On (Dis) Closure

*Trigger warning this post discusses sexual assault. 

EDITORS NOTE: The author has chosen to post anonymously; a decision we respect and admire. Let us not turn her story into a conversation about who it was and who did it, but focus on the greater problem, which is that it happens here too. We all have a responsibility to confront injustice. 

Everything happened in April. The last party of the school year before we buckled down for exams. Like a good houseguest, I had brought a bottle of wine to share. I drank from my mug of white wine keenly and with purpose, as boozy future lawyers engaged in lubricated conversation quantifying the remaining weeks in the school year – how much had to be revised, how much had to be written, how many days stood between now and freedom. This is when my one or two glasses became one or two glasses too many. My sense of presence left me.

I remember asking a trusted sort-of-friend and fellow 1L for a ride home. And I remember being surprised that he was able to drive. He didn’t really have anything to drink, he told me. He didn’t want to go over the legal limit and he didn’t want to break the law. Well, that law, anyways.

I don’t remember the drive home, I don’t remember unlocking my front door, and I don’t remember letting him into my house. I remember all the lights being on and feeling like I was on an examining table. I had to rely on bruising and physical sensation and not my own memories to determine whether we had actually had sex.

After it happened, I called my closest friend in law school. She answered the phone and I was tasked with coming up with a sentence to explain my reason for calling. And that was the first time I cried about what had happened. The thing that had happened to me was rape.

While at my friends’ home, I received an inbox notification on Facebook, and it was him. Still reeling from trauma and confused about what had happened, he decided that he had a right to enter my space. At first I could see that he was trying to make sure I didn’t think he’d sexually assaulted me.

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Oh.

Still a law student.
Still in law school.
Life goes on.

Claiming My Right to Space

As a law student, you don’t get to separate your work life from your personal life. The people who you see in class are the people who you see at social events. They’re the people you’ll encounter at the gym, in the library, at coffee shops, and while walking to school. They’re also the people who you must choose from to fill your support network. And when there are only about a hundred and sixty of you, your actions and presence are always on display. One hundred percent visibility one hundred percent of the time. I liken it to being locked in a room with your coworkers for 3 years nonstop. Nothing is eraseable and everything sticks. All of it becomes a part of the narrative your colleagues draw upon when assessing your worth and what you bring to the table, and I didn’t want this on my rap sheet.

My parents drove from Toronto to Windsor to pick me up that day itself.

My parents must have wondered why I was crying to them on the phone about being unable to handle a throat infection. I’m guessing they assumed it was exam stress. They didn’t press me any further.

I also deferred an exam for the first time in my academic career after that incident. I remember staring at my petition and feeling like someone else had written it. My stated reasons for deferring were of so little consequence compared to what had actually happened; what I didn’t want to name. Thank God I had another reason to defer an exam. Would I have even gotten a deferral otherwise? How much of my experience would I have needed to share to earn the right to deal with my trauma and not Trusts? Would it have looked bad if I revealed that I had been drinking alcohol? Would I get more exams deferred if I had sustained physical injury? Would naming my attacker and starting a process be ‘advisable’? I had no idea, but the thought that a committee might quantify my trauma made me feel like vomiting.

There’s almost more violence in the idea of bringing such a matter to an Academic Status Committee than there is in reporting the sexual assault to the police. The latter is about making your attacker accountable for how they have wronged you. The former is converting your trauma into currency and terminology that you inevitably have to use to purchase your right to process and grieve.

Definitions, Divided.

The terms we have to name our experiences are as varied as the experiences themselves. Sometimes victim-chosen terminology is compatible with ‘official’ definitions, but often they are not. Yet, these are the terms that people listen to, that are seen as significant and important. These are the terms that demarcate the parameters inherent in converting a violence done to another human being into something triable.

This experience would have made more sense to me if I were still a sexual assault centre volunteer enrolled in gender studies. When I existed within that space I had ownership of the terms I used to define sexual assault. Yet there I was, a mere 18 months removed from my feminist undergraduate degree, looking up supreme court decisions and reading the criminal code in search of ‘correct’ answers about what I had experienced. I never doubted that I was right, but I wanted to know that others would think I was right too.

