On Trauma, and MIT by ana~
I’m imagining my high school self, and what I would tell her before coming to MIT.
CW: Sexual Assault, Abusive Relationships, Suicidal Ideation, Non-Descriptive Mentions of Homophobia, and Discussion of Trauma
((Some Author’s Commentary.))
This has been one of the harder admissions posts for me to make, but one that I’ve been thinking about writing for a while. I listened to Silvana Estrada’s “Si Me Matan” for the majority of writing this post, which is a song about femicide in Mexico.
Here are two things I weighed heavily:
There were points in my recovery where a post like this could have given me a lot of validation. Representation is important; I often felt alone in my trauma; I don’t want others to feel that way.
Though I know primarily high schoolers read the blogs, many freshmen do as well. I won’t always be around to give advice and mentorship about navigating MIT’s many offices, or explain the things that I learned as a result of trauma, but I want this post to fill some of that space.
Also, I think it’s important and relevant for anyone to know what the effects of assault, therapy, trauma, etc. can look like in their friends. This is a much more personal way, but I think there is plenty to learn.
So this post is intended for everyone, but particularly people younger than me, regardless of your experience in sexual assault. I hope you get something out of it, and I welcome comments of what you took away from reading.
There were points in my recovery where a post like this could have hurt me. My sophomore fall, I was surrounded by my trauma. I remember feeling an obligation to wade through it instead of coming back later; I imagine a lot of people could also feel like that.
Suffering is not pleasant to read. I worry about someone getting halfway through, reaching incorrect conclusions, and clicking out. In many ways, I’ve been desensitized to my own past in a way that makes it easier for me to write about but harder for others to read. I have no measure of how this post will be received (sometimes I don’t feel anything while editing and sometimes I can only get through it in 15 minute intervals). I don’t want to scare someone away.
But also, while I know that I could remove a lot of details, journal entries, sections, etc. I think it’s important to not sugar coat what recovery looks like. I worry about continuing a tradition that I’ve noticed in sensitivity training of addressing an audience of people who haven’t experienced assault. I have been in many workshops about how to support friends rather than how to support myself. A lot of these workshops make sexual assault something palatable. To be palatable, I think this post would need an ending (a justification to all my suffering), but recovery isn’t a narrative and a clean conclusion doesn’t exist.
Making my past palatable would be unfair and inaccurate, to survivors including myself. I am not a martyr; I have grown out of being unfair to myself for others’ sake.
So, while I urge you to read with caution and patience, I tried to write a mostly honest account, even if it’s overwhelming at times. Please take care of yourself before, during, and after reading. The situations I’ve been in throughout my time at MIT are heavy; I have been disappointed by institutions and systems that are meant to support me. Still, the ending is open—not happy, not sad—just some general conclusions I’ve drawn.
I’ve tried my best to balance this post and I’ve gotten feedback from a lot of people before posting. This is why I’m including so much commentary. It’s with these thoughts in mind that I ask:
If you think it’s time to stop reading— at any point and for any reason01 This can be feeling overwhelmed, bored, sad, etc. I won’t know either way. This is also why I added section heads, so that there are natural pausing points to evaluate how you feel and whether you want to proceed. —my request is that you skip to the end and just finish the last section. I say this with the hope that no one leaves this post without my current perspective, since the past is heavier and more pessimistic than the present.
If you’re a current (or comMITted, congrats!) student, I will leave some free, on-campus resources at the end of the article, as well as some notes if I feel like I need to elaborate more. If you aren’t, I’ll list some resources as well, but I can’t speak on how they work as I haven’t personally used them.
(Hair, Take 1)
I’m imagining my high school self, again.
I’ve been thinking, recently, about cutting my hair. I remember loving short hair. There’s a special feeling, after they buzz the hair on your neck, where it’s just long enough to be stubbly, but too short to hurt your hands.
I’m imagining my high school self, and thinking about how different I am from that girl, and what I would say to prepare her for what’s to come. I suppose it’s normal with the incoming class admitted, and graduation not long after.
The thoughts leak out of me, so I’m going to write them.
But first, some context.
(Summer and Freshman Fall)
The summer before my freshman year, I attended a summer program. I got very close to one of my TAs. I would sneak out of my room to see him. I talked to him about my high school, how little labels meant to me, and how I was progressing on calling things discrimination. I told him how I’d had to hide my relationship with my ex-girlfriend.
He and I would break rules that were in place to protect me, though I wouldn’t realize that yet. I felt… anxious around him, but I feel anxious around everyone.
Halfway through July, he told me that the Head TA—his big in his frat—had warned him that the other TAs noticed him getting close to me and were considering going to “snake him.”
He said, “We have to be more careful.”
He said, “We can’t hold hands in public anymore.”
He said, “Don’t worry, but I have to think about my job.”
He didn’t say: Happy Birthday.
The summer ended.
We didn’t establish a label for what we were doing, but I didn’t think I needed one. He was very adamant about the lack of labels, though he said labels meant a lot to him. I could02 In journal entries from two years ago, I used the word “should” here, but that is not a useful thought pattern. I want to point it out, because while the warning flags I’ve written seem obvious, that is only because of the years of retrospect. It is not fair to blame my past self for trusting that someone wouldn’t violate my autonomy.<br /> have taken this as a warning, but I didn’t.
Alongside the anxiety, I used to feel safe with him.
And then. Well, then I didn’t.
He was homophobic, the hate-the-sin-not-the-sinner kind I’d gotten used to in high school. He told me he was glad I was with him because I couldn’t be queer with others.
