Sexual Assault in a PhD Program: My MeToo Story

By Susannah Go

This story was originally going to be about why I quit my PhD (the first one anyway; I have walked away from two PhDs in my life), to serve as a companion piece to an earlier article I wrote called “So You’ve Decided to Quit Your PhD — Now What?” But as I began writing, I realized that my story wasn’t serving its purpose. I wasn’t writing about why I left; I was writing a narrative of my entire doctoral program experience — including the time I was sexually assaulted by a fellow graduate student. I had lost the intent of the story, and writing about the assault left me feeling anxious and unsettled. I started to think that writing about the assault was hurting more than it was helping.

So I started over. I couldn’t ignore the assault completely — since that was the root cause of my early departure from my doctoral program — but I omitted most of the details and discussed it only as it related to my decision to leave. In some ways that felt better, but in other ways it felt wrong. It felt like I was leaving out a story that needed to be told, and like I was silencing my voice — the way others had silenced it years ago.

I wondered if I should trust myself and go back to my first draft. Maybe I had started writing that story because deep down I knew that’s the story that I wanted — and needed — to tell. I had changed the story because it wasn’t serving its purpose, but maybe I needed to keep the story and change the purpose instead.

As I was mulling this over, one of my friends — incidentally, a former professor from my doctoral program — shared this article about a Netflix comedy special called Nanette. This part caught my eye (emphasis mine):

[Hannah Gadsby] owns, and expresses, her anger. But she also owns her power. “My story has value,” she says. “I will not allow my story to be destroyed. What I would have done to have heard a story like mine … to have felt less alone.” Laughter, she says, “is not our medicine. Stories hold our cure.”

Hannah convinced me that I have to share my story, no matter how uncomfortable it is to tell. The purpose of my story isn’t to explain why I left. It’s to explain what happened so that other people who were — or are, or will be — in a similar situation know that they’re not alone, and maybe that will make things a tiny bit less horrible for them.

My story has value. I will not allow my story to be destroyed.

My first stint in a doctoral program began when I was fresh out of undergraduate school. I was young, eager, and excited to start a new chapter in my life. On the morning of the first day, as I stood in line waiting to get a parking pass, one of the other students caught my eye. He stood tall with perfect posture, completely still and looking straight ahead. He was a stark contrast to the rest of the people in line, who were happily chatting with friends or looking around like I was, taking it all in.

Later that day at orientation, I was surprised to see that the same student — I’ll call him Liam — was in my program. But my surprise quickly turned to unease as all the new students took turns introducing themselves. Most students offered a fun fact about themselves, but when Liam introduced himself, he told everyone that he was in a bad mood because there was an issue when he was getting his parking pass.

An uncomfortable silence filled the room, and I thought it was a strange way to introduce yourself to your new colleagues. I was starting to get a bad vibe from Liam, and I decided that I would only interact with him as much as I needed to for school — but otherwise I was going to stay away from him.

My time in the program started off great. It felt amazing to be surrounded by people who had the same academic interests as me. I was enjoying my courses, which allowed me to take a deeper dive into a subject that I adored, and I was teaching for the first time. I loved all of it.

Socially things started off great too. The students who had been in the program a while were a great source of information and inspiration, and I quickly bonded with the others over our common experience of being first-year doctoral students. Most of them were delightful both in and out of school, and I was enjoying the new friendships I had made.

There was one woman in particular that I liked, who also happened to be friends with Liam. One day he came up in conversation, and I told her that I got a bad vibe from him, and that I tried to stay away from him. She assured me that he was actually a great guy, and told me that I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. She suggested that I reach out to him because he didn’t have a lot of friends.

At the time I prided myself on being a non-judgmental person, so her “don’t judge a book by its cover” comment stung me. I wasn’t mad at her for saying it; I was ashamed of myself because I agreed with her. I was making a judgment about Liam, and I couldn’t offer a rational reason for it. He had good posture and had made a weird (but harmless) comment; those hardly seemed like reasons to avoid him. Her comment about Liam not having a lot of friends tugged at my heartstrings too. I didn’t have a lot friends in middle or high school, and at times it was miserable and lonely. Because of that I tried to be inclusive to everyone, paying extra attention to people who were often left out. I told myself that the kind and compassionate thing to do would be to take her advice — so I reached out to Liam, and we became friends.

