My name is Sarah Varin and I'm a professor of creative nonfiction and also a journalist. Most of my professional life, I've been kind of obsessed with a central question in my field, which is how do we tell true stories? And what's the relationship between truth telling and storytelling? And for most of the time that I've been through grappling with that question and writing about it and thinking about it, it's been very theoretical. But then last year in March, my wife and I suddenly discovered that she was at the center of a series of pretty horrifying accusations.
And that experience and everything that followed afterwards. Changed my understanding not only of storytelling. In truth. And also a wise. And I wrote about all this for a piece, the New York Times magazine called The Accusation. Read for you today by Abara Zachman. We were at a friend's doctoral graduation party on a Friday night at the end of March. I had a glass of wine in one hand and our toddler on my hip when Marta found me.
I got a really weird email. She said. The moon hung full over our heads and all of us were in short sleeves, holding beers or wine and licking barbecue off our fingers while our kids played hide and seek in the dark. What I said something about me sexually harassing students. Marta said, taking F from my arms. What I said louder this time, it's probably spam, she said. And then she disappeared.
That night, we toasted our friend and her newly minted P.H.. She thanked her husband for his help. Her professors swapped stories about her. And we toasted them for their mentorship. Afterward, we all wandered around the backyard talking about our kids or research or how perfect Arizona can seem in March. When it was time to leave, I found our older daughter in standing on our friend's bed with another little girl who held a fistful of toilet paper and looked at me the way kids do when they've done something wrong.
Strips of toilet paper littered the carpet. And I wondered whether one of them had peed her pants. Or maybe they'd had a toilet paper fight or this was their version of Snow in the Desert. We're going to pull out her tooth. The girl said before I could say anything, looking at N and her loose front tooth, I laughed.
Later, I realized I never would have guessed that a tooth was at the center of that mess. Only a confession gave it meaning. That night, after the girls fell asleep, Martin and I crawled into bed and pulled out our phones to reread the e-mail she received, the anonymous sender wanted her to be aware that someone was posting about her on the message board. Read it. The e-mail included a screenshot of the first post, which came from a person claiming to be part of a sexual harassment case against Marta.
If you like me, have been harassed by Dr. Marda. Please contact the anonymous e-mail line with A-s use. Title nine office. The person wrote on the sub, read it for our university, Arizona State University. Ten minutes later, another post had gone up, ostensibly from someone else. I attended a party at Martis House one night where she got several graduate students drunk and then asked me to her bedroom. When I tried to leave. She inappropriately touched me and I dropped her as my graduate advisor.
I turned to look at Marta. She was staring at her phone. I reached out to touch her hip. This isn't spam. I finally said.
That was last year, the year I turned 40. And in the span of four weeks, in January and February flew to four different states to interview for jobs at universities and colleges in places besides Arizona. This is an experience in academic circles called being on the market, a phrase that people tend to speak with both resignation and trepidation as when facing the pillory to go on the market. You first apply to dozens of jobs at universities, all of which require individualized application materials, cover letters, teaching philosophies, writing samples, research statements of the sometimes hundreds of people who apply to each job.
Only about 15 get a screening interview.
And of those, only around three are invited to what is called a campus visit, a process that entails flying out to a college or university setting for interviews with anyone from students to the president, giving a talk or reading, often teaching a mock class and then going out for a nice meal or two with a handful of faculty members who might one day be your colleagues. That winter, I had four campus visits, which meant I was lucky, which also meant I was exhausted.
Marta stayed home with our girls. Each time I was away, which meant she was exhausted to. My dream job was at the University of Michigan. They were looking for someone to help develop a potential creative non-fiction concentration at the university, which houses one of the best creative writing programs in the country. The faculty members I'd met were smart and kind and the students bright and assertive. And then there was the town itself, small, pretty and filled with great public schools.
It was the kind of place we had hoped to live. Ever since Marta and I met in Iowa City 10 years earlier, she was a Spaniard who grew up in the suburbs of Madrid. Soon after the death of Franco and later lived in London, Paris, Santiago and Beijing before moving to Iowa City for a graduate degree in linguistics. I had moved to Iowa for an MFA in creative nonfiction. After half a dozen years as a newspaper reporter in Florida and Texas.
What most attracted me about her, besides the way she looked in a leather jacket, was how little she cared about what anyone thought of her. What she liked about me, she said, was my independence. That and the fact that I'm generous even when I get mad. By the time I turned 40, we had been married for six years, had two kids and I'd moved twice for academic jobs and professionally, each of us felt as if we were beginning to find our place in the world.
My first book had come out. Was publishing articles and presenting regularly at conferences. We also each had tenure track jobs, me teaching creative non-fiction, Marda Spanish linguistics at a university we liked. If only it weren't so far away from our families on the East Coast and from the small town life we dreamed of when we first decided to have children. Can we please move to Michigan? Marda joked several times after I got back from my January interview. Stop it!
