Like many of you in the Dayton area, I’ve been talking and thinking a lot about the Stanford rape case involving Brock Allen Turner, who last month was convicted of three felonies stemming from a sexual assault in January 2015. Two people saw the sexual assault and intervened. Here’s one of them describing what he saw:
“She was unconscious. The entire time. I checked her and she didn’t move at all,” Carl-Fredrik Arndt said.
Arndt and his friend later told authorities that they saw Turner on top of the victim “aggressively thrusting his hips into her.”
“The guy stood up then we saw she wasn’t moving still. So we called him out on it. And the guy ran away, my friend Peter chased after him,” Arndt said.
The anonymous victim described in detail what the assault has done to her life in a statement she read to Turner in the courtroom last week, where Turner was sentenced to six months in county jail and probation. Please read her statement in its entirety. Here’s just a portion of it, where she describes the dizzying reality of surviving a brutal assault only to face the emotional trauma of a trial.
“I was not only told that I was assaulted, I was told that because I couldn’t remember, I technically could not prove it was unwanted. And that distorted me, damaged me, almost broke me. It is the saddest type of confusion to be told I was assaulted and nearly raped, blatantly out in the open, but we don’t know if it counts as assault yet. I had to fight for an entire year to make it clear that there was something wrong with this situation.”
My great shame is that I only tangentially paid attention to any of this until this week. The initial news reports about the case itself; the coverage of the trial; and even the sentencing all receded into the background. Whenever I’ve had the misfortune of losing someone close to me in my life, I’ve thought at the funerals that death feels like a thing that should be national news. This person was a giant in my life, I thought, and so everyone should be mourning along with me.
I imagine that’s how the victim and the victim’s family must have been feeling. How could anyone not care deeply about this trial? About her body and soul, torn asunder beneath a predator? How could I not stop and focus on the news story? And how had I let it recede into the background noise of an election cycle, keeping a small business running, and working on client training programs?
Earlier this week a local woman I respect posted a negative message to Twitter about the local band, Good English. That same day my Twitter feed had references past which I scrolled about a “childhood friend” writing a despicable letter to the case’s judge in Turner’s defense. I remember thinking as I scrolled past these messages something along the lines of “what kind of asshole writes something like that?”
As I was preparing for bed I did a modicum of searching and found the connection between that negative Twitter message and the rape case: Leslie Rasmussen, the talented drummer for Good English, had written the letter. Here’s one of the more disturbing parts of what she wrote:
“I don’t think it’s fair to base the fate of the next ten + years of his life on the decision of a girl who doesn’t remember anything but the amount she drank to press charges against him. I am not blaming her directly for this, because that isn’t right. But where do we draw the line and stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists.”
I know Leslie a little bit. I’ve seen her band perform, I’ve purchased her music, and I’ve tried to talk about Good English publicly to whatever meager following I have. I was proud of what she and her sisters had built.
Now I’m disappointed and angry. But I’m also grappling with my initial “what an asshole” reaction and juxtaposing it with the acquaintance I know from around town.
My Own Ignorance
When I was in high school MTV came to town to shoot a pilot episode of a teenage roundtable touching on a range of topics. I was chosen to participate, and I was excited to have the chance to prove how smart I was, and maybe I was even more excited to meet John Norris, the famous MTV newsman who moderated the discussion.
I don’t remember a lot about the taping, but I’ve been bothered for decades now about an answer I gave to a question about homosexuality. I didn’t quite say God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, but believe me when I tell you the sentiment was damn near close to that. My answer to the question–I don’t even remember what Norris asked, to be honest–was delivered with the certitude only a teenager can summon. I was ignorant, close-minded, and unaware of how much of the world I had yet to experience.
I don’t know if that episode ever ran on television (I think maybe local public access?), and no one in my circle of the world would have criticized me for having the views on gay people that I did.
In 1994 I graduated from high school and went on to Ohio State, where I encountered a greater diversity of people than I had ever experienced. I took an office job with the Honors and Scholars Center, and I was surrounded for the first time with openly gay students, most of whom where better read, smarter, more worldly, and more open-minded than me. I was confronted with my own ignorance, and I felt shame.
I worked through it. I asked questions. I got smarter. I became a better person. More empathetic. More open-minded. I moved to cities with large openly gay populations and formed friendships with people I once would have described as “making a lifestyle choice.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about my own evolutionary process as I’ve digested the news and Leslie’s connection to it. And I’ve been thinking a lot about how I might have been treated in the social media universe had I been in a famous local band and espoused the homophobia that I expressed in that MTV roundtable. Maybe, though, I’m most disturbed that even after all these years my empathy still seems to have startling and inexcusable blind spots.
Empathy for Others: Personal Experience Isn’t Necessary
I wonder about the men, like me, who scroll past the campus rape story. One of my favorite columnists is Alyssa Rosenberg, who writes for the Washington Post. She wrote a column last year called “Why are men still surprised when they learn about rape?” It was a review of John Krakauer’s “Missoula,” a book about a series of college town sexual assaults. Krakauer writes near the end of the book that “As the scope of my research expanded, I was stunned to discover that many of my acquaintances, and even several women in my own family, had been sexually assaulted by men they trusted.”
About that quote, Rosenberg writes this–she might as well have been writing it directly to me:
“I appreciate that Krakauer has worked to educate himself. But Krakauer’s good intentions have produced a bad book. ‘Missoula’ recaps a number of rape cases in detail. But Krakauer doesn’t answer the obvious question raised by this admission at the end of the book: How could it be that a smart, worldly journalist knew so little about sexual assault?”
Since reading that column I’ve tried my best to educate myself, once again. I’ve followed feminist writers on Twitter, digested bell hooks, and worked every day to include gender as a key ingredient in my worldview. This process has undeniably made me a better person, a better trainer, and a better husband. Even after all that work I largely ignored this rape case. How empathetic am I really?
I’m left wondering whether the anonymous victim will ever find solace with her own body again. And I find myself hoping that Leslie will find the space in the midst of this maelstrom to learn and grow and find empathy for the millions of women who’ve been sexually assaulted. I was an ignorant kid when I did that MTV roundtable, but I was able to work on developing my own empathy away from the spotlight. She doesn’t have that luxury, and in many ways that’s beside the point. She must learn, get smarter, and develop her empathy, perhaps most especially for people she doesn’t know.
My days of bragging about the cool local band are behind me. I vehemently disagree with the tone and substance of Leslie’s letter. But I won’t think of her as “an asshole.” I won’t go on social media calling anyone names. And if I happen to bump into her, I’ll say hello. I’ll ask her how she’s doing. And if we ever had a long enough conversation I’d gladly offer any advice if requested. My hope is that she seeks out the counsel of not some acquaintance like me, but a trusted woman who could help mentor her and introduce her to victims of rape so she could hear their stories. I hope she’ll listen to this mentor more than talk, and I hope that our community allows her the opportunity to grow and to learn that rape apologia in part creates a permissive environment for sexual assault.
As you consume the news, check the vocabulary you’re using to think about things and describe them to your friends and family. Who’s a thug and who’s not? Which victims of violence are multidimensional human beings? Which parents deserve scorn?
Are you using the vocabulary of empathy or ignorance? Understanding or hate? Perhaps the most important question is this: are you able to put yourself in the shoes of someone who might come from a different neighborhood, speak a different language, practice a different religion, or identify as a different gender? If not, you’ve likely got some work to do. This episode has reminded me that I do too.
For more information on sexual assault, please visit RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization.