Letter to the editor: Forgiveness before any new thing

Hi, I’m Tessa Cheek ’12, one of the four survivors who talked to [President] Raynard Kington about reforming Grinnell’s sexual assault response policy in the spring of 2012.

Like everyone in the room that day, I suspect, that conversation has haunted me for three years. I remember it with a stomach-turning mixture of anger, shame and confusion. I’ll be honest and say my memory of the talk also isn’t great. Though the facts of previously reported accounts don’t strike me as wrong, I still long for the form of the thing—namely, a recording.

When I ask myself why I want this artifact, the answer is pretty simple: I want to know if I was right. Right to go into that room and fight the cause at considerable personal cost, right in my behavior, right in my moral reasoning, right to report in the first place, right, right, right.

This need for concrete evidence of my political and personal correctness has only grown over the years. It’s a heavy, sharp carry. As with so many difficult conversations, from rape to race, the discourse has swung very zero-sum: either I’m right and Kington’s horrible, or Kington’s not horrible and I’m a horrible hysteric.

This spring I had the honor of returning to Grinnell to teach a journalism workshop at The Scarlet & Black. While I was in town I also had the chance to talk to lots of Grinnell folks—particularly students and professors.

In some big ways it seems like my rightness is in vogue at Grinnell. Among students especially I heard a lot about how Raynard is bad on sexual assault response politics and possibly just bad for Grinnell.

Ok, cool, I was right all along. Finally, I can put that burden down.

But I don’t feel light and I don’t feel right. I feel sad.

I feel sad because I walked into Kington’s office three years ago to start a conversation, not to make conversation impossible.

I feel sad because the more I heard about students’ dissatisfaction with administration, the more it seemed to have veered mightily from concrete constructive aims that will reduce sexual assault and support survivors and towards tired critical tropes. Things like: Kington is tyrannical or [Title IX Coordinator] Angela Voos (who took on the task of revamping Grinnell’s Title IX policy after that 2012 talk and made every effort to include me in her work) is inept.

What I didn’t hear much about was what the fighting was for. If, for example, it’s more counselors, then Grinnell students should engage the fact that the school is losing staff this year and struggling to fill positions because the ratio of mental health professionals to residents in Iowa is alarmingly low. I worry that in the rush to establish who is right and who is wrong, we’ve lost sight of what can change.

I don’t think much convincing is needed at Grinnell, or really any campus these days, to agree that when it comes to how institutions of higher learning deal with sexual assault, new is needed. I submit to you that if what we really want is a campus and a world where people don’t rape other people, the fundamental project at hand is not to get Kington fired or to make Grinnell look bad but to fundamentally re-invent how institutions of higher learning deal with sexual assault.

I don’t have a perfect plan for how to invent this new policy, but my studies at Grinnell have shaped what I think the first step might be.

In the spring of 2012 I worked on a MAP investigating Hannah Arendt’s theory of public discourse and how it can be repaired once broken. It’s been a bit, but I’d summarize that semester of study with the following Arendt paraphrase: forgiveness before any new thing.

Forgiveness is not the same as absolution. It’s more of a truth and reconciliation thing. So here goes:

My truth is that I walked into Kington’s office in 2012 with a good-faith desire to work on solutions and trusting that I would be heard. I left the room feeling hurt, betrayed and not a little gaslit.

But I see now that the validity of my experience doesn’t depend on my rightness/Kington’s wrongness. When it comes to having tough but generative conversations about terrifying social issues, rightness and wrongness are not as important as respect, communication and forgiveness for the inevitable stumbles in that highly complex relational effort known as empathy.    

That’s just one person’s truth and this letter just one forgiveness. It’s likely that the hard work of those at Grinnell who put together a Title IX complaint about the school, and/or the investigation Kington later requested, will yield even more truths to reconcile.

New is needed, and to even get started on that work requires not one but many forgiveness. I mean for this letter to serve as an argument in favor of doing that difficult, radical work. I mean for it to serve as one repair—a thin bridge, sure, but we could widen it.