In 1995, I was three, living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., just miles from where you worked. And in 1998, I began kindergarten at an elite private school in the area, the classmate of politicians’ children. For us, 9/11 was real, tangible, in ways more so than it was for my college classmates in rural Wisconsin.
For us, the sniper attacks, the every menace and threat against the American political and intelligence institutions, were more real than they were to people outside our impenetrable bubble of power, money, and authority. It was something we were aware of as we grew up and began on tracks to follow in parental footsteps, whisked away to Ivy Leagues and state schools to, eventually, join the league of the firm hands guiding the country.
But there was one thing I never thought would be real to me: you. Your story, your life, your choice. I won’t call it a mistake – I won’t misbrand you like that. What happened to you, from 1995-1998, seemed just as you paint it, so vividly, all these years later: a media maelstrom, tenacious, vicious rumors, and nameless maliciousness.
But today, I am that. I am twenty-two, and find myself branded as That Woman in one of the most persisting microcosms of American society – a college campus.
There are, of course, differences. The object of my affection is not the President of the United States; there is no object, merely a string of short-lived flings that have left me shockingly less damaged than the gossip they incited.
It is not merely real to me because I have seen it happen in front of me; it is real because it has happened to me. I never opened my heart, but I opened my legs, and, by extension, myself to a world of unbearable humiliation, self-hatred, and shame. My schoolwork suffered, and after a year of self-harm, I took a semester off from school to let time heal my physical and mental wounds. Nothing much has changed. On a campus of 900 intimately connected students, there is little forgiveness, and even less forgetting.
My shame is not on the nightly news, but it is very real. My tormentors have names and faces, some of whom I know, some of whom I do not. While some of it is verbal, like yours the majority of it goes by the name of cyber bullying. Facebook “campus confessions” pages and their newer incarnation, Yik Yak, joined Twitter in the ring of online harassment. It was an agonizing blow every time I saw my name there.
But my intention is not to regale you with the woes of a coed. It is to thank you. Thank you for not only standing up against this kind of torment, but to thank you for, as you called it, taking back your narrative. Thank you for telling your story – whether it’s what everyone knew or not; for stepping up, even in the face of those who persist on their torment; for ripping off the faded scarlet A they pinned on your chest all those years ago, and making it yours. Because you did, it makes me feel like I could.
We may not have been twenty-two when your life became the center of everyone else’s’, but we are twenty-two now. We know your story in the kaleidoscope of retrospect and change, and for so long it seemed like a distant, unfamiliar, impossible thing. It was intangible, but no longer.
So I thank you, for being the voice. For taking your title, for using being scarred as “That Woman,” to become That Woman Who Stood Up and said, “No more.” That Woman, who took back her narrative. When I was a child, your life changed forever. Now I am where you were, living a shadow of your life, shades of it. When I am where you are now, if I could still be living shades of the way you do, having taken back my own story, I could be at peace.