“We Believe You” is a brave, unforgettable and incredibly important book that hits close to home.
While the book’s stories of sexual assault survivors come from colleges across the U.S., a striking number are from right here in North Carolina, including those of the book’s two young editors, Annie E. Clark and Andrea L. Pino. In 2013 Clark, a recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, and Pino, a student there, among others, filed a landmark federal complaint against the university for mishandling sexual assault reports. Their activism sparked a national movement that has now spread to more than 200 colleges and universities.
I learned a lot in these pages. I learned that 20 percent of women and 5 percent of men are sexually assaulted while at college. I learned that the single most vulnerable group for sexual assault is transgender individuals. A heartbreaking 64 percent of trans women and men report being sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, many of them during their college years.
I also learned that, while stranger rapes do often happen – the two co-editors were both victims of stranger rape – 80 to 90 percent of college-aged sexual assault survivors know their assailants.
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The statistics are dramatic, but the stories of the sexual assault survivors, told in their own words, are even more powerful. The survivors here include a broad cross section of college students, including a sorority sister, jocks, first generation Latino, Indian and Chinese students, and the granddaughter of a former North Carolina congressman.
One of the most powerful stories is that of Elise Siemering, who grew up in Hickory. At High Point University, a classmate raped her after they studied together at the campus library. School officials and far too many of her friends failed to support her. Her attacker and his fraternity brothers harassed her, calling her names and browbeating her.
Weary and disillusioned, Siemering almost dropped out of college. She dreaded being at High Point with her rapist still on campus, but she stood her ground. “This is my university just as much as it is his. I’m gonna go back,” she told herself. The support of her mother, the local police and her sorority sisters helped beyond measure.
Another story I will never forget is that of Pino, one of the book’s editors. A talented young Cuban-American from Miami, she fell in love with UNC the first time she visited the campus and saw Forest Theater, an idyllic old amphitheater in the woods.
Frustrated by the school administration’s inaction after her assault, Pino, a poet at heart, writes, “I’ve been betrayed by the university that I love so dearly, whose seal I wear around my neck, and whose quads and bricks hold pieces of me – pieces of who I was before and of who I am today.”
In one of the book’s most moving passages, she pens a letter to her grandmother.
“I was raised with high morals like you, with a life enlaced in strong religious duties that always led me to believe that the woman was to be pure until marriage. I did not have that choice, Abuelita.”
Later in the letter, Pino writes, “I want you to know that I am strong, I am fighting, and I hope that you are proud of me.”
I also found the story of a transgender student at Temple especially timely. A male student raped Princess Harmony in her freshman year and she found herself shunned on campus and a target of cautionary preaching about the dangers of drinking. College administrators failed to stand by her. “They helped both men and women who are survivors, but not me?” she asks.
She offers heartfelt and straightforward advice to the rest of us: “All people deserve a life without rape and, if they are raped, they deserve support. Believe survivors. Support them. Love them.”
These are stories of violence and trauma, innocence lost and broken dreams.
They encompass depression, anxiety, PTSD and suicide. Yet we also hear stories of a hundred different paths to survival, including friendships, music, poetry, art, the companionship of rescue dogs and even strangers whose believing made a difference.
And for many in this collection, survival led to activism. They transformed their pain by refusing to stay silent. They reach out to other sexual assault victims, lending support and advocating for them to let them know that they are not alone.
As Siemering, the student raped at High Point University, writes, “I want to be that person in someone’s life. I want to do something to give back.”
Or as another student writes, “For all the survivors who are quietly reading this book, pretending it isn’t about you, and searching for a community to belong to, there is always an open seat next to me.”
Historian David Cecelski’s most recent book is “The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves’ Civil War.”
“We Believe You: Survivors of Campus Sexual Assault Speak Out”
Edited by Annie E. Clark and Andrea L. Pino
Holt Paperbacks, 368 pages