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May 24, 2013

Trivializing translations

Attempting to put troubling experiences into words when there are none is an exercise in futility.

I was groped at Wellapalooza. The “wellness fair,” which lines the sidewalk outside Cobb twice a year, proffers services and handouts to un-frazzle the perpetually frazzled students of this frazzling university, calling out to us with free stress balls and granola and begging us to relax for once. A hand snuck up my thigh, just under the hem of my dress, as I was waiting for some basil seeds to plant in a little plastic flowerpot. I later knocked the pot over with my knee, emptying it of about half its soil and all of its seeds when I stood up to leave class. Discussion had been held on the Classics Quad, and quite fittingly so. It had been a beautiful day.

Argument is my first defense and each word a link in its chain mail, so I sat down in Harper to find a vocabulary. I knew that I had to be careful: The cost of crying wolf here was not my credibility, but the credibility of others who have suffered far worse. Straightaway, my Googling made clear that “sexual harassment” was no good—although it sounded appropriately mild, its definition implied a workplace or some institutional structure, neither of which applied to a fair in the middle of the Main Quads. Warily, I shifted strategies. Ever the destination for the impatient and confused, the great Wikipedia preached thus: “Sexual assault is any involuntary sexual act in which a person is threatened, coerced, or forced to engage against their will, or any sexual touching of a person who has not consented.”

Now, that fit, but it wasn’t what I wanted. What I wanted was a way to avoid having to say later “No, not like that—not that bad” about something that had deeply disturbed me, and those words would have had to follow if I’d chosen to call what happened to me “sexual assault.” I had “grope” at my disposal—and I’ve disposed of it above—but it’s a playful word, an only occasionally pejorative word. It turned out (not very much to my surprise) that there isn’t really a non-colloquial term for an intrusive hand. The word choice, then, was a choice between appearing to trivialize a violation of my body or appearing extreme, presumptive, and out of line.

So I was sexually assaulted at Wellapalooza. I’m still trying to toe the line between maintaining polite conversation and swaying into silence, the way silt settles to the bottom of still water. I mentioned it, for example, to someone I met in the laundry room, as though it were a difficult problem set. “Yeah, man, it sucked,” I said as I heaved a pile of dripping, fragrant cloth across the aisle to a second-level dryer. It all comes down to the question of how a thing becomes trivial, and whether or not I have the power to make it so by reducing it to fodder for casual conversation, or by making it the subject of an op-ed.

I guess what I would rather risk is cheapness. I guess I would rather speak than know that I didn’t. Perhaps this is what selfishness looks like at its bony heart. Perhaps making others uncomfortable isn’t supposed to come easily to anyone.

It all comes down to the question of respectability, and how we mobilize a fact of the past in the world as we move. Or how, otherwise, we let it lie.

I’ve been watering the soil in the plastic flowerpot. It has become apparent now that some seeds must have stuck to the soil; seven or eight little green threads have splintered their way through the dirt. It’s disappointing, the little I have to tell you compared to the volume of what I could say. There I was. It was a sunny day; I wore a sundress because it was sunny. There are people in this world who, like me, enjoy indulging in things that they believe are up for the taking. I took a plant; someone took of my body. We happened to have disparate understandings of what was free.

The untitled things are the things that fade, unless we revive them ourselves. But that can only be done so long and to so much of a degree. Everyone, including me, has too much living to do. I told a certain trusted confidant later, privately, that I felt unsafe on our campus. I don’t feel unsafe anymore. I feel wiser about something I already knew: There are strange forces that bind the object of a wrong with no name, and stranger forces that bind one whose reaction is disproportionate to the potency of the vocabulary available to her.

Progress rests, sometimes gently and sometimes firmly, on forgetfulness. But forgetting this thing in particular seems capitulatory, so I’m struggling. I’m struggling in a laundry room, in quiet places, during chance encounters. I fish around. I test the waters and the viability of these paltry dictionary words with stale circumlocution and a tentative combination of hope and shame. The waters are cold, and lukewarm, and cold again.

Emma Thurber Stone is a second-year in the College.

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