Sexual Assault: A Co-Complaint
*TRIGGER WARNING: This content deals with an account of sexual assault.
The article is contributed by an anonymous Amherst alumna, who along with Angie Epifano, has filed a Title IX and Clery complaint against Amherst College.
I am a survivor who graduated from Amherst College this past May despite the administration’s efforts to silence and shame me.
I was raped during my Junior year in 2012 by a person I knew in Davis Hall. Word among students was that the Amherst administration historically avoided punishing wrongdoers, so I stayed silent. Desperate to maintain my Amherst work ethic, I fancied myself “strong” and “determined” enough to pretend that it never happened. That was when my PTSD and depression began to slowly occlude my outlook and corrode my life.
Incidentally, I began going to the Amherst College counseling center on Monday, Oct. 15, just two days before Angie’s article was published. I mentioned my rape in as many words as I could muster because I was not ready to say explicitly what I knew deep down to be true. My counselor did not verbally respond to my account and instead asked more questions about my family and my academic life.
Angie’s article led me to necessarily grapple with my rape after having stayed essentially silent for eight months. I sought continued help at the counseling center because I was unprepared to ask my emotionally distant family for financial support in order to talk to somebody in town. Yes, this felt like a ridiculous and dangerous choice after having read about what happened to Angie, but I tried to go into the counseling center with an understanding of their limitations. Since my counselor acted as if sexual assault wasn’t relevant, I started to persuade myself that I could just talk about other distressing things, even though they were mostly fallout from the rape.
In the month that followed the publication of Angie’s article, my depression spiraled. When my counseling session was canceled due to The Day of Dialogue and then further postponed because of high volume requests at the counseling center, I realized that the school was in an even more enfeebled position to actually help me. As much as I wanted to rally and participate in the awareness events on campus in response to Angie’s article, my PTSD and depression were rendering me barely functional and I was scared of going public in my raw state. At least I had practice with pretending that I was mostly fine at Amherst.
Since I could not fathom going into a hearing process, I took the matter of holding my rapist accountable into my own hands. He had since graduated, so I called him. I asked him to detail his perception of that night through his eyes. I expressed the traumatic impact of his actions on my life. I asked him to promise to never treat another human being as he treated me. I don’t know what that means for the future, but it felt like a much more substantial step forward than trying to involve the administration.
While my counselor urged me to go on antidepressants, I had suspicions, so she suggested that I talk to the psychiatrist, framing the meeting as a chance to learn more and make my own, proactive choice. Instead, I was interrogated as if I had to prove the veracity of my depression. I felt like I was being made to beg for help. After answering many leading questions and being pressured to address how I would go about killing myself “if my depression grew worse” — which felt like a possibility as I was receiving no constructive help — I was abruptly notified that Amherst had sent for an ambulance to take me to Cooley Dickinson. I told the counseling center team that surrounded me that I had zero intention of killing myself and pleaded with them to change this manipulative and extreme course of action, but they would not reverse their decision. I was told that if I did not cooperate that they would call the police to track me down.
Two burly men walked into the office to escort me. I realized that a physical struggle would only be more devastating; I was going to have to fight with words upon entry to make sure that I was not sent to the psych ward. So I stood up, apparently cooperative, but as we passed through the waiting room, I had to announce, “It’s nice to know that things are still so black and white here at Amherst College!” The students in the waiting room looked horrified.
So much for confidentiality. After my body was strip-searched for blades and after the nurses drew my blood so that they could verify that I had not in fact ingested anything lethal, I called home, humiliated, violated and scared. A parent, who also pays my tuition, called every relevant office phone number that they could find on the College website, demanding that a dean come argue for my discharge. The dean arrived an hour later, arms waving, insisting that this was all a fluke, a strange miscommunication. When I came to Amherst, I could have never fathomed any of this: how one could be raped and then sent to a hospital where one, again, does not have control over one’s own body until the power of the purse inspires those in a position of authority to intervene. As I was discharged, I encountered the perverse sway of my own privilege: if I had not had parents who leveraged, I would have been sent to the psych ward.
