Last April 23 — a year ago next week — I was assaulted by a stranger on the London Underground. It was Friday evening and I’d had dinner with a friend.
Things were good, with people out in the streets after months of isolation. That afternoon, I’d been shopping for the first time in a year, tracking down a pair of Chanel sandals I had wanted for months. The Tube platform was eerily quiet, but London had become that way since Covid. There was a group of maskless teenagers at the far end of the platform and a young boy surrounded by shopping bags at the other end. I positioned myself in the middle.
I’ve lived and worked in London for close to 20 years. But apart from having my bag snatched on a night out, I’ve had few brushes with crime. It’s true that I’m a relatively cautious person. I don’t stay out late and I barely drink. Yet I’ve also always prided myself on being tough and street-smart, and I certainly didn’t feel uncomfortable waiting for a train in the early evening.
Farrah Storr (pictured) relives her experience of assault on the London underground, which happened nearly one year ago
That’s probably why I didn’t see the man until it was too late. One minute he wasn’t there, and the next he was. He swayed towards me, wearing a large black puffer jacket despite the warm evening.
I don’t know why I made this assumption, but instinct told me he was homeless and looking for change, so I went to open my handbag.
What happened next still feels dreamlike and confused. It was as though the attack took place in slow-motion and underwater. I know I screamed as he lunged towards me but my scream seemed, to me, meek and inaudible.
I saw his face momentarily — a good-looking guy, probably no more than 25. He didn’t look angry or violent, but relatively peaceful.
What felt like the next moment, he was gone and I was standing on the platform, dazed and alone.
‘Are you OK?’ the young boy with the shopping bags shouted over.
‘Why?’ I asked. He looked puzzled. ‘That man just pushed you to the ground.’
I’ve been mugged, was my first instinct. But my handbag was still on my shoulder, my shopping bag with the coveted sandals clasped in my fist.
Nothing, it seemed, had changed — except the right side of my face was cold as ice. I touched it and suddenly it felt raw and skinless. ‘Actually,’ I said. ‘I think… I think he punched me in the head.’
As it slowly dawned on me what had happened, I wanted to cry but didn’t, because I felt embarrassed in front of such a young boy. Clearly, I had blacked out for a short period, as I couldn’t recall being punched and I certainly didn’t remember falling to the ground or how I got back up.
The former editor of ELLE was punched in the face last year by a young man. She felt humiliated almost immediately and didn’t want to be seen as a victim
‘Do you want us to go after him?’ he said with complete seriousness. Instead of crying, I laughed, partly out of sheer gratitude, but also because I couldn’t imagine anything more comical than a middle-aged woman with a head injury, and a teenage boy laden with shopping bags hunting down a violent criminal. I shook my head.
‘Do you want me to take you to the Underground staff then?’ he asked.
I nodded, like a child. ‘Yes please,’ I said quietly.
And so he handed me over to a couple of TfL workers who pointed out a chair in a corner where I could sit.
It occurred to me later that I should have asked the boy for his details, as a witness. But all I could think about was my attacker’s impassive face.
At some point, the station staff asked if I needed an ambulance, though their tone suggested that it might be an inconvenience.
‘You could be waiting for at least four hours,’ they told me matter-of-factly. I got the sense they’d seen worse things on a Friday evening.
I didn’t want to add to the modern rain of ‘poor me’
Four hours? I just wanted to get home to my husband and dogs in the wilds of Kent. So I gave my permission for them to report it to the police and asked if I could see the CCTV footage of the attack instead.
The man I asked looked horrified and said no (predictably it was something to do with data protection), so I went back to that same platform, where I took the Tube to King’s Cross.
I phoned my husband to tell him what happened from the train. ‘It’s okay,’ I said in between quiet sobs. The carriage was full and I was ashamed of both the crying and what my face might look like. ‘I’m OK,’ I repeated. ‘Can you just pick me up at the station as normal?’
He sounded shocked. ‘But you’ve been attacked. I will come and get you in London!’ I said not to worry and put the phone down.
He was the first of many people to respond in the same way: with horror and concern at what had taken place, then puzzlement at the way I didn’t seem worried about it.
Nothing remotely like this had ever happened to me. And yet over the following days and weeks I was utterly, grimly determined to prove I could take it in my stride.
The next day, I woke up and couldn’t see properly. ‘It’s all gone dark!’ I wailed to my husband, who held me in his arms.
He demanded we call an ambulance but then the darkness lifted, so I told him I was going on a flower-arranging course with my sister that had been in the diary for months.
I phoned my mother. She sounded close to tears. ‘You’ve been assaulted,’ she said. ‘You’re probably suffering from trauma and shock.’ I felt uneasy with her choice of words. Assault. Trauma. Shock. That didn’t sound like something my life could handle.
I was a magazine editor. A leader. I had edited Elle and also Cosmopolitan for many years, where the mantra was ‘fun, fearless female’.
We encouraged women to be strong and independent. I’d even written a book about it — The Discomfort Zone: How to Get What You Want by Living Fearlessly. The premise of the book was to embrace challenge and difficulty, and overcome the things that make you feel afraid.
When I was attacked, I felt I had to live by my own mantra. I told myself that by going on as if nothing had happened, I was getting on with my life.
I’ve often railed against modern ‘victim culture’ as it’s a mindset I think has been singularly unhelpful to this generation of young people.
