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A ‘rare look’ at a common experience

problematic people doing problematic things

Columnist's note: "Content Warning: rape, sexual assault”

When a student-athlete is accused of sexual assault, the media tends to fall into a frenzy. We hear about “what a great guy” with “so much potential” the alleged rapist is. We hear about the “promiscuity” of the victim. The things she did that night to “encourage” what happened. Or about how she’s vindictive and “just changed her mind.” The entire narrative is constructed by the accused. We rarely hear from the victim.

This same pattern is playing out, yet again, in The Chronicle’s reporting of the Ciaran McKenna case. The “facts” that keep getting reported are, actually, McKenna’s account of events. The voice of the victim has been completely left out of the public narrative, but McKenna has had no problem pontificating on the victim’s character. How very fair.

The victim can’t speak for herself, but she has to witness this deluge of information about the worst day of her life spread across the pages of The Chronicle. She can’t defend herself when students publicly talk about the case on campus. She doesn’t have a voice. But I do.

I was raped on Halloween of 2015. I went through the reporting process at Duke, just like this victim. The Chronicle recently wrote about the “rare look” this case gives Duke’s policies, but did not capture how they affect the victims who have to live through them. That is a one-sided account. This is the real rare look, which isn’t so rare when you remember that 40 percent of women are sexually assaulted at Duke.

I woke up to a text asking where I was for my group project meeting. Those first few minutes were the most disorienting. For several seconds everything seemed okay, but then a sinking feeling slowly set in. I couldn’t immediately articulate what exactly had happened the night prior, but I knew it wasn't good. My heart rate picked up, beating as if I were sprinting a mile. It came flooding back and I began to shake.

I started to repeat to myself, “It couldn’t have happened,” over and over again. It couldn’t have happened. It couldn’t have happened. It couldn’t have happened. All I wanted was to get into the shower and scrub the feeling of him off of me and scald my skin until it was raw, but I was already late. Canceling my group meeting somehow didn’t seem like an option. I threw on some sweatpants and a mismatched sweatshirt and went to Perkins.

I quickly realized that concentrating was not going to be an option. As I sat at the table, I kept playing the night prior over and over again in my head. I couldn’t hear what my project mates were saying. My skin felt like it was on fire. I wanted to take it off, shed it like a snake, and run far away from this nightmare.

After a few hours of trying to force myself to work to no avail, I began to really break down. My friends saw me start to lose it and left Perkins with me. That’s when the ugly sobs started and I realized I should go to the hospital.

I walked into the ER and burst into tears because I couldn’t get the words out. They ushered me back into a room and began asking me what happened. For the next several hours I sat on a hospital bed staring into space, switching between bouts of tears and hysterical laughter. It was like watching a sick parody of my own life. I was no longer connected to my body.

He had been my friend. I knew him well. I never expected that he would attack me.

As I was lying on a hospital bed in a gown, he was texting me insisting that nothing had happened. Apparently I was delusional and had made it all up. The cognitive dissonance of thinking of a person who had been my friend 24 hours prior, and who now made me feel sick; it was paralyzing.

I spent six hours in Duke hospital for the rape examination. I filed a report with Duke Police. I was lucky to have close friends sit with me through it all. I got home around 11 p.m., showered until my skin burned, and got into bed. I received a final text from him, confirming everything that happened after initially denying it. But he insisted I had consented to it. As if a consensual encounter could end with me sobbing in the ER.

A lot of rape victims don’t report immediately. They may spend weeks or months trying to suppress memories of what happened, and then another untold weeks or months going through counseling. I was in the unique position of having already completed a year of therapy for experiences that happened in high school. I had spent the last two years working on the sexual misconduct policy at Duke and talking to victims about how to file reports. I had met with administrators that handle this issue. I personally knew survivors who had gone through the process themselves. I knew I wasn’t to blame, that I did nothing wrong, and that I did not deserve what had happened to me, feelings that often take survivors years to embrace. I had incredible lawyers through a UNC clinic. I had the support from the amazing Women’s Center staff. I had a phenomenal support system of friends.

Reporting was still the worst experience of my life.

The person who was once one of my friends became overnight my worst enemy. Seeing him on campus gave me heart palpitations and shortness of breath. I stayed in my apartment to avoid him. I peered around corners or big rooms before I entered them. I feared going to one of my favorite workspaces because he was always there. A close friend chose his side over mine because “he could never do that.”

I had to describe what happened to me more times than I can count. The Duke investigator assigned to my case compiled a nearly 125-page report of what happened that night, with transcripts of my attacker’s disgusting version of events. Reading his statements, with ridiculous claims of how much I wanted what happened, made my stomach churn. Every meeting I had with the investigator, student conduct, my lawyers and the myriad of other people involved left me exhausted and unable to do work those days.

