“Uncovering secrets is apocalyptic in the simple sense (the Greek root means ‘an uncovering’). In this case, it lifts the shame covers. It allows articulation to enter where silence once ruled.” – Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World
“I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty beats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them, under the wind-rent clouds, upstream and down.” – Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
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[Trigger warning: this blog post includes accounts of sexual assault, violence, and harassment, and may be triggering to some people.]
Part I. Last Friday: My Second “Coming Out”[i]
Last Friday, inspired by a sermon by Rev. Becca Stevens at Saint Augustine’s chapel at Vanderbilt “that ended with a call to action to respond to the rape that happened on our campus this summer,”(more on that in a bit), a vigil was held during the lunch hour to express solidarity with and support for survivors of sexual violence.[ii] I participated in the vigil, and stood by an undergraduate woman that I connected with for the first time just last week (more on this later, too), and met for the first time at the vigil, but whom I immediately felt both connected to and inspired by. At one point, as we held our signs in the middle of campus, this incredible young woman—we’ll call her Rachel—felt compelled to make the vigil, and her sign which read “I Stand with Survivors of Sexual Assault,” a little more personal: for her, and for those that she encountered. She dug through her purse for a black pen (couldn’t find a sharpie, unfortunately!), bent down on the cobblestone surface, and wrote on the bottom of her sign, “I am a survivor.”
As soon as I saw what she had done, I thought, ‘oh shit.’ The previous evening (well, couple of evenings), I had struggled with completing a reflection that my cohort was assigned for a class I am in, where I would be heading directly after the vigil in fact… The assignment for this particular class was to write a reflection “remembering [our] time so far at Vanderbilt as a theological educator.” The reflection was about 5 pages long, so I won’t share much of it here, but nestled into the middle of it, I wrote this:
“Don’t tell anyone what you did…. This needs to be a time for you to reevaluate your theological vocation… Hopefully this can be a time where you reconsider what it means to be a theologian and a teacher… I forgive you.” – a professor of religion
The story behind this quote is far too long and complicated to share in any real detail, and offering even an abbreviated version terrifies the hell out of me for innumerable reasons, but it simply feels incredibly disingenuous and just flat out wrong to write about how Vanderbilt has shaped me as a theological educator without including the fact that at some point during my Vanderbilt career, I was sexually assaulted. I was out with friends, some of whom were Masters students, and left those friends for a bit to talk to a guy who had bought me a drink. Very, very, very long story short, I was raped by this man. Soon after this event, I confided in a professor (NOTE: this professor is not necessarily from Vanderbilt. It is, however, a professor in the field of religious studies. I am being intentionally vague with all of this to protect peoples’ privacy, including, to some extent, my own), and this quote above is just one of the many, many difficult and painful things this professor said…
So, in light of what I had just written, and incredibly inspired by this brave young woman, I couldn’t help but follow lead. I asked to borrow her pen, bent over on that same cobblestone walkway that is right in the middle of campus, a central point between the library, the cafeteria/student center, and the divinity school, and wrote the same thing, albeit with much poorer penmanship. I had thought writing those words down for my colleagues to read was near the epitome of that brave-but-nervous-as-shit-but-empowered feeling, but this, this made that act of writing seem like small potatoes… or at least medium potatoes—maybe not fingerlings, but certainly not russets… more like red potato size…
“If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment.” – Brene Brown
I went straight from the vigil to class. As discussion started, we “just jumped in” to reflect upon the various papers together…the conversation at one point just turned in a different direction, so other then a very brief mention by the professor of the broader theme of “safety” in my reflection, my paper was not mentioned…. It was probably nothing, just the way the conversation went, but it stung a little bit that mine was really the only paper not explicitly discussed.
“I have come to believe over and over again that is what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” – Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider.
