I have never been a Dartmouth student.
And I am not a rape survivor.
But I wanted to tell the story of how I came to live in Hanover. It is a small story, and it is not what you are looking for, but it is my story. It is the only one I have.
My story starts in middle school with my first boyfriend. I don’t know why he went out with me, because he didn’t like me very much. He was always telling me that I was ugly and fat and that I had no personality and no friends.
After he broke up with me, he invented a game. The game had two parts.
The first part was what the game was. The second part was what the game was not.
What the game was: he teased me with knives, because I am scared of them. He would wave them around and sometimes point them at me (once very close to my throat) and joke about how I should get in the closet and take off all my clothes. Then he would come up with lists of sexual things I could do to get him to put the knife away. After a while, the game changed to where I would have to do those things or I would have to leave. I was very depressed over the summer when this was happening. Once, I felt so bad I wanted to suffocate myself with duct tape, and I told him. He told me that he would give me the duct tape if I took my shirt off for him. Another time, we played airsoft together, by which I mean that he took an airsoft gun and hunted me while I ran and hid in the woods, and then when he found me, he shot me until I had a bruise bigger than a quarter. He didn’t give me a gun.
What the game was not: touching. There were some rare and minor exceptions: his hand on my shoulder, checking to see if I had really taken off my shirt, because it was dark, because he wanted me to have done it for him but he didn’t want to have to see me naked. And kissing, once, while he stood perfectly still and refused to kiss me back, even though he had told me to kiss him.
Other than that, there was no touching.
Touching is for people you love.
What the lack of touch meant for me: pain.
What the lack of touch means for everyone else: that I am one of the lucky 75%, that I do not deserve to be counted in any official statistics of sexual violence, that there are no support groups for people like me.
“You’re really lucky that nothing bad happened.”
“What you went through was bad, but it’s not as bad as rape.”
“Did he rape you?”
“Are you trying to say that you were raped?”
“I’m glad nobody here has been sexually violated, because that would be depressing.”
“There’s no reason for you to be nervous about having to stand next to him.”
What I remember most is a teacher who had always especially liked me. After I told him about what happened, he was supportive at first, but when he saw what it had done to me, every time I tried to talk to him he would turn away, stiffening.
I am not a rape survivor. I am the girl who never got asked to a dance, but instead got shoved up against the lockers, who was knocked over with my desk on top of me, who was told things like “I can’t believe you’re so stupid” and “I can’t believe you haven’t killed yourself yet” and “some people deserve to be raped.” I am the girl who had people blow in her ear during class, who had people yell at me to take my shirt off, but who never got asked on a real date. I am the girl who, to quote one guy “has boobs, that’s about it.” I am the girl who made it through high school and college without ever once being touched without my consent, or with it.
And then I met my boyfriend.
My boyfriend touches me a lot, and always softly and with care. He hugs me when he sees me. He holds my hand. He holds me at night, and when I am sad, no matter how long it takes to comfort me. He is very gentle, and sweet, and funny, and smart, so smart that he goes to Dartmouth, which is why I am here, because I will go wherever he goes. Not just because I love him, but because he makes me feel safe.
I never thought I’d drop out of college, and I never thought I’d run away from home to be with a guy. I always thought of myself as a smart kid. I gave up a full scholarship. I was a National Merit Finalist and an AP Scholar with Distinction. I wrote essays for fun. I spent my lunch period reading poetry out of the textbook and took five years of Latin. Even out of college, I’ve used my free time to write thousands and thousands of words of essays, fiction, and poetry. I taught myself Henle’s An Outline of Set Theory and I’ve gotten halfway through a class’s notes on combinatorics. I’ve spent a lot of time teaching myself the basic concepts from graph theory, abstract algebra, analysis, linear algebra, and logic, and I’ve dabbled very slightly in number theory, topology, and differential equations. I got an 800 on the SAT II math subject test and a 2400 on the SAT. My teachers told me I could go to college wherever I wanted. Instead, I can’t go to college at all.
I was 18 when I first told an adult what had happened to me, and I was still grappling with it when I tried to go to college. But once I was there, I found that there was nobody I could really talk to about what had happened to me. My counselor accused me of changing the subject whenever I brought it up. My friend wanted to talk to me almost every day about how he hated feminism. The director of the honors program would refer casually to his students as his “math and sciences men” and his “arts and humanities women.” There was also this one grad student who started talking to me when I was a freshman and wouldn’t stop. No matter how many times I wouldn’t give him my number, he kept asking. When I told him I was tired and needed some time to be alone, he’d say “oh, I’ll come with you.” He started auditing my abstract algebra class and it made me so uncomfortable that I just stopped going.
It wasn’t something I could deal with at the time. I was still locking my doors and hiding in the closet when my roommates brought male friends over, still feeling guilty when I visited a friend’s dorm room because I thought I was opening myself up for rape. When I was in public, I’d sometimes have to sit against the wall and with my knees up so I didn’t ache from feeling exposed. I spent a lot of time hiding in empty bathroom stalls, carefully monitoring my paths around campus, and looking over my shoulder so I wouldn’t run into people I knew. Once, in linear algebra, when I looked around and saw I was surrounded by men my vagina started to physically hurt. I’d start to panic in class and the only way I could deal with the feelings was by running away.
Now, with my boyfriend, I feel much safer, but I find myself in a similar situation with college. I live within the walls of a college, but I don’t really go there. I walk past college buildings to get to work every day.
I don’t really think of this town as Hanover; I think of it as Dartmouth. After all, there’s really nothing else here, and without a car, Dartmouth is all I ever see.
Dartmouth, my hometown. Dartmouth, my country, Dartmouth, my world, where I am, but I do not live.
These buildings surround me. I like to imagine them holding me at night. I like to imagine them reaching out to me, saying “come in sometime,” saying “tell us your story so we can listen and understand,” saying “come find a professor you can ask about your math questions,” saying “come find a professor who will let you sit in on a lecture,” “come find a group of students who would be happy to study with you.” I like to imagine Dartmouth saying to me, “let me be your home, let me be a place of refuge, let me help you until you get back on your feet, let me take care of you so that you can go back to school someday.”
Instead, Dartmouth does not touch me. Dartmouth does not want to be touched. As I walk past its buildings on the way to work, I swear I can almost see the brick walls stiffening.
This is not unusual. I am one of the lucky 75%. I am not a rape survivor.
I am just one of the many outsiders at this campus: some of them rape survivors, some of them survivors of other kids of violence, some of them wives and girlfriends and husbands and boyfriends who don’t go here, many of them just people whose stories I have never gotten a chance to hear. You see, violence happens in one location, at one time, but survival lasts for the rest of your life. And dealing with it is not one short step, and not even mostly about prosecution. It’s a long and tiring and messy process that isn’t any one person’s responsibility, but somehow, it still has to get done.
I have never been a Dartmouth student.
But I live here. And I work here. I work somewhere Dartmouth students often come. Every day, I work to make sure that they have a nice, clean, quiet place to study.
That is my story.
It is all I have.