I spent a good part of my senior year reporting a story that caused handfuls of people who I dared once call "friends" to disown and denounce the investigation and the journalists who pursued it. If you know what happened, you'll understand why I was haunted; if you don't know, don't worry--it's not what matters here.
The takeaways from what happened are still to this day, I believe, part of what makes this current spotlight on campus sexual assaults so important: the system was not built to help survivors of injustice.
I'll fully admit that I was guilty myself when the story first came to us. I didn't want to believe this girl's testimony because journalism encourages a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to any sort of allegation. But after the evidence made itself clear--the records and documents and more--I couldn't not continue to pursue the truth.
I couldn't not pursue it the way I never pursued my own truth. I was only 18 when a boy forced himself on me, and I was 19 when he threatened to kill me for reporting it. Nothing ever happened because the people I trusted to protect me told me it wasn't a crime if it was "just an attempt."
You have to actually be raped, apparently, before they consider taking you seriously.
"They put me in a room full of men," a survivor once told me about the police officers she spoke to after she reported her assault, "and they put one woman in there to hold my hand 'in case I cried.'"
"They said if I came forward," another told me, "I could ruin his life."
Someone else confided later to me: "It started when I was six years old, and I never said anything because he was family."
Another survivor said to me in a whisper, as if she was afraid of the words themselves, "The DA said it wasn't a crime because he didn't actually rape me. Because I woke up and stopped him before he could put his hands farther down my pants."
And another: "The officer kept asking, 'Are you sure you weren't just imagining it?'"
There are so many more confessions--both in the past, and that continue to rise up in the present. And it makes me angry because I wonder why there are still more confessions: about the people who hurt us yesterday, last week, just 10 days ago.
Why does it keep happening?
What's taking us so long to confront this epidemic? To stand up and stop victim-blaming? To encourage change in our culture and how society treats those who've been abused and silenced? When will we send a message to survivors that it's OK to speak up because love is not abuse, and love is not manipulation or coercion? Because I urge you to take a look at Project Unbreakable or just turn on your local news, and you'll find that survivors are finally finding their voices amidst all of the shaming and blaming, and their courage is beautiful and amazing and bold--and shouldn't that be enough to get lawmakers and administrators and college leaders to say, "Enough"?
bell hooks writes in All About Love: New Visions: “Contrary to what we may have been taught to think, unnecessary and unchosen suffering wounds us but need not scar us for life. It does mark us. What we allow the mark of our suffering to become is in our own hands.” It's important we recognize that the stories of survival we hear about and that we read are not so easily revealed. To lift the veil of silence society has placed over such pain is no easy task.
"It's OK to be angry," I said to someone recently. "But don't be angry at yourself. Don't sit in your isolation and let that anger bury your resolve to push forward."
Those were words I wish I heard six years ago. You can carry anger in your heart longer than you ever thought possible.
*Note: These stories, just a fraction of the ones I've had the pain of hearing from people I so deeply love and admire, have been shared with permission.