For a while, things were okay. I was doing well in the program, and I was enjoying my friendship with Liam. I genuinely appreciated his company, and it made me feel good about myself to befriend someone who was otherwise a bit of a loner. But soon Liam started developing strong romantic feelings for me, and while I wanted to be his friend and didn’t mind a little flirtation, I didn’t feel the same way about him. In fact, I began casually dating someone else — which infuriated Liam. In his arrogance, he couldn’t understand why I would reject the pure, true love that he was offering me and instead choose to share myself with someone who — in his opinion, anyway — didn’t truly care about me. It was hurtful to me that he was so critical about my choices, but it wasn’t a giant red flag like it should have been.

Between my first and second semesters — over Christmas break — Liam invited me to go to an athletic event with him. He offered to come to my apartment so that we could walk to the event together, which seemed a little odd to me because it involved quite a bit of backtracking for him. But I was flattered that he wanted to spend the extra time with me, so I accepted.

When he arrived at my apartment, I saw that he had brought several Christmas gifts with him. They were professionally wrapped, and when I opened them I saw that they were very nice, expensive gifts. I was surprised and uncomfortable that he had spent so much money on me — especially since I hadn’t bought anything for him — but I accepted the gifts. Liam took that as an opportunity to again confess his feelings for me, and I again told him that I didn’t feel the same way about him.

Then he started touching me — sexually.

I told him to stop.

He didn’t.

It’s difficult to describe the horror I felt as he violated my body. It felt so wrong, and I felt completely powerless to stop him. He was bigger and stronger than me and had extensive martial arts training, so I couldn’t physically fight him off. He was between me and the only exit in my apartment, and he was faster than me, so I couldn’t run away. I was too scared to scream for help — I had no idea if my neighbors were home, and even if they were, they would have to hear my screams, take them seriously, come to my apartment, and force their way in. That would take a long time — long enough for Liam to seriously harm or even kill me. While I wanted him to stop touching me, I also wanted him not to hurt me. That meant not angering him, and that meant not trying to stop him.

So I stood there as he touched me in a state of horrific shock at what was happening, and terrified of what would happen next. I wondered if he was going to hurt me, rape me, or both. And even though I was feeling all of these intense emotions, somehow I felt completely numb at the same time. It’s like my mind couldn’t cope with what was happening, and so it started to shut down.

I remember him saying “I’ll do whatever you want me to do.” But what he meant was “I’ll do whatever you want me to do as long as you’ll be with me,” because when I told him “I want you to stop touching me” he didn’t say anything and continued to assault me. Then I started to have physical reactions to him. I felt like I was going to throw up, and I told him so, hoping that it would appeal to his humanity — that it would make him see what he was doing to me, and he would stop. But it didn’t, and he didn’t stop. Then I began to feel physically weak and couldn’t stand anymore, so I sank to the ground and sat there crying. Liam finally stopped touching me, and he sat down next to me and watched me silently while I cried.

As I sat on the ground crying, I slowly began to trust that Liam wasn’t going to hurt or rape me. I stopped crying, and then Liam said that we should go to the athletic event. I didn’t want to go, but I was still afraid of making him angry, so I went with him.

There’s a gap in my memory for the next several days after that — something that I was later told by a mental health professional was my mind’s way of dealing with the trauma. But my next memories after that are feelings of confusion as I tried to make sense of what happened, and what I should do next.

I didn’t know how to label what happened to me. I thought that “assault” meant physical injury, and I thought that “sexual assault” meant rape. Liam had not done either of those things to me. Because of that, and also because what happened to me seemed relatively light compared to other stories I had heard, I didn’t think a crime had been committed — so I didn’t go to the police. I wasn’t sure if I should tell anyone at the university what happened, since the assault happened off-campus. I didn’t know if they would have any authority to do anything about it, or if they would even care — maybe they would tell me that I was an adult and to leave my personal drama at home. I also didn’t know what to think about Liam anymore. We had been friends before this, and he had apologized for assaulting me (“assault” is my word, not his) shortly after it happened. He said that he hated himself for doing that to me, and explained that when he told his friends that I had been rejecting his romantic advances, they advised him to be more aggressive — that I would like it. So maybe Liam wasn’t a bad guy; maybe he was a good guy who had a lapse in judgment.

For all those reasons — and the more traditional reasons, like I was ashamed and embarrassed, and I knew my character and actions would be put on trial if I went to any authorities — I didn’t immediately tell anyone what happened, other than a few close friends. And as the next semester approached, despite having been physically violated and psychologically traumatized, I thought that I could handle things on my own.

The next semester started shortly after the assault occurred, so I didn’t have time to process my thoughts and feelings before going back to school. I didn’t have space to do it either, since it was impossible to avoid Liam in my classes and around the department. As a result, I spent most of the semester in a state of confusion and anxiety.

