Sarah Super closed her eyes, tilted her head and reached over her shoulder as a student in her trauma-sensitive yoga class mirrored her movements.
“You choose how much pressure,” she said, gently massaging her shoulder during a session at a St. Paul crisis center. “It’s your hand on your shoulder.”
Providing choices is paramount to Super, who allows her students to engage in less demanding exercise or to simply get up and leave the room if they wish. It’s a key tenet of trauma-sensitive yoga, and a frame of mind the 26-year-old Super advocates as she recovers from her own physical and emotional trauma.
On Feb. 18, Super returned to her St. Paul apartment from a trip to Mexico, went to sleep and woke to find her ex-boyfriend sitting naked next to her in bed. Authorities allege that Alec E. Neal raped Super at knife point before she fled through a closet door that led to a common hallway.
Super said she is going public with her story because she wants to fight the stigma and shame victims feel, and call for a change in how boys are raised to think about consent.
“I feel such an intense need to share what happened, and to have my experience honored and validated,” Super said. “Most rapes go unreported or underreported because victims fear the harsh judgment people make.
“I hope in speaking up … I can be a voice for change.”
Often, it’s not the stranger in the dark who poses a threat, she wants others to know, but rather, the seemingly normal guy who impresses friends and parents.
According to the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), about two-thirds of assaults are committed by someone the victim knows.
“These are the guys your mom says, ‘Oh, he’s such a nice boy,’ ” Super said.
‘You never prepare’
As Minnesota’s only certified trauma-sensitive yoga instructor and one of about 30 in the world, Super sees firsthand how others grapple with crisis.
She’s learning now that her own path toward healing is riddled with challenges and contradictions.
She’s looking to reconnect with people to rebuild trust, and to make her own life choices despite the best intentions of others who think they can protect her by making them for her.
“People who aren’t injured in the beginning of their lives, they develop a trust — the rightness of the world, the goodness of human nature,” she said. “You never prepare for anything like this to happen to you.”
Super met Neal last March through an acquaintance, and the two started dating a few months later.
She broke things off at the start of the year, and Neal became suicidal, according to the criminal charges filed against him. In early February, he spent four days in the mental health unit at Hennepin County Medical Center.
On Valentine’s Day, Super found a sexually explicit note crammed in her door.
Four days later, Neal hid in Super’s apartment and attacked her about 11:30 p.m., authorities allege. Fearing that Neal planned to abduct her, Super ran to a neighbor’s apartment for help. He slashed her left hand with a knife as she escaped.
“I just thought I was going to die,” she said.
Neal fled in his car toward the Gulf of Mexico, but was arrested when Super persuaded him, with help from police, to return.
Neal, 30, will appear in court next week where he plans to plead not guilty to charges of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, kidnapping and first-degree burglary, said his attorney, Robert Sicoli.
Super, who works as a learning and development consultant with Hennepin County, is tracking Neal’s case while moving on with her life.
Last month, she shared her experience and thoughts about consent with several of Neal’s friends. She moved to a new apartment, too. But as much as she wants to share her story to make sense of it, a part of her wants to “forget and move on.”
“I’m scared every time I walk into my own apartment,” she said.
More victims speak out
Super is among several Minnesota victims of sex crimes who have recently stepped forward to discuss their experiences and pain.
Many survivors of clergy sex abuse have appeared at news conferences over the past few years.
Pat Maahs is lobbying for new legislation after her co-worker at a New Brighton hardware store ejaculated into her coffee last year.
“The reason I came forward is I realized that the situation wouldn’t be any different for the next person” if she didn’t, Maahs said recently.
For some victims, speaking out is a positive step toward empowerment and healing, said Jeanne Ronayne, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA). For others, it may not be the right choice. For all, it’s deeply personal.
“We are seeing [public self-identification] happen with some frequency, and I think that’s great that maybe as a society, we’re ready to release victims from that stigma that they’re feeling,” Ronayne said.
Ronayne said that victims should trust their instincts about whether to identify themselves, and talk about it with family, friends and an advocate.
Super first shared her story with friends and colleagues.
“I have been shocked by so many people who have said, ‘This has happened to me, too,’ ” she said.
It is in the company of those women, who are among the 68 percent of cases that RAINN says go unreported to police, where Super finds hope that that night in February is neither the start nor the end of her story.
“Ultimately, I have no fear of being known as the girl who got raped,” Super said, “because there are too many of us.”