Vanessa McNeal is a storyteller, writer and filmmaker. She is the founder and executive director of Story Maven Media, a nonprofit digital media platform that elevates social issues through documentary filmmaking.
McNeal is a survivor of sexual assault and uses her story to empower and connect with others. You can learn more about her story here.
I was going to be the first person in my family to graduate from high school. That was going to be easy for me and I knew I wanted to go to college, so I joined a program to help at-risk students. It was a summer program and if you met the criteria of the summer school portion, you got to go on a trip to Branson, Mo. I was able to go with a ton of other students.
That night, our head counselor said he was so proud of us for getting through the summer portion and that we could go in and out of each other’s hotel rooms, even though boys and girls intermingling was never allowed. But we could that night, so long as we left the long lock in the door open, so you could just walk in. So we were like, that’s exciting, that’s perfect. Nothing could go wrong.
Things went terribly wrong. That night I was sexually assaulted by another student in the program who was 18. I was 15.
I didn’t know at the time, but he was able to get my hotel room key and he swiped in in the middle of the night. After it happened, I woke up my best friend right away and we talked about what we should do. We decided to tell the adults there. Unfortunately they mishandled the situation completely. They never called the police. They never took me to the hospital to have a rape kit done. They waited 12 hours to call my grandma. But they believed me and they basically quarantined him in his room for the entirety of the trip.
When I got home, I experienced PTSD, anxiety and depression in ways that I never had before. So my grandma decided that we were going to sue the college and its program for negligence. There were supposed to be hall monitors and bag checks. None of that stuff happened. I demanded that justice be served to all of them.
Even though I felt a very real sense of fear, I knew that I would regret not taking a stand about it. Even if it didn’t turn out the way I wanted, my message would be sent to myself at the end of the day.
Four years later, I was deposed as a witness to figure out if we were going to go to trial or if we were going to settle out of court.
I was not prepared whatsoever for what they brought up. I was afraid of not being believed.
This deposition happened during Christmas break back in Davenport. I remember going to the mall the night before because I needed to buy dress clothes because I hadn’t brought any back from Ames. All I could find was a skirt. As I was checking out, something is telling me to look behind me, and so I turn around and my perpetrator is in the line at the store. The cashier was asking me if I needed a receipt and I couldn’t hear her because I’m thinking about the odds that he would be here. I hadn’t seen him in four years. But I think that prepared me for the fear I had in seeing him the next day.
In the room, there was a long table and fancy chairs. It had to be recorded, so there was a camera facing me. There was a person typing. My perpetrator was there, his lawyer was there, the college’s attorneys were there and told me that they didn’t believe now, even though they had before. Since I was an adult, I was by myself with my attorneys. I didn’t know at the time that I could have had a victim advocate there.
It was horrible. It lasted at least six hours. I was made out to be a slut and someone who just wanted attention and money.
I remember the attorney asking me what my GPA was in high school. It was a 3.7. He asked me what my GPA was now in college and I told him a 4.0. He said, “I’m having a hard time believing this even happened to you and that you’re affected by it because your GPA is better now in college than high school.”
He asked me about my childhood and the abuse I experienced and was able to pull medical records and therapy notes and bring all of this stuff up that had in my opinion no relevance to what happened.
And me wearing a skirt was such a minuscule detail, but I remember sitting at the table and as they’re basically slut-shaming me, I’m asking myself why I would ever wear a skirt to something like this. I felt exposed. I know that wearing a dress or skirt doesn’t justify any assault, but I was wearing this skirt and it cultivated their theory.
Afterward the attorney who was especially cutthroat came up to me and said, “I’m so sorry about what happened to you, Vanessa. I wish you the best of luck at Iowa State. I have two sons that go there.” I was dumbfounded that he had the balls to say that to me after everything was over. He had no idea how much damage he had inflicted upon me.
The day that I was deposed was worse in my opinion than being sexually assaulted. I was absolutely brutalized by the justice system. We weren’t able to have a criminal proceeding because the program never called the police. Basically, if there’s not a police report, it didn’t happen. We couldn’t have him arrested, so a civil suit was all we could do. No amount of money could ever repay what happened to me. How do you put a price on that? We settled out of court with the program and that it was in my best interest not to go to trial, which I completely agree with because I would have been ripped to shreds there.
It took me a really, really long time, but with lots of therapy and work and healing, I eventually felt gratitude that as unfortunate and horrifying as that was for me, it set the stage for a level of resiliency and courage that I would have never had.
It cultivated a fierce passion to stand up for survivors and do the work I’m doing. I wouldn’t be doing the work I’m doing had that not happened to me because I wouldn’t have understood it. All of those things I am completely grateful for, which may sound weird. But I wouldn’t see the good the way I do had I not seen the bad. I wouldn’t be able to be the woman I’m proud of being today had that not happened.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE FEARLESS?
I don’t necessarily believe in the word fearless be- cause I think that we need fear. Fear means one of two things. One, that we have an imminent threat that we need to take action to or against. Or it means that some- thing is happening or about to happen in our lives be- cause it goes out of our comfort zones. I don’t think that we should be fearless. We should listen to fear and what it tells us. A lot of times fear isn’t what holds us back from doing something. It propels us forward. I like to think of resilience and the ability to move forward or move through something.
WHAT DOES BEING RESILIENT LOOK AND FEEL LIKE?
Resiliency feels like strength and power and over- coming. It feels like freedom. Fear feels stuffy and overwhelming, but resilience feels like freedom. You’re able to break away the chains that you have. I’ve experienced unimaginable pain that I would never wish on anyone else. But because of that pain, I was able to shape and mold who I am. I was able to learn how to be and grow into the woman I am today.
HOW DO YOU BECOME RESILIENT?
You become resilient by making a choice. You overcome fear by making a choice. You have to want to over- come, because the biggest threat to moving forward and growing as individuals is wanting to stay the same, and wanting to be familiar. Resiliency isn’t that way. You have to move forward in order to be resilient.
HOW WOULD YOU DRAW IT?
When I think about what resiliency would look like, it would be a bird opening its own cage from the inside. A lot of times we think external things have to happen to us in order to be resilient. Maybe we have to have our perpetrator be convicted or say that they’re sorry, when that’s not really what frees us. What frees us is making the personal decision to free yourself and get the healing and strength you need from within.