I met him because I love shiny things.
At the time, I was living in Seoul, South Korea. I was in college and he was working in an accessory store on the ground level of my apartment building. My first purchase was a sparkly hair clip and I watched as he carefully wrapped it in tissue paper.
He was a few years older than me, very athletic and his arms were wonderfully well muscled. But that wasn’t the main attraction. He looked so sad. Something inside me wanted to jump up and hug him because he looked how I felt.
I was miserable, too. I was still brooding about the last time I had visited my parents. My father had walked into the room where I was asleep, and noticed something twinkling in my ears. Since he’s quick to get angry and doesn’t approve of earrings, this was enough to set him off. His fist flew out, and he punched the offending item. Unfortunately, that was my head.
I had woken up, crying and inconsolable. So when the sad-eyed man handed me my purchase and asked for my number, I felt friendly enough to say yes. He told me that his name was Sung, and he invited me out for drinks.
Once out of the crappy store he worked in, Sung seemed to expand and fill the room. He was bold, confident and maybe a little delusional. He bragged about having an extravagant lifestyle. He talked at length about his high-powered friends, partying at clubs, fast, expensive cars and 200-dollar cologne.
At first, I was OK with the swagger and I enjoyed his company. I didn’t always want to hang out with him, though. As a college student, I had early morning classes and mid term exams to think about. So every now and then, I would try to dig in my heels and say no.
My resistance had no effect on Sung. Since he knew where I lived, he would wait downstairs after work and bully me over the phone until I came out. I let him get away with it, and that was the first of many bad decisions I made.
Eventually, he tried to get me in bed. Sung and I were drinking at a hotel bar, and he was in an extremely good mood. He told me that he had recently come into some money, and he promised to buy me shoes, handbags and whatever else I wanted. He also told me that I was now his girlfriend and that we should go out on a real date.
Eventually, he decided to order a hotel room for the two of us, saying that he was too drunk to drive me home. Under better circumstances, he might have been able to coerce me into bed. But it was four a.m., the lobby was practically deserted, and I felt like I had been hemmed in a corner with no way out. I suppose I could have asked the hotel staff for help, but I didn’t think I was actually in danger. I thought I was just too cowardly to put my foot down and say “No.”
Once we reached the room, Sung didn’t bother with seduction. He flopped onto the bed, stripped off his jeans and groaned. His flaccid penis was curled on top of his pelvis. I think it was meant to be an invitation. I poked at it with a finger, but it was done for the night. Alcohol had killed his sex drive.
His weakness made me feel stronger, so I put the force of conviction into my voice as I said, “This is really lame. I’m going to leave.”
“How will you get home?” he murmured.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, closing the door behind me. I was worried about the late hour and possibly meeting with sexual predators (Hah!), but I was able to flag down a taxi and go to sleep in my own bed.
For the next week, Sung called me once a day, everyday. We had never kissed and had no real connection, so it felt like he was trying to fake being my boyfriend. He apologized for going out of town, but promised that he would take me on a romantic date as soon as he got back. I didn’t think much of it until I got a phone call telling me that he was back, and tonight was the night. This time, I felt acutely uneasy.
I paced around my apartment as the implications of being his girlfriend started to hit home. I was worried that Sung was going to bully me, the way he always did, into doing whatever he wanted. I also pictured him standing at the foot of my apartment building, yelling at me until the noise forced me outside.
The next call came at midnight. For once, he sounded very somber. “I heard that my grandmother died,” he said. “I’m going to have to go back for the funeral.”
“That’s fine with me,” I said, and I could have yelled in triumph. Relief swept over me as I realized that I was safe for one more night.
The next morning, I got a surprise when I passed by Sung’s store on my way to class. The owner ran out, eager to talk to me. She told me that Sung had been arrested for multiple counts of rape and one count of attempted murder. When I had wrung every bit of news I could get out of her, I went back to bed, piled all of the blankets on top of myself and wished I could suffocate and die.
Sung had raped 30 women, and one was close to death because he had pushed her out of a moving car. His M.O. was that he would pick up a victim, usually by offering her a ride home. Instead, he would take her to a secluded area where he would rape her, take all of her cash and credit cards, then dump her.
I cast my mind back, trying to remember everything that had ever happened between Sung and me. Was there any way I could have foreseen this happening? And how could I avoid getting fooled ever again?
There had been a couple of things about him that had always seemed “off.” One red flag was that he always seemed to have money, despite the fact that he couldn’t be earning much more than $10 an hour at his job. Another was that Sung had more than one cell phone. That was just weird.
But nothing could have made me suspect that he spent his spare time raping women and helping himself to the contents of their purses.
Anger gripped me as I remembered all the times he had yelled at me to come downstairs and hang out with him. I realized that he was the type of person who liked to take away other people’s power and make them bend to his will. He didn’t care about anyone’s rights but his own. And what is a rapist but a man who doesn’t care what a woman wants, and doesn’t see that a woman has a right to do what she wants with her own body?
Who else did this remind me of? A sudden vision of my father floated into my head, and in one sick moment, I realized that he had a lot in common with Sung.
My father had never touched me inappropriately, but he had been beating me up since I was six years old. He had raised me to be yelled at, terrified and mistreated. Just like Sung, my father hadn’t respected my ownership of my body, and my right to be free of physical pain.
For many years, I had been unable to protect myself from being battered and beaten, chewed up and spat out. I had continued my relationship with Sung because it resembled my family dynamics.
Being with a violent man paralyzed my free will, and made me forget that I had choices. But I had never found it unacceptable because I was used to it. It was in this way that my father, the person who was supposed to protect me from rape, made me vulnerable to somebody like Sung.
Still, I was able to see that I had been lucky. I hadn’t been assaulted, even though I had spent so many hours in the company of a rapist. Since I knew his real identity and his workplace, it was a sobering thought that he might have had to kill me after having his fun.
But on the very night Sung had planned on taking me down, he had veered off for some reason, pursued a different victim and been taken by the police. Now, he was in a place where he wasn’t going to be able to touch me or anybody else for a long time.
Even after his arrest, Sung wasn’t quite done with me. For the next couple of years, he sent me creepy letters from jail. He started by writing about sunshine and flowers and ended with threats to my personal safety.
In one of his last letters, he wrote, “Do you really think you can be free of me?”
“Yes,” I said to myself. I had just made plans to move to the U.S. My father was opposed to the idea, but I was stronger now, and unwilling to compromise. If I had learned anything from my experience with Sung, it was that I should be the one to make my own choices.