Twenty-seven: In search of Roberta
Roberta McMahon, I’d like to thank you for telling me #IBelieveYou, so many years ago.
Roberta, you were the Director of Student Development and Counseling Services and International Student Advisor when I was a student at RISD.
I see you’re at Butler Hospital now. I’ve asked a group on Facebook to help me find you. They found you on the same hospital site within minutes of my posting. It really is you. I realized what I really needed wasn’t your contact information- I needed support in reaching out to you. I'd been afraid of reaching out. I didn't want to have to dip back into that period of my life, nor the part of my memory that remained fuzzy, to protect me.
I needed to know it would be important to thank you (even though I’ve known it for years). I needed to know it would be only right that you knew. I needed to know that it might be healing for me, despite not wanting to revisit what happened that Thanksgiving.
Somehow today, I know that dark feeling might be lessened if I could share with you how you made a tremendous difference in my life, and I believe- in the life of many others.
Now, as an adult with professional experience, someone who’s experienced misogyny in the workplace, as well as red tape- and when I see that sexual violence on campus is still rampant today- I can only imagine that the process you committed to that fall must not have been easy. You must have persisted. For which I am boundlessly grateful.
Thank you Roberta. I’m going to reach out to you via the hospital tomorrow, when it’s morning in Rhode Island.
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(trigger warning: sexual assault, campus rape)
I have a sinking feeling when the temperature drops. Not always, but sometimes. I stayed on campus over Thanksgiving. I changed after that weekend. I stopped going to class, too afraid to run into the person I'd been seeing and considered my boyfriend- the person who raped me. Roberta called me into her office after she saw my unusual absences from class. I was terrified of everything- including leaving and staying in my dorm room- but somehow I was not afraid to visit her in her office, and tell her what had happened. She had a ministerial quality about her. There was something decidedly New England about her. A woman who weathered cold winters well and didn’t complain about the snow. While her last name indicated otherwise, there was something in her manner that made me feel like she could wear a Puritan name well and do the name justice- like Prudence. Verity. Justice. Constance. Patience. Mercy. Something about her way and her listening eyes told me I was safe to tell her my story. Much of that year is a haze. I don’t have memories from that year, nor many photos of the time I was in college. I got a note in my mailbox some time later. I can’t remember whether it was in a note, or I’d been called into her office. My perpetrator was no longer on campus.
Seeing Emma Sulkowicz who carried her mattress all the way through graduation some years ago, I felt even more shame for not being able to tell my story through my work. I’d been at art school, making performance work about gender and power dynamics, but none of it spoke directly to what happened Thanksgiving.
I have a sinking feeling sometimes when the temperature drops. Because a year prior to that Thanksgiving, there was Halloween. My lab partner had offered to walk me home under the guise that it would be safer. Being responsible kids, the kids in my class waited until Saturday, November 3rd to throw the Halloween party- we’d all taken our SATs that morning, so we were good to go. I remember what I wore. I remember November 3rd. I remember. I feel less crazy that I do remember and don’t remember other details, listening to, and standing by Dr Christine Blasey Ford at 1AM, on my laptop in Tokyo.
Last year when I trained to become a coach, there was something in me that said- we have to speak up about what we keep in the dark. The first day of class, when our instructor asked us to introduce ourselves- our names first and two things the group wouldn’t know unless we shared it- I found myself saying: « I’m Akiko. I’m a survivor of sexual assault. I’ve survived rape. » I was the third person to introduce myself and felt bad for … killing the positivity of that first day of training. But over the course of the next few weeks, I hadn’t killed anything. I learnt that shining a light onto dark places eradicates darkness. I found that sharing my darkness becomes light for others.
This is what I’ve been witnessing post #metoo, with so many people, and this week, with Christine Blasey Ford. Anita Hill before her. Countless, nameless others. Women. Men.
I believe you. I thank you.
Thank you, friends. And thank you, Roberta. Thank you for believing me.