I Was Stalked By My Professor. This Is How It Started.
The below is an excerpt from Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention by Donna Freitas, about the author's experience being stalked by her graduate professor for more than two years and how her experience speaks to the way society understands consent. The book is out on Aug. 13, 2019, from Little, Brown and Company.
My professor was outside my apartment, peering through the window.
It was not quite a basement apartment, but sort of half underground, the windows level with the sidewalk. I’d gone to retrieve a pile of mail that had fallen through the slot in the front door. I jumped when I saw him, watching me from above. He wasn’t smiling, didn’t wave. It was a cold day in late February, or maybe it was early March, and he just stood there staring at me through the small rectangular pane of glass. He hadn’t warned that he might show up, or asked if I’d be around that day, or requested permission to say hello at my home. He just arrived.
I opened the door. Moved aside so he could descend the steps into the living room.
"I was in the neighborhood," he explained as he entered my house. He had a conference that day in Georgetown, he told me, or perhaps it was a meeting with other priests, or a visit to the library to pick up a book he needed. I can’t remember exactly. Or maybe it was none of these things and he simply lied and invented a reason to be near my apartment so he could come by and visit, see where I lived, what my life was like outside school. He wore his typical all-black attire, the black shirt of a priest, black pants, but no collar. He rarely wore a collar and often had a loose black blazer of sorts that he wore over everything.
He stopped in front of the couch, looking around.
This was a first for me, to have a professor in my house. "Would you like some tea?" I asked. "Or coffee?"
He hadn’t warned that he might show up, or asked if I’d be around that day, or requested permission to say hello at my home. He just arrived.
His face brightened, he said yes, he wanted tea, and I invited him to sit at the little wooden table pressed against the wall of the kitchen while I put on the kettle. The day was gray, a good day for drinking something warm.
We were alone.
My roommate worked during the week at an office, left at eight in the morning and usually didn’t return until well after six. I don’t remember if I’d told him about her, about our friendship, our style of living, the fact that she and I would occasionally put the music on loud and dance in the living room, how she was as obsessed with fashion as I was and we would have marathon shopping days, or how once in a while we would host a keg party and persuade one of our guy friends to go to the liquor store and bring the heavy metal barrel back for us and tap it on our back patio.
I joined him at the table while we waited for the water to boil.
We made small talk. He was very animated. I served him the tea when it was ready. I was still a bit startled that I suddenly had him in my house. But I wasn’t unhappy. I came around to enjoy the conversation, as I’d always enjoyed our conversations when we met in his office. He was a smart man, enthusiastic about our shared academic interests, and it was easy to like this part of him. I don’t remember how long he stayed. Maybe an hour? Eventually he went on his way again, and that was all. The visit wasn’t a big deal. Short, just a cup of tea, and then he was off.
There are several mental snapshots from that visit that have stayed with me, though. Seeing his face peering at me through the window of my front door. Seeing him standing in the middle of my living room. Seeing him sitting in the blond wooden chair in my kitchen, his expression pleased.
After he left, I had my first flicker of doubt, a slight disquiet that nagged at me.
It reminded me of the moment at the theater when the man was naked onstage, and I’d felt paralyzed with awkwardness and discomfort. But that was different from what I felt now. My professor couldn’t control the plot of the play or the actors within it. Yet today, this time, he’d made a decision to come over to my house, which struck me as forward. The unease it provoked was faint, like a single bead on a necklace. I barely felt its tug.
It was easy for him to justify his visit. It made total sense that he would be in my neighborhood, which was Georgetown’s neighborhood — Georgetown, a Jesuit school full of Jesuit priest-professors. As a Catholic priest and a professor himself, he would surely have reason to be there on occasion. Georgetown was a place where he had plenty of his own affiliations. He was an alum, like me.
But it wasn’t until much later that it occurred to me that I had never given him my address, or directions to my somewhat hidden apartment. That he must have looked up my home address in my personal files at graduate school, to which he had full access since he was my professor and also, at the time, an administrator of a department; that he would have had to write down my address on a piece of paper and go scouring the neighborhood to find it. This was the nineties, well before GPS and Google Maps.
Now, decades later, I wonder what he was thinking as he made his way to my apartment that first time, if he’d woken up that morning and made it his purpose to visit me at home, or if he’d even planned this excursion in advance. I wonder if he thought much at all about what he was doing, or if it really was a spontaneous decision on his part, as he’d told me. Back then, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to wonder if he was lying.
Yet today, this time, he’d made a decision to come over to my house, which struck me as forward. The unease it provoked was faint, like a single bead on a necklace. I barely felt its tug.
If I had to guess the truth today, knowing what I know, I would say that he likely planned his visit, maybe even days ahead. He needed my address, and for that he had to go into my records. This required him to stop in the main office of the graduate school. This looking up of my records would become a habit of his. I would guess, too, that when he set out for Georgetown that morning, if he did indeed visit the library, or some other priests on campus, he did it only as a way of justifying his presence near my house. Maybe it was also a way to justify the letters he began to send me there.
I had two places where I collected the mail. One was in my department at school, where I received correspondence about my program, and the other was at my apartment.
