By Donna Freitas
Reviewed by Kira von Eichel
I remember the moment my father told me that the Police song “Every Breath You Take” was a song from the point of view of a stalker. Until then, I, like most pre-teen Top 40 listeners of the 1980s, thought of it as a love song. How dreamy to be loved so intensely by someone. “Every breath you take, every move you make … I’ll be watching you.”
I also remember being sixteen and receiving a pair of earrings from an older male teacher, after a choral concert one evening, politely saying thank you and walking off thinking, “that was weird.” And then, two years after I’d left that school, receiving a call from that same teacher congratulating me on my eighteenth birthday and suggesting we get together some time. That time I said, “okay, sure, maybe sometime,” hung up quickly and thought, “Ew!” I was embarrassed and never mentioned it to anyone until years later. I was riddled with questions about our interactions. Did he get a kick out of me because I was an enthusiastic student? Or was he being creepy because I wore short skirts and ripped nylons? It felt dangerous to even name it. He was a teacher and trusted and liked, and I was just a teenager.
He died recently and there were tributes to him on Facebook by my old classmates. He had been a great teacher, it was true. Who was I to ruin that for anyone? And after all, all he did was give a gift and make a call. And yet. And yet.
As an adult I know, unequivocally, that he was being creepy. Based purely on anecdotal evidence, I’d venture that if you ask every woman and girl you know, the majority will have some version of the story, and sadly, some far worse.
In Consent, author and scholar Donna Freitas tells the story of being stalked by Father L., a priest and professor at the Catholic university she attended for her PhD in Religious Studies. As a writer and lecturer on sexuality, consent, and Title IX on college campuses, she applies her research skills to her own long-undisclosed story and is unflinching in her examination. It is a harrowing and brilliant personal exploration of consent, shame, and power. It tells a clear story about how quickly a very smart young woman can lose her bearings as her power, and her voice, are taken from her.
Freitas writes beautifully; she is both a probing academic and a poet. In quick strokes, she evokes the world of close-knit Catholic family and community in Rhode Island, of undergraduate life at Georgetown University, the joys of being an academic, and, finally, the devastation of not trusting one’s mind anymore, and losing hold of future dreams.
Freitas leaves a path of breadcrumbs. We meet the young, passionate Donna in Catholic school, and she has discovered her secret power: reading and learning. She’s the self-described teacher’s pet who reads so voraciously that she requires her own one-person AP English class in high school with a generous and supportive nun. The set-up is critical to fully comprehend the break in trust between a teacher and student that ensues.
While not a story of Catholicism per se, Freitas’s own Catholic upbringing and the fact that her stalker is a teacher and a Catholic priest are themselves critical pieces of the story. From birth, Freitas’s experience of the church is nothing but positive. It is the bedrock of her Italian and Portuguese immigrant community in Rhode Island. It is the nuns at school and the Jesuits at Georgetown University who encourage her along in her path. Even as she decides early on that she may not share the faith of her parents, her nostalgia for ritual and gratitude for the way the Catholic community in her town supports her mother during an illness make it a virtuous institution. Academia becomes her church, and the church remains her hearth. The structure of the church alone and the myth of the infallibility of priests— these events unfold just before the church’s abuse scandal—lay at the heart of how Father L. gains the access he does. Not all stalkers are Catholic priests. But, several times, the author wonders if Father L.’s early entry to the priesthood stunted his emotional growth to such an extent that he doesn’t possess the maturity to understand his own desire and that it is not reciprocated.
The title is important. The book is called Consent, not, say, Stalked, or My Creepy Teacher. Consent is the nagging question that runs through the book—when and how or whether consent took place. Freitas does not owe anyone an examination of her role, but she probes it, pokes it, turns it over in her hand, and exposes it to light in a way that is a great gift to her reader.
The examination of the experience yields a clear enough picture of a stalker on the one hand, but we see Freitas’s anguish at every opening she perceives herself as having created. It is painful to witness. And important and generous, even, of her to do. She levels a steady gaze at a woman’s desire to be seen. We see a girl in short skirt and tall boots, aware of her looks and enjoying them, a self-described “kissing bandit” along with being the aforementioned eager student. Her favorite mentors become those teachers who relish that wonderful student, encourage her with more books that pertain to her boundless curiosity. Father L. starts out as one of those mentors, and she says, “I was flattered, too … his attention made me feel special, though not special in a way that a boy I liked might make me feel special. Special as an aspiring PhD, as an aspiring professor, like himself.”
