Sara is skinny and birdlike, the kind of woman whose body fascinates me because mine hasn’t looked that way since I was a child. She is beautiful in an angular and sharp way, and when I knew her she wore so much jewelry that sometimes I would wonder if it was the weight she used to tether herself to the ground. Earrings and earrings and earrings, lined up along the outside curves of her small ears. Sara isn’t her real name, I’m not too interested in the kinds of spaces where real names are allowed to live. I’m interested in whether it’s possible to use words to build the kind of space where obfuscation is necessary, a sort of safe space for secret things. Something like a nest, or a house with thick brick walls.
I don’t know if Sara was dating Dylan when I met them. I met Sara after she and Toby broke up, that I do know. I’m trying to chart Sara through the eras of her relationships with men, because I don’t have a better chronology, I don’t have all her facts written down or recorded. I didn’t take notes on everything. I didn’t take any notes until I realized the ways in which I came to know Sara might be things I’d want to have evidence of later.
Here is a fact: I never saw Sara hit Dylan. But I did hear it, the sound of Sara’s balled hands hitting Dylan’s body, from a few rooms away, and I did hear him talk about it, after and before it happened, a few times I saw him cry when he talked about it. I don’t know if every hour in Dylan’s life at the time felt like it was either an after, a before, or some combination of the two. I heard her admit to it, once or twice, I heard her confess to hitting him. And I heard her try to justify it. I don’t remember what she said, I didn’t write it down. But no, I never saw it with my own eyes, her hitting him. And yes of course I wish I had been able to run faster down flights of stairs or from one room to another and to get there in time to see it happening and then it could have been over. Or that is a fantasy. We knew Sara was hitting Dylan, even if we never saw it. Witnessing wouldn’t have stopped anything. I’m trying to not have regrets.
Sara and Dylan (and Toby, too) are my siblings in the non-classical sense, if there is a sense like that. We were not raised together. We are all members of a coed literary society at our shared undergraduate institution (or mostly: Dylan lived in the town and was friends with a lot of university students, he never was a student himself), and in that society, members call each other sibling. That kind of thing always made me squeamish (along with the secret rooms and rituals and meetings). I tended to prefer the more public face of the society: the restaurant we ran where I worked as a waitress, the concerts and parties and lectures and readings that we sponsored with our massive budget, the house itself (a large and beautiful brick building overlooking a large quad), the way we dressed up for our parties and posted impressive-looking pictures of each other standing on our grand staircase on social media.
In the little world of the society, then, I suppose it makes sense that I got very involved in the bureaucracy. I was a political science major, yes, I was interested in the way small governments ran, or failed to. The business of running the house seemed safer than the touchy-feely things, the false mysticism of songs we sang in Greek without fully knowing the translated meaning. After serving as the house’s treasurer for a year, I’d figured out that the person with the most influence over policy might be the office known as Critic, a position which was regarded by most of my siblings as, in fact, very touchy-feely.
The Critic was the head of the so-called Emotional Team (emo team for short) and was supposed to be almost constantly available to the siblings to mediate conflict, talk about the often-referenced emotional state of the house, and hand down wise-sounding opinions on house business. Sure, the Critic had no explicit political power, but they had the most respect, and were in the best position (as I saw it) to write and present Consensus Proposals, the documents we used to create new official policies. Perhaps it was clear I wasn’t interested in the emotional duties of the office. I lost, I think, three elections before I was finally voted Critic by my siblings.
Consensus Proposal Regarding Violations of University Code of Non-Academic Conduct, April 9, 2014
Consensus Proposal Requiring Bystander Intervention Training, April 9, 2014
Consensus Proposal Reinstating House Committees, April 9, 2014
Consensus Proposal Revising Smoking Policy, May 10, 2014
—List of CPs I wrote during the spring I served as Critic, all of which were approved by the membership.
I want to tell you a secret: I don’t believe in a constructed siblinghood.
I want to say something else: there’s this song that I listened to a lot during the spring of 2014, it’s a pop song, it’s fast, I like it, but after the semester was over and I had graduated and left the campus where the society’s house remained, I couldn’t listen to that song without thinking of Sara and feeling angry and afraid.
