Everything Wrong With Mitch Albom’s Rape Survivor Sound Bite
In the early morning hours of Dec. 7, 2012, mid-way through her freshman year at Florida State University, Kinsman reported being raped. Evidence was collected. FSU star quarterback Jameis Winston was identified as the suspect. As reported by numerous outlets over the past three years, the police and the university more than mishandled the case, starting with them disregarding the 30 security cameras at the bar where she says Winston drugged her and refusing to run Winston’s DNA. Their egregious mismanagement happened as national coverage about the sexual assault epidemic on college campuses spiked, leading to the creation of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. It’s impossible to imagine that those who handled Kinsman’s case with repeated incompetence — or willful actions, depending on whose reporting/opinion you read — could have missed the rising public awareness on this issue.
“No one other than Winston, his accuser, and several of Winston’s teammates — who were present at the alleged assault — know whether the Florida State quarterback is a rapist. But we now know enough to be appalled by how Florida State University and the city of Tallahassee handled this entire ordeal. We know that police refused to investigate the original accusation of rape for months and that the school did not interview Winston about the incident for over a year. We know that the police — eventually pressured by the press into investigating the incident — had financial ties as security workers for the Seminole Boosters club. We know that Jameis Winston did not testify at his own student conduct hearing to defend his own innocence except by issuing an appalling written statement where he called the accuser a liar, violated her confidentiality by stating her name repeatedly and posited that this was all happening because she was miffed that his door kept swinging open while they were having sex.”
Yes, that’s the abridged list. In the end, despite finding Winston’s DNA on Kinsman’s clothing, according to the New York Times, “prosecutor William N. Meggs decided the evidence was not sufficient to prosecute Mr. Winston” almost a year later. That same month, Winston won the Heisman Trophy — college football’s highly celebrated award for the best player in the country — and decided to return to campus for the 2014–2015 season to rack up a number of additional awards and records. Winston went on to become the coveted #1 NFL draft pick in April 2015, inking a four-year deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers worth $25.35 million, which included a $16.69 million signing bonus. He is now a very rich man who gets to play football every week with his name on the lips of sportswriters and commentators around the country, even despite the abysmal record (6–10) of his team.
With no legal recourse available, Kinsman did the only thing in her power to hold the university liable for its inaction following her assault: she sued. And she won. The Hunting Ground celebrated the victory on their website last week:
“Today, Erica Kinsman settled her lawsuit against FSU for $950,000 and a five-year commitment to programs that promote sexual assault awareness, transparency and prevention. FSU must report on these efforts every year for the next five years. It’s the largest settlement of its kind in U.S. history.”
Considering that as of summer 2013, not one college or university had EVER been sanctioned for violating Title IX — the federal law that protects students from discrimination based on sex or gender — it is a big deal just to win the accountability part of the settlement. Thanks to activists around the country from groups like Know Your IX, there are now 194 investigations at 159 colleges and universities — moves that are just scratching the surface of a campus sexual assault epidemic which affects 19% of female and 5–6% of male students. In the context of these facts, the significance of this settlement cannot be understated. Said Kinsman in a statement:
“I’ll always be disappointed that I had to leave the school I dreamed of attending since I was little. I am happy that FSU has committed to continue making changes in order to ensure a safer environment for all students. My hope is that the federal investigation of my complaint by the Office of Civil Rights will produce even more positive change, not just at FSU, but across the country.”
So, she did it not to get rich, but to hold someone — anyone — accountable for what happened to her during her first semester on campus. I can’t imagine the strength it has taken her not just to report the rape at such a young age, but to go public with the full account of her story in a documentary and then continue pursuing justice during the years when most of us are dreaming of our 21st birthday parties or hoping for a solid summer internship. It takes a special kind of determination to continue pursuing cases after graduation, expulsion, or withdrawal like Kinsman did — something administrations count on to sweep assaults under the rug.
Yet Albom finds Kinsman’s motivations “suspect” because he imagines she said, “Well, I’m going to take it.” Meaning the money. This young woman who immediately reached out for help and was enduring the rape exam so quickly following the assault that, in her words, “They were watching bruises appear as I was laying in the hospital bed” — he thinks she shouldn’t get the $250,000 left after the $700,000 in attorney fees? Hold my earrings. Perhaps he doesn’t know about the breakdown of money — though it seems outlandish to think anyone who’s been on the planet and in the public eye as long as Albom has could have avoided a movie or news story with a discussion of monetary awards and who gets what. Even if that’s possible, Albom’s 30-second sound bite is beyond offensive to survivors, sports fans, feminists, and anyone who listened to Kinsman’s story in horror as she recounted having to hold on to her rapist as he drove her home on his scooter because she didn’t have any other way to get home.
