Back in 2018, after years of suppressing and not wanting to acknowledge what occurred, I finally decided to write what happened to me. Now, it may come as a shock, but not everything that occurred has been told. Some of it I probably won’t tell for a while (because legalities and all that), but some of it I can elaborate on.
When I had a neighbor/babysitter parade me around naked, telling her son that he would someday marry me, what I did not mention is that his sister, who was a teenager at that time, would then take me to her bedroom, molest and sexually assault me. Now, remember, I was 8 and she was a teenager. So, it is no wonder that I often still have issues regarding my sexual identity. Because, on the one hand, I do find myself attracted to women, I also wonder if it stems from what occurred then. Now, I sometimes will state that I am bisexual, and sometimes I don’t because, quite frankly, I don’t know. I don’t know if I will ever truly know. It should come as no surprise to anyone that anything of a sexual nature is something I struggle with and will probably always struggle with. Now, currently, I have been dating a wonderful man for over a year and while he doesn’t know of everything that has gone on in my past, he does now that I have been hurt. So he’s never pushed me and he’s let me just be comfortable with just being together (often, we fall asleep watching a film but then, we are both 40 and up). And you know what? That’s also perfectly fine. Sometimes it’s nice to cuddle, talk, and just be able to be comfortable with another person because that certainly feels more intimate than anything else. Now, the babysitter in question is dead. I have not shed one tear for her death and expect that I never will. Her daughter is still alive, but I don’t think she lives in the state and I hope I never see her again. Occasionally her brother, because he is still around, will send me friend requests on Facebook. I just delete and move on. And the reason I am so willing to move on from this part of my past, is because it’s the one I have worked through the most and I truly can state that it no longer bothers me. But if I ever met the son in person? I’d probably slap him.
As to the academic advisor, Helene Siebrits is still teaching. She is currently at Ohio State and she is the main reason that when I was applying to PhD programs, I just stopped. I found out when I was applying to schools I was interested in and I just couldn’t finish my application anymore. She has connections to many schools from people she has worked with through academia or professionally, plus students she has treated well. It would be impossible for me to be involved in any PhD program without coming into contact with her at some point. I had excellent letters of recommendation and the department at Ohio State was keen to meet me. But I couldn’t. And I don’t know if I will ever go on for a PhD. Because she was scarring. She inflicted injuries that are soul crushing. On a weekly basis, she would have me in her office, in Urbana-Champaign, and politely tell me that my existence was a mistake. People like me had no right to exist. People with depression had no place in Theatre or Academia. These were the weekly mantras I was forced to endure as Helene would drum into my head how utterly pointless my continuing existence was. Then the Costume Shop manager and the other Costume Professor, would do the same thing to me every other week, couched in terms of gentility (the other professor) and flat out disgust (the manager). It was a constant stream of being pointed out how ugly I was. How wrong I was. How I did not fit in. They spread a rumor that I was Autistic, but I apparently also slept with a professor for good grades/to get into the school. I purposefully sabotaged my grade in a class I was getting an A in to end up with a C JUST to dispel this rumor and I shouldn’t have. This professor that I supposedly slept with was Peter Davis. I never slept with him. I liked him, as a professor. I thought he was a pretty nice guy. But he also has a tendency to flirt with attractive students who are undergrads, which always made me uncomfortable as a student. I told him, in the Fall of 2009 what was going on-he didn’t care. He acted like he did, but he really didn’t. It took me years to figure out he is a narcissistic asshole and because I didn’t flatter him enough, I wasn’t worth his time (nor worthy of being moved from Costume Design to Theatre History because I did try to switch and while the Graduate School was all for it, it just wasn’t to be).