I’ve cited this passage like a cliché since I first read this essay in my senior year of undergrad. I never really got the second half of it, had never experienced the true depths of that risk, until this past summer…. I’m not sure whether I believe this anymore…
I went straight from the class to Riverbend, a prison in Nashville where I volunteer regularly, where my housemate serves as a resident chaplain. I got to the chaplain’s office to find my housemate, her boss, and two insiders[i] that they—and I, when I am there—work with often, all hanging out and doing some work. When they saw me, they took pause of their various tasks, seeing that I was pretty upset. What’s wrong, they asked? I told them… all of it—the rape, the response from the professor, the feelings that came with my story not really being acknowledged: shame, embarrassment, stupidity, hurt… They listened. They voiced anger and pain for me… with me…
How is it that we classify and categorize space the way we do? It struck me as ironic—though, when I thought about it, not at all surprising—that it was the classroom, a place that is “supposed” to be at least somewhat ‘safe’ (whatever that means) felt the scariest, the most hurtful, the most judgmental; [ii] whereas the prison, a place where I am told constantly by officers and unknowing friends and relatives to be “on guard,” to “watch my back,” to not trust, was where I felt the most loved and heard and welcomed… I don’t know what to do with that…
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Part II. The (Broader) Context
The decision to share that part of my own story in that class, as well as my decision to follow Rachel’s lead in the vigil[v]—let alone to write about it here—has of course been about my own experiences; it has also, however, been shaped by hearing story after story about similar experiences…of various incidents on campus and off, of stories from here at Vandy and elsewhere…about hurtful or non-existent responses from police to college administrators to colleagues to friends to family members…of the various explicit and implicit, overt and subtle, major and minor. ways that I’ve seen rape culture manifest itself…
Many, if not most, folks heard about the horrific rape of an unconscious Vanderbilt student by four Vanderbilt football players. For some reason, “controversial” stories that emerge around SEC football have a way of doing that, which is something I am just now learning after three years here (suffice it to say, while it is definitely an athletic-heavy institution, football isn’t much on the radar at Duke)… For those that have not heard the story, here’s a short version of it, a piece of the narrative of the event that was read in court in mid-September by the deputy district attorney:
On June 23, 2013, in the early morning hours, Brandon Vandenburg took an unconscious female Vanderbilt student from the Tin Roof bar to his room in Gillette Hall, which is located on the Vanderbilt campus, here in Nashville, Davidson County. Mr. Vandenburg was joined in the room by Corey Batey, Brandon Banks and Jaborian McKenzie, where this female student was sexually assaulted by different individuals.
During one of the aggravated rapes, Mr. Vandenburg sent a text to Mr. Boyd showing the unconscious victim with an object inserted in her anally. Mr. Boyd promptly deleted the text because he didn’t want his girlfriend to see it. Shortly after receiving the text, Mr. Boyd received a phone call from Mr. Vandenburg saying that the victim had been “messed with in the hall” and sexually assaulted in the room, and he needed Mr. Boyd to come over.
Mr. Vandenburg further stated that he wanted to have sex with the victim but could not get an erection even though he had used cocaine. When Mr. Boyd arrived, he found the victim laying (sic) in the hall, unconscious and not fully clothed. He and two other individuals carried her back into the room and placed her in the bed and left.
There’s a lot more to the story than that, including some awful text message exchanges, and some allegations of the football coach possibly articipating in a cover up. For those who want more information, you can find out more about it here, here, here, and here.[vi]
I’d venture to say that everyone who reads this blog post, and well, even those in the theological academy that wouldn’t be caught dead reading a blog like this one, would find this story to be horrific and atrocious and, well, evil.
Despite our collective horror, sexual assault and rape happen, a lot. On campuses and off.
- During college, 1 in 4 women are raped. 1 in 3 women will be sexually abused at some point during their lifetime.[vii]
- 1 in 6 men are sexually assaulted before the age of 18.[viii]
- And folks, these are the people that report what happened to them.
