A Memoir of Unwanted Attention


By Donna Freitas

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In this “compelling and disturbing” true story, a young woman’s toxic mentor develops a dark, stalking obsession that disrupts her career — and her peace of mind. (Rebecca Traister,New York Times bestselling author of Good and Mad)

Donna Freitas has lived two lives. In one life, she is a well-published author and respected scholar who has traveled around the country speaking about Title IX, consent, religion, and sex on college campuses. In the other, she is a victim, a woman who suffered and suffers still because she was stalked by her graduate professor for more than two years.

As a doctoral candidate, Freitas loved asking big questions, challenging established theories and sinking her teeth into sacred texts. She felt at home in the library, and safe in the book-lined offices of scholars whom she admired. But during her first year, one particular scholar became obsessed with Freitas’ academic enthusiasm. He filled her student mailbox with letters and articles. He lurked on the sidewalk outside her apartment. He called daily and left nagging voicemails. He befriended her mother, and made himself comfortable in her family’s home. He wouldn’t go away. While his attraction was not overtly sexual, it was undeniably inappropriate, and most importantly–unwanted.

In Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention, Donna Freitas delivers a forensic examination of the years she spent stalked by her professor, and uses her nightmarish experience to examine the ways in which we stigmatize, debate, and attempt to understand consent today.


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Author’s Note

Trauma is a jumble. Of feelings, of memories, of nausea and sickness in a person’s gut, of confusion in the mind.

This memoir is about a trauma in my life, a state of siege that began one spring and that was not alleviated until nearly two years later. By the end of it, I was in a heap.

I’ve done my best to put what happened in order, but I’m not sure if I got everything and its timing exactly right. There was so much of it to make sense of, a labyrinth, really, that sometimes I get lost in its twists and turns. When I try to remember what happened, as it happened, often what I get is one big flood of memories, all piled on top of one another, melted together, the layers difficult to distinguish.

But know this: each event I describe is one that is seared in my brain and, sadly, likely always will be.

The Monster in the House

The package sat, unopened, on the coffee table.

It had been there for days. Through sun and rain and summer thunderstorms. Next to it was a fat candle from Pottery Barn that I’d bought on sale and a stack of books I was reading for graduate school. In front of the table was an old, wood-framed couch. I’d thrown a thick blanket over it to hide its cheap cushions, stained from former occupants of my university-issue apartment, with its cinder-block walls and tall bright windows that I loved with all my heart. It was the first place I’d ever had all to myself. Behind the table was the hulking television set I’d won during my first year of college and had lugged around for years. It was from my residence-hall lounge, and the RAs had raffled it off at the end of the semester. I was the lucky winner they’d pulled from the hat.

The package was thin, a rectangular manila envelope, my address handwritten on the front in careful script. Its contents could have been anything. Happy photos of friends or pictures from a wedding. But there was an article sealed within that dull yellow envelope. The draft of one.

I knew this because the author, who was also my mentor, told me so, along with his directive that I read the essay inside of it, that he needed me to read it. I would be a bad person, a bad student, a bad friend if I ignored this duty as I’d ignored so many other needs and requests from him lately.

He sent it to me on the day he left for a monthlong trip. It was the end of July, it was hot and humid, the blacktop outside my apartment literally steaming with the heat. He called to inform me the article was on its way, that I had the entire month to get to it. Maybe he believed that lack of time or warning was behind my failure to read anything else he’d sent recently. Maybe he thought that allowing me a whole month was a kindness.

During the four weeks he was away, he called to ask if I was reading, if I had already read. He called over and over and scolded when it became clear that I had not yet fulfilled this simple obligation. Time was running out, August was waning, and I hadn’t even opened the envelope.

“Don-na,” he’d say over the phone in that singsong way he always spoke my name. “I’m coming home. I want to be able to talk about this when I get back.”

