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.

19 thoughts on “Going To The Mattresses, The Parental Strategy

  1. chug

    So the alleged rape was degrading to her body and mind, but carrying a mattress around is uplifting and elevating? Reminds me of a person who keeps scratching at a scab.

  2. lawrence kaplan

    I watched the video to which Emma’s parents refer. (see the entire letter.) The defendant in this process was, as defendants generally do, spinning some evidence in his favor. Actually, Emma did say in the video that she had a fear of immobilization in the future. To say, as her parents do, that this refers just to her being immobilized in a cast is debatable. In any event, even if one believes that the defendant was giving an implausible spin to this video, to term this lying, as Emma’s parents do, is completely unwarranted. To further request that he be expelled for that “lying” is a blatant violation of every notion of due process. SHG: Any comments?

    1. SHG Post author

      SHG: Any comments?

      That’s what my post is for. But I’m sure anyone interested but too lazy to watch the video(s) (there are two of them) will appreciate your serving as sign language interpreter.

      1. lawrence kaplan

        I don’t believe you directly addressed the specific point I was making, namely, that even if the parents understandably believe their daughter that the accused raped her, to describe a spin he put on a video in the course of the hearing as “lying” and to then demand that he be expelled for that lying” is outrageous. I know there are two videos. The video to which the parents refer is the one I referred to.

        1. SHG Post author

          Are you of the view that I am somehow required to “directly address the specific point you are making”? If you have a point, make it. I will address whatever “specific points” I choose to address.

  3. Anna

    At the end of the day, it seems to me that Emma’s claims are riddled with nuances and questions, including her past sexual relations with the alleged assailant, her delay in asserting her complaint until she heard about other supposed rapes (that didn’t happen), her refusal to actually present her case in any court, and her selective attempt to tell her story in press-driven venues where there are few opportunities for rebuttals.

    If there’s any unfairness, it’s Emma’s (and her parents) to make bold statements about the assailant, the administration, the process, etc. without undertaking a single step to prove their statements in a court of law. The question is Why?

    1. SHG Post author

      I think you’ve nailed the problem. I don’t so much blame them for trying as find it all disingenuous, particularly given that they’ve always had the opportunity to take their own affirmative legal action against the young man, and have chosen instead to play it in the media where there is no accountability.

    2. UltravioletAdmin

      It strikes me as there’s a good deal of guilt here with the parents trying to do something after realizing they messed up. Mostly by waiting and not getting their daughter a lawyer much sooner, as well as trusting the School’s process, their daughter’s case was hurt badly. They feel guilty, so they’re now seeking out the Media as a way to soothe their own guilt, and try and get a ‘win’.

  4. Dan

    So many strange things in this story. When I first read about Emma and her art piece in NY Magazine, I felt bad for her because she seemed so naive about the world and life and because she’d clearly been so poorly served by adults who should know better. The part about not wanting to pursue a case through the police/DA because it would take too long was particularly irksome- maybe its the former prosecutor in me. After seeing their letter, I’ll add her parents to that list.

    And the focus on having the alleged perpetrator punished is something between, misguided, odd and downright mean and vengeful. Ruining his life won’t help her, and it should not be her focus or that of her parents.

  5. Quinn

    I was curious about the parent’s statement that they were relying on the university to adjudicate the incident. The only comment I was able to find on the possibility of civil litigation against the alleged rapist was a quote from a September 4, 2014 NY Magazine interview in which Emma Sulkowicz said she had not considered pursuing a civil case because “I think right now I have a lot on my plate.” The article also noted that Sulkowicz is part of a Title IX complaint against Columbia.

    Would it be possible for relief in a civil action to effectively remove the alleged rapist from campus?

    1. SHG Post author

      There are a few options available in civil actions, one of which would be a proceeding against Columbia for its arbitrary action, seeking injunctive relief to compel it to bar her alleged rapist from campus. Others would involve civil action against him directly for money damages and potentially injunctive relief, though I’m not clear how that would work.

      But to your point, it’s irrelevant if they can’t bothered because it’s too much hassle and they’re too busy with other stuff. But then, if it’s not worth their time, then the claim smells disingenuous in the entirety.

      1. Patrick Maupin

        But then, if it’s not worth their time, then the claim smells disingenuous in the entirety.

        Maybe. Or maybe their sense of privilege is so inconceivably huge that it’s not disingenuous at all. Surely everybody can see that they’ve been wronged. Shouldn’t the system take care of that? Why should they have to deal with it? Isn’t that what they pay taxes and tuition for?

        1. Anna

          I think that the person who’s been wronged here is the accused young man who was found NOT guilty by both the University and the police, and whose name was published by Columbia Spectator without any respect for his privacy. I believe that, when she fist accused him, Sulkowicz did not expect that the case would be picked up so quickly by the media. I think that she found herself surrounded by supporters among the students and later on among politicians, and, at that point, there was not way for her to retract her comments. She has nothing to add to the story but she’s changing the ways she wants to go about explaining it to the world. All this by avoiding the one place that could thoroughly examine the case – the court.
          I find this case very interesting. How this has gone around the world and how people are ready to “lynch” the accused man solely based on her word alone.

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