Charles was sobbing violently when I came upon him in the woods. The sight of it still haunts me, all these years later. He was tall and blond, popular with the girls and one of the best all-around athletes. And I… I was the boy who liked comic books. We’d both spent multiple summers at that sports camp, passing our days in some form of competitive activity played out over acres of partially manicured Maine forest. We were 13 at the time, and I liked him, so when I saw him so visibly upset and so uncharacteristically vulnerable, I did what many adolescent boys might not have done: I leaned in.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, “What happened?”
Charles turned around and, taking me in, responded with wide eyes.
“You know what’s wrong,” he yelled. “I know you do because I know he did it to you too!”
I was confused and utterly unclear as to what he was talking about. I told him I didn’t know. He insisted that I did, so I denied it again. At this, Charles (his name has been changed for his privacy) raised his fist to hit me. When I flinched, he thought the better of it. I can still remember how he tugged at the bottom of his dark navy blue shirt as he turned away, how he had the opening of it balled up tight in his hand, his knuckles white from the intensity of his grip.
Two years later, I was 15 and walking a short distance to go see a movie by myself. The theater was just around the corner from my parents’ Tucson home. All that separated the two was a nondescript park with brown desert grass and a modest swingset. It also had a few stone benches that I’d sat on many times late at night, sneaking cigarettes with friends and drinking beer we’d somehow pilfered. None of that explains why I suddenly stopped mid-stride that day, struck by a new and horrible understanding of Charles’ outburst.
I wish I could explain fully why it took until then for my mind to grasp the events of a summer night when I was 12, the night when a favorite counselor who all the boys looked up to crept into my bed and sexually abused me. You’re just going to have to take my word for it that for three years, even after Charles confronted me, I was blind to my own experience. And then, suddenly, I wasn’t.
“Holy shit,” I said aloud, to no one in particular, as the park was otherwise empty. “I was molested!”
You may be skeptical of this seemingly random epiphany, which is exactly the point, at least in part. It is through the lens of this experience and my belated recognition of it — the realization that trauma can disrupt everything: your memory, your ability to see and communicate, even the firing of your synapses — that I view the recent scandal in which an alleged victim of sexual assault at UVA did or did not fabricate her experiences to Rolling Stone.
Following the coverage of “Jackie’s” story feels, for me, like an exercise in emotional schizophrenia. Two of the core elements of my personality — the journalist and the survivor of sexual assault — are at war with each other as I try to recover the “truth” from the rubble of a narrative that seems to have fallen apart. Was or wasn’t a young woman gang raped?
For too long, I lived silently with the legacy of my own trauma. When I finally started to see a therapist at the age of 28, she made a simple yet profound observation, highlighting something which I’d never considered; that this abuse, which preceded my first kiss, was my initial sexual experience. It was the paradigm through which I’d filtered so much of what came after, and it adversely affected romantic relationships that deserved a best I was incapable of delivering.
So that thing happened and I live in its aftermath though it no longer controls me. For the sixteen years between the fateful night and the bright afternoon I first walked into a therapist’s office, it did. Now my abuse is a tool I am able to use for better understanding the varieties of human experience. And in this circumstance, it is a means of illustrating how difficult it is to articulate trauma.
Remembering what we remember
It’s easier for reporters to engage with the heartbreaking story of a young woman claiming gang rape than it is to ask the question of whether a woman was raped in the first place, as the Washington Post has forced us to do in its follow-up coverage challenging the story. But my greatest concern about the fallout of this scandal is that, regardless of the veracity of Rolling Stone’s reportage, it will make it that much harder for victims to clear the already difficult hurdle to proving their claims. When we call Jackie or any other potential survivor a “liar,” we accuse them of intentional obfuscation. And yet, the reality of our biological and neurological makeup is such that, in spite of our best efforts, victims of sexual abuse may sometimes be incapable of telling their stories accurately, if at all. In fact, contradictory details or head-scratching gaps in the narrative might be demonstrative that the violation was all too real.
Dr. David Lisak is a clinical psychologist with a long history in counseling rape victims, and he is confident that if there is one thing we understand about the nature of trauma, it’s that humans deal with it in extremely complicated and variable ways. “Especially when you are talking about childhood or young adulthood,” he stresses, “if you define trauma as an experience that overwhelms someone cognitively or emotionally, people at that age are more susceptible. They have fewer resources, as they’re less developed. So they protect themselves from the nature of the incident by blocking themselves from it. And those of us who work with trauma victims, we have loads of experience with people who one day would absolutely deny that something happened to them, and the next day, not 24 hours later, would suddenly remember that yes, in fact, it did happen.”
That was certainly the case in my life. Thinking back on it now, the greatest tragedy of the three-year gap that separated the abuse and my sudden revelation is that interaction with Charles, a year after the fact. I once felt guilty about my inability to comfort him, though that feeling has since faded. Today, I’m mostly amazed at how the haze of the trauma made it impossible for me to empathize. I am sure that I was telling Charles the truth as I then saw it in that moment. I am sure that I didn’t know what he was talking about, and I doubt that if he’d even given a name to it, if he’d cried, — “He molested both us!” — that I’d have reacted any differently. If nothing else, my experience is demonstrative of the spell pain can cast.
