TRIGGER WARNING: the following piece discusses sexual assault and rape on Vassar’s campus.
“Since we all came from a woman. Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman. I wonder why we take from our women. Why we rape our women, do we hate our women. I think it’s time to kill for our women Time to heal our women, be real to our women” —Tupac Shakur
Last spring, I found myself wondering what it would look like if, contrary to science, logic and common sense, the sky fell. This quickly turned into one of those hypotheticals you become momentarily and irrationally invested in. The type you go to lengths to relay to a friend who might wish they understood but might not, nodding and forearm-touching instead. That day, the sky was disarmingly blue, a color that under different circumstances might bring to mind Easter Sunday or tropical screensavers. I cursed a god I don’t believe in for bad news on beautiful days and the sky smiled back at me.
First, I imagined the beautiful blue would freeze, perilously fast and sharp. Icicles would fall until all the blue was in and around our bodies. In the place of the optimistic expanse we had once called the sky would be a hole. An inverted, claustrophobic pit with a discernible height, length and width, though there would be no one left to confirm this.
My second theory was that the beautiful blue would congeal into an impenetrable blanket. It would fall to Earth in one smothering sheet, leaving behind the rectangular absence found under a painting that has been hanging on the wall for a very long time. We would squirm beneath its weight, breathing in a chalky, wet blue until we suffocated.
When I grew tired of this exercise, I looked up and the sky smiled back vacantly. In that moment, I couldn’t recall hating anything more. I resented it for its blissful indifference, but an exhausted part of me envied it for the same. I needed the sky to pick sides, craved the clarity that would come from hating it for being wrong or loving it for being right.
A liberal arts college is a small town. Characters become locally famous, anonymity is all but impossible and lives are unnaturally intertwined. You’d be forgiven for believing Vassar to be better equipped at policing sexual violence. Last summer, our school expelled a former friend of mine. His charges, leveled last spring, ranged from harassment to multiple counts of sexual assault and rape. His serial violence disfigured women I love, maybe women you love, too; it’s a small school. Tall, smart, articulate, charming: the word rapist was also whispered, it still is, but it took our community three years to whisper it with conviction. As I’ve been repeatedly reminded, “he didn’t get away with it.” This is technically true; after three years, he was expelled, thanks to the work of impossibly strong women. But the violence started his freshman fall and didn’t stop. In three years, he forcibly groped me; he harassed, assaulted and raped my friends. You’ll excuse me for wanting us to do better next time.
His violence was widespread in our small town. As our Admissions Office is quick to correct, not just any small town: a highly selective, residential coeducational liberal arts college that consistently ranks among the top liberal arts colleges in the country. They might also mention our legacy as a women’s college. Yet, it took us three years to use the vocabulary we’re ostensibly here learning. The implicating and unavoidable truth is that it took our community longer than it should have. For three years, we lived with a serial rapist. Maybe we chose not to hear his violence, maybe we didn’t know what to listen for. Regardless, we’re confronted with the same conclusion: enough of us were bad listeners when it mattered most. Until we learn from this, it could happen again, in the exact same way.
I was one of those bad listeners. A friend texted me at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning. That afternoon, we met at a restaurant on Main Street because Vassar is a small town. She had been scared in his room, and I could tell she still was as she searched for words to describe an experience she didn’t fully understand. I listened to her as she equivocated and I told her to stop and I wanted to kill him, but not for assaulting her, because then, neither of us understood that he had. At the time, we didn’t have the vocabulary to understand the encounter in terms like non-consensual, coercive or assault. Instead, we drafted a text together, framing her fear as a misunderstanding, and stated in no uncertain terms that it would never happen again. It didn’t, but the text didn’t stop him from violating the women who came next. I don’t let myself forget how relieved I was when he texted her back a few minutes later saying all the right things.
The first challenge facing sexual violence prevention isn’t learning how to speak its language, it’s learning how to listen. “Keep Ya Head Up,” Tupac’s iconic tribute to women, dropped on October 28, 1993. He rapped, “I wonder why we take from our women, why we rape our women, do we hate our women?” Within a month, this poet would be charged with sexual assault. Upon learning this, I listened to that song on a demented loop, hellbent on understanding, and when that failed, witnessing how a man so flawed could ask the right questions so convincingly. I wanted the safety back that Tupac’s sexual assault conviction had robbed me of, however inconsequential it may seem, that Tupac cares, if don’t nobody else care. It took me a long time to learn to listen to Tupac without pushing his history of sexual violence to the margins of my mind.
He was summarily expelled last summer, after an exhausting, ceremonious limbo. The news of his expulsion was relayed in a perfunctory email from the college, curt to the point of rudeness, to the survivors who brought the case against him. A bit about these impossibly strong women. Their identities and experiences are no more mine to reveal, than yours to guess at. Please respect yourself and this community by respecting their privacy.
Now he’s gone and nobody talks about him. When he reappears in old pictures, I’m surprised, as if it’s someone’s work-study job to Photoshop him out. For the most part, he’s explained privately, just as he was handled prior to his expulsion and yet, this happened. Silence can be triggering, too. Yes, few know and there are survivors to protect, friends and former friends, too, with wounds that need space to heal. But if we’re being honest as a community, I think more than a sliver of our silence is an attempt to distract ourselves from the guilt that we let it happen at all. It happened, and no combination of the hundreds of thousands of words in our language can remedy this messiness.
When I stopped listening to “Keep Ya Head Up” on a loop, I started writing this. We live in a world where Tupac was convicted of sexual assault; a world where an artist inspired generations with his words and failed spectacularly to live up to them; a world where a serial rapist preyed on our community and where the sky won’t conveniently fall—no matter the number of injustices it witnesses. When it’s sunny and 85 degrees, the sky has no choice but to smile on what unfolds below. We live in this world and need reminding that, unlike the sky, we aren’t imprisoned by neutrality.
—This article is part of a weekly column through CARES for April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.