I went to school pretty much every single day. I was full time, so I was often in class, plus I needed to attend the lectures of the professor for whom I was a TA, and on Fridays I ran discussion sections with my students. I was always around, and I often liked to sit in the little room where people went to get coffee and tea, or to read between classes, or sometimes to eat their bag lunches at the round table near the windows. It was called the Etc. Room and had a sign on the door naming it as such. I was a regular presence there, like many of my fellow students. I loved being at school because I loved everything about getting my PhD.
This looking up of my records would become a habit of his
That spring, I did not have a class with this professor, though I would still swing by to see him occasionally. His office was on a different floor than my department, in a different wing of the building. I had to go there on purpose; I was never just walking down his hallway. We didn’t see each other regularly anymore as we had in the fall, so when he began leaving things in my TA mailbox — that first story about the URI basketball team, then other newspaper articles that he thought I might like to read and short notes asking if I would stop by his office, followed by requests that we make time for coffee, or maybe another play — at first it seemed like a nice thing for him to do. He was making sure to stay in touch. I appreciated his effort to maintain his concern for my studies and my place in his program. I was flattered, too. I was, and I need to admit that. His attention made me feel special, though not special in a way that a boy I liked might make me feel special. Special as an aspiring intellectual, as an aspiring PhD, as an aspiring professor, like himself.
But when the first letter from him arrived at my home address, I thought: Huh.
I picked it up from the floor of my apartment with the rest of the mail, a letter addressed to me in a long rectangular envelope. I knew his handwriting by then because of the notes he’d been leaving in my TA mailbox and from his comments on my papers the previous semester. Plus, I recognized the return address. He’d used his abbey stationery, which had the abbey’s address printed in the top left-hand corner. I don’t remember the contents of the letter, just its arrival. It was the first of several he would send to me at that particular apartment, and the first of many more he would later send to my apartment on Georgetown’s campus, once I began working in Residence Life there later on in the summer.
I never gave him any of my home addresses. Not the apartment I shared with my roommate, not the one I’d soon have at Georgetown, not the house where my family lived in Rhode Island. But he sent letters to all of these places. Eventually I would have three mailboxes, and he would send things to every one of them. Notes. Cards. Invitations. Articles. Sometimes, there would be a letter from him waiting for me in all three places on the very same afternoon. To this day, no single person has ever sent me that much mail. Not a friend, a boyfriend, a lover, a husband. But early on, I still thought of his letters as nice gestures.
Even today, as I recount these stories about the correspondence he began with me and that surprise visit to my house, I am still full of doubt about everything that happened. Am I making too big a deal over it? Is it really innocent after all? It’s not as though he showed up in my apartment that day and grew violent, or tried to have sex with me, or even gave me the kind of line that a man who was hitting on me might at a bar. There was no "Hey, honey" or even a "You look beautiful today" or any other comment that might be considered out of place. He was perfectly cordial, perfectly gentlemanly, perfectly nice. He made the visit seem like one of my visits to his office — it was just that this time, he’d shown up where I happened to live.
I go back and forth, back and forth, as I examine each moment.
But this is the thing about what I went through — the kind of harassment that, in my case, eventually grew to be stalking, and that was complicated by his being my professor: you begin to doubt your judgment about everything. Technically, each meeting between him and me, each effort on his part to insert himself into my life, could be considered innocent. During the first year of our relationship, I certainly gave him the benefit of the doubt, once I’d started to have any doubts. I assumed the best about him, presumed any nagging feeling was my own fault, that I was just imagining things, inventing the unease that came to reside inside me that spring, and never left me again.
Even today, as I recount these stories about the correspondence he began with me and that surprise visit to my house, I am still full of doubt about everything that happened.
It is only when I force myself to look at everything as a whole that I realize how what he did must look to someone else, someone who is able to assess things from a safe distance, to see the whole story at once. Or when I begin to push beyond my original assumptions about his goodness and kindliness, his justifications that were always above reproach in my mind, to see the layers of planning on his part for something as simple as a visit to my house for tea, or the sending of a letter to my home address. That he would have already needed to cross the lines of propriety to find himself on my street, that he would have had to go digging into my file for personal information that was there only in case of an emergency, that he used his access as my professor and mentor to pry further and further into my life, that he used his vow of celibacy, too, his role as a Catholic priest, to mask what I now suspect were less than innocent intentions, probably from very early on. He used all of this like a key to enter my world, without any express invitation on my part — though it’s also true that I did not resist. Not at first.
When I stop excusing everything that he did, each individual event and decision as most likely innocent, when I allow myself to wonder if he knew exactly what he was doing the entire time, if deception had always been a part of his behavior toward me and with me, I’m able to see my reactions at the time more clearly. If I let myself believe for a moment that he lied to me from the beginning about why he was in my neighborhood that day — or outside my classroom, or standing in the stairwell the moment I arrived at school for a seminar. If I do all of this and then consider the possibility that the entire first semester of his correspondence with me, every letter and article and note, had been carefully calculated from the get-go in a collective effort to take a professor-student relationship in a very non-professorial direction, only then do I feel stupid and naïve to not have seen what was happening more immediately. I feel like an idiot to have been so passive in the face of all he was doing, to never have allowed myself to suspect that his intentions were anything other than appropriate.
Either way I look at it, I end up concluding that what happened is all my fault. Either I was too complacent for too long, and too participatory, or I am making a big deal out of nothing, and still, he was and has been innocent all along. And either way, I am always the one who loses, and he is always the one who wins the game.
Pre-order Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention by Donna Freitas now.