This post is a rare left-turn from motherhood and art into an excruciatingly personal account, but I needed to write this today.
Almost 30 years ago, I withdrew myself from an Amherst College in-house rape investigation. I walked away from charges I had filed while a senior against a boy who had sex with me my freshman year after I’d passed out drunk at a formal party. Almost 30 years ago. I don’t remember clearly much of what happened in my freshman year and I also don’t remember much about what happened my senior year.
Disassociation is a powerful survival tool.
But just because I don’t remember in evidentiary detail does not mean it didn’t happen. I walked away from telling my story when I was a senior because it didn’t feel safe for me.
I don’t think it will be safe tomorrow for Dr. Ford. And yet, as of now, she’s moving forward with telling her story to what seems to me a prejudiced panel of elected officials and one non-elected prosecutor. A prosecutor. Chew on that. I’d have run away. I did then. I would again. She is not. She is a warrior and this is my way of telling her.
Here is my story, which I have not told to anyone other than a few trusted souls. In the Fall of 1989, my senior year, Amherst College was dealing with pressure from the student body to deal with the occurrence of campus sexual assaults and what was then newly dubbed “Date Rape”. Free alcohol, an entitled fraternity culture, two storied women’s colleges nearby depositing busloads of women to our once all-male campus every Friday night – it was ripe territory for sexual assaults. I had been unravelling in the uncovering of the truth of what happened to me my freshman year, that I had been raped by a boyfriend when I was blind drunk on Casino Night, a black tie event and had just recently been able to talk about it and give it a name. And so, after many contentious all-campus meetings in the Chapel, with our President and our Dean of Student Affairs saying “we are prepared to do something but we need someone to come forward” – I came forward. I found out that a younger classwoman wanted to bring up charges on the same boy but was afraid. I was a fairly visible senior and was encouraged by my friends, strong, brilliant women.
And I was just arrogant and insecure enough to take on the role of the martyr for the cause. I thought I could handle it, false bravado. My own little Joan of Arc.
I would not be the accuser. I would be a witness for the college who would accuse him. I was willing. I stepped forward and raised my hand and named myself: Victim. And began to gather my statement and statements from others who could write on my behalf. And then, only a few weeks later, after weeks of an out of control spiral of the story, a kangaroo court, phone call hang-ups, unbearable shame and fear, I dropped the whole thing and hoped outsized ambitious work would distract and define me rather than a half-hearted wolf cry.
What college is prepared to know anything about or address the after-effects of trauma? No psychiatrist was called in for me, no trauma therapist. And afterward, nobody was there to pick up the pieces of me, for me, with me. I just walked away, wrote two theses, defended them, graduated double Magna cum laude and walked into my happily ever after, which was anything but that for many years, armed with a bullshit version of the truth, where I was the heroine and where nothing could touch me. Where I could still have the Perfect College Story and work on being Somebody Important.
Back then, in the winter of 1990, when I retracted my own testimony, I let down the younger woman who had accused the same guy. I let down all the other students and alumni that I’d contacted in order to get statements from them about the event and aftermath itself (as I had little memory). I let down the college’s council (or whomever was bringing this up in a tribunal) who were hungry to adjudicate their first “date rape” case and test out whether or not such an issue could be handled from within. I let down the deans with whom I had entrusted my story. I let down my own professors who stood by my side. I let down my friends who encouraged me to come forward and let my name be known and name me the public face of the issue.
Mostly, I let down myself.
I didn’t realize until this week how much I had carried the shame of that part of the larger event. I had not buried the rape, but I buried the naming of it publicly.
I’ve spent years in and out of therapy around this ‘event’ that is still hard to call by its name. Rape. It’s such an ugly word. An onomatopoeia — it sounds like vomit. It sounds like a violent rip, a tear in the zipper of the black velvet dress I had bought for the Casino formal that January of my freshman year of college; that I bought at Philene’s Basement in Boston for $99, the most expensive thing I’d owned. I felt like a grown-up while trying it on with my girlfriends. I felt wearing it, I might fit in with the mostly private school crowd at my college which seemed full of legacy children of Amherst fathers and Smith and Mount Holyoke mothers. In the dress, maybe I would fit in with the New England prep school kids who wore double Izod shirts with collars flipped up, LL Bean Bluchers, and frayed khaki shorts like they’d been born to Amherst, whereas I had to buy the knock off brands, too stiff, too new, a costume for a middle-class public school kid who felt like she had something to prove.
That zipper was ripped beyond repair and I don’t even remember taking off the dress. I think I threw it out with the frayed black silk stockings. I don’t know how I got back to my own dorm the following morning in late January or early February, snow on the ground, in high heels in a ripped dress and ripped stockings and lace underwear that must have been soaked with humiliation.