Quicklaw Search: “sexual assault”
Quicklaw Search: “sexual assault & capacity & consent”
Quicklaw Search: “sexual assault & legal profession”
Quicklaw Search: “sexual assault & no consent obtained”

I am still trying to forgive myself for allowing these search results to provide me with a modicum of closure. In just under one year I had learned to devalue my own definitions and trust what was ‘official’ and ‘accepted’. I kept thinking back to a methodology paper I wrote on the value of qualitative research when discussing sexual assault.

In writing this post I want to reclaim my definitions and apply them to what’s happened to me here. Framing what happened to me as an individual experience of sexual assault is like calling a forest fire a series of burning trees, to borrow the phrase from University of Ottawa Law Professor Teresa Scassa’s article entitled Violence Against Women in Law Schools. I want to point out that this article was written the year some of the 1Ls were born, and should not still be relevant. But it is.

I think that our law school has a violence problem that isn’t encapsulated by any standard outlined in the criminal code. I believe that my experience is on a spectrum of gender violence that is manifested in incidents that reinforce rape culture.

…when male law students are overheard rating and ranking the attractiveness of their female counterparts in the pit.
…when male students have nicknames for female students based on their STIs.
…when a female student makes a announcement in Property about the Charity Fashion Show, and a male student hollers that she ‘give us a fashion show right now’.
…when a guest lecturer thinks this:

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…is hilarious.

These are all occurrences that lie on a spectrum that every law student is implicated in perpetuating or reversing.

Past, Present, and Future

I ended up deferring another exam that April. Two experiences of trauma, two petitions to the Academic Status Committee. I was assaulted on April 7th, and I returned to Windsor ten days later to write an exam on April 17th. On Saturday, April 20th at five in the morning, I received a call from my sister – our mother had had a heart attack. She was critical, and being transferred from a regular hospital to a heart hospital. I took a five hundred dollar cab ride from Windsor to Toronto and stared at my phone screen the entire time, willing it to stay black. My mother was fine, but from that point onwards there was no more space for my trauma. I was spending 8-hour days at the hospital for two weeks, downloading my mother’s favourite shows on a tablet, playing travel scrabble, and making sure her mental health was okay. I was able to support her through her trauma only by suppressing my own.

Why am I coming forward with this now, one year to the week after it happened? For many reasons. One, is that I feel I owe it to the courageous women who have carved out this space for students to disclose and heal and hurt and mobilize. I want to support what these women are doing to break the silence. Another reason is that this writing process is providing me with closure. I include the very personal story involving my family to explain why I never received closure, why I never processed. I still have problems walking through the pit, I still have to take nights off and self-care when I see my attacker. What you have just read is not a part of my history- it is a part of my reality as one specific student in this specific law school. Now that I have written this post I am leaving Windsor for two weeks. I need to study and this process has triggered me in a way that makes this campus unsafe for me right now. This is the reality of trauma and sexual assault, and this is how one of your colleagues is dealing with it given the circumstances that we have all created by saying what we say and doing what we do in this bubble that we all call home. Windsor Law can stop being an unsafe space, I believe that. But that takes time. And we all need to be accountable for making things better. We all need to be accountable for creating a space where survivors feel safe enough to break their silence.

Shots fired.

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11 thoughts on “On (Dis) Closure

  1. Thank you for writing this incredibly courageous post. You not only face your horrible experience head-on, you present it so that everyone who reads this has to be able to understand what rape culture really looks like, means and feels for those (sadly, many) of us who have been through this. And finally, such a hard hard piece to write is so beautifully written – irrelevant perhaps, but makes me proud you are a Windsor Law student (for a few weeks longer).

  2. Melissa says:

    i don’t know who wrote this, but I am doing a project on rape culture at uwindsor, i am making a blog. I hope you don’t mind that i post this. you can check the blog out it’s melissalewis22.tumblr.com and thank you so much for sharing your story. I think a lot of people at this school do not believe rape culture exists and rape happens. I am very sorry that this happened to you.

