“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter”:
Writing Sexual Trauma Under Title IX
In the spirit of advent, I want to talk about what has already begun, and what is coming, in the writing and teaching of personal essays under Title IX and in the era of #MeToo. Our contemporary #MeToo movement—the one that emerged with the hashtag in 2017 from the smoke of Harvey Weinstein’s decades of harassment and assault—is fueled by the individual and collective voices of survivors telling our own stories about rape culture and sexual violence. For the past year and a half, we’ve all been watching as men who’ve been abusing women with impunity inside the smug protection of the patriarchy have finally started to lose their jobs for their crimes. Some have even gone to prison.
Already, of course, we see the push back in the headlines: “A Year Later, Americans Are Deeply Divided Over the #MeToo Movement” with 40 percent of surveyed Americans (aligned by party rather than gender) reporting their belief that the movement has “gone too far.” This, after Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings during which we all got a good look at just what it takes to be believed—or not—and how the rape culture will rise up to punish those who tell their own stories of assault. (As of November 2018, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and her family were still hiding from harassment and death threats.) Why did she wait so long to tell? This question is leveled again and again as evidence of a false accusation, and if we look into our own corners of truth-telling in the writing classroom, I wonder if we find yet another answer to this dangerous question. Are we shutting the doors on the safe places where our students can figure out how to tell what can feel like an impossibly dangerous story?
I’ve been writing the stories of my own childhood sexual abuse, college rape, and harassment since I submitted a collection of short stories I called Voices featuring a protagonist who looked and acted a lot like a young me as my honors thesis at the University of Oregon—where I was raped at a fraternity party in 1988 and earned my degree in 1992. As a writer who was (mostly) supported by my (feminist) teachers in the telling of my own stories at a crucial time in both my recovery and my development as a writer, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between the work we do as teachers of nonfiction writing on college campuses and #MeToo.
I’ve been thinking about the women I read when I myself was a student, the writers who cracked open the door and made the telling seem possible. I’ve been thinking about what I told, when I told, how I told, and why I told. I’ve been thinking about who helped me along the way in my telling, and all this has led me to think hard about my responsibilities as a writer and teacher in a country where the needle hasn’t moved on the alarmingly high rate at which our students are being sexually assaulted on the very campuses where we’ve been privileged with the charge of helping them develop the superpower that is writing. Recent statistics put the rate for rape or attempted rape for a woman during her four years in college at right around one in five. #MeToo is trying, but statistically speaking, nothing has changed since my rape thirty years ago. Whatever we’re doing, it’s not working, and we need to recognize this attack on our students as the emergency it is.
So, as essayists and teachers of writing in higher education, what’s our part in all this? What’s unique about our position as educators specifically charged with teaching adult students how to shape stories out of the stuff of real life? We know the college years are a vulnerable time for all students, just as we know that the stakes and parameters of telling true stories can shift or rise or constrict for those students who are at a much greater risk of sexual assault—women, students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and students with disabilities.
I’ve been teaching the writing of personal essays and memoir for nearly two decades now, and I could tell you stories. Many of our students are arriving for the first time to a page where someone like me asks then to tell the truth about something they know; someone like me reminds them that there are no answers, not really, just better questions; someone like me helps them to sketch a frame and asks them to step in with their memories and language and fill the page:
- Draw a map of your childhood bedroom. What did the comforter feel like? Were there books on the shelves? Fish Do the Strangest Things? Was there a bedside table? Anything in the top drawer? Be specific.
- Write two pages about a time when someone wanted something that you didn’t want to give.
- Choose an animal, vegetable, and mineral. Write each one. Now find the connections. What can we learn about the young woman eating the avocado by the Costa Rican volcano in the good company of a line of leaf-cutter ants?