I’ve worked through what I can remember of that night, the champagne, the cocaine line he smeared across the gums of my upper lip without asking me if I wanted any, terrifying me into thinking I’d done a drug I didn’t want to do, then feeling like a child after I pulled back and he offhandedly said, ‘come on, that’s only a freeze’, and when it was evident I didn’t know what that was, his roommates snickered. I felt my naivete show, so I played a part. I acted cool. I drank more champagne.
There are shards of things I’ve pieced together — shadow fragments and pixilated images. His tuxedo. A roulette wheel near the stairs that led from the dining hall now dressed up like Las Vegas to the dormitory bedrooms where he lived. Waking up in a room I recognized that was not his, as it was the Resident Advisor’s (a junior I was friends with) — a single with the dorm bed replaced by a queen-sized futon that smelled of hay and muslin and incense. The shelves full of books, a desk, a window that looked out onto a snowy quad.
I remember waking that next morning confused and cloudy, my tongue thick, my head hurt, my legs ached. I was naked. He was next to me. I asked him what happened. He seemed surprised I asked. I remember him saying, “you asked for it,” and something about how I talked dirty to him. I remember that was embarrassing, it was foreign to me, out of character. I wasn’t someone who had never fooled around but I was still a virgin and, although sex both terrified and fascinated me, I was clear I wasn’t ready for it and had told him so. I remember the light through the window landing on my clothes in a heap in the corner. I remember having to remind him I wasn’t on the pill when he said he’d ejaculated inside of me and realizing I had to do something about it but not knowing how or what to do. I remember having to go to the UMass medical services to take the Morning After Pill, before I’d even had time in my young life, still a practicing Catholic, to make up my mind about my belief system around abortion. I remember feeling like it was putting him out to take that trip with me. I remember feeling ashamed that I didn’t remember, feeling overwhelmed and sad, but didn’t want to betray that I felt like a little girl in over my head. Later, I remember piecing together parts of the story I couldn’t remember from friends who were there, namely, that the RA gave his keys to my boyfriend after I’d passed out, so that he could take me in his single for us to have privacy (the boyfriend shared a room with two other freshman), saying something like, “you can use my room”. I’ve worked through the strange memory of drowning (my legs were over my head and I couldn’t breathe) and a vision of my grandmother, my great protector, holding my hand while I felt like I was suffocating.
I’ve also worked through the memory of him breaking up with me about a month later after I found out he’d slept with my friend. After I’d done my best to make him fall in love with me (because that would somehow make the sex all right) and failing. And the feeling of the world spinning out of control that someone could have sex with me and then sleep with my friend and lie to me and then look through me like I was nothing. And then I remember feeling like I was nothing. And then I remember feeling nothing.
I’ve worked through the shameful, awful memory of having sex with his roommate partly as a revenge, but also needing someone to care about me and to take careof me, to take my side, to really like me, and to stay with me. And that most of those nights were spent in a drunken half-blackout. Stolen time in shameful places where I couldn’t stand up straight and always threw up afterwards. Days and nights and weeks of feeling nothing blend together and I barely remember that semester. I almost failed classes that should have been easy. I started to throw up every meal I ate, desperate to get skinny enough to disappear. I’ve worked through that I didn’t tell anyone how I was feeling. I’ve worked through how nervous I became, or always was – how neurotic and combative I felt inside. And I’ve worked through the memory of rage spilling drunkenly out on the last night of my freshman year at a party where I confronted both of these boys who dismissed me and called me crazy and I threw my beer in their faces, stumbled and fell and was brought back to my dorm where I woke up, the next morning, in my own vomit in my own bed, with no memory of what had occurred the night before.
I’ve partly worked through maybe the worst of it, too, because this I clearly remember. This I cannot forget. And truly, this I’m not sure I can completely forgive: the fellow classmate, a woman, part of my social circle, who coldly judged me that spring morning when I went to apologize to both boys in their dorm room, who sat in between them as if she spoke for them, sneered at me coldly as if I was nothing, told me my apology was not wanted, and dismissed me. I left that dorm room and packed my own room in less than an hour, threw it all into my station wagon and drove from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania without stopping, without breathing and didn’t say goodbye to anyone. That woman is the easy place to park my rage. And I am working on it as when I see her pop up on social media, my blood goes cold and bile rises. As the saying goes, I have allowed her take up too much rent space in my head. I’m working on evicting her.
