[Editors’ content warning: this article contains direct references to sexual assault, mental health issues, and drug use.]
To put it briefly: Besides everything, the worst part of being raped has been that I can’t watch amateur porn anymore.
In considering both the before and the after (because my body is an infomercial prop!) the two things that have always gotten me into my head about sex are the extent to which I am uncomfortable performing myself, and the ways that this discomfort makes my presentation inconsistent. I am insecure about this, and for a long time I struggled with my fear that if I didn’t really know who I was, the sex that I was having wouldn’t ever be real. Real is probably the wrong word; what I think I mean is that I wanted something that I didn’t have to create, that somehow sex could become a force that could passively move through me instead of a facet of myself that required the full and constant extent of my intention. The element of non-choice is very important: it was a decisive part of my inability to recognize what had happened to me in the first place, and my inability to talk about it afterward. Of course, I would use this arbitrary sense of things that could count and things that didn’t to my own advantage.
All of this is likely an expression of the polarity of my personality, an unfortunate reality to which we will arrive, or perhaps my tendency to simultaneously hyper-metaphorize my feelings while demanding absolute clarity from others- which, now that I’ve written it, is absolutely an expression of the polarity of my personality. Following my assault, I found it impossible to believe in truly soft sex, but the idea of ever being overtly demeaned again was an equally paralyzing possibility. I was taught guilt by Irish Catholics and Ashkenazi Jews; my sexual agency is something I have revered and run away from in equal measure my entire life. Often, I have needed to confuse what I’ve done on purpose and what I’ve done accidentally in order to, like, give a decent blowjob. My relative bad luck has made this worse. In the afterward, nobody who knew what I was dealing with knew how to deal with me. Eventually, I just stopped telling people; I was too tired of men trying to fuck virginity back into my body.
Still, I think that this is progress. After my assault, I could only consume adult content that was so extreme that it could only be considered, to me, as sex in theory. In these encounters, there was no awkwardness, no hesitation, no irony, no unflattering lighting, no laughter, no badly concealed bedroom affects- none of the things that construct sex, to me, as a wholly human experience. That period was as helpful as it was disorienting- I have never cleared my browser history so regularly or with such gusto- but it also allowed me to internalize sex as a product before I could re-internalize it as a feeling, and most importantly, as a choice. In my recovery, I have found that my sweet spot is the abject failure of hyper-performative sex; in a world where we get off on the things that we cannot ourselves achieve- in my case, staged vulnerability or true apathy- I am not only a huge fan of amateur hour; I am amateur hour.
I want to root for the underdog. Not literally.
Unfortunately, these revelations are completely outweighed by the fact that I was raped by an anemic looking, patchy beard-ass white dude, which is, for some reason, a too-huge proportion of the ‘guys interested in fucking their girlfriends on camera’ community, an unknown value that is exactly the point at which I have to tap out of a whole genre. Woe is me.
I wish there was another way to talk about my assault other than claiming it as my assault. It doesn’t belong to me; it belongs to my rapist. We will call him Eric.
The first time I met him, I was disappointed. This is something I have stood on, over and over.
After two decades within academic and social environments that glorified emotionally stunted, politically moderate, three-thousand-dollar-suit-owning fuckboys; I, as an eighteen-year-old, was only ever looking for reassurance that it was romantic to be treated as an emotional fleshlight as long as it was happening in or near a sportscar. Eric is, on one hand, nothing like that, and, at the same time, extraordinarily like that. He grew up in a bigger city than I did, and he was better at playing class games than I was, which is as pathetic of an excuse as I can manufacture while still feeling honest. For all the self-reliance that my snotty all-girls school education claims to have taught me, what I had learned was that boys were allowed to swallow me whole, and that I was supposed to feel lucky through my digestion. I’m extremely fortunate that I grew out of the Logan Huntzberger prototype because it could prototype me, although I probably learned the hard way.
I should say, though: The credit I paid Eric then, and subsequently here, is made hilarious to me by experiences I’ve had since. Truly, I am indebted to my university education for showing me just how many ways to there are to fit an asshole into a dinner jacket.
This is all to say that I stumbled upon his Facebook the July before I came to St Andrews. And then I completely forgot about him.
