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Complicity

November 15, 2013

Like a lot of people — almost certainly fewer than there should be — I’ve spent a lot of time working through the latest essay by Film Crit Hulk. One part seems particularly important, though it’s not really the central focus: in section 11, Hulk confesses a story about his own past failure to live up to the ideals he expresses in the rest of the piece. I think it’s a hugely important rhetorical turn, reinforcing the necessary reassurances that this is not about you, the reader, being a Bad Person with Bad Intentions, but about understanding that you have done things with bad effects. We all have. And it reminded me that I have a confession to make.

No, I didn’t rape someone. But I did help sweep one under the rug. I wasn’t the only one in the room when the decision was made, but I was there. And maybe I couldn’t have changed the outcome anyway, but I know that I could have said and done more; I could have done better.

I’ve thought about this before, and usually haven’t said anything because, well, I’m not sure who would care. And then there’s the whole mess about ulterior motives, and being clear that I’m not just saying this out loud in order to be recognized for my contrition. I’m pretty sure someone’s going to think it anyway, but at some point I have to ignore that. Letting some abstract someone stop me from speaking out here because they think I’m doing it for the wrong reasons is just as poisonous as letting myself be silenced by those who say that any man embracing feminism is just trying to get laid.

I’m not speaking for praise or punishment, but just in some sort of truth-and-reconciliation dialogue. I’m owning up to my own faults and hoping that someone else can learn from them. I’m speaking up now because it’s important that we admit our mistakes and say to the community, “here: this is what happened”.

So, preamble aside, this is what happened:

I was, at one point, a graduate student at Yale University. And one year I volunteered to serve on the graduate school’s disciplinary board, along with two other students and three faculty. I honestly can’t remember which exact school year it was, but it was in that blurry post-quals, pre-dissertation period between fall 2003 and spring 2006. It wasn’t really a big deal, actually; many years they don’t even have anything to meet about. But this year they did.

I’ll skip over the long lead-in period. Suffice to say that months elapsed between the initial notice that a grievance had been filed and the actual hearing itself. I have no idea what life must have been like for the young woman, or what kind of run-around she was getting from the New Haven police.

The story itself was depressingly commonplace: there was a party; there was drinking; two people were alone in an apartment, and one of them took things way too far. I remember more — I can’t forget it — but it’s not my story to tell. It wasn’t dramatically violent or brutal, but some force was involved and the repeated “no” was ignored.

We heard separately from the young woman and man involved. He came alone; she had a friend comforting her through it, but spoke confidently and definitively. And then we closed the door.

Words like “grey area” and “don’t know for sure” permeated the discussion. Nobody insinuated that she might be making it up, but the administrator advising the board stressed that we had to be certain to take certain measures. I knew none of the professors, and I was there as a representative of the graduate student body with an equal voice to anyone else on the board, but I still felt intimidated about challenging their ambivalence.

I knew that something terribly wrong had happened in that apartment. We all did. We even said as much in our decision. But we also said that we didn’t know enough to act, even as mildly as barring the rapist from the campus’ athletic center, where his victim now felt uncomfortable working out. We certainly weren’t about to put him on probation, or expel him; that could ruin his future. And if the police didn’t think they had enough evidence to do that, how could we be so sure?

It took two or three ballots before it was decided that we’d slap him on the wrist. To be honest, I don’t remember exactly how I voted each time. I remember feeling caught by the arguments from the professors, and pulled towards “not guilty”. I imagined that I might have been swayed by pity, as if that’s not exactly what a human being should be. I want to believe that in the second round my conscience got the better of me and I scrawled “guilty” on my slip, but I really don’t know if I’m just trying to make myself feel better.

I don’t know if changing my vote earlier would have turned the tide. I don’t know if I could have said anything to change someone else’s mind. Maybe there was nothing I could have done and it was always going to end as it did. But maybe if I’d spoken as confidently in the victim’s defense — and what twisted sort of phrase is “the victim’s defense”, anyway? — as she did when telling us her story, someone else would have found the confidence to follow their conscience as well. Maybe if someone else had spoken up, I would have snapped out of my own ambivalence. Maybe we were all waiting for someone to take that lead, and all of us failed to do so.

Admitting my fault doesn’t change any of that now. The young woman carries that night with her — hopefully fading with the passage of time — and she knows that the police and the school did nothing to help her. I stood up to represent my fellow graduate students, and when one came in her hour of need, I let her down. Nothing I do now can ever fix that.

I don’t remember her name — not that I would dare breathe it aloud if I did — and she’ll probably never see this, but to her I am sorry, and I wish I had done better by her. I’m sorry also to all the other graduate students at Yale; in some small way I made life materially worse for all of them going forward, by saying that these stories will be ignored.

I wish I had known better — had done better — but I know that it’s too late. All that’s left is to pick this up and carry it with me, always reminding me that my good intentions aren’t good enough, and that I am responsible for speaking up and speaking out.

I am not proud of my mistakes, but I want to be more open about them. I am human, and I will make them, just as we all will. Hiding one’s failures just makes everyone else feel more ashamed about their own, and that stops us from talking about the ways we hurt each other. And until we can talk about them, we can’t stop them.

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