But what I have not worked through is my shame of dropping the charges. And that, similar to the incident itself, I remember only fragments from that time. A very large “Take Back The Night” (maybe the first, it was 1990) on the freshman quad when, silently, a crowd of candle holders surrounded me out of a show of support before I thought anyone knew. I remember a brief feeling of empowerment that eroded into a sense of losing control of the story, my story. I remember feeling like I was too much, like I’d taken up my share of everyone’s time and concern, that no arms were big enough to take in my rage and fear and sorrow, that no friend could handle me anymore, not even the ones who had encouraged me to come forward, that my grades were suffering that I was falling backwards down a hole that would define me for the rest of my life. And lastly, that feeling of absolute betrayal and shame when I found out that everyone I’d dated had been contacted to make statements about our intimacies. That feeling of shame while just getting coffee in the morning when members of his elite circle, both men and women, glared at me, sent looks of pity or, worse, never even looked at me. The false bravado I took on when letting my advisors and members of extra-curricular activity groups know what I was doing, feeling like every time I talked about it I was taking off my ripped underwear over and over again, standing naked and bleeding in front of everyone.
And then came a phone call from a junior, a woman I respected, saying he wanted to talk to me one-on-one. And I was desperate for it all to go away. I remember taking a walk with him, that he did not say he raped me, but did admit that something had happened that upset me and he apologized for that, for hurting me, and that he was afraid he would be expelled and he was in therapy for it. And I felt sick to my stomach, tasked with something larger than I could handle, and I agreed to drop it. To just let it go. And I did. I called the deans, dropped my case, and took a leave of absence to sleep and eat and forget. And came back and put my head deep into books and started dancing faster than my shame. Pay no attention to the crying girl at 3am, look at her dance, look at her sing, look at her spin.
But I bailed on myself. And it happened. And by bailing, it felt like I was saying I’d lied or exaggerated. That it didn’t happen. That I made it up. That I was being dramatic and wanted attention.
Over the years, every time friends would gather to tell their romantic or salacious First Time stories, I would choke down bile and either make up a story, or say nothing. Sometimes I’d just quietly say I didn’t remember.
I would spend the next few decades chasing after unavailable men, in and out of affairs, blackout drunk, sometimes cheating in the back of cabs or in borrowed apartments. I’d have months and maybe years of keeping it together and feeling like I was sane, until I’d fall into another affair, not knowing how I could be so stupid to be stuck in this pattern. I burned through friendships, relationships, a marriage, my family until one after another they all had enough of my drama, without seeing the empty bottles of wine, Ambien and Xanax, or the half-hearted suicide attempts. The nights I’d never sleep but cry until I’d throw up. The nights only wine offered me sleep, waking up shaking until I could pour a vodka with tomato juice or take a Xanax. Nobody knew me. I was a quiet tornado. I fooled a lot of people.
Until I didn’t. And it brought me finally to a surrender that was not a hole in the ground to my grave but a door to the light to my life and I began to turn the story over into truth and through sobriety and meditation and trauma therapy and EMDR and honesty and an incredible circle of girlfriends and a safe relationship full of integrity and love with a partner on the same path, I was able to stand up for my 19 year old broken, raped self.
And until this week, I realized that I never forgave that 22 year old college senior who tried to stand up for herself but got scared. Until this week, I considered her an embarrassing failure and a coward.
How could I testify on my own behalf back then? I still have little idea what really happened besides waking up after blacking out and being told I had sex with someone to whom I did not give consent. I do know that everything that happened afterwards: the promiscuity, the bulimia, the alcoholism, the affairs, they are all textbook trauma survivor tools.
I also know I am not angry at him. I don’t think he is the enemy. I think he was a privileged, white, rich boy from New York City who was raised in the same kind of entitled world as Brett Kavanaugh. Boys who get drunk and think they have the right to take what they want. Girls who get drunk and lose their ability to fight these boys off when they physically overwhelm them. Boys who think of girls as notches on some totem pole to manhood and girls who are afraid to tell their truths.
When I learned another woman had been date raped by this guy, I came forward. When it became clear that it would be He Said/She Said followed by statements from other students about the veracity of my story based on my subsequent sexual relationships, and that I had no proof, and that it was a big grey mushy conversation, and that my parents whom I loved so much and wanted to be proud of me were terribly uncomfortable about the whole thing, understandably wishing it would just go away, and I realized as I watched the story spin out of my control I had one move left to take back my own self: I could walk away.
So I did.
And then I spent decades perfecting that fine art of disassociation.
30 years later, I’m watching the news spill out about accusations against the nominee for the Supreme Court and watching the mostly male Senators dismiss the accusations of not just one woman but now a handful. I’m watching the President barely contain his sneer. And I’m remembering the me back then confused and afraid as a freshman, grasping for anyone to save me in the years after, and then, as a senior, trying, albeit failing, to put my flag in the ground and name my truth.
But ask me today. Ask me now, almost 30 years later, and l’ll plant my flag in that ground today. I know my story and I’ll tell my story and my story is my truth and the truth set me free, as, in the end, it always does, come what may. Dr. Ford is telling her truth. I hope truth wins tomorrow because I’m tired of yesterday’s lies.