Content warning: This piece deals with issues of relationship abuse and post-traumatic stress.
At the end of January, I left an abusive relationship with a fellow Williams student. The breakup was messy and dangerous for me and my friends. My spaces were invaded and my privacy non-existent as I gathered every string severed in my body and tried to tie them to their lost, frayed ends. I was constantly annoyed and frustrated, always picking up shattered pieces of my life when this person decided that they would get what they wanted from me – or take it with whatever means necessary. The word “love” was thrown around a lot during our short time together, and I do not think either of us caught it. It landed somewhere besides “take care of me” and “or else.”
When I finally told everyone what was going on, it had reached an extreme state. I called my friend crying, telling him, “I think I’m single.” He hugged me, and I had him walk me home. I was afraid she would come after me like she had before, and I was right. Hours later, I found myself trying to escape this person while my friend begged her to leave me alone. I received call after call, endless texts and Snapchat DMs. My room was entered without my permission to see if I was there, and I ended up locked in a Mission bathroom. It all came together as I sat against the cold tile: I was living in a chamber filled with bright lights keeping me from seeing what was actually happening. I was being abused. Verbally, mentally, emotionally, physically and, as hard as it is for me to conceptualize this, sexually. I will always feel guilty and undeserving to claim trauma, to claim a label such as “survivor” or “victim”; I do not ever think I will shake this feeling of idiocy, naivete and guilt. Despite the immense pain and suffering, I will never be able to scrub my body of the feeling that this had all been my fault.
I was powerless and without autonomy or control. I was quickly forgetting what comfort and safety meant. I moved to emergency housing the next day. That same day, my ex cornered me in Paresky. After that, I finally went to CSS to file a report. At almost 3 a.m. the day after I broke up with her, I obtained a no-contact order (NCO).
It took me a few days to register what happened. I called my parents and got in contact with campus resources. I found myself crying in showers, randomly breaking into tears in public places and hyperventilating every time I left my room. I didn’t see this person during my adjustment, and I truly thought I could avoid them while I attempted to reclaim some normalcy. I was reliant on the NCO to ensure a minuscule amount of safety.
If you are unaware, the rules of an NCO have a gray area but are generally simple:
No verbal or digital communication, or “passed messages.”
If you enter a building, you can stay only if you were the first person there. If the student involved in the NCO is there first, you must leave promptly no matter the situation.
You may not swipe into the building the other person lives in or be found there. Vice versa as well.
If it is violated, there may be grounds for disciplinary process and consequences at the discretion of the deans.
It is mutual and non-punitive as anybody can request one for anyone.
For my friends and me, life went on in a weird, cautious way. I tried my best to move on and act as if nothing had happened. I moved out of emergency housing and into a new room, and tried to hit restart. As those with NCOs know all too well, this half-assed attempt at a solution only isolates and creates more limitations for those who have experienced trauma. I have found myself entirely avoiding places I knew this person inhabits often, being hyper-vigilant and bursting into tears, breathing heavily if I saw her. My therapist told me I was already and would continue to see signs of post-traumatic stress. I constantly bothered my friends to walk me to places. My friends, including other survivors, have been the most incredible and warm support system, and nobody has held me quite like them when I needed a shoulder to sob on or scream into. But no spaces belonged entirely to me anymore – all of them were partially or entirely my abuser’s.
Since I got the NCO, it has been violated twice. Due to the non-punitive aspect of the NCO, the dean’s office is cautious of abusers taking advantage of them to control the lives of survivors. However, this seems to already be happening. NCOs simply do not serve survivors. I have to rely on my community and a network of people who watch out for me and alert me when this person passes through spaces so I can make sure not to enter them. Similarly, NCOs do not protect others, who often experience trauma runoff and suffer at the hands of abusers indirectly, from harm caused. NCOs also go up for review every semester and can be disputed by those who wish to cause harm.
My community is small, and it is mostly Queer, low-income, neurodivergent, first-generation and POC. I, myself, am a first-gen, Black, Queer, Jewish woman. It is survivors and other strong souls who care about each other’s safety in a place that already depletes our energy, a place that rarely affords us the space to exist truthfully and openly without repercussions and criticism. We have seen exactly how Williams treats Black Queer people. We have lost Black Queer faculty who deserved infinitely better than what they got. Our value is found in our abilities to provide learning experiences for wealthy, able, straight, white peers to “learn” that we are human, a process coded as diversity. They have to have the life-changing experience of interacting first hand with us to learn not to be racist, homophobic, sexist, xenophobic, ableist, classist, etc. Diversity is just this service unless it comes with the support that communities need to survive.
This brings me back to my tumultuous time in high school: At the end of my senior year, a close friend of mine, David, sexually assaulted a peer. I remember having to make choices about what would happen to him due to my standing on the student council board. Would we let him attend senior events? A friend’s parent told me to be nice to him, or else he’d kill himself, and emphasized that it would be my fault. In an attempt to remedy the problem, the school administration forbade David from returning to the school. But he was still permitted to take classes, and graduate with our class.
On June 2, 2017, I practiced my graduation speech with my fellow seniors watching. In that room sat the girl, and directly in front of her, sat David. The room bickered about it. Someone yelled at me, “It’s his graduation too, he’s earned it,” loudly cheering for him. The girl cried in the bathroom through most of the day.
While I know all too well what it’s like to feel unsafe because of mistakes made by administration, I also know what it is like to see people continue to interact with my abuser on a daily basis despite the knowledge of their actions. What will happen if my abuser is one day made to leave campus but is allowed to return and reap the benefits of a Williams education, just like David did by being allowed to graduate with all his honors?
I will stress this: It is not the job of those around me who are close to my abuser to isolate her. I would never ask that. I believe in restorative justice. The prioritization of survivor safety and comfort, however, is necessary. For me, it would look like not seeing people I look up to in communities of Queer activism and radical love allow my abuser to continuously manipulate me and exist without consequence. Just as I was able to separate myself from my friendship with David and hold him accountable, it is more than fair to ask those who are aware of violent and harmful actions to prioritize safety and accountability.
To those who exist in this small, tight-knit community with me: What will it take for you to hold her accountable? Would my endless text threads be enough? My call logs? My voicemails? The words of those who had to experience the trauma alongside me? What about the explicit photos that were taken of me without my consent, and coercively with my own phone? The burden of proof is unfairly placed on me, but what will it take?
Let’s recognize this inability to hold people accountable for their actions: Believe survivors. It is not enough to tell me you love me and support me. It is very hard to recognize that even those closest to us can be abusers. Clear recognition of harmful actions is important. I can’t stress enough that the campus itself is already a power dynamic between me and my abuser. I will not be silent and allow this person to exist as if nothing happened. I will not stand back and watch her be welcomed into spaces of activism. I will constantly push back. I will hold her accountable, and I am not responsible for being “merciful.” Without communities holding their own accountable, we will continue to protect and create abusers who go on to become powerful people with no concept of their own wrongdoings. I will not allow a community I hold so dear to become just like those at my graduation who cheered for an abuser without any sense of recognition that what he did hurt more than just one person. It takes a village to raise a child – and an entire community equipped with radical love to hold someone accountable.
Alexa Walkovitz ’21 is from Lucerne Valley, Calif.