On Monday night, I sat at a small table in the dining hall with my computer set up in front of me, quickly jotting down questions in a word document. I was waiting for a fellow student, Reina Kiefer, to join me for an interview. She didn’t know this, but it was my first in-person interview and I kind of had no idea what I was doing. Moments later, Reina and her friend Katie, a former mentee of mine, joined me at the table. I had met Reina many times in the past, but none of our conversations were as involved as I knew this would be.
Upon meeting Reina, a bright and bubbly college student, you would never know what she has been dealing with for the past ten months. In April of 2014, Reina was sexually assaulted. She went to the school, the police, and lawyers, but has still not gotten the validation she deserves. Her assailant was found responsible by the school and was suspended for a year, but is being allowed to reapply to Skidmore and could come back to join her graduating class. Despite Reina’s clarity with the college that she is not comfortable with having him here, the administration has not made any noticeable attempts to comply with Reina’s request. Reina is planning a peaceful protest in order for Skidmore students to show the administration that we as a community are not okay with sexual assault and we do not want rapists at our institution.
When I sat down with Reina to talk about the protest, I had no idea where our conversation was going to go. I read Reina my disjointed questions and before I knew it, the story was pouring from her lips.
“I’ve been reading a book called Dear Sister, which is about sexual assault, and there’s a quote in it that says ‘If you are questioning what you did and how you survived, please stop. Whatever you did to survive was the right thing.’ There is so much shame associated with [sexual assault]. I couldn’t help but think Why did I go out that night? It was a Thursday, I never went out on Thursdays. Why did I go? What if I hadn’t? What if I was too tired? My intention that night was to go out, have one beer, go home, sleep in my own bed, wake up in the morning, and get a tattoo later that day.”
That isn’t what happened. Reina only remembers pieces her assault because she was entirely incapacitated after a certain point. The night is a blur and clearly hard for her to think about; she tells me that her after waking up with her head on a toilet seat, her assailant picked her up off the bathroom floor, carried her into his room, took off her clothes, and had intercourse with her. Throughout the entire event, Reina was coming in and out of consciousness. She never consented to any of it. Even if she had, it wouldn’t have been effective consent, because she was unconscious… Earlier in the night, she had even told him that she was abstinent – she never planned on going home with anyone that night, let alone him. When she woke up in the morning, she was beyond confused. She tried to normalize the situation with her assailant, but left as soon as she could think of an excuse. Reina explains, “The second I left, I went to my best friend’s room. She asked if I was okay and I don’t think I said anything right away. It wasn’t until I heard myself tell the entire story that I asked, somewhat horrified, ‘is that rape?’ She slowly nodded and softly said, ‘yeah, kinda.’ I was in complete shock. I just went about the rest of my day – I even got my tattoo, like I had planned – but if I hadn’t run into the specific people I ran into that day, I wouldn’t have done anything. I wouldn’t have reported the assault, I wouldn’t have gone to the counseling center, they wouldn’t have sent me to the hospital to attempt to get a rape kit, I wouldn’t have told my brother or my mom. If those very specific events hadn’t happened, he’d still be here.”
I asked Reina about the difficulty of reporting and she told me, “I understand how hard it is to report. I didn’t want to report my assailant right away. I told people ‘I don’t want to get him expelled, I don’t want to ruin his life. I can’t ruin someone’s life.’ It took a lot of convincing – people really had to push me to report it. That was really hard. But if there’s anything I can say, it’s report, report, report. It’s so important. It’s not the survivor’s responsibility, and you’re not a bad person if you don’t do it, but it is important to at least try. Yes the school has failed me, but he would still be here if I hadn’t reported it, and that’s something. He would be here and I probably wouldn’t be.”
And how does she feel about the incident and her assailant now, ten months after her assault? “I don’t hate this guy,” she explained, “I feel really bad for him. I’ve gone through such a journey with my feelings towards my assailant – first confusion, then fear, intense anger, deep sadness, hurt – and now all of that has transformed into pity. I feel bad for him. As I heal, it gets worse for him. I feel more empowered; I have a voice, I’m being heard. But he’s facing expulsion, criminal charges, losing friends, and he should be facing pretty serious psychological problems. People have told me, “You’ll get to a point where you forgive him, in some way,” – I’m not there yet and I don’t know if I ever will be, but I think pity is a pretty good step. He did something awful, but I don’t need people to hate him, I just want them to support me. The administration has an opportunity to fix this, he doesn’t. I don’t think I will ever get an apology or an understanding from him, but I should be receiving protection from my school.” That’s Reina’s biggest problem with the way her assault has been handled – that the school has disappointed her so many times throughout this whole process.
Reina insists that she isn’t a sexual assault activist (yet), but her actions speak louder than her words. She began by creating a Go Fund Me account to raise money for t-shirts. Then she made the Facebook event for the protest. Reina initially invited only 114 people to the Facebook event, but within 24 hours there were over 1000 invites and 250 people attending. Now, she’s totally overwhelmed by the positive response she’s received. Reina has gotten so many messages from people who have told her that the same thing happened to them and many other messages from people who want to help. She said, “It’s been amazing and so empowering. The support I’ve gotten from the community is incredible. It’s also overwhelming and terrifying.”
When I asked Reina about her new role as an activist, she said, “It really only turned into activism a few days ago. People keep asking me what’s next and I have no idea. I’ve been realizing that this is going to be part of my life – I’m passionate about this issue. I have so many ideas for changes that need to happen and I want to pursue them. It kind of makes me want to quit school and go change the world. As far as the protest is concerned, there’s a fine line between advocating for myself and speaking for everyone. To be honest, this isn’t a campaign; it’s an event. That being said, I definitely feel the pressure for it to become something greater. But really, this just started with me being pissed off and hurt and wanting to make a change. It’s taken me a long time to see what was so obvious to other people – what happened to me was wrong.”
She continued, “Mostly I’m just in shock that this is all happening. It’s tough, I realize people don’t necessarily agree with me; everyone’s experience with sexual violence, direct or indirect, is different. Some people may not want their assailants expelled, for whatever reason. And I respect that. I’m not trying to speak for everyone – I hope that by speaking out, other people will feel like they can speak out. The most surreal part of this is the publicity it’s gotten. It’s overwhelming, for sure. You know, haters gonna hate [she chuckles]. There are going to be people who say negative things, but I guarantee that whatever they’re going to say about me is not nearly as horrifying as what happened to me. They’re misinformed. They simply don’t know the whole story. I’m not the type of person who is quiet, ever. I’ve always been this way. That being said, I’m a completely different person than I was ten months ago; my assault was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, but it’s also been the most important.”
And Reina is taking big steps to show people just how important the issue of sexual assault on college campuses is. Reina describes herself as a “lucky” survivor – people listened to her, supported her, and believed her story. She will do anything to get her message across to the administration. People all over have been recognizing Reina for her strength, her courage, and her bravery. Despite all the compliments Reina has received over the past few days, Reina remains as humble as ever: “A lot of people tell me ‘I could never do what you’re doing’ with the protest, but I could never do what I’m doing. You don’t know what you’re capable of until a force drives you to face it.”