Sometimes I thought that I should turn the other cheek, responding to Liam with kindness and forgiveness. I thought forgiveness meant not punishing him for assaulting me, and I thought that punishing him meant doing anything that would make him feel bad. Terminating our friendship would have made him feel bad, hence would have been a punishment. As a result of this twisted logic, I made some attempts at continuing a friendship with Liam.

But other times — more often than not — I was scared of him. A wave of panic went through me every time I saw Liam, but it was even worse when I couldn’t see him, because then I didn’t know where he was. Every time I walked around a corner, I was scared that he would be on the other side.

The feelings of panic and anxiety didn’t subside when I went home, since that’s where Liam assaulted me. I would come home at the end of the day, walk into my apartment, and be face-to-face with the exact spot where it happened. I was also worried that Liam would come back to my apartment — and he did, occasionally. I would come home from work, and he would be sitting on the front step of my apartment building waiting on me. When I was feeling like I should be kind and gentle with him, I would invite him into my apartment and talk with him. But most of the time I was scared. I began looking for him or his car when I drove home from school. If he was there, I would circle the block until I couldn’t see him anymore, then park and dash from my car to my apartment, hoping that he wasn’t hiding behind a bush or a tree waiting to ambush me. Once I was inside, I still couldn’t relax. It was hard to sleep, and I would lay awake at night wondering if he was going to break in. I lived by myself in a ground-level apartment, and he knew that.

Since school and home were where I spent the vast majority of my time, I never felt safe. I was constantly on edge, and it felt like I was in a never-ending panic attack.

So why didn’t I leave during my second semester, if things were so horrible? It’s a fair question, and there are several reasons.

First, it takes energy to leave a situation, and I had none. Yes, staying in the program was wrecking my mental health. But it also meant that I had a job, which meant that I had an income, which meant that I had a roof over my head and food in my stomach. If I quit the program, I would have to search for other jobs, apply, and interview — and that sounded even more difficult than staying. Moving back in with my parents was an option, but I didn’t consider it. I felt as though I would have to tell them what happened in order to do that, and I wasn’t ready to have that conversation.

Second, other than occasionally showing up at my apartment uninvited, Liam wasn’t actively doing anything to bother me. I don’t mean to downplay him coming to my apartment unannounced, I just mean that he wasn’t cornering me at school, following me around campus, calling me fifty times a day, etc.

Lastly, I was somehow making progress in the program. Looking back, I don’t know how. Doctoral programs are very difficult for people in the best mental health — and even more difficult for someone struggling with the aftermath of being sexually assaulted. I was having a hard time focusing and concentrating, and my work suffered for it — but I was still getting by.

As my first year of graduate school drew to a close, I still hadn’t told anybody what happened. But then a series of events happened that changed that, starting with a dinner party. One of the professors wanted to celebrate the end of the year with dinner and drinks, so he invited some of the graduate students — including me and Liam — to his home. The dinner party was going well, and at one point the conversation turned to relationships. I made a comment about the guy that I was casually involved with, and when Liam heard me say that, he stormed out of the party. Soon after that he posted a rant about me on his blog. He accused me of being promiscuous and again lamented the fact that I was choosing someone else’s inferior affections over the “perfect” love that he was offering me. He predicted that I — and everyone else who didn’t have the kind of relationship that he thought people should have — would end up alone and miserable when our partners would use us and then leave us for other people. And Liam wasn’t just furious with me — he was furious with all women.

Liam’s blog post was very misogynistic, and also very public. Several of the other graduate students read his blog, so I know they saw the post (one even defended me in the comments section). And I was glad that they saw it. Liam assaulted me in the privacy of my apartment, but now other people could see his hostility toward me, and toward women in general. And another good thing happened because of the post: it finally convinced me that I needed to tell someone at the university what was going on.

I wasn’t exactly sure who to go to, but I figured I needed advice, so I should go to my advisor. I hadn’t had many interactions with her at that point; she was randomly assigned to me, with the intent that I would switch to a more appropriate advisor after I picked my research area. But I thought that she would be able to help me, and I also thought that as a woman she would advise me better than a man.

So I went to her and told her about Liam storming out of the party and posting about me on his blog. It was an awkward and embarrassing conversation, but I felt like I had to tell someone. I told her that I was felt uncomfortable around Liam, that it was affecting my performance in the program, and that I didn’t know what to do.

I wish that she would have directed me to the women’s center. Or advised me to go to the police. Or referred me to another professor who had more experience with these kinds of issues. Instead, her advice to me was threefold:

  1. Liam had a point about me being promiscuous.
  2. I should have been more sensitive to his feelings at the party and not said what I did.
  3. I should write a note to him apologizing for upsetting him.