I was told to not socialize with any of the other Costume students. If I was seen socializing with them, or they found out, they would punish me. And I was punished. I was punished for hanging out with the Theatre History students. While the other Design grads avoided me like I had the plague, the Theatre History grads were the only ones in that entire department that didn’t give two fucks what Helene thought and have supported me and continue to support me. So, my loyalty always is to them FIRST because they kept me from killing myself. But my punishment was probably illegal. I had to work in the shop, but unable to log hours. So while the others worked 15-20 hrs a week in the shop, I was made to work twice that. Doing everything from cleaning the area, to cleaning the bathroom, to being loaned out to other departments. I’m fairly certain the other departments had no idea that I was doing all of that work without compensation. But any and every attempt I made to tell anyone in a position of authority within that department was met with silence. The only Design Head who gave a fuck was the Sound Guy. And he was going to put a stop to it. Then he died. And it was unexpected. And the abuse continued.
I routinely was called into “meetings” with the costume heads (Helene and the other two ladies) and yelled at. It was a constant stream of abuse. Helene would call me up and tell me that there had been a change of plans for homeroom on Fridays and to not bring my watercolors. Only for me to show up to class and have no watercolors when everyone else was going to paint. She did that all the time. She did it in order to verbally abuse me in front of the others. When we had projects and she did one on one evaluations, she would destroy my work and I would have to start over. So, when others got 2 weeks to work on a drawing for her, I had 4 days. Only once did I outsmart her. I never showed up when we were doing a project that required us to fill in shadows with dots. It was the only time I purposefully didn’t show up because I knew she would have destroyed my work and I just couldn’t. I just couldn’t keep seeing work I had done be torn up and told to start again, but given so much less time to complete it. Because, of course, I would have to work those extra hours without anyone knowing and would have even less time to finish. I had no life. I was depressed. And even the psychiatrist I was able to see on campus confronted Helene and she told him, in person, that it would be better for everyone in the Theatre Department if I would just kill myself. He came to her office and in front of me, she admitted to him what she thought of me. Just think about that. The head of the Costume Program openly admits she wants a student to kill themselves because it would be better for the entire department.
I don’t know why she wanted me dead. I still don’t understand. But I do know Helene is a racist. She is white and from South Africa. She was equally cruel to other Asians in the Theatre Design program. And I mean awful. One was gradating the year I arrived, but Helene would berate her for no reason. In front of the others, and often in front of me. She would do this in front of other professors and not one told her to stop it. The other was a girl in the Scenic program. Helene hated her as well. And yes, this is something I have longed to write and tell because it’s a problem that needs to be addressed in Academia. No supervisor has the right to treat students as if they don’t matter. Now, I loved designing Costumes. I still dream about fabrics and styles and they way fabric drapes or sounds when it moves. I have always loved dressing up. Next to Austen (and Kermit the Frog and David Bowie), costumes have been a huge part of my life for years and years. But my interests in History, English, and Theatre don’t end because I no longer do any costuming. Because I am a writer, I tend to do costume character sheets first when creating a character (so, the knowledge I gained has still worked out well). I focus on how they dress to figure out how they moved. And from that, how they act, speak, and everything else falls into place. And instead of an MFA, I got an MA in Costume Design. And, you know what, that’s just fine.
