When the unmarked police car took a left onto Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, the memories of that terrible night months before started creeping their way back into her body.
“My breathing started to get very shallow, and I could feel my palms getting sweaty,” Alison Turkos told BuzzFeed News. “All of a sudden, I’m on the verge of tears, having a full-blown panic attack. I just started hysterically sobbing, and I was like, ‘I know what happened.’”
For the past eight months, Turkos, 33, had known she’d been raped, but that’s about where her definitive knowledge of the events stopped. What happened to her in the early-morning hours of Oct. 14, 2017, remained largely a mystery, the trauma having caused her severe memory loss. It was during this June 2018 police reenactment of the ride that she finally remembered the details of how she had been held at gunpoint, kidnapped, and gang-raped by three men, one of whom was allegedly her Lyft driver.
In the nearly four years since, Turkos has been fighting to have her day in court. But despite significant evidence — a rape kit found semen from two men on her clothing, and her Lyft receipt showed the exact route she’d taken that night, along with the driver’s name and photo — federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have so far not charged anyone. Meanwhile, Turkos has been left feeling as if she’s been ghosted by the court and treated insensitively time and again by the criminal justice system that was supposed to help her. Though she has not been directly told the reasons for the prosecutorial inaction, her interactions with the attorneys and law enforcement have left her with the distinct impression they don’t view her as a “credible” enough victim to win the case, in part because of the holes in her memory. A spokesperson for the prosecutors declined to comment.
After someone experiences a traumatic event, memory loss is a relatively common phenomenon, an evolutionary tactic to protect them from experiencing the full weight of a distressing event. But sexual assault victims — who already often struggle to be believed — can face harsh, re-traumatizing treatment when their recollection of the attack is spotty. This normal biological response can be weaponized against them to sow doubt and disbelief, despite the fact that multiple studies have shown sexual assault is actually massively underreported and false claims are extraordinarily rare.
“There are soldiers who, in a battle, get a shrapnel wound in their ankle, and they don’t even notice it until the battle is over,” said Jim Hopper, a psychologist and expert on the effects of sexual assault on the brain. “We wouldn’t say to the soldier, ‘Oh, did you really get shot? Was it really that bad? Were you really in this battle?’ But with a rape victim [they may be asked], ‘What do you mean, you don’t remember whether he penetrated you with his penis? What do you mean, you don’t know if he had a condom on?’”
On Monday, Turkos published an open letter to the US attorneys who haven’t taken on her case. “They turned their backs on me, and continue to risk the safety of other potential victims because they do not believe the brutality that I suffered was believable enough for a jury,” she wrote.
Turkos had been out with her friends that October night, leaving a bar in Crown Heights around 2 a.m. to catch a Lyft home. The next morning, she woke up in her apartment, and despite having not drunk much the night before, she was exhausted, aching, and unable to recall details of how she got home. It was then that she saw a receipt for the Lyft ride: What was supposed to have been a 15- or 20-minute ride costing $12.81 had actually taken almost an hour and a half and cost $107.95 for a route that took her all the way to a state park in Jersey City, New Jersey, before bringing her home. She complained to Lyft, which refunded her the difference and “unpaired” her with the driver but did not immediately terminate him.
At first, Turkos thought the driver might have gone a roundabout way to scam her out of some money, but that didn’t explain the physical pain she was in, or why her vagina was bleeding. She went to the hospital, had a rape kit done, and reported it to the police.
The night terrors began months later and, with them, the seeds of remembrance. In her dreams, she was in the backseat of a speeding car and kept seeing awnings with Chinese script on them.
“I would wake up covered in sweat, sometimes hysterically crying, and in such a state of panic that I had never experienced before, ever, in my life,” she said.
She told her therapist about the dreams, who suggested she tell police. It was then that detectives suggested the reenactment ride to see if it could resurface her memories. The night of July 12, Turkos put on a similar outfit to what she’d been wearing the night of the assault and met the two officers outside the bar where she’d been picked up — everything had to be as similar to that night as possible for the best chance that the memories would come back.
It was incredibly effective. Riding down Bedford Avenue, she remembered that the street, which should have been a straight shot from the bar to her apartment, was where she had closed her eyes and dozed off. They continued along the route, driving over the Manhattan Bridge, where they hit a pothole, causing Turkos to suddenly let out a scream. That bump, she realized, was what woke her up, at which point she realized they’d drifted far from her destination. She had pointed this out to the Lyft driver, she said, and he ignored her. She then tried to open the door to jump out, but realized the child safety locks were on.
When they made it over the bridge and into Chinatown, they stopped at a light. She saw the awnings from her dreams, and a new memory resurfaced.
“That stoplight was where he pulled the gun on me,” Turkos said.
More memories — the feeling of the speeding car, the driver’s eyes in the rearview mirror, the sound of her bracelets jingling as she tried to open the locked doors — came back as they went through the Holland Tunnel. Once they arrived at the park where she’d been taken, it all came flooding back. She remembered her driver and two other men cheering and high-fiving as they took turns raping her.
