Veritas Revisited


Last Friday, I attended a symposium on my campus and listened raptly to scholars from various fields discuss the myth of Phaedra. Inspired and unsettled by the centrality to the myth of Phaedra’s false accusation of rape, I delivered a talk about sexualized violence and its representation in “truth” and “fiction,” focusing in the ways that women’s stories are sometimes denied credence and respect.

A few days later, on April Fool’s Day, I read an article in the Harvard Crimson that detailed the Harvard administration’s handling of a case of sexual assault. Unfortunately, this wrenching essay had much in common with my talk. But it told an even more troubling story.

How eerie that Sexual Assault Awareness month begins on April 1.

In my talk, I projected news accounts and still images I took from the Internet. Most were images of women used in advertising. There were “Photoshop fails,” and there were advertisements for drinking glasses engineered to detect any intrusion of date-rape drugs, with big words flaunting the technology: “SAFE” on the ordinary glass and “UNSAFE” on the one activated by Rohypnol. There was an advertisement showing a steamy, stilettoed woman, accompanied by a caption proposing that—I’ll say in advance: no, you are not misreading this—organ donation is “probably the only way you’ll get inside her.” With trepidation, I talked about the young Raehtaeh Parsons, who took her own life, not directly after being sexually assaulted at age 15, but later, after one or more images of the alleged assault were publicized and she was taunted and shamed by abusive, misogynist language. She lived to be 17. Having seen her image saturate my screen in disquieting and familiar fashion, I created a speedy montage of headlines, most with the same image, hoping that the flickers and flashes exposed overwhelm more than they created it. But I was not sure. And I continue to wonder, if I shudder every time I see the image of her with her dog, what must her last weeks have been like?

I discussed the ways in which violence against women, physical and otherwise, is curated in so-called real-life.

To be sure, an assault, an ensuing account of it, and an artistic response are very different things. But post-traumatic stories, whether real, adapted, or imagined anew, present many possibilities: the possibility of effecting catharsis or kindling compassion; and the possibility of cultivating healing, understanding, perhaps even wisdom. They also present risks: the risk of aestheticizing violence, the risk of being targeted as prey again, the risk of being dismissed by those who do not want to hear such a truth, the risk of being retaliated against for speaking truth to power. It’s commonly said that one aspect of healing from traumatic experience lies in the telling of one’s story, but doing so presents limitations and dangers as well as possibilities. It sounds good in theory, but it is not so simple to break silence and voice the unspeakable. Nor is it easy to deal with the consequences.

In the post-traumatic aftertalk, stories may be denied and erased—even though nowadays some offenders record evidence of their actions, as is said to have happened in the Raehtaeh Parsons case. So, this week, a student at one of the most prestigious colleges in the country wrote to her institution, “I am writing to let you know that I give up.”   In “Dear Harvard: You Win,” the writer describes her unsuccessful efforts to have her assailant moved to a different House (“dorm,” in purposely idiosyncratic Harvard parlance). Her letter was published anonymously. So before you say it: no, I was not there. Only she and the alleged assailant were.   And her name has not been given.  Yet, as much as I would like to doubt, to find such a story implausible, I know from past experience that it is anything but. So, it is true that an investigation would have to have been completed before her request could have been granted, but an investigation, Anonymous was advised, would not likely lead to a satisfactory outcome. And that is a much too familiar story.

There are the overwhelming sensations that arise from traumatic experience, and there is the reliving of those moments in memories, often disruptive and unbidden. There is disclosure and there is the shaping of experience into story.   There is overwhelm in witnessing and receiving such a story, and then, if an account is contested, distorted, stolen, or erased, another kind of confusion, even violation, ensues.

The Phaedra myth offers many invitations to unease, one of them being the significance in the narrative of Phaedra’s supposedly false accusation of rape. But is it truly false?  Who put those words in her mouth? Anonymous, I think—but a different one.

What is especially chilling in the Harvard case is that it shows how, even when the report of assault itself is believed, the aftermath can be gruesomely re-traumatizing.

I continue to wonder about images and words, about experiences and stories, about Phaedras and Raehtaehs and Anonymouses. I am no longer surprised that some stories are unwelcome. Yes, in stories about grisly truths, complexities may be overlooked. Much as simplicities can be.

The feedback loop between experience and story is of particular interest to me for numerous reasons. Here is a violation of a different sort, one that bears just a little similarity in outline to the experience of Anonymous: some time ago, I learned that my work had been misappropriated in a published document that had been widely distributed. When I contacted those responsible and suggested that together we take steps to remedy the problem, I was perplexed by the response (or, rather, non-response) I received (or did not receive). After a while, another party delivered deflecting, pacifying, palliating statements. When these did not soothe me as expected and I persisted in asserting my authority and authorship, the cooing gave way to deafening hostility.  I was stunned that my assertion of authorship and authority was perceived not as necessary and responsible, but as a sort of transgression and aggression in and of itself.

