaso…” It was P-A-C-A-S-O, “What Pacaso didn’t know was that Princes Eleanor was secretly a martial arts expert and so he came into the castle and she kicked him really hard in the nuts. He was really mad but when he tried to throw a punch at her, she grabbed his fist and flipped him onto the ground and said, ‘Don’t come back here. You’ll regret it.’” She said, “I don’t know the details of your story, but I think it might have been kind of like that. I was like, “Well, I wish I was that awesome and I wish I was that effective in fighting him.”

I think that from those pictures, because I was making this “Yeah, bring it” face in them, people thought, “Yeah, you got beaten pretty badly, but this guy didn’t get out unscathed.” You know, they think that this guy got taught a lesson about underestimating women. Part of the story of those photographs is that the bad guy got his. I think that people probably overestimate the damage that I did to him. I kicked him in the head a couple of times and I was really proud of myself.

What do you think people saw in the photo that caused that kind of viral response?

You know, there were the comments on the photos themselves, and then people that I have never met before were messaging me privately and those messages were just like, “Badass, man. Way to go,” or “I’m glad you’re safe and I am glad that you fought back.” I think that’s kind of what it is; when something bad happens, I think people like a narrative where something positive comes of it, or there is a happy ending. People like the idea of justice too and I think that a lot of people saw those pictures and felt like something scary happened but it didn’t instill in them a sense of helplessness. I think people connect with that, the idea that bad things happen but then there’s the old, “You can overcome adversity” line. People connected with that. I think people often think about what they would do in those situations and everyone likes to think they would fight. I certainly always hoped that I would respond roughly like I did, but you just don’t know until it happens. I think it’s reassuring to people that it can happen, that you can fight back and you can have some kind of agency sometimes.

I worry that it contributes to the idea that people who aren’t able to fight back and people who are hurt worse than me, people who are injured far worse and people who are actually raped… I don’t like the idea that it might contribute to the idea that those people somehow didn’t do enough to protect themselves. I don’t think, though, that people even internalize it that deeply. I think that people just like a happy ending.

Well, typically in the media, the story is told like, “A woman was beaten and sexually assaulted,” and then that’s it, and that’s the bad story. And then some kids volunteered at an old age home, and that’s the good story. Very few stories get attention that show both good and bad things happening in the same story.

And I think also that when you read the stories about women getting attacked and sexually assaulted, that it leaves a lot to our very grisly and macabre imaginations to fill in that blank from “Law and Order” and we think, “Oh God, how terrible.” We have an idea of what happens when someone is attacked. To a certain extent, there is a certain amount of voyeurism, too. People are interested in my experience, and how I reacted to it, and people are very curious about those things because the narrative usually ends with the fact that someone was attacked without offering a sense of how she is doing afterward. Somebody broke a lady, and that’s the end of it.

And that kind of reportage contributes to rape culture because in the standard story, an anonymous woman is attacked and then that is it. Women get attacked, that’s how it is.

Right, and just in the aftermath of this I have heard from a lot of women who have been assaulted, raped, victims of various violent crimes with various different outcome—some better and some worse—and I think another part of rape culture is that even though we know it happens to a ton of people, there is still a sort of subtext in it where if it happened to you, you’re damaged in some way. A bad man broke the lady, and now you can’t possibly function right. There is something broken in you. Talking to a bunch of these women, you just don’t even know that it has happened to tons of people who are walking around. It is kind of eye opening to people that you just live through these events and then heal in whatever way you can. People still have a really gross approach to victims that still holds them a little bit responsible and still sort of sets them aside from “normal” people by approaching them differently. I think it is important for people not to do that, and to recognize that some people have been victimized, but that you can’t victimize them more by making them the sum total of having been attacked.

You wrote a blog post about race and reportage of this case. Can you talk about that a bit?

I was talking with someone I hadn’t seen since it happened and he said, “What did he look like?” And I told him and [when he heard that the assailant was black] he said, “Oh, figures.” I have encountered enough casual racism in the city to know that there is that attitude and there is a lot of tension between what I would describe as old school Portland and the immigrant population in particular.

The idea that something that no one else but me has ownership of… I have been public about this and people feel like they’re invested in it in a way where they feel like it is sort of theirs and they are rooting for me and by virtue of that, they have some stake in it, but it is my story. The idea that there would be this really disgusting racist reaction somehow on my behalf was really distressing to me because I think it is really terrible and I think it is a black eye on the city of Portland that there is that rift in the culture. I realized that I find that kind of toxic environment so distressing and upsetting. I have seen it happen a million times with other smaller things where the assumption is that if there was a crime, if the perpetrator turns out to be black, then it was somehow inevitable. If there is one place in the world where it should be patently obvious that almost always the perpetrator is white, in terms of pattern recognition, then people must be really bad at it if that’s the inevitability they see. It’s just bigoted, unfounded and gross.

PHOTO CREDIT: Kevin Ouellette

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.