“You have to understand how someone who has been traumatized copes,” urges Dr. Lisak. “In the aftermath, they are flooded with a high concentration of neural transmitters which fundamentally alter the brain’s functioning. When you sit in a room, go into your memories, re-access them in order to answer questions and create a coherent narrative filled with detail and nuance… All of that complex behavior requires the proper functioning of your frontal lobe. And we know that those neural transmitters impair exactly that.
“If a person tries to recount their story after the fact, they’re sinking back into that trauma, and their frontal lobe might cease to function well. If a survivor stumbles over words, needs questions repeated and seems unsure of themselves, it isn’t necessarily a sign that a story isn’t credible. Instead, what you might be witnessing is someone who did, in fact, have a traumatic experience.” In other words, the brain in recall can suffer the same blockage that characterizes the initial incident.
Questioning your own recollections
Take the case of Aryle Butler. The UC Berkeley senior says she was sexually assaulted twice in the summer of 2012 while attending a for-credit program in Alaska, and she is quick to vocalize her displeasure with the way in which the university handled its investigation.
“Going up there… It was the first time in my life I’d been on a plane,” she tells me. “Even though I’m from East Los Angeles, it basically felt like I was some poor kid fresh off the farm.”
Aryle had two bosses that summer; a female graduate student for whom she was gathering research, and that student’s boss, a male member of the board of directors of the educational center in which Aryle planned to live and work.
According to Aryle, both assaults occurred when Aryle found herself alone with the board member, her supervisor working a days’ travel away. Aryle reported the first incident by phone but downplayed it to her supervisor at the time out of fear and embarrassment. A few days later, she was sexually assaulted again, though how much time actually lapsed between the two traumas is a mystery even to her. “I think it all unfolded in the course of a week,” she says, “but it’s really hard to remember. It was summer time in Alaska and the sun never sets, so it felt like one horrible, very long day.”
Aryle returned to Berkeley, and after a bout of depression so severe that she tried to kill herself, finally found her way to Denise Oldham. As the school’s Title IX coordinator, Denise was in charge of overseeing and managing student complaints of this nature. Before meeting with Denise, Aryle says a third party warned that those investigating her claims would scrutinize her character. “I was told that they would first consider how credible I was, and that made me nervous.”
According to Aryle, the interview turned out to be something of a disaster. “As soon as I started,” she recalls, “Denise interrupted me with questions about if I’d said ‘no’ during the assaults, and how audibly and often I’d repeated the word. I became flustered. And then Denise got into the gap between the two incidents. She was asking me about what happened after the first one, how I’d reported it, why I downplayed it and what my supervisor did about it. Then she asked me about the second trauma quickly, and there is something you have to understand with me, something she didn’t get; I compartmentalize and isolate things. I could deal with and recount how I reported the first abuse to my supervisor and her disappointing response, and I could deal with the abuse itself, but going back and forth simultaneously between both betrayals made it difficult. I didn’t perform well.”
Aryle sees the university’s refusal to aggressively pursue the case as resulting from a series of bureaucratic calculations that were primarily concerned with avoiding liability. The program she attended that summer was affiliated with but was not a part of UC Berkeley. She also believes that her lack of grace and coherence during the questioning played a part. “I feel like my report to Denise definitely hurt the situation,” she sighs. “I tried to give her all the details, and my failure to do so definitely impacted things.”
I reached out to Denise Oldham and UC Berkeley; a university spokeswoman declined to comment — on behalf of both the university and Oldham — on the particulars of Butler’s case, citing student privacy, but did write in an email that, “a state audit report last spring that included a review of our case files, found that our professionals are appropriately trained and that case outcomes, including sanctions imposed, were handled appropriately given the circumstances of the cases.”
Aryle and I first met in a coffee shop not far from her campus. It was crowded that day, and we sat next to each other at a counter top that looked out a plate glass window into the busy street. This proved to be a stroke of luck, as it allowed us to easily avoid making uncomfortable eye contact. Even still, she projected a palpable weariness, only warming to me after I’d shared my own tale towards the end of our 90-minute chat. I’m certain that the skepticism I felt until then was the result of too many conversations with too many people who simply cannot fathom the difficulty in recounting something of this sort.
Those who expect a clear-cut, linear, and logical account seem to think of memory as akin to a Netflix stream; click on a title and sit back for an authoritative representation of what transpired, as though a camera had been there filming the whole time. This is not the case.
When interviewing survivors, the protective layer they often wear makes the access you’re seeking feel so near and yet still untouchable. If you can manage your way past that and get to the substance of the thing, to the questions of what was done when and by whom, a whole new challenge waits. Even in the reporting of this piece, I found it vastly more difficult than usual to understand the narratives of those willing to open up to me, pestering survivors three or four times after the initial interview in order to clarify details I didn’t quite understand.
Needing to be believed
Kim Thuy Seelinger directs the Sexual Violence Program at the UC Berkeley School of Law’s Human Rights Center. She is also a graduate of the University of Virginia, class of 1996, and as such, she has closely followed the initial reporting of and fall out from Jackie’s story.
