There’s two sides to every story. One of my least-liked phrases. It’s a nice sentiment in theory, I suppose. When it reminds people to look beyond the obvious, to dig a little deeper, it might even be valuable. But it seems to me that people drag out there’s two sides to every story only when they relish the thought of remaining loftily above it all—when they’re cherishing a glamorized view of themselves not as a neutral party, but as the ultimate judge of a situation, to whom everyone must defer. The phrase isn’t usually employed to open up conversation, but to shut it down. In other words, I tend to hear it whenever someone’s already made up his mind and doesn’t give a damn about listening any more.
And of course, sometimes there aren’t two sides to a story. Sometimes there’s what happened, and then there’s a damned lie.
Which is what I heard happening the night before Edvig moved out of our dorm room in the arts house, my sophomore year. Sleep was a pretty precious commodity, my first two years of college. As a freshman, I had the misfortune to be the one geeky kid on a floor of hardcore partiers. The only way I got to sleep at night was staying out studying until two in the morning, most nights, and then using earplugs when I returned to the dorm. Sophomore year wasn’t too much better. I had more friends in the dorm itself, but come on. It was a house for budding artists. They’d practically signed a contract to live their lives at peak drama for all of nineteen eighty-two and three. Not only were there the usual dorm noises keeping me awake past midnight and into the morning’s small hours—the laughter and card games and stereos played too loudly—but we had the impromptu cello performances, the theatrical declamations, the hey gang let’s put on a show in the showers! at three in the morning, the dramatic public breakups between girlfriend and boyfriend, and later in the year, the inevitable suicide attempt.
So there I was in bed, the night before Edvig was scheduled to move out forever, not really able to fall asleep all the way, but drifting between dozing and tossing restlessly. Two doors down, in my friend Scott’s room, a bunch of the arts house kids were having some kind of late-night rap session. I could recognize seven or eight distinct voices. I couldn’t always hear what they were saying, because some of them were softer than others. But I did hear Scott, very distinctly, crying out “He did what?” at one point, accompanied by cries of shock by several of the others there.
It was loud enough to rouse me fully. What really shocked me awake is that I heard Edvig’s moo-cow lowing responding to Scott’s question. He wasn’t speaking loudly or distinctly enough for me to hear from two rooms down, with the door to my room firmly closed. It was pretty clear, though, that he was the center of the conversation’s attention. “He actually did that?” Scott replied. He was a bass in the college chorus, and later had a starring role in the college’s production of Sweeney Todd. He projected well. “He actually did that?!”
I remember sitting bolt upright in bed. I knew they were talking about me. I knew that Edvig was in there spreading some kind of poison about me. But I had no clue of what to do. I must have considered putting on some clothing and walking down the hall to confront them all. I didn’t have the courage for it then, though. (I’m not sure I would now, either.) There was so much conversation going on that I couldn’t really distinguish anything from the babble of noise. At some point, I rose from my bed, crept over to the door, and opened it in the hope of hearing more clearly. I don’t know whether or not they heard me stealthily turn the knob and release the latch, but mere seconds after I cracked my own door, Scott’s door clicked shut.
What followed I recall as a miserable night. Whether or not I got any sleep, I don’t remember. I was taking computer science to fulfill a requirement that year, though, and it was a dull enough class on its own. Deprived of sleep, and fretting myself to death, made it even more of a slog. I managed somehow to make it through that and the rest of the morning, though. When I went back to the dorm, I didn’t get at all to enjoy the novelty of a newly half-empty room. All I did was wait for Scott to come back to the dorm. When he did, toward dinner, I pounced on him.
I told him that I heard Edvig talking the night before, and that I know he was talking about me. I demanded to know what he’d said I’d done. “I’m not going to tell you that,” Scott said, outraged that I’d even asked.
“But he was talking about me,” I protested. “I have a right to know.”
“No, you don’t,” said Scott. I noticed he didn’t deny the topic, though.
“I know he said something awful about me,” I emphasized. “I could tell by the way you reacted. I think I deserve to know what kinds of lies he was telling.”
“Well,” said Scott, turning away. “There are two sides to every story.”
Meaning: he had no intention of asking me about mine. He’d heard someone spin a tale, and it was enough for him. He didn’t care to hear a rebuttal. And this is what I don’t like about that phrase, when it’s usually applied as a non-negotiable aphorism: sometimes it tell s me the speaker doesn’t believe in truth. He only sees points of view, all equally valid. The phrase doesn’t allow for lies, for fabrication, for the self-delusions in which some wrap themselves like thick blankets. There’s just this view, and that view, and the truth is lost somewhere between.
I couldn’t wrangle out of anyone whose voice I’d heard that night what Edvig had told them. They all refused to tell me. I just knew that someone had said something that I couldn’t refute, because no one would tell me what the fuck it was. If such a thing happened to me now, I would’ve confronted Edvig. Or I might’ve gone to the hippie-dippy RAs. But I wasn’t then the person I am now. I was too wrapped up in fear to do anything other than pretend nothing was happening around me.
It was impossible not to notice that people had changed their attitudes toward me. Not my handful of close personal friends outside the dorm. They were the same, though I didn’t share my worries with them. But everyone on my hall clammed up when I’d walk into a room. There were awkward times when I’d be pretending everything was the same and attempt to invite people to dinner or to a campus activity, only to be met with a polite, but cold rebuff. The RAs posted vague notices on the bulletin board about being available for personal conversations, shortly after, which in a paranoid manner I took as referring to conversations about me.