What I mean is that at one point, I did believe to some extent in the idea of siblinghood within the society, and while it wasn’t the aspect that I preferred, it was something I respected. By the time I left, I respected very little. Which was unfortunate, because it was also the job of the Critic to lead and instruct the semester’s class of pledges, and I know I did that part of the job sadly, half-heartedly, always with an edge of quiet rage. Like welcome to this beautiful house with its lovely exteriors and cheerful restaurant, but don’t believe the hype about love and respect and trust existing here, those ideals are no longer present within these thick walls. Either they left a long time ago, or they dissolved too fast just now, right in front of me. I missed it. I’m sorry. I tried to fix it. Dear pledges, if you can cut and run, detach yourself from this house right this second, I suggest you do so. I stopped just short of saying that to them. I stopped my mouth from saying that every time I saw them, each week when we sat in a circle of brown leather couches in the house’s living room. In that space I told them our secrets, though only the appealing ones.
I never saw Sara hit Dylan but I did hear Dylan say once or twice that she was so tiny anyway, and he was strong, and if she needed to hit someone, he could be that person. I sat him down with some of the other officers, I won’t bother to make up fake names for the people I thought might have been my friends or allies at the time, we told him love didn’t have to look like this, we told him he didn’t deserve violence, we told him it wasn’t healthy and we would really like to help, but looking at his sad face I think we all knew it was either too soon or too late, but we’d missed the timing completely.
In that moment, I was no longer fascinated by Sara’s body in the way I had been before, I no longer cared that it was so unlike my own. I was interested in her body because I had come to believe that her smallness and her beauty allowed her to do things that larger or uglier people could not have gotten away with. Sara looked delicate. Sara could thus not possibly be a true danger. She was a wounded bird, flapping her wings violently because she herself was hurt, and my siblings thought it was our responsibility to continue to be her nest.
“…Pledging is a time to get to know the house, and to find your place here in this diverse and lovely society. My time in the society will probably bear little resemblance to yours, as each of us experiences [the society] in different ways.” —Quote from my introduction to the Pledge Manual, Spring 2014
Once, in the house basement: there is an alcove with benches, that’s where I had my first kiss with my boyfriend at the time, he is also my fake sibling, now on this night in this previously beloved alcove in front of me there are Sara and Dylan on the floor, they are both sobbing. Dylan is trying to hold Sara still and Sara is trying to get free, her bird body would like to fly, she looks up at me with rage in her small face, she tells me this is none of my business, I tell her I’m just trying to do my job, she’s barely wearing any clothes and the boiler makes the tiled floor so hot, her exposed skin is red. She looks up at me and her face is seething, she says to get the fuck out of here, I say it’s my house too, and I’m just trying to do my job.
And then I start crying, and I don’t know why this is my job and why I shouldn’t call the cops and I don’t know what the cops will do, and Eric who is the President of the society looks me hard in the face and says you are my Critic, get it together, Eric once served in a foreign army and I wonder briefly if maybe he thinks we’re going into battle, but I get it together in the sense that I’m not crying anymore, and Toby comes through a door and says he’ll handle it, and I’m scared, and I’m useless, and I leave.
Toby was Critic the semester before, when this situation with Sara began. Yes, Toby who is Sara’s ex-boyfriend. One night he did call the cops and the cops came and took Sara away in an ambulance, she screamed and screamed but I somehow slept through the whole thing and heard about it in the morning. The cops took her to the hospital, but then she came back a day or two later. We’re now wary about calling the cops again, it is a thing that has been proven ineffective, too public, a spectacle. Toby seems angry to have lost power in the situation and I think that’s fucked up, Sara is his ex-girlfriend and it seems like he thinks he knows best and wants to be in control of the Sara situation. I don’t trust him.
But I also don’t call the cops.
