When a Collegial Relationship Goes Too Far, How—and When—Does a Victim Speak Out?

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Dr. Donna Freitas is a Title IX researcher and lecturer about consent at universities. In this excerpt from her memoir, Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention, she recounts how she was harassed and stalked in graduate school by the professor and priest who she had originally thought would become her mentor and dissertation director. She also shows how essential it is for the conversation to continue about what consent is and how complicated consent can become in a relationship between student and professor—or in the workplace with one's boss.

Freitas' memoir describes what began as a collegial relationship, where she was initially flattered by her professor's attention for her work. Then it went bad—escalating into increasingly inappropriate, even sinister, behavior. Eventually, he was sending her numerous letters daily; regularly calling her at home and work; and showing up uninvited at her apartment, where she found him peeking in her window. He pressed her to attend plays and weekend retreats. Father L.—to this day, she won't say his name—repeatedly asked her for feedback about an article he wrote about a priest who had an affair with a much younger woman, tried to kiss her and even started corresponding with Freitas' dying mother.

The abuse Freitas suffered was emotional, a constant encroachment on her physical space. While Father L. never directly asked or pressured Freitas for sex, her professional future was directly tied to his approval—he taught many of the required courses in her program, and his participation was essential for her success in earning her doctoral thesis and to her future job searches.

Freitas describes how she initially had a hard time trusting her own feelings of discomfort, trying to justify his behavior as the benign interest of a mentor. But as Father L.'s advances became increasingly persistent, she could no longer deny their obsessive nature. After she filed a complaint with the administration, she was assured that he would be disciplined. But the university gave her the runaround until they had run out the clock on the 180-day statute of limitations for filing legal action under the Title IX rules, a 1972 law that prohibits sex discrimination at federally funded educational institutions. However, her lawyer was able to facilitate an agreement with the university that allowed her to graduate without continued contact with Father L.

And Father L.? He continued teaching. Freitas saw him at professional conferences early in her academic career, and those encounters—coupled with the unexplained lack of a recommendation from him—are in large part why she left teaching and focused on writing and speaking instead.

Why the book? Freitas says it was "poisonous to remain silent any longer."

Author Donna Freitas Nina Subin

What They Took and How I Let Them

I am not supposed to be telling you any of this.

In exchange for my graduate school eventually making the harassment from my mentor stop, and a very small sum of money, I agreed to pretend that none of what I am about to tell you ever happened. I agreed to absolve my university of all wrongdoing. I agreed to be silent forever.

At the time I didn't care what I had to do or sign. The only thing I wanted was for this man to go away, this man who was supposed to be my mentor, my shepherd throughout the years of graduate school and onward into my professional future. I would have handed them anything they asked of me, if only I could finally be free.

But what they wanted was my voice.

So I gave it to them. I cut out my tongue in the university's human resources office and offered it to the woman whose job it was to take it. I mutilated myself right there in the middle of the day. I didn't even notice the blood. I handed over the most important thing a woman has according
to the feminists I was reading for my classes in the building next door.

I didn't know what a crime I was committing against myself until much later. I didn't know when I was visiting HR that I was dealing with people who worked to protect the institution and its professors at the expense of the vulnerable bodies of its students. Who knew that this college where I'd enrolled to get my Ph.D., this beacon of hope and light, would stoop so low as to ask a young woman to rip her vocal cords from her throat to fulfill this most basic of requests, which was to go to her classes without fear of being stalked?

But then, I am not unique in this experience.

All around the country, at universities far and wide, at workplaces of all sizes and types, at companies that boast of doing good and making the world a better place, there are file cabinets full of the bloody tongues of women—taken from us by people in business-casual attire, in suits and sensible skirts, walking up to us as though what they are about to do is perfectly legitimate, perfectly reasonable. Acting as though this is just business as usual while they disfigure us, and we stand there, letting them, because this seems like our only option.

Women's tongues are dangerous when they let us keep them. Institutions, workplaces, companies have long known this, which is why they take them, why they require that we forfeit them, why they'll pay us so much for them, these blood diamonds mined from our bodies. It's good to see women taking our tongues back.

I am still getting used to mine again. It is thick and strange in my mouth.

Flickers of Doubt

My professor was outside my apartment, peering through the window.

It was not quite a basement apartment, the windows level with the sidewalk. I'd gone to retrieve a pile of mail from the slot in the front door. I jumped when I saw him, watching me from above. He wasn't smiling, didn't wave. It was a cold day in late February, or maybe it was early March, and he just stood there staring at me through the small rectangular pane of glass. He hadn't warned me that he might show up, or asked if I'd be around that day, or requested permission to say hello at my home. He just arrived.

"I was in the neighborhood," he explained as he entered my house. He had a conference that day in Georgetown, he told me, or perhaps it was a meeting with other priests, or a visit to the library to pick up a book he needed. I can't remember it exactly. Or maybe it was none of these things and he simply lied and invented a reason to be near my apartment.

