Editor’s Note: The following article discusses sexual assault and includes graphic content. This was previously submitted as an impact statement for a sanctioning hearing this fall in a recent Title IX matter at the University. The author's name was omitted to protect their identity.
In the early hours of Jan. 19, 2020, I woke up naked with vomit on my face. I was lying on the floor; I could feel the carpet beneath my left hip and shoulder, which were sore as though I had been in that position for a long time. The room was dark. My mind was clouded, and I didn’t know where I was, how I got there, where my clothes went, or why my cheek was crusted with bile. These questions didn’t cross my mind; all I knew was that I was in pain, and cold, so I crawled across the floor until I felt something soft. I climbed onto it, pulled the blankets over my bare body, and let sleep pull me into darkness.
I woke up again next to the Respondent. I didn’t recognize the room around me. I was still naked, and I was sick to my stomach. He had my clothes, and he had my phone. He offered to drive me back to my dorm, and I let him. What sticks out in my memory of that morning is the feeling of confusion like a thick blinding fog, and a numbness and roundness to my thought process that I now recognize as severe denial. My body took over, and got me back to safety.
Nobody tells you about that feeling. Nobody tells you that your brain will try to rescue you and simply not allow you to think the worst. For a long time, I used my body’s survival mechanisms to convince myself that this could not have happened to me. That the worst must not have occurred. But it did.
The truth struck me in the communal bathroom of my dorm building. As I was sitting in the bathroom stall, I felt sharp, piercing pain. I wiped and saw blood, but I knew I wasn’t on my period. It hit me like a truck, like a hammer through drywall, and the fog began to lift. I understood why I was naked when I woke up. I understood the nervousness and the strange tone in the Respondent’s voice that morning. I understood the soreness between my legs. I understood the source of the blood coming from my anus and my vagina. I understood the severity of what he did to my body while I was either unconscious or too drunk to remember or with so much force that my mind blocked out the trauma. I turned to the toilet and threw up. I needed to clean my body. I wanted to scrub it clean and pretend that I could make it new. I sank down the shower wall and cried as I watched the faint red ribbons of water slide down my leg and into the drain.
Later that night, after calling the national RAINN hotline, I made my way alone to the bus stop. I had nothing in my stomach but half of the Pop Tart my friend had brought me when I told him I needed help. At the bus stop, I recognized the shape of three of my friends I had been with the night before. I pulled my hood up and turned away and prayed they didn’t recognize me, but they did. They said they were worried about me last night, that the Respondent had texted them because he saw alerts on my phone and told them that I was sleeping. They kept asking me where I was going, and I kept saying not to worry about it.
The SARA advisor I had been talking to met me in the ER waiting room. We checked into Pediatrics. The walls and seats were bright yellow, and a younger man was at the desk desperately asking the receptionists for updates on his sick baby. I remember feeling sorry for him. The next few hours were a flurry of scrubs, cameras, swabs, prodding and blue dye. The SANE nurse was so kind, and she made me feel safe while she photographed the tears and bruises between my legs and scraped fluids from my cervix.
From the beginning, while my SANE nurse and the SARA advocate unequivocally believed me, it was made clear to me that those with the power to do something about it probably would not believe me. The SANE nurse needed to take a picture of me for my file, and she told me not to smile because she had seen defense attorneys use that against other victims in court, as though smiling in one picture could discount the dozens that follow it showing bruises and tears and signs of violence.
The Investigator’s Final Report will tell you all about the sequence of these events. My interviews and those of corroborating witnesses will tell you what occurred essentially every minute of the 24 hours between 10 p.m. on Jan. 18 when I went out with my friends, and 10 p.m. on Jan. 19 when I came back from the hospital. But it will not tell you what it feels like to recognize your new identity as a rape victim.
