At this point, I should be used to seeing backlash against Emma Sulkowicz, but I still wasn’t fully prepared for what came this week: endless tittering of people around me in real life and in my social feeds saying they “weren’t sure” about Emma’s choice to carry her mattress to Columbia’s graduation; the insistence that Emma’s alleged assailant Paul Nungesser had been “proven innocent” by Columbia and exonerated by the NYPD; the posters someone put up around Columbia with Emma’s picture on them, calling her a “PRETTY LITTLE LIAR.”
Every time I read another version of this narrative—that Nungesser merely “picked the wrong friends,” that the complaints against him were a calculated vendetta—my stomach flopped. Don’t forget: before he appealed away the conviction, Paul Nungesser was found responsible for sexually assaulting a woman at Columbia. And I’m writing this because that woman was me.
When I filed the complaint against Paul, I didn’t know it would turn into a national event. It was over a year before Emma started carrying that weight, months before what happened at Columbia helped sparked a national dialogue about rape on college campus. I was just trying to do the right thing.
The incident happened my junior year at Columbia, when Paul followed me upstairs at a party, came into a room with me uninvited, closed the door behind us, and grabbed me. I politely said, “Hey, no, come on, let’s go back downstairs.” He didn’t listen. He held me close to him as I said no, and continued to pull me against him. I pushed him off and left the room quickly. I told a few friends and my boyfriend at the time how creepy and weird it was. I tried to find excuses for his behavior. I did a decent job of pushing it out of my mind.
Then, a year later, a friend approached me and asked if we could speak privately. She told me she’d heard that Paul had apparently raped someone, and that the story had reminded her of what he had done to me a year before. (At the time, I didn’t know that the woman he had allegedly raped was Emma, although I eventually found out: several friends who didn’t know about my incident with Paul told me as word spread and the weeks went on.)
My friend gave me the name and number of someone at Columbia I could talk to if I wanted to file a complaint. I wondered if what had happened between me and Paul was really sexual assault: there was no penetration, I had no bruises, I got away. But Columbia defines “Sexual Assault—Non-Consensual Sexual Contact” as “Any intentional sexual touching, however slight, with any object without a person’s consent.” That is exactly what happened to me, and so I decided to file a complaint.
There is a narrative spreading that pins me as “Friend of Mattress Girl,” filing a sexual assault complaint as part of a weird collusion among girlfriends. This narrative is entirely false. At the time, Emma and I were friendly; however, we were never friends. We had never hung out one-on-one and I’d never had her number in my phone. I also never knew the identity of Paul’s ex-girlfriend, who also filed a complaint against him, until two separate reporters let her name slip while interviewing me—assuming, maybe, that I knew her. But I didn’t. I still don’t even know what she looks like or what her last name is.
In filing my complaint, I followed all of Columbia’s rules: I didn’t talk about the case (except to my parents, who were concerned and supportive), I didn’t try to change any of the dates or times of the interviews or trials (unlike Paul, who asked them to hold the trial off for months while he was in Europe for the summer), and I provided them with names of people I had talked to about what happened. I went through the trial, which was horrible and draining; I watched him, through a live TV feed, act baffled and perplexed about groping me. Columbia found him responsible. I felt vindicated: the system had worked.
Then, a while later, I was notified that Paul had been granted an appeal to re-try the case. I was asked to cooperate in preparing for another trial: I’d have to tell my story to a bunch of strangers again, I’d see Paul again. I’d write another opening and closing statement with the help of my sister, who is a lawyer (I hadn’t hired one, unlike Paul). I had just started my first full-time paid gig as A Real Adult, and now I was supposed to spend considerable time and energy fighting a case I had already fought—and won. But I tried to follow through with the process, until I started feeling frustrated beyond belief with Columbia’s incompetence: they kept doing things like calling me in the middle of the day at work to talk about a sexual assault. Eventually, I withdrew from the process. Why should I trust a system that had given my assailant another chance? Without any of my previous testimony allowed to be used at the trial, he won. I wasn’t surprised.
Since then, I’ve spent so much time and energy just trying to hold onto my narrative and my truth without making a demonstration out of it (I support Emma, but I am not Emma). I’ve been contacted by reporters—The New York Post, Al-Jazeera, The New York Times, The Daily Beast—when I’ve never reached out to them or made my name public. I have carefully, begrudgingly given anonymous interviews when I felt like someone needed to hear the non-Emma side of things. After all, the University found him responsible in my case. Everyone seems to forget that.
And still, I’ve been totally inaccurately portrayed, most notably by Cathy Young, in a Daily Beast piece. Setting her misrepresentation of me aside for a moment, the piece is still mostly trash: she publishes line after line of Emma’s Facebook chats with Paul without adding even one sentence about how rape victims can act cordial and even friendly to their rapists after an attack, which is often surprising to people who aren’t familiar with sexual assault. She also spent entire paragraphs quoting Paul’s parents’ perspective; unsurprisingly, they don’t think their son is a rapist (and if she ever asked them about how he had been found initially responsible in my case, that part never made it to the final piece).
And then, having already decided to be petty and publish screengrabs of correspondence between college students as “evidence” of something meaningful, Cathy Young took an email I sent completely out of context and published it as an implication of—what? I’m still not sure. But I had no way of fighting back, because I wanted to stay anonymous and was afraid she might publish my name, and it’s pointless to communicate with a journalist who thinks you’re lying from the get-go—even before you updog her. Sorry about that, Cathy.
I’ve also outed myself to random men, like coworkers, friends, and acquaintances, when I hear them talking about Emma and doubting her story. (With one exception, in my personal experience, it’s always men that doubt Emma’s story.) When they hear what happened to me, they look uncomfortable and surprised. They back down, at least to my face, and admit they don’t know all the details.
If you’re reading this and doubting Emma—if you’re reading this and doubting me—please ask yourself why I’m taking the time to write this. Ask yourself why I filed a complaint against someone I had considered a friendly acquaintance (before my assault). Ask yourself why four unrelated people have taken the time and energy to come forward and file complaints against him. Read Jon Krakauer’s Missoula. Get outside what happened on Columbia’s campus. Try to realize that our stories are everywhere, on every campus, and we’re not all activists like Emma or unreliable sources like Jackie. Some of us are quiet about our stories even if we’re completely sure.
And, after all, it’s safer to be quiet. The reason I’m writing this anonymously is because of what happens to people like Emma, who speak out. Their names are plastered on disgusting posters on their graduation day. They’re inundated with violent threats and graphic comments every time they log into their email and check their Facebook. They’re forever associated with something that happened to them; not their achievements or accomplishments or talents. When I was younger, I naively hoped maybe one day I’d write a book noteworthy enough to make it into The New York Times. The first time my words were printed in The Times, they were anonymous, and they were about someone who had sexually assaulted me. I’m glad I’ve made the decision to decline interviews and stay small and quiet, but, simultaneously, I’m so proud of Emma for showing her face and sending a message. She has a particular kind of strength that I do not, and that’s okay. Maybe by writing this and risking having my name out there—and realizing that telling my story is worth that risk—I’m getting a little stronger.
But even if you don’t believe me, I don’t care. I didn’t report him for you. I reported him because it was the right thing to do. And if I’ve protected even one person from him, it’s been worth it.
Photo via Twitter.