When I returned to campus, I was made to feel indebted to the administration for saving me from the psych ward. I was pressured to take time off, abandon my thesis and discard my academic work that investigated trauma in what I found to be authentic and productive ways. My fear of returning to an unhealthy home environment in order to take time off or transfer motivated me to stick it out. Angie’s strength in coming forward and the lingering activism on campus enabled me to persevere in relative silence. It is worth mentioning that the dean who discharged me from the hospital offered, in an e-mail, to meet with me every week if it would help me feel more supported. This dean never actually followed through when I e-mailed my schedule and expressed my eagerness to meet.
This was all happening after Angie published her article in The Amherst Student.
Extraordinary friends and professors are the reasons that I was able to finish getting my degree at Amherst, but nobody should have to endure the kind of treatment that I faced at the hands of the counseling center and the deans. My way of coping with all of this was to pour myself into my academics. I graduated with a 4.0 and with honors, carrying a superficial record of smooth sailing achievement, but my lived experience at the College in the time following my assault was traumatic. I persevered to show the administration that I wouldn’t be the weak victim that they assumed me to be, but as a result my final year depended on me staying silent. This should not have to be the case.
I would encourage anybody reading this to follow the “What’s Left at Amherst Blog” to read articles written by current students. They are productively questioning Amherst’s institutional traditions and priorities. (http://whatsleftatamherst.tumblr.com/).
Even though the immediate impact of Angie’s article mobilized many, I noticed an abrupt tapering of perceptible, constructive change in the months that followed. Many students who had no lived experience with sexual assault were shocked by the college’s sudden attempt to talk about these issues. (There was no context for a conversation of this magnitude. Amherst College does not create a culture that critically questions its own practices or invites students to do so.) Many students felt defensive because student life as they enjoyed it was being interrupted by scandal. Regardless of their empathy for survivors, students who felt this way seemed eager to move on and label the issue passé. I felt that this was enabled by the administration because I did not notice more prominent postings about on-campus resources or outright promises that the administration would not shame survivors into leaving campus, either outright or discreetly through neglect. I cannot begin to imagine the number of still-silent survivors on Amherst campus who would rather not hazard coming forward to an administration that is still concerned with mending its facade.
I know that the students, staff and faculty on the sexual respect task force are committed to progress and I am grateful for their work, but I still believe that students face enormous disincentives from the counseling center and the deans when it comes to reporting because they are likely to be treated as a liability if they are as a result legitimately depressed.
The administration continues to point to alcohol as a scapegoat rather than admit outright that rape happens.
The committee that issued the report titled “Toward a Culture of Respect: The Problem of Sexual Misconduct at Amherst College” claimed that Amherst’s superlative number of reported rapes (which were only charted through the year 2010 in a report published in late 2012) were a positive sign that Amherst was committed to fulfilling its obligations under The Clery Act. But what about the ways that Amherst counselors and deans have refused to acknowledge survivors’ experience by hearing the account and not being willing to call it what it is and report it? How many current students know about The Clery Act? I know that I didn’t know what it was, even after the publication of Angie’s article. If an institution has complete choice over who conducts an investigation, the investigation will search for what the institution wants to “find.”
A current student told me that they estimate that only about half of the members of the Class of 2017 have even read Angie’s article, let alone engaged in a discussion with an upperclassman about its impact on campus culture last year. This is evidence of an institution’s haste to stifle ongoing, critical conversations about the reality of sexual assault and how to actively shape a culture of sexual respect. Incoming students need more than the redundant, damagingly basic mantra: “Get consent! Strive for point-oh-five!” The nine-day marathon known as “orientation” does more to foster Amherst jingoism than it does to prepare a student to think critically about how respect is created through action and how to take care of themselves and others. Does orientation include any testimony from real students about their experiences with the issues parodied and simplified in educational “skits?” No. Orientation, for me, led me to believe that all of my fellow students were elite, model citizens. I was socialized in a way that prevented me from standing up for myself because my lived experience was so dissonant with the illusions of perfection I had been taught to embrace.