I said. But sometimes before bed, I looked at houses for sale in Ann Arbor. I most loved the craftsman bungalows with their wide porches and green lawns that from the desert of Arizona, looked like a world someone else had dreamed up. On Valentine's Day, I flew out to Virginia to give a reading. And the next day before flying home, I noticed that I had missed a call. Listening to the message, I heard the voice of a faculty member from Michigan asking me to call him back.
He sounded as if he were smiling. After I hung up the phone with him, I texted Marda job offer from Michigan. I was told the offer letter would arrive soon. And in the meantime, the university would have a dual career coordinator looking for possible jobs for MARTA. The following week, the same faculty member explained that a final committee approval meant we would have to wait a little longer. But then two weeks passed and three and four. And I still hadn't received the contract, nor had we heard anything concrete about a position for Marta.
I started to worry. We shouldn't have started looking at houses. Marta said only half kidding. We'll hear something soon, I said. Or not. Marta said. That was a joke between us. I always assume the news will be good. Marta is the dower European. When I say something hopeful, she responds or not. By the end of March, the job had begun to feel like something I'd imagined. I still looked at houses in Ann Arbor, but I'd also started looking in Arizona again to our lease was up at the end of June, and we had to move either way.
That Friday, we went to our friends party hoping that it would distract us from the anxiety of waiting. About halfway through, though, Marta got that strange e-mail she thought was spam. And then everything changed. The first two Reddit posts about Mahto were quickly taken down, but I kept checking the site all weekend. One more went up on Saturday and another on Monday morning. The first complained about the previous posts being deleted. Its author wrote, Lesbian professors, too, are capable of harassing students despite common narratives.
But it was the second post that scared me. Hi y'all. It read, I'm looking for advice. My linguistics professor has offered me wine several times in her office and acted inappropriately when I see her in various queer spaces in Tempe or Phoenix. The mention of wine and Marty's office reinforced what I already felt. I knew that the accusations were false. Marta almost never used her office. She met students at coffee shops or via Zoome, and she rarely drank wine or went to any queer spaces that I knew of.
The use of y'all, though, made me stop. We were in Arizona. No one says y'all here. I decided someone outside our university had to be behind the posts, but who and why? Marta and I talked about it every night that weekend after the girls went to bed trying to remember an enemy she might have. We brought up former graduate students and classmates, colleagues and exes, but none of them made sense.
I had one more idea, but I didn't want to say it out loud. I felt guilty for thinking anyone might be doing this to her, to us, even though it was clear someone was. After dropping off the girls that Monday morning, I wrote to the department chair at Michigan to check in. He responded right away. I understand and share the wish for expediency here, he wrote. I've been told the Deans hoped to wrap this up by the end of this week.
Doesn't that seem like an odd phrase? I asked Marta. No, she said, why wrap up indicates a problem being solved. I said. The only good news was that Marda also received an e-mail that morning from an associate dean at Michigan asking if she could talk the following day. It has to be about a job, I said or not, she said. But she was smiling this time. The next morning, I stood just outside the door of Marty's study as she answered the Associate Dean's call.
I heard her say hello and how nice it was to finally talk. Then I watched her listen. She nodded. She looked up at me. She shook her head. She said yes. That she understood. Then she wagged her finger as if scolding hope when she started to talk. It wasn't about her research or teaching, but about the Reddit posts. I heard her say that as far as she knew, she wasn't under a Title nine investigation and she had no idea why someone said she was.
I heard her promise to figure out what was going on. Then she hung up and looked over my shoulder at a shadow on the wall. She told me they had credible information that I'm under a Title nine investigation. She said what I said. So she said, it's not great news. In academia, the phrase Title nine investigation is so common that we sometimes forget that many people have never heard the term. When I called my dad after Mahto hung up with the associate dean and left to go teach, he asked me once I stopped crying.
What a Title nine investigation even was. What it usually means, I said, is an investigation of sexual misconduct. We hear about the most often in cases of sexual assault, usually of a female student by a male student, usually in relation to the campus rape crisis. But Title nine also applies to faculty or staff, that professor who won't stop asking his student out for drinks. That teacher who touches students on the arm thy breast. That mentor who persuades her graduate student to sleep with her even after he has said no.
We found out that Marta was under investigation. Later that day, the first accusation against her, we learned, had come in via a US use anonymous reporting system at 521 a.m. on March 14th, almost two weeks before we knew anything about it. It was sent by someone calling herself Rebecca James, who said she was a graduate student in Marta's department. I have had two undergrads come to me and one fellow graduate student. Regarding Dr. Mato Cabrero, Rebecca wrote, Dr.
