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‘I’m a damn survivor, and I’m proud of it’

  • Harmony Reid sits among the trees after taking nature photos along Stickney Brook near her home in Brattleboro, Vt., earlier this month. After a decade of working with sexual assault victims, Reid passed the baton to other advocates in 2016 to focus on self-care. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Harmony Reid stands for a photo on campus at Plymouth State University in Plymouth on Sunday, March 19, 2017. Reid said she was raped her freshman year at the school and became an activist in the fight to end sexual violence. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Harmony Reid takes her camera to an abandoned quarry near her home in Brattleboro, Vt., on Saturday, April 8, 2017. After a decade of working with sexual assault victims, Reid passed the baton to other advocates in 2016 to focus on self-care. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Harmony Reid makes popcorn and relaxes at her home in Brattleboro, Vt., on Saturday, April 8, 2017. After a decade of working long days and sometimes weekends with sexual assault victims and their cases, Reid passed the baton to other advocates in 2016 to focus on self-care. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Harmony Reid stands for a photo on campus at Plymouth State University in Plymouth on Sunday, March 19, 2017. Reid said she was raped her freshman year at the school and became an activist in the fight to end sexual violence. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Harmony Reid stands for a photo outside the university police building at Plymouth State University in Plymouth on Sunday, March 19, 2017. Reid reported the sexual assault to campus police, and the case was later referred to the county attorney's office. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Harmony Reid takes nature photos along Stickney Brook near her home in Brattleboro, Vt., on Saturday, April 8, 2017. After a decade of working with sexual assault victims, Reid passed the baton to other advocates in 2016 to focus on self-care. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)



Monitor staff
Sunday, April 16, 2017

Harmony Reid was an advocate, the person who helped victims of sexual assault become survivors. When asked, she’d tell her own story of the day she was raped.

Her voice, though strong and resolute, was drowning out her own trauma, the unhealed wounds from the day she was assaulted by an acquaintance during her first week as a Plymouth State University freshman.

After graduating from the school in 2010, Reid broke down. She threatened suicide and, on the same night, returned home drunk. Her mother drove her straight to the hospital. The path to recovery started that night.

“I realized how much my life was in shambles, and how much I was hiding the truth from people,” Reid, now 28, said. “I thought everyone was still blaming me for what had happened – ‘If only you had done this, or if only you had done that.’ ... That’s not what they were saying, but that’s what I heard.”

Reid recalled that she and the other members of an outpatient program jumped at the therapist for asking a particularly pointed question.

“What if it was your fault? Would that have changed your life or the situation?” the therapist asked.

The answer held the key to her recovery.

“There’s nothing I could have done. I could have done everything wrong and it still wouldn’t have made what he did right,” she said. “In that moment, I felt like all the gray, all the fog and the haze that I was just existing in for so long was gone. I wanted peace more than the anger.”

Reid, who now lives in Brattleboro, Vt., spent the first decade of her professional career working with victims of domestic and sexual violence, including in New Hampshire.

She said she realizes now that she may never have pursued that path if it hadn’t been for the kind words of a criminal justice professor who encouraged her to become an advocate. He was one of the few people who at the outset told her she would not just be okay, but “do amazing things one day.”

Violation in a safe place

Reid recalled in a recent interview the day she showed up to her first criminal justice class – “Individual and the Law” – in a tattered navy blue sweatshirt and gray sweatpants. She felt her professor deserved an explanation, so she said, “I don’t usually look like this. My name is Harmony and I’m in your class. I was sexually assaulted first semester of freshman year, and I don’t know what to do about it.”

The professor replied, “Well, I do. I’ll take care of you. You’ll be fine.”

Reid said she took his words to heart and worked hard to prove him right. After excelling in the class, she decided to declare her major: criminal justice. She wanted to make the biggest impact, and not only help victims but stop people from being victimized in the first place.

Like so many young women who are victims of sexual assault, Reid said she was raped by someone she knew in a place she felt safe. She said she came to understand years later that she had no reason to be ashamed.

Her recovery, though, was increasingly complicated by a criminal process that never made it to the courthouse steps.

Sept. 8, 2006

More than a decade has passed since Reid said she was raped by a hockey player whom she met at a party her first night on campus. Despite the passage of time, she said, she can vividly recall the details of the Sept. 8, 2006, assault, including the blue striped sheets on his bed, the incessant ringing of his phone, and music of Dave Matthews Band playing on his computer.

He had texted her about 5 p.m. to say he was having a tough time adjusting to college life and needed someone to talk to, Reid wrote in her Oct. 12, 2006, statement to campus police. She told police she agreed to go to his dorm room, but during the course of their conversation he became grabby and started to rip off her clothes. Reid recalled trying to use some of the rape aggression defense strategies she had learned in high school to push him off her, but she said he was too strong and overcame her.

“I stopped paying attention to what was going on to me physically. I wanted so badly for this not to be happening,” she said in a March interview. “I didn’t think this was rape. I thought he was just having sex with me.”

That night, Reid said, she went out and drank everything that was put in front of her. She wanted to forget. Instead, she woke up the next morning sore and bruised, with every detail crystal clear in her mind.

