The following story contains potentially triggering accounts and mentions of sexual assault.
The University of Michigan made Jonathan Vaughn a man. And being a man is a complicated matter because manhood is the sort of thing that takes just as much as it gives. It can be unrelenting and unreasonable, hard to understand and discern, hard to tame and forgive, while also being equally as fragile and painfully soft, fraught with grief and anger and love. And Vaughn knows love, more than anything else, because he is a Michigan Man. A Michigan Man is an everlasting title, it fights back, kicks back, yells back, it endures in life and death, in good health and sickness, it knows conscience and consequence, honesty and humility, and mostly, to be a Michigan Man is to know love. All kinds of love: tough love and mean love, in-your-face love, forever love and careful love and ugly love, but love all the same.
And love matters to a man like Vaughn because he is a father, and there are people out in the world that know him only as Uncle Jon and nothing else. He’s the kind of person that tells you to keep the change and will save your place in line and will hold the door open for a million and one people all in one go. He’s the kind of person who keeps a bank he eternally fills with all acts of love, with big flashy love and small feisty love, so that the balance never falls below zero, stowed away somewhere deep within himself. And because Vaughn and thousands of other people are survivors of sexual assault at the hands of the late Dr. Robert Anderson, and when you are a victim of abuse, when you understand all the ways in which trauma can profoundly snap a body clean in half, all the ways it can make arms and legs and minds and selves come undone, love, keeping it and collecting it and living in it, becomes of the utmost importance. Because oftentimes, love is the only thing we have left, and the only thing that can ever help us heal and recover.
Vaughn was recruited to play for the University of Michigan football team as a running back in 1989, his senior year, from McCluer North High School in Florissant, Missouri, and even back then, it seemed clear he had always been destined to be an athlete. He thought like one, looked like one, fought like one. But it was at the University where he learned how to truly be an athlete, where he learned that it was a sense of being that lies in something far more than a derivation of the physical body, that it was not just quick reflexes, keen senses, a strong arm or too powerful a kick, but that it was a way of living, so much so, that in time, it became the only way of living. During our interviews, Vaughn speaks fondly about his time on the team, and at the University. It was a reprieve from Missouri, from his abusive father, from the small patch of dirt in the field behind his house where he played soccer every day, from where he learned violence and shame and what it meant to no longer feel safe in your own body for the first time. And evidently, the University of Michigan became home, was home, is still home, in the way that his mother was home or his brother was home or friends and fellow survivors Chuck Christian and Tad Deluca and Trinea Gonczar were home. Vaughn was the first in his lineage to be a part of a team in this way, to be a Michigan Man.
He was “excited, proud and challenged to represent, it was a rite of passage, a privilege to play for Michigan football,” Vaughn later explained to me. To become known only through his sacrifice, through his practice and performance on the team became the very foundation of his identity. Game days at The University of Michigan were merciless and frigid, denying all basic forms of relief, prolonging an eternal state of discomfort. And if you spent long enough out there on that field with Vaughn, you’d know the turf would start to grate in an infuriatingly special way, the crowd would become so impossibly loud that your ears would hurt for days on end, your helmet and your shoulder and knee pads would become agonizingly heavy even when and where they never had been, sweat would leak into every insufferably small crevice, and that was simply the way things were and would always be because this was college football. And football, most particularly college football, was special in that it was meant to be played in a way that fractured the body into all kinds of pieces, that broke down the individual for the sake of one cohesive unit, because only those that endured, only those that stayed would be champions. And Vaughn chose to stay. Staying meant an eventual NFL draft, staying meant pursuing the education his mother had always wanted him to have, and eventually, staying also meant becoming a survivor of sexual abuse over and over at the doing of Dr. Robert Anderson.
Anderson was hired in 1966 as a physician at University Health System (UHS). He was UHS director from 1968 to 1980 and transferred to the athletic department after resigning in 1981. Anderson was a practicing physician until 1999 and remained a faculty member at the University of Michigan until 2003. He died in 2008. Last May, an independent report released by law firm WilmerHale, also hired by the University, concluded a year-long investigation into sexual abuse allegations against Anderson and found that the hundreds of accusations against him over a span of 37 years proved to be widely corroborated and credible. In practice, Anderson typically engaged in misconduct by carrying out intrusive procedures often “perceived as unnecessary, performed inappropriately, or both” in the name of meaningful and legitimate medical care, according to the report. Many of Anderson’s victims belonged to at-risk and disadvantaged populations, and thus, they were far less likely to report Anderson’s abuse. During his tenure at the athletic department, Anderson frequently targeted student-athletes like Vaughn, who often referred to Anderson as “Handy Andy,” “Dr. Handerson,” and “Dr. Drop Your Drawers Anderson.” In 1975, Thomas “Tad” Deluca, a former member of the wrestling team and survivor of Anderson’s abuse, wrote in a letter to his wrestling coach, Bill Johannesen, “something is wrong with Dr. Anderson. Regardless of what you were there for, he asks that you ‘drop your drawers’ and cough.” Deluca says he was kicked off the wrestling team and subsequently lost his scholarship a short time after. Additionally, the report found “no evidence that Mr. Johannesen looked into Mr. Deluca’s complaint about Dr. Anderson” and ultimately concluded that although the information individuals like Johannesen received “varied in directness and specificity, Dr. Anderson’s misconduct may have been detected earlier and brought to an end if they had considered, understood, investigated, or elevated what they heard.”