Cabrero has put these students in sexually compromising situations, inviting them to meet her in her office late at night when the building is mostly empty. She has offered to help their careers, grad student or grades and standing in the department undergrad. In exchange for sexual favors. Reading that email, I remembered the year I arrived in Iowa. All the local newspapers were reporting on a professor who was accused of requesting sexual favors from students in exchange for higher grades.
When confronted, he drove out to the same woods where I ran each morning and shot himself. I tried to imagine Martin in his place asking to touch or kiss students in exchange for a grade, but I couldn't do it. I know many spouses of sexual criminals say this, but I was sure she just wasn't the type.
What Marta obsessed over was that Rebecca James had referred to her as Marta Cabrero in Spain. Everyone has two last names. Hers are Tessa d'Or and Cabrero. The first last name is the primary one. So people in her department would call her doctor, Tessa Dor, though most of the time for her preference. Everyone just calls her Marta. Marta tried to explain the discrepancy to Melanie. The university investigator assigned to her case during her first interview on March 28.
But Melanie seemed unimpressed. I do think it's relevant to point that out, she said before pivoting back to a long list of questions she had. Did Martin meet with students at night? Did Marta offer alcohol to students? Did Marta ask for sexual favors from her students? Did Marta know anyone named Rebecca James? No. Marta said no and no and no.
Melanie also hadn't been able to locate a current student named Rebecca. James and Marty's department, but she said that the name could always be an alias. And she was still obligated to investigate Marta. Now that a credible accusation had been made. Their interview at the university's Office of University Rights and Responsibilities, which manages Title nine complaints, lasted almost an hour. Afterward, I briefly met with Melanie in a large conference room with a box of tissues on the table.
She said she didn't have anything to ask me, but she could answer any questions I had. We just want to figure this out as quickly as possible. I told her it might have already jeopardized our job opportunities. My voice broke. I reached for a tissue. Melanie was young, probably in her late 20s or early 30s, with long straight hair and an impassive face. You're fine, she said, though it was clear I wasn't.
If you can figure out that it's an outsider or somebody from the outside that's posing as a student. I finally said, can you just close the investigation?
Good question. Melanie responded, her voice bright again because of the funding that we received through Title nine. We're required to investigate everything. And with that, we want to really run everything to the ground.
I nodded. I knew that universities could lose federal funding if they didn't show they were protecting students, and I was glad. I am glad for that. But I was still confused. Melanie continued, If we find out that and Marta asks the question, if we find out that the information is false. For our purposes, that's not really our end goal. We're just trying to determine whether or not there's a policy violation.
Listening to my recording of our conversation recently, I wondered why I didn't stop Melanie at that point.
Was she really saying that if they realized the accusations were invented, if the accuser herself was a fiction, they would still investigate? Did it not matter whether the complaints were true or false? The first time I went on the academic job market was during the 2016 election. I sat for a Skype interview only a month and a half after giving birth to F and only a month after Donald Trump was elected president. I was still bleary eyed and foggy headed from the birth and the lack of sleep that followed.
And one interviewer asked me, given the recent crisis regarding fake news and alternative facts. What responsibility I thought writers of creative nonfiction had toward our collective understanding of truth. My answer meandered into platitudes about truth being subjective and facts being contingent. I wasn't invited to a campus visit for that job, but I've thought about that question a lot since then. And how I might have answered it better. A true story written about Marta and me at this point could easily include all the facts.
We know right now that complaints were made about Marta, that Reddit posts appeared and that an investigation was opened. And if I were to read a story like that without knowing Marta or me or any other facts that came to light later, I would conclude either that Marta had done it or at the very least that she was the kind of professor who crossed the line and that her actions had been misconstrued. I would assume that is that even if some of the facts were wrong, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
So while truth may be subjective, it's balustrades are always the facts at hand. And in the case of our story, I quickly realized that we would never persuade anyone of what we knew to be true, that the accusations were invented. If we couldn't isolate one key fact, who was making them up? But Title nine investigations are a different genre of storytelling. So the facts the investigators want are different, too. As Melanie explained during that first interview, her investigation would end with what is called a determination letter, and that letter could offer only two storylines.
Either Marta had violated a policy and then there would be consequences for her job, including possible dismissal, or there was insufficient evidence that Marta had violated a policy. And we could presumably go back to the way things were before. When I asked Melanie how long it would take for her to determine that there was insufficient evidence, she told me she couldn't say it depended on the factors by which I think she also meant the facts. Later, a spokesman told me ESU aims to close all sexual harassment cases within 60 days.
For us, this is purely administrative. Melanie said at one point. In other words, Title nine investigations are not criminal in nature. Even if they feel that way at times. This is why Mahto wasn't allowed to have a lawyer present during her interview, even as she was told that any of her answers could be used against her. And it's the reason that even if we could prove that someone was targeting Marta. Melanie could never compel that person to talk to her if they weren't part of our university.
