An Ordinary Day Interrupted
Clara is standing in the middle of the gray-walled cafeteria, deciding if she wants tacos or pizza for lunch. Taking time to center herself, she stretches her arms over her head causing the sleeves of her magenta jacket to slide down her arms. Inhaling and exhaling deeply four times, she grimaces at the smell of burned oil. She is surrounded by faculty members, employees, and other students, all engaged in various modes of being: talking, eating, studying, and venting. It seems like an ordinary day.
A man walks towards her, his eyes set on hers. She feels her muscles get tense. She cannot breathe.
Memories start flooding back: being cornered alone in a deserted hallway, the frequent unwanted messages, the grabbing without consent, a sick sense of knowing this wouldn’t be the end.
This is the man Clara is running away from. He ripped away her sense of safety and trust and has yet to encounter any consequences. He walks freely through public spaces that she has to avoid for fear of running into him.
Today was the first day in months that she decided to go to the laboratory and use the cafeteria services, instead of staying at home. The previous encounters, after meetings and at a conference, were too much, forcing Clara to retreat to the perceived safety of her home. But here he is again. All Clara wants to do is regain a sense of normalcy. She does not just want to feel safe —she wants to know she is safe.
This is not the first time she has experienced this visceral reaction over the past three years. During a laboratory meeting that happened after his misconduct had been reported to the school, he insisted on staring at her when it seemed like no one was around or no one was looking. Clara left that meeting without any new information, his eyes distracting her from her work. Just a few months later, they crossed paths again. This time, he insisted on refilling his coffee mug no fewer than a dozen times, brushing her hair and shoulders with the back of his arm each time he walked by. Then there was the conference. He spotted her across the auditorium and waited until she made her way to the bathroom, cornering her behind the stairwell and demanding she answer his disdainful questions. That was the last straw: the one that forced her back to the safety of her bedroom.
Yet, hiding is not sustainable. It never is. She still has a life to live. She still has work to do.
Still, he walks freely, without restraint. He even seems comfortable, amused.
Clara knew her loud-laughing self was not welcome from the start of her time as a STEM doctoral student, regardless of her attempts to adapt. At times, it seemed impossible for her to find someone to share jokes with, or even to connect with on a professional level. Nevertheless, she grew used to the alienation of her peers and the bombardment of the departmental echo chamber. It did not matter what she said or what she did, she was always surrounded by uncaring faces and gossip vultures.
Clara remembers how those feelings of isolation grew into a crisis when one of the postdocs in her program began following her, conspicuously stalking her. Wherever she was, he never seemed far behind. His actions, for more than three years, continue to drive her to fear for her safety.
This morning, she felt like she could repress her fear and finally leave her apartment. It has, after all, been over three months since the last time she saw him.
Sympathy in the Face of Injustice
Yesterday night, Clara sat at the faux wooden kitchen table she shares with her roommates, taking notes. Her concentration was much more pensive than usual, and her notes were not the usual science-y scribbles.
Her roommate José asked, “What are you up to later this weekend? I’m looking for ideas of places to explore.”
“Go to one of the running trails or try a new bar,” Clara responded while staring at her computer and fidgeting with her silver dangle earrings.
“Okay,” replied José. “What are you up to? You seem very into whatever you are doing.”
“I’m looking at the website of the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. Did you know that schools must take steps to protect you even before an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations is completed?”
“I didn’t know that. Is everything okay? I get the sense that something’s been going on with you for a while,” said José, adjusting the neck of his t-shirt.
“It is, and these protections didn’t happen in my case. Not to mention, the Dear Colleague letter put in place by the Obama administration was retracted, making it harder for people like me to get any kind of justice,” Clara confided in José.
Clara was apprehensive about sharing her story. She recalled that time when she had tried to broach the subject with one of her co-workers, but instead of receiving compassion, her co-worker spent thirty minutes explaining to Clara why something like this would never happen to her because of how smart, clever, awesome, and witty she is.
“I haven’t heard about the Dear Colleague letter but I’ve heard about the sexual misconduct problem. I had a classmate that quit because of it,” José responded, his smile fading and the tone of his voice thickening.
Clara was intrigued by José’s response. It was very different from previous conversations with her peers, faculty members, and administrators. In those conversations she was used to receiving comments like; “This would never happen to me, I know how to deal with him,” or “Maybe this is all in your mind,” or even “I wish you hadn’t told me, I didn’t want to know.” Still, she decided to continue to drive her point.
