A Nobody Going Against a Somebody

In the novel Again and Again, author Ellen Bravo tells the story of Deborah Borenstein, an activist who 30 years earlier saw her friend and roommate, Liddie Golmboch, raped at a fraternity party. The excerpt below is set in 1980 in Upstate New York at Danforth University; Liddie’s assault has only recently taken place and the two women are preparing for a hearing before the school’s judicial administrator. Again and Again is available from She Writes Press on August 11.

Deborah had hoped for a hearing room that resembled the Harvard Law School Library—mahogany-paneled, with roomy leather chairs, green-shaded lamps, oversize portraits of men with formidable eyebrows. Not that she could distinguish mahogany from maple, and not that she’d ever seen the Harvard Law School Library other than as a backdrop in The Paper Chase. Still, a setting with that kind of grandeur made justice seem a more likely outcome.

But yesterday, less than twenty-four hours before the hearing, Liddie had been notified by phone that the proceedings were being shifted from Ogden Hall, home of the judicial administrator’s office, to an antiseptic classroom in Goodman Parrish. Deborah made noises about needing to buy some of her favorite pens and went off to the arts quad to get a peek. Nothing but a few rows of student desk chairs with metal seats. Not a single item on the walls. The desks looked onto a chalkboard with lines of Greek in the right-hand corner, cited below in English as a passage from Aristophanes’ The Frogs.

“The JA just wants to keep it low-key,” Dean Biddle assured Deborah when she insisted he see her. “Avoid attention. Make sure the thing doesn’t turn into a circus.” That’s why the hearing had been set for the Thursday before classes began.

Dean Biddle seemed much more concerned with the impact of the “thing” on the university’s image than he did with Liddie’s well-being. Deborah was dying to ask why the dean of students was in the loop about a neutral hearing being handled by a supposedly autonomous branch of the university. But he’d held tight to his office door while answering her question and never invited her in. Clearly, nothing she said was going to change the venue; the last thing she wanted was to delay things. Deborah thanked him for his time and hurried back to the dorm to check on her roommate.

Liddie’s chin and cheekbones were dagger-sharp when her dad dropped her off the day before. “Take care of this gal,” he told Deborah, his hand gently steering his daughter into the dorm room before he drove straight back to Saukville. “Don’t let her blow away.” Deborah was not surprised to learn that Liddie stuck with the flu story while she was home—she needed some explanation for the weight loss and lack of appetite, not to mention the incompletes. Like Deborah’s parents, Liddie’s waited each semester for the arrival of the letter containing grades, but the spectacle in each of the two households was entirely different. Deborah’s mother wanted to make sure she wasn’t goofing off—“especially now that you’re a single girl again,” she told her over the holidays. Liddie’s parents, on the other hand, were absolutely certain that their daughter would “do them proud” and couldn’t wait to see the evidence.

As soon as the squeak of her dad’s work boots was no longer audible in the hall, Liddie began sliding neat stacks of socks and underwear into her dresser drawers, fitting sweaters smelling of lavender in the plastic container under her bed—Deborah could see Mrs. Golmboch stroking each item as she packed them—and spreading new knitting projects over the desk. Liddie had yet to take out her book bag—Deborah doubted she’d cracked a textbook all vacation—and seemed to have made no move to schedule her exams. But that was okay. “It’s perfectly natural for her to put off academic catch-up until after the hearing,” Claire Rawlings, the rape crisis counselor from Rochester, told Deborah when they talked over the break. “One hurdle at a time.”

Deborah had to dodge some hurdles of her own while she was home. She tried to participate in holiday cheer, but most of the time she hunkered down in her room, pretending to get a head start on the new semester or trying to catch up on sleep after those two brutal weeks. “It’s normal to be blue because you don’t have a boyfriend,” her mother said, encouraging Deborah to attend mixers at the temple. Her brother kept offering her pot. On New Year’s Eve, when the rest of the family each shouted out a wish just before midnight, Deborah mumbled something inane about world peace. Her real wish was written on a tiny piece of paper and buried in her pillow: “Victory = L back.”

Deborah began preparations for that victory before leaving for vacation. Step number one: trying to arrange for Claire Rawlings and Professor Margaret Davis to testify as experts in the field. As soon as the JA received Liddie’s complaint, he mailed a form asking for names of witnesses, with lines for contact information plus a large rectangle entitled “Detailed Justification for the Presence of This Individual.” The form arrived in a plain brown envelope. Liddie stared at it for a full five minutes before Deborah grabbed it out of her hands and tore it open.

“I thought maybe, you know . . .” It took Liddie another five minutes to name her fear—that someone had snapped photos of her making out with Will at the fraternity party.