He was often quite mean to me. (I don’t know when I realized this; I have the journal entries but it’s not good to read them.) He made me feel stupid, reckless—a shush when I was too enthusiastic, a hand on my leg to keep it from bouncing, pinning my arms behind my back so I couldn’t reach out.
There was one night in particular. I won’t go into details.
He was never violent, exactly, but he would hold me down quite often. Sometimes, he would lay on my chest. My breath came ragged with his weight, but I couldn’t move from under him.
I made it into a joke with my friends when they asked why I was scratching at my skin. They couldn’t see the same things I did. I wrote,
- Maybe it was good to have decisions taken away from me because I wasn’t very good at making them.
- I felt anxious, and wasn’t sure why.
- This didn’t feel the way relationships used to.
- I was like a pet to him, there to entertain but not think.
He said I should let my hair grow out: “I like you better with long hair.”
I wrote, what should I change to get him to care for me?
I deleted some paragraphs in case someone came across my journal entries and got the wrong impression. (I still haven’t found everything, but I think it might hurt more than help.)
November 1st (yes, that November 1st), I asked him on a date. He said he’d talked to God during a faith retreat before the semester started; God said we couldn’t date because I wasn’t Christian.
I cried, and thought of it as a break-up, despite him saying we’d never technically dated. I thought of him as I walked on campus, through the infinite, the physics department, the banana lounge.
I was living in Maseeh at the time and wondered, desperately, if MIT—as a place, as a concept—would ever belong to me.
(Hair, Take 2)
I’m looking through pictures, again, despite being surrounded by friends. I come across my graduation pictures. In it, my hair is curly, and short, hitting just barely above my ears. It’s pushed to the side so the ends wouldn’t tickle my eyes. There’s a grin on my face, so wide my cheeks push into my eyes.
The next picture I scroll past is from July—two days before my birthday. I’m wearing a gray MIT hoodie—one that I didn’t take off for months—and have my hair in a half ponytail. I can see the difference those three months had on me. It was strange for me to let it grow that long. I used to argue with my mom about cutting my hair short. She never liked it, said the hairdressers left it mordido and that I didn’t put effort into styling it.
Scrolling through more photos, I watch my hair grow longer. Someone who I recognize as myself looks back at me, but it’s like a reflection in a pond, the ripples bending and distorting my face. Her teeth aren’t visible, eyes don’t crinkle in the corner. And her hair: it’s past her ears, past her chin, past her neck. It doesn’t curl anymore, tangled in her fingers.
And then, my hair is short again. The picture is distorted still. I’m smiling, but my eyelids are swollen too full, the corners of my mouth bent in a weird shape. It’s the type of look that, were she to see it, my mom would ask why I’ve been crying.
I settle on a picture of myself with short hair from my junior year of high school instead of any of those. In it I have cat whiskers on my face as a show of spirit, and my hair is cut above my eyes. It’s from before I changed my smile, so one of my eyes is more squinty than the other.
“I’ve been thinking about cutting my hair again,” I say. One of my friends tilts their head into my lap and my fingers scratch at their scalp, leaving oil from the trail mix I’d been eating moments earlier. We talk about haircuts and whether they’re a religious experience. I notice distantly that I’m pulling at their hair.
“Sorry, sorry,” I say, reminding myself to soften my grip.
(Summer after Freshman Fall)
I let go of the friends I had in the fall.
I joined The Tech.
I moved into a new dorm.
I met my sorority.
I became a TA for that summer program. (My feelings towards it are complicated; much later I described its effects as a bruise.) I knew my ex would be returning as a TA.
Before the first week of the summer program, I reconnected with my old roommate, Sophia, who was also TA-ing. We had training together for classroom management, DEI issues, sexual assault and harassment.
After the first day of training, I read her a journal entry. I’d cried after reading one sentence in particular:
“I’m not sure how much I wanted it before he actually started doing it.”
She looked taken aback, and I worked quickly to dissuade the notion that anything was wrong.
“I’m just dramatic,” I told her.
VPR03 Violence Prevention and Response came to talk to us about sexual harassment at training the next day. The moderator talked about how sexual violence is always about power. Who had more power in your relationship? They played a clip from NPR of a woman describing her sexual harassment. The perpetrator was her boss.
Sophia put her hand on my shoulder in a silent question.
I smiled back at her.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about my past self. I wrote and rewrote those journal entries so that they would sound better; why had I left that sentence in?
I pinned up a pride flag in my room and thought about the previous summer. We spent hours talking about what had happened during my relationship, but couldn’t say everything yet. Sophia encouraged me to email VPR. And yet, how could I?
“Sometimes,” I said, “I feel like I owe him something for being at MIT.”
Eventually that summer, another TA, Stella, came to me to ask about my relationship. I didn’t want to talk about it, so I told her I was in the process of figuring things out.
I said, “He wasn’t very nice to me.”
It has taken me years to feel comfortable with the words abuse, sexual assault, and manipulation. Not nice was the best I could say.
She told me about some of her students, and how they felt nervous with him. He was touchy and overbearing and had been getting uncomfortably close to one of them in particular. After what I had told her, she said, he seemed to be following a pattern.
Before anything else, I hurt. Anxiety dripped down my limbs, soaking into my hands and feet.
(When I was in high school, I used to go to my teacher’s room and lay down next to his bookshelf:
The carpet is surely dirty and speckled with green and blue through its mostly gray. The ceiling has little holes that become constellations if you watch long enough.
The best way to be there is on your back. If you twist to the right, there are books with cracked spines and dog-eared pages and little crescent shaped dents from bumping into things in a backpack. There’s a sign in dad-style letters on the frame of the shelves, put up slightly ajar.