Instead at night I wait for there to be screaming, yelling, a crash of something being thrown. I start sleeping in more presentable pajamas and keeping my phone and the pink notebook where I’m taking notes on this all the time at hand, I am ready for the next episode of this unending emergency. Eric is a heavy sleeper and I often feel like I need backup so sometimes my boyfriend comes with me even though this is definitely not his job. I’m confused about when our silly titles within a fake-mystical group of teenagers suddenly came to mean that I’m in charge of fixing it when Sara loses her shit late at night and starts hitting Dylan.
I’ve been told that I shouldn’t tell other siblings about this because it is confidential. I say it’s not confidential, it’s domestic violence, it’s a crime, imagine if it were Dylan hitting Sara, we would not be talking about Dylan’s mental health or giving him more chances. We would not be talking about confidentiality. We, a small group of officers, have meetings where I say this over and over and nobody seems to agree with me, or they agree but then they get nervous, they want to give her another chance, they don’t want to do something drastic. I think Sara hitting Dylan in the middle of the night in our basement is drastic. I haven’t slept fully in a few weeks. I dropped one of my classes because this whole thing was stressing me out too much. There are siblings in the house who have no idea what is going on, siblings who are still going to class and dressing up for our parties and having beer pong nights and eating pasta with cream sauce in our restaurant. I feel as though I have nothing in common with those people anymore. I tell my friends who are not siblings about what’s going on because they are loyal to me instead of loyal to some fake siblinghood that I’m apparently betraying and they look at me with their jaws hanging open.
I want to turn around and stand in their position, their side of this conversation, I want to be on their side of things, I want to look at Sara and look at myself with my jaw hanging open. None of this is my job, I want to say at house meetings. Instead I write and propose regulation after regulation, some of them aimed at the Sara situation: any member who violates the university’s code of non-academic conduct (which includes domestic and sexual violence) will face sanctions, yes, but also no smoking in the basement anymore, and everyone has to go to bystander intervention training, and officers will have committees to help them do their insurmountable jobs, and this place will run better even if by the time I leave it I will mostly want it to run itself into the ground.
The first note I have written down about Sara: “Tell Sara first” followed by a list of officers (including me) who would do so, then “Calling her parents,” followed by a similar list. We were going to tell her and her parents that she’d been asked to move out of the house, though she’d keep her house key and status as a sibling and member of the society. I don’t remember if we told them about the violence component or if we said something more neutral, something like outbursts. Asking her to move out was a compromise; I had wanted to take her key and status from her as well, I didn’t think it would solve much to tell her she couldn’t live at the house when she could still come and go as she pleased. I got overruled. I didn’t want to call her parents, I wanted to treat her as an adult who had committed a crime and not as a child who had thrown a tantrum at school. Someone else called her parents because I was unwilling. Someone else was always doing the things I was unwilling to do.
At the time, I was taking a two-week course on analyzing raw data in political science. I have very detailed notes about this course in the same pink notebook where I took notes about Sara, I have notes about coding, key terms, how to analyze survey responses, how to use various computer programs. There are meticulously hand-drawn tables filled with numbers, sequences. Now, looking at these notes and charts, I have no idea what any of it means.
It is entirely possible that without the institution of the society, if we had only been a group of friends, things would have played out in a similar way. It is possible that my siblings would have created different reasoning, found something other than siblinghood to hold up as a shield. But I don’t know that world. I know that the people around me had been elected into roles that meant they should take action. For the most part, they chose not to.
Notes for a presentation to the membership: “Aggression: a louder voice and voice that speaks more isn’t the better voice. People use siblinghood as an excuse. Some people have a really positive time here, the emo team should also get to have a positive time in the house. Being Critic has been both the best and worst experience of my time here, it has been great to…” the note trails off briefly, then continues “but the emo team is simply not on call 24/7, the emo team is not a disaster clean-up team, we’re here for support and not therapy.”
It was during this time that I somehow accidentally entered therapy myself. I made an appointment at the counseling center to talk about what to do about the Sara situation and the counselor I spoke to in an airy solarium across campus was worried, she asked me to come back the next week. I came back, and then back again. We talked about Sara but we also talked about campus rape, we talked about the last time I’d talked to a counselor in this building, three years before.