Deborah shuddered at the demons hovering over her roommate. She was also infuriated by the implication that these materials were somehow shameful and had to be disguised. Later that day, she vented for five minutes to Claire on the phone. “Brown paper wrapping—what the fuck! I’m all for confidentiality, but couldn’t they use a university envelope, something generic? This made it look like pornography, for God’s sake.”

In his infinite wisdom, the JA decided only one of the two “interested parties” could make an appearance. “There are no accepted standards for experts in this arena,” JA Peters wrote Liddie in their last communication before she went home. “We can allow one such party to speak. A second testimony would be duplicative. Please be advised that this is simply a preliminary session determining whether or not to pass the complaint to the University Hearing Board.”

Liddie dangled the letter like a piece of rotten fruit in front of Deborah, who was pulling off her boots after returning from the last of her exams. Freshman year they’d started a tradition of celebrating their “final finals” with a party in their room, feasting on corned beef and rye specially packaged by Deborah’s dad, a kringle baked by Liddie’s mom, and a bottle of wine secured by an older friend. When this semester’s packages arrived, Deborah quietly passed them on to a friend.

“You choose,” Liddie said, pointing her chin at the letter and going back to her knitting.

Professor Davis was the one who insisted on Claire as the stronger advocate. “I’m the academic, but there’s no recognition of my work as a field of study,” she said. “Claire knows the research as well as I do; plus, she has several years of practical experience. That’s more likely to get their attention.”

And so, a little before ten o’clock on the day of the hearing, Deborah made her way to Willard Broome Hall to meet Claire, who was driving down from Rochester. The plan was to go to Professor Davis’s office to rehearse for the two o’clock session. Claire was waiting right inside the double doors at the Broome, shivering in a black skirt and panty hose, wearing snow boots but carrying a plastic bag that no doubt contained a pair of pumps. They’d used a quick shorthand about what to wear—“I’ll be in my Sunday go-to-meeting clothes,” Claire had said. No need to explain the importance of not appearing like wild-eyed men-haters. Deborah herself had picked out a pair of camel slacks and matching turtleneck as a Hanukkah gift, along with a preppy navy blazer. Her mother assumed it was for the Christmas afternoon mixer at the temple, which Deborah had gotten out of only by feigning a stomach flu.

Under gloomy skies promising more snow, Deborah and Claire walked the short distance to Professor Davis’s office in Vilas Hall. If Claire had taken on the role of older sister for Deborah, Professor Davis—who’d never once said, “Call me Margaret”—was like an unmarried aunt, the one who took you to museums and science exhibits, taught you to eat goat cheese and beet salad, encouraged you to aim high.

The two experts had been working on this case over the holidays, redlining each other’s drafts and compiling background material. Claire would give a “brief but pithy” overview of the grim statistics on reporting and seeking medical help. They encouraged Deborah to stick to the facts: where she’d been, why she’d come back to the room early, what she’d seen, how she’d tried to convince Liddie to go to the clinic, why she’d taken the Polaroids. And Liddie—Liddie would read her statement.

Last night Deborah had encouraged Liddie to write out a longer form of what she’d said in her complaint. On a sheet of notebook paper, Liddie neatly printed fifteen sentences: “On December 1, 1979, I went to a fraternity party with Will Quincy. I was flattered that he’d asked me out. We kissed. I had several drinks. We talked about the poet Rilke, and he asked if I had a copy he could borrow. I said yes. We went to my room. Instead of stopping at the desk, Will pinned me to my bed. I said no! We didn’t kiss. He pressed his arm against my neck, his knee against my thigh, tore off my jeans, tore me again and again. I tried to yell, but his arm cut off my voice. My roommate walked in, and she did yell. He left. I will never be the same.”

Deborah copied the statement after Liddie fell asleep and showed it now to Claire and Professor Davis, who both bent their heads over the crinkled page, Claire’s hair dark and tucked behind her ears, Professor Davis’s prematurely gray and scooped up in a loose bun.

Professor Davis looked up first. “They should tattoo that last sentence on his chest.”

Claire’s eyes were wet. “On his nuts.”

Deborah folded the paper and shoved it back in her book bag. It was all she could do not to round up a group of Stop It Now members to attach this statement with permanent glue to the front door of the Delta Omega house. Claire grabbed Deborah’s hand until she regained her composure.

“Okay, so let me be sure I have this right,” Deborah said. “Because this is a preliminary hearing, it’s not going to be like Perry Mason—no cross-examination, no ganging up on the witness, right?”