I completely forgot about him until I was presented to him, like the king of fucking nowhere.
It was Freshers Week, there were a lot of us in his room. I found out much, much later that Eric had spotted me somewhere and had asked a mutual friend to bring me to pre-drinks, a fact I hope to laugh at someday. What does make me laugh is my memory of actually seeing him for the first time, because I immediately recognized him from my light stalking a few weeks before. The second he opened the door to his bedroom, I was awarded a single, wonderful thought: under no circumstances was I ever going to fuck this dude. Given that it is fun to realize you have no desire whatsoever to sleep with people you once abstractly hoped would want to have sex with you, I was thrilled. My total dismissiveness of him meant I could carry off the bluster that I usually try to tone down, and so I was immediately comfortable with using him for sport. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t immediately misjudged him as well-intentioned or, at the very least, a worthy opponent.
I ended up talking to him for most of the night anyway, if only because we did have, it seemed, everything in common. This familiarity became the crux of the problem: I had never, at this point in my life, experienced the immediate and immediately overwhelming perception of emotional intimacy with another person as I did with him, nor have I felt it since. I gravitated to him, perhaps out of paralyzing homesickness, or because I naively took his desperation to command my attention as a unique sort of compliment. Eric made me feel known, sharper and shinier somehow, during a time where I was spending every moment trying to shake the feeling that, by going abroad, I was running headfirst into an abyss. My indifference was dismantled by his lack of boundaries, his recklessness, his cruelty, his egotism. He offered me relief. He reminded me of me.
In short, I went with it. I was 3,100 miles away from home, and so I went with it.
For a long time, I thought that I had a mean streak.
As a child, I would tell increasingly complicated and arbitrary lies without realizing what I was doing, and, too afraid to correct myself, would often become unable to distinguish what was true and what was not. My temper became a pattern; my relationship with my parents did not become survivable, forget sustainable, until after I left for college, and the cyclical explosivity of our relationship has profoundly hurt every member of my immediate family.
When I was fifteen, I called an older girl that I barely knew a skank for successfully stealing the ball from me during a field hockey drill- she, justifiably, asked me if I had a death wish. And I did. My journals from middle and high school often included a near-daily report of how suicidal I felt, a rating out of ten that rarely ever sunk below a five. These bouts of severe depression I could report coldly and calmly to the people around me. I would often find myself saying that I was too vain to kill myself; my self-loathing was juxtaposed against a streak of bulletproof self-grandiosity that kept me buoyant at my most self-destructive.
When I was sixteen, I was very gently kicked out of my high school for the clear disrepair of my mental health. Humiliated but unflappable, I responded by writing impassioned paragraph after impassioned paragraph in our class Facebook group, putting my classmates involuntarily in the eye of a storm that I had created on my own. I changed schools, but the extent to which I was continually affected by the shame and guilt of the last few months meant that I required treatment for post-traumatic stress. Reopening that chapter dragged out a great deal of the combativeness that had defined the last two years of my life; I fought with my parents and I constantly cried in class. A month or so into the new semester, a girl I had been friends with for years went on one mediocre date with a boy that I was fixated on. I reacted by calling her to unleash a string of threats that still make me deeply nauseous to remember. I was on a bucking horse twenty-four hours a day.
By junior year, I had hit rock bottom, which meant that things immediately got better. I made wonderful, patient friends at my new high school, and my restlessness was mostly placated by amphetamines. My historically decent but recently exceptional grades were enough to get me a place at St Andrews. I graduated exhausted and surrounded by love.
Through all of this, I have still, to my knowledge, been considered kind, eager to please, even prudish. My tendency to run high and low meant two things; that I learned about myself in spurts- if I was partying, I was partying every weekend- and that this experimentation was always bookended by a deep fundamental self-distrust that often made it impossible for me to do anything without self-coercion. These arbitrary boundaries are something I have struggled with my entire life: from kindergarten, it was often difficult for me to go to school, a place where I thrived, without having a panic attack. Even after I started to get better, I would still play sick often, a behavior that persisted through my early teens. It was never something that I actively chose to do or a plan that I ever remember hatching. I would just find myself doing it, over and over. By limiting myself to intaking what I could completely desire or understood, I was able to dismiss my pain more efficiently. I have been obsessed with closure my entire life.
