My tattoo and I had a conversation this morning.
UPDATE: I learned similar things happened at other schools in our conference, to both male and female athletes. Jon Vaughn is sleeping in a tent on UofM’s campus in protest.
Team USA Gymnasts Testify for the Senate
Simone Biles testified at the US Senate this week with McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, and Maggie Nichols. I found a comfortable pocket inside my brain to hide inside, thinking she’s there to support her peers, just to use her platform to bring attention to–
No: Simone Biles is a survivor of sexual assault. That’s already public knowledge but, for reasons I’ll make clear, I had not looked closely at the list of Larry Nassar’s victims. These four gymnasts are among 300 survivors.
There’s too much of ‘me’ to shove inside desensitized pockets of my brain, lately. Dams start breaking. I like to say I’m not patriotic but I’m very proud of Simone. I can’t help it: she’s the best and we’re from the same country. It’s disgusting whenever assaults happen but this is unthinkable to me. I forget that Simone Biles was a ‘girl’ before she was a legend.
I tumble out of my stoic pocket.
I cry for a long time, listening to journalists recap how the FBI failed to investigate reports of sexual assault against these decorated athletes:
The agent diminished the significance of my abuse. It made me feel my criminal case wasn’t worth pursuing.Aly Raisman, as quoted on cnn.com
After telling my entire story of abuse to the FBI in the summer of 2015, not only did the FBI not report my abuse, but when they eventually documented the report 17 months later, they made entirely false claims about what I said.McKayla Maroney, as quoted on cnn.com
She had more to say:
It is the Department of Justice’s job to hold them accountable. I am tired of waiting for people to do the right thing, because my abuse was enough and we deserve justice.McKayla Maroney, commenting on Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco’s absence
They allowed a child molester to go free for more than a year and this inaction directly allowed Nassar’s abuse to continueMcKayla Maroney
What is the point of reporting abuse if our own FBI agents are going to take it upon themselves to bury the report in a drawer?McKayla Maroney
I Was A Sexual Assault Prevention Peer Educator
In the Spring of 2009, Michigan State University piloted a peer-education program to reduce relationship violence and sexual assault on campus. Concurrently, Larry Nassar molested under the umbrella of the MSU athletic department. The university president and athletic director at that time resigned when facts came to light in 2016. Several chapters of my life passed in those seven years.
I was still angry. My alma mater was in disgrace, and that’s never fun, but I also felt betrayed because MSU’s leadership didn’t align with my values. We’re still steeped in so much toxic culture in this society and we must name these evils. On the other hand, there’s a great deal of unproductive virtue signaling, too. I’m not even sure if I said anything in 2016 about Nassar. I felt like it was too late. I wanted to tuck into a comfortable, desensitized pocket of my mind and let it go. I didn’t try to know precisely which Olympic gymnasts were affected — I didn’t know what to do with that information.
The Problem with Soft Mandates
I want to share a regret. I don’t mean for this to be a weird humble-brag or even self-flagellation. Michigan State University made attending these assault prevention sessions a ‘soft mandate’ for first-year students. [translating bureaucratese]: the university wasn’t willing to enforce their new policy until Fall Semester. Taking a birds-eye view, it makes sense because it’s difficult to run an orientation program in isolation. But we live our lives on the ground! I’m not talking about minutia (which appliances are allowed in dormitory rooms, what graphic t-shirts are permitted in class). I’m talking about people being raped, battered, and sometimes murdered.
Almost no one came to our peer-education sessions. Back then, first-year students didn’t have the emotional maturity necessary to voluntarily go to a program on an uncomfortable topic. They needed the university to treat them less like customers and more like community members with responsibilities. MSU didn’t think sexual assault/relationship violence prevention was important enough to warrant effort until it was more convenient for administrators. I waited for 20 or 30 minutes whenever I went to a residence hall to deliver a workshop… here’s the worst part…
I forgot to go to the last session I was assigned to cover. This wasn’t a crime of despair or apathy: I was too disorganized and preoccupied with my final semester. I struggled to persist when I couldn’t expect results, so I failed to fulfill my commitment. I was negligent. I learned later that staff at this particular residence hall did leg-work to get students in the room but I never showed-up. That was my one chance to use my training. I missed it. I’ve never fully forgiven myself. I can never know the impact I didn’t have. It’s interesting how all the times I showed-up to fight for any-other-kind-of-justice don’t heal the shame/regret I feel about this.
