This is a story of a girl, a boy, another boy, a fraternity, and the ‘justice’ system of the 1980’s. But there is a twist to my tale. Several years ago I was contacted out of the blue by the person who harmed me. After decades of emotional pain and loss of trust in others, I forgave him. But I will never forgive the series of people who claimed to be protectors but who, instead, victimized me again.
I went to a small, private college which admitted women just years before, in the 1970’s. The college still felt largely male-dominated when I was a student in the late 1980’s. With nearly 20 fraternities for a population of 2,000 thousand students, there were keg parties six nights per week.
I graduated from high school a year early and was younger than most freshmen when I entered college in the fall of 1986. I loved school and was looking forward to learning. Like most people heading to college, I was also looking forward to having fun and going to college parties.
I loved my classes and became fast friends with girls on the floor of my single sex dorm. We studied hard, we talked about cute boys and we went to parties. Sometimes we went to parties 3 or 4 times per week. With the greek culture ingrained on our campus, there was alcohol flowing every night at one house or another.
In the fall of my freshman year, I met a boy I will call ‘Mike’. He was a student athlete, very large in stature for his age, attending college on an ‘academic scholarship’. We met through a mutual friend. Mike was cute and sweet, despite his hulking size. Like most boys at our school, he was pledging a fraternity. His fraternity was filled almost entirely with boys who played in one aggressive sport.
We ended up having a few drinks with friends while we were out. He walked me to my dorm room. I was attracted to him, but I was not interested in having a one-night stand with him. Despite my objections, Mike took things further than I wanted. I said ‘no’ but he did not listen to me. I was confused. In fact, I am STILL confused by this incident. I know I was less intoxicated than he was and I remember certain aspects of that night with complete clarity. I definitely said ‘no’ but, I was physically unable to stop it. He was more than a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier than me.
I was truly confused the next day. I had emphatically said no, but I also know that my feelings were more ‘not yet’ than ‘not ever’. Did I give off the wrong signals?
He was apologetic the next day. He was sorry. He had too much to drink. He seemed like a good guy who made a mistake because he was drunk. After all, everyone said he was a great guy. Binge drinking was rampant and doing dumb things while drunk was part of it. Mike was so apologetic and so attentive and kind. I felt like what he did was not right, but I forgave him.
The ‘funny’ thing about pledging fraternities is that they require people to drink, often way more than they should. And so Mike, who was a lovely, kind, sweet person, drank often and consumed way more than he was capable of handling. More incidents happened. He punched a fellow pledge who was a good friend. He got pushy with friends and with me.
But always, we forgave him. People sometimes did really stupid things when they were drunk. One friend who was on the receiving end of a violent punch, laughed it off and bought Mike a hat that said “Instant Asshole, just add beer”. We laughed and decided we would just try to protect Mike from himself by trying to limit how much he drank.
I cared deeply about Mike but also grew weary of the drama. I was done. I went out on a date with another boy I will call ‘John’. I met John through a mutual friend. He was another ‘great guy’. I did not want a serious relationship with anyone, but I did want to go out and have fun.
If He Can’t Have Her, No One Will
Mike was not happy. I had moved on but he was not done with me. At one point, he came to my dorm room drunk and angry. The ‘security guard’ who was working the front desk that night allowed him to come to my room without calling me first. That was a clear violation of the rules. Security was in place to ensure the safety of the women in the dorm. However, fraternity brothers did not tell each other no. They were friends, after all, and your brothers came first, before anything else.
When Mike came to my room, he broke my door and threw things around. I had been sharing pizza and soda with some girls from floor. They quickly ran out of the room. Mike ripped me and my mattress off my bed. His rage continued as he tossed a bottle of soda, spraying it on me. Afraid to move, I watched pizza slide down the wall. My roommate was understandably afraid and angry. We could not shut our door, much less lock it. Yet the anger and blame was directed at me rather than at Mike. He was in love with me. I broke his heart. I made him crazy. I did this TO him.
I attempted to move forward. I went to at least one fraternity party where Mike showed up and cornered me, refusing to let me end the relationship. I did not attend certain parties and I frequently left others because I felt unsafe when he or his friends were around.
One night, following another invasion of my space and my life, I left a fraternity party and walked home cold, fearful and alone. Shortly after I entered my room, John called me. He had been at a party that night when Mike and his fraternity brother ‘David’ got in John’s face and threatened to beat him up. David told John explicitly, “If Mike can’t go out with Tonia, no one will.”
John was going to campus police to report the incident and he strongly encouraged me to go with him to file my own report. Though I was scared, I agreed to go with John to file a complaint. Why had I not filed a report already? I had really never even considered it. As far I knew, I was on my own. I had to handle things by myself. I HAD broken up with him. I upset him and others. I was afraid to speak up and I felt, on some level, that no one would or could protect me. Plus, Mike was a ‘good guy’. I did not want to ruin his life.
A Boy’s Life is More Important than A Girl’s Life
In those days, many colleges dealt with ‘issues’ by holding a hearing in front of a jury of other college students. These juries called witnesses, deliberated, rendered verdicts and handed out punishments.
People who knew me and people who knew Mike were called to testify. I listened while some of the Mike’s friends made irrelevant and frequently false statements about me. Despite using the ‘nuts and sluts’ tactic, Mike was found guilty of everything I had claimed: threatening, stalking, assault. I think John’s testimony as an older, male student helped my case tremendously. I could not possibly be making everything up if his testimony reflected my own.