But also, that person would never face consequences for what they were doing. The only way to accomplish that, a defamation lawyer told us when we set up a consultation with him, was if we pursued that person ourselves, which brought me back to that question of y'all.
A couple of weeks after I was offered the Michigan job, an acquaintance of mine whom I will referred to as J. Though that's not his real initial, reached out to see whether I plan to take it. I knew through friends that he had also been a finalist and in his texts to me, he said he wanted to acknowledge the weirdness of the situation. Jay told me he was miserable where he was living, a conservative town where it is difficult to be openly gay and implied that if I turned down the job, it would be offered to him.
Don't respond. Martin told me he shouldn't be contacting you. But I remembered how hard it was for Marta and me when we lived in West Texas for four years after Iowa and before we got jobs in Arizona. The way we were scared to hold hands while walking with our girls in the neighborhood than I imagined being a gay man in a similar situation. How it must wear him down. I remembered, too, how emotionally draining the academic job market can be.
I texted Jay back. I said I wanted to accept the job, but we were waiting to hear if Marda would be offered a spousal hire. I promised to let him know as soon as we had more news. Totally. He wrote back. That makes sense. But after that, he kept texting. He congratulated me on being a finalist for a book award and said he hoped negotiations with Michigan were going well. He asked for travel recommendations in Santa Fe and told me he was reading Jonathan Franzen's new essay collection.
Any news? He wrote midway through March when my offer letter still hadn't arrived. I've been thinking of you all. I promise I'll tell you once we decide one way or the other. I responded. Thank you for being a good human. He texted back then on a Friday evening near the end of March, he wrote. Why are they doing this to us that same night? The first Reddit posts went up. It has to be him. I told Marda after her conversation with the Associate Dean, after I was finally ready to speak my fear out loud.
I showed her his other texts. I told her how desperately he seemed to want the job. I mentioned how often he used Yol in texts, but also on social media. Afterwards, she didn't say or not. She just stared at me. But how do we prove it? This podcast is supported by E-Trade. Trading isn't for everyone, but E-Trade is whether it's saving for a rainy day or your retirement, E-Trade has you covered. They can help you check financial goals off your list.
And with a team of professionals giving you support when you need it, you can be confident that your money is working hard for you. Get more than just trading with E-Trade to get started. Visit E-Trade dot com slash podcast for more information. E-Trade Securities LLC member FINRA, SIPC. March slipped into April, and I stopped sleeping when I did sleep. I woke up from dreams that I was forgetting everything. I canceled my trip to a writing conference where I was supposed to present because I worried Jay would be there.
But then at home, I kept scrolling through his social media posts looking for clues. I wrote draft e-mails to people at Michigan or RSU filled with rhetorical arguments that I hoped would make them see the truth. But Marta would read them and say I sounded desperate or unhinged. We just have to wait. She said. A friend had reached out to me by then about Jay to let me know he'd been complaining for weeks that I was offered the job over him.
He had also told others about Mardas Title nine investigation, something he shouldn't have known about on his own. After talking to that friend, I no longer doubted that he was behind everything that was happening to us. But I still had no idea how to prove it. The New York Times reached out repeatedly to Jay and a lawyer who has represented him for comment about this article. No one responded to the queries. Eventually, we decided to tell Melanie about our suspicions.
She wrote back almost immediately. I would actually like to meet with you both a second time as I received some new information yesterday. We hoped she was dropping the case or maybe she'd talked with someone from Michigan about the information they'd received as we'd recommended instead. When we arrived and took seats together across the table from her, Melanie said. I've received another anonymous complaint. The accusation had come from a different email and ostensibly a different person, someone calling herself Jessica P.
Newman. It had been sent on April Fools Day. The opening paragraph identified Jessica as one of Marty's graduate students and repeated parts of the previous complaints. Then the email took a turn. I should have expected, but still didn't. One night, Jessica wrote Marta and her wife, Sarah had a party for queer students and faculty at their house and offered me glass of wine after glass of wine and eventually shots of whiskey when most of the others had left.
Marta asked to show me a painting in her bedroom. And when we entered, Sarah was on the bed topless and asked us to join her. I said I would be calling an Uber now, but before I could leave the room, Marta took my hand and placed it on her wife's bare chest. The interview room we were in was smaller this time. And Marta and I sat on the same side of a table reading the e-mail together while Melanie watched us.
It felt like a test. We were failing or a novel that had stopped making sense. I imagined everyone who would read or had read this email. Melanie, her supervisor, the university provost, and how they would all picture me topless on my bed trying to seduce a student while presumably my kids slept in their bedroom down the hall. In closing, Jessica wrote, I do not know how to proceed at this point, but thank you for your guidance.
