Five years ago this month Jeanne Assam shot a gunman at New Life Church in Colorado Springs and saved countless lives. She was called a national hero and lauded by President George W. Bush. It looked As if her life would change forever. But before Assam could move forward, she first had to confront herself.
As a kid in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Jeanne Assam went to church on Sundays. Mom went regularly, which meant Jeanne had to go. Her parents were well-known around the city, though they weren’t always home, and Jeanne was often left in other people’s care. When she was four, she was sexually abused for the first time. When she was 14, an elder at her church molested her. When he told her not to tell, she didn’t. This was a man of God, and she was just a child. Who would people believe? The abuse continued for years.
Eventually, she pushed that piece of her away. She separated that fragment of her past until she no longer recognized it as part of herself. Years later, before the shooting that would make her famous around the world, Assam went to a therapist. The doctor asked her to draw a timeline of her life on a whiteboard. When Assam finished, the doctor studied her work. The first 16 years of her life were blank.
She was a victim, but she’d never thought of herself that way. Even after she’d left home in 1985, gone to college in Nebraska and later in California, and discovered more abuse at the hands of men, she refused to see herself as weak. She was young and pretty and men were attracted to her. But when she was with men, she felt uncomfortable. It was never that way around women. When she was around women who flirted with her, she never felt like a sexual object. It felt right. The few encounters she had were never forced; the intimacy that grew from those relationships was natural, unlike anything she’d ever felt.
In 1989, Assam transferred to Hamline University, a liberal arts school in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She studied criminal justice and hoped to become a police officer. During her first year in Minnesota, she dated a cop with the Minneapolis Police Department, and she often went on ride-alongs with the woman. The action made an indelible impression on her. Each call was an uncertainty, its own prepackaged adrenaline rush, night after night. There was an immediacy about the justice—how police could bring peace so quickly—and she loved to watch good cops work. The best were fit and athletic, daring and brave. She thought she was all of that. One night, she proved it: During a ride-along, Assam helped her girlfriend break up a fight between two men. One of the men had a knife, and Assam swiped it from him. After the men were arrested and in the back of the squad car, her girlfriend was upset. Assam wasn’t trained; it was a stupid move and she could have gotten killed. Assam didn’t care. She knew she was going to be a cop.
She graduated from Hamline in 1992. Assam attended the police academy and joined the Minneapolis Police Department in 1993. She was in her mid-20s when she was assigned to the Fourth Precinct, the city’s most dangerous ward. Assam couldn’t have been happier. In her uniform, she found purpose. Her shirtsleeves were perfectly creased; her black boots were spotless. Her badge, with number 0234 etched into it, was polished brass. It gleamed under the lights. Her badge was like the missing piece to her life’s puzzle. With it, she felt whole.