Elizabeth “Lizzy” Seeberg passed away on September 10, 2010. She was a 19-year old freshman at St. Mary’s College. Lizzy committed suicide ten days after reporting she was sexually assaulted by a Notre Dame football player. During those ten days, she received several text messages from members of the football team including, “Don’t do anything you would regret.” and “Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea.” And in her last ten days, Lizzy was interviewed several times by campus police as were several witnesses. However, the accused student was not interviewed until after Lizzy’s death. Six months after her death, the accused student was found “not responsible” for sexual misconduct.
Notre Dame would not comment publically about the situation. The President of the University declined to speak with Lizzy’s parents. The accused student never missed a practice or a game. Tom Seeberg, Lizzy’s father used the term “betrayal” to express his feelings. Sadly, Lizzy’s story is not unique.
Lizzy’s story is not unique in universities; it’s not unique in the military; it’s not unique in schools, in churches or in government. The #MeToo movement had its splash and offered a window of opportunity to come forth without shame or doubt. How long ago is too long ago to accuse someone of sexual misconduct became controversial. Rather than be shocked by the epidemic of sexual assault, people qualified the allegation.
Trauma lasts. In 2000, The American Psychiatric Association expanded its view of what is traumatic from combat and life threatening disasters to unusual experiences, including child sexual abuse and domestic violence. A study published in The Journal of Interpersonal Violence (Suris, et.al. 2007) revealed women who experienced military sexual trauma reported more health difficulties than women who had experienced civilian sexual assault. It uncovered an exacerbated effect of institutional betrayal.
Institutional betrayal occurs when an institution causes harm to an individual who trusts or depends upon that institution (American Psychologist, 2014). In Lizzy’s case, it seems Notre Dame was more concerned about the university’s reputation than the student’s well-being.
Factors that cause institutions to protect themselves include cultural trauma, maintaining unawareness and lack of language. Cultural trauma comes from the institutions own experiences such as accusations of wrongdoing. The institution incorporates protective mechanisms much as an individual would. Maintaining unawareness of injustice is a human quality especially if knowledge threatens our well-being. Lack of language may be the most powerful and actionable factor. The ultimate institutional betrayal is genocide. People were unable to understand the gravity of the unrelated crimes and mass executions of the Jewish lives. There was no word for it until Raphael Lemkin coined the term in 1944; genos (tribe, race) and -cide (killing).
Companies are institutions that employees join to make use of their skills and earn a living. These dramatic stories are messages to employers to be open to complaints that may not yet have words and to craft complaint procedures that encourage employees to build a more civil workplace.