NEW YORK — I weeded my not-yet-planted garden for two hours on Monday, then flew at pre-dawn on Tuesday to New York to help my daughter pack for the summer. I slept on an air mattress on the floor of her postage-stamp-sized dorm room. We watched a documentary, and as we walked in search of lunch Tuesday, we were swept into the waves of powder blue graduation gowns at Columbia University.
It’s a beautiful spectacle to see several thousand young people in identical academic uniforms marching into the future, with their frantic kin lurching to keep up, while the father carries two large cardboard Starbucks coffee cradles, rattling off the distinctions between the vanilla and the caramel lattes and defending his decision not to get whipped cream on the macchiato. Meanwhile, the mother is simultaneously taking photos and video with an iPhone and a video cam, the grandfather is snapping pictures with a drug store disposable camera, and the graduate’s younger brother is absorbed in his own little universe behind ear buds and sunglasses. Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Thank goodness.
You perhaps have read about the Columbia student who has been carrying her mattress to her classes and every campus event to protest the university’s failure to address her sexual assault with anything that resembles justice. Emma Sulkowicz alleges that a fellow student raped her on Aug. 27, 2012. When the university failed to expel or even reprimand him, Sulkowicz declared she would carry her mattress with her for the rest of her time at Columbia or at least as long as the alleged perpetrator remained on campus.
Sulkowicz used the mattress protest — with its echoes of Christ, Sisyphus and Atlas — as her senior art thesis. She has become a kind of poster child for the national crisis of campus sexual assault.
Sulkowicz graduated on Tuesday. So did her alleged assailant. The university tried hard to discourage her from carrying her mattress across the stage at graduation. But in spite of direct and indirect attempts by the university to dissuade her, she saw her protest through to the end. With the help of four friends, she hoisted that mattress over the dais in front of thousands of people.
When she arrived at center stage with her burden, Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger, who had shaken hands with each of the other students in the graduation ceremony, bent over as if to pick up something and did not shake Sulkowicz’s hand. According to an account in the New York Times, she lingered for a second, trying to make eye contact, then shrugged and marched on.
These situations are often very complicated. Only two people were in that room on Aug. 27, 2012, and their stories cannot be reconciled. Nobody else knows for sure what happened. I would say that it is none of my business, but that is not true. I have a daughter of about the same age. Her security is one of the few absolutes in my life.
You have free articles remaining.
I want to say that I admire Emma Sulkowicz and deeply respect her courage in bearing her mattress as witness to the failure of our system to bring justice to those who have been sexually assaulted. Imagine how many times in a full academic year she must have wanted to throw down that heavy, bulky and unwieldy mattress and just get on with her life. And yet she persevered to the end. She did not shrink away in shame, as most people would do, as almost certainly I would have done.
In shouldering that mattress through her life at Columbia University, Sulkowicz turned the tables on the crime, as if to say, sexual assault is not my problem, it is yours. I am not going to make it easy for you to express a moment’s commiseration for the “victim” and then forget about it and get on with your lives. I’m going to visualize the national campus rape epidemic in this quiet but emphatic way so that you cannot ignore it. If it makes you feel uncomfortable, well, gee ….
Meanwhile, in Montana, the people of Missoula are stirred up by the publication of Jon Krakauer’s new book on a series of campus assaults at the University of Montana. The title would make any chamber of commerce shudder: “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.” Krakauer is best known for his books on outdoor adventure, “Into the Wild” and “Into Thin Air,” but he also has done distinguished work in crime reporting.
Missoula may not like the title of his expose or the negative publicity that he brings to the University of Montana (imagine if the first word in the title were Fargo or Grand Forks or Bismarck), but when he points out that the Department of Justice investigated 350 sexual assaults that were reported to the Missoula police between January 2008 and May 2012, nobody can pretend we have no problem.
North Dakota lies due east of Montana and not so very far from the streets of New York. Nor do we appear to be immune from the human condition, in spite of our best efforts to pretend otherwise.
(Clay Jenkinson, the author of nine books, is a North Dakota native who lives in Bismarck. Contact him at Jeffysage@aol.com.)