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In her new memoir, a professor recounts her experience being raped as a college student, her university's seeming indifference and what it took to help her recover.
One November night in 1988, Laura Gray-Rosendale, then a student at Syracuse University, awoke to find a strange man in her bedroom. The intruder, whom she’d never met, beat her and raped her as she first tried to fight him off and then simply pleaded for her life. A roommate, overhearing the struggle, quickly called police, who apprehended the attacker while he was still in the house.
Gray-Rosendale’s ordeal, however, was just beginning. In her new memoir, College Girl (State University of New York Press), Gray-Rosendale – now professor of English and President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University – recounts how she began to recover from her attack while facing a range of other challenges in her life.
College Girl can feel unrelentingly bleak, at times almost difficult to read: Gray-Rosendale pulls no punches in her depiction of her rape and its aftermath. But the book is far more than just an inventory of traumas; while Gray-Rosendale suffers setbacks and relapses, her overall trajectory is ever upward. And even as she tells her own story, she engages directly with memoir as a genre – its uses and limitations, particularly for survivors of trauma – establishing her own narrative while simultaneously laying bare the elements and methods of its construction. (She is a professor, after all.) But for all its evident scholarly grounding, College Girl manages never to get too far into the academic weeds.
The book is divided into two parts. The first is primarily concerned with telling the story: the attack itself, its fallout, and the beginnings of Gray-Rosendale’s recovery, through her college graduation.
Gray-Rosendale was attacked several months into her junior year at Syracuse, where she majored in English but also took an interest in theater. Early on in the book, she struggles to identify with the character she’s been assigned in acting class – a woman who takes revenge on her would-be rapist – because she has never experienced nearly that degree of suffering.
Getting sent away to boarding school, as she was at the age of 14, had been “kind of hard,” she muses. “Still, it wasn’t rape-scene hard.”
Her parents’ recent divorce after more than 25 years of marriage, had been unpleasant, even acrimonious. But “I was already half-away from home, independent… I’m edging more toward being relieved about it than anything else.”
Just hours after failing to find creative inspiration in her relatively modest catalog of adversity, Gray-Rosendale endures the calamity that will reshape her life’s course:
“A fistful of my hair jerks me back. There’s a slabby male figure leaning over me, pants bunched around his hips. I screech into the blackness, my fingers hunting for my glasses. …A hand shuts off my scream.”
Gray-Rosendale’s roommates are woken up by the commotion but too frightened to intervene. One piles all her furniture against her bedroom door; the other manages to run downstairs and implore the downstairs neighbors to call the police. They arrive in time to arrest the rapist, but too late for Gray-Rosendale, who has been raped and brutally beaten.
Her recovery is slow, uneven. Her parents are physically and emotionally distant, still grappling with the impact of their bitter divorce. Her friend Lindsey ends up in the role of full-time caretaker: fetching her possessions from her abandoned apartment, cooking, helping her shower, and sharing a bed with her while she’s too frightened to sleep alone.
Another close friend and former roommate, Miriam, is spending the semester on study abroad in London. Lonely and traumatized, Gray-Rosendale eagerly awaits her friend’s return. But, just a month after her rape, Gray-Rosendale suffers another devastating blow when Miriam – along with another 34 Syracuse students, and more than 200 others – dies in the Lockerbie bombing.
Meanwhile, the university’s administration, Gray-Rosendale feels, is, at best, indifferent to her plight. Her rapist, while not himself a Syracuse student, is a member of a prominent family of university donors. A dean from the university calls Gray-Rosendale not long after the attack, ostensibly to see how she’s doing, but Gray-Rosendale isn’t so sure.
“Did I know that [the attacker’s] grandfather is the president of the city’s single-largest employer?" the dean asks her. “Did I know his grandfather is on the university’s Board of Trustees? Did I know that this man is responsible for the largest sports complex on the university campus?"
(The book does not name Gray-Rosendale's attacker, but newspaper accounts from the time indicate that he was a grandson of the former president and CEO of the Carrier Corporation, which provided the naming gift for Syracuse's Carrier Dome.)
“‘He brought his grandson to [a] fund-raising event recently,’” the dean continues. “‘Such a nice, polite, well-mannered boy…. [H]onestly, it’s hard to believe he’d do something like this.’”