Why, why, why? I wondered, silently, as I promised him—because I did promise him—that I would get to it soon, maybe today. Why me? I was a nobody graduate student. He was an important professor, famous in certain circles. Didn’t he have colleagues whose opinions he could solicit? Why did he care about mine?

By then I knew the answers to my own questions. The desperation in his voice was evidence enough. But still, the knowledge was murky and vague, fearful and suspicious. I’d pushed it deep into the recesses of my brain, done my best to kill it. I was in denial and I relished this denial, so fierce and powerful that it was almost magnificent.

As I sat there, watching television on my couch, that ugly manila envelope taking up space on my table next to the remnants of my latest take-out dinner, a part of me was still hopeful that I was wrong; that the nagging feeling consuming my insides would turn out to be a product of my melodramatic imagination.

Day after day I rose from bed, walked out into my living room, wishing that the envelope had vanished overnight. But no, it sat there, among my things, just steps from my hideous Pepto-Bismol–colored kitchen, where I cooked lavish dinners for friends, for my RA staff, for myself. Seeing the envelope each time I came in the door was like discovering someone had left a ticking time bomb in my apartment while I was out buying Advil at CVS. I would agonize over its presence in my house and my life, doing my best to disarm it.

It was just an article. An innocent thing. A stack of papers, typed up and printed out and stapled together. Strings of words in black and white. What was I afraid of? What, really, was the big deal? I read articles all the time. I was a graduate student, a voracious reader. Reading was my calling, my purpose, my joy.

Just do it already, my mind would push, one minute. But I don’t want to, it would tug, the next. Come on, Donna, I would admonish myself. It’s not like an article can actually hurt you. It’s not like it’s packed with knives and bullets and poison.

Back and forth, back and forth went this spiral of thoughts. As the days marched forward, the questions of how I’d gotten to this place, and whose fault it was, plagued me. Whose responsibility was it, really? Mine? His? The answer was so hard to parse out, but parse it out I did, and then I did again.

I allowed the article in my house. (Consent?) I placed it on the coffee table. (Also consent. Right?) I answered the phone when he called, pleading with me. (Consent, technically. But there was no caller ID back then, so maybe not?) I made him promises that I would read. (Is there consent when there is also cringing? When he is begging?) But I also resisted touching that yellow envelope. (I did not want to consent to it.) I didn’t open it for nearly a month. (This was a silent no. But do silent nos count?) I scowled when I looked at it. (A bodily gesture of resistance. But then, it wasn’t like he was in the room and could see me scowling. Thank God.) I did my best to ignore its presence, its persistence, I didn’t move it, didn’t touch it, not at first. (Does the absence of a response imply a yes?)

The mere sight of the article on my coffee table filled me with a dread so profound I’m not sure I can ever convey its depths. Words are not enough. Then again, shouldn’t I have used my words? Shouldn’t it have been that easy, just saying the word no loud and clear and true like a bell?


I waited until the day before he returned from his trip to open the envelope, to take out the article, to actually touch it with my fingers. I held it as if I might be allergic to the paper, averting my eyes. It was like readying myself to take the most disgusting medicine in the history of the world, medicine you know is going to make you sick but somehow you have to get it down your throat. You have to take a deep breath, close your eyes, and swallow it, then do your best to distract yourself from such a pervasive level of disgust that you know gagging and retching are inevitable.

I turned on the television so there was noise around me, so it felt like there were other people nearby. I didn’t want to be alone with it, not any bit of it, not the envelope, the paper, the article, not the words on the pages.

Then, finally, I started.

After so much resistance, I let my eyes settle on the first word and then the second and the third, until I was allowing them inside my brain, inside my body, where they would cohere into sentences that would take on meaning. I convinced myself that after so much melodrama I was about to find out the article was as benign as the stack of books I read for my classes, that soon I would be laughing at how silly I’d been to make such a big deal over nothing, that I would be rolling my eyes at the way I’d fought this article off as though it were a mugger in a dark alley. I’d realize that the author really did mean well, that he had no ulterior motives or harmful agenda.

