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.