Carry That Weight

I’ve been following the story of Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia student who is carrying around a mattress everywhere she goes for as long as she has to be on the same campus as her rapist. Emma and two other women filed formal complaints against the same student who raped all three of them. All three cases were dismissed. In a New York Times article, Emma says “the university’s adjudication process left her feeling even more traumatized and unsafe.” She is now one of 27 complainants, who have filed a federal lawsuit against the university for the way it has handled cases of sexual assault in violation of Title IX, Title II, and the Clery Act.

Emma’s story is dredging up painful memories of my first semester as a graduate student at Columbia. Let me preface this by saying I was not raped, and I escaped relatively unscathed, at least physically. I’ve been struggling with how to tell my story, because even after two decades I think back on what happened to me with so many competing emotions: guilt, shame, anger, sorrow…I wish I could figure out a way to tie it all up in a neat bow. I wish I could say that something positive, or at least instructive came of it all. I’m not sure that I can.

The very first person I met at Columbia was Juan, the loud, blustery porter for the building where I was assigned housing. He served as the building’s superintendent and janitor. When my parents and I arrived, he cheerfully helped us transport my things into my new bedroom. I was in a suite that had three bedrooms with a shared kitchen and bathroom. My roommates had not yet arrived.

When it was time for my parents to leave, my lovably guileless, maddening mother turned to thank Juan for his help and added, “Please take good care of my daughter. She doesn’t know anybody in New York. My baby is all alone here. I want you to look out for her.” I knew that my mother was speaking from the depths of purest love, but this did nothing to mitigate my embarrassment.

I went about the business of settling into my new life. I saw Juan around the building on a daily basis and was polite and friendly to him. He was supposed to periodically clean the common areas of all the suites. Since he had keys to all the suites, he would let himself in as he pleased. At first, I thought nothing of this. He was always jovial, and he seemed harmless enough.

When he first suggested that he would show me around the city, I made a vague excuse about being busy with classes.

“You Asian girls like to play hard to get,” was the response I got.

I stiffened when I heard these words, but I let it go. I began to adopt a colder and more formal manner whenever I had to communicate with him.

One day he followed me into my bedroom. This immediately put me on edge. A cockroach scuttled between us and he smashed it with his foot. He lifted his boot toward me and told me to lick it off.

I began to avoid entering and exiting my suite when I thought he might be around. He was always bellowing, so it was fairly easy to know where he was. I did a lot of running to avoid him. If I could hear him on one of the upper floors, I would run out of my building before he could reach the second floor, where I lived. If I heard his voice on the ground floor, I would delay my departure and end up running to class, often arriving late.

Some days it was impossible to avoid him. One day he followed me into my bedroom and wrapped a phone cord around my neck. The next time he followed me into my room, he put his hands around my neck and squeezed hard enough to leave red marks around my neck.

This is the part of the story where I start kicking myself for letting things get to this point. Was I too friendly? Could I have nipped things in the bud by being more assertive? I tend to avoid conflict at all costs. Speaking up for myself is painfully difficult. At first, I was embarrassed. Later, I was scared. At that moment, my instinct for self-preservation kicked in and overrode all else.

“Take your hands off me!” I screamed at him as I jerked free. “Don’t ever touch me again!”

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” he said over and over, as he backed away with his hands in the air. We both knew that he had literally and figuratively crossed the threshold. I knew I’d reached my breaking point.

I went to see the university ombuds person, who expressed alarm at the situation. The head of housing and security were called in. The three administrators told me that I would have to file a formal complaint in order for them to do anything about the situation. They explained to me that there would be a hearing at which Juan and I would be in the same room, at the same table.

“No. I can’t do that,” I answered. “I’m terrified of him. You need to take care of this situation. He’s got keys to my apartment, and he comes into my bedroom whenever he wants to. He’s much bigger than I am and I know he can hurt me.”

They insisted that there was nothing they could do without my help and suggested that I try to enlist other people in the apartment building to support my complaint. When I look back on this dark episode of my life, I think the most painful part of the story is that I could not get a single person to help me. We were all new graduate students in that building. We were a social bunch. We were always visiting each other, trading CDs, and going out to eat together. When I asked these new friends for help, everyone expressed sympathy for me and horror at my predicament, but not one person was willing to write a letter or to join me in filing a formal complaint.