I waited for the relief to hit, for the cool wave of it to flow through me in the oppressive August heat.

But as those words entered me one by one, piling up into a massive heap of sentences that became paragraphs that became sections, it turned out that the article was poison after all, that it really was going to make me sick. So ill that I got up from my couch and lay down flat on my back on the floor of my apartment, holding my stomach.

The article was a confession of love.

But it wasn’t a direct confession. There was no Dear Donna at the beginning, or sentences that included the words I’ve lately realized that I’m in love with you. He’d told me he loved me without telling me directly, while cloaking it in a lengthy, lofty reflection—no, an honoring—of a real-life love between an older man, a famous writer and thinker, and a young woman thirty years his junior, with whom this man began a passionate and clandestine affair, one that was revealed to the public only many years after his death. The essay was about forgiving this man the transgression of loving the younger woman, of pursuing her, of being unable to stop himself from doing so, from corralling his desires. The article justified his love for her, praised it as virtuous, even divine, and exulted in the fact that she reciprocated that love, forbidden as it was to both of them because the man was also a priest. I imagine my mentor believed this was the ultimate romantic gesture, to craft an essay about the love he felt for me, but to do so metaphorically. To invite me into a sexual relationship through the poetry of a well-written paper. For him, a deeply thought-out intellectual essay was the equivalent of a sonnet.

It was sneaky and convoluted and, ultimately, cowardly, though it was like everything else that he did, which was also sneaky and convoluted and just indirect enough to leave me doubtful, to make me question my instincts, my judgment, my intuition, that something was deeply wrong with his behavior toward me. His movements were always just shy of obviously inappropriate, they were always potentially completely innocent; acts that could be interpreted as overtures of something romantic, yet that also could be misinterpreted as such.

There was always room for doubt with him, and this was part of his talent as a stalker of me.


Eventually I got up from the floor and sat on the couch again. I tossed the papers onto the coffee table and they fanned across it, obscuring the cheap wood. My dread ballooned outward to encompass the entire apartment, oozing through the screens of my open windows and poisoning the humid summer air.

What was I going to do? What was my plan?

He was going to call me the second he returned home and push for a face-to-face meeting so we could “discuss” his article. Not answering the phone wouldn’t do any good, since he would simply show up at my door and wait for me to come out. I could deny that I’d read it. I could deny and deny, but then he would just badger and badger until I couldn’t deny any longer. I could say yes to him, I could have the conversation and act like I didn’t see any connection between his essay and the situation I now found myself in. That he’d put me in.

As these thoughts flew through my head, my entire being revolted. My entire self, my body, my brain, my heart, my soul, were one big no. No, no, no, no. I cannot do this. I cannot. I wanted to die. I wanted to die rather than deal with what was looming.

The phone rang.

I considered not picking up because, you know. It was probably him.

But I did pick up, because what else was I going to do? Never answer the phone again? I had a job to do, with RAs who depended on me. Friends. Family. A boyfriend.

It was my father on the line.

“Your mother has cancer,” he told me the moment I said hello, his voice thick with grief. “It’s not good. You have to come home. She’s having surgery tomorrow. She might not make it. Your mother might die.”

I listened to him, barely comprehending his words, their terrible meaning. As I held the phone to my ear, already beginning to pack my things, something incredible registered inside of me. I would not be here tomorrow because my mother was having surgery. Major surgery. For cancer. She might die. This was the ultimate excuse to be away when he came back. There could exist no better excuse to avoid the dreaded conversation. To never ever have that discussion he was so desperate to have.

As my father continued to talk, I thought to myself: I am a horrible daughter. And later, as I hung up the phone and zipped up my travel bag, I thought to myself:

I am saved.

What They Took and How I Let Them

I am not supposed to be telling you any of this.