I managed to stagger on for three weeks in this manner, keeping my head up and a smile plastered on my face while inwardly I felt miserable and scared and alone. Then late one night, one of the guys in the dorm knocked on my door and asked to talk. I didn’t know him well. He played clarinet in the college band, though, and had always been pleasant enough. He told me that someone would be arriving within the next week to take Edvig’s place, and that he wondered if I’d mind having him as a roommate instead of the new guy. The clarinet player wasn’t getting along with his roommate (who was a dick, I had to agree), and he viewed the vacancy in my room as a way of escaping a bad situation. I accepted; I’d rather have him than some stranger.
“Oh,” he said, before he left. “I have to ask. I hope you understand. Did you really rape Edvig?”
I felt a flush of rage that was quickly followed by the iciest sensation I’ve ever had in my life. I remember choking out something to the effect that no, I did not rape Edvig, and why would he even ask that question?
“Because that’s the reason he told people he had for moving out,” said the clarinet player. “Okay, bye!” And then with his curiosity sated, he was up and out of there to begin packing.
I have to give that guy credit. Because in all four years of college, out of all the people who heard that rumor, he was only person ever to ask me if it were true. He was the only person ever to ask me about it at all.
If Edvig had actually formally accused me of rape—if he’d been serious, or thought in his demented head that I’d actually raped him—my life in college would’ve been much different. He would have been required to report it to the campus police. There would’ve been an examination, a police report. There would have been evidence presented at a trial, or at least an honor court hearing. He would have had to present concrete evidence against me—and since there couldn’t have been evidence, I would’ve been vindicated.
What he did instead, though, was to plant insidious seeds of doubt in people’s minds. He made the rape unspeakable, save only in whispers. Those whispers spread like wildfire, throughout my college career. Everyone in the arts house knew them. They dogged me through all my theater classes. I knew girls in that department who would wrinkle their lips in disgust when they were forced to acknowledge me; there was one who was so vocal about her detestation about having to remain in the presence of a rapist that she refused to play in a group scene with me in an acting class. She and the teacher exchanged words about it in the hallway, and then the professor returned to the class and, without much comment, removed me from her group.
That really hurt. I wasn’t bold enough to confront the professor after class and ask why I’d been singled out that way, either. I merely joined another group, acted as if I didn’t care, and worked with them instead. It’s tough to erase from my memory the sight of that one girl’s face when she realized she’d have to speak lines with me, though. She had such anger, and moral outrage at even having to be near me.
In the dressing rooms for the plays in which I acted, some guys refused to change costumes in my presence. When I took art classes, students who thought they knew something about me would often during critiques claim that they could see bloodlust in the most serene of my still lives of bananas and a teapot, or a thirst for violence in an abstract. The roommate I had my junior and senior years, removed as he was from the arts, had heard the rumors about me, though he told me in the same breath that he’d dismissed them because I didn’t look the type. There were student servers in the cafeteria who refused to dish up food for me, and kids who’d change their paths to avoid having to pass me.
Whispers are soft, but they can carry so far. I won’t go so far as to say that the scarlet brand I seemed to bear on my forehead absolutely ruined my time in college, because I don’t like thinking of any of the years of my life as ruined beyond repair. I made some good friendships in college—and having them tested by this particular trial ensured that they were really good friendships, too. But throughout the rest of those three years, I felt very much on the periphery. I was falsely accused without ever being granted an opportunity to offer my own defense. It made me pretty miserable, much of the time.
What dismayed me most, in a lot of ways, is how easily people were swayed into believing I was a rapist. I was a tall, painfully skinny kid. I weighed between ninety-eight and a hundred and five pounds, in those days. The stick figure in a kid’s game of hangman weighed more than I. If I’d tried to rape a grown adult then, or a college-aged student, all they would’ve had to do was to blow hard to dislodge me. Plus, before the accusations started corroding everyone’s ears, I was a bright, funny, sunny kid. I was well-liked.
I had a very hard time understanding why anyone could believe those allegations against me. They should’ve been obviously ridiculous.
And yet, apparently they weren’t. People believed the whispers started by Edvig instead. Perhaps they were too juicy not to believe. Perhaps people didn’t think anyone would admit to anything as heinous as being raped, if it weren’t true. Perhaps it’s just that whoever plays the victim card first, and protests the loudest, wins.
Perhaps my problem is that I didn’t protest at all.
As I said, I didn’t have the skills to know what to do in this situation. I’m not sure I’d know what to do now, either. I think I’d do a lot more of it, though. And a lot sooner, before things got so out of hand. When I look back on the situation these days, I still have unresolved anger. I never got to say my piece. I never protested the accusations, never got to say The hell I did. I traveled under a cloud for the better part of three years while people I didn’t even know thought of me as something I wasn’t.
And Edvig. What a fucked-up kid he had to have been, then. I imagine the internal wars he must have had between his impulses and his religion, and think about how far pushed to the edge he must have been to come up with a lie that large, that damaging. Either he was so sheltered and naive that he had no idea how badly a little lie could fuck up someone’s life, or else he was callous and self-protective enough that he didn’t give a damn. Either way, these days, the rush of emotion I feel for him is more sympathy and pity than rage.
So yes, there’s some anger lingering, but you know what? I mostly feel at peace about what happened my sophomore year.
I survived. I learned about endurance from those three years. I learned about how it’s possible to hold one’s head high and keep persevering, even when there doesn’t seem anything for which it’s worth holding out. I learned that it’s possible to make one’s way through any situation while pretending not to give a shit what anyone else thinks. Do that enough times, and eventually one no longer has to pretend. It becomes part of one’s very nature—and being able to recognize when it is and isn’t important to fret about how one appears to others is one of the best and most freeing lessons there is.
Whenever I hear someone use that phrase these days, it always makes me sit up and notice. Two sides to every story, they say.
But how many of us really listen to more than one?