Now, let’s pause for a moment. I want to invite you to observe (just to yourself) your response to what I just disclosed. Might you have felt an impulse to doubt what I said, to assign me culpability, to imagine that there must a different narrative I have missed, or that you must supply? Do you think you know better? Might it seem I am just a little too uptight and should share more generously? Does it seem I might be angry? Might you by chance have thought I invented this story about the theft of a fiction? If so, that is not surprising. It is something we learn to do. I have done so myself.   So, you decide what to think of my story of the violation of my work concerning violence. Whose violation is it?

The work in question, if it exists, concerns female sovereignty,—that’s sovereignty in the sense of self-determination, not royal status. It reveals the trauma, perhaps, that results from sovereignty being assailed. And so the refusal to collaborate with me in restoring the story to its proper form—in turn silent, calculating, and loud, if it happened—created an uncanny association between various kinds of stories in which women are asked to make ourselves small. We do so to get by in various ways, out of fear of the aggression that may come our way if we do not comply. We do so to pacify those who have the privilege of ignoring our stories and even rewriting them—those who may be as powerful as they are fearful. We choose covert, unacknowledged self-betrayal instead of speaking up and risking explicit and humiliating defeat. It’s not an easy choice, and the sad truth is that it may be smarter and safer to give in and play along.  To give up.  To say, “you win.”

Women (and other people, sometimes) cannot be sure that our sovereignty, as in our authority over our bodies, will be recognized. We cannot even be sure of ownership of the stories we tell, reluctantly and bravely, about violence perpetrated against us. Phaedra made it up, you know. But who made up Phaedra?

And, if you do believe my story, what do you think should be done about it?

The perplexities and paradoxes of the current-day academy include what may well be the beginning of the end of the romance known as “academic freedom.” The Kansas Board of Regents recently proposed that it had the right to “to suspend, dismiss, or terminate from employment any faculty or staff member who makes improper use of social media.” “Improper” use of social media is described as that which is “contrary to the best interests of the university.” In the current climate, academic freedom, even as it awaits full-on siege, permits a journal to publish a titillating review by scholar and woman Camille Paglia of new scholarly books about bondage. But, after leafing through and leaping off the pages of such forward-thinking discourse and returning to her campus office, a woman and scholar may find herself bound in a different way. As may her students. A tweet in poor taste about the National Rifle Association is grounds for dismissal. As is a skit about prostitution. But there is a Harvard student who has little choice but to pass daily by a classmate who, it appears, expected her to acquiesce to his violent compulsion—and, likely, to his perverse satisfaction in overpowering someone who until that moment considered him a friend.

They used to say, “The hardest part about Harvard is getting in.” Maybe that’s not true. Maybe the hardest part, for some, is getting justice. And staying in. It appears that some get in a bit farther than others. Anonymous’s story points out some subtle and important points: it may be true that a formal case would not have reached satisfactory closure under the “current” (i.e., written in 1993) policy, so perhaps it was indeed prudent to forgo a complaint with the Administrative Board. But to be advised by her resident dean that living in the same House as her assailant was akin to “a divorced couple working in the same factory?” (“Factory?”) I picture a young woman slouching thorough the same corridors and entryways that Al Gore, Al Franken, and Susan Faludi frequented; past the Senior Common Room with its portraits of illustrious forefathers; hearing her dejected footsteps echo through the squash court on the way to the laundry room; and seeing her classmates across Memorial Drive, on the Weeks Bridge, waltzing to Strauss in their in formal wear. (Do they still do that?)

Are you wondering whether I made this up too? No, these are images I carry from the 1980s, when I was a student in Harvard’s Dunster House. I was fortunate that I never experienced violence from a supposed friend in the way Anonymous describes. In my case, it happened off campus and before I arrived at school: I was betrayed by a mentor just a week before I entered Harvard Yard. I showed up, still wide-eyed, belongings packed into my parents’ crotchety Dodge Aries.  (I inherited it a full twelve years later, and it still wouldn’t start.)  But I was no ram, just a wounded 17-year-old with no idea that I should ask anyone to help. Or that I could even tell anyone what had happened. When, twenty-one years later, I stopped protecting the man with my own silence, I was the one who was penalized and shunned by the tribe (though he, to his credit, stepped out of their protection, took responsibility, and endeavored to make amends).