In exchange for my graduate school eventually making the harassment from my mentor stop, and a very small sum of money, I agreed to pretend that none of what I am about to tell you ever happened. I agreed to absolve my university of all wrongdoing. I agreed to be silent forever.

At the time I didn’t care what I had to do or sign. The only thing I wanted was for this man to go away, this man who was supposed to be my mentor, my shepherd throughout the years of graduate school and onward into my professional future. I would have signed anything back then, a paper that called me a harlot, that said my mother was a whore. I would have paid the school if need be, if it finally made him go away. I would have taken out my checkbook and emptied my savings account into the school’s. I would have handed them anything they asked of me, if only I could finally be free.

But what they wanted was my voice.

So I gave it to them. I cut out my tongue in the university’s office of human resources and offered it to the woman whose job it was to take it. I mutilated myself right there, in the middle of the day, in front of her administrative assistant. I didn’t even notice the blood. I handed over the most important thing a woman has according to the feminists I was reading for my classes in the building right next door. I did this like it was nothing.

I didn’t know what a crime I was committing against myself until much later, didn’t realize that my university was requiring me to maim myself, and do so permanently. I didn’t know when I was visiting HR that I was dealing with people who worked to protect the institution and its professors at the expense of the vulnerable bodies of its students. Who knew that universities could conspire like gangs of criminals, albeit under the guise of being respectable places of lofty ideals? Who knew that this college where I’d enrolled to get my PhD, this beacon of hope and light, would stoop so low as to ask a young woman to rip her vocal cords from her throat to fulfill this most basic of requests, which was to go to her classes without fear of being stalked?

But then, I am not unique in this experience.

All around the country, at universities far and wide, at workplaces of all sizes and types, at companies that boast of doing good and making the world a better place, there are file cabinets full of the bloody tongues of women. Some are young and tender, others more weathered and battered, but all of them taken from us by people in business-casual attire, in suits and sensible skirts, walking up to us as though what they are about to do is perfectly legitimate, perfectly reasonable, even as they take the long, curving knives from behind their backs, raising them up to strike our faces and our necks. Acting as though this is just business as usual while they disfigure us, and we stand there, letting them, because this seems like our only option.

Once they have our tongues they don’t even seal them in a bag, to try to stem the mess. They’ve grown so used to this procedure that by now they’re immune. Instead, they carry our tongues back into the room they’ve reserved for female body parts, a room with special locks, with soundproofing to drown out all the things the tongues say to each other at night, in the dark, when everyone else goes home, a cacophony of disembodied voices. But they never stop bleeding. They bleed and bleed for years, so much that more people must be hired to make sure nothing seeps into view. No one wants a public scandal, after all.

Women’s tongues are dangerous when they let us keep them. Institutions, workplaces, companies have long known this, which is why they take them from us, why they require that we forfeit them, why they’ll pay us so much for them, these blood diamonds mined from our bodies. It’s good to see that women are breaking into these locked-away places and taking our tongues back.

I am still getting used to mine again.

It is thick and strange in my mouth.


“You know I was stalked, once, in graduate school.”

I remember dropping this line into a conversation with a colleague, Mary, who is now one of my best friends. I said it like this information was no big deal, barely a shrug, even as my blood pressure spiked as it always does when I bring up this topic.

Mary and I had only recently met. We were sitting at a table on the sidewalk in Manhattan on a sunny August day, chatting happily over dishes of pesto spaghetti at my favorite Italian place. We’d hit it off at a conference and decided to hang out when we returned home, the first of what would become many lunches, countless get-togethers, and which now amount to over a decade of friendship. She was seven months pregnant at the time, her cheeks rosy and flushed in the heat. I remember how her stomach was round and bursting from her tiny frame. We were both in summer dresses, sleeveless, clingy, as bare as a person can get and still go out in public. On Mary the effect was dramatic, and on our walk to the restaurant she garnered more than a few stares from passersby and plenty of sympathetic smiles from other women.

Mary stopped eating after I told her this and looked up. “Oh?”

