It took me 10 years to stop feeling guilty.
The dry storage room was dark. I remember focusing on the light spilling in under the crack at the bottom of the locked door, how I could hardly make out the shapes of the ketchup bottles, the bins of salt and pepper packets, stacks of napkins in coarse brown wrapping, the sundry kitchen supplies.
Two male co-workers, who deserve no description, followed me in. During a busy Friday shift at the restaurant where I worked during my college years, they grabbed me, locked me in the room, and held me down as they took turns putting their hands in my shirt and down my pants. I screamed for help. When no one came, I concentrated on the smudge of light on the floor.
There is a male voice in my memory, beyond the closed door, shouting something unintelligible. It didn't matter. I was removed from the bustle of the restaurant, far from the dining room, behind the sizzling grills and hissing pots. Even if someone had tried to come in, the door was held closed by the perpetrators, who took turns groping and standing guard.
This memory stayed with me like dampness that clings to your skin long after you've found shelter from the rain. These traumas dry slowly and leave you reeling long after you're out of the storm.
I finished college and went on to graduate school. I became an adjunct professor. Like most affiliate faculty, I live in my car, driving among three different universities in southern Connecticut. My days are filled with stacks of first-year writing papers, a constant stream of student emails, and classes taught in hour-and-15-minute intervals.
One afternoon this past spring, I sat at my shared desk in a gray windowless room correcting student reading responses to an assigned short story. I was working my way through the group of one- to two-page essays when one disrupted my progress. The paper belonged to a woman student in my first-year writing course. I had her in my class the previous semester. I'd come to appreciate her direct, smart prose and stimulating ideas. The response began as I had expected, exploring the relationship between twin brothers in "Boys" by Rick Moody. She brought in a discussion of her own bothers. Fine: I encouraged integrating personal reflection. But then, halfway through her paper, a trail of black Times New Roman letters like a punch in the gut: I was sexually assaulted at a party this semester.
I had for a long time pretended that I had never been assaulted, but when I read my student's story it was the very first thing I remembered
Then the response to "Boys" continued. I read the rest of her paper, searching for anything more about her experience. Were more clues embedded in the context of the reading response? No. That was it. She had smuggled this secret to me between neatly constructed paragraphs and concluded the essay like she would any piece of homework.
But the other words blurred. There was for a moment only this essay, composed of a single line. I read it again and again, and each time it raised a canvas of goose bumps on my arms; I swallowed hard as my own memory returned. I had for a long time pretended that I had never been assaulted, but when I read my student's story it was the very first thing I remembered.
I only had two thoughts: I understand what she's going through, and How do I respond in the best and most supportive way possible?
As far as I knew, this student was the first from my first-year writing class to be sexually assaulted. She almost certainly wouldn't be the last. I could see so much of my younger self in her. We were both goal-orientated, excited to finish school and begin careers in the professional world, but savoring the fun and friendship that make up a college education. She'd written journal entries for my class the previous semester. Perhaps this regular practice of writing in an intimate, informal way and then sharing it with me had already established a dynamic in which she could divulge something more serious. But her journaling had largely detailed the ordinary stresses of college life: upcoming exams, social insecurities, the desire for romantic love. She had an idealized notion of what love would be when she found it.
I reread her truncated admission. It was hard to ascertain her emotional state, but mine was vivid; I felt as if I had walked outside into a cold, hard pouring rain.
I'd felt guilty throughout the decade following my assault. I believed that what happened was my fault. I knew this was a common feeling among sexual assault survivors, and intellectually I knew I wasn't responsible for what happened. But the guilt drowned out my logic. I was affable, approachable. I smiled often and without hesitation, at strangers as well as my closest friends. When I was a teenager I spent a day in New York City with my family. On a crowded street, I smiled at an older man as he walked past us, and he returned my smile and let his eyes linger. My father noticed. "Never smile like that at strange men," he said. "You shouldn't be so friendly." Was this exactly what I had done 10 years ago? I was friendly with all of my co-workers. We joked around. We chatted. Had my behavior been misleading?
