(Orion) a hunter of shadows, himself a shade.
Homer, Odyssey, II. 572.
On October 5, 2017, a New York Times news alert popped up on my phone screen “Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades,” it read. I immediately clicked through and read Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s story of the decades of systematic abuse and alleged sexual assaults at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, forcing actresses ﹘ experienced and ingenues ﹘ to choose his abuse or their careers. While the story was shocking, it certainly wasn’t surprising.
Over the past year, I’ve carefully watched many men receive their comeuppance and I’ve sorrowfully listening as scores of women stepped forward and told their stories. Sadly, I don’t think the tsunami of #MeToo hashtags and stories flooding our Facebook feeds and internet browsers is new news to any woman. Our sisters, neighbors, friends, local business owners, the bus driver we groggily greet every morning, the police woman who vigilantly paces the Union Square subway platform — there was a tremendously fierce roar of voices saying, along with “Me Too,” “No More.” Our stories set the most somber of moods at this long-awaited gathering, The Reckoning, an extremely late guest.
Anita Hill. Ashley Judd. Kesha. In my mind, I turn the tables. I wonder if I’d be as articulate and unrelenting in my own quest for acknowledgment and justice. Would I listen to my brain telling the usual story, the one warning me to stay silent? Or would I tell speak the truth and risk turning my world into a festering, gaping wound eventually growing large enough to swallow me whole. And, there I’d go….
In the fall of 1996, I was a lonely college freshman at a university in which, by design, I knew virtually no one. Immediately, I befriended Meredith* and Hannah* who were high school friends and now college roommates. Hannah was a member of the university’s cheerleading team, which resembled a cliquish, co-ed fraternity rather than an athletic group at a Division I university. Meredith, a formidable gymnast and cheerleader in her own right, routinely joined Hannah and the squad for practice at the university’s field house. She devoted hours to the practice, eager to ingratiate herself to the other members and prepare for spring tryouts. Meredith’s eyes were electric when describing a vault from the top of a human pyramid or a ripple of backflips perfectly unfurled across the gymnasium floor. As the semester progressed, Meredith spoke of feeling embraced and emotionally accepted by the group, entrusting them with her physical safety with every increasingly difficult stunt.
I didn’t understand the enthusiasm for the sport. At my Catholic, all-girls high school, we didn’t have a cheerleading team and we scoffed at girls who cheered for the surrounding boys schools. Why cheer for boys when we can just play the sports ourselves? was the mindset of many of my fellow classmates. However, in this new anonymous life I’d chosen there were scores of girls devoted to dance teams and cheer squads and color guard. A bit of time passed before I understood that in a state where football lore runs deep, these subsequent traditions follow suit.
Over winter break, along with another friend, I visited Meredith at her parent’s home. A few hours after arriving, the three of us piled on Meredith’s bed, a gaggle of arms and legs pointing every which way, happy to see one another after what seemed like an eternity, if only in our minds. When the conversation naturally trailed off Meredith cleared her throat and told us she’d been raped. Just like that — like reading the next day’s weather report or movie showtimes out loud to a group, as straightforward as other logical constants like, “the sky is blue,” or “water is wet.”
The night before returning home for the holidays, Meredith and Hannah attended a party thrown by two male cheerleaders. One of them, Ryan*, showed an interest in Meredith and as the night progressed, the plastic cup holding her drink was never empty. Ryan frequently grabbed it from Meredith’s hands and disappeared to the kitchen only to return with a freshly-made, alcohol-laden concoction; his machinations disguised in plain sight, veiled to appear as the act of a polite, attentive host and chivalrous suitor.
The account of the actual assault is not mine to tell. Meredith woke up the next morning, fractured visions of the night before flashed like lightning across her subconscious, and knew immediately she’d been assaulted. I believe Meredith, although it doesn’t matter what I believe because truth exists, and neither opinion or bias or handwritten calendar notes or emotional speeches made in front of a Judiciary Committee negates its existence. The act of sexual assault has defined parameters (illegal sexual contact that usually involves force upon a person without consent or is inflicted upon a person who is incapable of giving consent [as because of age or physical or mental incapacity] or who places the assailant [such as a doctor] in a position of trust or authority). The process of convincing people asexual assault (or attempted sexual assault) occurred or what “consent” looks like is where some people appear to philosophically stumble.
Seared into my memory and periodically played back in slow motion, Meredith’s story is permanently stored in the deepest recesses of my subconscious. I feel a throbbing ache not only for my former friend Meredith but for all Merediths, and Lindas, and Karens, and Cindys — for the dozens I know and the millions I do not, who have suffered at the hands of the power-hungry, the depraved, the empty.