“That’s what the procedural rules say.” Claire was back to business. “The JA asks clarifying questions, but his tone should stay neutral and objective. No badgering. And it’s his job to get each party to stick to factual statements, rather than diatribes against the other side. Still, we should be prepared for anything. You never know what someone like Will Quincy is capable of.”

Professor Davis promised to treat Claire to lunch—the gas and other expenses for this trip were all coming out of the counselor’s modest salary—while Deborah went back to the dorms, stopping at Loon Lodge to pick up turkey sandwiches for herself and Liddie, mayo and mustard on the side. Liddie had returned to solid foods, but Deborah hadn’t seen her swallow more than a few bites. As for Deborah, she’d be lucky if she made it through the hearing without projectile-vomiting.

After what was indeed a failed meal, Deborah hid in the bathroom stall for ten minutes doing one of the theater breathing exercises she’d learned in high school—in through the nose, out through the mouth, hands lifted up on the inhale and stretched out on the exhale. She’d always felt as if they were offering a blessing when they did that. Only now did she understand that the blessor and the blessee were one and the same.

Liddie looked like she could use some blessings herself. Her hair had lost all its luster, and her cheeks had the pallor of an invalid. For the hearing she chose a bulky sweater and long black skirt, the waist folded over twice to keep it up. Deborah brought along her book bag with the file she’d compiled, sheets displaying the photos, plus a copy of the complaint and of Claire’s remarks. Liddie brought neither book bag nor purse.

As they walked down the corridor at Goodman Parrish, Deborah wondered whether the building was really dingy or just seemed that way compared with the imaginary mahogany-paneled room. She had no idea how Liddie had imagined the space—they’d kept discussions of the session to a minimum. Deborah had assured Liddie she would not mention the hearing to the Stop It Now group, would do no publicity of any kind.

Claire Rawlings had already arrived and welcomed them to the other two desks in her row. Randall Peters, the JA, was seated at the front table. Deborah had expected him to be robed, but he was dressed in a brown suit with a carnelian tie and white shirt. He kept his eyes on the items in front of him, a short stack of papers, a legal pad, and several pens and pencils, which he kept lining up. The implements with which he would record and decide.

Someone had erased the board.

Deborah, seated in the middle, slid her chair closer to Liddie’s so that their knees touched, a feeble attempt to brace themselves for seeing Will. Liddie had her hand wrapped around the sides of her desk. Two minutes later, they heard what sounded like a dozen people entering the room. A glance at the floor revealed six he-man feet and one startling pair of high heels.

Claire had warned them to expect a fraternity buddy as witness, but there appeared to be two of them—like Will, scrubbed and clean shaven, decked out in charcoal blazers with the Delta Omega crest and lighter gray pants. More alarming was the woman who accompanied them, midthirties, wearing a pin-striped suit, carrying a sleek leather briefcase, and sporting a Farrah Fawcett hairdo, every flip deliberate. She looked like she belonged in a fashion magazine.

“Why do they get three ‘interested parties’?” Deborah scribbled on a note card to Claire. “And who the hell is she—expert against concept of rape by a known acquaintance?”

Claire’s writing was tiny and quick. “Looks like lawyer. Think, ‘I pulled myself up by my high heels, and so can you.’ We shoulda known. Quincy family = big donors. Bet administration agreed to make exception.”

The JA, a short, tidy man in his early forties whose face remained a blank slate, was asking each person to state his or her name and title. The complainant’s side went first; the fancy-schmancy woman went last. Claire had pegged it right—the woman introduced herself as Lucinda Baxter, attorney-at-law. JA Peters proceeded to remind everyone of the rules, the importance of sticking to facts and avoiding judgment-ridden terms. “This is not a courtroom,” he said, rolling a pen between his two hands. “There will be no badgering of witnesses or cross-examination. Attorney Baxter is here not to ask questions of the other side but to share expertise and views on evidentiary material, in the same way the complainant has brought someone to share expertise on other matters relevant to the case.” Deborah assumed Lucinda Baxter intended to discredit the studies they’d brought. What could she possibly have up her sleeve—a statistically significant sample of women who enjoyed being ravished?

Randall Peters called on Liddie first. She pushed herself to standing and pulled her statement out of a pocket in her skirt. “On December 1, 1979, I went to a fraternity party with Will Quincy.” Deborah could have recited the rest from memory. Liddie read it hunched over, both hands on the desk. Her voice never wavered and remained low, except for the “no,” which she held for a long beat, and the “tore me again and again,” which was nearly inaudible.