My romantic relationships have, of course, always reflected all of this. As we have discussed, while it was always easy for me to turn well-intentioned boys into playthings, I preferred to seek out situations where I could be manipulated, hand-selecting partners who would treat me badly. I have often groaned about the extent to which I feel that toxicity is magnetized to me, the truth being that I have sought out boys who I knew would hurt me before I could hurt them. I was terrified of being left, but I was also addicted to being left; it was the only way I could feel I was repenting for the other ways I was acting out. I had no limits in this regard; talking myself back into the pot is something in which I am well-practiced. If I couldn’t exist in a world where the people I cared about could never adequately protect me from myself, then my only chance at catharsis was to punish them within arms’ reach. And I did.
I was not formally diagnosed with bipolar until I was twenty-one, even though I had been displaying symptoms of a mood disorder for my entire life. My first long-term experience with mania began when I was eighteen, shortly after I was raped my third week at St Andrews.
After a week of sex that I will generously describe as mediocre, we went, along with every other person in the then-known universe, to the Union on a Friday night. We had been drinking since seven or eight at least. Around eleven, I started shaking. I asked Eric to take me home.
Everything I remember after that is in fragments, which for our purposes is ideal. I want to spend as little time as possible describing what happened, because, honestly, I don’t know what happened.
I remember that on the walk home I explicitly told him that he was going to get nothing out of me. I remember his reassurance that he was only going to put me to bed and leave. Actually, I remember him making fun of me for how fucked up I was.
I remember being home. I remember staring wildly at myself in the mirror in my bathroom, half-dressed, desperately trying to breathe and keep down my antidepressants, suddenly critical, as if they would sober me up. I remember his standing behind me, his having to hold me up against the tiny sink so I didn’t collapse onto the floor.
I remember him leaving, the sound of the door clicking half shut, bouncing on the latch.
I only sort of remember texting him half-formed sentences, begging him to come back downstairs to hold me for a while, but I don’t have to remember them. I saw them in the morning.
I remember waiting, the room spinning. I remember being scared.
And then I remember waking up halfway through excruciatingly painful sex.
I will likely never forgive Eric for a lot of things, but the thing I know that I will never forgive him for is that he made me sit with him while he cried afterward. He made me watch while he wept for himself. I had compartmentalized it before it was even over.
I tried to comfort him, and I think the expended energy made me drunker. I tried to convince him that I had wanted it, but I was probably still too fucked up to be coherent. He left, mumbling something about needing to take his meds, and I kept talking to a room with nobody in it. I told the walls of my room that everything was going to be fine enough times to knock me out again.
I woke up a few hours later. I was bloody, sore, and alone. I must have been aware of what had happened, but I don’t remember ever consciously thinking it. In any case, I felt weirdly lucid.
Slowly, I pushed myself, or fell, out of bed and crawled across my bedroom floor, into the bathroom. I sat on the floor of my shower for hours, partially dressed, letting freezing water run over me, numb to the cold and numb to time. Shivering felt good; it meant I was still working to keep myself alive.
Eric came back early in the morning, only to cry in front of me again. I was silent, focusing my attention on the bloody sheets now sitting on top of my laundry basket. He talked for a long time. I sat and I waited for him to finish, for the second time that night. Eventually, I understood that he was trying to end things with me, but I was barely registering anything- much less, putting sentences together- and after several minutes of my mute nodding, he surrendered and went back to sleep. I sat on the empty bed.
He took me home at eleven. It was almost eight in the morning when I got up again. I felt something snap and remain broken.
I showered, got dressed, and went to breakfast as if nothing had happened at all, as well-rested and pleasant as if I had been to a spa. It never occurred to me how extraordinary this was. Eventually, I would breezily tell my friends a version of a version of what had happened and hope that they would forget about it. They didn’t. I remained euphoric.
We were still sleeping together, the sex suddenly good enough to keep both my numbness at bay and him from bailing. Out of bed, I swung between paralyzing paranoia and easy dismissiveness, made worse by the fact that both of us tried to break up with one another every few days. Outwardly, this was easy for me to wave away, his moodiness an endlessly plausible excuse for the constantly shifting chasm between us.
Eric and I stopped speaking completely shortly after Halloween. As ever, our competitiveness superseded all else, replacing arguments we needed to have, leaving us to regularly fight about nothing or start ignoring each other completely. This didn’t bother me, because I had plenty of other ways to spend my bottomless energy. I barely slept, I barely ate, I drank constantly, I started smoking, I burned through an astonishing amount of money, which meant that I started fighting with my parents again. I didn’t care; I skipped class, I dyed my hair over and over again, I became crueler and thinner and only sort of wrote my coursework. But by all accounts, especially my own, I was having a great time burning myself down. It was never anyone’s responsibility to understand what I was doing, or to intervene. I often said that I had never been happier.
Even as my world continued to spin out of control, I kept gambling, blindly convinced everything was about to come together. Until I hit the wall, hard, over Christmas.
The reality check of being home- and especially of receiving very-medium marks in the bedroom that I had received dozens of less-than-medium marks- was enough to make me comatose, the inertia carrying me through my dizziness came to a hard stop. I slept constantly, I wrote excruciatingly bad poetry, I tried to prop myself up to my family and my friends while failing to mask the extent to which I felt like I was bleeding out.
Back at school, I was forced to face the consequences of my behavior, and Eric suddenly reappeared. At the time I thought he was going to try to make it up to me. Now I think that he was probably relieved that someone else was doing the work of treating me like damaged goods for him.
We started hanging out a lot, mostly to smoke or go on long walks. If I were to ever count potential reparations for what Eric put me through, I would start with the truly dizzying amount of weed I took from him in the subsequent months. If I spent first semester manic, I spent second semester stoned. I needed pot; it gave the fog that I was in more dimensions, being high was like having a hole within a hole. They bulldozed our spot the next summer. I don’t smoke anymore.
Eric gave me other gifts, too. In lieu of flowers, he sent me a pdf file of the fucking ‘Ballad of the Sad Café’ on fucking Valentine’s Day. This could easily be the only story about him I ever tell anyone, but it is also a weirdly convenient- if not overly literary, sorry- way of describing our landscape at the time. He was never really happy to see me but constantly sought me out anyways; he made it clear that he didn’t believe I could ever offer him anything real but sat out on that soggy hill with me night after night, a loveless wannabe cowboy. He tolerated me some days and berated me others. I sort of understood. Even from my vantage point, I could see that our shared resentment of each other was feedback from to the extent to which we openly felt doomed to one another. I have only recently been able to consider what I think he was trying to tell me the entire time; that being around me was a way for him to punish himself, another way he could self-harm for things that had nothing to do with me. To survive what was unextractable about our relationship, his only choice was to metaphorize me completely. Once, on one of these walks, I asked him directly why he was so mean to me. Quietly, he told me I was a ‘really good person’, which, depending on interpretation, could be either a cop-out or a complete answer. Regardless, it probably just meant that he thought I was stupid.
But I didn’t think I was stupid. I thought I was in love.
I don’t want to talk about what that looked or felt like, if only because I fear that by putting it into words that he will somehow be validated by it or that he will get to absorb it twice.
I thought I was in love with Eric because that was the only way I knew how to cope. After all, I had been taught to let myself be swallowed. I thought that if he loved me, everything else would be canceled out. I thought I could love out of him of what he had done to me. I played his games on his terms, and he fed off of my desperation. To the very, very end, every moment of our relationship was a diet version of the first time I listened to him cry in the dark.
The rest of the spring passed in this manner. We had reached a conditional truce; as long as periodical fighting could ensure that our relationship could only become better and never become good, we would tolerate one another. We barely spoke that summer.
Eric dropped out of St Andrews shortly after the beginning of our second year, almost a year to the day of his raping me, for reasons that aren’t mine to rehash. He left before the University could kick him out.
Although I initially celebrated the distance that the summer had created between us, Eric’s sudden departure only renewed my focus on loving him out of himself. He asked for my support and I responded by throwing myself back off of the ledge that I had just finished scaling. The night before he went away, we had a sad takeaway with his flatmates and some assorted friends. He treated it like it was a going-away party, and I, not wanting to contradict him, tried to make myself as small as possible. Afterward, he walked me home before going, honestly, god knows where, and I gave him a letter that I still consciously hope he has burnt. As much as sleeping with me is fundamentally a trap, some truly horrific men have gotten some disproportionately lovely correspondence out of it.
After Eric was gone, I immediately started swinging in and out of mania every couple of days, the imbalance in my brain and body making it impossible for me to sit, much less think, straight. I was completely at the mercy of my mood, but now my mood was completely at the mercy of my rapist, who did everything short of asking me to physically rebuild him. He was correct in his miserable assessment of the state of his own life but holding him together meant that his misery became mine, too. I’m not trying to be hyperbolic, I have never in my life met anyone who hates himself as much as he does, and he finally openly needed me. I spent every day crying and texting, carrying myself like a disgraced Stepford Wife, my phone bill now comparable to the amount I was spending on groceries. I have processed this enough to understand that I don’t need to be ashamed of any of this, but if I had to choose a period to forget completely, it is this one. I was a shell, or I was blackout drunk.
The crying was a big thing. Suddenly I was crying at everything.
I cried after A Star is Born, for fuck’s sake. Not at the movie, at the afterwards. The movie ended, and I was fine, but the minute I moved into the disorientingly bright lobby of the tiny theatre, I began sobbing. I was with friends I didn’t know well, and for a long time, I tried to pull myself together and couldn’t. After an excruciating amount of time that could have easily been both ten minutes or ten hours, I started hiccupping and was deemed fit to be taken home. This is only one of a thousand examples; every time I had the opportunity to react to anything, I began leaking everywhere. It wasn’t even so much that I missed him, because I didn’t miss him. I just didn’t know who I was when he wasn’t trying to kill me.
I saw Eric that winter. He looked better, but we had a tense, even awkward, dinner. Never once, even at the worst of it, had it ever been awkward between us before; we were always too competitive. Pathetic, I tried to sell myself back to him. I watched him try to shrink me in his mind before he spoke, the reversal of a decision he had made beforehand. He admitted that he was sleeping with girls here and that he had been planning to move to a different city for months- all new information to me. I started drinking. We split the check. Several hours later, when I went back to my dad’s apartment to try to scrub him off of me, I realized my entire body had broken out into hives.
The next day, I got onto a bus and went to visit my childhood best friend at school. She had visited me in Scotland in early December, she had tried to tell me what a mess I was, gently and then less gently. Not wanting to argue, I chipperly reported my spin of the weekend, and she nodded but did not smile. She knew enough, even if she didn’t know everything yet. She was patient with me as I tried to ride out the last of the season that I was in. We huddled together in her tiny twin bed as blizzards mercifully crashed over us. We ate a lot of pancakes.
That weekend I was given a cup at a frat party that tasted like Nyquil. Maybe it made me nostalgic, because when I left Hanover I went straight back to New York.
It sucked. I put my phone down after that.
The persistent, acne-like marks where my hives had been immediately cleared.
Not to be all, ‘the thing about trauma is’, but the thing about trauma is that the box opens when it opens. Eric and I hadn’t spoken in months.
I remained in St Andrews over that summer, officially to do research but really to feel alone. I saw my parents in Boston for a few weeks, and the quiet helped me understand that I was about to go over the waterfall. I got onto a plane and prayed the best of me would come back.
It was a Wednesday. I woke up from a nap, alone in my flat, rolled over, took a deep breath, and was ready. I don’t think I had ever said the words out loud before, even in my head. I sat on my kitchen counter, poured myself a glass of water, and practiced the words over and over, trying to get used to the sounds in my mouth. When I could get them out without choking, and before I could stop myself, I called my psychiatrist, I called my mother, I called my friends. Most of them, especially the ones who had known Eric, had already pieced together my butchered story from eighteen months ago and understood they needed to wait for me to catch up with myself. I was exhausted, and my routine made me feel further infantilized; I cried, I went to work, I went to therapy, I fed myself, I tried to rest, and I mostly failed.
If the truth of what happened had to catch up with me, talking about it eventually caught up with me, too. I catapulted into another long-term manic episode, one that dragged out until the following January. This one was slightly different than the last, even if it came from largely the same place.
I rolled into an age of extroversion, floating in a pink haze of comfortable denial that kept me from noticing anything other than what was directly in front of me, and sometimes not even that. Friends of increasingly acquaintance-ed relation began raising their eyebrows; I had always been impulsive, in a fun way, but this was something else. I was sleeping so little that I genuinely thought I was having a nervous breakdown; I moved flats, my spending habits got out of control again, I was promiscuous. I oscillated between pretending I was responsible for nothing and working for sixteen straight hours, I endlessly enabled the worst parts of myself and everybody around me. Delusional, I thought that I appeared functional because my historically decent grades had suddenly become exceptional.
This alone allowed me to temporarily dismiss or unequivocally deny every behavior I have described here; I will not yet begin to comment on what that says about my University and the appalling standards to which its students are routinely held. It kept me from taking control, and it kept me from accepting help.
It took me the rest of the new semester to fully recover from the crash that followed.
I was just beginning to pick myself up off the floor again when I left Scotland. Summer has always felt like death to me, but my world felt like it was compounding. Eventually, I finally decided I’d had enough, even by my, uh, very generous standards. My feelings about my bipolar are complicated- on the one hand, I am grateful to finally know how best to help myself. On the other, I liked being able to wave things off with generalized descriptions of my depression or my anxiety. They were something that I could openly wear and still be in a majority.
For all of my progress, I still battle my wish that time alone could save me, that someone could love me out of myself the way I tried to love him. I wish that I could become better without having to do the work. But I don’t have a choice, because I have already fought too hard for my life. It is the difference between looking at seeing the moon through a telescope and standing upon its surface. I have to try- I get to try- every day, for the first time. All of the things that have ever happened to me add up to my life, and I can choose to walk towards them and away from them; I am doomed to nothing. I wake up from sleeping and I don’t know how I will feel, because I have to find out how I feel. I am all of my agency and all of my fear. They are the same thing now. I am finally in my life. I am so grateful.
I can’t believe I didn’t let anybody tell me how beautiful it is here.
I’m so glad that Eric will never have this.
I chose not to report my assault to the University, and I did this for several reasons:
First, I never confronted Eric directly. I was completely unprepared to deal with his potential reaction- which I imagined would be very extreme- without formal, reliable help. Even when I was finally comfortable talking about what had happened to me, my options were limited, and the ones that were in place were wildly inadequate.
This is unsurprising to me; St Andrews’ mental health policies more broadly make it effectively impossible for students to access basic healthcare without taking a hugely disruptive leave of absence, or, like me, hanging on for dear life. Student Services is a catchall for the administration, a weak all-purpose solution that gives them something, anything, to point to instead of beginning to navigate an extremely complicated set of problems. The vast majority of the student body approaches Student Services at least once during their years at St Andrews, yet there is a hard limit on allotted sessions with not a single accredited psychologist on the premises. I have never once heard of a student who has felt that Student Services has made things easier for them, in relation to their experiences with sexual assault or otherwise. After the St Andrews Survivors account attracted widespread attention and support, the University very haphazardly redirected survivors to Student Services- despite the fact that the vast majority of the posts directly acknowledged the ways in which Student Services is insufficient. At the time of my writing this, the Survivors Instagram account has, despite amassing almost 2,000 followers overnight, gone silent. I don’t think that I need to explain my fears about this. If I genuinely believed that the administration could or would help me, I would have gone to them.
There is a single page on the University of St Andrews website that lists the policy for and options of students who have experienced sexual assault. What they lay out, albeit long-windedly, is that your options are to go to Student Services- often scheduled up to a month in advance, I wonder why? – to call the local police, or to file a formal complaint. Formal complaints to the board of student conduct require ‘full support’, a laughably British way to get around the words non-anonymity. There is no other way to begin a disciplinary procedure without coming out publicly. If survivors wish to remain anonymous, they have to report their assault to ‘Crime Stoppers’, a non-specialty hotline that will put in a tip for you with the local police or send someone to perform a one-time wellness check. Even if I was willing to come forward, I would have been further discouraged by my acute awareness that I have never heard of a single student being disciplined for sexual misconduct, although repeat offenders are widely known amongst the student body. In fact, I am aware of students who have been accepted to St Andrews while facing charges for sexual assault or other violent crimes. The entire document is designed to discredit and closet survivors.
At the bottom of the sexual misconduct policy, there is a brief section regarding vexatious complaints. I can say unequivocally and firsthand; talking about a traumatizing incident over and over again, even to people who love you, is not something that I would seek out if I were not deadly serious. Men are more likely to be assaulted themselves than to be wrongly accused of sexual assault. This interest in protecting offenders is consistent with the values of the institution overall, which ensures white, straight, male, cisgender, wealthy students have free reign, at incalculable cost to everybody else. The university is not, in any way, subtle about this. During my first week at St Andrews, we were required to attend an introductory first-year seminar that included act-outs of conversations about sexual assault. There was one instance where a ‘student’ was forcefully sodomized, and instead of stressing the importance of recognizing the true diversity of what sexual assault can look like, the actors dismissed an otherwise violent rape as an ‘anal surprise’. Most of us laughed. The party culture of my school, and Scotland more broadly, is not some twee secret, and it was this very culture that allowed me to go as far off of the deep end as I did. My habits were only reinforced by the lack of reliable emergency resources made available to students, and the carelessness with which the members of our community treat one another.
I am not exclusively furious with Student Services, or the ‘university at large’. This past year, I attended the annual Take Back the Night march in St Andrews, an event that brings awareness to sexual and other forms of gender-based violence. It was March, which meant that it was pouring. After several minutes of photo-ops, our Principal spoke to us from underneath the world’s largest umbrella while an assistant, the fear of God in his eyes, held her empty-looking purse. Loftily, she told us that although she wouldn’t be able to march with us that evening- which was, by the way, a total slap in the face to the organizers- she would be ‘thinking of us back to the Scores’, by which she meant the twenty-second stroll back to her mansion.
I think that St Andrews’ failure to support mental and sexual health policies that will actually empower their students is a systemic one, a failure that has come about through hollow echoes of tradition, or sheer inconvenience. But I also think that the Principal has perennially refused to do anything about widespread and sustained sexual assault allegations from individuals and organizations within our community. Her insensitivity, and occasional outright incompetence, is not limited to this particular issue. Our president loves to play Churchill. Shortly after the pandemic began, she sent us a series of truly bizarre emails about the debt the University had accumulated because of the disruption to programme while a large proportion of her students (who had, by the way, seen Estate trucks outside of the President’s mansion every other morning for years) struggled to find safe housing and to feed themselves while in quarantine. When students have died during my time at St Andrews, the Principal has released thinly veiled statements and made empty promises to re-evaluate the situation at Student Services, all while directing grieving students straight to their care. Her office also felt it was appropriate to tell the student body, the week George Floyd was brutally murdered, to tell us that we should be grateful that ‘at St Andrews, for the most part, [we] can breathe’. She then tried to snuff out the near-universal call for her removal with a virtual roundtable. The Principal’s office has the power to take control of the environment she created, and she chooses to do otherwise, to lecture us about the ways in which we should or could be more grateful. She cannot be so delusional as to think that this is acceptable, and if she is, then she should indeed be removed. Her complacency is violence, as is the complacency of every member of our community who has ever believed whispers to just be whispers. When you deny what is clear, when you choose to hide behind meaningless statements about how you want to be the change from the inside, about how you want to be better without explicitly showing us how, you are committing a violent act. You are speaking to me, and you are speaking to every other member of this community with a similar experience. I can see you. We can all see you.
Although I do not necessarily expect that my story itself is extraordinary, I feel that my recovery is unusual, and I feel that I have to address this in order to discuss this period honestly. I have had the advantage of private general practitioners in both the US and the UK, as well as my Harvard-educated psychiatrist, gynecologist, and nutritionist; every doctor I have worked with during this process is more than exceptional in their respective field. These women have only ever affirmed and protected me as I have begun to reckon with the emotional and medical consequences of this experience- as a survivor of sexual assault I do not, for one second, take their complete belief in me and my story for granted. Over and over, my family and my friends have ensured that, as much as I have to deal with this alone, there are no external roadblocks to my recovery. All of these people have helped me create a home in the middle. The vast majority of my close friends at St Andrews I met the same week I met Eric, and through everything I have been stood by, cared for and loved. I could, and will, spend the rest of my life trying to repay the universe for a fraction of their kindnesses. I have no idea how I ever got so lucky.