I couldn’t believe that this was the “advice” I was getting. From my own advisor. A woman. A mother. Of daughters. I may have been young and naive, but I knew that what she had just said to me was horrible, terrible, catastrophically awful advice. Stunned, I simply said “Okay” and left her office, making a mental note to never go to her for advice again — personal or academic — if I could help it. That conversation left me feeling disappointed and unsupported, and it completely destroyed any chance of us ever building a healthy advisor/advisee relationship.

I still needed help, and knowing now that I wasn’t going to get it from my advisor, I went to the next best person I could think of: my graduate chair. I tearfully told him everything that had happened, and I finally got the help I had been needing for months. The first thing he did was apologize for the “advice” I had received from my advisor. He told me that if I ever saw Liam around my apartment again, I should call 911 immediately. He suggested that I tell my landlord — who lived in the same complex — about the situation and to give him a picture of Liam so that he could keep an eye out for him too. He referred me to the women’s center at the university and advised me to start seeing a mental health professional. He even gave me the contact information of a mental health practitioner that he knew personally.

And that concluded my first year of graduate school. I was still in survival mode and trying to keep my head above water every day, but it finally felt like someone had thrown me a lifeline.

I took my graduate chair’s advice and starting seeing a mental health professional that summer. Talking with her helped me to realize the gravity of the situation. I saw how wrong Liam was to treat me the way he had, and started to realize how psychologically traumatized I was. So going into my second year of grad school, I made no more efforts to try to be friends with Liam. Instead I tried to avoid him as much as I could.

Thankfully, I found some professors that helped me to do that. One of the classes that Liam and I were in together had a heavy emphasis on group work. I went to the professor privately and explained the situation; he agreed to never assign Liam and I to the same group. Another professor was very sympathetic to my situation and did independent studies with me to fulfill my course requirements — that way I wouldn’t have to take as many conventional courses where I could potentially be in the same class as Liam.

I was — and will be forever — grateful for the support and help I received. But unfortunately a few other things happened that left me feeling unsupported, angry, bitter, and resentful.

First, I decided that Liam should be held accountable for assaulting me. I got out my student handbook and read the definition of sexual harassment, and it sounded exactly like what he had done (“unwelcome conduct or behavior of a sexual nature” … “physical conduct of a sexual nature”), so I filed a complaint against Liam with the university. They talked to me and Liam separately, then called me in for another meeting and asked me about two statements that Liam had made: 1) was it true that I had kissed him, and 2) was it true that one time when he came over to my apartment uninvited, I invited him in and made him a cup of tea. After I verified both statements, they told me that what Liam did to me was wrong, but it was not sexual harassment — in part because he had not repeated the “wrong” behavior for a sufficient amount of time.

I was crushed, and I didn’t understand their decision. There was nothing in the definition of sexual harassment about the behavior having to persist for a specific amount of time. The kiss was irrelevant. Since they asked me about it, I can only assume that it was a factor in their decision, which is a classic case of victim-blaming. It’s as though they thought the kiss gave him license to touch my body wherever he wanted and whenever he wanted. And I understood how they might think I wasn’t genuinely afraid of Liam because I had invited him into my apartment, but I didn’t think it should negate all the other times that I didn’t invite him in. The time that I made him a cup of tea, he had walked several blocks to my apartment on a freezing cold winter night and I felt sorry for him. I mentally chastised myself for having compassion for him, and told myself I should have let him (literally) freeze to death instead.

When I asked the university if there would be any repercussions for him, they told me that they couldn’t tell me because it would violate his privacy. But from my point of view, it didn’t seem like there were any. And after that, I had zero confidence that my university would protect me or seek justice for me.

My program also refused to hold Liam accountable for his actions; the head of my department told me that there’s a difference between being weird and being dangerous, and in his opinion Liam was exclusively the former.

Then he asked me not to talk to anyone about what happened.

And then, devastatingly, after I felt that I was not being supported by my university, my department, and my own advisor, an event occurred that convinced me I was not supported by my fellow students either. My program hired a third party company to come in and speak with all the women doctoral students. It was supposed to be a safe space for us to talk about the program and our experiences, so during the meeting I raised my hand and started recounting my experience with my advisor and how that made me feel unsupported.

While I was speaking, one of my advisor’s students interrupted me to defend my advisor. The student said that my advisor had acknowledged to her that the advice she gave me was inappropriate, but that she was confused — she thought that I was asking for advice on how to date Liam.

