Lowenthal: On graduating from a place of growth, with a memory of harm

Julia Lowenthal, Op-ed Contributor

Content warning: This story contains mentions of sexual violence.

I started college as most other freshmen do: starry-eyed, nervous and ready to “find myself.” But around a month into my freshman year, that all changed. In October 2017, I was sexually assaulted. 

I feel that I have to include something that is often used to blame survivors for the harm they experienced. I’m including it not because I believe it’s acceptable to ask someone why they didn’t come forward sooner, but because it’s a part of my experience, and I hope it might validate the experiences of others. I did not realize I was sexually assaulted right after it happened. A part of me always knew, but the trauma was just too much to bear. I tried my best to move on.  

Your body remembers trauma even if your mind tries to protect you from it. Shortly after it happened, I began to lose interest in all the things that had once made me whole: my excitement for learning faded, my love for music dwindled. I was exhausted. I didn’t want to engage in the world around me. I couldn’t trust myself. All of this was happening and I couldn’t understand why.  

Winter Quarter of my junior year, over two years after it happened, I started to have flashbacks of my assault. I could no longer ignore it. I felt like the world was coming down around me. I dropped a class for the first time, I felt distant from friends, I started drinking heavily and I cried myself to sleep almost every night. I didn’t tell anyone what was happening. I couldn’t. So when the pandemic began and everyone was sent home, I was somewhat grateful. I was grateful I could take a break from trying so hard to maintain who I once was, grateful I could be alone. The first time I truly accepted that I had been sexually assaulted was in April 2020. 

I’ve done a lot of healing since then. I started therapy. I found community in other survivors. I leaned into the trauma that I once thought would consume me, and I came out the other side. 

I write this now as a senior, in my last quarter at Northwestern, just a month away from graduating. I feel bittersweet about graduation. On the one hand, I’ve grown and learned so much over the past few years. But this place is also a reminder of the harm I’ve experienced, of the harm I know others have experienced and of the harm still to come. 

When I first thought about writing this, I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say. At first, I wanted to write to other survivors and write myself out of it. I didn’t want to make it about me. But I realized that distancing myself from this harm was a barrier to my own healing. I am a survivor, and I deserve to be a part of my own experience. I deserve to take up space, to speak out. But I also deserve to live in a world where I do not have to. 

The burden of change always falls on survivors — primarily on Black, Indigenous, queer and trans survivors, survivors with disabilities and other survivors who experience compounding forms of violence. My words feel empty without amplifying the work these survivors have done to revolutionize our understanding of sexual violence, accountability and healing. 

My assault does not exist in a vacuum. It exists within an oppressive and persistent culture of harm that Northwestern maintains. This school, and the systems within which it operates, consistently harms survivors and perpetuates sexual violence: whether it be the lack of resources and funding towards survivor-center, trauma-informed and culturally competent services, the criminalization and punishing of survival, the refusal to listen to calls for decolonization, abolition and transformative change in how we address harm, the re-traumatizing and silencing nature of reporting, or how those who cause harm go about their lives unbothered and unaccountable. There is no end to sexual violence, no justice for survivors, while this violence is maintained.

But just as my assault does not exist in isolation, neither does my healing. I have found healing and solace in the vulnerability, resilience, and community of other survivors. It is because of these survivors that I believe in a better world, one where we believe, center, and care for survivors and where we address harm in transformational and caring ways. 

So I write this for all those who are survivors and for all those who have experienced any form of sexual violence or harm but may not come to terms with that for months, years or lifetimes. We all have different experiences. I won’t pretend to know yours exactly or the unique struggles you may face. But I do know that it was not your fault, no matter what the world has taught you to believe and no matter how convincing your shame might be. 

I also know that you are not alone, even if it feels that way now. There are days that you will feel lonely, as if the darkness will never lift, but you are never alone. There are others here who are survivors too. A lot, actually. Survivors live under such shame and such silence. It is its own trauma that often goes unacknowledged. I hope that you find them, find community and find healing.

I’m ready to move on from NU; perhaps I’d feel more sentimental if this place was not a reminder of what I had endured. I find some sadness in that. But I can’t change what happened to me. The best I can do for now is leave these words in the hopes that they find other survivors who may feel alone or unheard, and for those who may find themselves here in the future. 

To close, I want to write something for myself — for the freshman who believed she had to joke about and bury what she had experienced. For the freshman who believed her trauma was a burden. I write it as an apology, as forgiveness, and as validation to that girl. I am healing from what she has endured, and I find hope in what she will become.  

If you or someone you know needs support around sexual violence, NU has survivor-centered resources available. The Center for Awareness, Response and Education (CARE) is a confidential resource for anyone who has experienced sexual violence, relationship violence or stalking and their loved ones (Instagram: @carenu; Facebook: Northwestern Center for Awareness Response and Education). If you are a survivor looking for a community space, or someone looking to learn how to better support survivors and combat sexual violence, Students Promoting Education, Awareness, and Knowledge (SPEAK) For Change is a survivor-centered student group against the normalization of sexual and interpersonal violence on and beyond Northwestern’s campus (Instagram: @nuspeakforchange; Facebook: Speak For Change Northwestern). 

Julia Lowenthal is a SESP senior at Northwestern. You can reach her at [email protected]. She asks that if you are emailing to disclose an experience, you use a content warning in the subject line. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.