Amherst As Survivor: Next Steps

moby dick whale

Last summer, I sat down with lawyers from the National Women’s Law Center and listed out the ways in which the sexually disrespectful culture of Amherst College made it difficult, if not impossible, for women to have equal access to a full Amherst education. We examined the indignities of the disciplinary hearing process, reporting a sexual harassment or assault, and living on campus with a no-contact order or a settlement. At the time, I advocated for an filing of an anonymous Title IX complaint asking the Department of Justice to investigate Amherst College for violations of federal “best practice” law, the legal standard to which all institutions of higher education must strive. This, was not the course that we, as a group, eventually took. Instead we went to the press, by publishing our own stories of campus culture and testimonies of survivorship.

I anticipated fall-out. I knew that speaking up this way was a risky move – pointing out structural and systemic problems with our college would affect the way that the administration and the student body functioned. We spoke to power in hope of change.

I did not quite expect the scope of what my involvement would entail. I didn’t foresee the campus imploding on itself, the Day of Dialogue , the stream of responses and personal narratives of sexual assault produced by AC Voice writers, guest posters that I encountered as the editor-in-chief of this site, and others through every avenue of communication in and out of the college. I expected policy changes, but not the full-fledged committees, task forces, focus groups and open forums that were constantly emerging on campus last year. I didn’t foresee watching deans and staff people openly cry in front of me.

The construction of a coherent story is crucial to the individual’s ability to function in time after trauma. Traumatic experience creates a repetitive, echoing loop in memory outside of the linear structure of narrativized experience. The paradigm of Freud’s “talking cure,” the idea that you can essentially “talk it all out” to a therapist and alleviate some of the pain of remembering traumatic experience, is based on the idea that the ability to narrate traumatic experience is beneficial to the narrator. To restrict traumatic experience to the confines of language, of words with finite beginnings and ends, allows for an attempt at mastering the endlessness of traumatic suffering. Telling a story about something painful is the first step in, if not fully resolving pain, at least making the pain tangible to the narrator herself by writing it down or sharing it (with a listener or a reader). At the very least the act of telling a story creates a beginning (of the act of telling itself) and an end, thereby making the traumatic experience, which seems like an infinite loop of pain for the traumatized individual, into a finite story, placed in the time of telling. The construction of material from traumatic experience and the state of victimhood works against the sense of dissociation (deindividuation) that results from trauma.

The impulse to narrate is important, but it isn’t everything.

Last year, our campus was made into a collective victim. The dialectic of identity and self-victimization ran rampant, controlling us all and spreading from the activists to the fraternity brothers, the health center, football players and Deans of Students. For months our school was on fire. We didn’t just read and hear trauma, but together as listeners and tellers we experienced and re-experience suffering. We came to un-know our “self” (the identity of Amherst) as a school and a community. Faced with a mirror of narrative, we saw a culture of violence. We were torn away from ourselves; Amherst became split, both as individuals and as factions of activism, conservatism, policy-making, blame and guilt.

In Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab, who returns to the whaling ship after his leg is taken from him in act of violence by the titular whale, compulsively attempts to re-live and re-tell his story in order to master the experience. If only he could find the white whale again — and this time he would win — he would be the master. This exemplifies traumatic reaction; this is the very same compulsive mastery that Ishmael attempts when he tries to tell the story of the shipwreck, the day he was ripped from his ship and spun into a whirlpool of obsessive repetition.

Ahab dies, famously, swallowed finally by the whale that he fought to capture. Ishmael is stuck in his narrative, and becomes literally a character in his own story. The victim of sexual assault who tells and tells and tells and tells will never be anything else, and therefore cannot survive but can only maintain the perpetual status of victimhood.

“As a survivor I…” can only bring us, as a community and as individuals, so far.
I feel like we as a campus, and I as a writer, have come to a limit in our ability to engage in dialogue, to tell a story. We are stuck in the dialectic of victimhood and, at least for the moment, lack the vocabulary to move ahead. While narrativity initially helps us relieve some of the suffering of the endlessness of traumatic experience, we (like Ahab) are still trying to master this action. Thus, we as narrators of experience, as activists and policy-makers, continue to repeat the same mistakes, to self-victimize and fall into a second endless loop of traumatic narrative.

This is my way of explaining why we have to change the way we have the conversation. Trauma should not be a ticket to the soapbox, to the megaphone, to Biddy’s office. The Oppression Olympics have to end if we ever intend to make real changes, to reach across boundaries and misconceptions, to educate each other, to learn to live together.

If Amherst was a victim last year, this year it has to learn to survive.