The Death of Innocence at Amherst College

Avery Stone’s candid piece about the culture of sexual assault at Amherst College

On Thursday night this past week, 300 Amherst College students, faculty and other members of the community congregated at the top of the campus’ iconic Memorial Hill — the “selling point” spot for prospective student tours, with an expansive view of pristine foliage and open sky — in complete silence. A fire burned in the middle of the space, the flames lighting up faces like half-moons in the night. I thought back to earlier that day. I’d been in my music class. My professor had stopped mid-lecture to ask us our thoughts about the landslide of accounts of sexual assault at Amherst that were surfacing. A boy had raised his hand and mentioned that night’s firelight healing vigil, meant to honor survivors at Amherst — he said he didn’t understand why it was happening: Don’t vigils occur in response to death? That night, I looked around at the hundreds of silhouettes in the dark. A boy standing in front of me put his arm around a girl’s shoulder as she leaned into him. A woman next to me wept quietly, her hand over her heart. I found myself asking — hasn’t there been a type of death here, too?

I wish I could say I’m a stranger to hearing about sexual assault at Amherst, but that wouldn’t be true. I am not a survivor of rape on this campus, but have found myself close to many who are — largely women, but a few men, too. My freshman and sophomore year roommate was raped during our first spring semester. Twice. The perpetrator was a socially prominent boy on campus. For two years, I observed my roommate as she navigated her trauma — in her own mind, within her group of friends, and then eventually, with a counselor. As with many of the stories that are now surfacing, my roommate experienced a shaming response from many of the students she told — that she asked for it. But you went home with him. What did you think he wanted? Why did you go back again? She often told me she wished she could take back what he took from her. That night at the vigil, I thought about the first day I met my roommate — putting away her pink and green bedding, an innocent charm about her, bright and lovely. Today, she is the same woman, but there is visible grit in her now. There is immense strength. There is darkness. And most importantly, there is the truest form of loss.

My former roommate is one of the many survivors on this campus who have suffered largely in silence. This silence has come at a price. Currently, Amherst College is a place where women like Angie Epifano — a survivor who bravely shared her story with The Amherst Student, the College’s newspaper — have dropped out because of how both students and the administration have treated them. Amherst College is a place where men who’ve raped have been allowed to stay in roles of power and prestige on campus. This sickens me. But I believe it. For the past two years, I have been an active part of the culture that allows this to happen. I have witnessed many instances of sexual disrespect — at parties, in dorms, even in places as mundane as our dining hall — and have not spoken up until now. But the images I’ve seen are engrained on my brain: a female student telling another to hide her sexual assault because it would harm the perpetrator’s athletic team’s season, the blurriness of sex tainted by binge drinking, men rating women’s appearances as they walk around the corner of our dining hall, women confessing to wanting to take enough pills to make their pain subside. The list goes on. I realize that not everyone is a perpetrator. I also realize that sexism and sexual misconduct are rampant on college campuses around the country. But that does not invalidate what has already happened at Amherst. Even though this cracking of the College’s perfect façade will catalyze change, there are many survivors like Angie and my former roommate who have lost something vital under the care of Amherst College — and no amount of change in policy, discussion, or apology can return it to them.

The following day, I walked back to the spot where the vigil had been and looked out at the mountains. For the first time in a long time, I felt grief. That boy in my music class had, whether he knew it or not, been right. Among all of this iconic New England beauty, these intelligent students, these “lives of consequence” — the College’s motto — I realize there has been death: the death of not only survivors’ innocence, but also the death of sense of self for so many of us here. Although I cannot know what it’s like to have been raped, I often feel that being here causes me to lose sight of who I am. But now, people have begun speaking up — and I will be next. I cannot change the past, and I do not know how to heal. But I know this feels like a start.

Originally published on Huffington Post

—Photo mattjiggins/Flickr

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About Avery Stone

Originally from Providence, R.I., Avery Stone is a junior at Amherst College majoring in English. She is planning on a career in journalism; her work has been featured on The Huffington Post, Fortune.com, and GoLocalProv.com. You can find her on Facebook (www.facebook.com/averywstone), Twitter (www.twitter.com/averywstone), and Tumblr (averywstone.tumblr.com).

Comments

  1. Hi Avery, love this piece and your work in general. I spent many years as an insider in the world of private schools, which has much in common with private colleges when it comes to school cultures that are self-serving and seek to preserve reputation over seeing justice done. In these situations, luck very much comes into play in terms of which schools and colleges have scandals that are exposed, and which, somehow, manage to keep them secret. The secrecy is toxic. The remedy is more people like you writing about it. Great job.

  2. I’m sorry- I’m so sorry, I have a daughter in college……However.
    I read this, I read the “Student” piece, I Google this subject and read of 4 “townies” being accused of rape….
    Where is the culture of rape in the college?
    Allegations are neither arrests nor proof…
    If we were talking about someone accused of__________ wouldn’t we all agree that we’d rather 100 guilty parties go free than one innocent be imprisoned?
    I will monitor this as it upsets me- but my mind is not made up.

    • I think the culture of rape revolves around the unreported rapes or the colleges who will actively go out of their way to cover up rapes on campus. When I lived in a college town (and went to college at 3 different schools there) relatively few rapes were actually reported to the police where arrests were made. When I worked with rape victims (male and female) they expressed much frustration about following the internal protocols set forth by the colleges only to have their stuff brushed under the rug like it never even happened or be marked down as an underage drinking incident instead of a rape if it was marked down as anything at all. And, honestly, sadly the rape culture goes hand in hand with the drinking culture on many campuses.

      But these are not the things that are told to parents when they tour campuses. Or to kids when they start college other than maybe some mandatory lectures about it. It’s just an unspoken reality on more campuses than just Amherst.