I was speechless. My advisor had never acknowledged to me that her advice was inappropriate. And I didn’t ask her how to date Liam; I had told her that Liam made me uncomfortable. I was furious with my advisor for saying such a ridiculous lie, and furious with the student for defending her.

That night as I seethed and thought about what happened, I realized I was angry with the other people in the room too. My advisor’s student had interrupted me — a victim and survivor of sexual assault — in what was supposed to be a safe space, and nobody admonished her for doing that. Not the other students, and not even the discussion facilitator. The students in the room were women that I had bonded with and thought of as my friends, but when one of their own silenced my voice, they watched without intervening in what felt like a bitter betrayal.

At this point — with a few exceptions — I felt unsupported and abandoned by my university, my department, my advisor, and the other graduate students. I was of course sad and disappointed about that, but I was also enraged. And being angry did something wonderful for me: it gave me the strength to leave. Being anxious and fearful had zapped all my energy, but being angry had replenished all of it — and then some. Leaving would be hard, but I didn’t care. I had finally hit the point where I wanted to leave more than I wanted to stay.

Had it not been for my own students, I would have left mid-semester. But I didn’t think it would be fair for me to leave them without a teacher in the middle of the term, effectively forcing them to adjust to a new one, so I decided to wait and leave at the end of the semester. I didn’t care that I wouldn’t be receiving a PhD or any degree from the university. I had barely started the program, so I didn’t feel invested in it at all. And I was so angry and hurt that I didn’t consider it a loss that I wouldn’t be receiving any degrees from them.

When I told my plan to one of my friends — a fellow graduate student — she suggested that I at least get a masters degree so I’d have something to show for the time and effort I had already put in. Her argument was convincing, and I was only one qualifying exam away from fulfilling all the requirements. It didn’t seem like that much more work, so I decided to go for it.

Unfortunately, getting my masters degree required getting a signature from my advisor. When I went to her and told her of my plan, she informed me that my grades were not good enough for me to graduate. This was false, and I told her so (there were three paths to a masters degree, and the one I chose had relatively relaxed grade requirements). She conceded my point and approved my plan, but found another way to get her jab in: she told me that my professors would be disappointed that I was leaving, specifically naming one of my favorite professors.

Thankfully there were other professors who were more supportive of my decision, and they did what they could to make my remaining time as comfortable as possible. The same professor with whom I had been doing independent studies worked with me to study for my upcoming qualifying exam. I signed up to do more independent studies with her that were basically just me doing past qualifying exams. I would do one, she would grade it and show me what I did wrong, I would do another one, rinse and repeat. This was doubly advantageous to me: it helped me get in some extra studying, and it lightened my workload since I took the independent studies in lieu of other courses.

Later when it came time to take the qualifying exam, I found out that Liam had signed up to take it too. Not wanting to have to take the exam in the same room as him, I requested — and was granted — permission to take the exam in a private room. This was a timed exam, and the exam proctor — who happened to be my advisor’s husband — was supposed to come get the exam from me when the time limit expired.

Except he didn’t. And by the time I realized he wasn’t coming and found another professor to submit my exam to (the exam was taken in the evening, after most professors had gone home already), I had been in possession of it for about half an hour longer than I was supposed to be.

The proctor had given me his home phone number so that I could contact him if anything went wrong, so I called him. He wasn’t home yet, and his wife (my advisor) answered the phone and offered to take a message. When I explained the situation to her, she told me that since I had access to my exam after the time limit had expired — and none of the other students had — that the graduate committee would have to decide whether to invalidate my exam or not.

I was in tears when I got off the phone with her. Qualifying exams were only offered once a semester, so if my exam was invalidated it would have meant either staying another semester or not getting a masters degree. I also felt like she had essentially accused me of cheating.

Her husband (the exam proctor) never called me back that night, so I went to see him in his office early the next morning. He profusely apologized for forgetting about me the previous night, and when I told him I was worried that my exam would be invalidated, the idea was so ridiculous to him that he burst out laughing. He assured me that everyone knew I didn’t cheat, and reminded me that the fact that I had my exam past the time limit was his fault and not mine.

Qualifying exams take a while to grade and mine wasn’t graded until well into the summer (spoiler alert: I passed and earned my masters degree), but I was allowed to walk in the spring graduation ceremony anyway. With my parents watching from the bleachers, I walked across the stage with my head held high, proud of myself for making it as far as I did despite everything that had happened.