“Apparently, being close to setting up due process was too harsh for the institutions. I no longer know where to report what’s happening. Dude, I can’t even take a shit in peace. This postdoc, that’s like more than 10 years my senior, keeps on blocking me when I want to use the restroom. I’ve told him several times not to contact me or touch me. There’s more, but who cares,” Clara rambled as she took short breaths, clearly angered by her situation.
“That sounds really creepy!” said José.
“I’ve had faculty members argue that he is allowed in public spaces and that I shouldn’t be scared. I find this to be a mental atrocity, and I’m not sure how to address it. Hopefully, there’s some online resource that can help me somehow. I need to make it to lab if I want to finish my PhD,” Clara continued to explain as she tapped away at her keyboard.
“Well, smart people can also be incompetent. I appreciate that you feel you can trust me with this information. Thank you for sharing. Are you okay?” José asked, his face contorted into an empathetic frown.
Wide-eyed, Clara’s mind spun,
Wait, what? I just summarized a part of my ordeal to you and you´re not judging me for what I just said? Are you not going to be an arrogant asshole who attempts to mansplain my situation back to me re-contextualized with your self-imposed classifications? Are you not going to ask me to justify myself by providing intrusive details so that you can give an ignorant verdict on the validity of my misery?
Are you not going to victim-blame and challenge my experience?
Wait, what?! Thank you for sharing is such a soothing response! This is what I’ve been looking for all along whenever I told anyone about my experience. Sympathy and compassion are real–life things? What a pleasant surprise! Someone listened to me!
Clara stared at José with shock. He had given her a little bit of decency and understanding in light of a very traumatic experience for her, regardless of whatever he may have thought about her or the situation. She felt liberated. A breath of freedom washed over her, albeit with a bit of confusion.
“I’m so used to being dismissed and shut down,” said Clara. “I’ve been continuously de-humanized. I don’t know what to say… I’m glad that at least someone can acknowledge how grave the situation is without trashing me or making it about themselves.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. It’s not much, but I’m here if you need someone to walk with or anything. I know that most people at the school you attend are competitive in the most useless ways. I’m sorry that you’ve been treated so poorly,” said José.
“Wow, thank you!” A slight sense of empowerment surprised Clara.
At the same time she couldn’t help thinking,
If the stalker takes me hostage, José might be the only one to report me to the police as a missing person. I’m a Latinx in the United States. The police might make comforting remarks and then not even search for me…
This morning, Clara woke up before the sun started to heat her room and the humidity began to pile on thick. She walked to school and went to the laboratory to get her experiments done.
The encounter in the cafeteria makes her wish she had a superpower that allows her to disappear.
Clara keeps repeating to herself,
I’m safe. I can do this. Whatever happens, I can deal with it.
Despite her overwhelming fear, she stays in the cafeteria, takes her phone out to document the encounter, and orders a slice of cheese pizza.
Clara went on with her life while coping with diagnosed depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.
The author speaking here…
It is wonderful that Clara had one person, José, show her sympathy. It is awful that it was just one person and that her story ends unresolved. The perpetrator should never approach Clara after she said “no” the first time. Even more so, action should have been taken when his behavior was reported to the school and the claims of stalking were substantiated. The administrators and faculty members who ignored her pleas should not have the ability to re-victimize her with their comments about how unimportant she is and by allowing her assailant to walk free. They need to be held accountable for perpetuating unsafe environments. Sexual misconduct does not have to escalate for the institutions to take action.
While the main character in this story is a Clara, it could just as easily happen to a Jessica, Verónica, Marta, or countless others. She can be he, they, me, or you.
Toxic environments create the perfect setting to isolate those going through hardships.
Let’s re-write these events and stop re-victimizing our fellow humans.
Let’s live new narratives and stories of solidarity.
To have consistently productive trainees, we need a safe workplace and continued education on the concepts of consent, context, and intent. To drive change we need academic institutions, principal investigators, and administrators to acknowledge the cases of sexual misconduct and apologize. You can’t change what you have made up excuses to protect. Then, we need external financial pressure to hold perpetrators and their enablers accountable. The level of scrutiny that targets of sexual misconduct endure, and the lack of scrutiny perpetrators and the enablers experience, is unacceptable. We need to work towards restorative justice for the victims/survivors and to stop retaliation.
Please be informed and hold perpetrators and their enablers accountable! You can find more statistics and ideas for prevention, as well as more stories, here: