Guest Post: On Not Creating Waves

By: Anonymous

Anonymous writes powerfully here about how women’s cultural conditioning to be nurturers paired with the highly sophisticated manipulations of an abusive man groomed her to take responsibility for her own assault. 


How do you say no when saying no will hurt more than giving in?

How do you live with yourself afterwards, because you never said no?

How do you look back at all the red flags that you ignored, and stop feeling complicit in your assault?

This is the story of my assault. This is the story about what happened, how he did it, why I never said anything until now.

***


When I first walked into the hotel room that he had booked for us, I didn’t expect to see the double bed there. In hindsight it was obvious that he planned it this way. I knew — although I didn’t want to admit it at the time — that his surprise and the nonchalant shrug about the hotel perhaps not having enough single beds was a lie. But I brushed my misgivings aside because, after all, we were just two friends spending a few nights in a hotel room. Of course he would respect my boundaries. Of course I wasn’t in any danger from someone who called himself my best friend. I let it slide, because I didn’t want to create waves and upset him.

***

He had tearfully confessed to having feelings for me months before, despite the fact that I was in a committed, monogamous relationship, and was getting married in a few months. I felt guilty for not reciprocating his feelings, and I felt responsible for his resultant anguish and pain. To atone for this, I spent hours talking to him about his feelings for me as he kept coming up with fantastical what-ifs scenarios. What if I had met him first? What if I could be with him instead? In another life, would I have feelings for him too? Through sheer exhaustion and sleep deprivation, I slowly began to stop resisting this narrative, since even my reluctant “I suppose, yeah” seemed to comfort him and provide some respite. I let it slide, because I didn’t want to create waves and upset him.

***

From the moment we first began talking to each other, our conversations were filled with friendly banter and racy innuendo. At first I was enchanted by his funny jokes and his witty wordplay, and I saw the innuendo as harmless, because he knew I was in a relationship. But I also quickly realised that it was a defence mechanism. But defence against what? Long conversations that quickly escalated in the level of personal detail revealed an unhappy childhood and a relationship of convenience with someone he no longer cared for, coupled with self-described ‘imposter syndrome’ about his work. His vulnerability disarmed me, and thus I attributed any awkwardness resulting from his brash humour to that. The sexually charged humour felt innocent and harmless, because he was like that with everybody else and besides, we were both in relationships with other people.

***

I woke up to him kissing me as we slept on the same hotel bed. I froze, because I didn’t know what to do, and I was scared of upsetting him. Even then I realised that I was in an enclosed space with a man who was significantly bigger and stronger than me. I was scared of resisting, in case I’d find out that my friend would use force more aggressively. I didn’t want to know he was capable of that, so I didn’t even try to resist. Denial can be so powerful. But something must have alerted to him that I was conscious, and that I had imperceptibly pulled away, because he began crying. Gasping for air while sobbing, as tears poured down his face in the dark, he began berating himself for ruining everything. He cried that he couldn’t help it, that he’s such a fuck up. I quickly pushed my own shock and confusion aside and stepped into the now-familiar role of comforting him, reassuring him that it wasn’t a big deal, that it was just a mistake, that I understood and I wasn’t upset. I put his well-being ahead of mine, and I let it slide, because I didn’t want to create waves and upset him.

***

I knew, from stories he had told me before, that he was familiar with violence. Descriptions of family arguments that led to physical violence, fantasies about exacting revenge on people who had wronged him, even the visibly shaking rage he’d display when I disagreed with him – these were all things that went through my mind in the split second as I evaluated my options and realised that he was not someone I wanted to risk upsetting. Sometimes survival means not resisting. Sometimes, you have to let it slide to survive within an abusive dynamic, even if you don’t realise how abusive it is.

***

When my fiance (now husband) met him for the first time, he didn’t like him. Neither did any of my friends. But by then I was already deeply involved in my friendship with him, and I ignored their misgivings. I created a barrier so I never talked to anyone else about him, thus allowing him to isolate me as he worked diligently on eroding my boundaries so slowly that I barely noticed. By then, the casual innuendo and racy jokes were reframed as consensual flirting; the inappropriate touching or the hugs that seemed to last just a little bit too long were repackaged as him demonstrating how much he cared for me. I rationalised it to myself that he was starved of normal friendships in his life, and he just didn’t know boundaries. After all, he knew I was married! At the time, I never imagined I would end up in a hotel room with him on top of me as I frantically tried to pretend I wasn’t there, that this wasn’t happening. By that time, I had let too much slide, and now he had leverage.

***

The second night, despite the tears of the previous night, he kissed me again. I don’t remember much from this time, but I know I didn’t say no. I know that I went along with what he was doing to my body because I was too scared not to, and it felt too late to disentangle myself. After all, didn’t I just say that what happened the night before wasn’t a big deal, that I understood him? I know that I disassociated from myself and I never resisted. I know that I was so grateful that it stopped before he had sex with me. I was grateful that he didn’t rape me.

***

When we’d leave the hotel during the day, he would make it a point to take selfies with me, to post on his social media to let all his followers know he was with me, that we were having so much fun, to show how happy I was because I was smiling in the pictures. I now realise he did this so that should I ever accuse him of assault, he had plausible deniability. How could I be out having brunch and drinking cocktails with someone that apparently assaulted me every night?

