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.


Kelly Sundberg, PhD Candidate in Creative Nonfiction