But the most important part is the sound coming from behind the desk. The periodic scratch of a red, BIC pen. Typing, fast and loose. A laugh, coming out like a breath. It’s the most important because it reminds you that—despite the near silence, the numbness in your fingertips, the stars swirling on the ceiling in the rhythm of your pulse—you are not alone.)
I longed to lay on carpet instead of the tiled Maseeh floor beneath me. Stella sat in front of me, still, watching as I processed what to say. She asked whether I would talk to the coordinator of the program. I wasn’t sure, and thus started the long chain of difficult choices.
Eventually, I went to VPR, walking to the door with her. Stella held my hand as we lingered in the waiting room. The moderator from our training came out to greet us, offered me water.
“No thank you,” I squeezed out. I felt too large for the room I was led into, my jacket folded over my lap and hands growing numb. I rubbed at my fingers, trying to get blood flowing again.
In the room, we talked about what consent meant. She explained to me the concept of a disempowered no.
What should I do? She wouldn’t tell me. 04 You’ll see me use a similar phrasing later, but it has some nuance. VPR functions in a way to allow victims to reclaim agency. As frustrating as it could be, especially with so many questions at the early half of my recovery, I know it would have been ultimately worse if my counselors made decisions on my behalf. So while I say often that they wouldn’t, please know that they shouldn’t have, and that the same frustrations allowed me a sense of ownership over the decisions I made.<br />
I went back to my single in Maseeh and drank hot chocolate in a mug my parents sent me from Mexico. I started writing An Important Summary (as it was titled in the google doc) and didn’t stop until my drink had gone cold for the third time.
I read it aloud to the head of the program, disappointed each time a tear fell:
“I tell you this now because I am concerned about the scholars in this cohort.
I’ve been wondering how all the other TAs during my summer had let this happen. Had seen the amount of time that we had been spending together, been concerned, and didn’t do anything. I wish someone had. I am in a position now where I hold influence over the future of my students. I am in the same position my TAs were last summer.
I could not live with myself if I waited any longer. I could not even begin to imagine what I would feel if this were to happen again.”
She thanked me for sharing my concerns with her. She told me she believed me, and that explicit labels like “dating” didn’t mean anything regarding the rules of the program.
During our training, they’d emphasized that dating a student would get you immediately terminated as a TA. After I talked to the head, my ex couldn’t engage one-on-one with the students, grade psets, or host office hours. But he wasn’t fired.
I thought about how we’d get the same stipend when the summer ended. I wondered, briefly, why the head of the program hadn’t reported the incident to IDHR05 The name for the office at MIT that handles cases around gender based discrimination, including harassment, assault, and more under Title IX. the way VPR warned me she would.
(Sophomore Fall, Take 1 – VPR)
Time moved; I started my second year at MIT.
There are gaps in my memory about who exactly I was, but I didn’t connect my identity to my agency the way I do now:
“I’ve been thinking, now and always, what type of a person I want to be. Is it possible to be good at everything? But [if not], how do I choose?
My limitations are clearer to me now than ever before. Living is not easy, but it isn’t meant to be.
At the very least, I know I am growing. Is that enough? Should it be?”
I started going to VPR every week. The moderator moved on to a different office, so I was passed around from person to person. Every meeting, I would have a bullet point list of what had happened to me, why I was there, and what I wanted.
One of the great ironies of being a sexual assault survivor is that, eventually, I remembered the story more than the event; I still do:
- My freshman year, I dated someone who was not very nice to me.
- He used to be my TA. I think the power imbalance might have been bad.
- I wouldn’t call it rape because that’s a violent word, but—
- I’ve been struggling with waking up in the mornings and sleeping at night.
- I’ve always been naturally anxious, but choosing breakfast drives me to tears.
- I’m not sure what I wanted when I was with him. I’m not sure how many things he chose for me.
- I came to VPR in order to:
- Define what happened,
- Go back to the way I was before I met him, and
- “Figure it all out.”
Eventually, I met my VPR advocate for the rest of the semester. Her name was Claire, and she had hair the way I used to. It was a pixie, cut above her eyes, leaving her neck exposed. (I’d cut my hair short the previous semester, but couldn’t bear to get a trim after spending another summer with my ex. His words looped through my head—“I like you better with long hair.”)
Claire had an energy about herself. She wore shawls and signed off her emails with ‘warmly,’ and though her eyes were blue, they didn’t remind me of my ex’s the way others’ did. Instead, they reminded me of my big, Ruth’s (though I wouldn’t make that connection until months after our first meeting).
In her office, the chairs were rotated 45 degrees so that I wouldn’t have to make eye contact when I couldn’t. I often couldn’t, so I familiarized myself that semester with the tapestry on her wall. There was a large circle in the middle, with a repeating pattern and lines trailing off around the center. My fingers twisted against my jeans, refusing to reach for the fidget toys on the table, as I traced the lines on the artwork in my head.
At the beginning of each session, Claire would ask if I wanted tea. I shook my head each time, until halfway through the semester. She asked me, once, twice, three times. On the third, I said, “Actually, if you have any, chamomile please.”
Claire smiled at me, the edges of her blue, blue eyes wrinkling; she said, “It always takes three offers before someone takes the tea.”
She realized what I didn’t at the time: this was progress. I was accepting help, even if I wasn’t comfortable requesting it yet. I took the tea the next meeting too.
(Sophomore Fall, Take 2 – Frats)
After the summer, my students started asking me questions that I didn’t know how to answer: What happened? How much should my ex be held accountable? How much should I be? Who should they trust? Why did this happen?
I felt like I was lying, because there were too many missing pieces in my head. Pages into my journal entries, the narrative stopped making sense.
