I Wish the Notre Dame Suicide were Surprising **Update appended - scroll to the end**
But it's not.
The story in short: a young girl reported an assault by a Notre Dame football player. Her charges seemed to lead nowhere; despite her following to the letter every single step advised in the wake of a sexual assault, authorities inside and outside the school apparently let her down. She took her own life. In the wake of her death, the university clammed up; the football player plays on; the coach cracked wise.
Oh, how to boil down for you how - well, how normal this is for life in South Bend. How football rules all. How Notre Dame has called the shots there forever, and always will; how the Lizzy Seebergs of this world publicly or silently fall away in the name of money, of privilege, of patriarchy and theocracy. And how I wish I believed that this will change. It will not.
Let me share with you my own tangle with the Great God Football in South Bend.
I had sensed even as a youngster that intellect was not the key to success and popularity in my little town. But my first real cognizance came in high school. St. Joseph's High School, specifically, across the street from the Notre Dame campus physically and in its thrall in every sense. Streets and stores were gridlocked during ND football games, and opening weekend was as revered as the Pope. St. Joe reflected that in miniature; sports were God. Lip service to scholarly pursuits was given the lie in every action. Pep rally attendance was mandatory (enforced officially) as was enthusiastic hailing of the boy heroes (enforced socially).
Members of the debate and speech team quietly approached the principal and asked if we could use the pep rally time as study hall. We didn't in any way dislike or look down upon the athletes; they had no interest in our pursuits, and we were indifferent to theirs. We had little time to prepare for meets and would rather have been in the library.
We couldn't have imagined the terrifying response we'd receive. I can't recall after all these years how the word got out. I can't forget the shouting in the hallways; the physical threats, the bullying. Students organized to eliminate the speech team; I recall being backed against a locker between classes, my friend Brigid at my side, as a crowd crushed up against us chanting "Ban Debate! Ban Debate!", pounding their fists in rhythm. The swell of tribal id beyond all reason, all discussion, shocked me past clear thought. What the hell was going on?
None of the teachers present moved to break it up. The bell rang and we escaped to our classrooms.
My education continued as the discussion did, at home. My mother's friend (ironically, the mother of Michael Dvorak, who'll investigate and perhaps prosecute this case) proclaimed our effort to study rather than root for the boys meant we didn't support the school. School spirit meant getting behind the team. Period. I noted the students didn't gather to cheer the debate team as we headed for any tournament, big or small. How was that different? It WAS, she said, befuddled at my failure to grasp the obvious.
At least we had that in common.
We got our study hall. But our standing was pointedly underlined every time one of the sports teams brought home a victory. The principal printed out a large banner of congratulations each time, and papered over the debate and speech team trophy case with it.
That year our debate coach was killed in a car accident. A statewide tourney was organized in his honor. Our team busted ass to prepare and proudly bore home the first place trophy. We quietly handed it over to the principal in his office to no particular acclaim.
That same week another mandatory pep rally was held, as one of the athletic teams had nabbed a comparable honor.
Small stories, typical of a small town. True. Of no particular significance after so many years? Wrong. The same mentality that backed Brigid and me against the lockers, bullied under physical threat, with no help forthcoming from the people charged with our safety, has never been effectively challenged in South Bend. What matters is the Power of the Boys, the Success of the Team. To poke that beast in the eye is to set yourself apart as untouchable, unsupportable.
I've neither the time nor the emotional bandwidth to tally here the similar stories from so many people I grew up with. The counter girls at the supermarket, the servers at the restaurants, the kids parking cars, all run ragged by Notre Dame's imperious donors and alumi on game weekends -- all torn between their need to be treated with dignity and their need to keep their paychecks. The norm of humiliation meted out to the women at Notre Dame's sister school, St. Mary's. (Kudos to Feministing's Courtney on that thoughtful article.) All standard. All tolerated.
And Notre Dame's long history of operating by its own rules, rules in direct conflict with their stated standards. I recall my late friend Daniel and his partner - a Notre Dame professor - laughing and shaking their heads over the many young male students engaged in relationships with Brother A, Father B, the varied priests. Look, that needs to be public, I protested, that's wrong. They laughed again, this time at my naivete.
All known, all accepted.
All hopeless? Yes, I think it is. Notre Dame's power in South Bend is absolute; witness the response of the authorities outside the school to the Seeberg case; they can't even keep their stories straight. Money's power in our society overall, of course, is absolute. And need I, for the sake of our educated progressive readership here, go into the largely undented power of patriarchies in general?
If there is in fact a God, may that God give you rest, Lizzie Seeberg. Because the men of power at Notre Dame have far more important priorities - like keeping the alumni happy with the team and the next Bowl Game.
I leave you with one last image, one that's stayed with me for some thirty years now. You decide its relevance.
I volunteered at WNIT-TV in Elkhart, not far from South Bend. I was voicing promos there one day while Father Theodore Hesburgh, then president of the university, was interviewed elsewhere in the building. On the road back to South Bend, my little Ford Pinto was behind his much nicer car.
Ahead of me, his darkened window rolled down. A hand emerged. Some trash fluttered to the side of the road. The window rolled back up, and the car sped on.
Yeah. It's always been just like that.
***UPDATE*** How ironic is life! "The Mortal Storm" is rolling on TCM right now. Recommended viewing; melodramatic as a studio-produced love story set in Nazi Germany can be, it's got a lot to say about the rise of fascism and group-think. To that end - here's a link to that scene on YouTube. With this blog still on my mind, it gave me quite a shudder.