Dear Dartmouth: Thank You
Editors’ note: For this column, the editors of The Dartmouth are making an exception to our usual ban on publishing work anonymously because we believe that the issues raised here are so pertinent to the College.
Trigger warning: The following contains images and content that may trigger survivors of violence or sexual assault.
During my sophomore winter I was raped by another student. I will graduate in three weeks, proud to call Dartmouth my alma mater.
It was the night before Valentine’s Day. We were drinking in a group, and I got too drunk. I spent almost an hour on the bathroom floor, vomiting into the toilet. My perpetrator and another friend took care of me, gave me water and rubbed my back. After friends put me to bed, my perpetrator entered my room while I was asleep. He got into the bed. Without speaking, he started touching me and then raped me.
In the weeks following the assault, my perpetrator tormented me. I saw him every day in class, and he would catch my eye from across the room and start laughing. He made jokes and subtle remarks referencing the incident, smiling and winking. I was in a relationship, and my perpetrator would ask me about my boyfriend every chance he could. I dropped my minor; I avoided certain departments’ courses; I asked my dean to place me in a different section of a class. I was constantly updating a mental map of the safe and unsafe places on campus.
I saw my perpetrator’s face in my nightmares. In sudden flashbacks my mind would return to that bedroom. I’d grow hysterical. I started seeing a therapist for anxiety, depression and mild OCD. I became panicked in a room with too much commotion, and I would run from the room shaking if I saw my perpetrator. I cried often after being intimate with my boyfriend, remembering the feelings that I had during the assault that are so difficult to describe now. It’s a painful helplessness, like how I imagine drowning might feel.
My consolation was that only a few people knew what I was going through. It was easy to hide. I hid in my safe places: my room, friends’ rooms, off campus, dining halls at times when I knew he wouldn’t be there, spots in the library he didn’t frequent. I got so good at avoiding him that I survived at Dartmouth pretending he was gone — until I saw him across campus or in FoCo and the illusion of security fell apart. Yet again and again I resolved to keep the memories compartmentalized. I heard so many horror stories about the College’s judicial process failing victims that I didn’t even consider reporting. I didn’t want the rape to become an even bigger part of my life. I wanted it to stay buried. I wanted to move on.
I’m willing to bet you’ve heard some variation of this story before. I have heard it at student panels, I’ve read it in the pages of this publication and others and I’ve listened to close friends tell it. Every story is different and deserves to be heard, but it is frustrating that despite the number of survivors coming forward with their stories, the sexual violence continues.
In most stories of sexual assault the survivor never comes forward, fearing peers’ judgment or that administrators or law enforcement officers will sorely mishandle the case. Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes. Most rapes are not reported to the police, and of those that are, only a tiny percentage lead to an arrest. At Dartmouth, survivors have the additional option of reporting their assault to Safety and Security and requesting a College adjudication process. When a survivor does come forward at Dartmouth, the notorious Committee on Standards process can be fruitless, only producing rumors, skepticism and humiliation for the victim. Some survivors leave their dorms, or even their schools, unable to find any kind of institutional support. My story is different.
It’s important to acknowledge that I am a white, heterosexual, able-bodied, average-sized woman. When I speak to staff and faculty members, they listen. My privilege has influenced my experiences. I imagine it did particularly in this case.
A few months after my assault, I saw a Sexual Assault Awareness Program coordinator. I needed help. I cried to her and told her my story, and she listened patiently. She followed up with me a few times lending her support, but she never pushed me toward any course of action. And for the next year and a half, I didn’t take any official action. The SAAP coordinator and my undergraduate dean spoke to one of my professors about switching me from a class section that my perpetrator was in. Friends who knew about my assault were understanding and knowledgeable, thanks to a campus dialogue about sexual violence that was growing louder and louder each passing month. I started to consider reporting the rape.
Yet I had little hope that reporting would help. I dreaded retelling this story, even if just in writing. I wanted to avoid reliving the trauma. I’d heard my peers talking about women who had reported their rapes: She lied to convince her boyfriend; there are crazy girls out there; people falsely accuse guys of rape all the time.
Would people think that about me? Would people talk about me, harass me on Bored at Baker? What if he was found not responsible? How could I walk around campus every day and see his smug, vindicated face? Can I even get through telling my story without crying?
One day, however, I stumbled upon a story of a woman who had been sexually abused by her childhood teacher. Because of the statute of limitations in her state, the survivor could no longer press charges, even though the abuser admitted to the crime. That night I dreamt that it was graduation. I posed for a picture with my parents, smiling, my black cap and gown against the grass and a solid blue sky. My perpetrator walked by and stared at us as the camera flashed. It was too late. There was nothing I could recover out of everything he took from me.
Once a perpetrator is no longer a student, a survivor cannot take action against him or her through the College. In the morning I sent an email to the SAAP coordinator telling her I had decided to report my assault.
We met in her office that same afternoon, and after talking over my decision, we walked together to the Safety and Security office where I filed an official report and requested a no-contact order against my assailant. The officer was warm, patient and kind. She reiterated that it was important I feel safe and comfortable. My voice shaking, I told her I had been sexually assaulted by a student, named him and gave her the date of the incident. That night I sent her a detailed description of the incident. The next day, my perpetrator was interviewed by Safety and Security. The no-contact orders forbade us from communicating in any way, so he would face disciplinary action for contacting me.