At the beginning of the semester, one of the students asked if he could talk about me to his ex’s frat. He’d heard about what happened, not from me but from someone else I hadn’t told. Panic spread through to my fingertips. Just how much of my life had spread through that summer program?
I told him, “No, I didn’t want to talk. I needed to take care of myself before explaining the situation to anyone else.”
“But,” he said, “surely if his frat exec knew, something would be done about it.” I didn’t say I knew they wouldn’t do anything; it was my ex’s big who’d warned him about the other TAs thinking about reporting him that summer.
“We aren’t using your name,” he said, “but people should know he wasn’t a good guy.”
“Please,” I begged, “stop talking about me like a warning program.”
After that conversation, I returned to the lounge next to my room and sat with Ruth. We drank chamomile with the handles of our mugs touching, a bag of mandarins open between us. I cried. She rubbed my hand, my fingers cold against her palm.
Another student asked me to talk to the girl Stella warned me my ex had grown close with. She was confused why, suddenly, my ex couldn’t talk with her the way they used to. I faced her on the bed and told her about disempowered no’s. We met eyes and she asked why I was so reckless in my relationships.
“None of the students actually know me, and that’s the real problem. I’m forced to listen as they describe how my experience has affected them. Do they know they too are hurting me?
I don’t want to see him. I don’t want to hear about him.
I am in so much pain. How much pain is enough for people to believe me?
In the darkness of my room, I think I know the answer. But I won’t. I can’t give him any more pieces of myself. I refuse to give myself as an offering to him. I refuse to let his memory take anything else.”
The student who’d been debating whether or not to join my ex’s frat did so anyway, along with six other students to whom the information had spread. Ironic, I thought, that he’d said the frat would do something with the knowledge of my past when he didn’t do anything with it himself.
Later in the semester, as I walked to lecture, I saw their members doing a fundraiser for BARCC, the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. They do that fundraiser every year. My student stopped me, asked if I wanted to buy anything from the table. I smiled back, and told him I was late to class.
There was a joke there, but I couldn’t find it. Instead, I breathed in. My pulse didn’t go down until I laid down on my carpet, next to my bookshelf in New House.
(Sophomore Fall, Take 3 – Title IX)
That semester, I went semi-regularly to S^3.06 Student Support Services I was assigned to Sol, who sat me down and asked what was going on in my life. I told her the bullet points. I’d come to S^3 preemptively, so in case something came up, she would already have the context.
She was a mandatory reporter, and would have to talk to IDHR about it. She asked if I had been referred before. I told her I hadn’t. She frowned and asked, “Didn’t you say you’d told people outside of VPR this information?”
I didn’t understand why she was asking exactly, but confirmed I had. She looked at me again and said, “All that will happen is you’re going to get an email asking if you want to connect with someone at IDHR.”
I asked Claire, when I finally received the email, what should I do? She returned the question: what did I want?
I wasn’t sure. Even after a couple of weeks of regularly talking about it, I didn’t know what to make of the situation. Slowly, I got worse at making decisions. I wrote,
“I’m more sensitive, more uncertain. I’m starting to think this has been affecting more parts of my life than I realized.
It’s been difficult for me to know what it is that I want, not just with the [IDHR] meeting, but everything. I suffer because of the smallest things. It’s a waste of my time and energy most days: What is right? What is moral? What should I be doing?
I feel so guilty about making decisions I haven’t even made yet. I’m so tired of choosing. It’s just hard to make the right choices when I don’t know what those are.”
I made progress at VPR as Claire and I worked through more and more of my relationship. I told her that maybe I did want to go to IDHR; I couldn’t keep wondering what my ex thought about the relationship.
I wanted for him to understand how much he hurt me, even though I knew his harm had been intentional. I reread journals with Claire’s voice guiding me, correcting habits I saw myself forming.
“I’m more sensitive, more uncertain. I’m starting to think this has been affecting more parts of my life than I realized. ← How can I be more generous with myself?
It’s been difficult for me to know what it is that I want, not just with the [IDHR] meeting, but everything. I suffer because of the smallest things. It’s a waste of my time and energy most days: What is right? What is moral? What should I be doing? ← When is it okay to “should” myself?
I feel so guilty about making decisions I haven’t even made yet. I’m so tired of choosing. It’s just hard to make the right choices when I don’t know what those are. ← Why does there have to be a right choice?”
I opened the IDHR email again, and responded. After preparing with Claire, I was committed to going into the meeting alone. I went over the new list in my head:
- I am not interested in taking legal action, at this time.
- I want to know the options available to speak to him with the goal of understanding and acknowledging his behavior.
- I want to know the ways IDHR can prevent him from repeating his behavior in the future.
I walked into the office after my math class. The IDHR director sat me directly in front of her, flipping open a notepad and pen in hand.
“Tell me,” she said, “what happened?”
I went through the narrative, sloppy even though I was well-practiced in it. She asked what I wanted to do, but I only managed to reach the second bullet point.
I left her office an hour after I first came in, my knees bending inwards as I walked. She told me they would reach out with more options, since she wasn’t clear on what I wanted. I kept rubbing at my fingertips, trying to get heat into them again. I had a lecture immediately after, but skipped it to lay on the couches outside my class.
(Sophomore Fall, Take 4 – Course 18)
MIT is a school. It’s also many things besides that, but you take classes. In October, I had three exams, two vocab quizzes, and an essay due the same week; I went to appointments at IDHR, VPR, S^3, and two shifts at my job.
It was too much.
But both exams were on a Friday; if I could just take one of them later, I convinced myself, it would be okay. I messaged Sol on Monday and got approval to get an extension from my professor.
