We are all familiar with the phrase to open Pandora’s box. The father of Gods, Zeus, asked for a beautiful woman to be made named Pandora. She was sent down to Earth to be given to Epimetheus. They were soon married and as a wedding present Zeus gave Pandora a box. He warned for it never to be opened, giving the key to Epimetheus for safekeeping. Pandora begged her husband to allow her to open the box, but he always refused. Curiosity soon got the best of Pandora, who stole the key while Epimetheus was sleeping to unlock all that was inside. With the key in place, Pandora’s Box was opened, freeing all the evils upon the world.
My roommate *Anna first confessed to me that she had been sexually assaulted the year prior while we sat at our kitchen counter. By asking questions about her experience, I opened Pandora’s box not only for Anna, but for myself as well. We often choose the easy option of leaving difficult conversations untouched. Sometimes Pandora’s box is meant to be opened. Without releasing the darkness, we would not see the value in light. It is not easy to ask the questions that we are fearful to inquire into, but longingly desire the answers to. I am glad I had the courage to do so.
This is Anna’s story through my words.
Before this, I thought sexual assault only encompassed rape. No one ever assumes it will happen to them.
The summer before beginning my junior year, my mom’s cancer flared up once more. My five closest friends supported me through the roller coaster of doctor visits, surgeries, and treatments. Moving back to school, I was excited to be able to focus on something other than my mom’s sickness. Everyone and everything had become familiar allowing me the chance to excel in my study of communications.
That semester I was required to take a Non-Verbal communications class. There was only one instructor who taught it therefore I did not have choice in who I took. On the first day of class the professor wore a black leather, almost biker-like vest with his grey hair pulled into a ponytail that twirled down his back. I remember thinking WHOA. Appearing older with a larger beard, he had the impression that he was funny and at times, I had believed he was too. His appearance did not mirror his bright personality.
I trusted he wanted the best for us.
For each of his students to take away something from his class besides an easy A. I never imagined his persona would not parallel his honest intentions.
My perception of him began to flip-flop a few weeks into the semester. I began noticing subtle moments. His hand would cross paths with my shoulder or back during class. He would always sit next to me during presentations. Even if there was a more accessible spot, he chose the seat next to mine. He would purposefully bump into me if I had to walk by him. I chose to assume he was simply trying to be nice. I chose to ignore the gut feeling that his actions were something more. Something worse.
Several weeks into October, I found myself in the hospital due to an ovarian cyst. It needed to be removed causing me to have emergency surgery. I took a week off from my classes to recover.
A friend kept me caught up in his class by offering notes for the lectures I was missing, but I still needed to complete makeup assignments to not fall behind. Even looking over the information I did not understand what was required of me to complete his homework so I set up a time to visit his office.
The appointment began with a discussion of the PowerPoints I had been absent for. At first, I sat across his desk from him, but he later moved to sit next to me to better explain the information.
It began by him placing his hand on the middle of my back as he spoke. His hand began roaming across my spine. He kept talking about the PowerPoint. From the outside, I was an icicle, frozen in place. On the inside, my body was somersaulting, but I had come to his office with a purpose. To leave without understanding the information I needed would not help me in achieving the grade I desired. I did not move. He kept talking as his hand grazed my back. I tried to distance myself by moving my chair forward but this just made him move his hand from my back to my upper thigh. My thinking and functioning became nonexistent. He kept talking.
His hand advanced from my thigh to my breasts. My mind could not cognize the sirens every inch of my body was seeking to scream at it. It felt as if a thud then landed between my legs. All this time, he kept talking.
My mind had finally caught up with my body. Alarms began screeching in my head. My legs had been together, but he forcefully pushed his hand between them, groping me. He moved his hand from my legs to the top of my waistband.
He was still talking.
I had chosen to wear sweatpants and a sweatshirt that day because my surgery incisions were still healing. Turning his chair inwards to be closer to me, he lifted my shirt and grabbed my waistband forcing his left hand into my pants.
My mind understood what was happening to me was wrong, but my body failed to react to his actions. I was numb.
His hand felt big and his fingers were commanding. As he fingered me, the one-sided conversation turned to talk of the actions he was performing. He assumed I was enjoying it.
His assumption was not wrong. The emotions you experience do not always match to the biological functions your body produces. His actions I did not enjoy, but my body did. Your body is separable from you. It is your body, not necessarily you, having these thoughts.
At some point, he needed to reposition his hand. This was my chance to control an unprecedented situation. I stood up from my chair with his hand still in my pants. His hand fell away. I swung my backpack over my shoulder and walked out.
It is strange what my mind chose to remember and what it decided to discard that morning. I cannot recall the content the PowerPoint contained. I do not remember how his hand came up from my pants. I do remember the over stimuli of dumb superhero and comic collections displayed all over his office. I do remember the exact words he spoke to me as he fingered me. I do remember the disgrace I felt after concluding I could have stopped his actions sooner. I remember thinking this was not normal. This was wrong. I did not do anything. I could not do anything. My brain said to stop him, but my body had floundered trying to carry out the command.
After leaving his office, I barreled into the hallway smashing into my favorite professor. Papers went flying, but I ignored her walking into the bathroom. I stood in a stall with time feeling as if it was only inching along. I did not know how to be because I could not fathom what had transpired.
I did not know I had been sexually assaulted that morning.
Instead of meeting my friends for supper that night, I chose to walk around my favorite park. My voice and consent had not mattered therefore, I felt I did not matter. I recognized what he did was wrong, but I felt wrong. I wondered if I did or said something that lead him to the conclusion that I wanted him. I assumed I could have prevented it. I assumed I could have seen it coming before it occurred. I assumed I should have known to leave his office sooner.
I never said no.
I attended every class the following day. I was petrified of seeing him, but feared falling behind even more. None of the excuses of why I could not go back to his class held any validity because he would always know the reason behind my absence.
I went and I suffered the rest of the semester.
Sleep was filled with nightmares the first week. What he did and what he could have done filled my head at night. To this day, I believe I am not the only one. I was angry at life, angry with him, and the angriest at myself for not stopping his actions. I never did anything to suggest I did not want what he forced upon me.
A week later, I told the first person. I could not process everything on my own. She was the support I desperately needed. We had been friends since our freshman year and she had noticed how I had closed myself off from the world. I told her sitting in a restaurant parking lot. Not everything, that was too much. Some instances in life seem impossible to relive because by doing so it makes those moments real. By telling her a piece of what I was going through I no longer had to hide. I could just feel.
Slowly, life went on. People say time heals all wounds, but they never specify how much time. Even with days, weeks, and months passing, I did not progress. My life had stopped, but everyone else’s life kept rolling along.
I went from not being able to sleep to yearning to sleep whenever I could. My friends and classes no longer held any substance to me. I wanted to be anywhere besides where I was at the moment.
The thought to reveal what had happened to my parents never crossed my mind. My mom’s disease was difficult enough on both of them. Home was a place where it was easy to hide what had happened to me. It is my safe place where I can be away from the problem, allowing me a sense of relief.
I began cutting myself. With each cut, it caused me pain that was not inflicted by him. My mind had a distraction from the turmoil he had bred within me. Thankfully, my body had an indirect power over my mind, which kept me from cutting myself further and deeper. The scars conjured up emotions of how badly I felt about the entire occurrence in his office. I felt more pain by self-inflicting harm upon myself.
I thought of suicide. Because of my surgery, I had enough pain pills in possession to end my life. An overdose could have been a simple way out. I thought of my parents. I could not bring myself to do it. By taking my own life my mom would lose the determination to fight for her own. Suicide does not take away the pain; it spreads it to everyone else.
I still placed the fault on myself for what had occurred, but as the end of the semester neared, I felt I could finally take action in reporting him. At the time of the incident, he was still my professor and still could retaliate against me while I took his class. Without that being a factor, I found the gumption to tell my Residence Life Coordinator my story.
Nerves created self-doubt in my mind. I questioned if I wanted to follow through in reporting it to my university. My story would be confidential and I would have choice of action. I still panicked, but I chose to fight. I chose to fight for myself. I chose to fight for the possible people before me.
I chose to fight so I would be the last of his victims.
I cried through the interview. My emotional response was met with typing from the woman who interviewed me. I did not feel supported.
I was told I would be called on December 23 to be told what future actions would be taken with my case. I never received a call.
I did what I was supposed to do. It did not matter. I waited for two weeks. No one called. I gave up.
My university did not care about me or the pain I had been caused because of their employee.
Coming back for the new semester, I no longer had him as a professor, but would sometimes see him in the halls. I ignored him, acting as if I never had taken his class and more importantly, had never gone to his office that day.
Time and the sunny weather helped me heal. I do not dislike myself now, but I do not necessarily like myself either. I told myself it was my fault for so long; it is hard to break away from that mindset.
I thought classifying myself as a victim signified I defined myself as weak. Being able to say, “I am a victim” is a daily decision I have to make. True strength is found in admitting you are vulnerable. Refusing to struggle is not where courage lies. It is when you allow yourself to be weak that you become stronger. When you allow yourself to break instead of struggling to keep the cracked pieces together. Sometimes, breaking does not come naturally.
Strength is not earned from always being okay, but in accepting you are not.
I have chosen to grow from this experience instead of wither. I have chosen to not wish to take it back. All the ugliness he pushed upon me, has transformed into something beautiful. It has shown me I can get through difficult situations. It has shown me I am stronger than I ever envisioned. I am less ignorant of sexual assault.
This year I graduate with the expectation in place to shake his hand at graduation.
I have faced him in class, hallways, an elevator, and the grocery store since that day in his office, but I cannot imagine facing him on what should be one of the proudest days of my life. He did not ruin my college experience, but made it more difficult. He did not take all the good memories I attained during my four years. I want to prove to him that he did break me, but that should not hold any importance. I know he did not break me. That is enough.
Anna’s biggest fear in revealing her story is people would view her differently. That they would view her as broken. She feared that people would view her in the way she saw herself after he chose to make her victim. I want to thank you, Anna, for allowing me to express your story through my words. For giving me the opportunity to write a piece that has the opportunity to make a difference. Thank you for being a person who was exceptionally better than I ever expected. Thank you for teaching me that it is okay to not be okay. Thank you for listening to my story while you told your own. For different reasons this experience has helped us both heal. You are stronger than you will ever give yourself credit for.
People fear the unknown. With Pandora opening her box, she released the miseries of the world upon us. Death, disease, poverty, and sadness poured out from the box leaving a straggler behind. Hope. It is disputed whether hope escaped or stayed trapped after Pandora closed the lid. I choose believe hope escaped. After hearing Anna’s story, how could it not?
The final words Anna said in ending her story…
“It gets better. It gets better.”