Anonymous tells us she is writing her article in the dining hall, her assailant visible “a few tables away.” I do not know which House she lives in, but I have vivid memories of the Dunster House Dining Hall. I saw my first Maya Deren film there, presented by the Dunster House Film Society; it’s a film I now show to my own undergraduates. One of the Masters, Sally Falk Moore, had been an attorney at the Nuremberg trials in her youth. My Secret Santa gave me a book of Norse myths. I remember lots of yogurt, cheese, and tofu warmed in the hot water intended for tea; I am glad to see that the dining halls now serve vegetarian and vegan food for those who do not want to harm animals. Even as it serves those who harm human beings. I wonder if the alleged assailant is a vegetarian. And if there are others who tremble when they see him get back in line for a second tempeh burger.

One begins to suspect the existence of a secret club where the smartest of sadistic boys are encouraged, “Study hard. Get into Harvard. You’ll make connections and enjoy untold liberties.   With no consequences.”

I completed my freshman year thirty years ago this spring. The very first Harvard lecture I attended was presided over by the formidable Marjorie Garber, who began her course on Shakespeare by quoting, “I say there is no darkness but ignorance, in which thou art more puzzled than the Egyptians in their fog.” We students chuckled at her dusty pun on the name of the lecture hall in which we sat, in the bowels of the university’s Fogg Museum. Only later did I become initiated into the old-school practice of hissing when a faculty member’s humor proved too pat, usually on purpose and with a wink, I figured. Legend had it that that my prof—who later published a book called “Sex and Real Estate” and another about cross-dressing, not to mention my favorite, about the culture of academia itself—disagreed with her Shakespearian colleague Walter Kaiser about whether to teach the plays by genre or chronology, and thus the English majors had to shuttle between laughter and tears, ever confused between years.

That same semester, I began studying music theory, which I now teach to eager Ivy-league undergrads myself. I took private lessons with a gifted composer who later left to run a Buddhist training center. The son of a renowned ballerina and a record-industry VIP, he stayed at Harvard just a few years, and there is a small group of us who benefited from his genteel and eccentric mentorship. Entering college, I owned just three LPs of classical music and had attended one orchestra concert in my life. When a teaching assistant referred to the unconscious-probing analyses of Heinrich Schenker,—I think of him as the Freud of music theory—I thought she was referring to an Indian sitarist. My Expository Writing professor told me I was being condescending when I wrote a short story about working-class people, not knowing, I guess, that I was not one of the Andover-Exeter set. (Though I would have thought it rather obvious.)

The same year, I inhaled a lecture course with Stephen Jay Gould; at the time he was said to be experiencing a miraculous remission from the cancer he outpaced, or lived with, for 19 more years. On a Harvard tour the spring before, we all snuck into a minute or two of a lecture in which Gould showed a slide of “The Fly That Ate Cleveland” or some such, made for a B movie. He went on to observe that the monster displayed preposterous proportions: it was an illusion that could not be replicated in physical reality. (That was the minute that made me want to go to Harvard.) For Anonymous, it’s physical reality that cannot be registered in the face of others’ illusions. I think of Gould’s term “punctuated equilibrium,” so innocuous to me at seventeen, and now it makes me think of a young person, perhaps a student in his successor’s lecture, whose equilibrium has been punctuated. Or punctured.  Students should be studying fake carnivorous bugs, not suffering through nightmares about being bitten against their will.

No one can speak for Anonymous, of course, but what hits me so hard about her story is the lack of understanding she encountered in those charged with managing the aftermath. Sexualized violence is more monstrous than any city-devouring insect. It is life-changing and traumatizing in any case. Yet to be denied any genuine or effective response, to be offered platitudes and ineffectual suggestions even as the speaker claims to offer “support”—it’s another way survivors’ stories are erased and diminished. Somehow, I myself am always at least as disappointed by those who stand by and fail to take action as I am outraged at the original offender. As much as I wish it were not true, I am aware that offenders will offend. But I like to think the rest of us (us?) can at the very least offer consolation and remediation, however partial, after the unthinkable has taken place. If I understand correctly, this is not a false Phaedra story, nor is it a true-or-false art-theft story like mine: it sounds as though Anonymous was believed, but that she received no useful action in response. (In such circumstances, perhaps authority figures are relieved even of the burden of doubting: it seems almost irrelevant whether such stories are true, since there is so little recourse available anyway.)

Anonymous writes, “I know deep down that all those administrators are not bad people.” It’s good of her to be so charitable to those who failed her. But I wonder. In a case like this, what is the meaning of “deep down?” How does a “good person” suggest that it was Anonymous’s drinking that led a classmate to bite her neck and breast and refuse to stop? While I myself do not tend to distinguish between “good people” and “bad people,” I wonder how I might make sense of a circumstance in which professionals “want to be supportive, and they really try to be but have not been trained sufficiently.” Who is in charge of such training, and have they noticed that it is needed?