With the exception of my friend who convinced me to stay and get my masters degree, none of my classmates celebrated my graduation. That was hurtful although not surprising, since I wasn’t on great terms with most of them at that point. But really, that was a few drops of rain on a very big parade. I was ecstatic that there was no longer any reason for me to be involved with the university. Immediately after my graduation ceremony, I went to the front doors of my department and asked my dad to take a picture of me — I’m giving the camera the finger. I felt relief and joy at the thought that I would never see those doors again. Not the doors, not the school, not my department, not my advisor, not the other doctoral students, and not Liam.

I was free of all of them.

Or so I thought.

I had lined up a teaching gig for the fall, but had failed to secure an income for the summer. I didn’t have enough saved up to sustain me through the summer, so I started looking for a job. I would have gladly flipped burgers or stocked shelves, but I was having a hard time finding anything. Nobody wanted to hire me just for the summer, and I was competing with all of the other college students who were looking for summer jobs.

With my tail between my legs, I reluctantly went back to my department and asked for a teaching assignment. They proposed that I instead work for another program that was relevant to my subject, but was completely separate from the doctoral program. I went to talk with the head of the new program and said that I would like to be a part of it, under the condition that Liam had no involvement in it. He asked me why, and I shrugged and gave some noncommittal response about personal problems. He was quiet for a minute, then said to me “I think it’s because Liam is making your life a living Hell.”

I had no idea he knew anything about my situation, and I was so taken off guard that I burst into tears. After I stopped crying, he said he would love to hire me for the summer, and gave me his word that Liam would be part of the program “over [his] dead body.”

I am grateful to a lot of people at the university, but I am especially grateful to him. Because of him, my last experience at the university was a positive one. And he didn’t just give me employment for the summer; he gave me a chance to start over. I was with an entirely new group of people that knew nothing about me. For the first time in over a year, I didn’t worry about running into Liam, and I didn’t feel resentment and anger toward the people I was working with. Instead I just concentrated on my work, and doing that gave me the space I needed to start a very long healing process.

Leaving the university felt good, but in some ways it felt bad too. It felt like Liam won the battle when the university decided not to hold him accountable for his actions, and like he won the war when I left. He, of course, stayed and got his PhD, even winning awards from the department.

As angry as I was with Liam, I was even angrier with my program and the university. Not getting justice for what happened to me was a bitter pill to swallow, but their inaction was bigger than that. It put other women at risk, and the women with the highest level of risk were the other women doctoral students. It felt like nobody in my program or the university cared about what he had done to me or the risk he posed to anyone else. It was as though as long as he could do research and churn out publications, they were happy to look the other way.

My anger was intense. Even after my last summer there, any mention of the university or my program would trigger an powerful emotional wave, and unfortunately it happened a lot. I had left the university, but geographically I was still close, so the university was often in the local headlines. In hindsight I should have moved further away to give myself more space to heal, but at the time I didn’t have the energy or finances for a big move.

I expressed my anger toward the program and the university as snarky comments on social media, which made me even more unpopular with some of my former classmates than I already was. They couldn’t understand — or didn’t want to tolerate — my anger. I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t understand.

In turn, my former classmates would sometimes post about the university’s or program’s accolades. It felt like a slap in the face, as though they were taking the side of the university/program instead of mine, and made them even more unpopular with me than they already were.

In a lot of cases we just stopped being friends.

This period of extreme anger and bitterness was not a great time in my life. I didn’t like having such intense feelings, and I didn’t like the person I was becoming because of those emotions. One of the worst parts of the aftermath is that I started suppressing my feelings of kindness and compassion for others. If I had been at one extreme before the assault happened (“be kind and compassionate to everyone, even at the expense of your own safety”), I went to the other extreme afterward (“be kind and compassionate to no one”). When I said earlier that I should have literally let Liam freeze to death, that is exactly where my mind was. Given the choice between letting your assailant into your home or letting them freeze to death outside, let them freeze to death. Because if you let them in, people will use against you and cite it as a justification to not hold them accountable for his actions.

I didn’t want to be that person, so I made attempts at letting go. I wrote countless letters to those I felt wronged me and then threw them away. I sold the gifts that Liam bought for me and donated the proceeds to a women’s shelter. At the suggestion of a friend, I had a “letting go” ceremony where I let go of a balloon, and promised myself that I would let all my negative feelings go too.

All of these attempts were unsuccessful. A few times I thought I was “over it,” but then something would trigger a cascade of emotions that made it obvious that I wasn’t. One of the saddest parts about the aftermath is that Christmas became a trigger, since Liam assaulted me over Christmas break. This was a time of year that used to be filled with joy and happiness for me, but for many years after the assault, it was tainted by sadness and anxiety.

