I’ve sat on this for two weeks, but I’m ready to wade into the fray. With the permission of a friend, who feels it is now safe to share her story because most of the people are dead and she is mostly away from their influences, I will tell you why people wait decades to come forth with their tales of abuse.
My friend was accepted into a selective graduate program in a prestigious university. She was ecstatic as it furthered her career path. So, she uprooted her life and moved to another state with her husband to attend the program.
She did well in her master’s program – earning all As and making friends but her husband was jealous of the time she spent studying. She invited him to come to department events and tried other ways to include her husband, but he declined. She kept going to classes and making connections with her fellow students and her teachers, an essential part of the graduate school process but didn’t attend the informal events where many connections are made and strengthened.
Her husband left her in the middle of the degree. Cleaned out the bank accounts and moved to the Midwest with another woman. She was heart-broken and thought of school as her refuge enough to spend her summer camping on a friend’s dorm couch. She spent more time with her classmates and teachers, going to some of the more informal events – a cookout on the dorm steps, a beer after class with peers and teachers to follow-up on class concepts.
One teacher noticed how sad she was looking and invited her to talk during office hours. He was sympathetic and laid an arm across her shoulders in a fatherly way. She struggled out from under it. He suggested they have a relationship. He had admitted to her that he had done this before with students – he had an “open” relationship with his wife. She said no as gently as she could – he was on her thesis committee. Without his support and his signature at the defense exam, her master’s thesis would be rejected and all her work from the past two years would be wasted. She started avoiding him, and her work suffered. She had nightmares and panic attacks. She couldn’t concentrate. She turned in lousy work for her master’s thesis barely meeting specifications, but her goal was to get out from under him, literally and metaphorically. Somehow, she passed the defense of her master’s thesis although the lecherous professor made it known that he was unhappy with her work. Lots of grumbling in the halls that isolated her from her peers and professors.
Knowing that the master’s thesis would not get her a job and that her master’s thesis would not get her into another university, she applied and was accepted into the doctoral program. But. The professor picked her as his teaching assistant, and he signed on as her graduate advisor for the doctoral dissertation. The nightmares got worse over the summer. She picked fights with other teachers, lost weight, and would jump at every noise or sudden movement.
When she started school in the fall, the reality of her situation worsened. The lecherous professor stood over her in meetings and looked down her dress. He sneered at her ideas for a dissertation delaying her progress. Her shakes increased. The other teaching assistants made fun of her, calling her variations on teacher’s pet. Her peers noticed and avoided her. She tried to talk to the professor, but he laughed saying she was misinterpreting his words. As head of her graduate committee, he could stall and even derail her doctoral program.
She lasted two semesters before the head of another department took her to lunch. She was scared to go – what could she say that didn’t sound whiny or defensive? And the department head was male. She wore a shapeless dress to the lunch. Had her hair cut by a barber in a flat top to look less feminine. But he was kind. He asked what was going on. After hemming and hawing, she told him. He assured her that he would take care of transferring her to his department.
Emboldened from being out from the direct influence of the man, she decided to make a complaint. Following the university’s protocols, she contacted the woman administrator overseeing sexual harassment cases for the university. She did not know that the university’s first objective is to protect its own. The university’s harassment ombudswoman did not prepare her for the proceedings. The student did not know what would happen or if she would have to speak.
The predatory professor brought a legal representative. A group of her peers and professors watched them file into a conference room. She heard their whispers. She was aware that her career in the university and beyond would be affected by the outcome of this mock trial. When called upon to present her side, she stuttered. The professor sat across from her blatantly holding her gaze, a folder in his lap, his department head on one side of him and his legal representative on the other. The woman remembers feeling outnumbered.
At the end of the meeting, it was decided that he would receive a sealed letter in his personnel file to be removed after three years and that he could not give her any reference. She was under legal constraints to be silent about the entire incident. This sounded like blaming the victim to the woman. No one would know what he did. She went home and cried. Her academic work suffered. She was distracted and hostile in classes, due to sleep deprivation, wariness, and being ostracized by her peers and university faculty. She was untrusting and distressed by any male attention including her new husband’s concern.
When she attempted to get together another graduate committee for her thesis, she needed professors from the lecherous professor’s department. Her top choices, based on her dissertation topic, turned her down.
When she needed a teaching reference, the department head of the lecherous professor smirked and said he could not give her one. She had put him in “a bad position.” She didn’t get the job.
Eventually, the woman completed the dissertation in a program that was wonderful but not her first choice moving her into a career path that was not her first choice. She did the minimum amount of work to get her dissertation, not trusting the predominantly male faculty.
She brushed off other women’s attempts to talk to her about their harassment by the same professor.
All this time, she shielded her body in baggy clothes, kept her hair short, and avoided men in places of power. She made herself small and invisible. Hid her face behind big glasses. Didn’t go places alone.
No one knew what he did to her. What he cost her.
After over two decades, she put this behind her, but it still comes up. She told me about the years of therapy for the PTSD and feelings of betrayal by the university and her peers. She told me about the moments of panic when she thinks she sees him in a crowd or on the street. She had to learn to approach men as human beings.
Even today, after the professional awards and personal accomplishments, she can’t –
Account for a gap on her resume
Works in a field that was not her first choice
Has moments of panic when a man, a boy, or anybody looks at her body
Feels uncomfortable in meetings and minimizes her accomplishments/ideas
Why would she want to expose herself to betrayal and ostracism again unless she knew she had the support of other women? So as women come forward with their stories, she started to feel emboldened. She wanted her story told and believed.
That’s why you are seeing a great many women come forward; finally, there are enough of us talking for a woman to feel safe telling her story.
Please, when a woman tells you her story, say ‘thank you.’
She has probably told it before, and it has been dismissed or silenced.
Don’t do that to her. Ask her how you can help.
(Images courtesy of morguefile.com by PEDROJPEREZ and JELTOVSKI.)