I do wish to remain anonymous at this time. When we finished reading, Melanie said she wanted to talk to us separately. I watched Marta leave the room and set my phone on the table to record the interview. Melanie told me I was now also under investigation and said she needed to ask me some questions. I want to talk about these parties, she said. So tell me what that looks like. So there's never been a party. I said, I told you that we'd hosted two state dinners for Mardas graduate seminar students.
But at some point both evenings, I'd put the kids to bed. And after that, no one went near the bedrooms. And I definitely was never topless on the bed. I added, interrupting whatever question Melanie had next. I wanted to move past that part of the interview as quickly as possible, but saying the words out loud only made it worse. As if by negating the accusation, I had somehow reinforced it. I'm trying to think if we even have a painting.
Melanie interrupted this time. That's what I was going to ask. I tried to picture our bedroom walls while she waited for me to answer. I saw a print of a map of Galveston hanging above our dresser and the antique mirror I bought at an auction in Iowa on another wall. Then I remembered a third wall and my favorite painting hanging there. I'd found it at a garage sale while working my first newspaper job in Florida. It's of an androgynous kid in a flat cap, smoking a cigarette, looking out with a brazen stare.
I immediately loved so much so that I'd put it in our bedroom, just as the e-mail claimed. And that fact or the fact that one fact in my life lined up with a fiction being created about us, disoriented me. For a second, I could almost picture myself on the bed, just like what Jessica had described. There is a painting, a small painting. I told Melanie after a pause, and she took notes as I described it.
Before I left, Melanie asked if I still wanted to name the person we thought was behind the accusations. I told her I was worried that if she contacted him, things might escalate. But I also couldn't think of anything else to do. I said yes. That weekend, we went camping. We needed to do something normal. We needed to stop looking at our e-mail, waiting for the next shoe to drop the gun to go off. The day before we left, we filed what is known as a John Doe lawsuit.
The lawyer we had hired explained that the suit would allow us to subpoena identifying information associated with the e-mails used in the accusations and the Reddit posts. And once we had that proof, we could directly sue whoever owned those e-mail addresses. I also blocked Jay on social media. I worried it might tip him off, but I couldn't stand the thought of him having access to my life to pictures of my kids. We left town early Saturday and as we drove into the mountains, I tried to stop going over the case in my head the way I had been doing for the past couple of weeks, like a mouse on a wheel searching for a way off.
We got to Prescot by mid-morning and found a spot overlooking a pine forest bordered by a stream on a hike. Later that afternoon, F tramped through brush and over rocks without complaints and and led us with a walking stick clutched in her fist. I realized I was finally thinking about something else, like how good a sudden breeze felt on my skin after sweating through my shirt like EFS, dimpled legs moving so fast through the brush, like the sound of water falling somewhere we couldn't yet see.
Afterwards, Martin dropped F and me off at the tent for a nap while she and N went to buy marshmallows in town. I read f a book in the tent and sang her a song. And then I looked at my phone and saw a text from a friend. He's stalking you on social media. J had apparently been asking friends we had in common to check if I was still on Facebook and Twitter. He wanted to know if I had blocked him or just closed my accounts.
A few minutes later, he texted me himself. This despite the fact that I hadn't responded to any of his recent texts, not the one in all caps the day the Reddit posts went up. Not the one the following Monday asking if I was going to that writer's conference, nor the one a couple of days before, which read. How are you holding up? Friend. And I didn't answer his final one either. I'm genuinely sorry of communicating with you, made you uncomfortable.
He wrote. I had hoped admitting to the awkwardness of the situation would make everything okay. I guess I was wrong and I apologize. F moved around in the mound of sleeping bags. Still not asleep. Part of me wondered if I was wrong, but mostly I knew he was responsible and was scared by how easily he could lie to me directly and by what he might do next. My biggest fear. One I told no one but thought about every day was that Jay would call in a fake child abuse accusation against us.
Sometimes the fear would come out of nowhere. I'd be watching and draw a picture of a son behind a mountain made out of a coffee filter, and suddenly it would be there. The knock on the door, the woman introducing herself to us, the panic as we tried to reach our lawyer. Some days I could almost smell the caseworker's perfume here. Her polite request to interview each child separately, alone in a room where we weren't. I thought about our house.
All the toys we hadn't found time to pick up the smell of EFS, last diaper in the kitchen, trash can. The bruise on her knee from falling down at daycare. I thought about a line in the e-mail from Jessica how she wrote that she felt powerless. I put away my phone and gave F a hand to hold. But neither of us could fall asleep. When we got back in town, Melanie wrote to ask for another meeting again.
She had new information. And again, we hoped that meant she was closing the case. Instead, she said that she'd been able to talk to Michigan and they had sent her all the e-mails, they'd received e-mails. I thought we had assumed there was just one. Melanie told us that she had put them in date order and she would go through them and then we could talk. She sounded more tired than she had in our previous interviews. And I realized this was probably wearing her down to the constant bombardment of information.