Frozen in time we sat; three of us perched atop the neatly made bed with its precise, hospital corner folds, like frozen birds on a wire, unable to find the words befitting of the comfort and support our friend needed or deserved in that very moment and for many moments after. Rather, our eyes bore holes through Meredith’s face as she recounted the night in sentences interrupted by a staccato of sobs, sharp breaths and tears born not of sadness, but of fear, anger and violation. As her tears accumulated, small storms of justice took shape. Back at university for the spring semester, Meredith began meeting frequently with a university crisis counselor who helped her muffle the daily flashbacks and the cloying anxiety she experienced. Through the work done in those sessions, Meredith filed a formal complaint with the university’s judicial committee alleging Ryan sexually assaulted her at the off-campus party.
Two decades later, I understand the systematic practices universities use to mute or outright silence sexual assault victims, mainly by keeping complaints internal and as quiet as possible thus minimizing involvement of local law enforcement and other authorities. I came to college to learn and to prepare for the “real world,” one without a safety net. The anonymity I’d sought when choosing a college was a visceral reaction to spending three years at a now-shuttered, Catholic, all-girls school in which the administration and parents swept many alarming incidents “under the rug.” From a young male teacher who preyed on underage students to the married, septuagenarian math teacher who preached a particularly-alarming brand of misogynist morality to his young, female students, yet spent his nights lurking in public park bathrooms, fondling unsuspecting male visitors — there was no moral compass to be found, even while kneeling under a crucifix and praying for the forgiveness of my mundane sins. This recurring theme of my Catholic high school and, frankly of the Catholic Church as a whole, was one I believed I couldn’t change and it sent me fleeing to the world of secular education, in search of truth, honesty and its keepers.
Many universities cooked the crime statistics books and, aside from some piddly, single credit, mandatory course covering everything from class credits needed per semester to maximizing the meal plans, barely mentioned the concept of consent, let alone the options open to those needing to psychologically process and adjudicate a sexual assault. I encouraged Meredith to file a complaint and to scream about her sexual assault from the rafters. I supported her in ensuring the reckoning of Ryan was swift and severe. I believed this would help Meredith heal — it would erase the flashbacks, the anxiety attacks and the guilt she experienced. What I know now is I wasn’t looking out for Meredith. Rather, I reacted to a selfish desire for justice and a tyrannical need to ensure the misbehaviors of men, so swiftly hidden by my high school administrators throughout my teenage years, would be openly addressed at the university I’d chosen. My goals may have been admirable but my motivations were dishonest. Was I seeking justice for Meredith or for myself?
I was just eighteen years old and could barely do my own laundry let alone navigate the legal waters of my friend’s sexual assault. Once the complaint was filed and the wheels in motion, I thought it was too late to involve law enforcement and that (without a rape kit) any form of criminal retribution against Ryan was nearly impossible. Naive and trusting, when the counselor suggested going through the university judicial committee, I believed she had Meredith’s best interests in mind. I believed I had Meredith’s best interests in mind.
It is difficult to believe this now.
In 2015, the same year The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, 89% of U.S. colleges reported zero rape incidents (source: American Association of University Women). Yet in striking opposition, approximately 11% of students are victims of sexual assault and violence, with college-enrolled women three times more likely than the female population as a whole, to be targeted. Furthermore, when college women are sexually assaulted, they report the crime to law enforcement only 20% of the time (source: RAINN.org).
In February of 1997, Meredith moved ahead with her complaint and a law student met with her regularly to prepare for the upcoming hearing. At the same time, Meredith’s roommate Hannah adopted the particularly alarming idea she could remain friends with both Meredith and Ryan. She understood both sides, she claimed, and none of us were in the bedroom that night were we? she mused. During one of the more baffling conversations I had with Hannah, I asked what Ryan had told her about the assault. Hannah confided Ryan admitted to having sex with Meredith but swore both were extremely drunk and communication regarding consent, or lack thereof, was never a consideration.
I returned to my dorm room and stared at the concrete walls in complete stillness, the occasional sound of helicopters flying overhead to deliver organs to the university medical center a few blocks away punctuating my meditation. At that moment in time, I was green to sex and sexuality, to feminism with a lowercase and an uppercase“f” and the power dynamic of gender, however I knew Meredith was raped. Read that again. I knew. I just KNEW.
I wasn’t present the night it occured but, like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in his Jacobellis v. Ohio ruling regarding an obscenity litmus test — I know it when I see it. I heard Meredith’s story, I heard Hannah’s excuses and not only did I know Meredith didn’t consent to intercourse, I knew Ryan groomed her for the assault throughout the evening, consent be damned. The man responsible for lifting Meredith 15 feet in the air with only his palm also laid the trap for sexual assault knowing Meredith believed the concept of trust extended outside the perimeters of the athletic center.
Adjudicating sexual assault in a university-contained setting means, if found guilty, a sexual predator may be allowed to move freely to another university without disclosing his actions for dismissal. Predators pay very little for their crimes and, dare I say become emboldened the next time around? Of course, because most sexual assaults are perpetrated by males against females, a gender-bias exists when prosecuting sexual assault, and in the lack of accurate statistics around sexual assault, sexual assault awareness and the rehabilitation of its victims. It was up to the university judicial board to hear both parties recount the events of that December night and decide whether Ryan violated the university’s student code of conduct, which included: “commits any sexual act directed against another person, forcibly and/or against that person’s will…”. If found guilty, expulsion from the university would be immediate. In contrast, if found innocent, Ryan would stay and the truth of what happened that night would be sucked from its vacuum and public opinion would slowly eat away at its existence. And, there it would go….
I was a character witness at the hearing and detailed Meredith’s disclosure over winter break and the instances of PTSD I’d witnessed over the past months, occurrences that included Meredith quickly jumping behind trees or ducking into unknown buildings at the sight of a complete stranger she thought to be Ryan. While prepping with Meredith’s lawyer one afternoon, I asked about Hannah who was (at that point) a wild card. In the months after the assault, she moved out of her and Meredith’s dorm room and became completely loyal to Ryan. Would she testify for the Defense? Would Hannah tell the truth — that Ryan admitted to having intercourse with Meredith? That he made sure she was inebriated and unable to provide consent and used that as his justification to take whatever he wanted from her.
I think about the truths in this story and my memory of these truths, specifically how memory fails me. I can’t remember Ryan’s face or the mock courtroom in the Student Union. I don’t remember testifying; whether there was an administrative panel or judge. However, memories of how I felt are still strong, so real they are almost tangible. I remember the sadness; rotund and heavy, the anxiety; jumpy and prickly, unrelenting and unpredictable. I remember the confusion; unsteady and lopsided. When the truth was revealed, a story told through a mixed-medium of facts and memories, Ryan was found to be in violation of the student code and kicked out of school.
I can tell you only my facts and my memories. In 1996 I left my childhood home awkward and provincial and, in 1997, returned jaded and disillusioned. I knew little of boys and nothing of men — sexual politics a foreign language lost on me then and for many years to come.
At some point during our sophomore year Meredith and I disconnected from one another. I turned inside myself, as I am still known to do and Meredith wondered where I’d gone. Meredith’s boyfriend broke up with her and she began living the single college life ﹘ the one we are all allowed to live ﹘ one that involves drinking and smoking and sex, curiosity, experimentation and growth. People talked behind Meredith’s back, “If she was raped while incoherently drunk, why does she drink so much at parties?” or “Hasn’t she learned her lesson?” were the common themes of these female-led whispers. Perhaps some of them wanted to convince themselves that while “no means no,” women have the power to protect themselves and, in turn, the ability to prevent their own assaults. By placing blame on Meredith, these girls soothed themselves: I will be okay because I don’t black out when I drink. I only drink a lot in front of guys I know. I’m like a sister to them. My guy friends would never hurt me.
I abandoned ship, stopped speaking to Meredith and joined the chorus of whispers.
I thought she learned her lesson. After all she went through, I thought she’d be more careful were the most common betrayals I perpetrated against Meredith. Looking back it was simply internalized misogyny; if there was any way I could prevent my own assault, than conversely any assault was partially a failure (on my part) of prevention. Or perhaps it was self-preservation: If there are ways to prevent assault, I am safer when I act reliably or responsibly or if I am street-smart or trained in self-defense or whatever line of bullshit we feed our brains to convince ourselves if we try hard enough, we won’t become victims.
Of course it’s all nonsensical and resembles nothing of what I’ve come to believe in the past 15 years. As I’ve read story after story this past year and engaged in conversations about the #MeToo movement, I realize my current rhetoric is a far cry from the girl who supported her friend…until she didn’t anymore. I am ashamed by my hypocrisy. I was a bad feminist and, even worse, a bad friend. In fact, I was a poor human. I walk the streets of New York everyday bemoaning the sense of entitlement running rampant in our society, yet I am blind to my own past which is riddled with similar types of callous and erroneous logic.
I wasn’t the victim back in 1996 yet, somehow, I made it about me. I should have provided my friend support yet my friend provided much more support than I ever gave in return. I don’t know where Meredith is today or how she is doing. Does she still like striped shirts and wear her hair in a signature, low-maintenance, short bob? Does she still listen to the Grateful Dead and Bob Marley? Does she giggle with an infectious, bubbling, contagious guffaw like she did back then?
Is she okay?
This isn’t about a public apology, although I am deeply sorry for the irreparable pain I caused. This is about coming forward and acknowledging my mistakes, my poor judgement and recognizing our decisions have lasting ripple effects on others’ lives. It’s about growth and change and understanding, however flawed our logic, there’s always value in continuing the conversation.
It’s about holding oneself accountable for one’s actions.
It’s about women not being each other’s worst enemies.
And, here I am.
*all names have been changed to protect subjects’ identities
If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual assault you have many support options at your disposal. You can call your local law enforcement officials by dialing 9–1–1- or the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.