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The Writing on the Wall

Looking Up

By Katie Disalvo

It was very difficult to miss. For at least a month—late July through early September—the door of the handicap stall of the Science Center basement women’s bathroom was deeply upsetting to look at from the toilet. Now the door is almost shiny and clean again, decorated by the occasional Hasty Pudding poster.If one didn’t know to look, the faint black smears of ink would probably be imperceptible.

“I was raped [date]” in black permanent marker had been followed by a second date in white-out.To the left of the two dates there had been a large paragraph on how rape is a crime that needs to be reported. By all means write here, it read, but report.

In July I’d wondered how long the graffiti would last. Would an administrator make the call or would a janitor simply decide to scour it down The white-out could have been removed with a fingernail.

When I returned in late August it was still there. During freshman week, it was still there.

In many ways this seemed right. It would be terrible to anonymously obliterate the premeditated testimony (permanent marker) of someone who had so recently suffered such violation. Additionally, if such realities exist at Harvard, surely we need to face up to them. One could argue that erasing the graffiti would be sweeping a horrible crime under the rug, an inhumane effort to keep Harvard Yard green, grassy and shining for the public eye.

But the handicap stall is my favorite. It’s easy to fit my bulky backpack and I like the moment by myself in a comfortably large space. I saw the graffiti tens of times. It was black, it was right in my line of vision, and it was painfully compelling. Regardless of whether or not the graffiti was true, the stall door was a frequent reminder of a reality I was trying to put out of my mind.

Of course the University should be working to curb sexual violence on campus, and sexual violence crimes at Harvard need the community’s attention. But one simply cannot be attentive to all of life’s darker realities at all times. There isn’t enough room in the women’s bathroom—even if people wrote on the sinks, the ceiling, the floor, to document all that is deeply wrong with humanity—at Harvard and beyond. One needs to see the reality of all these problems, but how much time spent engaging with these realities is enough time? Do you need to feel that horrible while you go to the bathroom? Couldn’t someone just clean the door already?

Clearly the graffiti had cut through my daily preoccupations, and probably shook others similarly. The temporary sadness and discomfort I felt is nothing compared to what victims of sexual violence experience. Is an occasional reminder too much to ask of me? But how, and how frequently, should I be reminded?

About a week ago, in preparation for this column, I went to the bathroom with a notebook in hand. That day I discovered that the graffiti I’d read countless times on the handicap stall door was gone. It was clearly a selective cleaning job, as two stickers—one large and covered in graffiti that appears to be names—remain on the stall’s towel dispenser.

Part of me is happy that my favorite stall will once again be the quiet Science Center haven that it used to be. The shining door that seems so smeared now will probably be no cause for thought in a few months. But precisely because of this, I will find myself choosing to sit in the stall closest to the door, staring at names, taking a moment in my busy day of classes for a reality check.

Because, on a tip, I have discovered all I hadn’t seen in my stall fidelity. In the third stall from the end there is a small statement on the door, that used to be bordered by a whimsical flyer advertising tickets to see the Chippendales. “I was raped at the [specific finals club] [date from last semester].” In the stall closest to the entrance there is “[x] is a rapist.” With three other names in the same area, all etched into the door with ink from ball point pens. There are black smears on many doors. Seeing this graffiti for the first time, I couldn’t help wondering what had been wiped away over the years, as industrial strength cleaning sprays bit through the permanent testimony the graffiti authors had hoped for.

Katie DiSalvo ’05 is a religion concentrator in Cabot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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