“I was so overwhelmed with memories … that I had to sit down on the ground, because I thought I was either going to throw up or pass out,” she said.
A spokesperson for Lyft did not comment on its handling of the incident but told BuzzFeed News that what Turkos describes “is something no one should ever have to endure.”
“Everyone deserves the ability to move about the world safely, yet women still face disproportionate risks,” the spokesperson added. “We recognize these risks, and as long as they exist, we will remain committed to investing in safety features and policies that help protect our community.”
Turkos’s experience with buried memories is a psychological phenomenon known as dissociative amnesia, most often observed in cases of ongoing or recurring trauma, particularly with childhood sexual abuse. As a teen, Turkos had been raped twice, traumas that may have contributed to her dissociation during the 2017 attack.
“What my brain did is, it covered itself in a warm and comfortable blanket, because it knew I had been violently and brutally sexually assaulted twice before,” Turkos said. “It basically said, ‘Baby girl, we’re not doing this again.’”
If you haven’t experienced it firsthand, it may be hard to picture your brain fully blocking access to a memory, particularly such a distressing one. But dissociation is actually an instinctual response, said Mindy Mechanic, a psychology professor specializing in trauma responses at California State University, Fullerton.
“In a lot of sexual assault situations, fighting or fleeing is not an option. A third default option can be the freeze response, and dissociation is a more extreme form of a freezing response,” Mechanic said. “The freeze response is actually very adaptive in many ways, because if you’re unable to escape a threatening or dangerous situation, and you just have to endure it and get through to the other side of it … you’re less acutely aware of all the horrible things happening to you, because you’re checked out.”
When a person realizes they’re in danger and dissociates, their heart rate drops, blood flows away from the brain, and the brain works quickly to lessen the pain and trauma it is facing. “You have neurotransmitters that kick in that cut off the pain, but they also tend to cut off the memory,” said Patricia Resick, a Duke University psychology professor and expert on post-traumatic stress disorder.
Outside of dissociation, this neurotransmitter response is quite common after injuries, which is why, if you've ever broken a bone, it may not have hurt right away.
“[It’s] an anesthetic kind of response,” Resick said. “There’s nothing magical or mystical about dissociation — it’s trying to numb you out.”
Though this is a proven psychological occurrence, many in law enforcement are not adequately educated on how it works, reducing the effectiveness of their investigation tactics and often re-traumatizing the victim, said Hopper. Stress can worsen memory retrieval, and the victim likely has very high levels of it already, particularly while they are speaking with police or having a rape kit done, he added.
“That’s a pretty stressful experience, especially if [law enforcement’s] not competent, let alone compassionate,” Hopper said. “So you may not be able to remember stuff that’s in there — it’s in your brain, and you can’t remember it.”
The questions police ask a victim can also affect the victim's ability to remember. Exact timelines of the events may be hard to recall, but sensory details can remain vivid. When Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate about her alleged sexual assault by then–Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, she could not recall every detail about the party but said the sounds of the boys’ laughter as she was being assaulted have never left her mind. Similarly, it was the sights, sounds, and tactile sensations that jogged Turkos’s subconscious and unlocked the memories.
“A lot of the conditions of retrieval that are set up by investigators are often not very conducive to retrieving important information,” Hopper said. “They ask them for a sequential narrative which they don’t have, and they don’t realize to ask them about things they might have smelled or heard. These very open-ended questions about their sensations can oftentimes help people retrieve pieces of memory that can be really, really important.”
Even if Turkos never remembered the details of her assault, it would not be unprecedented for the case to go to trial anyway, particularly because of the large amount of evidence from that night. Rape cases in which the victim has no memory have been won before, perhaps most famously with Chanel Miller, whose rapist, Brock Turner, was found guilty in 2016.
What it takes to win, Mechanic said, is proper training for prosecutors. There are organizations that specialize in this kind of education, such as the victim-centered justice nonprofit AEquitas.
“You need an attorney who’s going to say, ‘It doesn’t matter whether she remembers it or not, we have the evidence,’” Resick said. “If they need to, they can get an expert up on the stand who can explain dissociation.”
Turkos still doesn’t know if her case will ever be heard. She is now suing Lyft and the NYPD for their handling of her case and has plans to meet with prosecutors later this month. Still, she doesn’t have high hopes that much will come of it.
This October will be four years since the attack, but with all the time and energy she has put in to try to be heard, she still has barely begun to heal. She struggles with severe anxiety, depression, and PTSD and is often unable to eat or sleep.
Meanwhile, her alleged rapists remain free. A spokesperson for the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission told BuzzFeed News the TLC would suspend “any licensee that is arrested and charged with a serious crime, such as rape” — but the Lyft driver still has an active taxi license, so he is likely still on the road, continuing to drive passengers, and will keep doing so unless he is ever charged.
Turkos wonders what more she could possibly have done, what proof she could offer beyond all that she has already offered, to be granted a chance at even a semblance of justice.
“My question is, What else do you need?” she said. “You are asking me to contort my life, my body, my trauma, into a box — a perfect victim box.”