KNAU and Arizona News
4:48 am
Fri August 30, 2013

New Memoir By NAU Professor Chronicles Survival Of Sexual Assault

For several weeks this summer, a series of sexual assaults in downtown Flagstaff had many residents on edge. A suspect was eventually arrested and charged with more than a dozen counts. But, for the victims, the trauma is likely to remain.

Surviving rape is something Laura Gray-Rosendale knows all too well. An English professor at Northern Arizona University, Gray-Rosendale has written a new memoir entitled, College Girl. It's the story of her own sexual assault as a college student  and her path to recovery. She spoke with Arizona Public Radio's Gillian Ferris about the attack, and how it changed the course of her life.

NAU English professor and author, Laura Gray-Rosendale
NAU English professor and author, Laura Gray-Rosendale
Credit Laura Gray-Rosendale

GF: Laura, can you please share with us what happened to you when you were a junior in college. It was 1988...what happened to you? This turned out to be a very high-profile case.

LGR: Yes, yes it did. I'd been up a while studying in my bedroom in my apartment, and I fell asleep. When I woke up early in the morning, there was a large, strange man standing over my bed. He immediately jumped on my back, pulled my head back by my hair, punched me repeatedly in the face. Then he jabbed something sharp into my neck and he said, "you, feel this knife? If you scream, I'll kill you." I tried everything I could to save my life, Gillian: I screamed as loud as I could, I kicked him as hard as I could, I hit him as hard as I could. But nothing worked. He stuck my own socks down my throat to keep me quiet, and then he raped me repeatedly, suffocating me with my pillow. I nearly died that night. Thank goodness, one of my roommates heard him and ran to our neighbor's apartment and called the police. The police showed up, they bust down my bedroom door, and they found him in the act. And though he nearly escaped, and he broke a bunch of police bones in the process, the police did catch him at the scene. It was only much later that I learned who this person really was and why exactly this would become such a high-profile case. This stranger who raped me was the grandson of the President of the Board of Trustees at my university.

GF: And what resources were available to you and, presumably, other victims of sexual assault at that time?

LGR: Surprisingly few, actually. It was a pretty difficult time back then. There was a rape crisis counselor associated with my visit to the hospital. But beyond that there was no counseling, no support systems in place, there was little to nothing available...truly. So, you had to create this for yourself...you know, find support in friends, family, mentors. And you had to seek out counseling on your own. I also had the distinct sense that my university would rather I not pursue a criminal prosecution against this perpetrator because of the connection his family had to the institution and the city. And that was hard to deal with. But as I describe in the book, the fact that no support systems existed prompted me to help to found one of the very first campus support systems, or campus support groups nationally that was run by survivors of sexual violence for survivors.

GF: And in your book, College Girl, you talk about surviving sexual assault. And in culture at large we talk about surviving sexual assault. Certainly that speaks to the actual physical survival which, sadly, is not the outcome for all victims. But, what did survival mean to you after the assault?

LGR: What it meant to me was something very difficult. Surviving was a difficult process. I didn't survive so well, I'll put it that way. I was so afraid that he would kill me that I couldn't sleep at night. And if I did sleep a little, it was only with all the lights on in the room and sleeping in my best friend's bed, holding her hand. That was basically what worked. I couldn't be left alone for a second and I certainly couldn't go outside by myself. It was literally like I was just frozen. I tried to go to classes, but I couldn't concentrate, I couldn't focus on anything. And I even left college for a little while. Looking back on it now, I think it's something of a miracle that I even came back. But I did, and I'll tell you why. I really had to. I couldn't let him take over my life and my dreams. I couldn't let him take those dreams away from me, they were too important. He had taken so much away already, so I slowly began - over time, with a lot of healing - to take more and more of my life back. I began to eat again, I slept more - still with all the lights on. That didn't change for a long time. But, I became a social activist about the issue of social violence on university campuses and I think it was through taking political action, through becoming a political activist that I became stronger and was able to survive.

GF: And was writing this book part of the healing process?

LGR: Yes. Absolutely, absolutely. And it's interesting: Research actually shows that it helps survivors of trauma to put their experiences into narrative form because traumatic events are often outside of narrative, in other words, they don't follow a straight line. And PTSD can really exacerbate this problem. So, in those early years, I really had to write about what had happened to me in order to understand what had happened to me. It was that simple. Then sexual violence became an area of research for me. That became a way to make intellectual work of what I'd been through, to really understand it from more complex perspectives. And then later and now as a professor, I knew I had to find a way to bring it all together. I needed to tell this story about this event. It changed my life and I needed to find a way to tell it the best way I could.

GF: Laura, you've said that sexual assault is a "community issue". What do you mean by that?

