by Woody Brown
Amherst College has recently found itself in the news after a former student named Angie Epifano published in the Amherst Student her account of her rape and Amherst's subsequent egregious mismanagement of pretty much every aspect of her case. In the days after the publication of Angie’s harrowing story many current students and alumni have felt moved to tell their own stories, most of which describe similarly appalling, apparently intentional oversights. The foremost criticism lobbied against the college is that its administration has a policy of sweeping under the rug nearly all allegations of sexual misconduct. Of equal import are the criticisms of the college's deeply flawed student psychological health services. Judging from the tenor and text of the stories and complaints on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, and from the firsthand accounts delivered at the recent forum with President Biddy Martin on campus, one might assume that the Counseling Center at its best has merely done no harm and at its worst has left the students for whom it is responsible up a creek without a proverbial paddle.
It is important to discuss student complaints and calls for improvement, chiefly those listed in the recently published Open Letter to Biddy Martin and the Trustees of Amherst College Regarding Mental Health, because they bear on questions that are not specific to Amherst College. Responses to the students' stories must necessarily confront the unique and enigmatic role that college and university administrations play in the lives of their students and the daily maintenance of campus life. In this essay, I will basically contend that the issues itemized in the open letter are deeply problematized by the authors' unawareness of their own positions as students – that is, as students who are not LCSWs or people with experience in college administration. They are students with justified rage, but rage that should be productively redirected all the same.
Additionally, I will explain with reference to reason and to the letter of the applicable laws why certain objections to accusations of sexual assault are offensive, unfounded, and inadmissible. I will further contend that the Amherst College Counseling Center is a symptomatic target, one that, despite its sometimes very obvious problems, is not as culpable as the Amherst College administration, which administration, by repeatedly violating policies prescribed by Title IX and other relevant federal regulations, and by financially hogtying the Counseling Center, has shown repeatedly that it does not care anywhere near enough about the psychological wellbeing of its students. In order to contextualize what I am saying, I will first offer two personal stories, one about my brief interaction with the Counseling Center and one about my somewhat more extended run-in with the college administration following an assault of which I was the victim in the fall of my senior year, in which interaction I saw firsthand, though to a much lesser degree, the college administration’s practice of attempting to silence complaints in order to preserve its reputation. Neither of these stories is intended to be compared at all with Angie’s for any reason other than that she and I both interacted with the same campus institutions. My stories are mine. To read my intent as a comparative one would be to misread.
TWO NOTEWORTHY INTERACTIONS WITH THE INSTITUTIONS IN QUESTION
I am no great fan of college counseling centers. When I made an appointment with the Counseling Center at Amherst College in the fall of my sophomore year to seek some sort of treatment, I had high hopes, which high hopes would find themselves disappointed with astonishing speed as the initial meeting devolved into a nature v. nurture argument. I was surprised at how little the college's therapeutic infrastructure was inflected by anything that was being taught in any humanities class at Amherst. When I brought up to the Counseling Center therapist after she suggested I begin a course of antidepressants my feeling that the overprescription of psychotropic medications was an epidemic, (one that had just the week before taken the life of a very distinguished alum), she met me with a disinterested stare and said, "I can't argue with the science." I have written on the deification of science elsewhere and for our purposes in this short essay it should suffice if I say that I did not want to have an argument, I just wanted someone to talk to, and when I rejected the therapist's suggestion that I take a pill, she recommended I seek assistance with someone else and gave me some information to help me find a therapist who would be more appropriate for me.
And, for the record, I am no real fan of the Amherst College administration. Now, let me qualify that. I worked as a Resident Counselor (the Amherst version of an RA) for a year, during which I had only good interactions with the Department of Residential Life and the various deans with whom I had occasion to work. The Campus Police were extraordinary without exception. When they can arrest a student so inebriated that when he forgot his card to gain access to our dorm he thought it was a good idea to pull a stop sign out of the ground and throw it like a javelin through the window on the door and let himself in that way (that actually happened)— when they can arrest this student who, for the record, was completely uncooperative, without brutalizing him, they deserve uncommon commendation.
