HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Gemma” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author.
< Part One
Part Two: Freshman Year
My problems started the first semester of my freshman year.
I remember my first few weeks at PHC being happy ones. It was nice to start over with a clean slate and a new group of friends. I felt like I could “be myself” in a way I hadn’t ever been before, now that I was so far away from parents and home. It was still warm in northern Virginia, and the weight of the semester’s work hadn’t set in yet. A favorite evening pastime was swing dancing—we would clear out the furniture in the dining hall or the large lecture hall where chapel was held, and someone would put on a CD of swing music. (This was 2002 and swing dancing was really popular then.) On cooler evenings, we would dance out on the back porch of the main administration building.
The rulebook said nothing about dancing.
But a few weeks into the semester, the administration sent out an email saying that dancing was no longer allowed on campus.
They were not officially saying that dancing was wrong, but some people—donors, board members, it wasn’t clear—might believe it was, and out of deference to these people’s opinions, the college had decided to disallow it on campus. We could dance off campus if we wanted to.
That was easier said than done. Some people would go into the city on weekends and dance at community dance halls like Glen Echo, but that was a long drive. The fun, informal evenings were effectively squashed. Lots of rule changes happened this way—arbitrarily, without warning, and with no chance to appeal. A frequent rationale for changes was that the campus culture needed to respect the sensitivities of the more conservative students, parents, and donors.
The dorm wing I lived in was packed with freshmen girls. Our bubbly, outgoing RA wanted to help us make friends, so she coordinated with the RA of one of the male wings to organize some group outings. One month, our “brother wing” took us all out to dinner at an Italian restaurant. The next month, we invited them to go roller skating at a divey local rink. It was fun.
But then the Dean of Student Life, Paul Wilson, found out about these outings. Dean Wilson was a swarthy, charismatic former wrestling coach, hand-picked by Mike Farris for the job of shepherding his students. Most students seemed to like him. He certainly seemed jocular, smiling, energetic, easygoing, and approachable. Just like a coach should be.
But he believed that men and women were simply incapable of true platonic friendship. This was a belief he had stated repeatedly in chapel and to individuals in private. Relationships between men and women were always potentially volatile; it was best to stick to your own kind.
At the time, in order to promote a “courtship” culture on campus, the college had taken upon itself the burden of monitoring student relationships.
When it seemed like a man and a woman were getting pretty close, Dean Wilson would inquire about the nature of their relationship. He would then ask the man to call the woman’s parents to inform them of his intentions and receive their permission to pursue a relationship with their daughter. In these early days, there were less than 200 students on campus, so it was somewhat feasible for the college to play this role. (They have since modified the extent of their involvement in romantic relationships.)
Even though there was nothing romantic going on in our brother/sister wing outings, Dean Wilson used this rule to put an end to them. He discovered that our two RA’s had gone out for coffee a couple of times to plan the wing outings (and for no other purpose). He called them both to his office and told them they were forbidden from spending any more time alone together, unless the male RA was willing to call the female RA’s parents and get their permission to go to coffee with their daughter. Since there was nothing romantic in the least about their planning sessions over coffee, they were unwilling to take this step. It was clear, anyway, that Dean Wilson had more of a problem with our group outings than he did with the two of them talking over coffee. So they gave in, and we had no more brother/sister wing outings.
And again, what had seemed like a bright new beginning, full of friends and new opportunities, became a little duller, and a little smaller, a little more stifling. I started to wonder if maybe I had been lied to about this campus culture.
Later that first semester, I went to the city one weekend evening with a bunch of friends to see the monuments. Curfew was an hour later on weekends, and we made the most of our time, enjoying the monuments by night. But we took a wrong turn coming out of the metro station lot on the way home and got lost. As a result, we broke curfew by a few minutes. This was a rule violation for sure, but a fairly common one, and we had a reasonable excuse.
Weeks went by and no one said anything about it. I was starting to think our violation had simply been overlooked.
I had a friend, a troubled young man a year or two older than me, who had decided to withdraw that semester. He sold his books and told everyone he’d bought a plane ticket for a particular day. He was just living on campus until that day arrived, when he would go home. On the appointed day, however, he woke up early, stole his roommate’s bicycle, and left. Just disappeared.
As the rumors spread across campus, people became very concerned. What had happened to him? Did he kill himself? It was well known that he had a dislike for particular people on campus. He’d gotten into arguments with other students, and made a note of which people seemed sad to see him go and which people asked him things like “why are you still here?” Maybe he was planning something. Maybe he would come back and kill us! The rumors grew in intensity—he had penned some kind of manifesto to be sent as an all-student email, but the administration had caught it and deleted it before it went out. His parents flew in—apparently, they had no idea he’d even withdrawn from school. Students were huddled in dorm lounges, crying and praying.
We were afraid, and no one would tell us anything.
On this particular afternoon, in the midst of this crisis, I was summoned to Dean Wilson’s office. I went quickly—I assumed he wanted to talk to me about my missing friend.
He didn’t. He wanted to talk to me about being late for curfew a couple weeks before. I was blindsided. I didn’t even know how to respond—everyone was preoccupied by this massive crisis, and he wants to talk about this?