***

I never told anyone about what he did to me in that hotel room. He and I didn’t speak about the consequences or implications of what happened for months afterwards. I was too ashamed for not resisting, for going along with what he initiated. At the time I couldn’t see, didn’t want to see, that I was rationalising what happened as a mistake. After all, he knew I was married! I remained friends with him out of the pitiful logic that friends don’t assault one another, so if we remained friends then it couldn’t possibly be assault. I thought if I stayed quiet and didn’t upset him, he wouldn’t tell anyone what happened.

It was only later, when he started exercising his leverage against me, that I realised how hopelessly trapped I was. He began to casually refer to what happened in that hotel room as “your infidelity”. While he never explicitly blackmailed me, it was clear that unless I kept him happy he would tell everyone we knew, including my husband, that I was cheating. That I had an affair with him. I now had no choice but to let everything slide, because the cost of upsetting him was too high.

***
It was only much later that I found out that, regardless of my “good behaviour”, he had told all our mutual friends that we were having an affair. He had positioned himself as the victim, someone who was being callously used by me. He was using my assault to craft a narrative of being used and discarded by me, to alienate my friends and further isolate me.

***
Eventually after years of silence, I told my husband everything. I told my friends. It is still so difficult for me to forgive myself, to stop blaming myself for being assaulted. At the time I didn’t have the vocabulary or the insight to understand what happened to me and how he manipulated me. I naively thought abuse could only be physical and I thought people who stayed in those abusive relationships were weak. I had no idea how insidious abuse can be, and how slowly it escalates from barely noticeable to “how the fuck did I end up here”.

I wish I could say now, years later, that I am over it. I wish I didn’t still feel haunted by what happened. I wish I didn’t have days where I blame myself for what he did, and miss the person I used to be. But I am starting to heal, I think. I am stronger now than I was before. Since cutting off all contact with him, since processing what happened and learning exactly how he did this to me, I am starting to realise that blame should not and does not rest on my shoulders. I was not at fault for trusting him; he is, for violating that trust. I am not diminished; he is.

On Being On the Right Side of History

 

Dear Dr. —,

It is my understanding that you have solicited statements from graduate students that describe how they have been affected by this situation with Dr. —.

I’ll start with this: Today, a faculty member forwarded me the letter that Dr. — had sent to the English department faculty, and I almost vomited. I am sitting here triggered, and sad, and angry. My eleven-year-old son just asked me why I’m crying, and I had no idea how to respond. I am a survivor of domestic violence. My ex-husband, too, was an academic, and I know what an abuser’s rationalizations sound like. Reading that letter from Dr. — made me realize that he is a textbook abuser who feels no remorse.

This entire situation has triggered the PTSD that remains from my abusive marriage. I realize that my PTSD is my problem, and I have never demanded a “safe space” or “trigger warnings” while in the department, but in truth, we should work to create safe spaces—for ourselves and for others. For many years, it seems that a certain faction of the English department was primarily interested in creating a safe space for a sexual predator.

I’m not the only survivor among the graduate students, and I know of some who are planning to exit the university. We will all be at a loss without their presence. I will be entering the final year of my program, or I would likely have left myself.

But let me be clear when I say that—survivors or not—every single, graduate student has suffered because of Dr. —’s crimes.

Whether it’s from watching female faculty members who claim to be feminists remain allied with a man who did the exact same thing to two of our graduate students that Donald Trump bragged about in his famous “locker room talk,” or whether it’s from hearing the tales of senior male faculty members berating female graduate students in their offices, or whether it’s the many hours of productivity that graduate students have lost to secret meetings and letters (case in point: I have a memoir about my marriage due to my editor at HarperCollins in three weeks, yet I am spending time on this letter), or whether it’s the fear of having the value of our educations diminished if, or when, this all reaches the press, we graduate students have all suffered.

In her book, Sex Crimes: Ten Years On the Front Lines Prosecuting Rapists and Confronting Their Collaborators, author Alice Vachss created the term “collaborator” to describe someone who enables a predator to continue damaging others. Collaboration can happen in a variety of ways. It can be active or passive. Defending the predator is collaboration. Not filing a valid complaint against the predator is collaboration. Rationalizing the predator’s behavior is collaboration. Minimizing the predator’s behavior is collaboration. Delegitimizing the victims is collaboration.

I think what has distressed me the most about this situation has been witnessing the collaboration on the part of the faculty members. I recognize that they genuinely believed him, but in the process of believing him, they disbelieved us. A male faculty member who I am very fond of said to me, “We just feel like the graduate students made up their mind about his guilt before all of the evidence came out.” How could I respond to that? I stared at him for a while, then finally said, “We did.” We made up our minds because we believed our peers. Witnessing so many people I admire immediately leap to disbelief of the victims has damaged my faith in the English department. in the institution of academia, and quite honestly, in humanity

I am preparing to enter the job market, and because I have a book under contract with a major publishing house and an essay anthologized in Best American Essays, I might actually be situated to beat the odds and get a tenure-track position. It is not lost upon me that I am putting my career prospects at risk by speaking out, but I cannot be silent about violence against women. I am a good writer, a good scholar, and a good person, and if my outspokenness damages my prospects on the job market, I am willing to take that chance because I believe my peers.

As graduate students, we are temporary in the lives of the faculty. They can choose to ignore this as they have in the past, and in a few years, we will all be gone, and no one will be the wiser. But let me be clear that the faculty are not temporary in our lives. They will always be the ones who mentored and supported us through our graduate years, or conversely, the ones who didn’t.

You may share this because I am willing to sign this with my name. I have nothing to be ashamed of.

Sincerely,

Kelly Sundberg, PhD Candidate in Creative Nonfiction