At the end of that first year, I was stripped of all financial aid and my graduate assistantship. The reason given was my grades. I petitioned the Gradate School for clarification. I was told that having and maintaining a GPA above 3.0 (mine was 3.4) was not grounds for being removed from any graduate program. I should mention I was put on probation the first semester for crying. An undergrad slapped me because I told her she had to show up for her duty on Wardrobe Crew on time instead of whenever she felt like it. She slapped me, threw me up against a wall, and threatened to kill me. I was put on probation. She was never punished. To this day, I have no interaction with her on Facebook and refuse to applaud anything she’s done when it comes up on my news feed from mutual friends. Oh, and per the Graduate School, the academic probation was also illegal. The probation and removal of financial assistance were both in violation of the Graduate School at UIUC. So, for clarification, Helen Siebrits illegally placed me on academic probation, then illegally removed me from my assistantship and barred me from the program per the Graduate School at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Crying is not an acceptable reason to place someone on academic probation. Crying is not an acceptable reason to remove someone from their assitanstship and bar them from the program. And yes, I did fight to stay. The Graduate School was behind me 200%. Everything was in my favor. I had the grades. The probation was not an acceptable reason, and when Helene tried to change it to me having depression, that was also deemed as an invalid excuse. The final thing I had over Helene is that I refused to sign away my rights to my assistantship and sign an agreement to be removed from the program. I never signed these forms which are a requirement by the Department and the Graduate Student BEFORE funding can be taken away. I never signed it. I still had funding taken away. Because, unfortunately, the final say was with the Department Head. He was leaving and didn’t care. He was moving to Texas and a different school. His replacement? He also didn’t care. They gave the excuse that I was physically unable to sign the forms and everything was taken away. I could have appealed and I probably would have won. But I just couldn’t handle it all anymore. Instead, in an act that can only be described as petty, Helene Siebrits destroyed my file, containing my letters of recommendation to the program. While the Graduate School has a record that they were received and they did exist, my file is gone. And I mean everything as in all hard copies. They cannot find my transcripts. They cannot find anything related to me and the Theatre Department. The last person to have the file was Helene Siebrits before it all was gone. And while I will be found to have attended the school and was in the program of MFA Costume Design (and I can and do have a copy of my official transcript), any and all mention of my name and the shows I worked on were removed from the department’s website. I am, for all purposes, erased from ever having existed at that school.
I stayed another year, taking classes I wanted to take. History classes, Ballet, Art. I worked 20 hrs a week in the Music and Performing Arts Library, and also did tutoring on the side for extra income. I was put on food stamps and went to a food pantry twice a month. I survived. I left that school with a 4.0 GPA and went to Kansas State, where I maintained a GPA above 3.2 and ended up with a 3.7 GPA (other schools, it would be considered Cum Laude, but for some stupid reason, the Theatre Department there doesn’t allow such honors to be bestowed on their grad students, only the undergrads). But you know what, I’m ok. I have taken more history classes than the average non-history major (if I could ever transfer those credit to another school, I’d have enough for an MA in History, which is scary). I had fun working at the library (I always do, to be perfectly honest). I enjoyed Kansas State. Didn’t particularly like the costume teacher nor her shop manager, but then they focused on the grad who got the assistantship while I was just the backup. Whatever. At the time I was hurt but now, I could care less.
No matter the abuse I suffered BEFORE grad school, being abused by your professor (and head of the program) IS soul crushing. Because it is. You cannot imagine how many similar stories of abuse I have read and heard from others, in all fields of study, that have traumatized generations of academics. I know people, who like me, just couldn’t continue anymore. Because the abuse, the lack of understanding of mental health issues, is an ongoing problem we need to talk about. Googling “abuse by a professor” brings up pages of examples. And how sad is that? What I experienced is not unique nor is it uncommon. There are so many examples of other grad and undergrad students being abused by professors and academic advisors. This is a culture of abuse that goes back centuries and needs to have it’s #MeToo moment too. And while the treatment I got at Kansas State was better, being ignored and forgotten that you even exist in the program is just as harmful (Thankfully, I was able to retain the Drama Therapy professor as my advisor and Sally Bailey is the best and sweetest advisor anyone could hope to have).
Academia has long needed people to stand up and talk about the abuse. It’s time we really push this narrative forward and start holding those accountable. And yes, just because Helene Seibrits has worked for people of color (and worked with them), doesn’t mean she still isn’t racist. She told me, on a weekly basis, to kill myself. She called me a Kaffir to my face, every week. Kaffir is, well, it’s a very derogatory and racist word meaning I am not white. She referred to me as the Kaffir, on speakerphone, to my psychiatrist AND a person from the Graduate School in my presence. She yelled that I was better off dead because I didn’t deserve to live. Was she ever aware she said this to not one, but 2 people? Probably not. But she was never punished by the Department and I know, because I was told, the Graduate School did issue a complaint against her on my behalf. They found her actions to be racist. But remember, no matter what the Gradate School dictated, it was up to the Theatre Department itself to rectify this issue And they never did. And in case you are wondering why I am focused on Siebrits, it’s because she is still probably abusing other students. She moves around every few years and my concern is that there are others like me who she has abused in the past and will abuse the future. She should not be teaching. She should not be a member of United Scenic Artists Union Local 829. She should not be allowed to hurt others. Because I was very close to killing myself when I was there. I almost didn’t live to see the end of that first year. That’s how much abuse I suffered under her. She is toxic.