The feeling that none of it made sense. But she never said as much. It seemed clear she was beginning to believe us. But she also kept reminding us that she couldn't close the investigation until she had examined all of the information that included talking to Michigan. It included interviewing Martis students and colleagues and mine as well. And now it also included an upcoming appointment to talk with Jessica, who had recently e-mailed that she was willing to meet with Melanie in person, but not until the following week.
I assure you, I'm doing all I can to wrap this up as quickly as possible. Melanie had written to us when we once again asked her about the timeline and perhaps in testament to that fact, she had asked us to come meet with her that day. And she had received permission from the university's lawyers to share the stack of emails on the table before her. The first few emails, she told us, had been sent from the same email address used to file the original accusation against Marta.
The one ostensibly from a student named Rebecca James. Only this time, the author claimed to be a colleague of Martos named Are All. She told the Associate Dean at Michigan that she was reaching out because she had heard that Marta was being considered for a spousal hire. I wanted to make you aware, especially in this moment of reconciliation, for folks who abused their positions, that we are investigating three credible allegations against her putting students in sexually abusive, uncompromising situations.
The e-mail was sent on March six, the day after J. First texted me about the job. Less than a week later, our Orleck mailed again to say that two new students had come forward. As you will likely settle the case quietly, she wrote. But you should be aware.
I believe as someone who believes in the university as a safe space for people to learn and grow, that Martez behavior has been abhorrent and completely unacceptable. After that, the remaining e-mails came from Jessica P. Newman, Mardas supposed graduate student. These e-mails were sent to the same department chair with whom I had been communicating about the job. Dr. Cabrero should not be working with students, and I shudder at the thought that this problem will leap from university to university.
The first one read it is I have now found out through a graduate colleague why she left her previous university as well. The sexual manipulation of students under the guise of mentorship. Subsequent e-mails from Jessica included screenshots of the Reddit posts, a screenshot of a supposed e-mail between Marty's colleagues discussing her removal from a dissertation committee given the recent investigation into Dr. Cabrera's relationship with students in our program and a warning that both The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education would most likely be coming out with articles about Marty's supposed history of abuse soon.
Rereading the e-mails later, I could see how they capitalized on real weaknesses in academia, the way that harassers are often passed on between institutions. The fact that graduate students have so few rights and are so dependent on their faculty mentors that they fear going public with stories of abuse and then all the other realities that have come to light with me. Two realities that have been lived, experiences for both Marta and me and for most women we know. But at the time of that meeting with Melanie, as she read parts of each e-mail aloud to us and waited for us to react, what I felt was stunned at the audacity and expansiveness of this whole story that had been written and believed for weeks about Marta and me, all without either of us ever knowing the reason that I contacted you.
Melanie eventually said is because I got another email from Michigan today. The email she told us was titled Text Tonight. And in it, Jessica wrote. I am turning this over to the authorities and wanted your administration to have this text message from Marta as well. Melanie then read out loud what she said was a screenshot of a text between Marta and Jessica. Marta. Jessica, we need to talk. Jessica, please stop contacting me. All communication needs to be processed through the Title nine coordinator.
As you know, Marta, we will ruin your career. I will make sure you never get a job once your dissertation is done. My wife and I are well-connected. Marta exhaled loudly. I know, Melanie eventually said. I understand. She told us that she had checked several key facts and disproved them one by one. There is a Professor Orleck and Mardas Department, but she hadn't sent any emails to Michigan. Mardas colleagues also denied e-mailing about her and said she had never been taken off a dissertation committee.
And not only was there not. And as you graduate student named Rebecca James, there also wasn't any named Jessica P. Newman. I felt something tight in me release. Does this mean I asked at this point, you can actually close the investigation? But Melanie shook her head, Jessica. She reminded us, had scheduled that appointment with her to talk. And even though we now knew that Jessica didn't exist, Melanie said she still had an obligation to see if she showed up for the appointment she'd made.
I took the girls to school that Thursday, and when I got back home, Marta was outside pacing. She'd been calling me for the past half hour, but I hadn't had my ringer on. Melanie called again. She said her voice flat. Jessica, it seemed, was now claiming that Martha had showed up at her apartment on Monday. But we met with Melanie on Monday. I said as if that were the least believable part of the whole scenario.
Melanie said it was in the afternoon. Marta said, we met with her in the morning. So now Melanie wants to know what I did that afternoon. She was shaking Sarah. She said, I couldn't remember. I said I thought I was home working, but I really can't remember. My first thought, and I still can't reckon with this, was doubt we knew Jessica wasn't real. But I couldn't understand why Martha didn't remember where she was on Monday afternoon.