In the years since Anderson was publicly named in allegations of sexual abuse, dozens of lawsuits were filed against the University in federal court, including two class action lawsuits. Class action lawsuits treat individuals as a unified entity and are principally aimed at prosecuting the University on behalf of all survivors of Anderson, allowing for a certain degree of privacy, and therefore, in legal proceedings, plaintiffs are commonly referred to as John and Jane Doe, respectively. Except for Vaughn. The night before Vaughn chose to go public with his involvement in the case, he spent hours pacing back and forth in front of his bathroom mirror, wringing his hands, braving wave after wave of panic attacks, his mouth dry, vision blurry, chest too tight, in pieces over whether it really was the right thing to do. For more than 30 years, Vaughn hadn’t thought about the University of Michigan. Vaughn never knew that Anderson’s invasive exams were assault and abuse, that they occurred without his consent, that they were direly unnecessary. “I didn’t even know what a prostate exam was at 18” he says, because at 18 years old, the only thing he ever did know was that his mother had waged a ruthless and merciless war with breast cancer and that he might just be next. And John Doe is a nameless, faceless, voiceless victim, the world knows nothing else other than this fact, it cannot see John Doe’s anger or fear, his clogged shower drains and unpaid bills, his family vacations and fights over the front seat, chipped glass and leaky faucets, his dented bumpers and dead grass, the world cannot see the mundane pins and needles, strains and everyday grievances that make us human in John Doe. The world cannot see love or the roaming, raging, reeling, tangled undefinable mess we carry that is our pain in John Doe, but it can in Jon Vaughn. And this was why Vaughn ultimately relinquished his anonymity. “It was a need to help people, an Ah-hah moment, I wanted to control my own narrative and understand the moniker of John Doe, and it’s what saved my life…to be identified.” as he describes his comfort with braving the backlash of this decision, the scarlet letter he would eternally carry, the death threats he says he received, the doubts in his credibility and conviction, and more than anything else, he endured because Anderson took his voice and his body at 18, and he wasn’t going to let it happen again at 50. “Excuse my language” he told me, “But I looked at myself in the mirror that night and said I’m not no fucking John Doe, I’m Jon Vaughn”
By Fall 2021, Vaughn’s involvement with the case had expanded to a full-fledged protest. In October, he planned to camp out on South University Avenue in front of the University President’s House for 100 days or until the president and Board of Regents engaged in face-to-face dialogue with Vaughn and other survivors of Anderson. They never did. For a long time, campus was peppered with HAIL TO THE VICTIMS signs, T-shirts and pins, a play on the University of Michigan’s fight song, “Hail to the Victors,” most commonly heard at football games and other sporting events. Vaughn came up with “Hail to the Victims” in the car on the way to a Board of Regents meeting in September with Chuck Christian, fellow survivor and former Michigan football player. And that was the way things were with Vaughn’s protest — it came to life on car rides and in living rooms and kitchen tables, over dinner and breakfast. Vaughn flew into Ann Arbor from Dallas on a one-way ticket, with only a backpack, his laptop and an iPad. Everything about the protest had this same sort of carefully planned and yet unplanned air — inviting, warm, the kind of thing you knew was bred from the hands of so many people. It seemed to be overflowing with love because it was the work of a collective, of the people, of survivors.
Signs for the protest site were made on Tad Deluca’s living room floor, with phrases like “EVERYONE KNEW,” and “36 Years of Serial Rape,” underlined over and over in blue Sharpie and laid out to dry on every imaginable surface — against a fruit bowl, some against the kitchen table and odd chairs here and there. Deluca was a teacher and had no shortage of markers, crayons, poster boards and the kind of undying, forever sticky tape that could endure the rain and wind and, eventually, the harsh Michigan snow Vaughn would soon have to brave. A blank sign propped up against Deluca’s couch read “SUPPORT THE SURVIVORS PLEASE SIGN,” a sign that in a matter of weeks would become full with signatures and initials, sometimes hearts and smiley faces too. Someone once scrawled “KINDNESS MATTERS” in big bold letters in the corner. Passerby would begin signing the edges too. One of Vaughn’s most important possessions at the protest site was not in its entirety a thing, per se, but a blue line redrawn diligently every time it began to fade in the sun or when it rained or snowed.
