Silent Treatment

My friend committed suicide a year ago, although no one knew it was
suicide at the time. Julie died on April 30—found on the floor of her
Massachussetts Institute of Technology dormroom by her roommate—and
nobody quite knew why. I went to Boston for a student-organized service
and listened to people say great things about her character and life. I
spoke to a man who had met her at a debate a week before her death; he could
not comprehend the fact that someone so alive had just died. I headed home,
still unable to accept that Julie was gone. I was scared to sleep alone,
afraid that one night my heart would stop like hers did, without warning.
On June 26, everyone’s perspective changed. The coroners ruled her
death a suicide by cyanide poisoning. The press did not seem surprised;
Julie Carpenter was, after all, a chemical engineering major at mit—which
meant that she had access to all sorts of poisons—and her housemate
had lit herself on fire and died from the burns just a year before. But
I held fast to the idea that she had mixed up pills, intending to take No-Doz
instead and discovering her mistake too late. I tried to resign myself to
a sort of Zen acceptance of the fact that we’d never really know what
happened. That worked until August.

On August 9, the Boston Globe ran a front page story detailing an
entirely different scenario. “In the months before her suicide in April,”
reporter Patrick Healy wrote, “Massachusetts Institute of Technology
sophomore Julie M. Carpenter was stalked and harassed by a love-struck freshman
and then endured an excruciating campus inquiry that initially failed to
stop him.” I had visited Julie the previous November. At the time,
the student had been quietly and intensely attracted to her. Even though
she made it clear to him that she was not interested, he still followed
her through the halls, slept outside her door, and accessed emails she had
written to her boyfriend. Distressed by the relentless attention, she finally
complained to her student house committee in January. The committee stalled
for a month while the harassment continued. Finally, the case was handed
over to the Office of the Dean for Student Life, and the harasser was moved
to another dorm. But it was two more months before the administration officially
ruled that Julie had actually been harassed, and her assailant’s punishment
was minimal: He was required to attend three therapy sessions, read three
books about trauma, and write an essay on harassment. Despite everything,
he would be allowed to reapply to live in Julie’s house the following
year. Five days later, Julie killed herself.

The connections between the sexual harassment case and Julie’s death
are strong. Her boyfriend’s father stated in a letter to mit that “everyone
who knew Julie well believes the ruling in the harassment claim . . .was
the triggering event in her apparent suicide.” Then again, a college
friend insisted that Julie was stronger than that, and would not have killed
herself over a mishandled harassment charge. I disagree. Julie was stalked
for over four months while mit failed over and over again to do anything
about it. Even in an environment of supposed awareness, institutional safeguards
failed miserably. And that led me to wonder: Could this happen at a similar
institution? Could it happen at Yale? No one knows how many women have been
harassed or assaulted because few complaints are made official. You may
never know who they are unless a close friend happens to be one, but even
then silence can prevail; it took nearly four months before the circumstances
surrounding Julie’s death were known to anyone save family and close
friends at mit. The
rest of us read about it in the paper. Even at Yale, the silence that surrounds
sexual harassment conceals the staggering number of women who have lived
through it.

In 1999, a Yale freshman named Sarah was sexually harassed by a junior
professor. A series of comments directed at her both in and out of class
culminated in his asking Sarah to talk with him privately about his teaching
style. When she refused to return with him to his apartment, his comments
grew increasingly violent and included vague threats about what might happen
to her when they were finally alone. “He was in his early thirties,
big on gun rights,” she told me. “That was a large contributing
factor in my decision to press charges. He owned lots of guns, and I didn’t
like that he knew where I lived.”

Distressed and unable to work, Sarah spoke to the dean of her residential
college, who contacted Professor Peter Parker, convener of Yale’s Sexual
Harassment Grievance Board, and Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg,
a Board member. Sarah did not have the option of presenting her case to
Yale College’s disciplinary tribunal, the Executive Committee, since
complaints brought to the Committee must involve only undergraduates. In
1970, when a student first formally accused a faculty member of harassment,
the University created the Grievance Board to handle cases like Sarah’s.

Technically, the Board’s function is advisory rather than punitive.
Board member Brian Yolles, an undergraduate, emphasizes the Board’s
role in mediation. “Ideally, everything can be solved informally,”
says Yolles. “This is tough to bring before a lot of people and generally
not what the accuser wants.” Frequently, a student simply needs the
Board’s assurance that what took place was harassment. This validation
can go a long way. “The institution is behind her—she knows he
is wrong and there is no way he can justify his actions,” said Trachtenberg.
“She is empowered—this has happened quite a few times.” Board
members are quick to point out the expediency with which a complaint is
handled,
especially in potentially dangerous situations. When a student lodges a
complaint with the Board, the accused is informed the same day, and forbidden
to contact the accuser. Any retaliatory acts are treated as separate incidents.