How close is too close? My mom was on the verge of coming down, packing everything up, and taking me to a mental hospital for suicide watch. She lived over 3 hours away. Instead, I allowed my psychiatrist to check me into the Pavillion Foundation over Spring Break in 2010. He did this because he felt the Suicide Prevention Team at UIUC would not be adequate. I was there 5 days. I got help. I completed their outpatient program and continued to see my psychiatrist at UIUC the rest of that year, staying over the summer to continue treatment and the next year as well. THAT is the result of non stop emotional abuse.
Its’ important that I write about this because I, at least, had some help. I had the vet grads in my building who knew something was wrong. I had my theatre history friends who could tell that all was not well with me. I had a doctor that fought for the right to call Helene in front of a representative of the Graduate School because he wanted her hatred of me heard by someone in a position of authority. If I didn’t get the help, I would not be here. And that is a fact. I would have not been here to finish my novel. I would have not seen my brother get married. I would have not had the joy of seeing my niece grow up and seeing my nephew. Everything from Spring 2010 to now has been a gift because it was so easily lost. But mine is not the only tale. How many did not make it because of the abuse? They believe 50% of PhD students end up dropping out. Around 20-30% of Master’s do the same. They know, only because some come forward to talk about it, that around 8% think about suicide. And those are the ones that talk about it. And how much is from abuse? Probably a lot of it.
As for John Ortberg, it’s complicated. I have been lucky to talk and find support from Daniel Lavery, Ortberg’s son. I have had people who initially did not believe me in 2018, now believe me because they have realized that there is abuse at Menlo & Willow Creek Church. Friday, I make a statement to the South Barrington Police Department. And I am scared. I am terrified. Because last time I spoke to a cop about sexual abuse, I was 11 and the guy did zero time. But this isn’t about abuse and sexual assault has no statute of limitations. Will anything happen? I don’t know. Would I like something to happen? Sure. I want to know why. I want to know why those who knew this was happening helped. I want to know why Orberg did this to me. I want to know why Ortberg III was allowed to do what he did (and why his dad is ok with it). So, yeah, it’s a lot to deal with. I can’t tell you why anyone sexually abuses or sexually assaults a child. I can tell you that it’s extremely hard to come to terms with and I don’t know if it will ever be ok. Because you lose something when it happens.
Basically, I want answers. I want to know why Helene Siebrits is allowed to teach when she should not have the opportunity to abuse another student emotionally. I want to know why Willow Creek allowed abuse to happen from so many people in charge, for years. I want to know why Menlo reinstated Ortberg in 2020 when it’s clear he should not be in position of power. I want to know why the Theatre Department at UIUC allowed the abuse to happen, when there was evidence happening in front of their eyes. And yes, it’s a lot of questions that I have, but these are questions I need answered to be able to move on. I had some trolling recently, on another post (well, several) that have caused me to not sleep very well these past few days. I spent 40 minutes in the shower crying today because sometimes the memory of what happened at Willow Creek is still painful. And there are things that happened that I have never told my mom because I can’t. I can’t burden her with my pain.
So, I am coping. I am doing better than I thought I would be, but not here I want to be. Is this an issue I will revisit again in he future? Probably. Besides Ortberg, I still on occasion, have flashbacks to the abuse Siebrtis did and because it is fairly recent (still) it’s also a bit too close to the surface. Those are my main two scars and the ones that haunt me the most because there has been no closure for me. The abusive babysitter is dead. She can’t touch me. The neighbor who sexually molested me is dead. I have no issue being in my front yard anymore. Because I have closure on those parts of my past, I have healed from them. But Ortberg? I don’t know how long it will take, but I do want closure. And for Helene? I definitely want answers there. Because I was not the only person being abused by her at that time. And all of us deserve answers from her and from UIUC.