The fact that I still harbor frustration with the administration is a result of an incident that occurred in my senior year. I was walking one night with my then girlfriend and my roommates as a group of four men were walking toward us on the same path. One grabbed her by the waist and said, "You're coming with us," whereupon I stepped to, said, "No, she's not," and pushed him. They turned on me, one of them put me in a headlock, the rest started tearing at my clothes, I threw a punch at one of them, and before I knew it I was on the ground, one of them split my lip, I couldn't breathe, and they kept for some reason pushing my face in the dirt and asking me, "Are you done?" They let me go and walked away and one of them called me a faggot.
I have been hit before, I have been jumped before, I have friends who have been seriously injured in assaults and robberies. But that is because I am from Buffalo, NY, a dying rust belt town with a terrible crime rate. I didn't pay thousands of dollars a semester in tuition to get my ass kicked for protecting my girlfriend.
We would be correct to say Angie did not pay thousands of dollars a semester to get raped and then have the administration essentially ask her to leave campus and act like that is a solution. This is a major component of the fury in response to Angie’s article, i.e. "Not only did students repeatedly sexually assault other students, but the administration actually tried to repress the victims' stories? This is 1. horrifying, 2. mortifying, 3. depressing, and 4. illegal." Not only did the administration not support a victim (indeed, many victims) of rape, but it actively refused her support and turned a blind eye to the daily traumas she underwent, e.g. seeing out of the corner of her eye her rapist winking at her lecherously in the dining hall, for instance. It's like something from a fucking movie. (We will see below how this is not only immoral and irresponsible, it is also against the law.)
Without going into detail, I'll say that the entire postgame process of pursuing some sort of disciplinary repercussions for my assailants was 1. made miserable by the dean, who in our first meeting charged me with the task of explaining why my story didn't match my assailants', despite the obvious explanation that they did not want to get in trouble for beating me up, 2. Sisyphean in the way pursuing punishment for four star varsity athletes can be, and 3. almost totally unresolved, at least from my end, because, as I was reminded time and again, it was against the college's privacy regulations for the administration to tell me what the students' punishments might be or even if they were going to be punished at all.
I have described my experiences in part to corroborate Angie’s account of the bureaucratic oversights by which she suffered, i.e., "I've seen this sort of thing too; I have experienced the defanged, Lilliputian version of some of what you experienced," and in part to tell the readers of this essay that while skepticism may be desirable in some circumstances, the skeptical voices I have heard in response to Angie's article do not rise above the level of the run of the mill initial inertial grumbling that will place their unwise mouthpieces firmly on the wrong side of history.
But there are many differences between our stories, the largest of which is that what she suffered was the sort of psychological trauma that can literally end someone's life, and what Amherst College did in response had barely any resemblance to anything designed to assist her. It was blatantly self-promoting, cheesy and slimy and embarrassing in the way an institution that takes its name from a mass murderer can be. To be raped and then to have the administration at your college recommend that you leave while your rapist goes unpunished— this is a situation so contrived it sounds like it belongs in a televised afterschool melodrama.
A BRIEF ADDENDUM REGARDING DOUBT AND SEXUAL VIOLENCE
Since the publication of Angie’s article in The Amherst Student I have heard one objection repeatedly and it has generally sounded something like this: “How can we be sure that people who say they are victims of sexual assault are telling the truth? What if they were just really drunk and slept with someone voluntarily and then regretted it enough to lie?”
There are many issues with this argument. From a purely gender relational standpoint, we might contend that it takes a special kind of asshole to respond to an allegation of sexual assault with this question. We might counter, “Why are you asking this person who says she’s been raped if she’s lying?” Is it because these are “very serious allegations, young lady”? But let’s be reasonable. There is certainly something to be said for due process. And the truth of the matter is that we do not know whether or not anyone is lying. This is why we have processes by which we conduct investigations of criminal allegations and so arrive at some sort of conclusion after a reasoned consideration of the facts. All colleges are required to state the policies and procedures with which they investigate all crimes and offenses (though, as this alum just discovered, Amherst’s are not available to graduates or the public), and these policies and procedures have to comply with some sort of state regulation.