Despite the very real statistics, institutions continue to fail students, to not only hinder the healing of survivors but to add to their suffering…
– Yale made headlines recently when it was discovered that—in a report that was in part in response to a host of Title IX violations, after Yale said that it was taking sexual misconduct serious—they don’t even use the language of rape, instead calling it “nonconsensual sex.” Moreover, as Jezebel’s essay on the subject puts it, “Yale has formally found sufficient evidence against six perpetrators of “nonconsensual sex” so far in 2013.* Of these six perpetrators, only one was suspended, and only for one year. One is on “probation” (until he rapes again?), and four received “written reprimands.” To summarize: five out of these six “nonconsensual sex”-havers will graduate with a slap on the wrist (and an Ivy League diploma) or stay on campus, and the sixth can come back in a year. Hey: most of them were encouraged to seek counseling. That’s thoughtful.”[ix]
– Yale is not alone in their policies, and/or lack thereof, and/or failure to uphold them… Last May, students at University of Southern California, University of California Berkeley, Swathmore College, and Dartmouth College filed Title IX complaints against their institutions’ failure to adequately address sexual assault and harassment on campus.[x] Luckily, students have begun to organize in response to these various charges, seeking to hold colleges responsible… The incredible organization Know Your IX began after the brave and brilliant Andrea Pino, along with Annie Clark and others, not only filed a complaint against UNC,[xi] but began to realize how much bigger this problem is as they kept hearing from students in similar situations…
– And let’s not even talk about churches… [xii]
Let’s make it just a bit more personal now, and look at Vanderbilt. Did Vanderbilt do the right thing in acting swiftly and kicking these four players off the team and out of school? Yes, and I applaud them for that. [xiii]But does this mean that the measures they’ve taken to respond to this rape—and more importantly, to the broader issue of sexual violence within the Vanderbilt community—“have been effective?”[xiv]
A recent informal study by a group of alumnae seems to suggest otherwise… You can check out the infographic here, but here are some key findings:
- The survey was made by a group of alumnae who disagreed with Vanderbilt’s recent claim that the measures taken in response to the rape that occurred on campus this summer “have been effective.”
- Within 72 hours, the survey received 391 responses from Vandy alum and current students.
- Out of those 391 responses, 45 answered “yes,” to the question “are you a survivor of sexual violence at Vanderbilt?”
- Out of those 45 students, only 10 felt safe enough to report their attack to Vanderbilt.
- 5 students specifically mentioned the Psychological Counseling Center. None of those who mentioned it were satisfied with their experience.
- Out of those 10 who reported their attackers, only 1 of the perpetrators faced consequences—“an apology and disciplinary consequences.”
I sit there, paralyzed, crying, as this professor tells me he forgives me. I’m stuck in his office, he blocks the path between me and the door. I garner the courage to push back, just a little. “Professor X,” I whimper, commanding myself to take deep breaths, “when you tell me you forgive me, it makes it feel like it was my fault.”
“Getting raped wasn’t your fault,” he ‘clarifies,’ “but drinking enough to get into that situation was.”
So, I think to myself, it wasn’t my fault, but I definitely deserved it…
Throughout this whole series of conversations…. My theological vocation being questioned, being told I’m forgiven, being commanded to share the details with him and to keep silent about them elsewhere, my story being shared with other authority figures without my permission… I feel like I’m being raped all over again….
I see the aforementioned infographic making its rounds on facebook. Most folks are angry and shocked…I am not shocked in the least, and am thrilled—thrilled that people are talking about it, thrilled that I am not alone, thrilled that there are at least a small group of people who see the need for things to change… I feel hopeful, more hopeful than I’ve felt in awhile.
Less then a week after this infographic comes out, I get a call from Vanderbilt’s EAD (equal opportunity, affirmative action, and disability services) office, in response to the grievance I filed against Professor X for the ways he responded to my assault (many details of which I’ve left out of this blog post)… I call them back as I sit in my favorite coffee shop. I’m trying to be calm, realizing that regardless of the outcome, I have resources now, a support system…
“We’ve concluded our investigation,” the person assigned to my case explains over the phone. “Based on the data and interviews with relevant parties, we’ve determined that there has been no violation of Vanderbilt’s anti-harassment policy.”