LGR: Yes. I think it's a community issue for several reasons: First, even thought it may happen to one individual, if affects us all. It's happened to a family member, a friend, an acquaintance, someone who knows someone who you know. Or, it's happened to someone who's never told you. Now, the statistics vary because this crime is under reported, of course. But, many studies show that 1 in 3, or 1 in 4 women will be sexually abused in her lifetime. And also that 1 in 6 men will be sexually assaulted before the age of 18. Those are staggering numbers. So, it's a community issue for those reasons. But second, it's a community issue because of the high cost - not only psychologically to us as a society - but also economically, too. PTSD continues to resurface throughout a person's life. And that treatment really costs money. The psychological and economic burdens make it a community issue, an issue with really wide reaching social and political impacts.

GF: There were a series of sexual assaults in downtown Flagstaff this summer. And on this idea of sexual assault being a community issue, what can the community do in order to better help victims?

LGR: Well, I want to start first by saying this: My heart goes out to the survivors. You are at the forefront of our minds right now. Our thoughts and our love our with you, your families and your friends. And it's just very important that you know this. Since this is an ongoing investigation and we're still learning details, I won't comment on this case specifically. But instead I'll say a few things related to it. First of all, it's shocking, it's absolutely horrifying. But - and it's scary to realize this - it's also not uncommon. Only 54% of rapes and sexual assaults are reported to the police. 54%. So, for every rape we hear about, there are many, many more we never hear about. So, it would be a mistake to say, 'this has finally happened to us'. It's been happening to us for a long, long time just not in such a visible and highly publicized way. So, in order to heal as a community, I think the best thing we can do is talk to one another. We can seize the opportunity to discuss the issue with one another, to raise our concerns and fears, to come together as a community around fighting sexual violence in all of its forms.

GF: In your memoir, College Girl, you say that on the other side of surviving rape there is 'beauty and light'. And maybe at least initially, those might seem like impossible things when you've been through something like that.  What do you mean that there is beauty and light for you now on the other side of this?

LGR: It takes a long time to get through something like this. It takes a lot of patience on the part of people who love you, it takes a lot of patience for yourself, it really does. But what I mean by this is time passes, and you begin to find ways of living with this and dealing with this. You integrate it into your life and who you are. That's not an easy thing to do, and it takes a great deal of time to do it. But that doesn't mean that there aren't moments of sheer beauty and joy in your life that happen. And so I want that message to get out there, especially to survivors. This is not the end of things. There are many more beginnings that you will find and face in your life, and there's joy to be found.

GF: What's changed regarding the issue of surviving sexual assault between your own time on campus, your own sexual assault when you were a college student, and now as a college professor? What has changed? What has remained the same?

LGR: There are some major reasons to be ambivalent about where we are right now. While I know that my own students are far more prepared to discuss issues like rape than students were 20 years ago - and I'm certain of this - we still have larger cultural misunderstandings about sexual violence that run fairly deep. I want to give one examples and there are many we might pick from. I choose this one: Representative Todd Aiken's comments about legitimate rape in the last election cycle. I mean, understandably, survivors of sexual violence, as well as many others, would find these sorts of comments troubling. Second though, and very importantly, I think there are reasons to feel really encouraged. There were few available resources for me as a college student, and now there are many, many more. And they're truly excellent. Title IV's provisions overseen by the Office of Civil Rights and the SAVE Act, or the Campus Sexual Assault Elimination Act, are making a major difference for men and women on today's campuses. I actually wrote about this in an article that just came out in the Chronicle of Higher Education, so I won't go into tons of details here. But let me just say that with the passing of a constellation of new laws, male and female survivors of sexual violence have many more avenues to seek justice than ever before. And as we've also seen in recent cases nationally, survivors can seek justice when their universities don't do enough to help pursue their cases or protect them. And I think all of these things are great. They're truly wonderful developments, and there's sure to be more like them to come. That's very exciting. I can't wait to see it.

GF: Often when victims of sexual assault come forward, file police reports, write books about their experience, the language that's used by the general public or by book reviewers is they're very "brave". How do you feel about that word?

LGR: That's interesting. I feel that there is definitely some courage that it takes to come forward in whatever way someone comes forward whether it's to a friend, to a perfect stranger, to a larger audience. It's courageous whenever anyone does that, so I want to say that up front. But I also think that's it's sort of a code word, in a way. It's as if people are not expected to speak about these things. As if it's better in some sense to remain silent, to remain quiet about these things. And when we do speak up, oh, hooray for you! You're brave! Which is a funny thing because we ought to be talking about this all the time. And we should feel comfortable speaking about this everywhere. This should not be a taboo subject. So, that term 'brave' has connotations that are both positive and negative that I'd want to look at closely.