My Abusive Ex-Boyfriend, His Fraternity Brothers, and Me

I’ve been trying to write this essay for a few weeks. Every time I sit down to start, only bile comes out. The hurt I want to document goes deeper than a neat thesis statement. I feel betrayed, and betrayal is more like an infection than a broken bone. There is no way to easily reset it and wrap it in plaster. Betrayal burrows into your nerves and sets up camp for the long haul. Its scattershot symptoms are hard to explain to a doctor when you’re not confident in exactly what is wrong, and it’s easy in those moments of sloppy articulation to feel like you’ve made it all up. I keep waiting for the fever to peak before I put words to this. No matter what friendships I sever or pointed Facebook statuses I write, this strain of anger doesn’t have an easy cure. The struggle to write is the only inoculation available to me.

So let’s start at the beginning. My ex-boyfriend is a member of a fraternity at my alma mater. Ben* was not technically my boyfriend, a semantic distinction he dropped only once when he told me I was a “good girlfriend” before gently unclasping my favorite necklace and placing it on the side table. I met him through friends who described him as “nice kid” who may or may not have a girlfriend. He told me that they had just broken up, and much of my energy in the next few months went to answering how recently, and why.

Not long after we started seeing each other, I was his date to AEPi’s formal. It was there that I first noticed (without much concern) the status I granted him: I was a campus celebrity of sorts, and having me on his arm set him apart from the other boys in his class. Earlier that same year I had taken over running Unlocked, the “art and sexuality magazine,” which made me something of a status symbol. Being a trophy didn’t bother me in the beginning when he treated me in private with such awe and respect. And his eagerness to impress his older brothers rubbed off on me—I got caught up in sitting at the top of Foss Hill with the charismatic leaders of the frat. We drank forties of Miller Lite covered in his brothers’ signatures and danced joyfully and often to MGMT without a trace of irony.

Being the cool girlfriend of a brother didn’t mean the status he had within AEPi extended to me. One night toward the end of our relationship, he called me down the hall to where he had been having a heated exchange with some of the younger brothers. There was an air of posturing, and while I was used to him trying to impress the older members of the fraternity, this had an air of rivalry. He asked me to turn around in a circle, and I did, forcing a good sport laugh even as I could feel their eyes on my body. Dating him was an obstacle course of rolling my eyes and “isn’t he something” laughter, but he always assured me that the joke wasn’t really on me. It was easy to believe him when I knew I had more social clout than these underclassmen—at that point I was a senior in addition to Unlocked’s editor-in-chief. But the episode left me feeling sick. After I spun my circle, he turned to his friends and demanded, “See?” They nodded, acquiescing to whatever his point was. Later, when we were back in his dorm room and I asked what the fuck that had been about, he said one of his brothers had called me fat. He kissed my stomach and assured me they were just jealous.

But this essay isn’t about Ben. It’s not about the names he called me, or the lies he told me, or the text messages he sent me. This essay isn’t about how I left before his psychological abuse could escalate to physical abuse, which I later learned was the reason his relationship before ours had ended, only a few days before we’d begun seeing each other. I am tired of writing about that haunting awareness of how much our dynamic could have become violent if fate hadn’t intervened. This essay is about his brothers and the role they’ve played in our lives since we broke up. This essay isn’t about his betrayal; it’s about theirs.

In September 2014, the fall after I graduated college and about a year after I left Ben, I wrote an essay about how fraternities reinforce rape culture. A friend of mine—one of the brothers who introduced me to Ben—had started a non-profit organization to bring conversations about consent to the Greek system. I wrote a defense of my friend’s approach while reiterating the failure of their fraternity to take action after they learned how Ben had treated me. In 2014 I’d yet to write about my ex publicly, or about having a sexually transmitted infection, or about much of anything at all. I did not have enough emotional distance from our relationship to recognize how much AEPi had influenced his behavior. I also did not have enough physical distance from Wesleyan to understand how my friendships within the fraternity continued to keep me quiet. My vision was still muddled from the fireworks: the more dramatic moments of abuse, failure, inaction. The little moments, like spinning in a circle for his friends, hadn’t formed a pattern yet. I looked back on his fraternity as cowardly but friendly. I wrote, “The more time I spent with frat members, the more I understood the appeal of the organization, even if I wouldn’t want to be a part of one myself. Like a true family, they supported each other when someone was having a tough time or needed help with a project. All of that loyalty and honor stuff? They really believe it. And they were all good people.”

After I published that essay on my blog, two members of the fraternity reached out to me. I had approached Evan* and Patrick* in the fall of 2013, shortly after I broke up with Ben, to ask for their help. Evan and Patrick were friends of my close friends, men I respected even if I didn’t know them very well. They were also men whom my ex respected, leaders in the fraternity whose approval I had watched him compete for time and time again. I thought that they were the most likely to keep Ben’s behavior in check if he were to hurt other women on campus. They listened, horrified, as I explained how my ex had emotionally abused me for months. I felt slightly better after those conversations, relieved that the burden of knowing who Ben really was no longer fell on my shoulders alone. But despite their visceral reaction to my story, the fraternity took no action to punish Ben, and I saw no indication that his behavior changed during my last year at Wesleyan.

