Yesterday, I went to a professional development seminar on Title IX. The seminar was being held in response to some recent developments in my department. That is not my story to tell, so I won’t, but as one professor told me today, “There has been a pall over the department.” “Pall” is the right word. In some cases, “palpable grief” might be a better description. Or “anger.” Or “despair.”
I have felt all of those things.
I have wanted to pack my bags and run.
Today, my best friend in town told me that she would support any decision that I make, but that, I should not make any decisions while I am triggered. And she was right. She was right that I should not make any decisions right now.
She was also right that I am triggered
I have PTSD.
PTSD is the legacy that Caleb left me with, and I hate him for it. Do you hear me? I hate him for this legacy. There are things about him that I still love. There are things that he has done that I have forgiven, but I will never forgive him for this legacy.
While he sleeps peacefully at night wrapped around his young fiance’s body (a body that he will most certainly bruise someday), I sleep with demons hovering around the edges of my dreams. I sleep with the memories–so many memories. The memories of his fists. The memories of his words. Worse, the memories of bef0re–what the wheel of violence would label the “tension-building stage”–the memories of that fear, of not knowing what was coming.
The after–the bruises, the tears, the apologies–it was all better than the before. There was sweet relief in the after, but the before was all fear and unknowing.
PTSD is like being in a permanent before.
Most days, I do not have symptoms of my PTSD. I am lucky in that way. Sometimes, I think the PTSD is gone.
Then the demons return.
Yesterday, the demons returned at the Title IX meeting. The meeting was to discuss sexual misconduct, and the rights and responsibilities that we have as graduate students. I’ll admit that, when I walked in and saw who was leading it, I was disappointed. I wasn’t the only one. My friend whispered sarcastically, “It’s nice to see a man here to talk to us about sexual harassment.” I, too, felt uncomfortable that it was a man, but didn’t want to jump to conclusions.
He had a buzz cut. He was wearing khakis. He said to us, “Do you want to be here?” (I did want to be there). Someone answered “no,” but it wasn’t because we didn’t want the discussion. It was because we didn’t want the situation which had prompted it. He said, “Well, maybe that goes both ways.”
I was stunned. Had he really just said that? It was oddly antagonistic. Then, he said, “That was a joke.”
It was a bad joke.
He then started to tell us about the history of Title IX. His enthusiasm was on par with how I feel about large spiders and mayonnaise, meaning nonexistent. He told us that we might remember the previous Title XI coordinator, then said, “We drew straws, and I got the short one, so I ended up with this job.”
Again, I was stunned.
Everyone was silent.
Again, he said, “That was a joke.”
And then, because I am who I am, I felt bad for him. I forced out a fake laugh, but I also felt kind of sick, and I felt the beginnings of a before. I could tell that something bad was coming.
He then discussed Title IX procedures, making sure to tell us that they “don’t take sides,” and that, they have very little authority, and that they can only make recommendations. They cannot fire people. In a sense, it felt like he was telling us, “Don’t even waste your time.”
I started to feel myself tear up. I thought to myself, “It’s okay. I will just disassociate.” Disassociation, as readers of this blog know, is a maladaptive trait that comes with abuse. It is not emotionally healthy, but it allows me to be able to sort of psychologically exit my body. It has been protection when I have needed it. I think I was disassociated for most of the year after I left Caleb, and I didn’t kill myself, so it worked.
But this time was different. I couldn’t disassociate. I decided to doodle. Still, the tears were coming. I could feel them. Psychologically, I was still in that room. I was still in my body. (This is, actually, probably a good thing. It’s probably a sign that I’m healing from the abuse enough to feel again, but I wasn’t happy about it in that moment.)
I thought that I could hide the tears from my peers, but then I felt a single tear roll down my cheek. To wipe or not to wipe? Which would be less conspicuous? So I wiped. Furtively. Quickly.
But then my friend whom I adore so much–Brad–handed me a tissue, and it was over. I could feel sobs coming on.
So I bolted. I ran out of the room. I started sobbing the minute I hit the hallway. I ran to the bathroom. I locked myself in a stall, and I wept. I wept in a way that I have not wept in a long time.