Over half of university students in the United Kingdom experience unwanted sexual advances during their higher education. St Andrews’ approach is considered progressive.
I have loved and am indebted to my St Andrews experience. This place has taught me about my resiliency, it has helped me grow, and it has given me the best people in my life. But what the university refuses to understand is that although I am indeed indebted to my experience, I owe the institution nothing. St Andrews never made me great, because it never made any of its students great. We entrust you with our minds, and our bodies, and our time, and you fail us. We make you outstanding. You owe us everything.
I am not here to make suggestions; my job is to be a student. That was what I was trying to do that night in the Union. My inherent responsibility for the existential well-being of the university that promised to take care of me four years ago ends there. I should not have to disclose the most painful experiences of my life because others may be afraid to. I should not have to risk everything I have because I was able to succeed despite you.
Now, when I think about Eric, this is what I think about:
We were at a house party, it was second year, the first week we were all back together in St Andrews and about two weeks before he left Scotland for good. It was his house party, and in the grand tradition of house party hosts, Eric decided to get eminently drunk on his living room couch. At midnight, he ran into the bathroom to throw up and didn’t stop. In the grand tradition of our relationship, he was immediately pissy with me for opening the door to check on him, but I think he understood he wasn’t in a position to refuse help or companionship. I sat on the floor with him for a long time, while he sat in his dribble. I thought his sick was winding down when all of a sudden, he sat up very straight, glassy-eyed but sober all at once.
“I have to tell you something.”
“Okay, tell me something.”
“I shit myself. I am shitting myself.”
And then he vomited again. I looked. He had. He was still.
Shock is a drug. I told him to take his clothes off, which he clumsily did. I tried to lift him but mostly dragged him, now completely naked, onto the floor of his shower stall. I turned the water on as cold as it would go, and he started to cry as increasingly suspect liquid was still coming out of every available orifice. After a while, he asked if I could help him stand up, and I told him I wouldn’t get into the shower with him if he was covered in his own shit. I figured that as long as I could keep him awake, it would be fine. When he started nodding off, repeating over and over that he didn’t want to move. He was no longer responding to questions about the weather and his favorite color, and I stripped to my underwear and stood next to him in three inches of freezing shit water. After several minutes of effort, I managed to get him onto his feet, and let him just kind of hang, completely limp, over my shoulder. In the stall, now silent except for the sound of running water, I tried to focus on keeping us both upright, and prayed that the feeling in my feet would leave faster. I tried to get him to move, but I couldn’t, so I kept us upright while we waited for something else, anything else, to happen to us. After a few minutes, he came back from wherever he had gone.
He let me help him back onto the bathroom floor. He started talking and could not stop talking. For as long and as well as I knew him, he only told me he loved me, at least to my face, that once. He also said he was sorry, over and over again. Sorry for getting drunk, I asked. No, just sorry. I remember being confused. He was still crying. I was turning blue.
After a few minutes, he said that he was ready to go to sleep. I dragged him across the hall of his now-empty flat and pushed him onto his mattress. He asked if I would stay with him for a while. I remember standing in the doorway for a minute, trying to shake the feeling that I had been here before. I dressed, threw his clothes and the destroyed bathmat into his bedroom and left him curled around a wastebasket. Another year would pass before I talked about my assault, but I remember wondering on the walk home if I had looked this vulnerable to him. I remember wondering if I had been this weak, on the Friday I asked him to put me to bed.
He had humiliated himself to me in every conceivable way. This is how I prefer to remember him.
I do not feel like I am compromising Eric’s personhood in sharing this, because he is not inherently relevant. There is nothing for me to protect or destroy. He was willing to sacrifice me before he even knew me. I don’t think he ever really did.
I really do believe that I terrified him. He should be terrified of me.
art by Alcira Hava
I remember you. With love, Deborah