I didn’t know how much I needed to tell my story to someone who cared until I told my story to someone who cared. Brenda arranged everything, with my permission, of course. Brenda was the one who called the police after my assault in Honduras. Her husband, Brandon, was the one who found me and later brought me to the hospital.
Brenda and Brandon arrived with me at Calvin so that we could all tell our story to Calvin faculty. Dee Dee and Jane warmly welcomed us into a conference room that felt safe. There was even a spread of snacks and tea and coffee. Although Dee Dee jokingly complained, “I asked for sliced fruit not whole fruit.” Dee Dee is on the Travel Safety Committee, the Safer Spaces Committee that handles campus sexual assault, and is director of employee relations. Jane is the dean of student conduct and works closely with Dee Dee. My friend, Tom, lawyer, Liz, and my favorite Calvin professor, Linda, were all there to provide moral support. The women we met with were kind and gentle and I knew right away that this time when I told my story—it would matter. This time, when I told my story—I would be heard.
The focus from all of our perspectives was the inappropriate handling of the assault by Calvin, most specifically by the professor in charge. She blamed me. She told Brenda, Brandon, and the other students not to believe that I had really been raped. She was downright cruel. After the study abroad trip, I did complain. I complained to one of the Spanish professors that I knew well, and she guided me to the head of the Spanish department, and he guided me to the president of the college. The president never followed up with me. I was not connected with any support services. And the professor did not face any repercussions. In fact, she continued to lead the study abroad program for several years after that and is still employed at the college, although I’m not sure to what capacity.
When I told my version of the story, I went into detail about the way she told me I had put myself in an ugly situation and blamed my dress—blamed me. But I didn’t know until just weeks ago that she was telling my classmates not to believe me. The woman in charge that was sent to protect me was proclaiming loudly, mockingly, “It wasn’t rape.” My voice began to shake and break and stutter as it took way too long to spit out what I wanted to say. Finally, painstakingly, my face a mess of tears and snot, I said, “I wonder how my life could have been different if she had been kind.”
Dee Dee kindly, gently, told me that the more I talk, the more memories will come up. She really wanted to find out who the Spanish professor was that I had talked to. More importantly, she wanted to find out who was in the room of the president’s office with me. I told her I could see where the head of the Spanish department’s office was but nothing else. In the president’s office, I remember it was the president and another woman, but I couldn’t remember anything about her. She told me to write down memories as they resurface. I don’t know how—but she is going to somehow make this right.
The next morning I was putting my makeup on and froze. “Dwight. His name was Dwight,” I said aloud, even though the only people in the room were my reflection and me. I texted Dee Dee, “His name is Dwight.” I took one step in front of the other through my day. I knew the memories would be worse at first but I also knew the intensity would fade as time passed. My therapist, Nicole, tells me that often in therapy. She asks, “What happens with intense feelings? What happens with intense memories?” They can’t burn brightly for long. They can’t sustain that force of energy for hours or days or years. The intensity will fade, I kept telling myself as I reminded myself that I’m doing important things. I’m doing things that will make a difference. Nicole told me that this will be hard for me but she’s so proud of me for speaking up. “This is so important,” she told me.
After therapy, on my way into the car, I all of a sudden saw clearly who the woman in the office with the president was. She wasn’t someone I knew, but I could make her out as clearly as if I had sat in that office yesterday. I texted Dee Dee, “Tall. Blonde. She was wearing a pantsuit and necklace. She looks like Sue from Glee.” From that information, Dee Dee was able to find out who she was. “That was a very accurate description,” she later told me. The woman now holds an extremely prominent position as president of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. This is a Washington D.C.-based higher education organization that oversees 175 schools in 20 countries. Holy shit, she’s influential. And how does she handle sexual assault among these 175 schools? Does she drop the ball the way she did with me? This could become a big deal. Telling my story out loud will make a difference.
In the meeting, the angel women told me what a beautiful writer I am and that if I were willing to, they would love it if I could write something that could be used as a training tool for professors. A million light bulbs went off in my mind and I began to formulate a post that could maybe make a difference to the next batch of people who don’t know any better. I sat down and pounded my way through what ended up being a blog post. The title: How I Wish My Professor Had Acted After My Assault. Again, I felt vulnerable putting everything out there like that. But my conviction about the importance of what I have to say overpowered those spaces of vulnerability that made my heart pound too quickly, too hard. I had already gone public with my story, so had paved the way for myself in a sense. I hoped this next piece would serve as a teaching tool for professors, or really anyone, who is close to a person who has been assaulted.
After I clicked, “Share,” the feedback was kind and positive and healing. In the post, I expanded on feeling isolated and shunned by my classmates. I expanded on finally understanding why they acted that way—now that I know that the professor had told them all that it wasn’t really rape. My Facebook inbox beeped, revealing a new message in red. I clicked on it to find a message from a classmate who had been on the trip with me. I haven’t talked to her since our airplane landed on the Gerald R. Ford runway. I remember the way our hair all stood up as we landed with the static of a dry Michigan winter.
She wrote, “Erin, I am so sorry for not being a support for you in Honduras. Thank you for sharing and hopefully teaching others how to better respond and for the reminder to end victim blaming. I am so sorry we weren’t there for you.” Between the positive reaction from Dee Dee and Jane, and my classmate’s vulnerable apology, I am beginning to recover from the trauma. Thread by thread, the gaps in my heart’s quilt are being sewn back together. The fabric is different and doesn’t match. It’s not perfect. There are uneven bumps and ridges where the fabric doesn’t quite fill all the holes. But this is what healing looks like. It is never too late to do the right thing.