On Monday evening, which happened to be the evening of my 43rd birthday, my husband came home with the mail and dropped it on the desk as usual. And it was the usual pile of bills and holiday catalogs and appeals for end-of-year donations. And the Princeton Alumni Weekly.
For years, when this magazine (also known as the PAW) arrived I would pick it up practically with two fingers, hold it at arm’s length, and drop it in the recycling bin. But over the past two years, thanks to relentless love and friendship, thanks to writing, thanks to Zen, that has started to shift. I have been able to open the PAW and read it enough to know that things are starting to change at my alma mater, finally. I read undergraduate Adam Mastroianni’s speech to Princeton staff in the winter of 2014 , in which he talked about Princeton’s “magic,” but also how “little by little” he “came to understand that some parts of Princeton are beyond the reach of this magic.” During his stint as a residential adviser, he said, “I found myself comforting, counseling, and bringing more students to McCosh infirmary…than I want to recall. I realized that across campus, there must be hundreds of students—or maybe more—struggling silently with depression, anxiety, and a whole host of mental-health issues.” Well, that’s better than what my residential adviser did, which was to take me, a depressed freshman who could barely eat food off the cafeteria plate in front of her face, to bed.
And of course I have been reading about the shifting approach to sexual assault and high-risk drinking on campus.
Three issues ago, there was a lead story about this, and it was radically different from anything I’d seen before. It featured images of undergraduate women and men, from a group called SpeakOut Princeton, standing proudly in front of phrases fleshing out the meaning of sexual consent (“Respect Your Partner, Respect Yourself,” “Consent is Given, Not Assumed,” “My Consent Can Be Rescinded at Any Time”). It detailed the significant changes in Princeton’s sexual misconduct policies, and discussed the culture shifts that will be necessary to support them. I pretty much collapsed on the floor after reading this piece, crying tears of relief and joy. And I knew immediately that I would write a letter. Then I second-guessed myself, and put it off. But a few weeks later, in the middle of running down a hot gravel road, I suddenly heard myself asking, “What if I trusted my first move?” Not my first response tinged with story (it’s too shameful, no one cares, it won’t make a difference, etc.), but my first move—which in this case, as in most cases with me, was to be truthful and write.
On Monday evening I nonchalantly picked up the November 11, 2015 issue of the PAW, stole a backward glance at my husband making origami cranes with our children on the living room floor, and disappeared into the bedroom. Table of Contents. Inbox, page 5. “Breaking a Silence.” The editors had thanked me for the letter, but they had not told me they accepted it. Birthday surprise. I shook in terror for a few moments, but closed my eyes, sat down on the edge of the bed, and stayed put long enough to see and feel that here, now, nothing was wrong. My children laughed. A raven called. Nothing was wrong.
Dear editors, I wrote:
It is difficult to find words to express the relief and gratitude I felt upon reading “Sexual Misconduct: The New Rules” (feature, Sept. 16). It has been difficult, for more than 20 years, to find words to articulate my relationship with Princeton, and with who I was, and what I encountered, while a student there. I encountered — and survived — depression, sexual assault, alcohol abuse, and a deep silence, powered by shame. To hear and feel that silence breaking over the past few years in the culture at large, at Princeton, and in myself, has been nothing short of wondrous. I am deeply grateful to all the Princeton students, current and former, of all genders, who are using their voices and bodies to protect and heal. I am also grateful to Dean Deborah Prentice for her strong words: “What we can do going forward is make Princeton the place it should have been” for students in the past. May all beings be safe to live and speak truthfully. May we all grow and learn.
Amy Elizabeth Robinson ’94
Santa Rosa, Calif.
So the jig is up. The cat’s out of the bag. All my months and months of strategizing how this “coming out” would occur are over. And it is such a gorgeous relief. My letter has been shared on Facebook 60 times so far, when even one—one instance of reaching and touching another Princeton survivor—would have been amazing to me.
On Tuesday morning, a poem showed up for me, on the page, in my mind. It has something to do with all the years I pushed myself to be relentlessly happy, to be all bright surface and not look too closely at the dark places in my life, which have their own integrity and meaning. It has to do with ongoing disaster, and the unexpected places we find beauty. Now, it’s for the world, and for you.
and see the smoke in the sunlight.
It is drifting for you.
It is dark, meandering.
It is caught in the breeze.
It is defying the cheerful
cliché of morning, the sunrise
we always know will come.
The leaves are still backlit
and brilliant but you smile
to see the stain
for now, a fire-kissed screen.
9 thoughts on “Disaster/Relief”
Thank you for your courage, Amy, in sharing this story, not only here but where it may do some good to other Princeton alums and students. I’m so sad to hear that your vibrant heart was not nurtured there– that instead you were pushed down emotionally and assaulted physically. It obviously did not leave you without resources because you have become who you are today; smart, strong, loving, active, principled and joyful. But, I grieve for young Amy.
And I thank you for the poem.
Thank you, Adrienne. You are a big part of my courage. I hope you know that.
I was about to jump in bed. It’s that time in Italy and I took one last look at my emails and saw this and decided to read before jumping. I wanted to comment because of your bravery. I admire it and your poem, as well. What a sweet birthday present it must have been to have your voice lifted and the shame come into the light. Well done, I would say, and most beautiful.
Thank you so much, Leon. It is so sweet to reach you with my voice when you are so far away. Once we sat so close, in silence… 🙂
I can feel the smoke curling, drifting across the leaves shining in the sun. Absence can do that. Presence can do that. You do that. Bring the dark tendrils into focus. Thank you, Amy.
I think that’s just about the most wonderful thing I’ve ever had anyone say to me. Bringing the dark tendrils into focus. I love that. Thank you so much, Jan.
Thank you for your courage, Amy. I was date-raped as an undergraduate at Allegheny College and never spoke up then. Now I have written about it in fictional form but never as you did. Thank you.
I have tried so many different forms for my story, Susan, but finally saw that I could not feel totally free in my writing or my life until I told the truth. But each person is ready at their own moment. Maybe I couldn’t fully walk into the story until I had walked down all the particular paths I’ve walked so far. And now I’ve arrived. I am filled with curiosity as to what will be next! Thank you for sharing, and for being part of my path.
Amy, your courage is inspiring. Thank you for writing this, and for speaking up!