My best hope was an MFA writing student who lived one floor above me, and was the closest thing I had to a friend in New York. He was shocked, concerned, and angry on my behalf, but like everyone else in that building, he too declined to help me write a letter of complaint. The situation turned out to be great fodder for his fiction though. One day he handed me a short story he had written in a hot blaze of inspiration. It would almost have been laughable, if it hadn’t been so damn outrageous. In it, a slutty, spoiled, rich girl falsely accuses a poor, downtrodden character of sexual harassment. A few not-so-subtle allusions compared the accused to a slave. My friend played a part in the sorry drama too. He cast himself as an Abraham Lincoln/liberator figure. When pressured to lend support to the accuser, he nobly refuses to do so. When I threw the story back at him, reeling with hurt and fury, he expressed genuine bewilderment. He denied that there was any connection between the story and my own situation and gently explained, as if to a child, that it was fiction.

My mother had been right about one thing. I really was all alone.

The administrators waged a campaign that felt like harassment of another sort. Every day, at least once and sometimes more than once a day, all three of them would call me, one after the other. They would each pressure me to file a formal complaint, without which, they insisted they were powerless to act. They would say things to me like, “How will you feel, if he rapes a woman and you hadn’t done the right thing?”

They succeeded in making me feel deeply ashamed of myself for not being brave enough to do what Emma Sulkowicz and her two fellow students did recently, but my fear trumped my shame. I dug my heels in and insisted that the university take action to protect me without exposing me to further risk. The thought of having to accuse a man face to face, who could come and go as he pleased into my own bedroom, made me seriously consider abandoning my studies to go home as the better alternative. If just one friend or administrator had been willing to help me bear my load, it would have made all the difference in the world.

It was at this point that I finally reached out to my sister. I couldn’t call my parents. My dad hadn’t let me apply to Columbia for my undergraduate studies, because he thought it would be too dangerous for me to live in the city. I didn’t want them to worry about me, and I was pretty sure that if I told them what was going on, they would show up on my doorstep to preemptively take me back home, whether or not I wanted to leave. My sister and her husband, who also happens to be a bad-ass lawyer, both had several long and heated conversations with the administrators on my behalf. After a week of endless phone calls back and forth, we were at an impasse. In the end, they moved Juan to another building and he was told that he was not allowed to be anywhere on Claremont Avenue. I had to call campus security in a panic just once when I saw him on the street, looking up into the windows. Mercifully, that was the last time I ever saw him.

Eventually, I stopped looking over my shoulder every time I left the building. Eventually, I made true friends who made my last years at Columbia some of the happiest ones of my life: my best friend, who is like another sister to me, and the man who is now my husband. Eventually, I am proud to say that I earned my Ph.D.

A day after I first came upon Emma’s story and video, I saw a new photo. In it, a group of students is carrying the mattress for her. Since her story has become more public, it is rare now that Emma ever has to carry her mattress alone. Last Friday, there was a “Stand with Survivors” rally on Low Plaza. May that continued solidarity and support sustain her through her final year of college.

We live in an imperfect, scary world. Lately the news has been rife with stories of domestic assault. This week Charlottesville has been devastated by the disappearance of an eighteen-year-old UVa student. Some days you just want to lock the doors and hunker down. Is there a lesson in all of this? Is there anything we can do to make things better? The only answers I can come up with seem almost too simple…We can reach out to others. We can take care of one another, as we would care for our own brother or sister. We can do whatever it takes to make sure that no one has to walk alone. And when bad things happen, as they inevitably do, we can make sure that people don’t have to shoulder their burdens alone.

2 thoughts on “Carry That Weight

  1. Adrienne, what a painful, powerful, and important piece. Thank you for sharing it. The harassment and assault policies at most colleges and universities are a travesty.

    • Thanks so much, Liza. I really appreciate your comment. This is one of those pieces I’ve had to thrash my way through. I’ve scheduled and delayed posting it about a dozen times. It still doesn’t feel “right,” but I think that might be because the issue of campus assault and where responsibility lies is inherently fraught with ambiguity and internal tensions. I’m glad to have finally taken the plunge into those icy waters, if only just so that I could doggie-paddle my way past it!

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