It has been seven years and I still keep my phone on silent. Seven years and I still get anxious when I get a new voicemail. Because the phone calls and the voicemails are how it all started. 35 missed calls in one day, 17 voicemails in one day. And that was just the beginning.
It was my senior year in college and I had a stalker, a stalker who attended the same tiny liberal arts college that I did, a stalker that was a person I knew — well, a person that I thought I knew.
Two years later, Vice President Joe Biden would write a “Dear Colleague” letter and announce his commitment to end sexual assault and sexual harassment on college campuses. Two years later, there would’ve been more support, more resources, more education. My stalker came two years too early.
The phone calls never did stop and the stalking continued to escalate.
I did what I believed I was supposed to do. I gathered the phone records, print outs of the text messages, the emails, the pictures of me and the pairs of underwear he had cut up and left at my door and I took it to the college authorities — the people who I believed were there to protect me.
They gave my stalker a slap on the wrist and told me everything would be fine from there on out. He was a little “overzealous” but not dangerous, they explained. They told me he had promised them that he would stop.
I went back to my dorm room shaking. “He promised?” I thought. “Did he pinky swear too?” I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry so I did a lot of both.
This stalker had told me that I couldn’t hide from him forever. He had told me that this wasn’t going to end well for me. But now he had promised otherwise? So now everything would be OK?
I doubt it comes as a surprise, but he didn’t keep his promise. Things escalated. Friends begged me to go to the police. They said that things like this only got worse. I knew they were right. But the way my school reacted (or didn’t react) had an unexpected effect on me: I started to believe I was blowing the whole thing out of proportion. If my school wasn’t worried enough to do anything about it, why should I be? They would have done something if any of this were real. I doubted my own perception of reality. I doubted absolutely everything.
Maybe that’s why it took me eight months to step into a police station. I came armed with the same materials I had brought the first time I reported it to my school. The police officer looked at the evidence and his face grew frustrated. I waited for him to tell me that I should handle this at the college level. I waited for him to tell me that this just seemed like an “overzealous” kid.
“Your school knows about this?,” he asked.
“Your school has seen all of this?,” he asked, gesturing toward the stack of documents.
The Officer shook his head angrily. He gave me documents to fill out. He disappeared. I started to panic. Was he angry at me? Was I wasting his time?
He came back with two other officers. They were angry, but not with me. They told me my school had failed me. They told me that colleges and universities have to report the crimes that take place on their campuses annually and that sexual harassment and sexual assault are the most damning, so sometimes they try and avoid letting them be crimes. Some administrations may even try and keep victims silent because they don’t want to discourage prospective students from attending. It wasn’t just my school, they informed me. It was every school.
And then he told me the most surprising thing of all: “We’re going to get an arrest warrant. Based on everything you have here, this is going to go to trial.”
What happened next was blurry, but the one thing I remember vividly is sitting in my dorm room that night and jumping when my phone rang. It was the officer.
“We have him in custody.” He said. “There will be an arraignment tomorrow. He’ll probably post bail but we’ll make sure you get a temporary restraining order which will likely be made permanent after the trial.”
I didn’t respond. I didn’t know what to say. He asked if I was OK. I told him I had spent the last eight months thinking I was crazy.
“You weren’t crazy for the past eight months.” He said kindly. “You’ve been in danger for the past eight months.”
They issued the restraining order and set a court date. It only took my stalker one week to violate it.
I remember looking at the charges, they read like a laundry list.
I graduated from college. My stalker was found guilty. I went into treatment for PTSD. Life continued.
But life continued in a fractured way, because even though the criminal justice system gave me an incredible sense of validation — one that so few women get — the way my college handled it had changed me. The instincts I had spent my whole life following suddenly fell into disrepute: Could I trust myself? Had the whole thing been my fault? I knew the perpetrator, after all. He wasn’t some stranger in the bushes. Did that make it somehow less real? Less serious?
And then, almost exactly one year after I stepped into a police station, something unexpected happened. Vice President Joe Biden announced his commitment to end sexual assault and sexual harassment on college campuses.
The man who I had voted for in the 2008 primaries, the politician I had admired my entire young adult life, came out and said that what happened to me — what has happened to too many women — was wrong. He acknowledged that colleges and universities were failing their students. And then he set to business doing something about it. Granted, he wasn’t always the perfect vessel for this message, but during his time in the White House, he was a force to be reckoned with.
In 2011, Joe Biden announced a change in interpretation to Title IX, the 1972 legislation that mandates that educational institutions, which are recipients of federal funding, “cannot discriminate on the basis of sex,” and must foster a community of inclusivity and equality for all the sexes. While Title IX was long associated with equal treatment for men’s and women’s sports teams, Biden helped to expand the meaning, so that colleges and universities became responsible for addressing and handling accusations of sexual harassment and assault.
VP Biden didn’t just work to expand existing legislation; he became an outspoken ally on the subject. He gave speeches around the country: calling colleges and universities to task, lending his support to survivors, challenging bystanders to intervene, and highlighting the pervasive effects of rape culture that have allowed sexual violence to become such a significant problem in the first place.
While we know him for the memes, the gaffes, the GIFs ― and his perfectly pitched cries of “Malarkey!” — Biden has spent his time at Pennsylvania Avenue doing more to fight for survivors than any other VP (or President) in history.
That is how I will remember his time in office and that is why I’m publicly sharing my story. Because I want to say thank you. I want to thank Vice President Biden for highlighting my experience, for elevating this problem to a national stage and for insisting that we have to do something about it. His work has legitimized this national crisis, it has legitimized my experience, and it has alleviated the shame. My college didn’t help me the way they should have. Joe Biden did.
I’m not the only person who feels this way. I’ve spoken to countless survivors who are effusive when it comes to the impact Biden has had on their struggles and on their personal healing. No one person can single-handedly put an end to sexual violence of course, but I truly believe having his voice in the fight — and just having someone in the white house who made fighting sexual violence a priority — has changed the landscape. He has asked that we all do better. He has asked that we not be quiet. So I won’t be quiet now.
I have just one thing to ask of Biden, now that he will be leaving office:
Mr. Vice President, you have given your entire life to this country. If you wanted to pack a few dozen pairs of aviators and ride off into the sunset with Dr. Biden, nobody could blame you. You’ve certainly earned a break.
But I can’t help but wonder what happens to the next young person who is scared of ringing phones, the next young person who wonders if it was their fault, the next young person who wonders if what happened to them even matters.
The next person needs you, Joe. We need you. We need you as an ally, we need you as a champion, we need you as a voice.
In June of 2012, you spoke at the United States of Women summit in DC. You told the crowd: “It’s important to remember not only how far we’ve come in America… but how much further we have to go.”
You’re not wrong. There’s so much more work to do. And so I end this with a plea. Vice President Biden, at the end of this month you leave the White House. Please don’t leave this fight.
Share what VP Biden’s work in office has meant to you with #ThankYouJoe and ask him to keep up the fight.