Anatomy of a Betrayal

How Hunter College Failed to Respond to a Sexual Assault Allegation

TRIGGER WARNING for VIOLENT CONTENT AND SEXUAL ABUSE

Introduction: As a student in the MFA program in creative writing at Hunter College, I read an earlier version of this essay on May 18, 2020 to an audience of fellow MFA students, alumni, faculty, friends, sexual assault prevention advocates and journalists. The newer version below reflects updates in Colum McCann’s status as well as Hunter College’s inadequate response to misconduct allegations made against him. Most of these details have never been shared with the public.

Yesterday, the Booker Prize shortlist was announced. Colum McCann was not selected.

Anatomy of a Betrayal

I. Background: Anatomy of an Abuser

It is October 31st, 2019, when I’m first conscious of a man named Colum McCann. I’ve walked into a packed auditorium at Hunter College with my service dog, Duke, vested up and trotting protectively on my left side. As we step down the aisle between hundreds of prospective MFA students, and approach the front of the room, McCann’s eyes meet mine, and then drop to the rest of my body. By the time his eyes return to my face, it’s clear to me that he has sized me up. It’s the type of gaze that is so thorough that I might wonder if I’d ever truly been seen before he saw me in that moment, if there was ever, in fact, a me to see. It’s a gaze that’s old and familiar, but stale. I’m used to intrusive eyes. I’m used to lack of boundaries. I’m used to powerful men. I think nothing of it until the new year.

On February 17, 2020, the writer Randa Jarrar tweets the following about her encounter with Colum McCann at a writing conference:

In 2014, McCann drew me a bath & after masturbating me with my consent, he did the following without it: hit my head and body, choked&bruised my neck, bit my toenail so hard it bruised for over a year, & pushed me under water. A friend picked me up hours later.

At 5:51 pm on February 17, 2020, Roxane Gay, award-winning author and feminist powerhouse of Haitian-American descent tweets a response to Jarrar’s allegation, to over 700,000 followers:

I was that friend. This is all true.

I reach out to Randa Jarrar. I reach out to Hunter alumni, and students, and faculty. Both my instructor and an alumnus tell me that McCann’s alleged attack on Jarrar is old news; they tell me that several members of Hunter faculty knew about it, in 2017, but did nothing to investigate or remove McCann, as far as they know.

I am told I should talk to those who do know, but no one wants to be on the record having watched, having heard, having looked away. Witnesses disappear into the shadows as though threatened by memory, or something unseen.

And then Jarrar sends me a photo from that night of Colum McCann, a photo that I cannot unsee. Lying on his back on bedsheets, all white skin with one arm flung over his head, one nipple exposed toward the camera. He is sleeping soundly, infant-like, without a care in the world. I never wanted this picture of a man I do not care to know, his chest and armpit hair, his unshaven face and receding hairline.

She writes, “Here’s a photo of Colum after assaulting me. You can see the time stamp.”

I see it. 3:40 AM. January 10, 2014.

I do not need to see it. I believe Randa long before I see Colum’s naked body on my phone. I have never not believed her.

I tell her, “there’s no question in our minds that WE believe you. (WE BELIEVE YOU…”, I write again, in capital letters, “and I will say it again and again in case you have any doubt, we believe YOU)”.

II. Cast of Characters: Anatomy of a Betrayal

1. Randa Jarrar. Award-winning author of Palestinian-Egyptian and Muslim descent and faculty member at Fresno State University. In 2018, after the death of Barbara Bush, Jarrar tweets that the deceased and her husband raised a war criminal. Overnight, she becomes the target of violent white nationalist trolls. Has written extensively on identity and sexuality, Islam, feminism, racism, fatphobia, queerness, BDSM.

2. BDSM. bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadism and masochism; (not to be mistaken with non-consensual acts like rape or sexual assault, as it involves practices like informed consent and safe words). The defense Hunter’s Title IX Coordinator uses in a recorded meeting with me and several other MFA students to undermine Jarrar’s assault allegation, elevate Colum McCann’s so-called “privacy”, and challenge students who are trying to distinguish a sex crime from consensual sex.

3. Colum McCann. Award-winning author of Irish descent. Author of Apeirogon, a novel about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Longlisted for the 2020 Man Booker Prize. Faculty member in the MFA program in creative writing at Hunter College. In 2014, McCann is beaten and knocked out on a New Haven street for intervening in a man’s physical assault on a woman. The New York Times calls him “An Author Known for His Empathy”. Accused by Randa Jarrar of sexual assault; accused by numerous alumni of fostering a climate of intimidation, sexism and racism in his MFA classes, and appropriating the stories of marginalized subjects, including those of his own students.

4. Peter Carey. Award-winning author of white Australian descent. Has won the Man Booker Prize, twice. The Executive Director of the Hunter College MFA program in creative writing. Led the program when Jarrar first made her assault accusation in 2017, pre-#MeToo, and continues to lead the program when Jarrar repeats her allegation in 2020, post-#MeToo. Despite being the MFA head, chooses not to speak with all concerned MFA students about the situation. On February 19, 2020, two days after Jarrar’s tweet, emails his fiction students and faculty that he hopes to see them all at President Raab’s book launch event for McCann.

On April 18, 2020, tells a prospective MFA student who is concerned about McCann’s presence at Hunter:

“our community took every caring human action the law permitted us…I want to assure you that Hunter has zero tolerance of harassment and predatory behavior…our students are our future. We are here to care, to nurture, to protect. And if you were to accept our offer, I would make that promise personally to you whether Mr McCann was teaching in the Fall or not. (As it happens he is not).”

