Jessica Watkins is a stand-up comedian, actress and producer born and raised in East Nashville, Tennessee. She graduated from The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles in 2005 and has been living and performing in New York City for over a decade. Her first film, Jessica Watkins: SPECIALish, is now available on-demand and on all digital platforms. (Photo by Jesse Paul.)
Having my sexual assault be a main storyline in my first comedic documentary wasn’t part of the plan. I was already walking alone across North America performing standup comedy and filming myself – how vulnerable does one need to be? Then there I was, halfway through my eighth monthlong trek, near Bentonville, Arkansas, on a live radio show, when the subject came to the forefront.
The male DJ opened with: “During your walk across America, how many times have you been raped and murdered?”
“No, I’ve been rape-free for 10 years now!” I quipped back.
It had actually been 14 years. The comedic timing was accurate, though; that’s all that mattered.
We laughed. The interview continued. I’m certain the two comedy DJs have since forgotten the moment, and I might have too, had I not been filming it.
I grew up in East Nashville, Tennessee. I loved sports and performing for audiences, and I am journalistic by nature. When I was 18, I moved to Los Angeles to go to acting school (read: be a movie star). After graduation, I started performing sketch and improv, and eventually fell in love with standup comedy. In 2009, I moved to New York City to pursue jokes on stage and I had been grinding away in the city for five years when I started planning what would become my feature-length film, a part comedy special, part documentary titled Jessica Watkins: SPECIALish.
I’m not a particularly outdoorsy woman. I had never hiked a long distance or camped without a car full of crap. Though I’d spent time in front of the lens, I had zero filmmaking experience. But when I hatched the idea to walk across America performing standup comedy and wanted to raise money for the trip through crowdfunding, taking a camera to document the adventure seemed only natural. I wanted to show people what I was seeing, write jokes about what I experienced, and combine the two for my first comedy special(-ish).
In the spring of 2014, I set off from Lewes, Delaware, making my way west. Instead of carrying a backpack, I pushed a jogging-style baby stroller. I was like a childless mother, cruising the streets. In lieu of offspring, I filled my cart with all the basics: food, water, camping gear, hard drives, whiskey, bear spray – you know, everything a cross-country hiker comedian could need. I stayed at campgrounds, motels, hostels, parks, complete strangers’ homes and on the side of the road. The latter was my favorite. I would walk and walk and walk, and as the sun crept toward the horizon, I would scan the terrain in hopes of spotting a nice big tree or bush, maybe even a bridge, somewhere I could disappear into during the night. Under the cover of darkness, I would make my move: in a matter of minutes, I’d have my tent up, slip inside my shell, and fall fast asleep, no need to stay up all night nervously imagining “what if” scenarios.
As much as I tried to not focus on the “what ifs,” I couldn’t help but be reminded of them. People were worried about my safety. Everyone had advice for how I could better protect myself. “Bring a knife!” “Take a gun!” “Be a man!” I chose the bear spray as my line of defense against North America’s greatest predator: strangers. From day one, I wore the spray paint-sized canister proudly on my belt loop, as if to say, “I’m prepared – don’t mess with me.” I wanted to bring two cans, but the guy at the outdoor store assured me one would be enough.
But were strangers actually who I needed to be defending myself from? Statistically speaking, women are far more likely to be assaulted by someone they know than become the victim of a random act of hiker violence. Such is my case. As is all too common for women, I was raped in high school. I was at a party with people I knew. I didn’t tell anyone for years. Debilitating panic attacks led me to see a therapist, and then it all came out. During my first few years of therapy work, as we were trying to piece together and work through the sorted hauntings of that day, I was given what I consider a weird gift.
While on a trip back home, I was at a bar in downtown Nashville when I spotted a face across the room. I knew who it was immediately: one of the men who raped me. My gut reaction was that I needed to flee. I raced to the door. But just before leaving, something told me to go back. I turned around and found my way through the packed bar. I went up to him, looked him in the eyes, and introduced myself,
“Hi, I don’t know if you remember me, but you raped me,” I said.
“Yes, I did,” he replied.
I was face to face with one of my assaulters and he admitted his guilt to me.
I felt a sense of relief. The years of silence and blaming myself had come to an end.
In December 2014, I finished my walk in Oceanside, California. In the end, I walked 2,000 miles, performed comedy in a dozen cities and gathered hundreds of hours of footage. When my editor and I heard the Arkansas radio moment play back, I knew I had a decision to make. Much like the run-in with my assaulter, this moment felt like a weird gift. I made the choice to use the radio show footage and share the story of my rape through the film.
Maybe my walk across America was my way of questioning of what keeps us safe. The answer is not modesty, hiding behind locked doors, or policing, and it is not silence, secrets or sweeping our experiences under the rug. I can’t say that I will ever fully recover from what happened to me, and I know I can’t control what might happen to me in the future. I do know, through therapy I have found that sharing is immensely healing, and revealing my struggles through filmmaking has been a deeply cathartic experience.
The truth is, to walk along highways for months on end is to take a risk. And staying with dozens and dozens of complete strangers can be dangerous. But I could attach possible “danger” to anything in life. There is no map that can guarantee a safe and pleasant journey. I’ve survived sexual assault and, like many women, I was attacked in a place I thought I’d be safe, by people I knew. But nothing happened to me in the Middle of Nowhere, USA. I looked like a cult leader pushing a cart of moonshine, peeing on the side of the road, camping in bushes, and somehow, I survived unscathed. And you know what? I don’t feel invincible. I don’t feel lucky, even. I feel unafraid.