My essay stirred up skeletons the fraternity thought had been buried. While their younger brothers panicked about the threat I posed to AEPi’s reputation (oddly enough, they weren’t concerned with the threat Ben posed to AEPi’s reputation), Evan and Patrick both apologized for not having done more when we were still at Wesleyan. They spoke of how they had fallen for the same act that I had: that Ben was young and in need of support, and that with their help he could still grow and change into a better man.

I accepted their apologies and Evan became one of my closest friends. He impressed me with his sensitivity and self-awareness, and I rapidly developed a crush on him. We texted for hours on end and had long conversations on the phone throughout that fall before finally meeting up in person. He was spellbound by my writing and confidence, and I found myself unexpectedly nervous in his presence. I had spent so long seeing him through Ben’s eyes: the charming life of the party who went hard and knew everyone. I also felt something else, something uncomfortable and embarrassing. Evan’s approval meant that my ex hadn’t ruined me, that I was not all of the slurs Ben tossed at me. I was desirable and intelligent and not defined by one short-lived, toxic relationship. There was a sliver of revenge in it too, muddled up with relief and something that felt like progress. This man who had seen me at my worst, who had seen me sob because I had fallen in love with a boy it turned out I didn’t even know, still respected me. Still wanted me.

Our relationship never became “serious” because of the geographical shuffle that is the post-college period, but I trusted Evan more than I trusted most men. We confided in each other as we struggled to figure out who we were as individuals after Wesleyan. He visited me in New York, took a tour of my office and met my co-workers, bought me a burger at my favorite bar and kissed my neck as I studied the Hudson River from our hotel room window. When an essay I wrote went viral in spring 2015, Evan coached me through my first ever panic attack over the phone. He visited me again this past winter and held me as I watched a particularly triggering episode of Jessica Jones. I told him about how even now, years later, my relationship with Ben has its claws somewhere in my gut. A handful of months required years of untangling. No one ever tells you how long it takes to restore the brightness to your mind after you have been gaslit.

Over a midnight snack at the neighborhood diner, Evan told me that Ben had invited him to catch up while he was in New York. Evan looked guilty as he said it and made it clear he wasn’t interested in doing so. I surprised him by saying I wouldn’t mind. I still harbored a morbid curiosity about my ex—I didn’t know where Ben was living or what his plan was for the future. Even if it was best for me, I didn’t like being in the dark about Ben’s life. It made me feel like I’d made our entire relationship up, and imagining the two of them chatting over drinks at a dark bar took away Ben’s mystery and turned him back into a boy I had left behind. I teasingly told Evan to do some recon so that I could keep myself safe if Ben planned to settle in New York. As long as I knew that Evan was my real friend and not Ben’s, it didn’t feel like a betrayal. Having a role in planning the catch up made me feel like I had control. Evan said he would think about it, but they never made plans, and I was relieved. I forgot about the conversation for several months.

We grew apart after Evan’s last trip to New York this winter. I traveled internationally for work and focused most of my attention on preparing for my TEDx talk in the spring. Evan was preoccupied with grad school and his personal life. There was no malice in us taking some space from each other—we were both heavily aware of the divergent paths our careers would take us, and of how impractical our feelings would become if they became more serious. But he left me a voicemail on my birthday, May 15th, and we made plans to FaceTime at some point after Wesleyan’s reunion that upcoming weekend, which he would be attending and I was skipping for the second year in a row.

That Sunday I went online for some before-bed Facebook browsing, and I saw an album of photos pulled to the top of my newsfeed (Evan was one of my “close friends” whose updates Facebook showed me first). There was Evan with his arms around Ben. My emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend also scowled at me from Evan’s new profile photo. That same photo doubled as Evan’s new cover photo, which suggested that this was some weird, drunk inside joke he and his brothers shared. They were all rushing to comment on it.

I didn’t think—I reacted. I unfriended Evan immediately to get Ben’s face off of my computer screen. My skin was heating up, my throat closing just like it had during my first ever panic attack last spring, the one Evan talked me through. I found the album again by looking up the person who had uploaded the photos and I downloaded the picture of them together. I sent it to my best friend. She said, “Evan looks drunk.” They all looked drunk. They looked very drunk. They had been drinking together. A boys’ weekend. The brothers all back together on campus, holding up their fraternity’s flag with pride.