Are female students complicit because they want to be liked by the men they like, because they wear short skirts and high heel boots? A major idea embedded at the core of questioning consent is complicity and, from that, shame. Entire passages find Donna questioning her own role in the unwanted attentions. Is it harassment if it’s just friendly? Did she elicit and encourage it? Why her and not that other student? And of course, from those questions and uncertainties, the shame arises and settles itself into every crevice and wreaks havoc.
Freitas talks about a “half-assed non-consent,” familiar to most women as what we do to maintain the peace. The threat of losing everything, of disturbing lives, and worlds, is always present when we weigh how to say no. It’s the balancing act (or conflict) of holding a hand up to keep someone at bay and smiling at the same time.
Freitas’s pacing is akin to a well-plotted thriller. Slowly but surely things add up. On their own, each of Father L.’s infractions are hard to pin down or call stalking. Which lends more unease. The hairs on the back of one’s neck prick up as one realizes, along with Freitas, how slippery the mudslide has become. We see a young woman wondering whether she is indeed being stalked, or whether she’s rejecting a great teacher and being difficult and ungrateful. The harassment has an insidiousness to it, almost like a vapor that winds itself in and around and obscures clear vision, and ultimately enters the bloodstream.
Harassers and abusers make the objects of their interest question their own intuition and sense of danger. Every woman has it. And needs it. Walking home alone after dark; sitting on a train and knowing that it’s time to move by the slightest offgesture or gaze; when compliments veer ever so slightly into something hard to pinpoint, but decidedly not okay. Freitas the grad student does know when things start to feel not right. But she sees no path then, early on, to say why exactly. Any number of the interactions would be perceived as harmless, the sign of a great professor taking interest in a passionate student. What feels so common-sense matter-of-fact to the reader, looking at the story as a whole, is in fact nothing like that to the student in the crosshairs. Girls and women must often ask themselves: “Ddid that just happen? Am I taking it to mean something it’s not?”
By now we have reached peak use of the word gaslighting (from the title of a 1938 play about a man who manipulates the lighting in his house to convince his wife she is losing her mind), but here it is the most apt descriptor; Freitas writes, “he … was sneaky and convoluted and just indirect enough to leave me doubtful, to make me question my instincts, my judgment, my intuition….”
One of the greatest passages of the book is also the most heartbreaking. After months of calls, letters, and lurking, Father L. brings Donna a pear. By now, the bright, passionate student in highheeled boots has been replaced by a furtive, exhausted, disheveled young woman. She leaves the pear on her kitchen countertop and is reduced to a sort of Nancy Drew of theology as she wonders if the slowly rotting pear is an intentional allusion to the sins of Saint Augustine or is simply a pear from a teacher. Throughout the book young Freitas is trapped, trying to close a door ever so politely while the priest wedges his foot in ever further. Father L. holds all the power. He is important in her university and in her chosen field; without his stamp of approval and letters of introduction, her career will suffer.
The ways in which the university fails Freitas when she turns to it for help are maddening. In describing the damage done to women when they sign nondisclosure or settlement deals with universities, she writes chillingly about the agreements; “I cut out my tongue in the university’s office of human resources … There are file cabinets of the bloody tongues of women … all of them taken from us by people in business-casual attire, in suits and sensible skirts.”
In spite of her experience, as both a passionate student and teacher Freitas is quick to defend the sanctity of a bond between teacher and student, and it only underscores how tragic it is when people like Father L. and his brethren violate the pact. Freitas asks herself repeatedly what she would counsel a student in her shoes and knows that she would advocate for her, and yet she struggles to apply the same empathy and support for herself. The writing of this book feels like an exorcism of sorts of that residual shame. To expose it to the sunlight, as they say, and kill the germs. The book is important beyond that though. It walks us through why our intuition is worth its weight in gold. And walks us through the complexity of consent, of power dynamics, and of what shame can do to even the brightest. In the end, Freitas comes to her conclusion with humility and honesty. She hasn’t conquered every demon left behind by the experience, but there is a sense of release, and, critically, a voice returned.
Kira von Eichel is a writer based in Brooklyn. She reviewed the novel Please Read this Leaflet Carefully for Women’s Review of Books in May/June 2019.