Choosing to forgive was necessary to pull me out of the intense anger and bitterness that I felt for the better part of a decade — but I changed the way I thought about forgiveness. I used to think that forgiving someone meant having “positive” feelings toward them instead of “negative” ones (like, instead of being angry at someone you would feel affection for them instead) and not doing anything to make them feel bad for whatever they did to you. Now I think that forgiveness is the absence of negative feelings. Period. It doesn’t mean that I’m okay with it if they wronged me in some way, or that there won’t be consequences for their behavior — even if it makes them feel bad. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I want to have a friendship, or that I have any positive feelings toward them at all. All it means is that I don’t harbor any anger or ill will toward them.

The first person I forgave was Liam. It was surprisingly easy, in part because the mental health professional I was seeing suggested that he might be a sociopath. We talked about what that meant, and I chose to believe it at the time. If Liam was a sociopath, then I couldn’t reasonably have the same expectations for him that I had for most other people (like, I couldn’t expect him to understand how being assaulted made me feel if he lacked empathy), and that made it easier not to be angry with him. It also allowed me to maintain a pleasant — albeit probably inaccurate — worldview. I didn’t want to believe that people were capable of sexually assaulting others in the absence of a psychological disorder, so I chose to believe that he had one.

It was also easy to forgive the other doctoral students that had been in the room the day my advisor’s student interrupted me. I came to believe that they didn’t say anything because they were deferring to the expertise of the discussion facilitator, and that there was no malicious intent behind their inaction. I reminded myself that many of them were young and naive, as was I, and I may have behaved the same way had the situation been reversed.

It took a while, but I eventually forgave my program and the university. One of my mother’s friends gave me a piece of advice that has stuck with me through the years: “Sometimes you don’t get what you want, but you pave the way for the people behind you.” I can only hope that is true in my case, and that if the same situation were to happen today, things would be handled very differently.

And I forgave my advisor’s student for interrupting me. She most likely felt defensive on behalf of her advisor and spoke out without thinking, and without taking the time to consider the impact of her actions.

The person who has been the hardest to forgive — and who I still have not forgiven — is my advisor. I went to her in a very vulnerable and fragile state, and she responded with inappropriate judgment and horrible, dangerous advice. I have often wondered if her daughters came to her with a similar plea, would she give them the same “advice” that she gave me? I hope not. But her damaging conduct toward me was more than that. She grossly violated my privacy by sharing the details of that conversation — which was confidential and highly personal — with another student. Every interaction I had with her left me feeling distressed, all the way up until I graduated, and a lot of her comments were unnecessary and mean-spirited. Having been a teacher myself, I find her behavior baffling, to the point where I have wondered if she had something against me personally.

Maybe I will forgive her someday. But not today.

When I think back on that time, I try to focus on all the people who helped me. My graduate chair. The professor who did independent studies with me and helped me study for my qualifying exam (if I had stayed, I would have wanted her to be my new advisor). The professor who promised to never assign me and Liam to the same group. The head of the program that employed me the summer after I graduated. The professor — who wasn’t really involved in any of this — who messaged me years afterward to lament how the department handled my situation, calling it a big failure. My friend who convinced me to stay and get my masters degree — which set me down a career path leading to the wonderful place I am today. My parents, whose support for me never wavered. My therapist, who wasn’t taking new patients at the time but made an exception for me.

All of them helped me years ago, and they continue to help me today — because when I think back on that time I can choose to feel gratitude.

This story was not pleasant to write. I started and then discarded drafts several times, and when I finally finished it, I wavered on whether to publish it or not. But I wrote and published it anyway in the hope that it will be helpful to people who were, or are, or will be in a similar situation.

Being sexually assaulted is horrific, but it’s ten times worse when you feel like you have to deal with the fallout by yourself. If you’re reading this and you’re having a similar experience, please know that you are not alone. It can feel that way, but I promise you are not. I, and so many other people, have been there. We have felt the urge to vomit as our so-called friends violated our bodies. We have chosen to not fight back out of fear that we would be hurt or killed. We have been told it was our fault. We have laid awake at night wondering if it will happen again. We have seen authorities refuse to hold our assailants accountable for their actions. We have lost friends. We have spent years filled with rage. We have felt oceans of gratitude for those who helped us. We have chosen to forgive, not because they deserved it — but because we deserved it. We have learned to live with what happened.

We have done all these things, and so much more.

We are with you. You are not alone.

