by Ali Valdez
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Recently, I was forced to revisit a rather difficult period in my academic life. Without belaboring a long-winded back story, I’ll just say he was heavily advised to, and promptly resigned. It was a #metoo moment that I tried to brush aside with fortitude and resilience.
Although there a sort of vindication in going through an exhaustive process that leaves many young ladies hung out to dry or ostracized, it doesn’t mean that years later something won’t trigger you, bringing back aspects of the situation left incomplete or not fully healed.
We are all products of our society. Inevitably, something will come along, bursting the seam of the collective subconscious and ignite a fire nestled deep within. It seems even for me, the woman chiseled from the side of a mountain, that time had come.
Why now? The solidarity of the female power brokers in Hollywood for starters. Seeing women begin to come forward, unapologetically sharing their stories, using their platform in a bold way. Then, the news broke about the girls’ Olympic gymnastics team. Personally, this shattered me. I was a young girl separated from my parents, too, entrusted to the care of another, an authority who knew best, even in spite of my own discernment that something was not right. Girls had complained before me, but no action was taken on their behalf.
Today I mentor a young competitive gymnast in yoga, and I am the mother of an eleven-year- old girl. May this never be their story. At some point, it becomes a responsibility to create breathing room for young women to know their voice matters and to speak up, always trusting their intuition. All I needed was one well-intended compliment that brought up those once buried, bad memories. There was now nowhere to run; I had to face the pain one more time, as if reliving it all over again.
Now, without having to focus just to get through it, I gave myself the space I never had before. I wanted to simply feel, to address its impact on an emotional level; something that is seldom, if ever, encouraged in one’s professional life. I lead a team of young professional women that report to me. I shared my story with complete vulnerability and candor. It was important for
them to know why maybe I was a bit more tender at times, most bristling at others. Moreover, I wanted them to know that situations like this can happen to anyone, and that no one needs to remain silent anymore.
In a recent leadership training, the facilitator was talking about keeping a logbook about synchronicity that may transpire through the course of the training. At one point, someone was sharing, and he said, “Maybe that’s something for your log book.” It reminded me that I had been a copious log-keeper during that time. I was dealing with someone trying to use control and coercion to threaten my longer-term academic career and diminish my prospects as an aspiring writer. Maybe the salve that I needed was to go back and dig up thirty year old journals to see what I might find.
Luckily my assistant just sent a text saying she found a box of old journals that she had no idea where to place. A true kismet moment, I went home and there they were, as if waiting for the synchronicity of me finding my place in that moment. Seven years of daily writing. I combed through a few, full of photos, hand written letters on beautiful stationary (people did stuff like that thirty years ago) and a record of every thought, feeling and aspiration I once had. What there wasn’t, at first, was any record of him, and the dirty little imprint he put on my life.
I contemplated calling it a night. Then I saw a little red journal smaller than the others. It had a cover with a golden backdrop and a red angel. I reached for it; the title read:
The Dr. (Name Omitted) Factor.
I read in painstakingly crafted detail of over 63 offenses against me. It was laid out objectively and concise, as if I were writing an article for the newspaper I ran. The facts read:
This was man fantasizing and objectifying one of his students, constantly questioning her mores, baiting and challenging her “innocence and purity” at the bible college she attended.
This was a man who wouldn’t let his student select any other professors, drop out of his classes, and wanted complete visibility into her personal finances as well as badgering her for every detail of her dating life, contriving and verbalizing his lurid and overlaid projections onto them.
This was the man who would insist on closing his office door, saying the most repulsive and vulgar comments about her body and her looks, and then threatening to make any chance of going to graduate school an impossibility without complete cooperation.
Almost thirty years later, the facts still felt crushing. At nineteen, you feel so helpless and vulnerable. You study and prepare for years to reach your goals and right before the finish line, someone who seems so supportive and trustworthy begins to reveal their true colors.
It wasn’t until I refused to stay in his office one afternoon that he lurched from his chair and grabbed me forcefully by the arm. It was the only time, and the last time, he ever touched me. I had had enough. Time was up. Three other women had similar concerns about him. Together, we not only reported him, but threatened together as a unified front to take legal action when the school offered no recourse, only a verbal warning that would not even be placed on his record.
There were a few things I learned about myself by combing back through my journals and navigating this situation in lieu of the larger outcry from other women across the country put in situations such as this or worse. It is my hope that these lessons may serve as inspiration to you as well.
- RECLAMATION: Pasted into one of my journals was a photograph of me during Christmas break when I was 19 years old. This was just before this man was assigned my Academic and Graduate advisor. Bright-eyed and full of life, I cannot recall a single photograph since where I looked so joyful. I decided it was time to reclaim that lost part of myself. At any time, we can find our true North and make our way back to center.
- ADVOCACY: I wanted to make sure no other student should have to deal with something like this. I wanted to protect other girls. Naively though I was asked to sign a non-disclosure; he went off and was gainfully employed by another small college. This still grips me with immense remorse. I was short-sighted, wanting it all to end. Helping my fellow classmates was small restitution in lieu of what might have been a much larger problem elsewhere. I have an opportunity to make this right now by being a candid advisor to my team, the women I mentor, and the young women in my life. Just because I had been given a chance to speak my voice once, didn’t mean I was then obligated to silence it.
- LETTING GO: When it came time for me to testify, I was the last of the four women, taking my seat at the end of an emotionally exhausting day. After I went through my grievances, in a first, he broke down weeping and apologized to me. It isn’t worth holding onto something that shaped a single season at the expense of possibly distorting an entire life. I was able to get some closure for my personal benefit and for the advocacy of others. The lesson here was remembering honestly, completely, and creating space for both sides to grow from the process.
- SIMPLE GRATITUDE: Lastly, whilst culling the gory details of my last semester of college (the threats, the gross comments, the exerted control, and the outright obsession) I noticed an equal outpouring of gratitude. Not gratitude towards him, mind you, but gratitude for my friends, my supporters, those who stood by my side, held my hand when I cried. I was grateful that my school, once trying to avoid overthrowing a wildly influential tenured professor, in the end did the right thing and took care of its girls. This was the early nineties, and an evangelical Christian liberal arts bible college at that. I was grateful for my own resolve, resilience, my unquenchable thirst for justice.
I didn’t lose what I loved most. I was grateful I didn’t lose my love of writing, my hope and belief in the goodness of men, nor my nerdom for just wanting to spend every waking minute reading books and studying language. I still became a teacher. I am writing and publishing.
Thirty years later and the women who shared this journey with me still remain my friends. I see that the biggest blessing of all, reliving this event and in spite of its painful memories, has shown me that I am a woman instinctually recognizing the good, even in circumstances that ripped my heart asunder. I have found that gratitude is an extraordinary asset, a critical tool in the game of life, and something that I have carried with me all along.