He replied, “I don’t give extensions to students struggling in my class; students don’t always know what’s good for them.” He told me he was available the Tuesday after the exam, and we could go over any mistakes then.
I emailed him again, “Please, could I have an extension?” This time I stressed I was dealing with things outside of academics and the exam wouldn’t be a reflection of what I’d learned.
On Thursday morning, I took a shower and brushed my hair. I tucked in my white and gray striped shirt into jeans and hummed contently as I made breakfast: eggs and coffee. I’d started adding things to my standard meal since I was doing better with deciding what to eat.
It was shaping up to be one of the only good days of the semester.
My professor emailed me back that life was unfair for everyone, and I didn’t deserve special treatment because I was homesick. I hadn’t mentioned being homesick; he assumed I was a freshman.
I usually had breakfast with Ruth, but not that day. Instead, the sun shone on me as I spilled coffee on my shirt. (The stain is still there after two years.)
I thought about how MIT was too big for me after all this time; it was inflexible and unnavigable. And it still didn’t belong to me—as a place or a concept—the way it did to my ex.
I talked to Sol. She told me I didn’t have to take the exam, they could pressure him into giving me more time. She offered once, twice, three times. I turned it down; my life would be harder if he was angry.
I failed my exam.
“I keep thinking, if I were a professor, would I think differently? Why is he punishing me? If I were my professor, I would’ve given myself the extension, even if I didn’t think it was necessary.
I could hardly get out of bed today. I could hardly think about my future. I considered the possibility that everything would be easier if I weren’t alive.
Maybe he wouldn’t have given it to me, but I would have. I want to believe that matters. There have to be professors that exist like me: people in positions of power that know and understand what I feel.”
I went into his office the following Tuesday, bringing the graded copy of my exam. As soon as I sat down in the chair, directly facing him, I turned my face down to look at my hands.
He flipped the cover page over, revealing bright, red marks in my peripheral. He tried explaining the problem but I couldn’t focus on anything other than the skin at the edge of my finger. I pulled back my cuticle, stubby nails letting out more blood than I thought possible from such a small wound.
He turned to the second question. I had taken the full time on the exam, but the page was blank. A tear fell from my cheek. I couldn’t wipe it away without revealing the blood flowing from my thumb.
He told me that he saw me at office hours often. I nodded. He asked if I was working with other people. I was—two friends who were taking his class and an upperclassman. Still, I wouldn’t meet his eyes.
He told me, “You’re doing everything right, so I don’t know what to recommend.”
I bowed my head further forward to hide my face entirely. The tears kept leaking so I squeezed my eyes until I could see little constellations. I couldn’t feel my hands; I couldn’t feel a pulse.
And then, I was in my room at New House, still clutching my thumb to my palm.
I discovered, though, just what I wanted from IDHR:
“I feel buried with the amount of things that I have to learn to live with. I just have to live with it, because that’s the way the world works. As if we don’t have an obligation to make the world just a little bit better.
It’s so easy to forget we have power when we’ve spent so long being overshadowed by others.
I keep thinking about the sentence “As if we don’t have an obligation to make the world just a little bit better.” Maybe this is where my should07 This journal entry was written in response to a prompt Claire gave me: “Why do you think you should talk to him?” This was a recurring wall I ran into as we discussed what to do about IDHR. In many ways, I felt I should because of bad mental habits, and because that was how I felt the “sexual assault story” went. She asked, often, instead of “should” what did I “want,” which helped me regain a sense of self and desire. comes from. Maybe this is why I need to talk to him.
It’s flipping the tables for me to be the one to plan the meeting, for me to be prepared with what I want to say and why. I am in the position to say something to him without fearing repercussions; it’s my responsibility and right to correct him.
I feel like I could rephrase these to more accurately represent what I feel. I want to correct him. I want to reclaim the ability to look him in the eye.
I passed him in the infinite today. He was as scruffy as he was over the summer. I saw him quickly, and felt my chest tighten. I lowered my eyes to the floor. I didn’t want him to see me, was that for my sake or his?
Once again, the question: Do you know? Have you learned the ways in which you hurt me?
I want this meeting to find closure. What does closure look like?
Closure would mean that I could stop searching for his face in every crowd. Stop fearing what I’ll find when I cross the street. Stop holding my breath when I walk along the physics department. It means not having to consider, always, does he know? does he know? does he know?
Journaling like this was very nice. What a relief it is to share the things that I feel I could never speak out loud. What a relief it is to get thoughts out of my brain, and lay them to rest.”
Winter break came and went. I found myself crying quite often. Already, I felt anxiety bubbling up within me; I had my plans—from VPR and IDHR to my academics. None of them came to fruition.
Instead, I packed up my bags, spent my last night on campus laying on a sheet-less mattress with Ruth, and flew to California.
Being at home helped, more than anything else. My parents made it clear that our house could be my home, whenever I needed a place to return to.
But I remembered the previous semester, how I deliberated every decision, standing in front of the grocery aisle, my wardrobe, my fridge. I considered it differently: how many people had found themselves in the same state?
I wrote my first article in The Tech, describing some of the solutions I’d found to that urgent feeling, suspended in time, tired, and distressed. But I didn’t feel better:
“What is the point of waking up? What is the point of doing anything?
Sometimes, I don’t know the answer to those questions.
Sometimes, the answer isn’t enough to convince me.
I have so much to live for. I know that I have to believe that. I know that I do believe that. If I truly thought life had no meaning, I would be dead.
Is this enough of a red flag for you yet, Ana? I know you will read this and feel sorry for me. I know that you won’t be able to understand, from wherever you are in the future.
