Campus cruelties

At Duke a decade ago, I got a glimpse of ugly male pack behavior I've never forgotten. Now I wonder about what my own small boys might do.

Erin Sullivan
May 1, 2006 3:37PM (UTC)

I am standing on a playground in an upscale Chapel Hill neighborhood, talking to Kim as we watch our children chase around on the wood chips and up and down the slides.

"I don't understand these people who say they aren't surprised," she says to me. She is talking, of course, about the allegations of rape made against members of the Duke lacrosse team. It is the only conversation these days. It is every conversation. On the soccer field, in the carpool lane, over the grill in the backyard. We open with it, our voices low so the children won't hear. We parse through the latest details. Everyone has an opinion. But with the case taking new turns every day, there are too many contradictions. Our conversations are at once weary and shocked and wounded.


But here, on this playground, Kim is pondering a more ethical point. "I mean, I never saw anything that would lead me to expect that Duke students were capable of something like that." (She means forcing a woman into a bathroom and gang raping her.) "I don't understand those people who say that they aren't surprised. What did they see going on at Duke that I didn't see?" For her there is a distance to cross between the standard frat boy behavior and what these men are accused of doing.

We are, neither of us, recent graduates. As difficult as it is for me to accept, I am approaching my 15th reunion, and as Kim and I push children on swings and dole out snacks and sippy cups from her little red wagon, we both feel the years separating us from those late-night house parties off campus, the silver kegs and plastic cups, the crush and the freedom. But it does not seem to me as though much has changed despite all that.

In the early '90s I lived in one of the houses on Buchanan Boulevard near where the alleged attack took place. I had friends who lived in the house where it supposedly occurred and I went to parties there. I knew a woman who was date raped while at Duke. I myself drank to excess and witnessed or participated in several acts of property destruction. And once I was invited with my boyfriend to a private fraternity party that consisted of a room full of men watching pornographic movies. My boyfriend blocked the door and led me away, both of us shaken by the assembly's obvious and gleeful anticipation of my humiliation. But I understood these incidents, even the shameful and painful ones, as normal life on campus. And I did not then, nor do I now, imagine that Duke differed greatly from most other universities in this respect.


I finished my undergraduate degree and continued on to graduate school, working as a cocktail waitress in a popular local bar and serving students beer and pizza five or six nights a week. Through the lens of my received diploma, job and passing time, I observed these students as though they were different from me, though of course they were not. They arrived in throngs, drank heavily and tipped well. They never seemed dangerous to anyone other than themselves and appeared destined to make certain bad choices, such as driving drunk or knocking into cars or picking a stranger to take home. None displayed tendencies toward the kind of pernicious evil necessary for perpetrating the alleged attack on Buchanan in March of this year.

And then, one slow night between summer school sessions, I leaned against the wait station reading a novel while a group of young men ordered pitchers at the far end of the bar. The book was Joyce Carol Oates' "Foxfire," and it detailed the increasing delinquency of a group of teenage girls. I found the story unnerving and fully engrossing and I was ignoring the few tables in my section where people nursed their drinks. Occasionally I made rounds with an iced tea pitcher and took more orders to the bar, and I would see them, these boys, shoving one another, or pounding shots, or huddled in a tight scrum near the wide-screen television discussing something with intensity. A lone woman with long light hair sipped a cocktail. Two of the young men joined her, playing with her hair, holding her drink to her mouth, running their hands along her back and shoulders. The rest hung back, the pack of them.

Behind the bar, Cliff, the bar manager, poured a margarita from his silver shaker into a tall salted glass, watching, wary. The woman was not young. Her hair had streaks of gray and her thick makeup did little to disguise the years on her face. But she giggled and leaned into the hands of the men, more of them around her now, and then more. I could not look away, could not find the courage to intervene. The woman did not appear to want rescuing, although she was in need of it. This dance between her and the group of men went on for some time, taking on darker and darker tones. And then Cliff had the baseball bat in his hands and the woman looked stunned and the young men, some smirking, some outraged, shouted and punched at the air as Cliff threw them out of the bar. I breathed the sharp acrid smell of something burned. And it was over. Just like that.


"They were lighting the ends of her hair on fire," I tell Kim.

"Did you call the police? I hope you called the police."

But I don't think we did. We might have. I don't remember what happened afterward -- whether the police were called, what happened to the woman. But when I first heard on the radio about the alleged rape on Buchanan, I remembered those men circling, her cautious hope, and then the terrible broken look on her face as she twisted her burned hair in ropes around her fists. When the story first broke, I found the initial account of the rape entirely credible. I believed that certain men in certain situations could be capable of doing terrible things.


But Kim has gone back to the original thread. "Well I am surprised. And I think everyone should be surprised. I mean, what's the alternative? That you've been expecting something like this to happen all along and didn't say anything?"

This is part of what Duke struggles with now, with its special committees and task forces and campus culture analyses. Whether the university can emerge from this morass with its reputation intact remains to be seen. Duke has become the touchstone for this issue, even though it could have been any of a number of universities in Duke's place, all vulnerable to the same thing. But whether the allegations are proved true or not, I believe -- largely because of that one night in the bar -- that a woman might be raped in a bathroom by three men at a party. Even if it did not happen this time, in this town.

I have three small boys who even now engage in games of violence and dominance, despite our careful moderation of television and other possible corrupting influences. People, watching them play, comment on their inherent boyishness in the same tones that people use to excuse drunken frat boy behavior. Boys will be boys. The men in the bar that night were once kids who likely played just like this, just like mine. I want my children to grow into caring men, the kind who would shield a friend from a room bent on humiliating her, not the kind to assault a lonely woman in a bar. But I too have made bad choices, done things my parents would never have predicted and would never condone. At some point my children will become entirely their own selves, mysterious even to me. Does this mean that one night a child of mine may find himself drunk in a room full of heckling men watching a stripper take off her clothes? I don't want it to be true. But it is like the face of the woman in the bar; I can't get it out of my head.


My oldest son is hanging from the monkey bars, swinging deliberately from one to the next, his long body dangling in space before finding safe harbor with his feet at the far end. Kim is loading her boys into the red wagon for their walk home. Surprised or not, this is the landscape we inhabit now. I don't see a clear path from here for Duke or for Durham. I buckle my sons into their car seats, securing their sweaty bodies, and we take the long way home.

Erin Sullivan

Erin Sullivan is a freelance writer in Durham, NC.

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