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Part III. Reflections: Personal and Theological
“For me, the genesis of theology is pain. When my heart is broken, I expect theology to walk with me… Theology is an academic discipline, a handmaid of the church, a doctrinal tradition. But it is also sapientia. It is longing for wisdom: pain seeking understanding. I do not find theology consoling because it provides me with correct answers. This is impossible and not even to be desired. Correct answers, even imagining there were such things, could help only the thinnest strand of mind. It might satisfy certain aspects of discursive reasoning, but that is neither bread nor roses for the suffering heart. Theology is a practice that uses words and ideas, books and concepts to throw one’s mind and heart toward the eternally Erotic Abyss that is our hearts desire….” – Wendy Farley
“For to survive in the mouth of this dragon we call america [the theological academy?], we have had to learn this first and most vital lesson—we were never meant to survive…. And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength. Because the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak.” –Audre Lourde, Sister Outside
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” – Rabbi Hillel
I’ve struggled a great deal with whether to share this story, ever really, and certainly now… I’ve struggled with whether to tell anyone, let alone make bits of my story available to the entire interwebs….I mean, why share anyways? I’m not doing it for therapeutic purposes—I’ve got a therapist for that.[xv] Not to mention that it is quite possible that the risks of sharing will demand even more therapy… Nor am I doing it for pity, I honestly do not need that nor do I find it all that helpful…. I’m not totally psychologically naïve in that I very much realize that at some level, these various motives behind sharing hold some truth… Nevertheless, if those were my main aims, I’m quite certain that this would not be the most logical nor the wisest move… Remaining quiet about it all would be the easier move, and certainly the less risky one…
What compels this essay more than anything else is, perhaps paradoxically, my own emotional and psychic fragility. I realize that this usually, and perhaps should, countermand this urge to speak as opposed to spur it. …but there is something that shocks me about my own response to this professor’s words… with how I crumbled….
While I realize that there is no “should” or “should not” statements in situations like this—that, somewhat ironically, not having “shoulds” is in fact one of said “shoulds”—my own response nevertheless surprised me….
I mean, I not only identify as an avowed feminist and with that have read a great deal about sexual assault and shame and silence, about victim blaming and rape culture, but I’ve studied this stuff for quite awhile now… I am certainly no expert in either feminist theories or feminist theologies, but studying gender and sex and sexuality at the intersections of theory, praxis, and theology is pretty much what I’ve devoted my life to.
Perhaps the fact that I agree so deeply with Foucault’s various analyses on power; on how power shapes us—how it produces us, subjectivizes us—how it is omnipresent but ungraspable,[xvi] how it disciplines bodies and communities; should (ok, that was admittedly a bad word choice) elucidate how unsurprising it is that this professor’s words made me crumble in the way that they did… of course they did, as the complexities of the various operations and technologies and relations of power shape us—shaped me—deeply…
As this blog post ostensibly points to, however, I also believe what Foucault says about the possibilities of resistance, that “where there is power, there is resistance…”[xvii] If what I went through, with the rape and with Professor X’s response to all of it, impacted me the way it did, whether said impact is surprising or not, there seems to be some power, some resistance, in sharing—a way to not let the story or the ways it has unfolded, claim victory… Someone I shared this story with awhile back asked me what I hope for in light of what happened to me… Ideally, I told her, what I really hope is that this never happened. But, it did. Thus, leaning on my liberationist and feminist and Foucauldian sensibilities, I want my experience to work to preclude others experiencing what I did. With all that in mind, in light of my own experiences… if the statistics are true (and I believe that they are), and if silence is harmful and isolating and shaming (and I believe that it is), then, for me,[xviii] saying something just makes sense, despite the scariness of it all…
I have the word parrhēsia (παῤῥησία) tattooed on my right forearm. Roughly speaking, the word means “truth-telling,” “boldness,” and “frank speech.” In some of the final lectures he gave before his death, Foucault spoke at length on “the courage of truth,” on “truth-telling as a way of life”—this “injunction to live a ‘true life’ [being] a militant, political project.”[xix] “Parrhēsia,” Foucault explains, “ is a verbal activity in which the speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself.)”[xx] While I’m pretty sure my life is not at risk in speaking, I do worry that my academic career might be….or my reputation, at least to some….
