Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Evidentiary Standards

Thirty years ago, I was a first year at the University of Virginia, and she and I had spent a portion of the afternoon walking and talking.

That wandering led back to her dorm room, where we found ourselves alone.  We'd gone to high school together.  She was slight and attractive and smart as hell, a tiny dancer whose writing was intense and odd and mature.  She was also an survivor of both physical and sexual abuse, coming out of a household that seethed with violence and darkness.  It hung about her like a cloud, manifesting in a couple of attempts on her own life.   Being a young fool, that brokenness seemed romantic and lost and fed into my ego-addled desire to white knight for someone.  I had been smitten with her for a large chunk of high school, in the hormone addled monomania that can often define late adolescence.

There had never been anything real between us, other than a few interesting and intense conversations and a festering swamp of quasi-obsessive teen angst on my end.  Even at that moment, I'm not sure if we could have been described as friends.

As we sat and talked more, she became more agitated, and the conversation turned to cutting.  Which, among other forms of self harm, was something she did.

She got out her cutters kit, a neat box filled with the blades that she would use to score her flesh.  It was her intent to cut, right there and then.  I attempted to talk her out of it, to go and talk with a counselor instead, but with little success.

Not knowing what else to do, I took the box from her.  We wrestled about for a moment, as she tried to get it back from me.  But I was stronger.

And then she set back on her bed, and looked at me, and told me, eyes bright as fire, that if I didn't give her the blades and let her cut, she would start screaming.

Unless I returned her blades, when people on her hall came, she would tell them I had been trying to rape her.

I remember her face as she said this.  It was not a pleasant look.  There was no question of either her intent or her commitment.  It was not an idle threat.

After a moment of horrified paralysis, I gave her back her box.  And then I left.

In the dorm stairwell on the way out, I passed a mutual friend who was coming up to see her.  I told him what to expect, and what she was doing, and he..not expecting that...was a little stunned.

I do not know what happened when he went up there.

That was thirty years ago, and to the best of my recollection, that is what happened.

But what are you to think of this story of mine?  How do you know that it's real?

It was a very emotionally intense moment, and so it has been burned to my own memory.  I have retold that story, to close friends, on occasions over the years.  But I know that my own memory is a tricky thing, meat being the unreliable storage medium that it is.

I cannot tell you, not now, much of the detail of that event.  If you asked what we spoke of, I could not tell you.  I could not tell you what I was wearing.  Or the precise time of day.  Or even what day of the week it was.

I could not tell you, in all honesty, whether in the years that have passed the dozen or so retellings have themselves shaped the form and character of that memory.   I also cannot tell you if she remembers that afternoon, just an immaterial blip in what was a deeply traumatic young adulthood.  If she does, I cannot tell you whether her memory of it is the same as mine.

Nor could the best of forensic science prove anything meaningful about that moment. 

In your hearing of this, and in the absence of empirical evidence, what do you believe?  Your engagement with this story will, in this polarized moment, be shaped by your political and sociocultural biases.

Do you believe that this sort of thing happens often, that women as moral agents sometimes misuse accusations to serve other interests or the crass demands of political power?  That would shape your hearing and receiving of this story.

Do you believe that women's voices are to be believed, and that a narrative like this serves no constructive purpose in an era when those who have survived sexual violence are finally speaking out?   Then you may hear it another way.

I take it for what it is.  An anecdote and an intense but faded memory, one that shapes my own self-understanding and my understanding of the dynamics of addiction.  Across the span of a third of a life, it does not speak to the legitimacy of other stories or claims.  It does not, for instance, mean that I do not believe that the young woman who threatened to accuse me of rape had not previously experienced sexual violence.

But it does, for me, reinforce two things:

For acts of violence against other persons, particularly acts of a sexual nature, the culture of shame in reporting cannot stand.  If justice is to be served, reporting such events...not to college administrators, or to a social media account, but to law enforcement...needs to be something victims can do knowing that they'll receive a fair, careful, and respectful hearing. 

And for our culture, so quick to leap to an assumption of guilt or innocence on the basis of ideology, bias, and passion?

I don't know. 

I have a reasonable doubt that we collectively care for truth at all.