When I filed my report I named four witnesses who had been drinking with us on the night of the assault. Eventually I learned that the investigating officer contacted nine other people who were around us in the months following the assault, wanting to know about my perpetrator’s behavior toward me during that time. I felt like the process was spiraling out of control. What I thought would be a quiet and quick process now dragged on for weeks, and a dozen people whom I didn’t choose to tell now knew there had been an incident. I felt exposed. Because the Safety and Security officer had to interview so many people, the investigation took a long time. I didn’t hear anything for over a month following my report. The period of waiting was the hardest. I saw my perpetrator, his friends and the witnesses around campus, and I panicked just like I had in the first months after the assault. One of his friends, also a witness, gave me dirty looks, rolled her eyes and ignored me when I said hi to her. I was afraid to leave my room for fear of seeing anyone who knew about the impending hearing.
A few weeks before the hearing, he and I received printed packets including every witness statement, Safety and Security interview write-ups and information regarding the COS process. I had chosen my undergraduate dean as my designated advisor for the process, and he met with me often to provide emotional support and explain every detail of the process. He was unfailingly understanding and gentle.
Ten weeks after reporting the assault, I was getting dressed for my hearing. I listened to music to calm myself down and read over my notes for my statements to the committee.
We both dressed up for the hearing. A cubicle wall separated us so that I didn’t have to look at him, but I saw his hands, folded on the desk with dress shirt cuffs at his wrists. And I saw the tip of his profile once when we both leaned forward. I lurched back, trembling. I heard his voice. I heard his voice for five hours, telling lies. I heard his voice for the first time in a year and a half, and it made my whole body shake and sweat. I sobbed during my closing statement, but I got every word out. The committee questioned us for hours, pressing us to outline the exact details of who touched whom where, how much alcohol was consumed, what words were said, what noises were made. All in all, the committee made both of us feel comfortable, as comfortable as was possible. They had no power to hold either of us accountable for underage alcohol consumption. They never asked hurtful, victim-blaming questions. My dean sat beside me, passing me encouraging notes or nodding when I spoke. Witnesses answered a few questions then left without receiving any information about the allegations, the hearing or the eventual decision. My perpetrator and I got five-minute breaks every hour to discuss the proceedings with our advisors and take a few deep breaths. My advisor and my observer, the SAAP coordinator, would wait until the perpetrator and his advisor and observer had left the room before we got up to leave the room, so we would not have to see each other’s faces.
The hearing lasted five and a half hours. In my closing statement, I sobbed, but I said everything I had needed to say for two years. I felt like Ariel in the closing scene of “The Little Mermaid,” when her voice swirls back into her body and soars out of her mouth. Some part of me I had forgotten about was back. I had a voice.
I wouldn’t know the decision until the next morning, so my boyfriend and I dressed up and went out to dinner at 9:30 p.m. I was sweating and shaking and exhausted and invigorated. It felt like the beginning of my new life. I didn’t care if my perpetrator was found responsible. I knew he was. I fought back, and it was empowering.
Sometimes I think I got lucky. I cringe when I let that thought go through my mind, because out of all the experiences in my life, being raped is the one I would erase. Nothing good comes out of being sexually assaulted. But I got lucky that my perpetrator was bold enough to watch me get drunk, vomit from alcohol poisoning and then still choose to rape me. The evidence stacked against him. I got lucky that my perpetrator thought he would get off easy, and so he didn’t bother pretending he had gotten my consent. I got lucky that I hadn’t invited him back to my room, because if I had, it would have been easier for the Committee on Standards to blame me or justify not finding my perpetrator responsible.
That’s not what happened. In the morning my dean and I went to the senior assistant Dean of the College’s office. She notified us that my perpetrator would be suspended for six terms.
He did not request a review of the decision. He is not allowed on campus during his suspension, which means that I will never see him again. Yet had I reported the rape right after it happened, he would have already returned to campus. We would live, eat and study in the same spaces.
The night after we heard the decision, I received an angry email from my perpetrator’s friend, ranting that I had ruined my perpetrator’s life and hurt a lot of people. Ironic, isn’t it? I never responded. Since then, no one has contacted me about the hearing. The College treats the whole process as confidential, so other students can only learn about it from my perpetrator, the witnesses or me. It troubles me that when he eventually returns to campus, no one will know him or know that the College found him responsible for raping another student. He will graduate with a shiny Ivy League degree and a convenient story explaining his hiatus from campus.
Sometimes around campus I see the students and faculty members who sat on the committee for my hearing. It’s a little awkward. We don’t speak, but I feel silently supported. Under the College’s new sexual assault policy, reporting students won’t have to appear in front of a committee, and they’ll never have to hear their perpetrator speak. A reporting student can file a report and an external investigator will interview that student, the accused student and witnesses individually. Survivors will not walk around campus with other students who heard the entire case. I hope that these facts will encourage more survivors to come forward without fear or hesitation.
On the morning of my hearing, the Harvard Crimson published “Dear Harvard: You Win,” an anonymous opinion piece. A student wrote the piece when Harvard administrators and staff failed to take action against her perpetrator. Many people at the university to whom she spoke after her assault encouraged her to keep quiet. This kind of reaction is shockingly common. Survivors deserve better. They deserve respect and understanding, not skepticism and dismissal.
Dartmouth, thank you for hearing me, respecting me and believing me. When I walk around campus today I smile and I look around — not to look out for my perpetrator, but to admire our beautiful campus. I’m not afraid anymore. When I speak, I hear a chorus of campus allies behind my voice. Knowing my perpetrator is far away brings me relief, yes. But the knowledge that I spoke and somebody heard is even more powerful. Writing my statement, being supported by my dean and my SAAP coordinator and my friends, hearing the sound of my voice telling my story — these are the things that have rebuilt me. After I was assaulted I felt that I would never be in control again. Now I am strong.
Comments have been closed on this piece to protect the author's anonymity.