Testimony #22

“Princeton has a problem.  Not just with predatory men (more on that later) but with an environment that is so invested in its own social, structured stability that it seeks to take anything that could be deemed as a blemish and erase it.  “Not here,” we say. 

I will not be the first or the last to admit formerly possessing a misled confidence

XX Girl 

Dear Princeton,

My name is Girl, and we, like the rest of this world we live in, have a problem. 

But first, I’m going to tell you a story.  One night in December, I decide to go to the street with my friends.  We repeat the sequence that had become habitual since we were freshmen: drinking too much cheap vodka and listening to some objectively terrible music in someone’s common room.  Since I know you’ll ask later, I’ll tell you what I am wearing: a boring black shirt, boring black jeans, and formerly white sneakers turned a chic shade of street-dirt-beige.

We head out, and I am wondering if I’m going to see Boy.  He seemed nice, or at least more wholesome than the chain of college boy clichés with whom I’d previously been involved.  We trudge to our favorite club, Boy materializes, and when the lights go on, we start to walk home. He lends me his jacket, which is perfectly too big, like a boy’s jacket should be, and I think to myself: “this one’s alright.”  I willingly divert to Boy’s room instead of mine. “Why not?” my sexually-liberated feminist self thinks.  

Now, Princeton, I don’t feel a need to describe the violence that occurs after this, because I suspect you’ve filled in the blank of what happens next, and that whatever did happen was not consent.  Defenseless once it is done, I curl into a ball at the bottom of the bed, pass out, and wake up an hour later.  I leave.  Boy follows me briefly but fear quickens my sluggish legs. I’m confused about what just happened, but overcome with a skin-crawling sensation that something is wrong.  Running to the first bathroom I can find, I fumble with the code and lock myself in a stall only to be confronted by a sign that reads: “Sexual Misconduct at Princeton.”  I study it, knowing somehow it is important but refusing to recognize why.  I am Girl, and I am tougher than that. 

Several days later I’m out on the street again, and I find myself reclusive and tearful.  Not sleeping for several days will do that, it would seem.  Being Tough Girl but also Reasonable Girl (as I thought I was) I book a coffee with a SHARE peer the next morning, for purely investigative purposes, of course.  The fragmented descriptions of my night I share with anyone who will listen leave me with the feeling that it was just an “awkward hookup” and I’d probably given “confusing signals.”  Friends who know him allude to my colorful sexual history and the fact that he’s a “nice guy.”  After enough of these conversations I feel I have just overreacted, a narrative I am more than willing to buy – who am I to fling accusations?  There is a comfort in wishful thinking, even if it hurts. Yet I cannot shut off the competing, sinking sense that I am acting out of false convenience rather than honesty.  If that night was just a mediocre street encounter, then why do I feel like this? 

The SHARE peer the next morning, who helps me find a kind, sympathetic counselor. That afternoon, the counselor gently helps me say what my gut had been screaming at me for the past several days: that what I thought had happened, had in fact happened. I am greeted with a buffet of reporting options, medical exam opportunities, paperwork, and tissues.  My counselor offers to “vouch for me” should I ask for academic extensions, given the inconvenience of an emotional crisis at the end of a semester.

Princeton, here’s where you went wrong.  I send emails in the language I’m instructed by administrators to use, speak as politely as I can, and receive what amounts to nothing.  There is a whopping 48-hour extension for all Dean’s Date work, 48 hours for independent work, and canned platitudes during this “difficult time.”  It’s fascinating in some strange, grotesque way that a place full of bright individuals with the intellectual capacity to understand astrophysics cannot grasp the idea of sexual assault and what happens to those who experience it. Since this seems unclear to you, I should spell out that a person does not recover from a rape in 48 hours.   That is, unless some variety of rape-recovery fairy dust/unicorn shit rains upon me from the heavens, although I have yet to hear of this occurring anywhere.

As it would happen, the mediocrity of this offering takes weeks to comprehend.  I am told by an array of administrators that this standard, and it should be enough.  I’m too scared and traumatized to stand up well for myself, and I believe it.  Instead of tending to my very, very real needs, I spend my last week at Princeton before a break from which I would not return for months crying into Firestone book scanners.  Without sleep, the words I type in essay after essay become jumbled.  A feminist professor—of all things—refuses support and extensions on a draft, but naturally wishes me a restful break as it is “the best she can do.”  I submit bad essays, and they’re marked badly.  I recognize this but feel discouraged from asking for more, since everyone is on break. I don’t want to be a nuisance when people are home with their families, and I was strong and I could get it all done.  I was simply a “SHARE-related issue”—University parlance for speaking the unspeakable.

So here is the next question: Without the adults around me acting like what happened is serious—not just saying it is—how am I, in all my sleepless confusion, meant to understand that I needed to stand up for myself in a woefully opaque system?  That it’s OK to struggle after this kind of trauma?  And if we can’t call rape, assault, misconduct, and harassment by their names, are we not already creating a culture where the gravity of these moments is diminished? 

As grades roll in, I watch my GPA slide past fellowship and grad school cutoffs.  One year later, I ask if there’s anything at all to be done and am encouraged by a supportive thesis advisor to speak with my res college – a university veteran, he’d seen this before.  Conversing with SHARE prior to this meeting, I am told my best bet is to emphasize the details of my trauma, talk about the lost sleep, the flashbacks, the months of depression and anxiety, the lost friends – without naming rape as, well, rape, and without accusing the university of mishandling the case.  All of these requests were denied, and I was left with another round of [retraumatization] by the university.         

Princeton, it’s been a long, long while since this all happened, but that doesn’t mean that I’m “over it.”  Luckily, I have a family that supports me, and a new group of friends, both on this campus and beyond it, who believe me.  That’s meant the world, but it does not change the reality of what happened.  In a dire, preventable, circumstance I came to the university I loved and asked for help, with the full trust I would receive it.  Yet I was treated as if I were a delinquent third-grader asking for more time on my homework because “my dog ate it.” You sigh, admit it is unfortunate, but refuse to do much else.  

We need a new language to speak to members of our community who struggle because bad things happen here, and language is powerful.  We need a language that legitimizes rather than wishes well, that respects rather than diminishes.  We need a culture that wields the intelligence of those within it so that stories such as my own are recognized as problematic, not awkward.  We need to teach each other and be taught how to care for each other when these things occur.  Most importantly, we need actions in place of platitudes, and actions that reflect comprehension of a difficult, human, reality rather than ones that wish it away. Just let me speak and call out these injuries, and hopefully we can go from there.  

xx Girl”

— Anonymous Recent Princeton Alumni