Letter from an Alumna

I was very surprised to receive the e-mail sent by President Martin on October 18twith the subject line “President Martin’s Statement on Sexual Assault.” This email led me to the first-person account written by Angie Epifano published in The Amherst Student the day before that. I was horrified and dismayed reading her account of what transpired following her May 2011 assault. Her letter eventually led me to Dana Bolger’s website, “it happens here,” and her blog posting at ACVoice. In Ms. Bolger’s post on “Roasting Fat Ones Since 1847,” she makes reference to a statistic that “Amherst has expelled only one student for rape in its entire history — and only after a criminal court sentenced him to time in jail.” I realized with shock and disbelief that the case to which this refers was my own.

October 31st marks the 23rd anniversary of my sexual assault by a classmate at Amherst College during my sophomore year. Four months after the incident, I chose to pursue the disciplinary process offered by the school. Between February 4th and April 18th of 1990, I participated in three successive steps in the disciplinary process after submitting my initial letter of complaint to the Dean of Students at the time, Ben Lieber. Following an initial hearing by the Committee on Discipline, an Appeal Board Hearing was then held before a final appeal and review was submitted by then-sitting President Pouncey.
The Committee found my perpetrator responsible of “sexual conduct not freely agreed to by both parties.” His only sanctions were disciplinary probation, loss of campus housing, community service at a local women’s shelter, prohibition from extracurricular activities including football and restrictions on his access to campus buildings except to attend classes and check his mail. Despite these sanctions, I was outraged to find myself in the Campus Center that following fall semester having to purchase my Homecoming ticket from the very student who had assaulted me.

I joined in campus efforts to raise awareness, helped organize marches and attended self-defense classes. I found support from fellow survivors through a student-run group called HERS (Helping & Empowering Rape Survivors) that had been founded on campus that year by my sister, a member of the Class of 1990; she had been raped on campus her first year. While I was held up by others as strong and courageous for what I had done, I questioned whether it was enough.

I learned in January of 1991 that my assailant had broken into the apartment of a woman who lived in Amherst. He had sexually assaulted her in December of 1990, just over a year after my own assault. Within a month, she had pressed charges through the district court system. I became distraught as a painful possibility began to torment me: if I had chosen to seek justice through the court system, could I have somehow prevented harm to this other woman? I went to the District Attorney’s office and, upon my request, was able to meet my assailant’s latest victim. Our repeat offender was sentenced to two and a half years at the Hampshire County House of Correction, of which six months’ time was expected to be served.

By April 1991, The Amherst Bulletin, The Hampshire Gazette and The Student were all publishing front page articles scrutinizing the campus’ disciplinary proceedings and how it handled my complaint of sexual assault. Could a campus judicial system have prevented the second assault from happening? Is there something inherently flawed about the campus system, or is it an important option for some measure of recourse? Could the process be reformed to serve those it was meant to serve? These were the questions being debated and discussed over two decades ago, and, yet, I learned last month from the President’s email that nothing had really changed after all. The campus judicial system as described by Angie remains just as flawed, both at the front end of handling reported cases and at the heart of the judicial process itself. A campus of our caliber of academic excellence should strive to pave the way for others in learning from its mistakes rather than to reveal its failure to move forward from a lesson that should have left its mark 23 years ago.

Over the years, I have passive-aggressively communicated my anger towards the College by refusing for many years to donate to the Alumni Fund, a tactic I know is utilized by other Amherst survivors of sexual assault. Our campus should be concerned about both the loss of real and potential donors, along with the negative media attention potentially compromising our ability to attract the most academically talented prospective students. I want to remain hopeful that under President Martin’s leadership the seeds of true and lasting social change will be planted at Amherst. As an educator, I recognize that learning is a process, not an event. Enormous social change is required both on our campus and in the normative values that perpetuate the horrific reality of sexual assault that too many women at Amherst seem to know intimately well.

The words Angie quoted in her article that “silence has the rusty taste of shame” have continued to repeat in my own mind like a mantra. While I have turned my back on my alma mater in some ways in the years since my assault, I now wish — again — to find my voice and to join Angie and countless other survivors who have decided to spit out that bitter taste of shame… I will be silent no more.