I thought about how only a few months ago, Evan sat in this bed with me and watched an early filmed version of my TEDx talk. He told me I was the bravest person he’d ever known. I thought about how satisfied I’d been to learn Ben had asked Evan if he and I were involved. I thought about how Evan took me to an expensive steak dinner with Patrick and some of their other friends in Times Square, the way he kissed my shoulder in yet another expensive hotel room. I thought about how we’d stood on my roof in December looking at the Manhattan skyline in the distance and I knew if he lived in my city, I would fall helplessly in love with him, maybe. If I let myself. If it were convenient, which it weren’t, and so we wouldn’t, and so I should distance myself for a while to not get hurt. To not get hurt. To not get hurt.

I texted Evan the photo of him and my ex and I wrote “Delete my number.” It did nothing to cool the hot coil of fury in my stomach and that fever went nowhere all week because I knew he would call me eventually.

Ten days after leaving me a voicemail wishing me a happy birthday, Evan left another voicemail. “I’m sorry if me being friendly—if me being friends with Ben is hurtful. I know what he did to you… I’m calling because I imagine that the complex mental gymnastics that I do to be friendly with both of you doesn’t make much sense.” He sounded anguished, said he understood if I didn’t want to talk to him again, said he wouldn’t bother me again unless I reached out first. He sounded so disappointed in himself that he couldn’t offer any real excuse or justification. But I couldn’t get past that term, the “complex mental gymnastics” of being friendly with both of us. I couldn’t understand how he could compartmentalize seeing me, this woman who he cared for, struggle with anxiety and trust issues and intimacy on a daily basis and then party with the man who had caused that struggle. I couldn’t understand how I could mean anything to him if he could tolerate, let alone enjoy, the company of the man whose abuse he had apologized for not taking seriously almost two years earlier. If the foundation of our trust was that first apology and my redemption from being just Ben’s stupid, abused ex-girlfriend, that pathetic girl sobbing on her living room couch in front of him, the message his voicemail sent me was a clear one: he was not the person I thought he was.

Maybe if this were just about a cowardly asshole of an ex-friend, I would let it go. I would cut Evan out of my life and quietly work through the hurt of seeing someone I trusted cavort with a boy I still had nightmares about. I would erect more digital walls around my social media presence to avoid Ben’s abrupt appearances on my feed. I would do the hard work of moving on in private, showing Evan the respect he hadn’t shown me by not turning his choices into yet another essay about a fraternity brother who disappointed me.

But Evan’s behavior didn’t only send a message to me. It sent a message to my ex. Their weekend of partying, their photos together, his position of honor on Evan’s Facebook profile sent him a clear message that how he treated me was okay. It told him that he could continue to treat women like shit and face no real consequences because her friends would still call him a brother. I can forgive a boy for not intervening in a situation he doesn’t understand, for being a silent bystander when he doesn’t have all the information and is more loyal to one party than the other. But I can’t forgive a man who knows every detail of how my ex behaved with me, and the girl before me, and the girl after me, and still chooses a flimsy brotherhood cemented in cheap beer and toxic masculine ritual over his own integrity.

Abusive men do what they do because they have support. They have a justice system that forgives them and a popular media that questions their victims. They have a culture that is willing to confuse right from wrong. They also thrive on the weakness of other people who decide it is easier to just “be chill” than it is to call out a peer for systematically treating women as less than human. My ex is always going to be a psychopathic little snob who sees women as trophies, but it is his brothers who encourage and protect his misogyny and abuse.

I don’t have an ending. I just want this fever of helpless anger and hurt to break. I want this part of my life to be over. I want to go to my college reunion without worrying about who I will bump into. I want to know that my friends are my friends, with no conflicting loyalties and oaths to swear by, to prioritize. We have so many opportunities in this life to decide we want to be. We get so many chances to refuse to be complicit, to walk away from toxic situations, to stand up for the people who need our protection from the power structures we benefit from. This surplus of chances to do the right thing makes our failures all the more cowardly, all the more damaging, all the more shameful. A fraternity is not one person poisoning the well. A fraternity is a well-practiced legacy of looking away, shrugging off, and letting go. Even the nice fraternities.

C’mon, boys. Let’s take one more picture with the flag, for old times’ sake.

*names have been changed

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Ella Dawson is a rowdy millennial who cares too much about The Bachelor. Her passions include sexual health and education, feminist erotica and social media.

8 thoughts on “My Abusive Ex-Boyfriend, His Fraternity Brothers, and Me

  1. Doesn’t happen in just fraternities. Happens in friend groups, too. A different sort of brotherhood. I really needed this…knowing that I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Sorta alleviates some of my own helpless anger. Thanks.

  2. Reading your work in those months and that of similar authors in the last couple of years led to the realization that I did some really stupid mistakes with one of my friends (she) who had what I now fully realize was an abusive relationship with a close friend of mine (he). I met them already a couple and she left him many years ago but the thing is that she still has lingering issues with him to deal with and in all those years I was in the middle, friend of both but without the “complex mental gymnastics”, simply because i was a dork and not being able to realize something that now is so clear.
    Next time I’ll see her I will apologize for such short sightedness. I should have stood more firmly by her side.
    Anyway thanks for what you do.

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