My Name is Sara

My name is not Sara.

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Piled Higher and Deeper: Sara runs to relax after a six month period where her ex assaulted and stalked her, her lab became unsafe and a new faculty member turned a job meeting into a date. She declined to provide a photo

My Worst Moment: 

I had been experiencing some uncomfortable attention from an undergrad in our lab. I’m a PhD student. I’m a handful of years older than he is. It started with nonsexual body related comments like “Do you eat salad because you want to be underweight?” and “Do you work out, because you look like you work out?” He was a foreign student and I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. I became increasingly uncomfortable as it became more and more obvious to me that this attention was in fact romantic/sexual in nature. His uncomfortable attention was always there, usually in the form of comments said to me quietly at lunches with the lab or after everyone else had left the office for the evening. It always just ambiguous enough that I wasn’t sure how to address it directly. It continued to escalate to the point of him asking me repeatedly, even though I told him it made me uncomfortable, if I “partied a lot in undergrad” or if I participated in the “hookup culture” as an undergrad or if I “dated a lot” now . The times that he clearly crossed boundaries, I told him, “Don’t ask me that, I’m not answering that question.” He would always take it as teasing banter. Sometimes he ignored my signals and sometimes he seemed to enjoy seeing me uncomfortable.

I felt this situation was manageable, after all he was just an undergraduate student, I was a graduate student, and he didn’t have any power over me. That was, however, until an experience in my life outside of the lab happened and suddenly I couldn’t tolerate the discomfort anymore.

I had been dating someone I had met outside of grad school for a few months and when I tried to break things off he refused to let go. He had sexually assaulted me and after I tried to break off contact with him, he tried to blackmail me. He persistently contacted me for months with delusional messages about how we were part of some grander story, how he had to do what he did because I had “lost faith” in him, and how much it hurt him to hurt me. The situation was traumatic, in particular because my aggressor owns a gun. I couldn’t sleep or focus for months, terrified that he would show up at lab or my apartment.

I was doing everything I could to keep my life together in the midst of this as I tried to navigate the logistics of considering a restraining order or pressing charges for the assault and dealing with the the mental health issues associated with the post traumatic stress.

We had also had two other women join the lab around that time and the undergraduate student who had been bothering me started to harass them too. While it was unfortunate that they were experiencing this behavior from him, it was in part a welcome relief for me to know that it wasn’t something wrong with me that I was attracting this unwanted attention. Luckily for me, one of the other women took the initiative to bring a summary of our experiences to my advisor. He was sympathetic to our story and had a serious conversation with the undergrad student about his behavior. We haven’t had any problems with him since.

In the middle of all of this, I was nearing the end of my PhD and starting to think about what I wanted to do for a postdoc or if I wanted to go into data science instead. At this point it was a struggle to even feel comfortable enough being alone in rooms with any man I didn’t know. Even being looked at in a neutral way made me want to crawl out of my skin.

Screen Shot 2021-06-13 at 2.49.01 PMI saw a talk from someone I was interested in doing a postdoc with. He was doing exactly the kind of work I was interested in a field where I felt that work wasn’t being done but was needed. There weren’t many people doing this kind of work. I had read some of his papers and was really excited about his ideas. At the end of the talk, he mentioned at the end of his talk that he was starting a new faculty position at another university, but first was doing a postdoc at the university I was at, and that he would be looking for postdocs and graduate students for next fall. We talked afterwards and seemed to hit it off. I was going to email him after the conference to ask him to talk more about his work on campus and ask about doing a postdoc with him- but I got an email from him first asking me out on a date. When I saw the email, I cried. I felt like I would never be able to escape my body, female and therefore housing a mind that didn’t matter as much. I tried to salvage the situation in a way that I felt had left things clear (something to the effect of: “Thanks for contacting me! You’ll enjoy the museum, I’ve been already and it’s great. Would you like to meet up on campus and talk about your research?”). I showed up to our “meeting” with printed out copies of his paper annotated with my notes. He said “How flattering that you’ve read my papers.” When I told him I wanted to work with him, he told me doing a postdoc with him would be a bad idea for me. He also said he didn’t want to be my “boss” because it was “much more relaxing to collaborate as equals.”

That was the breaking point for me and I decided that I could no longer tolerate the risks associated with staying in academia. My emotional bandwidth for risk had been depleted. Academia means giving up the flexibility of where you work and limits who you can work with. I love academia because it means I can pursue the projects I’m interested in. This is a gift that is extremely rare in any other context. Now, I no longer want to risk limiting the focus of what I want to work on so narrowly that one tone deaf suitor means I have to compromise my interests. Academia also means giving up financial security. I know it’s unlikely I’ll end up in a situation where I need to move because of a fear of physical threat (which I would have done if my ex had ever shown up in person at my apartment). I never want to be in a situation where I have to weight the financial loss of moving if I need to do so to feel safe. I’ll be applying for tech jobs in the fall.

I Have Given Up on academia

I’m Afraid of guns and I’m afraid of my ex. I worry that I’ll never fully feel safe again. I’ll never feel comfortable shrugging off unwanted attention in the future, though being a women in STEM means it’s basically inevitable. I’m afraid I’ll always hold on to the resentment that my male colleagues will never have to deal with this bullshit.

This Has Cost Me: In the long run, leaving academia will lead to a higher salary for me, but it’s cost me a lot in terms of my dignity and mental health. In the short term, I have spent so much money on dental work from grinding my teeth from the stress (I had seven cavities). I also had swelling in my fingers from clenching my fists at night.

Something You Should Know About Me These experiences have taught me how strong I am. I won’t keep quiet. I was a patient, easy going person before this. Now I no longer feel like I owe anyone kindness who doesn’t deserve it.

Is There a Bright Side: My university has played an amazing role in supporting me through the ordeal with my persistent ex. They have an mental health support team that is specifically trained to deal with sexual, gender, and intimate partner related violence. Through that program, I completed therapy for the unspecified post trauma disorder and unspecified stress disorder which helped re-establish some feelings of normalcy. All of that helped me deal with the less traumatizing unwanted attention in the context of the more serious assault and harassment from my ex. The head of campus safety consulted with me about the costs and benefits of getting a restraining order or pressing charges against my ex for the assault (which ultimately I decided against). Feeling like I was really supported by the university was a bright side in all of this absurdity.

My Fight Song Head Underwater by Jenny Lewis

This song is about the artist’s experience with insomnia, though I think it can be interpreted more generally to be about coping. Sometimes there will be situations that are out of your control and there’s nothing you can do but put your head underwater and wait for it to pass.

There’s a little bit of magic // everybody has it
There’s a little bit of fight left me in yet

My Secret Weapon: My secret weapon is long distance running which has been the only thing keeping me sane and calming my nerves enough to sleep at night. Most importantly, my sister, my best friends, and my lab mates have always been there for me. No one else could help me find ways to laugh even in the darkest moments of this experience and keep me sane.