5. John Rose. The Title IX Coordinator at Hunter College and Dean of Diversity and Compliance, of African-American descent. In a quick Google search, is a key subject in a 2014 article titled “Hunter College Investigated by Feds for Allegedly Mishandling Sex Assault”. At a recorded meeting on February 21, 2020 with several fiction and memoir students, including me, fails to grasp the difference between consensual and non-consensual sex. Also does not concede that a violent crime committed by a faculty member against a civilian off campus impacts the safety and well-being of students in the classroom. Interrupts me and refuses to allow me to speak when I attempt to share Jarrar’s tweet with him. In an email to me on March 2, 2020, says the following:

“we had to be mindful of [McCann’s] privacy and his rights to pursue lifestyle activities of his choice however strongly disapproving we might consider them, unless that conduct gives rise to a risk [to] our campus community.”

6. Tom Sleigh. Award-winning poet and instructor in the Hunter MFA program. Also white. Second in command of Hunter’s MFA program in creative writing. Caught in the worst kind of e-mail snafu, in which he accidentally sends the following email to a prospective MFA student, who forwards it to me:

From: Thomas Sleigh
Date: Sun, Apr 19, 2020, 5:41 PM
Subject: Re: Question from an admitted student
To: Peter Carey
Cc: Jane Doe (name changed)

Hey Peter,

Forgot to say that Jennifer [Raab] would like to know if she spends the money this year that the rising first years won’t turn the incoming first years against Colum. That could take the form of telling the incoming folks that Colum will be teaching…

My two cents:

1. It’ll blow over.

2. If it doesn’t, then we have to consider firing him, or taking the heat until it does blow over.

Hope Said has good news…

Tom

7. Jennifer Raab. The President of Hunter College, of Jewish-American descent. Responsible for bringing over $400 million dollars in philanthropy to Hunter. A litigator by background. Savvy, capable. Previously considered a role model by many younger women, including me.

8. Steven Spielberg. Award-winning iconic Hollywood film director and producer of Jewish-American descent. Buys the film rights for Colum McCann’s novel, Apeirogon. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, says of the #MeToo movement,

“This is a watershed moment, and extolling the virtues of women coming forward through tremendous personal sacrifice, using tremendous amounts of courage to speak about what has happened to them…This is something that is going to change everything for the better.”

9. Daniel (not his real name). Former legal adviser to Palestinian leadership, of Palestinian-American and Christian descent. Colleague to the narrator, and dear friend to Colum McCann. Would, by the sound of it, take a bullet for Colum McCann. Is sympathetic to victims of sexual assault but wants Apeirogon to be a huge success because it might finally legitimize the Palestinian struggle. Asks me if maybe we can delay making this scandal public before Colum’s book tour is complete?

10. COVID-19. A virus that makes New York City a global pandemic epicenter and leads the Governor of NY to shut down Hunter College in March 2020, two weeks after Randa Jarrar tweets her assault allegation. Responsible for the illness, deaths and unemployment of numerous faculty, students and family members in the City University of New York system. Exposes the obvious race, class and gender inequities in the American economy and healthcare system. Puts a real wrench in student momentum to hold Peter Carey and Jennifer Raab accountable for Colum McCann’s alleged misconduct.

11. 5 out of 7. According to one MFA student, the number of first year students in the MFA fiction program who not only believed Randa Jarrar in February 2020 but also said they would not return to Hunter in the fall semester if Colum McCann was still on faculty. Now second year students, a very frightening bunch to the Hunter administration, though they do not yet seem to realize their own power or capacity for making change.

12. Two women and counting. The number of prospective Hunter MFA students who were accepted but declined admission to Hunter because of Colum McCann and Hunter’s disappointing response to Jarrar’s allegation.

13. Anuradha Bhagwati. Narrator, of Indian-American and Hindu descent. Award-winning activist and ACLU client. Former United States Marine and author of the critically acclaimed book, Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedience, about fighting for justice and opportunity for women in the U.S. military. Contributor to the anthology Believe Me, How Trusting Women Can Change the World. Along with three other peers, was not invited by the MFA department to present her work at the main MFA graduation in May 2020 with fellow graduating students, for reasons that are still unclear.

III. Epilogue

According to Hunter’s MFA website, “National Book Award Winner Colum McCann is on leave after the international publication of Apeirogon, ‘a masterpiece, a novel that will change the world’ (The Guardian). He will return in Spring 2022.”

Hunter’s MFA Open House, which draws hundreds of prospective students from around the country, is scheduled for this fall. McCann will teach and mentor several of these new students when he returns. What information or warnings they will receive about McCann remain unclear.

I believe women. I believe Randa Jarrar. I believe Roxane Gay. I believe myself. I believe Black and Brown women. I believe Muslim and Arab women. I believe Palestinian women. I believe queer women. I believe trans women. I believe elderly women and young women. I believe disabled women. I believe fat and skinny women. I believe women.

I also believe this: Hunter College must be transparent with students, alumni and the public about the ongoing situation with Colum McCann. The administration must investigate all accusations thoroughly, and protect current students and alumni who come forward from retaliation. A sexual assault perpetrated off campus by an instructor poses enormous risk to the wellbeing of current students and faculty. If Hunter administrators or faculty disagree, they are unqualified for the positions they hold at the college. As it stands, with the unsupportive and traumatizing environment Hunter staff has created for many students in the MFA program, I do not believe Hunter College or the Hunter MFA program is a safe place for women, or survivors of sexual violence.

I believe women. I believe us. I believe in us. We will not be silenced.