There is much I love about this world. How is it possible for me to love my life, and feel too tired to live it?”
I considered scheduling something at VPR but Claire had moved to a different job and their staff was overwhelmed.
No one from IDHR reached out to me again, despite agreeing that they would check in before my ex graduated and I lost my opportunity. I tried to pretend he didn’t exist. Late at night, I scrolled through graduation pictures wondering if I would see him in one.
(Junior Spring, Take 1 – A Good Day)
Eventually, we were allowed back on campus. I wrote,
“I have to be careful, I know. I’ve changed, but I’m not sure if that’s enough.
I’m terrified of the future.
I’m scared I’m not going to be enough for whatever’s coming.
Last night, I was tired and convinced myself I had never been sexually assaulted. It happens. I’m not sure what it means that I can’t get past this. Am I supposed to be able to get past this?
I worry, worry, worry. Am I really that different from who I was?”
My junior year wasn’t any easier than the previous, but at least MIT belonged to me with my ex gone.
One of my underclassmen friends asked to go on a walk, at the beginning of being on campus. She asked me about my experiences at MIT and how I’d moved on from my past relationship. At that point, I’d written about my experiences as a survivor, although I’ve always hated that word.
I led her for hours through Boston, getting lost once in a while. I thought about how to explain progress:
“Yesterday, I spent 60 dollars on groceries,
took the bus home,
carried both bags with two good arms back to my studio apartment
and cooked myself dinner.
You and I may have different definitions of a good day.
Flossed in the morning,
locked my door,
and remembered to buy eggs.
My mother is proud of me.
It is not the kind of pride she brags about at the golf course.
She doesn’t combat topics like, ”My daughter got into Yale”
with, ”Oh yeah, my daughter remembered to buy eggs”
But she is proud.
See, she remembers what came before this.
The weeks where I forgot how to use my muscles,
how I would stay as silent as a thick fog for weeks.
She thought each phone call from an unknown number was the notice of my suicide.
These were the bad days.
But today, I want to live.
I didn’t salivate over sharp knives,
or envy the boy who tossed himself off the Brooklyn bridge.
I just cleaned my bathroom,
did the laundry,
called my brother.
Told him, “it was a good day.”
Kait Rokowski “A Good Day”
I wanted to tell her that there is an end to the anguish, that eventually you bottom out. I wanted to lie to her. Instead I told her what I’d actually learned—sexual assault changes you.
When I first started therapy, I wanted to act as if this hadn’t happened; yet there’s no part of my life that hasn’t been tinted. There was never a way for me to get over it. But I’ve had more good days. I know they’re there, somewhere in me.
We got back to my dorm. I hid the wetness in my eyes. I hugged her goodbye. My feet ached.
(Junior Spring, Take 2 – Visiting Committee)
A couple of weeks later, I was invited to talk to the Visiting Committee.08 A group which provides feedback on each department for the MIT Corporation. With CoMM, an advocacy group in the math department, I typed up an Appendix to the meeting of various student issues.
We all wrote our own versions of the problems within the department; in mine I retold the story, only a year and a half prior, of being denied an extension to my exam:
“I share these things and often get told that people are “so sorry” the system failed me. The implication is that this isn’t something that regularly happens to students. I know several others who have had their requests for accommodations rejected harshly, who were doubted or dismissed without any other considerations.
I imagine my professor didn’t know how he had hurt me; he probably sent that email carelessly and didn’t consider how it would be received. I’ve thought about that particular email at least two or three times every semester since receiving it. Sometimes I read it again and think, do I really belong here?
I’m angry at the professors who hurt me, but more than that, I am deeply disappointed that nothing has been done since to improve the lives of students, like me, who faced struggles outside of their control.”
In the meeting, I couldn’t keep my hands from shaking. I’d made tea prior to joining to have something warm to hold, and I set it on my desk.
When we moved to the larger zoom room, I uploaded the Appendix, carefully made, into the chat. The head of the committee pretended not to receive it. He said, “The conclusion I’ve made is that the department is making progress, even if it’s slow moving.”
I spilled tea onto my hands and desk. I emailed the document directly to him after the meeting:
“Though the department might be improving, current issues are still actively harming students, particularly ones in marginalized groups. Slow progress is still progress, but to act as if this is enough is to ignore the many examples of students being harmed by institutions that are doing too little, too late.”
After I left the zoom call, I texted into my pod group chat and asked someone to give me a hug. It was hard to type.
I realized I would have to explain the story to anyone close to me for the rest of my life.
Later that night, I talked on the phone with my co-president in my sorority. They didn’t know everything about the fall, or what happened the summer prior. After our conversation, they texted me a note of encouragement and said, “you’re so strong.”
I rolled that word over on my tongue—strong.
I’ve been imagining you, recently—what I would say to you if I could.
Here is what morning looks like:
I woke up and turned off my alarm to sleep more. I wore pajamas and a face mask to the kitchen, opened the fridge and made scrambled eggs with spinach, Mexican shredded cheese, and mushrooms.
I took out the milk from the fridge, and prepared coffee with the cup that my sister got me. The coffee is always the same: two unleveled scoops of ground beans, four seconds of pouring honey, and a splash of milk. I don’t measure the quantities anymore.
This morning, I wanted something sweet so I made some toast with jam. I didn’t hesitate.
But a couple of months ago, I opened my fridge and saw that there were four cartons of eggs with varying levels of fullness and two bags of grapes. Too much to choose between, I thought.
“There are too many grapes,” I told Ruth instead, and started crying.
I’m imagining you—the way the word “love” came so easily. Loving still comes naturally, but you’ve been reserved about saying it.
