I sucked in a breath, picked up the clunky plastic handset, and dialed. “Hello?” said a faint voice on the other end of the line. I’d known I would freeze up, so I had typed out a script. “Hi, Mr. Ricaña. My name is Claire Landsbaum, and I’m a reporter for the Columbia Missourian. I’m calling because every year the Missourian commemorates M.U. students who have died, and I’m writing a short tribute about your daughter. I know this must be hard for you, but I wanted to give you a chance to tell me a little bit about her.” Clifton Ricaña Sr. listened in silence. Then, through tears, he told me about Christine, who had died in October at 22. “I know she’s doing well,” he told me, as though they’d spoken just yesterday. I repeated the process for three other students, calling friends, relatives, people who’d known them. For months afterward, I thought of the four of them as I walked through campus, their untimely deaths a niggling guilt in the back of my brain.
What saved me from going completely insane were my professors. By nature, much of journalism is a close-up examination of trauma, and these women had fielded their fair share. They talked me through writing the obituaries: what to say, how to say it, what to do. And afterward, they talked me off a ledge of self-destructive remorse. The same was true for students who covered shootings, fires, and floods: tragedy, in the abstract sense, was well-trodden in our seminars, where we learned about things like war-zone reporting and political arrest. I left my undergraduate program with an idea of what covering the conflict in Syria might entail. But I was in no way prepared for Brett Kavanaugh.
The irony, of course, is that even as sexual harassment and assault was glossed over in classrooms, it ran rampant on campus. College is where my #MeToo story unfolded, not once, but several times over. Even before I had finished reading Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s Washington Post interview, I believed her—her story was both too simple and too familiar not to be true. I’d been to the party; been locked in the upstairs bedroom, even; been pawed at, my protestations ignored, my friends calling my name a floor below. Even before I watched her testify along with most of the country, Ford’s story brought back a sickening wave of memories, like rising bile. “It’s a very difficult time,” Dr. Christine Nicholson, a clinical psychologist, recently told The New York Times. “I’m having people call me after hours when they’re just feeling meltdowns and a sense of hopelessness.”
That was all true: the private crying jags in the bathroom, and the cloying sense not that no one believed, but that no one cared. And worse, the sense that I was professionally obligated to hold it together—to serve as an example for the small team of women writers I work with every day. In a way, we had signed up for this: we’d known about the floods, the fires, and the shootings going in, and had decided that this was what we wanted, anyway. But in other ways, we hadn’t. Who could have predicted that we would come of age in an era that dredged up our long-buried traumas and shoved them into the light? That we’d become both chroniclers of the story, and part of it ourselves? We couldn’t have known. But perhaps we could have been better prepared.