But it wasn't until much later that it occurred to me that I had never given him my address, or directions to my somewhat hidden apartment. That he must have looked up my home address in my personal files at graduate school, to which he had full access since he was my professor and also, at the time, an administrator of a department; that he would have had to write down my address on a piece of paper and go scouring the neighborhood to find it. This was the nineties, well before GPS and Google Maps.

READ MORE: Author Donna Freitas on her Memoir, Consent on Campus and Title IX

Under the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, rules regulating how universities adjudicate Title IX sexual harassment claims were revisited. Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post/Getty

A Deluge of Letters

My first year of graduate school had come and gone. My professor had taken to calling me at my home. He'd called the basement apartment, and now he called my new one as well. The shift of his calls from one place to the other was seamless. I never gave him my number. After he started calling me once I'd moved, this knowledge registered somewhere in my mind. But I buried it deep with the rest of my unease, with the related knowledge that he also had my new address and my upcoming fall schedule, and I hadn't given him those either.

My summer was busy. Meanwhile, my professor wrote to me. Letters from him arrived at my new address. I grew used to the steady stream of them. At first, I opened them, read them. I received them, saw what was inside, set them aside in a pile on the windowsill of my new office.

He called, too. Sometimes every day. Sometimes more than once a day.

His letters increased. Sometimes there would be three in one day.

I would collect them in my purse with the rest of the mail and walk them across campus to my apartment. I no longer opened them immediately. Most of them I didn't open at all. Instead, I'd add them to the pile on the windowsill in my office. The pile grew.

The pile of letters swelled to maybe a hundred, nearly all of them unopened. They spilled every which way across my windowsill. I hated seeing them there.

It seemed like they were taunting me. Eventually there were so many and the mountain so unruly that one day I picked up my garbage can in my office, carried it over to the windowsill, and with one arm swept every single one of them into the trash.

Cognitive Dissonance

In multiple ways, I am two people.

I am two women who share the same body, same heart, same mind, same soul. This split woman has lived parallel lives—one in public as a confident, authoritative person, capable as a researcher, speaker and well-published writer with a Ph.D. whose research about sex on campus is widely taught, including about Title IX and assault. The other woman remains hidden—a person insecure and ashamed about something I lived during my early to mid-twenties, embarrassed by the fault I see in myself for what transpired, at the role I played in all of it, in allowing it to go on for as long as it did. This woman's professional life is irreparably marked by this man, forever changed by his inability to control himself, to abstain from inappropriate behavior, by the manner in which his gaze became fixated on me, and I could not turn it away.

I am a survivor, but I also am, and always will be, a victim. I can't speak for others who share this dual identity, but I can say for myself that, while I wish to be the proud person who exclusively occupies the title of survivor, I still claim the territory of the shivering, cowering victim. To say that I am not also her, even after two decades have passed, would be to lie.

I am well aware of the correct things I am supposed to say out loud to others and tell myself in my darkest moments: That everything was his fault. That he did what he did to me. That I should not blame myself. I have rehearsed these lines, practiced them like I would for a role in a play, yet there are only fleeting moments when I actually believe they are true. The rest are full of doubt and uncertainty.

"If you sat down with one of your students right now," my colleagues and friends would say, "and heard her describe a similar story to your own, what would you tell her? Would you ever dream of claiming that she is, even partially, at fault?"

The answer, of course, is unequivocally no. I would never tell one of my students this. I believe in the absolute absence of fault with respect to the experiences of others. I know this completely and without doubt. I am convinced of its reality. So why isn't it unequivocally true in my case? Why can't I make a clean leap from shameful victim to proud survivor? How can I resolve these two competing selves?

Will I ever?

We live in a culture where the harassment and assault of women and girls take place so regularly, so commonly, so consistently, that we need to take stock of the splitting of the person that occurs during acts of trauma. Of the ways that women must learn to become good actresses and excellent liars so they can endure as though nothing terrible has happened to them. Of the personal and professional cost of having to live with two brains, be of two minds, of the secrets a person's own body can keep from her for years, of the ongoing feeling that somehow she is the one who failed and the damage this does to her sense of self, of her ability to perceive what is true and what is false about who she is and who she is not.

Consent is More Than Yes or No

We have made consent out to be something straightforward, as straightforward as the single word no, but we are lying to ourselves and one another about this. If stopping someone's behavior were as magical as uttering a two-letter word, then my professor's behavior would never have gone on as long as it did. The word no meant nothing in my case. I paid dearly for this. I am still paying for it.

If I learned anything from what I lived, it's that consent is infinitely complex and ongoing, especially when two people are already in a relationship with each other.

→ Excerpted from Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention. Copyright © 2019 by Donna Freitas. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.