  3. Sista in Solidarity says:

    Your story was chilling, moving, but unfortunately unsurprising for me to hear, given that your experience is a reality that is sadly common enough for far too many women on campus. You captured the underlying conflict that law school imposes on us in situations of trauma, because the legal profession has not carved out space to allow students or professionals for that matter, to grieve personally, and on our own time, without having to justify it to others, let alone an Academic Committee. As a former law student at UWindsor, and as a young woman like any other, I admire and relate wholly with your self-awareness of the concept of a saturation point of emotional trauma, and trying to find a way to deal while remaining tough by the necessity of your circumstances. I want you to know that your words, especially the part about trying to find the right “definition” of what you experienced, are so important for others to hear. As someone who has been sexually violated myself, I too, struggled with finding a way (when I was finally ready to share with a few folk about what happened to me) to describe it with enough disgrace that others would perhaps empathize with or sense the urgency and impact of what I went through. Sexual assault is more than just “rape” and each person has a unique way of overcoming it. You are so courageous for sharing in such a raw way, and I know you will be an amazing advocate because of this experience and the way you have and will continue to internalize it and understand others. I hope you see this one day, as a source of fire to keep you ignited in your fight for increased gender sensitivity in this world, and for raising the communal consciousness of how each of our actions, our words, our stance, our silence, affect others.

  4. Sista in Solidarity says:

    P.s. For more supportive writings, you may wish to check out our mini project we did a couple years back. Students across campus wrote in (most of them wanted to do so anonymously, as you will see), and we published them as a compilation. The theme was to talk about your gendered experiences, in any way of “becoming” or just learning more about yourself or the world, and acknowleding how our positionality shapes us.

    http://vdayreflections.wordpress.com/

  5. Thank you for these supportive comments. I know that they mean a tremendous amount to the women who have been working on this blog/ project. If you feel similarly supportive/ affirmative, please do not just think so but actually write something, which can be really short and simple, just lending your encouragement and recognition, on this or another blog. This is part of breaking the silence, adding your voice and changing the culture in the law school.

  6. a says:

    I wanted to echo everyone’s sentiments. Your post was courageous and well written. Im so sorry this person violated so much. Thank you for sharing, and putting words to paper.You are a truly amazing person and your strength is inspiring.

    You captured so many of the sentiments I’ve felt about law school but havent been able to articulate as beautifully as you have. Your point about legal definitions being used to justify harmful behaviours and perpetuate the “ick”.

    Your point on claiming your right to space also resonated with me. I remember feeling unsafe in my first year, having my space violated, boundaries repetitively infringed, feeling unsafe, uncomfortable and like I had to put up with unwanted advances because I didn’t want to rock the boat too early in my career. When the advances progressed to unwanted touching I called him on it and used the legal term: sexual harassment. In the weeks that followed, men and women pulled me aside to tell me that the individual was concerned by “throwing around” the term sexual harassment would jeopardize the man’s career. And that he was scared.

  7. The King says:

    Safe spaces hinge on holding wrongdoers responsible. It’s not just a “culture of oppression”; it’s about whether or not people who satisfy their personal desires through rape can get away with it. It doesn’t matter if it’s theft, rape or murder. If there’s no accountability and justice, there’s no safe space.

  8. S says:

    Beautifully written; I admire your strength. He should be named.

  9. D says:

    I don’t think this is about whether the person hurt you “gets away with it.” This doesn’t need to become about convicting the guy who did this to you. How you want to handle this situation is up to you.

    I experienced a similar situation. I was out partying with close friends, was extremely drunk, and woke up naked in a friend’s bed. I remember leaving the bar and deciding to stay on his couch. I had to ask him whether we hooked up because I couldn’t remember a thing.

    I was in a relationship at the time so I immediately hated myself. I ended it because I couldn’t handle the guilt and anxiety of being a cheater. I thought it was my fault because I was so drunk. I felt disgusted with myself and believed that one of my core characteristics had been changed. Honestly, I still feel this way. I am a disloyal person.

    Other than hating myself for being a cheater, I didn’t have a huge emotional response to the incident. I didn’t really question his conduct. I didn’t recognize that his actions were unacceptable until it happened to my roommate. When I was a 3rd partying evaluating the situation of someone I loved, I had no doubt that she was sexually assaulted.

    I had distanced myself from him after the incident but he didn’t realize he had done something wrong. I decided to confront him. I explained that I was unable to consent when we had sex because I was too inebriated. I told him that I didn’t respect his character and that we wouldn’t be friends again. I told him what effect the incident had on me.

    Confronting him made me feel better about the situation. I doubt he thought that he sexually assaulted me until I told him. I do think that having his friend come back and say “you raped me” had a significant and lasting effect on him.

  10. […] female law student at the University of Windsor recently wrote a blog about a sexual assault incident involving herself, which she says took place in the city about a […]

  11. Steve Payette says:

    As a male, a fellow law student, and a human being, I’m sorry you experienced that. Thank you for courageously sharing your story.

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