That was only three days earlier. I felt the stick of my sweat from the morning eat. I tried not to say anything critical. My phone, Marta said, suddenly breaking the silence. She pulled out her iPhone quickly and began scrolling through the G.P.S. data. After a minute, she found a little blue dot proving that she had in fact been inside our house that whole afternoon until about four 30 p.m. When she went to get the kids. I felt my chest release.
But below that lay shame. Why did I believe her? Only once her phone. Told me she wasn't lying. What Martin didn't tell me until later was that Melanie had also asked her about an email that Jessica claimed Marta had sent her that same week. Again, Jessica had sent a screenshot of the email instead of the email itself. You wanted to sleep with us, or at least that is what your body was saying. Marta supposedly wrote in Spain, This would never happen.
People understand their bodies and desires there. It closed. Be careful what you do. You need to text me back. Why didn't you tell me about that before? I asked after Marta eventually summarized the email. My stomach tightened again. Marta shook her head. We were walking the dog before going to pick up the girls that afternoon. She had been on the couch all day, almost comatose. There are just too many things, she said. On days like that, when I saw Marta destroyed or when I thought about all the real victims out there afraid to come forward.
I was angry at Jay. Other days, I was scared of what he would do next, but I also worried about him, too. Even if everyone I knew told me I shouldn't. Before I blocked him on social media, Jay had posted a lot about being unhappy. Friends kept me updated on what he was saying or doing, and at times he seemed to be getting worse. He posted that he had an ulcer, that he was taking a mental health day, that his father was sick.
Sometimes I feared that once we had the proof we needed, once all the bricks came tumbling down around him, he might hurt himself. But I hadn't remembered, though, is that sometimes when the house falls down, we move on and rebuild in other places, new structures made from the same materials, but shaped to tell a different story around the middle of April. Jay learned about our lawsuit. That same day, he started telling people that he was being trolled online, homophobic comments about him were posted on the sub Reddit for his university that afternoon.
And an anonymous letter was sent to his university mailbox that read Di Fag professor later that week. He even did a presentation about the harassment as part of a panel at his university on discrimination, subtext and the power of language. The audience was outraged and horrified. That's a classic horror movie move. A friend of mine said when I told her what was happening. The villain injures himself. If Jay were the villain now, that meant we were the victims.
And at some point I realized we were later I wondered why it took me so long to recognize that. One reason I think now is because at the beginning of this story, we were given the role of perpetrators. I spent so much time trying to prove we were innocent that I didn't think to question the parameters of the narrative itself. Once we began sharing what was happening to us with others, almost everyone we knew was aghast, horrified. They said they've never heard of anything like this.
But now I wonder how true that is. Think about so-called deep fakes. Those women's faces being fastened on the bodies of porn stars and passed around. Think about the trolling and doxing of women online. Our story is more akin to those tales than anything that has to do with Title nine. But because the narrative got started one way, it was hard for us and even harder for academic institutions who must investigate all allegations of discrimination, harassment and retaliation as an as you spokesman later told me, to change direction.
When I finally recognized that we were the ones being harassed, I wrote to Melanie and asked for help. She recommended that I contact the university's victim's advocate who works with the police. I left a message explaining our situation and my fear. I never got a call back. We also asked our lawyer about a restraining order, but he said we needed proof that the person we thought was harassing us really was harassing us and we didn't have that yet. We were still waiting for the results of the subpoenas.
Eventually, I wrote to the president of RSU. He had told us during our faculty orientation that we should always feel free to reach out directly to him. So I decided to take him at his word. I told him that someone had been using the university's Title nine process to harass us, that this person had impersonated students and faculty members and had posted false statements about Marda on Reddit. I explained that there was no evidence that either Marda or I had done anything wrong.
Yet the Title nine office had told us that it could not close its investigation. If e-mails kept coming in from this anonymous individual, we are strong believers in the importance of Title nine protections. I concluded. But we also feel like there has to be a system in place to protect faculty and students from outsiders who might use that system to defame and harass. That afternoon, I received a response from the vice provost who assured me that investigators were being urged to move expeditiously.
I know it can be frustrating to wait for findings, she added, but we are obligated to look into allegations that are brought to us. Two weeks passed, we met with Melanie and her supervisor, and we're told that in the future, anonymous accusations would be fact checked before new investigations were opened. Melanie told us she had started writing up her report, but she said she couldn't give us a timeline for its completion. I wrote again to the vice provost.
She said the report was now with the provost and we could expect an answer soon. The last weekend in April, we plan to drive up to the mountains again, to camp with the girls in the car that Friday evening. I checked my email from my phone and saw that the provost had written to us at 458 PM. I read the email out loud tomato as she drove his determination letter, found no credible evidence of a policy violation respondants. One and two are both highly regarded and their respective departments, and both received much praise and adoration in their course evaluations from students.
The letter concluded both credibly denied all of the allegations against them. Two days later, as we were rolling up our sleeping bags and folding the tent into neat triangles, I received the official offer letter from Michigan two and a half months after that phone call telling me I had the job. We also got word that the job search for Marda had begun again. It's over. I said or not. Marta didn't say. Our house was half packed when we received an e-mail from our law firm with the first response to our subpoenas.
It was for the e-mail account used by both Rebecca James and are all which the released information was a mere three pages. And we first thought it held nothing important. But just as Mahto was walking away, I noticed a line indicating that the account had been verified and listing a phone number. Marta, I said to loudly, Where's my phone? I was shaking as I tried to call up Jay's last message. I was nervous. I would accidentally call him.
I felt as if I was doing something wrong. But then there was an exact match.
The account had been opened the same day.
Jay first texted me about the job. His phone had been used to verify the account and the IP address. When we checked, it was from the town where he was living at the time. We've got him. I said, and for the smallest moment, it felt as if our story actually had come to an end because the way I wanted it all to end was like this. Mahto would be offered a spousal hire at Michigan and I would accept a dream job teaching creative nonfiction.
We would find a cute Craftsman house in Ann Arbor in which to move the boxes that had been accumulating all around us. The kids would be happy and so would we. But also, Jay would admit what he had done to us. He would pay our legal fees and we would all agree to move on. Maybe he'd issue a public apology. Maybe there would be a moment of reckoning in which I could forgive him. Maybe he would even write a memoir about what an awful person he had been.
But we rarely get the stories we want. And so here is how this one ends. Marta was not offered a spousal hire after waiting another month and a half while a dual career coordinator tried to find something for her after ordering two pods, containers in which to store the boxes of all our belongings while we waited. After telling daycares and schools and parents and friends and colleagues that we still didn't know where we would be living the following year, Marta was eventually told that there was no job.
The University of Michigan could offer her delaying the search until after the end of the semester was part of the problem. But it was also possible that Michigan would never have been able to find something for her, in which case, if Jay had just waited, he might have been offered the job anyway. And so at the end of June, I turned down a job I was offered four and a half months before. We also named Jay as a defendant in our suit.
I worried at first about what he would do when he received the news. But as far as I know, Jay did not try to harm himself. Instead, he began reporting that someone was trying to hurt him. Four days after he was served, Jay posted that his university and private email accounts had been hacked. His colleagues started receiving emails from those accounts with messages calling him a faggot. Five days after he was served, J. Claimed he received an anonymous e-mail from a so-called burner account in that e-mail, someone claiming to be his stalker wrote that he was in love with J.
And that being rejected by him had caused a mental break. I cannot explain. I began trolling you online, sent death threats broken to your house when you were gone. The person wrote, I tried to expletive up your job applications by getting into your work email. I told a friend of yours in Arizona. The confession read like the end of a Scooby Doo episode when the mask is pulled off and the criminal lays out his line of transgressions. It was the kind of confession I had once hoped Jay would give us.
A week after Jay was served, he e-mailed the police at his university to say that his stalker had thrown a rock through his car window. He attached a photo of the shattered glass along with a handwritten note that read, Stop trying to find me. By the time a response was due from Jay regarding our lawsuit, I already knew what he would say. All the bricks came tumbling down, but they had been rebuilt into enough of a structure that the only way to prove his story false would be to go to court.
We had paid more than ten thousand dollars in legal fees at that point. Our lawyer told us that taking the case to court could cost tens of thousands more. We thought about it. We argued about it. But in the end, we decided we weren't willing to pay for more truth. I think a lot about that scene of snow. And two little girls on a bed, one with a loose tooth. How facts are like that. They tell different stories, depending on who is picking them out and placing them in a narrative line.
The most reliable way to find the truth in any moment is to have someone come clean the way that little girl did. When I entered the room, but I don't believe Jay will ever do that. By the end of July, we settled our lawsuit. Per that agreement, we can write or say anything we want about what happened. We can tell the whole story using any and all of the facts. But we made one major concession. We cannot use Jay's real name.
At the time, the concession seemed worth it if it meant ending a story, we needed to stop. But in the weeks and months since, I've wondered if we made a mistake.
I think about all the people, friends, colleagues, students whom Jay will most likely continue to fool. I think how we never really know who is behind anything we read unless we have a physical person to pin it to. But then I realized this story isn't about Jay. It's about us. If I could return to that job interview for more than three years ago to that moment when I was asked about my responsibility as a creative nonfiction writer in the post Truth World, I know what I would say now.
Our allegiance as nonfiction writers is not so much to truth as it is to honesty, because truth can be spoken into a void while honesty implies an audience, a reader. Real people to whom you commit to tell your story as accurately and truthfully as you can so that they can then differentiate for themselves the facts from the lies. The truth from the fiction.
I've done that here. Now this story belongs to you.
This was recorded by autumn. Autumn is an app you can download to listen to lots of audio stories from publishers such as The New York Times.
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