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Going To The Mattresses, The Parental Strategy


Emma Sulkowicz gained some degree of fame as “mattress girl” at Columbia University, where she engaged in what she described as performance art by carrying her mattress around with her to show how she “carried that weight” of being a “survivor” of rape.

This came after Columbia “tried” and found her accused rapist “not responsible.” It came after she went to the NYPD and was told they would have to investigate rather than immediately imprison her accused rapist and have him thrown out of college. It came after she learned that they just wouldn’t do as she wanted.

The story is that Sulkowicz had engaged in consensual sex with her accused rapist twice before, but the third time he did things she didn’t want. Seven months later, after talking with some friends, she decided to complain about it. She claims to have been ill-advised by Rosalie Siler, then Assistant Director of Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct, to not obtain counsel to “prosecute” her claim, with a laundry list of ancillary tactical errors that prevented her accusation from being fully considered.

The young man accused was outed by the Columbia Spectator, providing name and graduating year. Despite his having been convicted of nothing, the internet will show him to be a rapist in perpetuity. But that doesn’t seem to concern many.

After everyone, from Columbia to the NYPD and prosecutors, “failed” Emma Sulkowicz by not validating her claim, and more importantly, destroying the world of the man she accused by throwing him out of school if not into prison, an unusual thing happened. Her mother and father, both doctors, wrote an “open letter” for the Columbia Spectator.

Of necessity, I am agnostic as to what happened between Sulkowicz and the young man, whose name won’t be repeated here even though others have been more than happy to publish it. I wasn’t there, and only read the story as Sulkowicz offers it, and then filtered through various reporters.

Others follow their political inclinations by accepting Sulkowicz’s story as gospel, or dismissing it out of hand. Maybe they know something I don’t, but I doubt it. Rather, they believe because they want to believe.

But now that Emma’s parents, Sandra Leong, M.D. and Kerry J. Sulkowicz, M.D., have chosen to publish their open letter, which presumably reflects their best case on behalf of their daughter, and may well have been written with the assistance of someone they believe is skilled at making a persuasive case, it changes things.

On April 18, 2013, our daughter, Emma Sulkowicz, CC ’15, reported that she was raped by a fellow student to the Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct. What followed was a prolonged, degrading, and ultimately fruitless process. It was an injury to her humanity from what was once, for her, a trusted institution. The trauma of this process has contributed to the rerouting of her life, her identity, and the form of her self-expression as an artist.

It’s not that Sulkowicz’s complaint was ignored, but that the accusation, made April 18, 2013 of conduct that occurred August 27, 2012, did not produce the result demanded.

However, as Emma’s parents, we do not want her recent celebrity to be a distraction from the fact that the University’s failure to place sanctions on the man she reported for rape, [name deleted], is a cause of her continued suffering. The investigation, hearing, and appeals process that followed her complaint to the University were painfully mishandled. We feel that they violated standards of impartiality, fairness, and serious attention to the facts of the case.

Columbia uses the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, and still the outcome of the hearing was that the accused was “not responsible,” their version of acquittal. It fared no better on appeal. In the lengthy open letter, the parents explain in detail the best arguments they can muster for their daughter.

There was a subsequent attempt, following the “fruitless” outcome at Columbia, to use the legal system, but that was dropped when it was learned that they wouldn’t just take her word for it and conduct a summary execution. Notably, part of the complaint is that the police treated her like a criminal by skeptically questioning her about what happened. This is not how “survivors” expect to be treated.

Although Emma filed a criminal report with the NYPD against [name deleted], she has learned from the district attorney’s office that pursuit of criminal charges would result in another prolonged investigation and adjudication that would not be resolved during the remainder of her time at Columbia University. Thus, over two years after the incident, Emma remains dependent on the University to determine whether [the accused] remains on campus.

So the attention is returned to the university . The parents offer a list of the failings of the Columbia system, beginning with this:

In retrospect, it’s hard to see the conduct of the investigation of our daughter’s complaint and the subsequent hearing as anything but a circus. Emma complied with the administrator’s recommendation that she not engage a lawyer for outside advice…

During the hearing, [the accused], advised by his outside attorney, lied in order to cast doubt upon Emma’s character and present an alternative and perverse motivation for her complaint. Our daughter was instructed by Ms. Siler not to answer these allegations in any way, and not even to inform the panel that he was lying.

Emma’s parents believe their daughter. This is neither surprising nor, dare I say it, wrong. This is their child, their baby, and parents are allowed to embrace their daughter’s complaint without reservation. In the comments to the open letter, some contend that these are rich, entitled doctors who think their every wish must come true. That’s unfair. Even physician parents are entitled to believe in their child, and fight with every resource at their command to help.

We find it necessary to remind the University that rape is not merely an assault on the body, but an assault on the mind, and in particular, the will. Those who have withstood the violence of rape are often injured in their ability to assert themselves and to trust that they will be treated with humanity when they attempt to be heard. It is inhumane and unrealistic to expect that every survivor of sexual assault who can bear reliable witness will also have the strength, determination, and support that are currently required to lodge, and see to its conclusion, a formal complaint.

For the sake of argument, this may well be the parents’ most sincere belief, their rationale rather than rationalization, for how their daughter handled matters and how forgiving, or responsible, Columbia should be.

In a few months, Emma and [the accused] will graduate. If Columbia does not act to expel him before then, their graduation will not relieve Columbia of the burden of this episode. Instead, in this important moment in the history of sexual assault on college campuses, Columbia will remain indelibly in the public mind as the university where good men and women did nothing.

It’s always a travesty of justice when the outcome one believes should happen doesn’t. The world is filled with travesties of justice. It’s a lesson that every child needs to learn. In this instance, the lesson was taught to both Emma Sulkowicz and the young man she accused. Her parents plea won’t change that. If anything, this letter exposes her failings.

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