Despite the jury ruling in my favor, the panel also decided Mike ‘showed promise’. He was allowed to stay on campus because he was a good guy who made a mistake. He was required to attend alcohol and anger management classes. He did neither. In fact, he drunkenly and repeatedly made attempts to corner me. Essentially, I ‘won’, but he suffered zero consequences. My so-called peers determined he was guilty but apparently his ‘promise’, his future, was more important than mine. The college, apparently, did not disagree.
Eventually, Mike was kicked out of school for drunkenly cornering at least two other women. One incident happened in the late spring of my freshman year. The other took place the next fall. During the second incident, the final straw that broke the camel’s back, Mike cornered a tiny woman who was the new RA on the floor I had lived on as a freshman. He wanted to know how to find me.
Mike was sent home.
Violence and Violation
The story does not end there, however. Following the ‘jury of my peers’ decision my freshman year, John and I had one more date. I felt indebted to him, grateful for his friendship and for what felt like a sense of protection. SOMEONE in the community cared about me.
Instead of proving himself to be a friend who was in my corner, John sexually assaulted me. I told him to stop. I cried. I said he was hurting me. He responded, “I’m almost finished.” He lived in a fraternity house. There were other people in adjacent rooms. If they heard me, they did not intervene on my behalf. I did not report him and I never told anyone. I was too damaged. I walked away and we never spoke again.
Why Didn’t I Tell Anyone?
For many years, I did not speak about the violence and violation I experienced that year. I believed it was my fault. I believed I needed to be tough and not strong and not go crying for help. After all, when I filed a report and trusted ‘the system’, it did nothing to protect me.
I spent the remainder of my freshman year isolated and alone, feeling worthless and unable to trust anyone. I was embarrassed to share these stories with anyone for many, many years. I expected blame from others. I blamed myself. And while it hurt when men blamed me, it was more painful when my female friends turned their backs on me.
Blame and shame were prevalent in the 1980’s. We all knew there were ‘rapists’ among us, but most women did not report anything to authorities, or even to their parents. We spoke in whispers to one another about people or fraternities we should avoid. Furthermore, students did not transfer schools in the 80’s as frequently as they do now. I never considered leaving the college even though ever day I stayed I was haunted by what transpired my freshman year.
I kept my stories tucked away in silence for most of my life. The shame that tormented me led me to believe if the details came out, people would view me as not being worthy of friendship or love. Sadly, the shame and victim-blaming continues in a very public way today. I am grateful I was able to suffer mostly in silence before the days of social media where people are outed and publicly humiliated.
My story has one more chapter. Several years ago, ‘Mike’ contacted me. I felt a sense of terror when I first saw his message. I was afraid to read it, but when I did, I found something I did not expect: an apology. He was married with two children of his own. His daughter was now a teenager. Raising a daughter made him reflect on his own life and on his own actions. He told me he was sorry for what happened years ago and he took responsibility for the pain he caused me.
After reading his message several times, I fully and sincerely accepted his apology. His actions changed the trajectory of my life. I cannot forget what happened, but I am glad he reached out, showed remorse and acknowledged the pain he caused. For years, I wondered how he felt about what happened. I wondered if he had any idea how broken I was by the entire experience. While he will never fully what I have lived with over the years, at least I know he has thought about the consequences of his actions. He knew he had harmed me. He was brave in reaching out to me and I have forgiven him. I will never divulge his identity…unless I find out he has harmed other women.
What Makes Someone a ‘Good Guy’?
With all of that said, I have not forgiven the way my college and my peers treated me. I also can never forgive ‘John’ who grossly physically and emotionally violated me during one of the most vulnerable moments of my life.
John went on to get married, have kids and establish a seemingly successful career. I blamed myself for decades for having trusted him, for being stupid. Now I wonder if the people in his adult life consider him to be ‘a good guy’? IS he a good guy? How would his wife or children feel about his actions back in the mid 1980’s?
How do we define whether someone is, in fact, a good person? Do we judge people by what they do today? Do we judge them by what they did decades ago? It appears that we, as a society, are still wrestling with these issues: who gets a ‘pass’ and who does not.
The blaming, the shaming, and the feelings of being violated have never disappeared. Violence, violation and dehumanization repeatedly traumatized me during those formative college years. The institutional failure to protect me deprived me of a sense of safety and autonomy as a young woman. It also negatively impacted my education. It is hard to focus on being a student when you have PTSD and feel unsafe in your daily life.
We all want to believe we live in a world of law and order. We have a legal system that is supposed to dole out justice. So many women, including myself, have been further victimized by the institutions that are supposed to protect them.
Every woman, every girl, deserves to feel valued as a human being. When I hear ‘we have to protect this young man’s future’ or ‘it was so long ago that it is irrelevant now’, I am consumed by the heartache of my own knowledge of how a man’s life was valued over my own. In the 1980’s, I was aware on some level that I mattered less than a male student athlete. I had faith in the system for a very long. Now in 2018, I wonder how it is possible that the most powerful institutions in our country are still making decisions about women’s lives, bodies, equality and sexual autonomy in such an openly paternalistic, dismissive, and degrading manner. If not now, when, exactly will women matter?
Recently a student from my alma mater called me to ask if I would make a donation to the college. For the first time ever, I said out loud, “I will never give money to this institution. I was assaulted and stalked, and though the administration knew, they did nothing to protect me. They determined that one male athlete’s future was more important than mine.” I said it politely, without emotion. I hung up the phone and felt relief because, finally, had I spoken the truth.