OPEN LETTER TO ANNA

Dearest Anna,

It’s been almost a month since the New York Times’ published itsinvestigation of the many ways in which Hobart and William Smith Colleges mishandled your sexual assault, and in that time Congress has introduced a new bill that relies primarily on stiff fines and strict reporting guidelines to shame institutions of higher education into better accountability. It’s progress, maybe, but that’s not why I’m writing. I’m writing because there’s a picture of you in the newest Times article — in which Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is announcing the new bill into a rack of microphones, and you’re standing beside her, papers in hand, mascara running.

I am writing to you because I know how it feels to stand in front of a room of powerful people and describe all the ways you’ve been made to feel weak. How the tears are not weakness but rage, though no one would believe you if you tried to explain that. I know how you probably stepped up to the mic and almost everything in you wanted to turn away, to take it back, to make it disappear. But Anna, I don’t want you to disappear. I want you to know something: what you are doing is not a mistake; it’s not something to be ashamed of. We need to see your face and hear your voice, but the headline should read: What This Woman Does Is Brave.

It’s true: the Times used your story to shed light on a problem that is so much bigger than what happened to you last September, or what happened to me fourteen years ago, because it happens to women everywhere every single day, and it’s going to keep happening unless we begin making sure it doesn’t. Hobart and William Smith Colleges didn’t simply mishandle your complaint of sexual assault, they failed you. The system is set up to fail you: the misguided orientations, the false promises of support, that perversion of an “adjudication process,” with its near-criminally incompetent panel of poorly trained office personnel and university faculty looking to fulfill a service line on their CVs. 

The injustice takes on a kind of repetition: it’s not fair that the men who raped you were cleared of any wrongdoing; it’s not fair that you needed to leave your school in order to feel safe; it’s not fair that now you are the one whose face we see, the one whose name we know. The men who raped you get to go on living their protected, anonymous lives — their faces, their names veiled by the shadow of a system that wants women like us to disappear.

I want you to understand that this is the singular aim of that particularly savage violence we call “rape” — to compel you to doubt your own worth. And to doubt it again every time “rape” is mentioned in a passing casual way, and each time a rape scene is played on TV, or described in a song, or told as a joke, or reenacted on a billboard you must drive past each day on your way to work.

These reminders will not disappear anytime soon. They have, for centuries, shaped the world in which we live, and though it’s hard to admit, they have already played a role in what happened last September, have already shaped the kind of men who would do this again, shaped the kind of college administrators who would fail so spectacularly again. You are not alone in trying to change this.

Women everywhere have read your story, and are following it with interest, and maybe some of them are only now just realizing they are not powerless: there are things we can all do. By coming forward to speak about the men who raped you and the culture that protected them, by taking action to change the institution and to change the law, you have given another woman permission to speak, to take action, to make change. And she will give another woman permission. And another. And another.

We’ll be stronger than either of us can even imagine.

All my love,

Lacy