The other day, I sat in my graduate program director’s office for our annual meeting. He asked me why I hadn’t attended seminars lately. According to him, they are a critical part of the “graduate school learning experience.” I stared at him with cold, empty eyes. I wanted to tell him that what I have learned in graduate school has absolutely nothing to do with science or seminars. No, what I have learned in graduate school comes from the experiences of three women.
You see, what I wanted to tell my program director that day was the truth. The reason I can no longer attend seminars and am missing out on this “critical learning experience” – that I was abused by another student in the program. That during the time we dated, he controlled and threatened me, verbally attacked me, tried to hit me with his belt, that the cops came the night we broke up, that he harassed me for months after it ended, that I was scared to come to campus every single day. But no, I did not say these things aloud, as much as I wanted to. I smiled and agreed and said I would try harder, even though I knew I wouldn’t. And he smiled with a look of satisfaction on his face. Who wouldn’t take a little white lie over the truth?
The truth is that I have changed my life since my abuser and I broke up at the end of last summer. I do not talk to people in my program out of fear they will bring him up, and I have lost several mutual friends we shared. I do not take the common elevators, staircases, use the designated parking lots for our building, or go anywhere he is likely to be. I do not get coffee or lunch without running through a series of checklists to ensure I don’t see him. I don’t go anywhere without looking around corners or listening for footsteps. And no, I do not go to seminars.
I told very few people about what happened, practically no one on campus. However, I did confide in a few individuals, and two of them changed everything. Because these two women had stories too. One woman, about two decades my senior, is an established and accomplished professional in science. At one point, she was assigned a recently hired male scientist to mentor. Like the caring person she is, she tried to help him get adjusted to his new job and offered him as much support and guidance as needed. However, he decided her kindness was an opportunity to make sexual advances towards her. When she turned him down, he harassed and stalked her for 5 years: parking next to her in empty lots, making unnecessary trips to her office and sending constant e-mails, always sitting next to her in meetings, even sending her love poems. She was constantly on guard at work, took hidden elevators and staircases to avoid him, had anxiety about going to meetings, and never felt safe and comfortable at work.
As terrible as that story is, the story of the other woman, one of my closest friends, seemed even more heart wrenching to me. My friend confided in me that she was raped several years ago in college by a friend. She told almost no one, not even her family. She had known the guy for 2 and a half years and one night, out of nowhere, he did perhaps the most horrible thing a man can do to a woman. She couldn’t tell anyone because he was part of her circle of friends and she feared she wouldn’t be believed, or worse, would be blamed for it. Of course, I wish she had been able to tell someone, but I understand why she didn’t: like my abuser, her rapist was a guy everyone loved. No one saw the monster he could become. And so she walked around campus every single day knowing that her rapist could be right behind her and that no one would ever know the truth.
Although the actual events and circumstances of these stories were different, there are still so many common threads. We all learned what it was like to fear another human being, someone we had trusted, knew, and in my case, even loved. We learned what it was like to have our lives change in the blink of an eye, to no longer feel safe where we worked and went to school, to carry around a secret so heavy that sometimes it felt like we couldn’t even breathe. These two women and I may be different ages, go to different universities, and come from different backgrounds. But the impact is still the same: We change our lives, the man gets away with it, and the world just goes on living as if nothing ever happened.
And yes, theoretically, we all had the option to tell and to try to seek justice. But when things happen behind closed doors in a university or professional setting, it becomes very complicated very quickly. None of us could report what happened without risking significant consequences for our career, our credibility, and our reputation. Just the thought of telling the truth brings an endless series of questions: would people/friends take sides, would we be fired or kicked out of our academic program, who would find out, what would they think of us, would they think less of us? And the scariest question of all: would they even believe us?
None of us may be able to come forward to the people who “matter,” like my program director or other colleagues or students or friends. But maybe they aren’t really the most important people after all. Because by sharing our own individual narratives with each other, we found comfort and solace. We found people who genuinely understood; people who could say, “I get it and I’m sorry.” We found people who believed.
What I have learned in graduate school comes down to 2 things: that there are bad people in the world who do terrible things behind closed doors; but also that these bad people cannot take everything away from us. They may take parking lots, elevators, and campuses. They may take mutual friends, colleagues, and yes, even seminars. But they cannot take our voices. Because there is truth and hope and power in the stories of three women. But above all, there is healing.
This is what I have learned in graduate school. And I will never forget it.