10/22/2012 10:19 am ET Updated Dec 22, 2012

The Death of Innocence at Amherst College


On Thursday night this past week, 300 Amherst College students, faculty and other members of the community congregated at the top of the campus' iconic Memorial Hill -- the "selling point" spot for prospective student tours, with an expansive view of pristine foliage and open sky -- in complete silence. A fire burned in the middle of the space, the flames lighting up faces like half-moons in the night. I thought back to earlier that day. I'd been in my music class. My professor had stopped mid-lecture to ask us our thoughts about the landslide of accounts of sexual assault at Amherst that were surfacing. A boy had raised his hand and mentioned that night's firelight healing vigil, meant to honor survivors at Amherst -- he said he didn't understand why it was happening: Don't vigils occur in response to death? That night, I looked around at the hundreds of silhouettes in the dark. A boy standing in front of me put his arm around a girl's shoulder as she leaned into him. A woman next to me wept quietly, her hand over her heart. I found myself asking -- hasn't there been a type of death here, too?

I wish I could say I'm a stranger to hearing about sexual assault at Amherst, but that wouldn't be true. I am not a survivor of rape on this campus, but have found myself close to many who are -- largely women, but a few men, too. My freshman and sophomore year roommate was raped during our first spring semester. Twice. The perpetrator was a socially prominent boy on campus. For two years, I observed my roommate as she navigated her trauma -- in her own mind, within her group of friends, and then eventually, with a counselor. As with many of the stories that are now surfacing, my roommate experienced a shaming response from many of the students she told -- that she asked for it. But you went home with him. What did you think he wanted? Why did you go back again? She often told me she wished she could take back what he took from her. That night at the vigil, I thought about the first day I met my roommate -- putting away her pink and green bedding, an innocent charm about her, bright and lovely. Today, she is the same woman, but there is visible grit in her now. There is immense strength. There is darkness. And most importantly, there is the truest form of loss.

My former roommate is one of the many survivors on this campus who have suffered largely in silence. This silence has come at a price. Currently, Amherst College is a place where women like Angie Epifano -- a survivor who bravely shared her story with The Amherst Student, the College's newspaper -- have dropped out because of how both students and the administration have treated them. Amherst College is a place where men who've raped have been allowed to stay in roles of power and prestige on campus. This sickens me. But I believe it. For the past two years, I have been an active part of the culture that allows this to happen. I have witnessed many instances of sexual disrespect -- at parties, in dorms, even in places as mundane as our dining hall -- and have not spoken up until now. But the images I've seen are engrained on my brain: a female student telling another to hide her sexual assault because it would harm the perpetrator's athletic team's season, the blurriness of sex tainted by binge drinking, men rating women's appearances as they walk around the corner of our dining hall, women confessing to wanting to take enough pills to make their pain subside. The list goes on. I realize that not everyone is a perpetrator. I also realize that sexism and sexual misconduct are rampant on college campuses around the country. But that does not invalidate what has already happened at Amherst. Even though this cracking of the College's perfect façade will catalyze change, there are many survivors like Angie and my former roommate who have lost something vital under the care of Amherst College -- and no amount of change in policy, discussion, or apology can return it to them.

The following day, I walked back to the spot where the vigil had been and looked out at the mountains. For the first time in a long time, I felt grief. That boy in my music class had, whether he knew it or not, been right. Among all of this iconic New England beauty, these intelligent students, these "lives of consequence" -- the College's motto -- I realize there has been death: the death of not only survivors' innocence, but also the death of sense of self for so many of us here. Although I cannot know what it's like to have been raped, I often feel that being here causes me to lose sight of who I am. But now, people have begun speaking up -- and I will be next. I cannot change the past, and I do not know how to heal. But I know this feels like a start.