    • “we were talking about someone accused of__________ wouldn’t we all agree that we’d rather 100 guilty parties go free than one innocent be imprisoned?”

      When none of these cases make the light of day because the victim is shamed into backing down, ALL of the guilty parties go free and they learn they can get away with it again. So … no. No to every thing you said.

  3. Great essay on an explosive topic…

    My pre-professional advisor at my 7 Sister college put his hand on my shin while I talked to him about my application to grad school….I was in shock….I was always the straight A student, …the one to graduate a full year ahead of the rest of my class…but I was utterly dumbfounded by his perverted action (i.e., taking advantage of his position in power to touch me)…..

    I never said anything about it for 3 decades …I would worry that if I had reported it, then somehow it would have negated my straight A record and stellar recommendations….I found out later that a female science professor had tried to sue him and the college because she did not win tenure despite an outstanding academic record….

    It is sickening how women work so hard to gain academic accolades and men try to take them down by sexually abusing them….

  4. John Anderson says:

    I don’t know what to say. It’s one of those situations where you feel that you should say something, but nothing feels adequate. I feel badly for anyone who was victimized. I think that this is a potential problem with just about any institution. We see the Boy Scouts or the Catholic Church more concerned with their reputations than people who were victimized.

    I don’t think it has anything to do with whether the people in charge are men or women or whether the victims were men, women, boys or girls. The people at the top are usually acting out of concern for their own jobs. What affects the business affects them and I don’t know how you change that. It’s human nature to at least consider your own self interest.

  5. Martin Robbins says:

    As a now retired academic administrator, I have recently become personally aware of the problems faced by male victims of sexual violence. My grandson was one such victim while attending Amherst College.

    Amherst’s response to the assault was far less than expected and required, given the traumatic impact of the event. In fact, I am not sure they even knew how to handle the whole event and ended up washing their hands of it. They tried to turn a serious problem of sexual assault into a drinking problem.

    The perpetrator is either now back on the Amherst campus or will be returning next semester.

    Female victims of campus sexual assault are well aware of the kind of mindless, indifferent and cruel treatment they often receive from campus administrators. Fortunately, this is changing, slowly at best. But for male victims, that does not appear to be the case.

    In this case, the victim, my grandson, ended up committing suicide. A tragic end to a tragic event. In his long note before killing himself, he had this to say about Amherst and how they responded to his suicide:

    “Even absent the natural collapse, the sexual assault was too much. There was no adequate form of preparation available for that, and no repair afterwards. What began as an earnest effort to help on the part of Amherst became an emotionless hand washing. In those places that I should have received help, I saw none. I suppose there are many possible reasons for this but, in the end, I am still here and so too is that night. I hold no ill will nor do I place an iota of blame upon my family. I blame a society that remains unwilling to address sexual assault and rape. One that pays some abject form of lip service to the idea of sexual crimes while working its hardest to marginalize victims. One where the first question a college president can pose is ‘Have you handled your drinking problem?’ ”

    Before his suicide, he asked me whether I thought Amherst would have handled the assault any differently of he had been a female victim. Unfortunately, I told him I believed they would have handled it differently. But, I am not sure they would have done any better if the victim were a woman rather than a man.

    This is a sad ending to a sad story that has become all too common at American colleges and universities.

    • Dear Martin,

      Your insights here are profound and actually brought tears to my eyes. Please know you are in my thoughts and that your grandson’s spirit will certainly help fuel me and countless others.

      While I think fighting back and increasing awareness about rape and sexual assault has positives regardless of gender, I do think we need to stay vigilant about the raping and molestation of boys. You’re right. His situation would have been handled differently.

      My research into sex trafficking truly brought this to light. Many filmmakers I spoke to said, in various ways, that society is ready and primed for feature films about sex trafficking, but not if the victims are boys. The taboo topic garners real-world attention through the horrors of the Catholic Church, the Sandusky story and most recently The Boy Scouts situation. But the topic of boys being sexually abused continues to be something we as a society shy away from or think happens so infrequently that it not worth seriously addressing.

      We’ll get there. I hope you’ll join me in the belief of MLK’s words: “…the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

      ~Cameron

  6. wellokaythen says:

    Covering up rape and refusing to treat assault accusations seriously are simply inexcusable. If there really is a culture that perpetuates rape, that needs to stop.

    My only concern here is all the references to the “loss of innocence.” Could someone explain what exactly this innocence is that is being lost? It sounds a bit like an illusion or a Victorian view of sexuality, but I can’t say for sure because it sounds a little vague. I don’t mean this as any sort of excuse for rape. I just think talking about it as a loss of innocence sends us off in the wrong direction. The idea could even be turned around against the accuser.

  7. Sorry folks- I’m not seeing anything close to surpassing anectodal apocryphal notes in this thread…l
    And then I open the per this morning and see this story of 5 men from a rape culture…
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/28/opinion/sunday/when-mass-hysteria-convicted-5-teenagers.html?ref=opinion

    • But what about when there IS physical evidence linking a perpetrator to a crime? That’s when the victim should have known better, shouldn’t have been drinking, shouldn’t have worn what he or she wore or said what he or she said. Our society protects the criminals and not the victim, even when there is physical evidence. We treat it as a “he said, she said” (forgive me for those cases when the gender is the same) and the victim is the one who suffers the burden of proof.

      We should be careful about who we persecute, but we should also be generous in believing a survivor of a horrific crime that violates a person so completely.

      And I sincerely hope that your daughter never faces such an assault, not just because it is a horrible thing for any person to go through, but also because based on your comments here, any allegations of assault or rape will be just that – not a fact.

  8. As a father, this is my greatest fear!

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