Would you recognize me now?
I’ve been thinking about your hair.
I have long hair, but have been thinking about shedding the layers, the ends of my hair curling because a weight was removed. I have bangs, which you never would have done four years ago.
I’ve come to love my hair. Haircuts are a religious experience, but so is having my friend make two slightly lopsided plaits, so is cutting my bangs with the kid watching. The kid is a sophomore in my sorority; she looks at me the way you look at Ruth.
Life is not easy, and maybe it’s not meant to be, but there are many people who love you.
I’ve been debating what to write here because regrets are not worth it. But let’s stop the suspension of disbelief for a second because I’m not writing to a younger version of myself, I am writing to you, my reader.
Here are two facts:
- Much of my recovery involved being physically close to my family, and far from MIT. This was largely due to a pandemic I had no control over.
- MIT was a childhood dream and I would have never passed up the opportunity to come here.
I wish I had been more prepared for what was to come. I wish I’d thought about how I would change. I flinch when I am touched. I can’t always say “I love you too.” I have difficulties making decisions.
But I don’t want this post to be against MIT or attending college. Here is the message I want to give: Institutions that are supposed to protect you (support you, nourish you) don’t.
At MIT in 2019, 18-27% of cis undergraduate women, 7-9% of cis undergraduate men, and 12-19% of trans, gender-queer, or nonbinary students experienced “nonconsensual sexual contact” according to the AAU Survey Report.09 A collaborative project of American Universities which sought to prevent and respond to sexual assault and other misconduct on college campuses. The complete survey report for MIT can be found here: http://web.mit.edu/chancellor/aau/2019-AAU-Survey-Report-for-MIT.pdf. If you’re sensitive to it, I recommend a cup of tea while reading. The lower number in the range reflects a narrower definition10 Use of force or inability to consent due to alcohol and other substances. of sexual assault, while the higher number represents a more comprehensive definition.11 The previous definition as well as coercion and absence of consent.
These results came out my sophomore year. I can’t remember what I answered.
Sexual assault is incredibly underreported, most commonly because the “survivor”12 I use quotations here because I’ve always hated the word survivor when referring to me, but I know that label is empowering to a lot of other people. doesn’t see it as “severe enough”13 This is the most common answer on the AAU report. regardless of the type of assault. It surrounds us, even when I couldn’t see it. After mine, I felt like I’d entered a different world.
The summer after my sophomore year, I joined a student group advocating for survivors of sexual violence. I learned more about how IDHR is supposed to work, and the number of ways it fails victims. The other members had experienced investigations that were over a year long, lost documentation, and were forced to explain what had happened, over and over again, to counselors, deans, and lawyers. I didn’t include these stories in this post because they aren’t mine to tell. I know just how important agency is after these events.
No one other than us seemed to understand just how often systems and institutions function to hurt people. It has taken me years to see it, but it’s there, hidden in all the context:
- My TAs should have reported my ex that summer, but the head of the program should have fired him the summer after.
- I should not have had to exploit my own history to prevent sexual assault from happening again.
- I should not have had to push on my anxiety and boundaries to teach my professors, my students, the Visiting Committee, and more.
- My friends shouldn’t have asked so much vulnerability from me, but I shouldn’t have had to teach them not to.
- My professor should have given me that extension, but he should not have been the end of the line for accommodations. I shouldn’t have had to fear retaliation.
- IDHR should have followed up.
- I should have been allowed the closure I wanted.
This is not a comprehensive list.
There is no advice that I can give to avoid the path that I’ve taken, nor would I want to give that advice. I am not a warning story, and my life is not your future.
And regardless, the only thing we can say prevents sexual assault is if the person in question had decided not to assault someone. Saying anything else is saying a survivor caused their own victimization.
Still, this post doesn’t feel done. I fell in love with MIT when I arrived; it has taken me four years to realize it’s more complicated than that.
IHTFP. I have truly found paradise. I hate this fucking place.
I have ended with that before because it is the only conclusion that I can actually reach. This place is my sorority, my weird friend groups, my communities, my home. This place is that summer program, the math department, IDHR, and bureaucracy that functions so slowly it feels impossible to make change.
This is an excessive amount of context to say the obvious: MIT is a place made up of people.
For anyone who was, is, or will be in my position: I’m sorry that you had, have, will have to be so strong. There isn’t a better description—strength is another one of those words that has taken me years to come to terms with; I don’t always feel strong, and often I don’t want to be. Find the people that help, be generous with yourself, and know that it gets better.
For everyone: thank you for reading this post. I hope it did a bit more to break down the barrier between the world of victims and everyone else.
There is always a way to help others, no matter what position you hold. I have found overwhelming comfort at an extension granted, a meal offered, a hand outstretched to help me up when I’ve tripped.
Don’t worry about this abbreviation. It’s essentially another way to say love, but directed to some of the people who know me directly.
Ana Reyes Sanchez
MIT Specific (Confidential Resources; Bolded are ones I’ve used): 15 The general difference between confidential and private is that only confidential resources will not report any information disclosed about sexual assault, harassment, discrimination, etc. Private resources may be required to submit a report to the IDHR office. For more specific information: https://idhr.mit.edu/supportive-measures/resources/students
- Violence Prevention and Response (VPR) – MIT’s primary on-campus resource for preventing and responding to interpersonal violence including sexual assault, dating and domestic violence, stalking, and sexual harassment.
This is a resource that I really recommend. I think I present a bit of a scrambled perspective, since so much of my recovery was disrupted by COVID, virtualization, and office changes.16 VPR changed from being under Mental Health and Counseling to the Division of Student Life between my sophomore and junior years, I believe. Despite this, I was always able to find an appointment during crises, and I have a lot of care for all of the advocates I talked with during my time. Even now, I find myself reaching for VPR as a primary support when I need it, particularly when I get the wriggly feeling that my problems are trauma based.