This morning, the book of Rilke poems had been lying on Liddie’s desk when she took her shower. Skimming through the table of contents, Deborah found a short poem titled “Again and Again” and read the lines: “ . . . again and again the two of us walk out together / under the ancient trees, / lie down again and again among the flowers, / face to face with the sky.” Deborah had to spin around to keep from getting the page wet with tears. One more reference that would never be the same for Liddie.

Now it was Deborah’s turn. “Avoid subjective words,” Claire reminded her this morning. “Let the facts speak for themselves, just as Liddie did. Let the pictures speak.” Deborah had rehearsed her remarks with Claire and Professor Davis and several times on her own. None of that prepared her for how hard it was to bite back all the barbed words that flooded her mouth now. She did her best reciting what had happened and holding up the sheets on which she’d pasted the Polaroids she’d taken of Liddie’s bruises.

Claire was brilliant. Unlike Deborah, who felt herself rocking back and forth like a fourth-grader giving her first speech, and Liddie, who had to brace herself against the desk, Claire remained steady and rooted, alternating between statistics and examples of women she’d met over four years of working with rape victims. “Every reaction we’ve heard from and about Elizabeth Golmboch—her worry about her parents’ response, her fear of being blamed and of losing her scholarship, her wish to avoid further pain and humiliation—all these are typical behaviors following a rape, particularly one by an acquaintance.” Claire held up a folder of articles on the subject that she had prepared for the judicial administrator. When he removed his reading glasses and waved her to the front, she delivered the folder and the photographs to his table.

Deborah began to keep a scorecard on the back of the receipt for the turkey sandwiches. She gave them one point for her testimony, three for the Polaroids, three for Liddie’s statement, three for Claire’s.

The speaking order for the other side was not as she expected. Rather than Will’s going first, the person Deborah came to think of as Frat Boy One, Norman Kuehn—“K-u-e-h-n, pronounced ‘Keen’”—was their starter. He looked like a linebacker and rose with difficulty from a desk sized for the average person.

“Your Honor . . .”

“Mr. Kuehn, I’m not a judge. Please address me as Mr. Peters.”

“Sure. Mr. Peters, I’m here because I want you to know that everyone at that party saw Liddie drinking and coming on to Will. Several guys say they heard her invite him to her room, and everybody knows what that means.”

The JA stopped writing. “Mr. Kuehn, I must remind you that you are here to state facts, not opinions. Please limit your remarks to what you yourself saw and heard.”

Deborah added another point to their column.

“Sorry, Your Honor . . . I mean, Mr. Peters.” Norman Kuehn unbuttoned his jacket. “I saw Liddie Golmboch pawing at Will . . .”

The JA stared over his half-rimmed glasses and repeated his admonition about judgment-laden terms.

“Okay. Sorry. I saw her kissing him hard and long and pressed up against him. She seemed quite happy. I mean, she was grinning and she was laughing.”

Liddie’s knee against Deborah’s started to shake.

Frat Boy Two was named Stuart Mulligan—“everyone calls me Skip.” Although he was as big as Frat Boy One, he seemed more accustomed to moving out of the chairs. Probably dropped in to class now and then. “Glad to be here, sir. I want to say that I myself with my own ears did hear her invite Will to her room.”

Peters wanted specifics—this had to be a good sign. “As close to the actual words as possible, Mr. Mulligan. Did you hear Ms. Golmboch initiate the idea of going to her room?”

After three variations of that question, Frat Boy Two finally conceded that maybe Will had brought up the idea. “But I can swear on a bible that she did say she had the book and that Will could come over to get it. And everyone knows . . .” The JA’s throat-clearing ended that sentence.

Deborah wished Peters had asked the frat boys how much they’d had to drink. But never mind. Another point in Liddie’s column.

Will Quincy waited to stand until Frat Boy Two had returned to his seat. Deborah realized Will wasn’t nearly as big as his fraternity brothers. Lacrosse, like rape, apparently benefited from speed and agility, rather than bulk.

“Thank you for the opportunity to speak and the commitment to due process,” he began. Deborah remembered Will’s smarmy voice that day on the quad. This I’m-such-a-good-boy tone now made her want to gag. “Rape is a very serious charge, sir. The mere accusation can be enough to ruin a person’s reputation. So let me say this unequivocally. I would never engage in sexual relations if they were not absolutely consensual.”

Deborah wondered if the JA could see the tremor in Liddie’s legs.

“To be perfectly honest, I thought Liddie was okay, but not really anything special. I wasn’t particularly attracted to her. But when she made a big deal out of having a copy of Rilke in her room, and then when we got there she pulled me onto her bed . . . well, you know, I’m only human. I admit it was awkward when her roommate came in. I was embarrassed—the roommate seemed a little possessive and started yelling at me, so I felt the best thing to do was to leave. A couple days later, that same roommate, Miss Borenstein, accosted me on campus . . .”