It was the way that man kept saying “relationship violence” as though that phrase meant nothing to him. It was the way he hurried over the words, in the way that someone who has never fully considered the way that “relationship violence” feels.
It was the way he said that they offer the victims “resources.”
And I thought of the “resources” that West Virginia University offered to me when Caleb was arrested in a dormitory on campus for assaulting me. The campus police officer who stayed with me while Caleb was taken to jail gave me a flier. I remember looking at that flier and wondering what to do with it. I remember packing up my stuff later and coming across that flier in the bathroom. It was on the counter. I don’t know why. I don’t even remember what was on it.
I needed something, but a piece of paper was not what I needed.
Caleb was arrested on campus. We lived in a dormitory. He was the Resident Faculty Leader, and I was the Live and Learn Community Coordinator (or some shit title like that, which was code for “wife”). Caleb interviewed for the job first. Then, I had to go in for his second interview with the Assistant Provost. I had just completed my MFA, had teaching experience, was published (already had better publications than Caleb), and was articulate. She later told me that she knew she wanted to hire him when she met me, that she knew she was getting a “team.”
I did not want to move into a dorm, but I was desperate. It was a lot of money (would double our salaries). I thought that I would be safe in the dorm. I also thought that it might give me the opportunity to save up enough money to leave Caleb. I still didn’t want to leave Caleb, but I was beginning to feel that it was inevitable. I wasn’t preparing consciously, but when I look back, I was making decisions that enabled my departure.
After the second interview, the Assistant Provost introduced us to the Hall Coordinator, whom we would be working closely with, and he gave us the thumbs up. In that interview, my elbow was swollen to the size of a grapefruit–purple, yellow, and black. This was July, and I was in a cardigan that didn’t quite cover the bruise. I saw the Hall Coordinator eyeing the bruise, but of course, he didn’t ask.
That was when Caleb told me that I probably wished someone would figure out where the bruises came from, so that they would stop.
As if he had no agency. As if he couldn’t have stopped them.
We lived in a very fancy apartment on the first floor of the dorm. Unfortunately, it was also sound proof. The violence escalated, and instead of being safe, I was trapped.
Caleb began to beat me worse than he ever had before. I had nowhere to go. If I ran, I had to run out into the lobby of the dormitory. How could I do that?
Still, once I did. I ran into the lobby. It was the day of Reed’s seventh birthday party. Most of the students were on Thanksgiving break. I ran past the Resident Assistants. Caleb chased me in his socks. I shouted at one of the Resident Assistants to call the police. He thought I was kidding. Caleb chased me into the street shouting “Come back here, you fucking bitch.”
And then, we were outside.
Our child was by himself in the apartment. It was over.
A few days later, Caleb was arrested.
How do I tell the story of the institutional response? Where do I begin?
Caleb came home to me. The judge had modified his “no contact” order to a “no abusive contact” order. The women at the domestic violence shelter rolled their eyes at that. Monongalia County in West Virginia is not a good place to be a domestic violence victim, but it is a great place to be the perpetrator.
So, there we were, in this apartment together on campus. Thankfully, the students were all gone for break. The Assistant Provost came and sat down with us at the long dining room table. She told us that they have a “zero tolerance” policy on this stuff. She said that we had to move out by Friday (it was Tuesday). She said that we (both) would be suspended with pay.
She never asked if I was okay. She never asked to see me alone. She never treated me like I was worth anything at all.
I was a commodity. I was a lost asset. I was a nobody.
I was also homeless.
And then, I really did it. I left him.
Even I wasn’t that codependent. Even I couldn’t blind myself to what was happening. I humbled myself and asked beautiful Rebecca if Reed and I could stay with her. We slept on the floor of her house (which was really my house, but which Caleb and I had rented to she and her partner). I tried to plan for my future. I was the wife, after all. I was a nobody.
I had very little income on my own. I was afraid of losing custody of my son because I couldn’t support him. I had a graduate degree, but it was an MFA, which some people call a vanity degree, and they might not be wrong. I know that, when I started my MFA, I didn’t ever plan on being the sole financial support of my family. If I had, I would have chosen a different field.