So no, we should not immediately assume the accused are guilty. But it’s worth mentioning that the nature of the offense in question here – that is, rape – is not a gender neutral one. It is in fact very gendered, not least because the victims of rape are predominantly female and the perpetrators are predominantly male. (Small aside: a fascinating article in the journal n+1 describes a recently revised estimate by the Justice Department that in 2008 there were ~216,000 victims of sexual abuse in US penitentiaries, a fact which “likely mak[es] the United States the first country in the history of the world to count more rapes for men than for women.”) In cases of rape in our society, men are generally the accused and women are generally the accusers. As such, we cannot ignore the misogyny inherent in repeated questionings of women’s accounts of sexual violence. It is as if women are untrustworthy, as if they can’t hold their liquor like men, and so there is a greater likelihood that they might just fuck up all the time and then lie to cover it up. Nevermind the fact that it is equally if not more probable that a man might get hammered enough to feel justified in totally ignoring a potential sexual partner’s protestations. Nevermind the fact that enduring the many months- or years-long process of a rape investigation is not at all preferable to facing the reality of an undesirable one night stand. Nevermind the fact that accusing someone of rape (and so allowing oneself to be pilloried by judgmental, prejudiced morons like the author of the statement at the beginning of this section) probably doesn’t really do anything at all to mitigate the shame of an embarrassing sexual encounter.
And now we arrive at my favorite phrase that I have heard used countless times during and after my time at Amherst by many an enterprising young (male) pre-law major: “beyond a reasonable doubt,” e.g. in the context, “But can she prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she was raped?” (Note: this is not a straw man. People I call friends have said this to me. The only reason I can’t hyperlink texts in which students have said this following Angie’s article is because apparently none of the people who say shit like this are dumb enough to post it on the internet without anonymity.) First off, even if the alleged sexual assault had occurred outside a college campus, it would not be the victim’s responsibility to prove her accusations in any form. She would be represented by counsel. This is how criminal allegations are done in adversarial legal systems. Second, no one is required to prove any sexual assault beyond a reasonable doubt during an investigation on a college campus. This may be the case in criminal trials, but, though it may disappoint our enterprising young male pre-law major’s romantic adherence to his convenient idea of the rule of law, college campuses are separate entities with their own official disciplinary bodies.
In cases of alleged sexual assault, these disciplinary bodies are largely governed by a portion of the Education Amendments of 1972 called the Patsy Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, also known as Title IX. In April 2011, the United States Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) under the Obama administration sent what is known as a “Dear Colleague” letter to all US colleges and universities informing them of certain changes to the federal laws governing the handling of cases of sexual assault. Among these changes were new requirements for appropriate timeframes in which cases could be resolved, and reiterations of the need to offer the accused and the accuser equal rights and of the school’s responsibility to take action if a hostile environment exists on campus for either party. But perhaps most importantly for our refutation of the “beyond a reasonable doubt” statement, the “Dear Colleague” letter also dictates that colleges must use what is called a “preponderance of the evidence” standard. To fulfill this standard, the disciplinary body need only be convinced that “it is more likely than not that sexual harassment or violence occurred.” Before the issuance of this letter several schools used the “clear and convincing standard,” which the letter states is “inconsistent with the standard of proof established for violations of the civil rights laws.” In short, a school’s disciplinary body must be just over 50% sure that an act of sexual violence occurred in order to prescribe disciplinary repercussions, not 75%, as some schools used to hold, and certainly not beyond a reasonable doubt.
If it’s not already clear enough, I’ll mention briefly that many of the regulations we just covered were, according to Angie’s account, violated by the administration of Amherst College in her case. She should not have been questioned repeatedly by the sexual assault counselor, she should have been allowed to change dorms, and she should have been encouraged to pursue a disciplinary hearing. These are not my opinions, they are explicit recommendations of the “Dear Colleague” letter. Don’t believe me? Take a look at page 16:
“Schools should proactively consider the following remedies when determining how to respond to sexual harassment or violence. These are the same types of remedies that OCR would seek in its cases. Depending on the specific nature of the problem, remedies for the complainant might include, but are not limited to:
- providing an escort to ensure that the complainant can move safely between classes and activities;
- ensuring that the complainant and alleged perpetrator do not attend the same classes;
- moving the complainant or alleged perpetrator to a different residence hall or, in the case of an elementary or secondary school student, to another school within the district;
- providing counseling services;
- providing medical services;
- providing academic support services, such as tutoring[…]”
And perhaps most damning of all, consider this excerpt from Angie’s account of what she was told by the college administration: “We can report your rape as a statistic, you know for records, but I don’t recommend that you go through a disciplinary hearing. It would be you, a faculty advisor of your choice, him, and a faculty advisor of his choice in a room where you would be trying to prove that he raped you. You have no physical evidence, it wouldn’t get you very far to do this.” Now consider the following, from page 10 of the “Dear Colleague” letter: “A school should notify a complainant of the right to file a criminal complaint, and should not dissuade a victim from doing so either during or after the school’s internal Title IX investigation.” My fucking emphasis.