He wanted to know if I was “sorry” for breaking curfew. I was confused: we got lost, it took time to get un-lost, by the time we got home we were late—what part of that was supposed to make me “sorry”? I didn’t deny it, but I didn’t see what there was to be sorry about. It was a mistake, it just happened. I would accept punishment for having broken a rule, but it wasn’t some kind of moral offense that I needed to be “sorry” about.
This made Dean Wilson angry. My refusal to be “sorry” demonstrated a defiant attitude on my part. This disappointed him more than the rule violation itself. Furthermore, he was very concerned about the people I had been out with when the rule was broken. What did I think it said about me, that I was willing to be seen out in a car with these people, after curfew?
I was confused. “These people” were my friends. I liked them. I didn’t see anything wrong with them, and I didn’t see why I should care what anyone else thought either.
He continued to press me—was I sure there was nothing wrong with my friends? What could I tell him about their character? Did I think they had good character? Really? What did hanging out with them communicate to others about my character?
I was confused. I had no idea how to answer these questions. He badgered me into admitting a few character flaws on their part. I still didn’t see what difference that made. Everyone has flaws. If I couldn’t be friends with flawed people, I wouldn’t have any friends.
Dean Wilson was very disappointed in me. He had this remarkably effective way of acting “hurt” to make you feel guilty for things you didn’t need to feel guilty about. I had hurt him, disappointed him, and I should really feel bad for that. He concluded our meeting saying he would have to take some time to think about just how to punish me for this rule violation.
I left feeling scared, bewildered, guilty—on top of the other stress of the day. I spoke to another girl who had been in the car with me, a dorm-mate and good friend. She’d had a similar meeting with him. We were both left not knowing how we were to be punished, but with the threat of eventual punishment hanging over our heads.
Each student, at the beginning of the semester, was given 10 one-hour curfew “extensions,” which could be used at will throughout the semester, but only one-at-a-time (i.e., you couldn’t stack 6 together and stay out all night, you could only use one per night). A common punishment for curfew violation was the confiscation of some curfew extensions.
We assumed this would be our punishment, but we didn’t know how many he would take.
I clearly remember, a few weeks later, the first snow of the winter began late one evening. It was snowing heavily, with enough accumulation that many students went outside and started playing in it, throwing snowballs and building snowmen. Since it was after curfew, these students were all technically using their extensions to leave their dorms. My friend and I watched wistfully from a dorm window while all of our friends frolicked in the snow. We asked our RA if we couldn’t be excused to go out and join them? After all, we wouldn’t be leaving campus, just our dorm. She sympathized, but told us no—until Dean Wilson decided how he was going to punish us, we had to assume we had no extensions left and stay inside the dorm after curfew.
We stood, by ourselves, in the lobby of our dorm, watching all of our friends play in the snow. It was such a silly thing, but it left us feeling demeaned, like naughty children.
He did eventually make up his mind about our arbitrary punishment, but at a point so late in the semester that it didn’t matter anymore.
Several of my new friends dropped out after that semester.
The next semester, a new dorm that had been under construction the previous year was finally finished. The opening of this dorm relieved the massive overcrowding of the previous semester. There had been 7 freshman girls in my one-bathroom suite that first semester, and not surprisingly, we all hadn’t gotten along so well in such tight quarters. Now, there were entire wings of dorms that went unused. Everyone spread out.
Dean Wilson was in charge of assigning people to their rooms. He gave me a room by myself, in a wing full of mostly older, fairly conservative girls I did not know well. He sold this to me as being in my best interests and something I should be grateful for: “You seem like the kind of person who would enjoy living alone.” In retrospect, I can see that he was clearly trying to isolate me from my friends and put me in a place where I would be monitored.
I almost immediately got in trouble for re-arranging the furniture in my room. The room had 3 beds. I didn’t need 3 beds, so I took one apart and stored it in one of the two closets to make more space for myself. Again, according to Dean Wilson, it wasn’t so much the offense that was the problem as my attitude toward it—I didn’t think I had done anything wrong. I wasn’t “sorry” enough. I was “entitled” and “defiant of authority.” I also discovered during this encounter that my new RA would repeat to Dean Wilson, verbatim, anything I said to her.
I shut up after that.
The girls on my new wing made a habit of walking into my room whenever they felt like it, to try to “counsel” me. They made it clear that gossip was not only not condemned, but actually encouraged—it was a tool they would use to make people behave the way they wanted them to.
I still saw my friends at class and went to visit them in their dorm rooms (the female ones, anyway), but I felt increasingly isolated, watched, and fearful. I began to have nightmares, including a recurring one in which I was being strangled to death by demons. I had trouble sleeping and developed odd habits like sleeping with the lights on. Like a child, I literally became afraid of the dark.
It is hard to explain, in retrospect, the level of pressure, fear, and isolation I felt. I was so confused about what I had done to deserve this. I couldn’t even talk to my parents about it; I couldn’t seem to make them understand what I was going through. It was like they had turned into different people—cold, angry, and judgmental. I found out, years later, that Dean Wilson had been calling them and talking to them about me, behind my back, since the previous semester. I don’t know what he was telling them, but he made it sound like I was in so much trouble they nearly withdrew me from the school involuntarily. But he reassured them that he was watching over me and doing his best to fix my problems, so of course they tried to help him in his project.
He took advantage of normal parental concerns to manipulate my well-intentioned parents and turn them against me, and used them to manipulate me, break my will, and bring me over to his side.