I’m Still Allowed to Feel Hurt & Angry
I’m tempted to dismiss and minimize what I feel. I’m going through a reflective and re-defining phase. The weekly poetry workshop I loved so much ended last night. Sometimes my emotions are riding close to the surface, sometimes they’re in a lockbox deep in my psyche and I can’t find the keys. I could just blame my general state. A change of clothes is sometimes a change of mindset. I peel-off the shirt I wear to bed and say…
“I don’t want to pirate someone else’s issue to vent my displaced emotions.”
My tattoo says, “but this is the appropriate response to injustice and suffering.”
“Nobody attacked me and I don’t even know what else I can do.”
“Cry? Write? Feel some pain with them.”
“I can’t understand their pain fully.”
“But empathic pain is valid: people were hurt and disrespected and you’re not callous to it. If it hurts, that means your senses and values are working together.”
“But can I feel every tragedy authentically? Everywhere?”
“This isn’t about ‘everywhere’: Michigan State University allowed the athletic department to wall itself off from the Student Services Office. Women molested there should have had a direct-line to the office that trained you —you were less than a mile away— but powerful people prevented SSO from overseeing the sports complex. Now you know the FBI failed to intervene on behalf of gymnasts in 2015. Isn’t this nasty enough to make you cry?”
“It is but I’m startled by how vivid my emotions are.”
“You have ‘to seek Justice and resist evil’ tattooed on your chest. You didn’t ask Walid to put an anchor on your forearm where you could show everyone. You had him put me here to remind yourself. He warned it would hurt more on your ribs but you wanted it over your heart–“
“–to lock me into that idea of my self?”
“Your values predate going overseas: you quit your writing center job to make more time for training. It’s important. Those women deserve your tears. Doesn’t it make more sense to grieve freely? You wanted to stop this shit from happening!”
“It does. Indifference doesn’t make sense — how did it become normal?”
I’m not asking for anything for myself. Toxic patriarchy is so pervasive in me that I feel like expressing grief is an implicit demand, like I’m being ‘too extra’ when I grieve. This is grief. I’ll say it one more time so I don’t forget: I’m grieving what I could not do to prevent these assaults and everything MSU and the FBI could’ve done but didn’t. The impact on careers, damage to personal relationships, continuing mental health problems– these are all worthy of tears.
Why Does the FBI Exist? Remind Me
For the record, I don’t favor eradicating all policing. Still, I’m glad to cheer “de-fund the police” if it applies pressure. FBI director Chris Wray is quoted as saying he’s “heartsick and furious”. He promised to make sure everyone at the FBI remembers what happened “in heart-breaking detail” but also said:
I want to make sure the public knows that the reprehensible conduct reflected in [the] report is not representative of the work that I see from our 37,000 folks every day…”Chris Wray, FBI
Oh yes, it is representative! Nichols, Raisman, Maroney and Biles are elite athletes who represent the United States of America in international competition. Such high profile citizens warrant special care. This is an embarrassment for the USA on the international stage and in the HISTORY of sport. By default, those agents’ treatment of these women represents the FBI in the world at this point in time.
Could each-and-every FBI agent be busy with more important things each-and-every day for 17 months? What on Earth is the FBI doing? I know they have a packed docket but, c’mon, wasn’t there an agent who could further investigate allegations of assault brought forward by US Olympic athletes? Not even a rookie female agent with a heart of gold and a lot of determination? That sounds like a good movie premise, but I digress: this case should not have been on a back-burner.
This is negligence on an organizational level. We know good people might work for the FBI but what agenda are they fulfilling? I haven’t even delved into the fact athletes under 18 were assaulted, and have been assaulted by others in the past, I’m sure. Whenever minors are involved, oversight should be at its strictest. Accountability should be structurally inherent, not an ad-hoc bad-egg hunt. The goal should be to miss nothing, not merely be adequate.
It’s important for me to speak out because sexual assault doesn’t just happen in dark alleys. The workshop we wanted to run promoted “active bystander training”. We’re trying to convince people who are barely over 18 that they should be a major bulwark against sexual assault. Women do have things to fear in the dark, true. Alcohol does increase the likelihood of rape and other violence. A conscientious friend could change the scenario, maybe. These variables (but not wardrobe choices, that’s ridiculous) all have impacts. Perhaps we could have stopped some wolfman-style assaults if I’d shown-up one more time. I felt like shit for forgetting but during my time at MSU dozens of rapes were committed by a university-employed doctor, not a rushing fraternity. Let that sink in.
UPDATE: I wasn’t done venting my feelings– rivalries feel petty, now.
If we can’t nail day-walking-monsters in professional roles, how do we expect college kids to hobble boogie-men? MSU’s new leadership needs to handle its business better.
Handle your business better, FBI.
A message needs to be sent: If you allow a predator to harm children, the consequences will be swift and severe. Enough is enough.”Simone Biles, as quoted on cnn.com