J. Courtney Sullivan’s The Commencement: A Realistic Depiction of Campus Sexual Assault

J. Courtney Sullivan’s The Commencement (published in 2009) focuses on four best friends: Celia, Bree, Sally, and April. These women come from different backgrounds, but end up together at Smith College, a women’s college in Northampton, Massachusetts.

As someone who graduated from college almost a decade ago, I felt a little old reading this book, but the first half of the novel was a welcomed walk down memory lane.  I am not a Smithie, and so do not recognize the names of academic buildings and other landmarks in Northampton, but I did go to college in New England roughly around the same time.  I graduated one year after the four protagonists did.  So, I recognize the music they refer to (I appreciated a reference to one my favorite artists, Jeff Buckley, whose tragic death happened while I was in high school), and I can relate to a world without Facebook.  In a nutshell, I could identify with these four women.

Sullivan thus managed to develop characters I cared about, but the protagonists’ lackluster post-graduate paths left me thinking, so what?, throughout the second half of the book.  The ending felt contrived and unbelievable.  I accept a certain amount of improbability in novels because I expect fiction to be more interesting than real-life, but the turn of events in this novel felt forced and ultimately not particularly exciting to read.

But I nonetheless commend Sullivan for dealing with some very difficult issues in her book, hopefully raising public awareness.  For example, one of the protagonists is a survivor of acquaintance rape, whose experience counters commonly held rape myths.  Sullivan writes,

She told [her friends] that at that point she thought to herself, This isn’t happening, and for the rest of [the assault] she just lay there with her eyes closed, not fighting him, not making a sound… ‘Oh, you guys,’ she said, wiping away her own tears. ‘…I didn’t even scream.  I didn’t fight him.  I just sort of left my body and floated up to the ceiling.  And I stayed all night in his goddamn bed!  Why didn’t I run?

The experience Sullivan describes is common, with research showing that between 20 and 25 percent of women experience an attempted or completed rape in college.  Eradicating sexual harassment and violence from the educational environment is one of the major aims of Title IX, a law that turned 40 years old yesterday.

What Sullivan describes would not fit many people’s preconceived notions about rape because the victim did not fight, did not scream, and did not immediately leave after the assault was over.  Common misconceptions about sexual assault (called rape myths) include the beliefs that rape victims will respond to the attack with physical resistance, will scream, and will immediately report the assault.  Rape myths like these discredit victims who don’t follow that stereotypical script, allowing perpetrators to get away with committing crimes that they are likely to commit again.  Contrary to common rape myths, research shows that victims often do not physically resist their attackers because they are restrained or because they have “frozen with fright,” and many do not report the attack immediately or at all for many reasons, including fear of retaliation and fear of not being believed.

The good news is that law has changed in many ways to better reflect the realities of sexual assault.  In Pennsylvania, for example, as the Women’s Law Project describes, “The legislature [in the 1970s] eliminated the requirements of resistance, corroboration, and prompt complaint so that a victim’s lack of active resistance, lack of physical injuries, or delay in reporting the crime would not bar prosecution.”  The Pennsylvania General Assembly reformed the laws involving sexual offenses again in the mid-1990s, “adopt[ing] a broader definition of forcible compulsion, eliminat[ing] differential treatment of spousal rape, and recogniz[ing] the crime of nonconsensual sexual penetration.”

These changes were a major step forward in improving the justice system’s response to sexual assault, but rape myths persist, as the fact that the Women’s Law Project had to file amicus briefs in Commonwealth v. Claybrook and Reedy v. Evanson shows.  Adding to the problem is the fact that Pennsylvania was the last state in the entire country to allow prosecutors to call expert witnesses to explain the dynamics of sexual assault, including delays in reporting and lack of resistance, to juries and judges.  A bill (HB 1264) to allow expert testimony in certain criminal proceedings has finally passed the Pennsylvania General Assembly (as of June 22, 2012) and is on Governor Corbett’s desk.

It certainly helps that jurors and judges get to hear expert testimony on the dynamics of sexual assault, but it would be much better if more people entered the jury box knowing that rape myths are false.  That’s why I appreciate Sullivan’s honest description of college sexual assault.  I imagine that most of her readers are women* who already know this information, but for the handful who pick up her book without having thought about campus sexual assault before, it’s an important lesson.  Men aren’t the only ones who adhere to rape myths.

*I’d like to think that both women and men would read a book like this, but, stereotypes being what they are, I doubt a book that would generally fall into the “chick lit” category would appeal to most men.  Let’s face it, I don’t know a whole lot of guys who would jump at the chance to read a book with a pink cover with four women on it.

UPDATE: Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed HB 1264 into law on June 29, 2012.

2 thoughts on “J. Courtney Sullivan’s The Commencement: A Realistic Depiction of Campus Sexual Assault

  1. Thanks for stopping by! I wish Pennsylvania lived up to its progressive reputation, but sadly, that hasn’t been the case in the areas I work on (women’s rights, poverty, civil liberties).

  2. You really have a blog packed with legal information, and you write it so it is not dry and difficult to understand. The book review was very well done and would encourage others to read it. Interesting that PA was the last in the country to call expert witnesses. I always viewed PA as progressive and taking initiative. I am originally from PA.

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