“This,” he gestures to me on one side of the line with his right hand “is U of M,” and “this,” he gestures with his left hand on the other side of the line pointing towards the flattened grass on the curb where his tent, chairs, signs and tables were, “is the city of Ann Arbor. I’ve been reading up really carefully on city laws.”
From just October to November, Vaughn’s protest site seemed to double in size and influence — free buttons and shirts displayed in boxes and tables began to run out just as quickly as they were restocked, a cardboard heart painted with HAIL TO THE VICTIMS across the middle fluttered in the wind among other signs caught in the brambles of a nearby bush. More students often stopped by than not, some just to learn, but others to chat with Christian or Deluca or Vaughn if they were around, and sometimes they’d shake their hands, lean in and get real close, angle their bodies in the way someone who was fixing to set a thick, heavy secret loose would. Other times they’d drop what looked like envelopes or pages and pages of jagged-edge notebook paper covered in smudged blue ink in a mailbox right outside of Vaughn’s tent, with 815 ½ printed in big blue block letters on the side, a small slice of the school and the University President House’s address, which was 815 South University Avenue. Hundreds of students a day, thousands a week, shared their experiences of sexual assault and abuse with them. Survivors spent nights at the protest site in rotating shifts in support of Vaughn, flying in from all over the country, many of them survivors of Anderson, others survivors of Larry Nassar at Michigan State or Richard Strauss at Ohio State, but all survivors nonetheless. Vaughn had no camping or outdoors experience. He spent most nights with his head up against the sloping cement where the curb met the street, in a tent that fit only the bare bones of his belongings. His sleep was uncomfortable and fragmented because South University Avenue was one of the busiest streets on campus, and all hours of the day were filled with loud, rowdy students, revving engines, the never-ending hum of building generators and the odd aggressive bark of a too-small dog here and there. As fall bled into winter, Vaughn switched from a tent in favor of a steel trailer with a heater and extra space in the microwave for cans and oranges and socks and all the sorts of things we can never seem to find a steady home for. He hung up Christmas lights and another sign that read “STUDENTS + SURVIVORS STAND EQUAL,” and passersby began signing that too.
The protest site was treasured amongst students and faculty because, in time, it morphed into a community driven work of art, kept alive by love because it made people feel safe, and it was one of the most deeply tangible reminders of accountability and vulnerability that no one could ever seem to get past. But, as time wore on, Vaughn’s health began to slowly deteriorate. He suffered from hypertensive episodes and had to adjust his diet and caloric intake to accommodate life in a 12-by-12-foot space. People would bang so hard on his door they’d startle him awake in the middle of the night, and sometimes they were drunk and couldn’t tell the difference between a fire hydrant and a pole, but sometimes they really weren’t. In December, Vaughn found a cancerous lump the size of a sweet potato in his thyroid. But undergoing surgery to remove it and subsequent treatment was nearly an impossible option because after Anderson, the hospital had become a terrifying place. Vaughn’s fellow friend and survivor Christian shared the same fear and had also forgone medical treatment for so long that his cancer had become terminal. As Vaughn wavered, stagnated about entering a doctor’s office for the first time in a long time, Christian took him by the shoulders, looked him square in the eye and told him, “Don’t be me, Jon … Don’t be me.”
Trinea Gonczar is one of Vaughn’s greatest friends. She took care of Vaughn after his surgery, as he recovered and began a new journey, though this time, with his sickness.Vaughn speaks warmly and often of Gonczar. “She is so compassionate, intelligent, hopeful and optimistic… I am so impressed by how she articulates and works through her trauma” amongst many of the other ways Vaughn regularly describes Gonczar. It’s easy to see why he likes her so much. She has a kind face, a softness about her, the sort of person you’d ask to show you the way if you were ever lost, the sort of person who’d gather your papers if the wind tore them from you, the sort of person who gives love for free. She tells Vaughn to stay in the light as often as he can because Gonczar and Vaughn are cut from the same cloth, they are both overcomers, believers, defenders and, also, survivors. Gonczar endured nearly a lifetime of sexual abuse as a gymnast at the hands of Larry Nassar. She also has a steely-eyed gaze and speaks with conviction in the same way Vaughn does, she knows the weight of her words in the way so many people don’t, how they feel in her mouth, how they sound and how far they’ll go. In her 2018 impact statement against Nassar, she leaned into the microphone, took a deep breath, locked eyes with Nassar across the room and said, “What have you done … What have you done,” and through tears, she bit down hard on the word “done.” Vaughn references this moment many times. It stuck with him, how she was able to confront Nassar in a way he could never with Anderson, but it was Gonczar’s pain he understood most, the knowing that something or someone you so dearly loved, that you trusted, had been the source, especially after the University took his protest site down, including the mailbox, a few days before his 52nd birthday. It was a move that shocked him, hurt him, and it was why he chained himself to a tree in response for 17 and a half hours, one minute for every victim of Anderson. “I just wanted my voice to be heard, our voice to be heard” he said, and it’s the first and last time I heard his voice nearly crack.
