Thursday, October 18, 2012
The Fear That Our Communities Will Fail Us
Yesterday, Angie Epifano wrote an account of her experiences with her school following her sexual assault at Amherst College, a small, elite liberal arts college in Western Massachusetts.
Thank you to Angie for the power and weight of your words, and sharing the truth of your experience. Thank you also to our colleagues at the rape crisis center that serves the Five College area, the Center for Women and Community and the Victim Rights Law Center, both of whom Angie mentions briefly in her story.
Angie's story has circulated in and around my social and social media circles today. Less so the circles of folks who've found their calling in the trenches of sexual violence work. We feel Angie's experience in the way we feel the experiences of other survivors: with the heaviness that comes from hearing a story that is neither new nor singular, but that nonetheless deserves to be well and truly heard, and held, and acted upon.
Rather, her story is making its way through my alumni community. I'm an alum of Williams College, a peer institution and the historical rival of Amherst College. This rivalry is fierce, and old, but at its core is something real: there are generations of current and former students who love these places powerfully. And so the tone of these emails, and Facebook messages and tweets has not been, "Oh, look how bad Amherst turns out to be," but instead, profound sadness mixed with deep trepidation.
Much of the sadness is empathy. Angie's story is hard to read because she so clearly puts words to the struggles of many survivors: the single action step that took a hundred silent pep talks and the effort of a marathon to take, only to be told that it was the wrong move, or the one that discredited them. The other piece of that sadness, though, is the feeling of loss, and that loss is the sister emotion of fear. "Here is a campus just like ours," my circles said. "Could someone really be treated that way here?" If it did, said one email, "I would be so ashamed to be an alum."
The fear here is that our communities--people with whom we share at least a fellowship, if not an identity--could fail us spectacularly. I think all of us would like to believe that, presented with a person like Angie, we would do something differently: Be more compassionate, produce the right words, or make exactly the right referral. Plainly, though, there are plenty of decent, compassionate, articulate people in positions at colleges, K-12 schools, hospitals, health care centers, and faith communities, and they don't know how.
Back in September, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a New Yorker column about Jerry Sandusky and Penn State, which, for those of us from outside of Happy Valley, has become the looking glass we use to explore what sexual abuse does to our ideas of loyalty and betrayal. Gladwell tells a story about Joe Paterno toward the end of the piece that is really an aside to the larger article but, for me, turns out to be the heart. He writes of a conversation between Paterno and his biographer Joe Posnanski:
Posnanski, in one of his final interviews with Paterno, asked him if he had considered calling the police. “To be honest with you, I didn’t,” Paterno said. “This isn’t my field. I didn’t know what to do. I had not seen anything. Jerry didn’t work for me anymore. I didn’t have anything to do with him. I tried to look through the Penn State guidelines to see what I was supposed to do. It said I was supposed to call Tim [Curley]. So I called him.”
I believe that Joe Paterno, along with many other people who've been entrusted with the details of information about sexual abuse, have been left utterly bereft of ideas about what to do, or say, or think next. Sometimes, we are simply struck dumb by the horror that one person, through their actions, can visit on another. Sometimes, we have had the privilege of never experiencing the sort of anguish, or numbness, that the person in front of us has had, and so we're skeptical of the things they've thought, and said, and done in the haze of it. Sometimes, that privilege is also bound and tangled with the privilege that comes with skin color, gender, or sexuality, ability, or status. So we act with the best intentions, and more often than not, that's when we learn that good intentions take us almost nowhere.
When we love a place--like a college, or a K-12 school, or a congregation--my contention is that we should love it enough to demand thoughtfully considered policies about sexual violence be in place before someone is sitting in an office asking for help. Whose offices could someone go to, and what knowledge do we expect them to have? What protocols exist to ensure that someone who has been sexually abused in that place can continue to feel safe and participate meaningfully as a part of the community while the process of accountability moves forward? What culture do we, as a community, need to intentionally create to make this place safe?