It will not tell you what it feels like to call your mom and tell her you have “bad news.” It won’t tell you what it feels like to hear her voice break on the other end of the line. It won’t tell you how to adjust your study habits around severe bouts of PTSD. It won’t tell you that loose pants and oversized underwear help minimize the pain from your injuries. It won’t tell you how to tell your best friend that he can’t hug you while you cry.
It won’t tell you how I realized my efforts at suppressing my symptoms wouldn’t be enough. For two weeks, I would summon all my willpower to attend lectures that I couldn’t remember hours later. I would come back to my new single dorm on the other side of campus after my classes and it would all come rushing out, the dam would burst and I would choke and sob into my pillow for hours. It won’t tell you that the only way I could bring myself out of these dissociated episodes and into the present was to press and drag a razor into my skin again and again until the pain made me dizzy.
It won’t tell you how it feels to have the people who are sworn to protect you call you weeks after promising an arrest to tell you that the laws in Virginia prevent them from prosecuting your case. It won’t tell you what it feels like to know that if the same thing happened to you in another state, you would get justice. But we believe you, they said.
I wish the impact of the Respondent’s actions could be adequately summarized in a written statement. The decisions he made that night, and the heinous and abhorrent act that he willingly and knowingly chose to commit have impacted every day of my life since. He violated my body. He penetrated me forcefully and violently, inflicting injuries that my SANE nurse described as extreme and uncommon, unlike anything she’s seen in her ten years of practice examining victims of sexual assault.
Nobody stopped me from leaving the bar with him that night, and then the worst happened. Short of me being killed, the worst happened.
The way I live my life and any vision I had for my future have been completely altered. I am left without peace and without stability. I constantly walk a tightrope, precariously balanced between continuing with life and falling into a deep abyss of fear and despair.
I am not the person I was before that night. I have been broken from the inside out, and I’m putting forth a tremendous effort every day to rebuild some aspect of who I am. My PTSD dictates my life. I carry it with me everywhere I go, every space I enter, every person I encounter. It tells me that men are not safe, that I have to cover up and remain unseen and undistinguished or one of them might single me out and hurt me again.
Now, I struggle to make new friends. I struggle to communicate with the friends I have already. I feel distanced from the ones who don’t know what happened to me, and I feel like a burden to those who do. I don’t know how I’ll ever be physically intimate with someone again. When is the appropriate stage in a relationship to tell a new friend or partner that you’ve been raped?
I keep thinking back to that night, if there was something I could have done differently. Would the Respondent have singled me out if my long sleeve shirt had been untucked from my jeans instead of tucked? Would he have raped me if my jeans didn’t have holes in them? Or if I didn’t go to the party that night, or if I didn’t make the mistake of drinking? Maybe that’s me blaming myself for this, as I so often do. Maybe the shame I feel has something to do with the fact that, so far, I am the only one who’s suffered the consequences of the Respondent’s actions.
There is nothing I could have done to deserve this. When it comes to the Respondent having done something so heinous and truly horrible, what does he deserve? What does justice look like in this situation? I can’t say that true justice is attainable, but I know it doesn’t look like this. I was forced to withdraw from the University of Virginia, uncertain of whether I would be admitted into another school, and if I did, whether I’d ever be able to return to a college campus again. Meanwhile, the Respondent was given a degree.
I wrote this statement in multiple sittings, because after about 30 minutes of writing about this, I dissociate, my frontal lobe shuts down and the words on my screen turn to gibberish. I endured this solely to communicate to you just how devastating the past eight months have been for me, and how much I will continue to struggle as a direct result of what the Respondent did to me.
I will carry the title of rape survivor with me every day for the rest of my life. The Respondent deserves to carry the title of a rapist. If that can’t be granted with a conviction in a court of law, maybe it can be granted with the most severe punishment that this process can levy — expulsion and revocation of his degree from the University of Virginia. Today, you have the chance to show me that this isn’t my fault, to show me whose fault this is, and who deserves to face consequences for what the Respondent did to me on the night of Jan. 19.
The author of this impact statement is a former University student, whose name was omitted to protect their identity.