One of the first things Vaughn does when I call him over the phone is send me the first chapter of his upcoming book with the American Bar Association. He can’t seem to decide on the title, whether it should be “Piercing the Veil,” or maybe something louder or more stubborn. He can’t decide whether he should get straight to the point or whether his book should be one of those one-worder’s instead, like Joyce’s “Ulysses” or Morrisson’s “Beloved,” because people tend to remember those far more easily, after all. I tell him I like “Piercing the Veil” the best. Vaughn is trusting, openly plain in this way, willing to field titles for his work from someone he had just met, willing to share his next steps and visions, his feelings, his pain, unreserved and so candidly; it’s the mark of someone with so much at stake and, equally, nothing to hide. Vaughn uses words like “victim” and “abuse” so brazenly that at first, they made me flinch. He is not afraid of what being a victim entails the way so many of us are, of its inherent messiness and meanness, of the imbalance in power it implies, of how someone had to be hurt and someone had to do the hurting, of the way it sounds, of how it snags the tongue and claws the air, how it demands to be seen. Victim is a word that can be thrown around, the way Vaughn does, stomped on, spat out, worn and unworn, tied and then untied, because it only fits for so long. Vaughn inherently understood what took me more than a decade to ever truly understand — victimhood is not forever, in time we become survivors, instead. “You can’t be a survivor if you’ve never been a victim, and you can never give testimony if you’ve never been given the test,” Vaughn explains.
Vaughn searches for quotes often, they keep him sane, he says. He reads some of them carefully out loud, things like, “The further a society drifts from the truth the more it will hate those that speak it,” and another one from Steve Jobs that says, “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.” He saves them to his gallery for later, and he chooses the ones that speak to him most, he says, though the things that oftentimes speak to us the most are the things that say the most about who we are. To be in the public eye in the way Vaughn is, to become known for so much of your trauma, can be exhausting, draining, scary at times but, mostly, alienating. Reckoning with abuse, understanding the entirety of it, why our bodies no longer feel like home, is a lonely matter because things like sexual assault are a community’s doing, a community’s responsibility, but rarely ever does a community feel its burden or shame.
Vaughn protested out of love, nearly died out of love, because he loves this school, because he built this school, because he loves its students, because he loves what it made him, and love is tough and love is hard and sometimes love means exposing half a century of cover-ups when no one else could, love means making sure what happened to him and Christian and Deluca and thousands of others never happens again, by any means necessary, even if it demands his life. The issue of sexual assault and misconduct is so much bigger than the University of Michigan and the school eventually settled with Vaughn and the rest of Anderson’s victims for $490 million. But Michigan is not the first and certainly will not be the last school to be embroiled in such a scandal — for Vaughn, it was only the catalyst but no longer the focus. Because abuse, misconduct and assault span far greater, far wider, far deeper, far bigger than Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Vaughn is loyal to a fault, witty without meaning to be, he is kind and overwhelmingly patient, he likes to say he builds the parachute on the way out of the plane, crosses the bridge when he finally gets to it, writes his story as he goes. In college, he was a general studies major with an emphasis on business and African American studies, he always loved history, he played the trumpet and piano, and he was fiercely good at them both, he wanted to move to Europe to play soccer one day and watched “The Oprah Winfrey Show” with his mother. She was the strongest person he ever knew. He belongs to a cigar club just because and plays golf on the weekends. He holds the University of Michigan career-yards-per-attempt record and played for the New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs over the course of his career. He is a survivor of Dr. Robert Anderson, but also a Michigan Man, an advocate, a father, an author, a man that knows love, a man that understands what it means to rebuild oneself again and again, and man so deeply attempting to heal.
If you or someone you know is dealing with the effects of sexual assault, you can call 1-800-656-4673 to reach RAINN’s 24-hour national sexual assault hotline for help or utilize the support services provided by The Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center at the University of Michigan.
The Michigan Daily’s previous and upcoming coverage on Jonathan Vaughn and The Robert Anderson Story can be found here.
MiC Senior Editor Sarah Akaaboune can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org