I have been reluctant to talk about this incident, to even call it sexual assault.
When I read this young student's account, I never for a second blamed her. Suddenly I felt like my rain-soaked clothes had finally dried. Reading the limited confession of another young woman, 10 years later, I finally processed my own trauma: It was not my fault, because it wasn't her fault either.
I wrote a long paragraph at the bottom of her reading response. I told her that I could understand what she was going through because I, too, had been assaulted. I offered to talk to her in person about what happened. I said that if she needed someone, I was there for her.
After my assault, I told my manager what happened. While I mentioned unwanted physical contact from two co-workers, my tone was casual; I was trying to conceal the embarrassment I felt. My manager was dismissive. She told me that if I was really upset, I should talk to the general manager, her superior. Then she changed the subject to the upcoming schedule. Was I able to cover a shift next weekend? Her question effectively ended the conversation.
In her defense, it was protocol at my restaurant to report an act of sexual harassment or assault to the highest-ranking manager. But I didn't feel comfortable talking to an older man about what had happened to me. I didn't have the same rapport with him. What if he wanted me to recount uncomfortable details? The thought of having to retell this story to someone I had a distant, strictly professional relationship with was unbearable. It was much easier to keep my mouth shut and pretend it never happened.
Before the start of the fall term, a small group of my colleagues and I attended an optional session about how we should handle sexual assault in the classroom. A trio of polished women, each a subordinate from a different administrative office, summarized the procedure:
"If you suspect there may have been some kind of assault, it's always best to refer the student to a counselor," said one of the women matter-of-factly.
"But you don't have to," another added. "The referral is optional."
Then they handed out contact sheets for various administrators and moved on.
Before returning the reading responses the next day, I reread the words I wrote on my student's paper several times. I hadn't told her to talk to one of the university's counselors. I hadn't said she should seek advice and support from a professional. Should I have?
I don't know how to respond to your issue, or perhaps I don't want to
My story wove itself into hers; I could relate and understand her on a level she probably hadn't anticipated. Should I react to her in writing, or call her into my office, an act that might make her feel nervous or uncomfortable? I wanted to hug her and tell her everything would be okay.
I recalled my own experience being referred to someone else, a "more qualified" person, someone who had the authority to "deal" with it. I didn't have to refer my student to a counselor. It was optional. I wondered if this referral culture, just passing each "crisis" up the ladder, actually helped students. I didn't think so. The procedures weren't in place to protect the students, at any rate; they were there to protect the institution. Helping the victim, if it happened, was just a fringe benefit.
I thought back to the fall meeting. I couldn't help but feel that the act of referring this student to a counselor would be sending a message: I don't know how to respond to your issue, or perhaps I don't want to.
But what could I do?
Ultimately I decided to respond the same way she had reached out to me: in writing.
I've always felt more comfortable with written communication, particularly when a situation was difficult. So I filled the blank white space at the bottom of the assignment with my own story, my own experience with sexual assault. I wrote, "It wasn't your fault" in my clumsy script.
I returned her homework at the end of our next class without verbally acknowledging her admission.
The next time class met, she came into the classroom and sat at her desk. She looked at me and smiled. Neither one of us ever brought up her confession again. I am still not sure I handled the situation correctly.
This year we had another meeting at the start of the semester. Once again, there was a brief seminar on how teachers could deal with any student concerns. We were given a litany of potential issues and the appropriate services available: mental health, disability support services, student code of conduct, and emergency issues, among others. Sexual assault didn't appear on the list.
One adjunct professor asked whom we were to call if we encountered a student who might have been sexually assaulted. Once again we were told that the best solution was to refer the student to the appropriate campus counselor. The name and contact information were given, and we moved on to the next seminar.
Rebecca Dimyan is a fiction writer, essayist, and food journalist. She teaches writing at Fairfield University, Southern Connecticut State University, and Quinnipiac University.