A girl in the freshman seminar I was taking on Thoreau’s Walden had overheard an argument I had with a man who lived on my hall, and from that argument she deduced something true: that this man had raped me. She told her Resident Advisor who told our shared Area Coordinator who left a note taped on my door asking me to call. Against my wishes, the Area Coordinator drove me from my dorm to the other side of campus, to the counseling center. There I saw a male counselor who asked me to describe my rapist’s penis in detail and when I could not provide that description, he gave me a card with his cell phone number and declined to file a report on my behalf, which he was legally required to do. As a result, I did not return to counseling.
The female counselor I saw in the spring of the Sara situation found my prior experience with her colleague to be horrifying, and she spent the next few weeks of sessions trying to prop me up enough to file a report about my rapist before the end of the semester, before commencement. I had already made the decision long before to not report him, and I didn’t want to attempt a last-ditch report before we both graduated. I wanted someone to fix the Sara situation for me instead. I didn’t want a nice lady therapist to tell me my feelings were valid and I still had time. She sent me an article about trauma and flashbacks and though I kept my mouth shut about it, I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t afraid because of a past trauma, I was afraid because of a current threat. I wanted real help, someone to believe that a small and birdlike woman who I lived with was really and truly capable of a legitimately dangerous, unending type of toxic violence, I wanted an adult to come save me from that particular problem.
Instead, in a springtime that seemed to sprint toward its inevitable conclusion, I had a large cast of people who offered their love and support, who were always available if I needed to talk, who encouraged me to express my feelings. I had no interest in feelings. I had no interest in the emotional state of the house. I had interest in Sara no longer being my job, I had interest in Sara being treated as the abuser I saw quite clearly that she was.
And no, she was not a proxy for my rapist, I didn’t crusade against her because I was angry at someone else. No, I have not stopped being angry at Sara since, I haven’t been able to listen to that silly pop song without thinking of her, of Dylan, of Sara’s body like a small and focused weapon. Sometimes I still feel an illogical resentment toward her for the things I’ve forgotten from that time, the classes I took that I have no memory of.
No, I’m sorry, I want a different answer to give, but I have not figured out why I want to tell this story, what conclusion I’d like to lead someone to about Sara and her violence, the sound of her small hands hitting Dylan’s solid torso, the way his stunned face turned away from mine in the basement night after night. The way I became attuned to her shrieking voice, could hear it rising up from the basement to meet the cold air of my third floor room. I don’t want to say look, women can be violent monsters too, I don’t want to say that rape culture and the culture of domestic violence are the fault of women as well as men, I want to say that institutions fail and emotions are not something I find especially compelling when they take the place of action.
I want to say that Sara has gone but I still want that house to fail, I want my siblings to know failure, I want the teenagers who now inhabit that house and might abstractly call me sibling but who do not know my name to be faced with the fault lines in the foundation that their fake siblinghood has been built on.
That’s not a good or fair answer. It is not even entirely accurate. Not all of them are teenagers, I don’t want to diminish their age, I don’t want to diminish their and our accountability either. I hope the decisions they’re making now are better than the ones I made then, I hope they don’t have to make the kinds of choices I made at all. I know enough as I write this to say to them that if they have anything that looks like the Sara situation, it is not their job. They should call the cops. They should debrother Sara retroactively, they might instead debrother me for talking about it. They might say the choices they make and the people they are now are none of my business, and I might say that idea doesn’t have a lot to do with siblinghood, or at least not the kind of siblinghood I’d like to believe in. What I am saying here is not coming from a place of kindness and it’s not forgiveness or trust or caring. I don’t remember which things here are supposed to be secrets, which words might read as coded, which things are supposed to be confidential, and I do not care.
The office of Critic originally included another duty, which was to openly critique the house and its members. I can’t say honestly that I wish that had been a part of my duties, I think I would have found it difficult and embarrassing. But I can say that the word critic seemed especially meaningless to me during that spring, and it has often remained that way in the years since. I can say that I resented the forced confidentiality, I can say that there are things I wished I could have said to Sara in front of the entire membership. It might have been helpful if that had still been my job, I might have appreciated the opportunity for transparency. But the language escapes me, I don’t know how I would put it, how I could express why her behavior went against every idea of siblinghood I’d ever had respect for.