In the weeks that followed, rumors circulated the campus. Reid said she was ultimately confronted by her boyfriend, to whom she disclosed, “he raped me.” She went on to confide in her closest friends, many of whom campus police later asked to give written statements.

Reid said she knew the police investigation was in trouble from the beginning because of the weeks that had lapsed since that night. The men’s hockey coach reported the incident to police, in accordance with National Collegiate Athletic Association rules, after Reid confided in the hockey captain.

On Oct. 9, 2006, she received a phone call from a police sergeant who said he knew of an incident and asked if she wanted to talk about it.

“I showed up at the police department, and little did I know the (expletive) that I was in for,” she recalled later. “I had no idea that was going to be the hardest part.”

She said she had tried so hard to “become normal.” Instead, she found herself reliving the nightmare as police questioned her. She revealed that she was terrified to be alone, could only sleep during the day and spent much of her waking hours with her mind in a fog.

“Now it’s setting in,” she recalled. “I was a victim.”

Shedding that label took years of soul-searching as she tried to process what had happened to her and how to best move forward. She said she danced between victim and survivor for a time, until finally realizing that she was not to blame for what happened. She has since owned the title survivor, someone who can accomplish her goals and live her life, while not forgetting her trauma.

Case dropped

Reid said she learned from university police two months after filing her report that they were dropping the sexual assault case, citing inconsistencies in her statements over time.

Through increased education in the past decade about the effects of trauma on memory, investigators and prosecutors say they’ve learned how common it is for survivors to share new information as a case proceeds, and not because they’re being dishonest.

Doctors first diagnosed Reid with post-traumatic stress disorder and rape trauma syndrome after her freshman year. She said the stress had taken a toll on her body and that she was often ill.

To make matters worse, she said she later learned that investigators hadn’t spoken to key witnesses the first time around. She confronted the campus police chief and demanded the case be reopened.

Ultimately, the case landed on the desk of Grafton County Attorney Lara Saffo. Saffo told Reid that prosecutors could pursue a grand jury indictment, but even if they passed that threshold, the case would be extremely difficult to prove to a jury. The case was a classic “he said, she said,” Reid recalled Saffo telling her.

“What the jury was going to see was two students who had a different interpretation of what happened that night,” Saffo said in a Monitor interview. “Like most adult sexual assault cases, the defense was going to argue that she was upset because it was regrettable sex that she was embarrassed by. While I did not think that was the case, that was anticipated to be a defense explanation for her demeanor, and, unfortunately, like so many cases, we just didn’t have supplemental evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Healing by helping

After many months of reliving her trauma, Reid knew she couldn’t continue forward and endure a potentially lengthy and public criminal process. As the reality of that set in, she started looking for other ways to regain control of her story and her life.

The on-campus activism she did was the start of that journey, although she did not understand then the importance of self-care, she said. Following her emotional breakdown in 2010, she was able to see herself clearly for the first time in years, and she no longer recognized the person staring back.

“I said, ‘Wow, I really have gained 50 pounds, my eyes are a different color. ... Is that a gray hair?’ ” she recalled.

The realities of her situation motivated her to return to the goals she had envisioned for herself after that first criminal justice class in spring 2007. She remembered telling herself she would start at an emergency shelter and work her way up the ladder, helping as many people as she could along the way.

Two days before her 24th birthday, Reid landed a job as a caseworker in the city of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. She worked one-on-one with victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse, and they shared with her horrific stories, some of which she admitted hit too close to home.

While the job was a great first experience working in the courts, Reid said she was there to advise victims and provide information, but she wasn’t their advocate. In time, she said, she realized advocacy was where her heart was, and that the job was not the best fit.

Reid had interned with the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence in Concord during her junior year at Plymouth State and had maintained contact with advocates there. When the education coordinator position opened up at the Monadnock Center for Violence Prevention in Keene in 2014, many in Concord encouraged her to apply. She interviewed and was hired the same day.

“The position was really a culmination of everything I wanted and everything I had done rolled into one,” Reid said, noting that she most enjoyed teaching young children about healthy relationships and body safety.

Reid left the organization in spring 2016, saying that it was time to relinquish the baton after 10 years in the fight. She said she felt comfortable taking a step back, knowing confidently that the fight to end sexual violence was not her responsibility alone.

This year, for the first time in a decade, she said, she was able to reflect on her accomplishments and on a system that, although still in need of change, has made significant progress. With that in mind, she recently began a new job working for the Department of Children and Families in Vermont, and she said she’s excited to return to a familiar world, although through a different lens.

“I’m so proud of myself. I’m so proud of the people in my life who have supported me. I’m so proud of how far the system has gone, and I’m so proud of where the system is going, because it wasn’t always like this,” she said. “We have generations of people coming forward who are taking leaps and bounds ahead of what we ever thought could have happened.”

For Reid, that progress is deeply personal and intimately tied to her own recovery.

“I may be all of these things: a sister, a daughter, a friend, a girlfriend, a pen pal with someone living on the West Coast. I may also be a victim, but I’m a damn survivor, and I’m proud of it, and there’s nothing that’s ever going to take that away from me.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)