The issue is fraught. The goals of the policy seem well-meaning. Of course, we all want reporting that creates an accurate picture of the number of violations; we all want safer campuses; we want to be able to track and punish repeat offenders; and we want to be able to offer appropriate services to survivors—and then, of course, there’s the issue of protecting the university from legal liability. Worried about catching a student unaware, this fall, for the first time in my teaching life, I added a note in my course policies explaining the role of “mandatory reporters,” letting my students all know that as a faculty member, I am compelled by university policy to report any knowledge I have of sexual assault, harassment, or intimate partner violence—from any time in their lives in any location (not just current or recent incidents occurring on campus)—to the Title IX office. I wanted to ask my students directly how many of them were aware of this policy, how many of them knew the difference between the confidential resources on campus (the victim advocacy office, the health center, and the counseling center) and the non-confidential resources (everybody else—including all the faculty, the residence hall assistants, the campus police, and the Title IX office).
How many of you knew before I told you? I asked on the first day of class. One person raised a hand. That person works as a residence hall assistant and therefore belongs to the large category of “responsible employees”—or mandatory reporters. The other students seemed shocked—both that they were subject to such a policy and that they hadn’t known about the policy (administrative tip: students don’t read email any more). Then we talked.
Since my August decision to include the policy note, the leaves have changed color and dropped, sleet and snow have fallen from the sky, and I have confirmed what I suspected: including the policy is a tiny bit like the informed consent I feel obligated to provide and a lot more like the “don’t ask/don’t tell” silencing I despise, a layer of ice freezing over any survivor’s educational access to me as a teacher of essays and memoir, a betrayal of the writer-mentor relationship, and most certainly a detriment to the emergence of stories—and thus, reports. Write your true stories, my policy note warns in translation: say anything you need to say—except that very private thing about your sexual history. Don’t say that.
I can’t do that again.
So what’s to be done? Begin by reviewing the policies on your own campuses, which are shifting even as I write under changes proposed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to protect those accused of sexual harassment and assault; despite all the rhetoric, remember that our college meeting rooms are not courts of law. If you haven’t attended a Title IX training within the past couple of years, this might take some digging (start by searching “Title IX” or “Clery” or “Non-confidential resources” in your school’s browser)—and then think about the implications of these specific policies in the daily work that you do with your students. Imagine a Take Back the Night rally or a conversation overheard before class or a post-workshop conference or a thesis meeting with a memoir-writing graduate student or an essay that mentions inappropriate touching from an uncle when the writer was ten. Hear yourself tell the young writer that you’re required to report the incident with the uncle (who may or may not be paying the student’s tuition or be dead or have a gun or—you just don’t know the specifics) to the non-confidential Title IX Coordinator. Hear her ask you to not report. She isn’t ready yet, she says. Hear yourself explain again about policy and compelled reporting. Now, into your imagining, splice in what you know about sexual assault being a crime of power. Know that by taking away the survivor’s agency to tell her own story on her own terms you’ve also taken away her chance to wrest back some of the control she lost in the assault. Know that under the system you are now working, you cannot respect the student’s wishes. You cannot have a conversation about writing difficult material. Instead, you must reach for the phone.
Let’s, for a moment, move away from creative writing and into the realm of psychology and victim advocacy. Dr. Jennifer Freyd is a psychologist at the University of Oregon, and an activist in the support of survivors of sexual violence. I worked in her lab in my early twenties when I was still trying to be something other than a writer, so I will disclose here that in addition to being a leading researcher in this field, Dr. Freyd is also my friend. She was instrumental in reshaping the UO’s implementation of Title IX/The Clery Act from the most common model of “mandatory reporting” to one of “mandatory supporting”: if you have time to read only one thing about compelled reporting on our campuses, stop right now, and click over to Dr. Freyd’s 2016 Huffington Post essay “The Problem with ‘Required Reporting’ Rules for Sexual Violence on Campus.”