“I spent almost 10 years representing asylum seekers who were coming to the United States after experiencing individual and gang rape, sometimes as a weapon of torture,” she tells me. “I know very well that sexual violence distorts, separately, memory and communication. This makes it difficult when a victim is interviewed, especially by someone like a journalist who, despite her intentions, might not have been prepared for the difficulty of putting together that narrative. I have been following the reaction to the story, and the people picking apart the reporting are focused on the wrong things. Jackie not being sure how many people were raping her is beside the point. It’s not reasonable to expect a person who has been violated in a dark room by a group of rapists to tell us if it was by 3, 4, or 7 people. It’s pretty hard to count when you’re terrified and struggling to keep your thighs closed. It’s totally unfair to expect that someone would be able to tell you that precisely.”
Moving beyond questions of legal responsibility, the inability of survivors to recount their stories with authority can result in strained personal relationships, exponentially compounding the heartbreak while making the prospect of recourse even more debilitating. Savannah Badalich is a fourth-year student at UCLA. She says that a classmate and fellow member of the university student government assaulted her in September of 2012 when she was a sophomore. Her trauma unfolded in a cabin during a student retreat, she remembers. Stumbling away from the rest of the party, Badalich says she found an empty bedroom in the downstairs portion of the house. Slightly drunk, she put on an old pair of her father’s pajamas and fell asleep. Soon she awoke to find a senior pressed on top of her with his pants undone. Protestations ensued, but it was a loud noise from upstairs rather than Savannah’s struggle that paused the assaulter. Pulling his pants up, he ran out the room muttering that he “shouldn’t be doing this.”
Savannah fell back asleep, and that’s where the pieces stop fitting together. Some indeterminate period of time later, she came to a second time, finding that same young man pressed atop her again. She thinks that there were other people in the room, in the bed even, but she can’t say so with any certainty. She isn’t even sure the extent of what he did to her, or how it ended.
“I never went to the police,” Savannah explains, “But I did write an article on it for the Daily Bruin. And then, when I was back home in December of 2013, I was telling my story again to three friends from high school, a girl and two guys. They’d seen my piece on Facebook and wanted to know. I told them the first half of the story, until the loud noise and the guy running out the room, but not the second half. And so they challenged me on it. And it’s not exactly like I’d forgotten, but the details are so vague and I had just sort of naturally left it out. So I told them the rest and then they started questioning me in a way that made clear they didn’t understand, ‘How do you not know what happened? How do you not know if someone else was in the bed or when it ended?’ And the thing is, I still think about going to the cops and reporting the crime, just so it will be on that guy’s record somewhere. But my biggest fear is that if my friends are grilling me like that, and I can’t answer them… Why would someone else believe me? They weren’t even cross-examining me; they were just curious.”
Why rely on memory?
Earlier in the fall, Governor Jerry Brown signed one of the country’s most stringent and progressive laws governing the sex lives of university students. Popularly referred to as “affirmative consent” or “yes means yes,” the bill will change the basic metric by which we determine if a student has been sexually violated. Both Aryle Butler and Savannah Badalich were activists in the battle to draft and pass the measure.
When the bill goes into effect, the operative questions for investigators will no longer rely on the faulty memory of a potential victim. Rather than asking, “Did she say ‘no’? And how hard did she struggle?” the burden will shift to the accused. Now we will ask if he first sought permission and if she granted it.
The paradox of the current system is that the reliability of the victim is crucial to the prosecution of a crime that features unreliability as an almost guaranteed byproduct. This point seems lost on many of the people currently swept up in a reactionary obsession with the account of one alleged survivor. There is a certain dark joy in pockets of the Internet as people celebrate the unraveling of the Rolling Stone piece, as though this were not still a very real problem, as though reporting of this kind isn’t both crucial and almost impossibly difficult.
Though it preceded the UVA scandal, Connor Friedsdorf published a thought-provoking and timely series of pieces earlier this fall on the potentially impossible mechanics of “yes means yes.” While he appreciates the “do unto others” spirit that it embodies, he is skeptical that students will truly internalize the law and abide by it. I’m sympathetic; it’s an imperfect piece of legislation. And yet if nothing else, it creates a shift that would make our procedures more humane and trusting of those who bear the burden of sexual trauma, those who are not simply victims, but are oftentimes the sole, flawed witness.
It’s tough to forecast where “yes means yes” will lead us, but advocates hope it will open a broader conversation about sexual relations and problematic situations characterized by an imbalance of power. On an intuitive level, the law does make sense. If I wanted to use your cell phone to call a friend, you would expect me to ask before picking it up. Why, then, does the same basic principle not apply to the human body?
Ultimately, the law, if it works at all, might prove cosmetic. Affirmative consent won’t change how drinking characterizes the undergraduate experience, sometimes enabling these sorts of tragedies. It won’t change the ways in which many fraternities embody the entitled and aggressive ethos of an outdated patriarchy. Tackling those issues would require a seismic shift in culture, a transformation of the behaviors we witness in and absorb from our friends, family, and authority figures. And if that’s the case, then I think a collective realization of the fragility of memory and ways in which it can fail those who’ve been victimized is a good place to start.