Katie Hnida — speaker, survivor, and author of Still Kicking: My Dramatic Journey As the First Woman to Play Division One College Football — reacted much the way I did to Albom centering his feelings following a set-up question designed to prompt discussion about how FSU has continued to avoid taking responsibility for what happened. “The first thing that came to my mind is that as a society, we sure tend to have a lot of opinions about what rape victims should or shouldn’t do without having walked in their shoes or even being very educated about the crime itself,” Hnida told me. “I’m not sure why Mr. Albom thought his comments would be helpful or thoughtful in the discussion at hand, and much less why anyone should care that he would ‘feel happier’ if money was donated — and to where?”
Is Albom laboring under the delusion that she would have been able to just go back to her studies ON THE CAMPUS WITH HER CELEBRATED RAPIST to happily pursue her career goals following her ID of Winston to the local police? She herself has said she knew when she saw him in class and heard his name called as a professor took attendance that she was facing a long road at best. FSU is a football town and she was raped by its star quarterback — also a freshman, which means potentially four years on campus right alongside her. On top of the obvious trauma that is intensified by Winston’s status and multi-million-dollar arm, statistically speaking, Kinsman is facing significant financial hardship for years to come. Hnida explained:
“It’s very clear that Albom is ill-informed about the financial burden that comes with being a rape victim. Without even going into the fact that some women are still charged for their own rape exams (that’s a whole other terrible story), the monetary costs associated with this trauma include everything from paying for counseling and other associated medical care; missed work and wages; paying tuition for courses that had to be dropped or left incomplete; moving expenses and possible broken rent contracts; safety [such as] new locks to personal safety devices; legal costs — the list goes on and on. It adds up quickly and many are things that people don’t normally think twice about. No one realizes that being a rape victim can leave you in a world of debt, to say nothing of the intangible costs; the pain and suffering that are second to none.”
Reporting from Tyler Kingkade last month at The Huffington Post — an outlet I assume Albom has heard of and has access to — backs up Hnida’s description of the myriad ways being raped quickly becomes costly. “Rape is considered the second-most costly crime next to murder for individuals and for society, according to Justice Department statistics,” writes Kingkade. “Individually, an adult victim of sexual assault in Texas can expect to pay between $15,000 and $50,000 in medical services, lost work productivity, and mental health care, one 2006 study found, while a separate paper in Michigan deemed the personal cost of each sexual assault to be $108,447.”
And those figures are based largely on victims who were not assaulted by someone famous and celebrated like Winston. As writer, speaker, and activist Wagatwe Wanjuki explained when she created the #SurvivorPrivilege hashtag, being known as a survivor comes with additional costs.
“It’s not a lucrative act in the least,” Wanjuki said of being public about experiencing sexual assault. “It’s very hard and difficult, and sometimes it can be a dangerous thing to do.” Kinsman is taking home barely enough to cover the standard survivor expenses and the cost of an undergraduate college education. Maybe we should all send Albom calculators along with the most recent U.S. News & World Report or USA Today breakdown of the almost $50,000 it costs to attend a mid-priced in-state school these days.
And then, perhaps, we can ask him how the hell he can lecture anyone about such a small sum of money as $250,000 when he’s sitting on the proceeds of his book Tuesdays With Morrie, which has sold over 14 million copies in 41 languages. Thirty years with a column, multiple best-selling books (some championed by the lucrative Oprah’s Book Club), lecturing, regular media spots — yeah, this is the guy who can talk to a young rape victim about not needing the paltry sum her university finally coughed up as a non-apology apology for failing to take her assault seriously.
Even if FSU had awarded Kinsman some outrageous sum — more than she could spend in a lifetime — it still wouldn’t be a suspicious amount because OH HEY, ALBOM, it turns out the value of a human being is incalculable. The best that can be done in the absence of justice is to alleviate the strain that economic challenges add to trauma while creating a public record that acknowledges the survivor’s credibility to some degree.
“Obviously, there is no financial amount that can ever take away or trade the pain of a rape or abuse,” said Hnida. “But money can do a great deal to ease the additional financial stresses that come hand and hand with being a survivor. Rape and sexual abuse are crimes that re-victimize the survivors over and over again and anything we can do to ease that suffering should be a no-brainer.”
I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps if Albom could pull himself out of the haze of his feelings for a moment, he could check his enormous privilege and take a seat while those who know a thing or two about what Kinsman has been through toss in their two cents. Or better yet — he could have just listened to her.