Here are some vital things Dr. Freyd tells us about social science research on trauma disclosure: first, disclosure is often delayed and a bad first response from the listener—say, skepticism or betrayal—“can cause profound harm”; further, she notes that most victims tell their story first not for practical help, but for deeper emotional reasons to someone they trust, such as a mentor or faculty member, and if this initial telling is appropriately received, “the victims are much more likely to later seek help, promote action, etc.”: this was certainly my own experience, and my good fortune as a student has guided my own practices from the other side of the desk over the past twenty years as I’ve mentored students through the difficult process of putting language to trauma.
As a survivor and a teacher, I know I hurt my students if I take control of their stories before they’ve even figured out how to tell them. As a college student in my early twenties, a trusted teacher gave me the space and permission I needed to write the first story of my childhood abuse, a story that came out of memories of six years of repeated assault, a story about a little girl who was me, but not me, moving through dreams, flashbacks, and moments of profound disassociation. How did I write my way through all the trappings of something I can now name as post-traumatic stress disorder, but that was then beyond the reach of my comprehension and vocabulary? How did I do it? I was given the gift of literary models—and then I was given time, empathy, kindness, and the power of choice.
I can remember the striped light coming into the classroom on the day we read the first rape scene. The book was Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), and in class that day, I felt as if there was a kind of explosion in my head—not a bad explosion—but the kind that clears everything away. She said that. Are you all hearing this? She said the thing. I still own the same paperback Bantam edition, the one with the swish of green and blue across the cover, and the passage is marked vertically down the margin with the fine line of the pink highlighter I favored in college:
“Then there was the pain. A breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart. The act of rape on an eight-year-old body is a matter of the needle giving because the camel can’t. The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator cannot” (65). This was 1990. After that, I kept reading: Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Alice Sebold’s Lucky, and in 2002, I published Darkroom: A Family Exposure. Knowing that other women could tell their stories gave me the permission I needed to tell my own—and so I did. And I never stopped.
What if, when I wrote my first tentative lines about a young girl who was sexually abused on an island, my teacher had turned me in? That’s what it would have felt like—a turning in, not an assist. Would I have kept going? Would I ever have learned to tell my own story? What would have come of my report? Would I have done a service in helping to stop a man who may have been a serial offender? Doubtful. No one saw my rape. It would have been the typical he said/she said. He was a senior business major who belonged to a fraternity, came from money, drove a Porsche. I was in my first year of college by the grace of a full financial aid package. I wore flowy hippie skirts and rode a bicycle to class. How do you think that would have gone for me? Do you think I would have been aided by the system more than I was by the teachers who mentored my early work, listened without judgment, and in their patient way gave me the tools I needed to take control of my own story?
I will never forget the moment when Dr. Blasey Ford described her specific memory of the two boys laughing during the assault. I get it. For me, after the pillow on my face, the indelible detail was the donuts my rapist offered to me from an oily bag the next morning. I suspected then as I know now that my testimony against his—even if I’d had the capacity to name the crime—would have meant nothing. Understanding the story of my rape took me years of writing, but I can see the assault clearly now, and that clarity translates into the responsibility to help my students do the same.
Next fall, I’ll be teaching just one course: an intensive, immersive, interdisciplinary seminar that focuses on the continuing high rates of sexual violence on our campuses and the role storytelling might have to play in dismantling that culture. We’re going to assess what’s working for and against campus rape culture, produce a podcast, and take a stab at writing policy. I want justice and healing for survivors. I want freedom and opportunity for everyone else. I want the telling of our stories to lead to prevention. I want our kids to go to college full of ideas and ambition and to spend their four years pursuing wild and wonderful possibility. I want the limitless power of finding and owning our own stories to help move us toward permanent, real change.
I welcome your stories and ideas.
“There is no greater agony than bearing the untold story inside of you.” —Maya Angelou
Jill Christman is the author of two memoirs, Darkroom: A Family Exposure and Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood, as well as essays in magazines such as Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, and True Story. “Slaughterhouse Island,” an essay about her own fraternity-party assault, appears in Roxane Gay’s Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture. Visit her at www.jillchristman.com and @jill_christman.