In the end of January, Duke finally held my hearing. I had reported on November 3rd. It took almost three months just to get a hearing. The hearing was without a doubt the worst day of my life.

I spent 12 hours reliving my nightmare on the top floor of the Crowell building, sitting two feet from my attacker. A wooden panel separated us, but I could see his feet and hands and hear his breath. I had to describe, yet again, what happened that night, all while he sat right next to me. Then I had to listen to him describe in painful detail to a panel of strangers what he said happened that night, a narrative devoid of any semblance of truth.

There is nothing more dehumanizing than hearing someone describe the things they did to your body without your consent and then try to laugh it off. I was physically sore the next day from crying.

I tried to celebrate with friends when the hearing was finally over, but I couldn’t shake the anxiety. Three months of pain and misery, and what if he won?

Waves of relief poured over me when I found out that he was expelled a few days later. I celebrated with friends, thinking my nightmare finally over.

But he appealed with a fury I did not anticipate. He hired a psychologist to suggest that because I had PTSD when I was a first-year that I had made it all up. Although Duke requirements at the time stipulated that he make his appeal five days after the outcome of the hearing, Duke gave him two weeks. Despite requirements limiting appeals to 1,500 words, he submitted 87 pages. He used one of those pages to threaten both the University and me with a lawsuit should he be expelled.

Months later—in April—Duke finally upheld his expulsion. He packed up and left, and I haven’t seen him since. This past year I’ve lived in terror that I’ll be handed a lawsuit. I still worry that maybe he will.

The only reason I am glad I reported is because he is no longer here. Duke is my campus again, and I no longer walk around in fear of seeing him. But the costs of reporting sexual assault cannot be exaggerated. I lost two of my closest friends. One of them actively helped him try to win his case against me. The time requirements of meeting with attorneys and drafting statements are roughly the equivalent of two additional classes. The emotional labor of meeting with an investigator and then being expected to go to class was exhausting. I struggled to get out of bed, finish assignments and do the things I loved to do. I left class crying more than once. I came up with excuses for why I couldn’t complete things on time. Had he not been found responsible, I would not have made it to where I am today.

I am grateful to Duke for expelling him. I’m grateful to my friends and family for supporting me through the hardest experience of my life. I am thankful for all the resources I had access to that most survivors do not. But I am furious that the hurdles for reporting are still so high. I’m furious that 40 percent of undergraduate women are sexually assaulted at Duke, but only four Duke students were expelled last year for sexual assault. I’m furious that I talk to other victims on a weekly basis and, for the vast majority, their friends chose not to believe them. I’m furious that men find it acceptable to put their hands on women at Shooters without their consent. I’m furious that this campus is still widely ambivalent.

I am telling my story because I am tired of hearing that victims “just need to report.” I’m tired of hearing people vilify victims for not coming forward to report sexual assault. I was as prepared as possible to file a complaint, and it was still a nearly insurmountable barrier. I was privy to support and knowledge of the system few have the proper access to, and it was barely enough.

Had I understood the full emotional toll of reporting, I am not sure I would have. It would have been much easier just to pretend like nothing ever happened.

I am also telling my story because the victim in the McKenna case can’t. She had to live through the same reporting process I did not just once, but twice, and it still isn’t enough. She has to wake up every morning and read Chronicle headlines about the worst day of her life. She has to hear irrelevant garbage about the status of her virginity. She has to watch her entire life paraded around for everyone else to judge, unable to add a single word.

Sure, she could make public comments if she wanted to. But every word would end up in court. Trying to publish in The Chronicle would mean every time someone Googled her name, it would be the first thing to come up. Thousands of eyes would follow her every move. Reporters would dig into her personal life.

Silence is easier.

You cannot imagine a worse hell.

I don’t know how a “false report” would survive a six-month reporting process. There are so many easier, faster ways to ruin a person’s life than to file a false report for sexual assault. Accusing someone of cheating would be much faster, and would probably result in a harsher punishment.

The process is hell. The only reason someone would voluntarily subject themselves to hell is because the alternative—watching your rapist walk around every day without a care in the world, still on campus—is so much worse.

Dana Raphael is a Trinity senior. Her column, “problematic people doing problematic things” usually runs on alternate Mondays.

Editor’s note: The Chronicle reached out to the alleged victim for comment on the articles “Men's soccer player suspended for sexual assault allowed to remain at Duke after preliminary injunction” and “Men’s soccer player’s lawsuit gives rare look into how Duke decides sexual misconduct cases,” and she declined to comment.