Anonymous clearly has the training, though. She knows to seek help from various professionals: she has an attorney, and she has a psychiatrist, who tells her she is depressed. She understands that a policy from 1993 does not serve her. She knows about Title IX, and that it is not just about sports. And she knows to request remediation from those who have failed to provide her a safe educational environment. These are all things I was pretty unaware of back in 1983. Anonymous, in brief, is more informed, and likely much smarter, than those who are supposed to watch out for her.

Anonymous also knows when to give up. She knows that the merger of Harvard and Radcliffe (or, more properly, the assimilation of Radcliffe into Harvard) should signify that women have equal access to education on campus, but that they do not.  (I was in one of the last graduating classes, I think, to have both Harvard and Radcliffe seals on my diploma.  Even today, I like seeing then-Radclliffe President Matina Horner’s signature on the bottom.)  And I lament that Anonymous had to learn this so early, that she could not believe for a while longer that she was valued as a student and a human being.  She could not count on authority figures to ensure that she had reason to hold such a belief.  I held on to that untenable belief a few decades longer than did Anonymous did, but I too see reasons why one might surrender in such circumstances.

Back in the 80s, I cleaned the rich kids’ bathrooms to pay for my books.   (I was later promoted to trash collector.) I never thought myself a master (or mistress) of the universe. I was one of the uninitiated, always catching up, who spent the summer in a missile plant punching computer cards rather than interning at the Museum of Fine Arts of the Boston Symphony. My first boyfriend, after a double date in the North End, told me I did not know how to dress.  (I really liked the calico skirt I made myself, and the knee socks in the same hue of cornflower blue.)  It did not occur to me to keep my clothes on and find another companion until a while later.

I have always felt mostly fortunate that I was by some stroke of fortune invited to take a tour through the world of Bach Societies and Masters’ Sherries and French Tables where classmates chatted with others from “the city”—that is, the only city that counts as such, which I had yet to visit. But I never really felt like part of the club. Thirty years later, as a full professor at another Ivy League college, I still don’t. That’s because I am not. It’s a truth Anonymous should not have to know.  It’s a truth that should be rendered false, impossible, unthinkable.

There are cases that are hard to investigate and address.  I know this: I watch Law and Order.  This may be one of those cases.  So it may not be possible, according to current policy, to move the Predator Who Eats Dinner to a table across campus.  But think big, Harvard; there are many ways to cultivate a campus where Anonymous learns about Title IX because she plans to go to law school,—where, hopefully, she’d learn that Title IX is no longer needed—not because she was violated by another student.  Where she doesn’t have to take on a second job fighting to be treated like she belongs at the educational institution that admitted her.  She does belong, and at a place where she can just put her dinner tray on the conveyor belt and have a postprandial cup of coffee with her roommates without needing to worry about running into her assailant.

I’ve never shouted a “rah-rah” for Harvard, nor have I sung its song.  I have never considered attending a reunion. I am grateful for my education, but I do not see the Harvard “brand” as a big part of my identity. Like one of my classmates, I used to feel self-conscious telling people I studied there; I didn’t like dealing with their responses, complimentary or otherwise. (My favorite, from a distinguished feminist author, was, “Heard of it,” uttered with a glint in the eye.) But right now I feel even farther away from my days in Cambridge, even more reluctant to celebrate my pedigree.

My ambivalent relationship with my alma mater is a first-world problem of the highest order.  But uneasy intersections of privilege and exploitation characterize the ways in which women like Anonymous are still denied equal opportunity.  (That’s putting it mildly.)  And, of course, it’s not only Harvard undergraduates (male, female, other) who deserve better; but Harvard University is one place with the resources that should enable them to provide better, and perhaps to make a difference outside Johnson Gate too.

I am ashamed for Harvard. I blush crimson. I see red. Not only because of this case—it’s still true that I wasn’t there, and I do not know the intricacies of the bureaucracy involved—but even more because one of your undergraduates has become an expert on the unthinkable reality of violence against women.  This is not in her curriculum; she is on campus to learn other things, and you compensate professionals to ensure that she is able to do so unimpeded.  Not just because you care; because it’s Federal law.

This is my Veritas.

“Fair Harvard,” you should know better.  And I hope you will—soon.

Anonymous, you say you have given up, but you have given much to others by telling your story, though that’s probably little consolation.  And it’s even more work for you on top of the second shift of consultations with attorneys and deans, not to mention the burden of managing nightmares and pharmaceuticals you should not have to worry about. But you devoted even more time in order to tell your story.  Let’s hope Harvard listens to what you have so generously shared.

Anonymous, I wish you well.

And by the way, Harvard, one more thing: if you think this is what winning looks like, you lose.

Barbara White ’87, RI ’01