“Yeah. Isn’t that weird?” This came out of my mouth as a statement, even though I’d phrased it as a question. Before she could respond I rushed back in to ask her, “So what was grad school like for you?”

She hesitated before answering—of course she did, because how is a person supposed to respond to such an unexpected confession, immediately followed by an abrupt shift in subject? But she let the conversation move forward from there to plenty of more benign topics, putting some distance between what I’d confided and the now of our lunch, padding my comment with other talk like white noise until we almost couldn’t hear what I’d said ringing in the air any longer. We slurped our bright green spaghetti and laughed and joked and gossiped, and my blood pressure slowed to a more normal rate.

I cringe even now, many years later, at how I must have sounded that day. The way I told her what had happened to me was so clumsy, everything about it awkward and stumbling and uncomfortable. I’d forced it up from my darkest self and lobbed it onto the table for her inspection without warning or preamble. I was experimenting with “integrating” this fact of my past into my present because of my therapist’s advice. She kept urging me to talk about what happened during grad school with other people, with friends, with anyone, so I might better incorporate it into my life and relationships as a way of healing the trauma it caused to my body and brain.

But I’ve yet to find a way to speak about it that is not clumsy.

How does one become graceful, exactly, when speaking about the ugliest parts of her history? The parts that stir the most shame and blame, the confessions capable of stopping a conversation in its tracks and rendering the other person speechless? Of turning an afternoon of delicious food and newfound intimacy into something off-putting and strange?

“I remember when you told me that,” Mary said to me the other day. “And how you told me.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, trying to laugh it off as a way of staving off the burn that crept into my cheeks. “I can’t believe I did that to you, so soon after we met.”

Mary has big brown eyes, honest and sincere, soft and quiet. “Donna,” she said. “Don’t apologize. It made me feel honored.”

“Honored?” This was not the word I expected her to use.

“That you felt you could trust me with something so personal, so quickly. It made me realize that you and I were going to be good friends. Real friends.”

“Oh,” I said, taking this in, trying to let its delicate and beautiful kindness permeate my skin. “I’m still sorry, though,” I added. “I’ll always be so sorry.”


In multiple ways, I am two people.

I am a writer and an academic, I am creative and scholarly. I am a longtime, well-published novelist, and a grown woman with a PhD whose research about sex on campus is widely taught, who has been speaking about this research and sexual assault at universities and colleges across the nation for over a decade. At the same time, I am a person, vulnerable and ashamed about something I lived during my early to mid-twenties, embarrassed by the fault I see in myself for what transpired, at the role I played in all of it, in allowing it to go on for as long as it did. I am someone whose career has flourished in certain regards, and I’m also a person whose career has languished and suffered because of what happened with my mentor. I know that I should be capable of telling myself what I tell college students who’ve been assaulted and harassed like I was:

It’s not your fault. Don’t blame yourself.

And yet, I am unable to convince myself of this. I am unable to convince that young woman I was and will always be, to a degree, that the statement “It’s not your fault” is entirely true in my case. I remain two people, two women who share the same body, same heart, same mind, same soul. This split woman has lived parallel lives, one in public as a confident, authoritative person, capable as a researcher, speaker, and writer on many subjects, including Title IX and assault. The other woman remains hidden, a person insecure and ashamed, whose professional life is irreparably marked by this man, forever changed by his inability to control himself, to abstain from inappropriate behavior, by the manner in which his gaze became fixated on me and I could not turn it away.

I am a survivor, but I also am, and always will be, a victim. I can’t speak for others who share this dual identity, but I can say for myself that, while I wish to be the proud person who exclusively occupies the title of survivor, I still claim the territory of the shivering, cowering victim. To say that I am not also her even after two decades have passed would be to lie. Because of my work, because of feminism, because of certain friends who have supported me over the years, I am well aware of the correct things I am supposed to say out loud to others and tell myself in my darkest moments: That everything was his fault. That he did what he did to me. That I should not blame myself. I have rehearsed these lines, practiced them like I would for a role in a play, yet there are only fleeting moments when I actually believe they are true. The rest are full of doubt and uncertainty.