Finally, this, shall we say political ethic of truth telling and boldness, also strikes me as deeply theological.[xxi] “Only complete truth and truthfulness will help us now,” Bonhoeffer once exclaimed.[xxii] Or, as Stanley Hauerwas has said, as is known to say quite frequently, “The only suggestion I’ve got is we’ve got to tell one another the truth… So let the people of St. Francis stand up and say, ‘We want to know the truth even when we’re not sure it will heal.’”[xxiii]
I’m not sure if this truth will be healing, for me or for anyone else… I hope that it will. Regardless, I’m speaking about my experiences as a survivor because, for me, this is a way that I feel like I can continually bear witness to the truth even when it might threaten a few things that this world holds most dear: my reputation, potential academic possibilities, etc.
Ernest Hemingway, in advice for aspiring writers, offers pithy advice—advice that is seemingly simple, but as I’ve spent the last few days painstakingly writing this blog, is advice that I’m realizing is far more difficult than I had imagined. “All you have to do is write one true sentence,” he explains. “Write the truest sentence that you know.” Given my verbosity, this entire blog post has been my attempt at that…as both my grappling with the realities of the theological academy (and the world, for that matter, and myself), and as a way of living theology, of doing at least the groundwork of “speaking with theological imagination from within crises of life and death…”[xxiv], of, as Farley puts it, “pain seeking understanding.”[xxv]
[i] The first one being, ya know, coming out as queer…
[iii] The term we use instead of ‘inmates’ or ‘prisoners.’
[iv] This, I realize, is perception.. they may have not been judgmental at all, but it nevertheless felt that way….
[v] As well as, possibly, her own decision to make her sign a bit more personal, though I won’t speak for her or what her reasons were behind her choice.
[vi] These are just a few of many pieces covering the story… a quick google search will uncover many more, just fyi.
[ix] The asterisk indicates a footnote on Jezebel where they explain “We only counted straight-up “nonconsensual sex” (sigh).” See also: Title IX suit filed against Yale University for hostile sexual environment.
[xi] The complaint against UNC was filed on behalf of 64 assault victims. See: UNC accused of underreporting sexual assault cases.
[xii] Like, really, I’m just not going to go there, at least not now… reading and writing about what occurs in colleges and universities is exhausting and painful enough…
[xiii] I really do, and honestly think this was a swift and powerful response that makes Vanderbilt stand out compared to many other stories I’ve heard from other institutions.
[xv] I mention this lest anyone be concerned that I don’t! J
[xvi] “”Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere….power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society.” HS1, 93.
[xvii] Foucault, History of Sexuality, volume 1: An Introduction, 95. Foucault continues, explaining that “…and yet this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power.”
[xviii] Everyone has their own journey, and I don’t mean to indicate at all that others should speak out…
[xix] Michael Hardt, “Militant Life,” New Left Review, 64, July/August 2010, p. 158. For more on the political significance and import of Foucault’s later emphasis on ethics and the self, and on the role of parrhesia in his later political ethic, I highly recommend this essay by Hardt.
[xx] Foucault, Fearless Speech, p 19
[xxii] Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords, 287.
[xxiii]I’ve heard Professor Hauerwas make this claim about truth-telling on numerous occasions, but this is the only reference I found during a quick google search. Ask a Duke Div student if you want more examples of this… most will have many!
[xxiv] J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account, 377.
[xxv] Farley, Gathering Those Driven Away, 1.