After speaking with Sarah, Parker and Trachtenberg met with her instructor
and warned him to keep his distance from her. He was told to leave a public
space should he find her there and to avoid coming close to her in any circumstantial
meeting. They advised Sarah to be careful when walking alone.

Sarah remembers the situation as extremely difficult. She says she felt
“silly” the whole time. “I wasn’t raped, wasn’t
attacked,” she told me. “You feel like you should deal with it.
You feel silly, like a whiny girl who couldn’t deal.” The Board
did offer some help. “Peter Parker told me that given the situation
of power, there were certain rules, he was supposed to act certain ways,
and what he was doing was egregious. He made me feel like I had done the
right thing,” she said. Yet Sarah feels that the Board could have done
more after the initial complaint was handled. At the time, Sarah did not
even know that the Board had official student members whom she could approach
for information and advice. “There was no particular amount of follow-up,”
she says. “I continued to feel unsafe. But the situation was handled
pretty quickly—within a week. . . . Nothing awful happened.” In
the end, Sarah did not decide to lodge a formal complaint. Her instructor
was leaving at the end of the semester, and the incident was noted on his
record.

Cases like Sarah’s and Julie’s illustrate that silence may be
the biggest threat to resolving sexual harassment issues. Confidentiality
is healthy and necessary for a victim, but potentially detrimental to the
community as a whole. A confused, frantic student who brings a concern to
the Grievance Board may find a solution, but her public silence
inadvertently masks the fact that such incidents take place on the Yale
campus in the first place. Such silence perpetuates the belief that sexual
harassment and assault do not occur here—leaving victims feeling isolated
and alone.

The members of the Grievance Board expressed frustration with the lack
of knowledge about harassment on campus, citing ignorance as the largest
obstacle to the Board’s effectiveness. “This year has been incredibly
uneventful, which can be a double-edged sword, as I believe that people
are reluctant to report cases,” said Yolles. As Stephanie Schmid, a
student Board member, stated, “Reporting, if done properly, makes people
feel less alone and it encourages more people to feel comfortable enough
to come forward.”

Despite the dramatic nature of Julie’s death and the prolonged press
coverage, none of the Board members I spoke to knew of it. Trachtenberg
stressed the general inaccessibility of this type of information, “We
can’t possibly know everything that goes on, and a little bit of knowledge,
some from one source, some from another, is a dangerous thing. We just don’t
know what takes place. We know case studies, but we clinically can’t
open a file.” While communication sometimes exists between individual
administrators, professional confidentiality must be maintained in specific
cases—another version of the double-edged sword.

The Board members do recognize a need for some transparency in the system.
But, as Trachtenberg notes, the mandatory confidentially is restricting.
“We give a pamphlet every year to each student, but a particular case
involving particular students we can’t talk about. And so we’re
left with the reputation of not doing anything,” she said. “We
cannot say that we had twelve satisfied customers and their cases were such
and such.”

For her part, Sarah suggests that friendlier forms of advertisement, like
stickers and posters, might soften the Board’s intimidating image.
Describing her own reluctance to lodge a complaint, Sarah told me, “You
feel as though it has to be a bad situation and clearly defined. You’re
unsure of yourself. You’re not going to go and say that you’re

unsure—boards have old white guys on them.”

The Board acknowledges these difficulties. Trachtenberg emphasizes that
the Board frequently discusses its effectiveness as well as the community’s
perception of it. “We look at ourselves critically to see how we’re
working. I’m not exaggerating about this. We’re always looking.”
But with the constant tension between silence and prevention, the only course
available may be vigilance. At mit, careful vigilance within the institutional
framework might have saved Julie. “Everything is handled here until
the student is comfortable,” Yolles said, “but I’m sure people
at mit would have said the same thing. There’s a bureaucracy … students
often get caught up in that. Real life moves at rapid paces.”Julie
and Sarah both courageously came forward with their complaints—a step
many victims do not take. For Sarah, the process was a difficult one despite
the speed with which Yale responded to her complaint.

For Julie, this difficulty became unbearable when mit, through rulings
and delays, made her feel like her complaint was not legitimate and failed
to guarantee that the harassment would not continue. No institution can
eradicate harassment, but without a system that eradicates a victim’s
feelings of inadequacy and isolation, the next Yale Sarah could end like
Julie.

Sarah is a pseudonym.


Emily Breunig is a junior in Berkeley College..

More Stories
Pressed Specimens