With the gifts of hindsight, maturity, and education, here is my take on things now, more than ten years after the fact:

  • Befriending Liam is, without exaggeration, the worst decision I have made. I don’t know how, but somehow I knew that he was bad news. And instead of listening to my gut, I let someone convince me to ignore it. I cannot emphasize this enough: if your gut is telling you to stay away from someone, stay away from them. Anyone who tries to convince you to do otherwise, even if they have good intentions, isn’t acting in your best interest. There’s a reason you feel that way and you need to trust yourself, even if you can’t rationalize it.
  • Making judgments isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If I could go back in time to the moment where my friend was scolding me for being judgmental about Liam, I would have told my her that yes, I was making a judgment about Liam. And I wasn’t wrong to do it. Making a judgment about someone’s character based on the color of their skin or their sexual orientation is wrong. Getting a bad vibe from someone and avoiding them is not.
  • Other people’s problems are just that — other people’s problems. It’s okay to have compassion for others, but it’s not okay to charge yourself with resolving everyone else’s issues. When my friend told me that Liam didn’t have a lot of friends, I felt a social responsibility to befriend him and pull him into my social circle. And I shouldn’t have. It wasn’t my fault that Liam didn’t have a lot of friends in the program, and on a more general level, I’m not obligated to be anyone’s friend — and I’m certainly not obligated to fix someone else’s social problems. I’m now convinced that there was a good reason Liam was having difficulty making friends in the program, and it’s not because the other students were mean or because they bullied him. It’s because they got the same vibe I did and they tried to stay away from him like I should have.
  • I should not have accepted gifts from Liam; in general it’s good advice to not accept gifts from people who have a romantic interest in you if you don’t feel the same way about them. Even if you have made your position very clear, they might interpret your acceptance as a reciprocation of their feelings, or they might feel that you owe them something. At best you’re inadvertently stringing them along, and at worst you are intentionally taking advantage of them. That being said, the fact that I accepted gifts from Liam doesn’t excuse or justify him sexually assaulting me. Accepting gifts is not consent.
  • After being at the two extremes, I have found a healthy balance between being a kind and compassionate and inclusive person, but also protecting myself. It’s fine and wonderful to be kind, compassionate, and inclusive — but not at the expense of your safety and well-being. Take the time to get to know someone before letting them get close to you. And if you choose to stay away from someone because your gut is telling you to, that doesn’t mean that you lack kindness and compassion, or that you don’t value inclusiveness. It means that you’re being smart and protecting yourself.
  • I looked up the state law several years after these events occurred and learned that Liam committed a crime that night: sexual assault in the third degree. The “sexual assault” part means that there was deliberate non-consensual sexual touching. The “third degree” part means that there wasn’t any penetration or bodily harm. This is worth repeating (legally it may vary from state to state, but I think the state where I lived got it right): If someone deliberately touches you in a sexual way after you have told them not to, that’s a sexual assault. Even if wasn’t rape. Even if it wasn’t “as bad” as other sexual assaults. Even if there wasn’t any physical injury. You don’t have to physically injure someone to terrorize them, abuse them, or psychologically harm them.
  • I didn’t go to the police because I wasn’t sure if a crime had been committed, but it’s not my job or responsibility to know that. Whether to go to the police or not is a very personal decision, but I think I should have gone to the police immediately. Maybe they would have helped me and maybe they wouldn’t have, but for me either way is better than not knowing. It’s unfortunate that nobody at the university — including the attorneys in the civil rights office and the advocates in the women’s center — advised me to go, even after hearing me describe a criminal sexual assault.
  • I should have told the university immediately. Even though the assault happened off-campus, they have an interest in anything that affects, or could potentially affect, my performance as a student.
  • I should not have attempted to maintain a friendship with Liam after he assaulted me. I tried to continue being his friend in a misguided attempt to forgive him, but my reasoning was twisted. Terminating our friendship would not have precluded me from forgiving him, and I should not have worried about punishing him or doing anything to make him feel bad. Liam should have been punished for assaulting me, he should have had consequences for doing it, and he should have felt bad about it.
  • Be careful with assumptions about who will help you. Contrary to my expectations, some of my strongest allies were men, and some of the least supportive people were women.
  • Whether Liam is a “bad guy” or not, and whether he’s a sociopath or not, is unimportant to me. I have forgiven him regardless, and the fact remains that he sexually assaulted me. Nothing about his character or his mental health makes that any less wrong, any less immoral, or any less traumatizing.
  • Remember the people who helped you. Like Mr. Rogers said, look for the helpers in your story. They will be your lights when the rest of your world is dark, and they will have a soft place in your heart when everything else feels hardened to the world. There will always be helpers.

Thank you Hannah, for giving me the inspiration and the courage to share my story. And thank you to my editor Corinna for your feedback on this story, and for your encouragement and support.