Deborah’s pencil slipped into her lap.

“Accosted, meaning . . . ?” Peters asked. His forehead wrinkled.

“She was waiting for me outside Simpson Hall on the Monday after my date with Liddie. She told me I’d be sorry, that she was going to make my life miserable. I tried to step away, but she ran after me. It was really uncomfortable.”

Deborah waited for someone to object. But this wasn’t a Perry Mason movie; she was going to have to do it herself. “Objection, Mr. Peters. That is not what happened.”

“After everyone has spoken, Miss Borenstein, you’ll have a chance to comment on anything you’ve heard here,” Peters told her. “If you’re finished, Mr. Quincy, we’ll move on to Attorney Baxter.”

Claire passed Deborah a note card, one they’d written ahead of time. “Breathe. He’s a snake. Breathe.” Claire had added another line: “JA only cares about what happened Sat. nite.”

Between breaths, Deborah tried to convince herself that this was true. Will had completely misstated what happened between them. But even if she’d used those exact words, so what—it didn’t undercut her testimony or Liddie’s. Might even help. She wouldn’t award them any points, but she wasn’t taking any away, either.

Lucinda Baxter was the only person who made her statement standing not at her seat but directly in front of the JA. Briefcase in one hand, she walked up to the front table and touched the sheets with the Polaroids. “May I, sir?” Peters removed his glasses and nodded.

“These photos do seem alarming—but one has to ask, are they authentic?” Baxter put them back down on the table and clicked open her briefcase, whose top immediately popped up. One by one, the attorney pulled out what looked like yearbooks. “In my hand are the yearbooks from Cleveland Heights High School, years 1976, 1977, and 1978. As you will see on the pages I’ve marked, Miss Deborah Borenstein was a member of Thespians on the Heights each of those years, specializing in”—and here she opened one of the books to a page marked with a scarlet square of paper—“productions and stage makeup.”

Despite Claire’s efforts to restrain her, Deborah was on her feet. Stage makeup! The most she’d ever done was rouge and face powder, a beauty mark! Who needed bruises in Oklahoma and Bye Bye Birdie?

“Please, Miss Borenstein.” The JA held up his hand. “You will have another opportunity to speak in just a moment.”

Deborah saw points stacking up on the other side. Her pencil skittered somewhere on the floor.

“The possibility of fabricating evidence becomes more likely, Mr. Peters, when combined with the reality that Miss Borenstein has an ax to grind.” Once more, Lucinda Baxter, tilting slightly forward on the toes of her three-inch high heels, popped the lid of her briefcase. Liddie jolted in her seat at the sound. This time, the attorney drew out a thin booklet.

“This document, sir, entitled ‘Stop It Now,’ is a screed against men, written by Miss Borenstein for a militant group she organized. I offer one excerpt as evidence of the kind of strident sexism it contains, and I quote: ‘All men have rape fantasies. All men are potential rapists. All men are capable of wielding the penis as a weapon of war.’”

Deborah could hear Claire scribbling but was simply incapable of doing anything other than keeping herself upright in her seat.

“Judicial Administrator Peters, as someone who has worked hard to reach my position in life, I must say this kind of document offends me and many other women. But the sentiment isn’t limited to writing. As part of my preparation for today’s session, I interviewed the dean of student services about whether there’d been any publicity or threat of publicity regarding this proceeding, in contravention of the rules. Dean Biddle mentioned that Miss Borenstein had paid him a visit and made statements implying that her militant group would take action if Miss Golmboch were not awarded an extension to take her exams.”

Lucinda Baxter added the slim booklet to the pile of yearbooks and tossed the Polaroid display on top, as if she were about to start a bonfire. “Given the lack of any independent medical analysis, the likely fraudulent photos, and the motive for false accusation, I respectfully submit that these charges be dismissed. I trust the university has appropriate procedures for filing complaints for perjury and slander, which Mr. Quincy will avail himself of.”

Surely there had been oxygen in the room when the session began. Deborah managed to rise from her seat. She managed to speak without moaning or screaming. She addressed the nature of the plays she was involved in back in high school, actors without a single bruise, how limited and amateur her role had been. She sat down again without collapsing. When the others left, she walked out with them. She allowed Claire to accompany Liddie back to their room.

And then Deborah walked to the gorge, curled up against a fallen tree, let the snow pummel her, and howled.


Ellen Bravo is strategic consultant to Family Values @ Work, a network of 27 state coalitions working for paid sick and safe days, family and medical leave insurance and other policies that value families at work.