“It’s unfair to work on the assumption that the promises we’ve made to each other only work when everyone is doing okay. It’s unfair to say she can’t be extended privileges when she’s not doing well. If we’re supposed to all be treating each other like family, we can’t refuse to offer support because it’s difficult.” —Quote from one of my fellow officers, during a meeting about Sara. We held the meeting in the attic, in the hopes that Sara wouldn’t notice that we were gathering. It was February in Connecticut, and the attic didn’t have heat.
I want to tell you a secret: once when I was nineteen, I joined a society because I wanted to have a space on a small campus where I was explicitly welcome and my rapist was not. I wanted a safe space, that notion that old white men like to mock. People say the existence of a safe space is impossible or it requires censorship. I’d like to think they are wrong.
I want to tell you a secret: I did the best that I could to make that space safe for me and for people who might also be afraid, and I failed. In the too-fast months when I was supposedly in charge, a woman repeatedly beat her boyfriend in the basement of that house, and when she graduated a year after I did, she was still a sibling, still welcome to visit, still always invited back. I think I might feel more uncomfortable in that house now than she does. One of the more recent times I went back, she was also there, and she hugged me. Her small body felt stiff and bony in my arms, her face was so purposeful and sharp that it appeared fake and waxen. The embrace seemed calculated, like she was saying she had won, she could hug me in front of everyone we knew and if I pulled away or said something unkind, I would be the one creating the spectacle. Or maybe she was trying to say thank you, perhaps she thinks I chose to let her stay, to give her as many chances as I could. Maybe she thinks I am a coward. Maybe I am.
Once, at night, in an alcove next to a boiler room, a few semesters before I was Critic, long before Sara went from being a person to a situation, I told a boy-man who I liked that he should kiss me, we kissed in a small basement space and in the weeks after I fell too-fast in love with him. We were very young, we quietly thought we’d be together forever. We aren’t together now, we both love other people and sometimes send each other cordial text messages. We were fake siblings at the time and, before Sara, I think we believed siblinghood could give a sense of respect and longevity to our imperfect union, we were younger and more naive human beings then than we are now.
I forgot: that time in the alcove, that wasn’t our first kiss. Our first kiss was in the treasurer’s office on the first floor of the house, there was a party going on in the basement and the noise filtered up through the floorboards, I set my cranberry-vodka on the desk and pulled the delicate door shut. There can be good secrets, and those can also warrant the building of pretty containers.
The memory of my time in that big and beautiful house has begun to dissolve, to lose chronology. But I want to say joy lived there too even during those months, I suspect joy still sometimes lives there now. I want to say I’m not angry anymore, but that is a lie. I know it is more complicated, the house is not a place of horror for most of the people who walk through it. The space and its story can’t all be a deep dark, a hellish scream from a basement hallway, bare skin turned red from too much horrible heat. Sometimes the things that burn and beat are the things that survive, this is what I’m afraid of. Rage lives longest. Her name isn’t really Sara, but I said that already. I said I wanted to tell some secrets. My room on the third floor was large, blue and spacious, the view from the two small windows was perfect. When I looked outside, I saw a beauty that I hoped I could one day inhabit, a future space with sky and air and joy. There were birds and birds and birds. I looked forward to leaving my own bricked nest, which felt as though it had become a cage. I looked forward to never thinking about that spring again, to launching myself far from it, into my own hopefully gorgeous life. In a world of birds and birdcages, people and buildings and institutions, there’s a thing I came to understand, though: beauty can only stretch so far.
Cade Leebron is an MFA candidate at The Ohio State University, where she serves as an editor at The Journal. She also serves as the managing editor of Us For President. Her work as appeared in Brevity, Electric Literature, and elsewhere, and she can be found online at www.mslifeisbestlife.com or on Twitter @CadeyLadey