This story contains references to assault and partner violence that may be troubling to some readers. The author has requested anonymity under a pseudonym due to the subject matter.
I was assaulted at Stanford. A Stanford student assaulted me. A Stanford student assaulted me again and again and again. I am a survivor of intimate partner violence.
Do I write from a clinical perspective? He punched me. He pulled my hair. He held me down. He hit my face, my body, my arms, my legs.
When I took longer to eat than he allowed, he said, “All you do is eat for your own fat fucking body. Probably masturbating to some other man.” When I visited home, he said, “If you cared about me, you’d be calling me all day, not fucking around with your fucking grandparents who’ll be fucking dead soon. Fucking Chinese losers.” When I tried to break up with him, he said, “Do you want me to kill myself?” I said, “No I know you won’t.” He said, “Oh, you don’t know me.”
Do I weave it into my college experience? Pulling classic college all-nighters, scrambling to finish my homework so I would have time to do his. Fetching him food from The Axe & Palm. Co-authoring papers and TA-ing classes with him. Calling hotlines for domestic violence and suicide. Writing applications for his startup for Silicon Valley incubators.
Missing class to pack my bags to get somewhere he wouldn’t be able to reach me, then wondering if it’s worth disappearing mid-quarter. Hearing classmates through my thin dorm walls and wondering if they ever heard his strikes or my sobbing. Freshman-dorm RAs emailing among themselves, after they reached out to him: “Either he’s more conniving than we thought, or he’s not being as manipulative as Lou says.”
Making a safety plan and questioning whether it was safe enough. And making another one. And questioning it again. Graduating across the same stage as my abuser. Collapsing in tears, surrounded by my classmates and their happy families.
Stanford did nothing for one victim of sexual assault after another. Was what he did to me sexual? At the time, I didn’t think so. Was it assault? He could explain away any bruises. If I couldn’t fit my experiences into the name that Stanford might give them — how could I expect the institution to do anything for me? Can we name the experiences, even now? Coercive control, intimate terrorism, domestic violence.
When my abuser texted me, “fucking bitch, hit yourself. I want to hit you so bad,” I thought someone would believe me. I showed the text to a friend, who said, “Well, that still doesn’t mean he actually hit you.” I was speechless. If we’d been in the same room, he wouldn’t have needed to text. He would have just hit me. My friend confirmed for me that I had no one on my side. If I could not convince a friend, I could not hope to convince a stranger at the Title IX office, or a police officer, much less a prosecutor or a jury.
I had no one. No Swedish grad students crossed my path.
Would it ever be safe to leave? Women are 70 times more likely to be killed in the two weeks after leaving than at any other time during the relationship.
I waited until he graduated; if we weren’t on the same campus, it would be safer to leave. When I left, I tried my friends again. Friend B said, “How could you stoop to making false accusations? You’re just trying to make him look bad.” Friend C said, “If all this is true, why didn’t you leave earlier?”
As any woman murdered in those two weeks will tell you — what did you think leaving would do? When I left, he stopped hitting me. So was I one of the lucky ones? No — my experience was just typical. Then he showed up at my door. He made new emails and new phone numbers to contact me, and I blocked each one.
Why didn’t he leave? He continued for a year. I was on the way to office hours when I picked up an unknown number. It was my abuser again. He continued to threaten to sue me for libel, for what I said to Friends B and C. I arrived at the professor’s office in tears. Over the next several weeks, I found my way to the SHARE Office, where someone gave me a form to request a domestic violence restraining order. I put a shaky pen to the paper.
I did not know what a restraining order was. I did not know I needed to go to court. I did not know I would have to wait a month for my abuser to be served. I did not know that I would not hear from him again but instead hear from his lawyer. I did not expect to spend the six months after completing my coterm waiting for one court date after another. I did not expect to struggle to coordinate course logistics with a mutual friend and co-lecturer when he suddenly gave me the cold shoulder.
The friend finally said, “I found out you were filing a restraining order. I don’t care what he did to you. You can’t ruin a good guy’s life like this.”
I did not expect to hear another mutual friend on the witness stand say, “I sincerely wish I were not testifying against claims of abuse by a fellow Asian American woman. But I’m here today because I believe the allegations are false.”
I did not expect the judge to grant the restraining order. But he did.
Now what? I thought I would be a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. But knowing that my abuser and the rest of his friends were out there, in that world, I never wanted to set foot in any sort of tech-field. I stayed in school. Why do my Ph.D. at Stanford? All I had to my name was a restraining order from Santa Clara County. I didn’t know if it would be easy to enforce elsewhere. The SHARE Office said they would issue a campus stay-away order to implement the court order. I emailed back and forth with the office for almost a year; in the end, they said they would not after all.
My restraining order afforded me 75 yards in which to live my life. Without a campus order, I could not even walk through the Main Quad without looking over my shoulder.
Why do my Ph.D. at Stanford? I smile and say it’s the best in the world for my program of study.
Survivors face two questions daily.
First — am I safe?
Safety shapes my every action. I made the decision to give up on a career. I made the decision not to attend class reunions, to avoid my abuser and to avoid the people I thought were friends, who took his side or said nothing.
But some actions are not decisions. I did not choose to now doubt whether my current friends would unexpectedly walk away one day, as my Stanford friends did back then. I did not choose to nod off at work because I was kept up all night from a nightmare of my abuser. I did not choose to throw up when I saw his name. I did not choose to snap at someone who asked me for a favor, because I was new to requests made without the threat of violence. Is safety putting my life on hold for 10 years? Is safety what I get when I bury the optimistic and trusting version of myself? Is safety grabbing another jacket, because my teeth are chattering as I write this to you now? To all who have questioned my actions, I ask you to choose to believe survivors. We need to be safe.
Second — did it matter? Did what I went through matter? Is it worth it staying alive in a world that houses my abuser, that houses all the people who choose to tell me none of it happened? During college, I thought I would not survive. Even today, every day feels as if it’s borrowed, as if I have been given extra time because I was never meant to live past 22. When my advisor asks me about my career goals, when my friends talk about promotions and having kids, they feel like concepts for a future I will never touch. Did it matter that I lived past 22? During college, I told myself that if I made it out alive, if I could just borrow a few more years of life, I would help others survive.
How do I start? It matters if someone reads this story and believes me. And, if I can reach one person in their darkest moment, it will have mattered.
If you or someone you know is experiencing assault or domestic violence, resources are available. You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233. The National Sexual Assault Hotline can be reached at 800-656-4673. Stanford’s Title IX resources can also be found here.