Asked for comment on Syracuse University's role in the matter, a spokeswoman provided the following statement: "Given this was 25 years ago, we have not found any specific university records about this matter, so we are not able to verify the account included in the memoir... We can speak to our protocols today. We take any allegation of sexual violence seriously and we have a series of policies and procedures in place to ensure that any allegation is promptly reported to and investigated by local law enforcement authorities. This includes referring every allegation of to the Syracuse City Police Department, the Onondaga County District Attorney’s Office, and to the University's Title IX Compliance Officer. In addition, we have a University Advocacy Center that provides comprehensive counseling and support/advocacy services to students impacted by sexual violence."
Gray-Rosendale does find one ally on campus: a philosophy professor, Linda Martín Alcoff (now professor of philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York), who helps her found the university’s first support group for survivors of sexual violence. Alcoff is also a rape survivor, and eventually the two co-write a paper on “survivor discourse” in the media.
“Dr. Alcoff didn’t turn my head away from the most horrifying experience of my life, the thing that broke me,” Gray-Rosendale writes. “Instead, she helped me to look at it for what it was, taught me to find positive ways to integrate it into my future, to make something with beauty and wholeness that might allow me to live beyond it.”
Gray-Rosendale ultimately graduates summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. Eager to be far away before her rapist is released from prison (thanks to a plea bargain, he has been convicted not of rape but of first-degree burglary, and has consequently received a lighter sentence than he would have for rape), she accepts a place in a graduate program in the Midwest.
The start of the book’s second half finds Gray-Rosendale at grad school in Wisconsin, where she quickly suffers a relapse of her post-traumatic stress disorder. Unable to sleep, shower, or do laundry, she makes an emergency appointment with a psychologist, who inquires about the details of her ordeal. Gray-Rosendale soon realizes that she knows very little at all.
“The fact that I had no answers for this psychologist’s questions upset me more than anything so far. I didn’t have real knowledge about other people’s experiences around this event… I didn’t know my own story, didn’t even know its pieces well enough to coherently describe it to myself or others.”
Gray-Rosendale decides that she will have to return to Syracuse, “learn everything I could about what really occurred that night,” and forge her own narrative of her experiences.
“Eventually I was going to have to find a way to tell my story. Making narrative out of this chaos, I understood, was about to become a central focus in my life’s work.”
College Girl’s latter half deviates in many ways from the typical memoir format. Gray-Rosendale weaves chapters about her graduate work at Syracuse and ongoing recovery – including meeting her future husband, Steven – with pages of police records from the night of her rape and court documents from the attacker’s indictment. She interviews those who were present during and shortly after her attack, including her two roommates and her friend Lindsey, to learn how their memories corroborate or differ from her own. She calls her attacker’s case worker – who, because of the plea bargain that had allowed the rapist to plead guilty to burglary rather than rape, had not even known the true nature of the man’s crime.
Gray-Rosendale also reviews a number of changes in the laws in the years since her attack, such as the Clery Act (which, among other things, requires campuses to notify students of the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders) and the Campus Sex Crimes Prevention Act (which requires students and employees to inform universities if they have been convicted of sex crimes). But, she notes, it is still possible for those accused of rape to strike plea bargains resulting in conviction for a lesser offense – thus exempting them from all such requirements.
Even as she gathers all the evidence she can on what exactly happened to her, and why, and how it fits into a range of broader contexts, Gray-Rosendale keeps circling back to the inherent limits on her story and its form. Her memoir, she writes, would have to “expose… gaps and fissures in my traumatic memory, somehow negotiating the divide between those gaps and my desire to have coherence.”
Ultimately, she concludes, she “will never know the whole story.”
“We writers of memoirs – but especially trauma memoirs – never can. But I do know more of it now, and I know the extent to which it really was a part of lots of other people’s stories, too.”
The book’s timeline makes it clear that Gray-Rosendale has been working on her memoir for many years. Earlier versions, she told Inside Higher Ed, “were what I’d call ‘therapeutic’ and simply not strong enough to be read by a larger audience.”
But she wanted her story eventually to be public “because of the many survivors who are afraid to speak out. Or who speak out and aren’t believed.”
As many colleges and universities have been struggling with sexual assault issues in recent years, she added, it seemed particularly important to share her own account now.
“We need a campus climate in which sexual violence is not just considered ‘wrong’ and something that will be punished through the university and/or criminal processes," Gray-Rosendale said. “We need a campus climate in which sexual violence in all its forms will simply not – under any circumstances – be tolerated.”
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