OPENING THE OPEN LETTER
In the rush of revelations that followed Angie's piece there has been nearly universal condemnation of anything that has ever happened at the Counseling Center, and any criticism of that vitriol is, by virtue of its proximity to Angie’s story, seen as a criticism of Angie or something, or as the sort of denialism that characterizes the voices whom I said above would find themselves on the wrong side of history. I would simply ask here that you do not pigeonhole me.
I was struck by the crucifixion of the Counseling Center because it is exactly what I discussed in my first article for CASE: the symptomatic demolition of figures of power or education, as if they are so dumb that they shouldn't even be allowed to have jobs. I stand by that intent. We should temper our criticisms of the Counseling Center with the knowledge that theirs is an extremely tricky (and note: deeply underfunded) position, one in which they are generally damned if they do and damned if they don't. And we should acknowledge that the aim of therapy is not to get your patient or client or whatever word you want to use to like you, and in fact if the therapist is not well-liked that really says absolutely nothing about the efficacy of the course of therapy. Many of the complaints itemized in the open letter to the college president that I mentioned above do not indicate a failure of the college’s supportive infrastructure.
Consider for instance the following from the open letter: “Students have on many occasions acted as ‘therapists’ for their friends who were turned away by the Counseling Center. In one student’s words: ‘Being told that you are more effective than the Counseling Center is frightening.’”
First of all, this statement is crowdsourced beyond recognition. Second, it is not the Counseling Center's policy to simply turn away students seeking therapy and I know for a fact that they do not do that. If a Counseling Center employee recommends to a student that he see a private therapist in town, that is not the same as turning someone away, although during my tenure as a Resident Counselor I saw students misinterpret that gesture all the time. We can see easily how "turning away" students would actually benefit them: if you were a counselor and your institution was short on resources, would it not be in everyone's best interest to occasionally encourage students to seek help from a therapist whose hands are not tied by the same budgetary constraints? Third, there is no real allegation here. The author is simply saying that certain unnamed students felt obligated to support their friends. Overbearing and burdensome friendships are common and shitty, but they are not evidence of systematic misconduct on the part of a college's Counseling Center. This statement also does not recognize the agency of the person supposedly receiving therapy. There is no room here to say that the person may have avoided therapy with an actual therapist in favor of therapy from his friend because of something about, say, the nature of their friendship, or maybe because he in fact enjoyed his symptoms and did not desire their annihilation. Anyone who has any experience in the mental health field will recognize the methods by which people who profess their willingness to engage in psychotherapy actually avoid it. It is not as if the Counseling Center is bordered by a fucking moat of lava or something.
Or consider this, also from the open letter: “I stopped going to the Counseling Center due to this concern and paranoia… It’s tough when you can’t even trust the Counseling Center to act in your best interest.”
What does this mean? Why can you not trust them to act in your best interest? Because of stories like Angie’s? I agree that Angie’s story is deeply disturbing. Indeed, my own experience with the Counseling Center did not leave me feeling at all good or helped or happy or anything other than disappointed and annoyed. And yet is this a reason to dispense with the entire Counseling Center? Is this a reason to say that the Counseling Center has in fact always been a total failure? No, it is not. We might further tempt angry e-mail senders by asking: Is this not just a really easy and quick and nondescript way to explain why you’ve avoided serious therapy altogether and instead have made the brilliant decision to consult your totally unqualified friend who doesn’t even have a bachelor’s degree for some sort of transferential bullshit that just makes it so neither of you can finish your homework?
The much more difficult truth here is that different people have had different experiences with the Counseling Center and those experiences vary widely depending on each student’s mental health and history of psychological treatment. Consider again my situation. How was the Counseling Center therapist supposed to know I thought what she was saying to me was total nonsense? It’s not that I’m just transcendentally correct or that I’m smarter than her. Neither of those is true. She’s the one with a fucking degree and a license to practice psychotherapy, for Christ’s sake. But because part of my personal philosophy about psychotherapy is the rejection of psychotropic antidepressants, her entire approach to me as a patient was thrown into crisis. This is not her fault. I wouldn’t walk into an oncologist’s office and punch him in the face because he can’t fill the cavities in my teeth. In short, the easy and wrong answer is to blame everything on the staff of the Counseling Center. The harder but probably more correct answer is to recognize that the Counseling Center staff do not wish you ill, that every situation is different, and that with more comprehensive training they might be able to increase the efficacy of their treatments. But why might they not already have all the tools they need to run a successful student treatment center? Is it perhaps because the Amherst College administration has systematically underfunded it?