So many times I’ve imagined the self I am now sitting down with that younger self I used to be and telling her all the things we tell young women who’ve experienced something like I did. I’ve done this exercise as a means of helping myself, forgiving myself, trying to cope over the years. I’ve done it because colleagues and friends who know this part of my history have suggested I do it, especially after I’ve lapsed into monologues of self-recrimination and blame at dinners and over drinks.

“If you sat down with one of your students right now,” they’ll say, “and heard her describe a similar story to your own, what would you tell her? Would you ever dream of claiming that she is, even partially, at fault?”

The answer, of course, is an unequivocal no. I would never tell one of my students this. I would never tell one of my friends or colleagues this. I would never say such things to anyone who has suffered my particular affliction. I believe in the absolute absence of fault with respect to the experiences of others. I know this completely and without doubt. I am convinced of its reality. So why isn’t it unequivocally true in my case? Why can’t I make a clean leap from shameful victim to proud survivor? How can I resolve these two competing selves?

Will I ever?


  • "Freitas recounts with great thoughtfulness how her perception of the power differential between [herself and her stalker], as well as her faith in the religious and educational institutions she'd grown up with, lulled her into susceptibility and disbelief."—New York Times Book Review
  • "Donna Freitas combs through the emotional knots that form when a mentor's attention becomes inappropriate and manipulative. With sharp attention, she separates the many strands of consent one by one. A riveting, significant examination of the forces that push a student into silence about unwanted attention."—Idra Novey, award-winning author of Those Who Knew and Ways to Disappear
  • "A meticulously recounted memoir of building dread, that pushes our understanding of power and its abuses. Freitas's story complicates and illuminates our ideas about harassment and harm, showing how it doesn't just begin and end within the confines of physical contact: it infiltrates our own heads, is enabled by the very structures that are supposed to be our recourse from it but too often work to cover it up."—Rebecca Traister, New York Times bestselling author of Good and Mad
  • "In Consent, Donna Freitas writes an experience many women know all too well: Being stalked. What makes this book is uniquely powerful is Freitas's particular expertise in this area: She is a scholar and speaker on issues of consent, religion, Title IX, and sex on college campuses."—Bustle
  • "A groundbreaking resource for educators, administrators, students, and survivors, the book explores an issue many would prefer to ignore.A potent memoir of stalking with special resonance in the era of #MeToo.—Kirkus, starred review
  • "Any reader interested in current discussions
on consent and its importance should pick up this heartfelt and harrowing book."—Library Journal, starred review
  • "Freitas is incredibly honest and doesn't shy away from her feelings that she is in some way at fault. She rounds out her memories with details of her family and friends as well as more studious synthesis, and calls for campus reform, adding heft to an already important story."—Booklist
  • "Freitas has mastered the telling of her story--despite repeated attempts by others to keep her from doing so--and has mastered it in such a way that its telling sheds light on a larger societal issue. . . . A difficult but important read about one woman's survival of stalking by her professor, and the role of consent in any relationship."—Shelf Awareness
  • "Freitas' delicate study of her torment and its devastating effects, which raises thorny, meaningful questions about how to define consent, is an important testament for the #MeToo era."—Publisher's Weekly
  • "Consent is an affecting memoir."—The Wall Street Journal
  • "Freitas recalls this time in herself with stark clarity, honesty, and a vulnerability that bleeds onto the page."—Bitch Media
  • On Sale
    Aug 13, 2019
    Page Count
    336 pages

    Donna Freitas

    About the Author

    Donna Freitas writes both fiction and nonfiction, most recently, Consent on Campus: A Manifesto. She has lectured at nearly two hundred colleges and universities about her research on college students. She lives in Brooklyn.

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