I thought I saw my attacker everywhere
It seems to me that a culture of trigger warnings and finding perceived offence in the slightest causes has encouraged psychological frailty rather than acknowledging the truth: that most people are more resilient than they think.
I didn’t want to add to the rain of ‘poor me’ in our modern world. Particularly, as I was aware that far worse things were happening to women both in the UK and around the globe.
So I went to the Cotswolds and arranged flowers in a village hall with a black eye and a raging headache. The same day, the police called. A nice woman offered me advice about victim support. Victim support. I decided at once it wasn’t for me. She also asked if I would give a statement, to which I of course replied yes.
This was in the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard, whose body had been found just over a mile away from my home in Kent. I had driven past the flowers and cards that morning. It was my duty to help catch my attacker, who I feared might be seriously mentally ill, before he struck again.
I just wanted life to carry on as normal, but my boss, friends, strangers on Instagram — everyone was filled with pity and concern. I wasn’t used to people feeling sorry for me. I didn’t want it.
Farrah tried to push the attack to the back of her thoughts. But a few days later, she felt like she was losing my mind
I tried to push the attack to the back of my thoughts. But a few days later, I felt like I was losing my mind. I had difficulty writing. Words escaped me. I couldn’t follow conversations. Fearing I’d waste NHS time, I took myself to A&E one night when the pain was so bad and waited for five hours for a doctor to tell me I just had very bad concussion. That it would pass.
And it did. The headaches went. The black eye cleared up. Conversations started to feel clear again, though it would be some weeks before I could write and edit copy, which terrified me since it’s how I make my living.
But here’s what didn’t change. For the first time in my life, I felt scared. And I hated it.
While I understood that what had happened was as random as a bird falling out of the sky and landing on my head, it didn’t stop me from questioning what I could have done differently. Was I dressed too smartly?
Was I standing in the wrong place? Did I look at him the wrong way?
I think it was my way of attempting to take control of the situation. Because the alternative was too scary; accepting the idea that no matter how street-smart or strong you are, your safety cannot be guaranteed. I could cope with being attacked; I could brush off being ignored by TfL staff and sitting through delays for medical treatment.
But what I couldn’t bear was being seen as a victim. It’s something I’ve always been afraid of. I am uncomfortable with feeling as if my life is at the mercy of others.
For many months, I was jumpy at the slightest thing, especially when out walking.
If someone brushed past me or got too close, I froze. In London one day, a man walked a little too close to me for all of ten metres.
I stopped, turned around and said urgently to him: ‘Why are you walking so close to me?’ He looked appalled and walked off, shaking his head.
I needed the safety of crowds — on train platforms, at bus stops, when out walking the dogs.
I became obsessed with reading news stories of women who had been randomly attacked. A few weeks after my assault, a woman was killed when out walking her dog in Kent, hit over the head with an iron bar.
What if it was the same man? What if he lived not in London, but closer to home in Kent? (It was not him, the police would tell me later.)
I’m finally able to admit that, yes, I was a victim
As for my attacker, I thought I saw him everywhere. One day I saw a man in a black puffer jacket on the other end of a Tube carriage. When my stop came, I didn’t get off but instead waited to see where this man alighted.
Three stops later, he got off… along with a pram, some kids and his wife. I got off too and felt foolish. What had I been trying to achieve anyway? The best thing I could do was give a police statement — and I fully intended to.
It’s just that when the time came, I put it off. And off. A very nice policeman had been emailing me and I’d promised I’d come in as soon as I could. But I was busy. I had a life to get on with.
In truth, I wanted to go on as though my existence was completely unchanged and reliving what had happened was too much of an acknowledgment that was far from the case.
Spring came and went. I got a new job writing a weekly column for online newsletter Substack.
People stopped asking if I was okay. The world moved on and yet, curiously, I did not.
And that’s when I realised what I was most afraid of. It was not that the assault had changed the way other people saw me; it had changed the way I saw myself.
I had always believed I was a strong, independent individual who didn’t need the security of anyone else to look after me.
But the truth was I was a victim. And though that fact felt like it had no place in a life like mine, there it was regardless. At the beginning of last summer, I finally decided to give my statement.
At the police station, I learned that despite being caught on CCTV, the attacker couldn’t be traced because he had used a paper ticket.
Afterwards, I said: ‘I don’t need to see the CCTV anymore, but it would help if I knew what happened to me.’ He fixed me with a look that hovered somewhere between respect and solidarity.
‘Well, you were right,’ he said gently. ‘He walked straight up to you and hit you in the temple. You hit the floor and presumably blacked out. And then he left.’
I asked why, in that case, I was standing when I came to. ‘Well here’s the amazing thing,’ he said. ‘You hit the ground and then, just like that, picked yourself up almost immediately. It was actually quite remarkable.’
It is rare that I am ever impressed by myself, but in that moment that’s exactly how I felt. Impressed. I thanked him for his time and walked out of the station into the sunshine.
It’s close to a year since that random attack on the platform. My life is the same in many ways — yet I can now admit that it has changed. I’m less jumpy than I was, though I’ll never again stand on an empty Tube platform or feel at ease in a quiet train carriage.
And I’m less dismissive of teenage boys nowadays.
But the biggest change? Well that’s easy. I’ve finally been able to admit that, yes, I was a victim. But being a victim doesn’t mean you can’t also be strong.
- If you have been a victim of crime you can seek help and support by visiting victim support.org.uk