- Helpline: 617-253-2300
- Email: [email protected]
- Office: W20-547
- Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response Office (IDHR) – MIT’s central resource for anyone who has experience discrimination or discriminatory harassment involving a member of the MIT community. This office provides supportive measures, resource referrals, and resolution pathways.
Reaching out to IDHR does not trigger a formal investigation or resolution (i.e. a trial, etc.). IDHR also offers various support resources outside of formal resolutions, including switching dorms, managing classes, establishing no-contact orders, and more.
- Fill out an online form anonymously or non-anonymously
- Reach out to the MIT Police to file a report
- All Responsible Employees (non-confidential resources) have a contractual obligation to notify IDHR about allegations of sexual misconduct.
- Emergency Contacts:
- MIT Police: 617-253-1212
- Urgent Care: 617-253-4481
- Dean on Call: 617-253-1212
- Mental Health and Counseling – Provides free counseling to all MIT undergraduate students, available for virtual visits and in-person appointments.
I used counseling through this only for academic concerns (perfectionism, imposter syndrome, etc) and not for trauma-specific counseling. If you’re looking for support after an incident of sexual assault, I recommend getting a counselor specifically trained in that. Therapy, like any other medical field, has different specialties and care strategies.
- Urgent Mental Health Concerns: 617-253-2916
- Make an appointment via HealthELife (uses certificates)
- Student Support Services – An easily accessible hub of support for MIT undergraduate students (primarily used for academic support, but can also refer to other institute resources).
- Email: [email protected]
- Phone: 617-253-4861
- Virtual Drop-ins: Monday-Friday, 10:00AM-12:00PM and 2:00PM-4:00PM EST
- CARE Team – An office whose primary function is to support students during hospitalizations, including discharge and follow-up care
- Phone: 617-324-CARE (2273)
- Email: [email protected]
- CARE Form
- Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC) – The only comprehensive rape crisis center in the Greater Boston, which provides free confidential support to survivors of sexual violence ages 12 and up and their families and friends.
- Hotline: 800-841-8371 & web chat
- Office: 617-492-8306
- Victim Rights Law Center (VRLC) – Provides free, legal representation to victims of sexual violence in Massachusetts. They can serve as advisors to students pursuing Title IX cases.
- Submit an appointment request through their website.
- Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) – The nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization.
- National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673
- Find a local crisis center
- Love is Respect – A national resource to disrupt and prevent unhealthy relationships and intimate partner violence.
- 24/7 Hotline: 1 (866) 331-9474
- Text: LOVEIS to 22522
- Deaf Services
- Native American Services
- Know Your IX – Provides educational resources, advocacy programs, training, and more.
- 1 in 6 – Provides a wide range of information and services for men with histories of unwanted or abusive sexual experiences.
- Link to helpline
- This can be feeling overwhelmed, bored, sad, etc. I won’t know either way. This is also why I added section heads, so that there are natural pausing points to evaluate how you feel and whether you want to proceed. back to text ↑
- In journal entries from two years ago, I used the word “should” here, but that is not a useful thought pattern. I want to point it out, because while the warning flags I’ve written seem obvious, that is only because of the years of retrospect. It is not fair to blame my past self for trusting that someone wouldn’t violate my autonomy. back to text ↑
- Violence Prevention and Response back to text ↑
- You’ll see me use a similar phrasing later, but it has some nuance. VPR functions in a way to allow victims to reclaim agency. As frustrating as it could be, especially with so many questions at the early half of my recovery, I know it would have been ultimately worse if my counselors made decisions on my behalf. So while I say often that they wouldn’t, please know that they shouldn’t have, and that the same frustrations allowed me a sense of ownership over the decisions I made. back to text ↑
- The name for the office at MIT that handles cases around gender based discrimination, including harassment, assault, and more under Title IX. back to text ↑
- Student Support Services back to text ↑
- This journal entry was written in response to a prompt Claire gave me: “Why do you think you should talk to him?” This was a recurring wall I ran into as we discussed what to do about IDHR. In many ways, I felt I should because of bad mental habits, and because that was how I felt the “sexual assault story” went. She asked, often, instead of “should” what did I “want,” which helped me regain a sense of self and desire. back to text ↑
- A group which provides feedback on each department for the MIT Corporation. back to text ↑
- A collaborative project of American Universities which sought to prevent and respond to sexual assault and other misconduct on college campuses. The complete survey report for MIT can be found here: http://web.mit.edu/chancellor/aau/2019-AAU-Survey-Report-for-MIT.pdf. If you’re sensitive to it, I recommend a cup of tea while reading. back to text ↑
- Use of force or inability to consent due to alcohol and other substances. back to text ↑
- The previous definition as well as coercion and absence of consent. back to text ↑
- I use quotations here because I’ve always hated the word survivor when referring to me, but I know that label is empowering to a lot of other people. back to text ↑
- This is the most common answer on the AAU report. back to text ↑
- Don’t worry about this abbreviation. It’s essentially another way to say love, but directed to some of the people who know me directly. back to text ↑
- The general difference between confidential and private is that only confidential resources will not report any information disclosed about sexual assault, harassment, discrimination, etc. Private resources may be required to submit a report to the IDHR office. For more specific information: https://idhr.mit.edu/supportive-measures/resources/students back to text ↑
- VPR changed from being under Mental Health and Counseling to the Division of Student Life between my sophomore and junior years, I believe. back to text ↑