THE COUNSELING CENTER DOES NOT HAVE THE TOOLS IT NEEDS BECAUSE THE AMHERST COLLEGE ADMINISTRATION HAS SYSTEMATICALLY UNDERFUNDED IT
So who is there to blame? Well, we’ve got several options. First and foremost, we might consider blaming the fucking rapists. A real and substantive criticism of the culture that produces sexual violence and teaches that it is OK has been remarkably absent from the discourse following Angie’s article. I keep imagining the people I know who have committed acts of sexual violence and have largely gotten away with it (and I know many from Amherst)— I imagine them sitting in their rooms reading the news sheepishly in the bluegray glow of their computer screens and it gives me pleasure to know that they are now always paranoid that their crimes will be unearthed and reexamined and that they will receive their just desserts. If Mitt Romney’s pre-digital homophobic high school hijinks can come to the fore fifty years after the fact, then the selfish, cruel, violent criminals who have hurt so many students over the years will not escape the return of their repressed.
Forget the Counseling Center—they are the ones who actually care about you. Their entire job is to care about you. They got degrees for the sole purpose of caring about you. If anything, we should call them hapless. We should lobby for them to receive more funding and campus resources, and we should lobby the fucking administration for that. Because you can be absolutely positive that the Counseling Center isn't totally neutered and broken because it is intrinsically bad. It is an ineffective shell of what it could be precisely because the administration does not give a fuck about it. I have it on good authority (that is, from three separate faculty members) that for years counselors have struggled over everything from their salaries to overtime to resources for students. Every employee in the Counseling Center has a doctoral degree (PhD, PsyD, or MD [and one EdD in Counseling Psychology])— they are not frauds or imposters. Unfortunately, information on the salaries of nonunionized staff at Amherst is not publicly available (you can trust me or you can look at the annual fiscal reports from 2009 and 2011 yourself ), so the claims I’m making cannot be verified. But the conclusion I have drawn (and I am not alone in this) from the faculty I have interviewed and from the accounts from current and former Amherst College students is that mental health has simply not been a priority. That is not only inexcusable, it is an oversight that now, as a direct result of Angie's article, we see has done real and irreversible harm to many students.
What about the horrible dean who essentially told Angie to leave school? Yes, we should blame her too. She demonstrated a truly stunning conflict-aversive tendency, a cutthroat and inexcusable and dangerous attitude that had as its ultimate goal the preservation of Amherst’s reputation, not the health and wellbeing of its students. I know personally at least four victims of sexual assault who felt that they were asked to leave while their assailants were allowed to stay on campus long enough to graduate. But we should recognize that it’s not as if the dean was just uniquely cruel. The events detailed in Angie’s account, the stories of all the other victims, the story of my interaction with the dean—these are united by their common identity as products of an administrative culture that has for too long placed the welfare of its students lower on its list of priorities than is moral or defensible. It is perhaps more comfortable to blame individual people for these crimes, but that is because it allows us to continue to ignore the reality that this culture has pervaded the administration since its inception.
Recall that President Martin is the first woman president of Amherst. Maybe these are the sorts of skeletons that start flying out of closets after 191 years of male leadership. I don’t think it’s pessimistic of me to say this is not the last of the horrifying revelations that will threaten to decimate Amherst. We must bring what we have repressed into language, we must come to terms with it and things will get worse before they get better. But moving forward requires us to act with deference and moderation-- we must look back and examine honestly what has happened to those we've known and loved without hurrying to blame a campus institution that is little more than the easiest target. Only then will we be able to answer the following central questions: 1. Who has done what they could with what they were given? 2. Whose decisions have facilitated the repeated and inexcusable miscarriage of justice? And 3. How the fuck can we keep this from happening again?
Woody Brown is a writer who lives in Buffalo, NY. He is the literary reviewer for Artvoice, Western New York's largest weekly newspaper. He can be reached at WoodrowDBrown@gmail.com