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.

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10 thoughts on “Three women

  1. I wonder — often — about that word. “Justice.” I am not certain what true justice in cases of sexual and gender violence might look like, only that the social structures we have now are poorly designed to achieve it. Wouldn’t justice for one victim mean that there is no “next victim”? Or, at least, *fewer* nexts?

    These stories are hard, all of them, and burdensome to carry. I am so sorry to hear the harm that has been done you, and done your two friends — and so glad you have found one another. I am carrying part of your burden now too, even as you are carrying mine.

    We may still be far on our journey towards justice — but how much comfort in not taking the path alone…

    Best, alice

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  2. I learned many things after surviving a relationship that almost killed me and one of the most powerful was, “I cannot change an abuser. I can stop abuse in my life.”

    As you have done.

    Yes, he will make attempts to insert himself back into your life, into your environment, your mind.

    You are not letting him.

    No Contact is a vital tool in ending abuse in our lives. For me, No Contact began in my mind. I had to stop thinking about him and get really serious about thinking about me. About defining my boundaries, my beliefs, values, needs, desires, dreams.

    I am glad you have found two women to connect with so that you know, You Are Not Alone.

    Abuse hurts. We have the power to stop it when we stand united in our voices speaking out for one another. We have the power to create a world where abuse is not tolerated, when we share our stories. And, we have the capacity to create space for truth to rise up so that those who have been abused find themselves heard, believed and seen for what has happened to them because someone else believed, abuse was okay.

    There is no shame in having been abused. The shame would be to let the abuser continue to control our lives through fear.

    I am glad you are free of his abuse. That takes courage.

    Thank you for dropping by to visit me. I look forward to continuing to share this journey.

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    1. I completely agree. No contact is the only way to break free once and for all. If you give an abuser even the smallest chance for contact, they will use it to get you to go running back to them. Thank you for reading and commenting 🙂 It really means a lot.

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  3. Deep.

    The worst thing I believe that can happen to any female is to loose her voice.

    Our voice is the best thing our creator has bestowed upon us and though we will always be challenged, we must try to never loose it.

    A silent woman is most likely screaming inside wanting to be free, except she loves being silent.

    If there’s something i have learnt on my journey so far, it is never to let any Man make me cringe and hide. Fearless, bold with my head up high, still I rise.

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    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. I don’t know that a woman necessarily loves being silent, but sometimes telling the truth brings a lot of complications for the victim and can have serious consequences. but I agree, staying silent can really take a toll on the victim. wish you the best – speak766

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      1. Thanks. There is wisdom in keeping silent no doubt but from experience keeping quiet most of the time does not help, it suppresses and this can lead to a wicked explosion in the future. I believe we should know when to speak out clearly and when to keep quiet, there is a lot of wisdom in observing as well.

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