I thought that I could squirrel away that “with pay” that the Assistant Provost had promised. I could use it as a cushion.
But then, she wrote me. She didn’t want to pay me anymore. She didn’t think I was doing anything that deserved pay. Caleb was full-time faculty, so he had been “Suspended With Pay,” but I was an adjunct (and my contract at the dorm was non-essential), so I didn’t have that right. Essentially, she was asking me to quit.
I needed that money though.
So, I hobbled to her office in my foot boot, and I sat down on the other side of her desk. She was a tremendously tough lady, and I don’t know whether to admire or resent her, but I looked her in the eye, and I said, “I don’t think I’ve done anything for you to fire me, and I don’t want to quit, so we are going to have to figure something out.”
And we stared at each other for a long time. She was definitely trying to intimidate me, but by then, I had nothing left to lose, so I just stared back.
Then, I saw her look down at a piece of paper. On it, she had the number $3,000 scrawled and circled. She said something like, “Okay, I can see where you’re coming from. And actually, because you’re no longer going to have the housing benefit, I feel like I should offer you some kind of raise. You should get more than you’re getting. How about I email you a number and see if you’re comfortable with it?”
She also wanted to come up with some ways that I could “keep working.”
I am not stupid. I knew that her lawyers had advised her to do this.
But I thanked her. I told her that Reed and I were living with a friend, that we needed everything we could get. She then said, “You’re not living with Caleb anymore?” And I told her no. Then, she looked at the boot on my foot, and she said, “Did he do that to you?”
I did not understand how she had not known that. Hadn’t she read the police report? I saw the first emotion I had seen in her face. She looked a little horrified. I think that (maybe) she was realizing this was real.
And I said, “Yes.”
Then, her emotion was gone.
She emailed me an offer. It was $1,000. I accepted it. I didn’t have the energy not to.
The Assistant Provost asked me to propose work that I could continue to do. I proposed that I continue to do a creative writing workshop in the dorm, which I had been doing in conjunction with Rebecca. This was actually rewarding work because I had Rebecca with me (so I felt supported), and I was able to reconnect with so many of the students I had bonded with during my brief time there.
But the Assistant Provost also required that I go to weekly “residence hall” meetings. These meetings happened in the exact apartment that I had been assaulted in. The meetings included the Acting Faculty Leaders (who were the heads of the Honors Program) and the Residence Hall Coordinator. All three of these people were wonderful people who never, ever asked me about what had happened, and who never treated me with anything but respect, but my presence there meant nothing to them. I had no say in the operations of the dorm. It was all ceremonial. And when I was there, I saw the place where he had hurt me, where he had chased me into the hallway, where I had been traumatized.
I saw it again. And again. And again. And a million times again.
That Assistant Provost required that I return to the place of my trauma every Friday. Thankfully, I could still disassociate then. I could feel the shakes coming, but I could exit my body. I could nod my head politely but not really be present..
And why did the Assistant Provost have me attend those meetings? I’m not really sure, but if I’m completely honest, I think they were punitive. She wanted to punish me. She did not like that I had put her in that position. I should have never moved into that dormitory, you see? I should never have let her think that things were okay between Caleb and me, you see?
As always, it was my fault.
And that is why I was triggered at this Title IX meeting. That is why I fled crying.
But then, after the meeting, I had lunch with a group of amazing people, and we all said that we will not be complicit in this kind of silence.
And today, I visited with my graduate adviser who had been working in his garden. His wife gave me a big hug, and I could see the dirt stains on his knees. It was a beautiful day, and I sat there and told him about that meeting, and why I was so triggered. I told him so many other things, and he received them all. He wasn’t like that Assistant Provost. He didn’t treat me like an asset. He treated me like a person.
I realized that, even within institutional silence, there are always people who care.
I hope that, someday, I can be one of those people.
And tonight, I’m writing this from my loft office that I value so much. I have the window open, the birds are singing outside, and I am no longer feeling triggered. I think back to that bathroom stall that I wept in. The stall graffiti said, “Everything will be okay.”
And I believe that it will.