Content warning: This article mentions sexual abuse and assault.
Through it all, as students trudge across campus, dreading those frigid expanses between toasty shops and classes and apartments, survivors of Dr. Robert Anderson’s abuse remain perched in front of the president’s home. 24 hours a day, seven days a week, they radically proclaim their existence with a strength that I can only describe as relentless beyond measure. These people, whom disgraced former University President Mark Schlissel once referred to as “a group of folks in tents,” and the campsite that evinces their message serve as a quiet, yet powerful, reminder to those walking down South University Avenue that accountability for the trauma of more than a thousand human beings is yet to be had — and that there is no true justice for those who have been and continue to be harmed by sexual assault.
One of those courageous protestors is Tad Deluca, who, in 1975, wrote a letter to his U-M wrestling coach and then-U-M athletic director detailing the abuse he’d endured at the hands of Anderson. As a consequence of his brave actions, he was kicked off the wrestling team and his full-ride, out-of-state scholarship was revoked.
This is the story he graciously shares with me when I chance upon him outside his campground on Friday; I have the honor of being able to tell Tad that I’m in awe of him and all he’s sacrificed to decry those complicit in the serial abuse. He graciously smiles, saying he can’t tell me how much that means to him. The feeling is infinitely more than mutual. Tad is wearing glasses with skinny wire frames and a beanie, and his cheeks are raw and red from the harsh January wind chill. And with the same friendly nonchalance one usually reserves for chatting with a neighbor, he tells me he’s now retired and lives with his wife in Grosse Pointe, MI — but, of course, he’s put his life on hold to protest outside the president’s home. He warmly remarks that his wife is learning how to shovel the snow off their driveway in his absence, and that she’s proud of it too.
Tad also says, somewhat apologetically, that he would invite me into his tiny trailer, but it’s so cramped that one has to hunch their shoulders to walk inside; he even has to keep his apples and oranges in the microwave due to the lack of space. The right-most tent from the side that faces the street houses nothing but maize T-shirts, emblazoned with the mantra “Hail to the Victims” in blue letters and stacked high in a mass of cardboard boxes. (“Hail to the Victims” alludes to the U-M mantra “Hail to the victors” — forcing the U-M community to reckon with its systemic abuse by juxtaposing it with the University’s culture of school pride and spirit.) Tad ducks into the tent to replenish the stash of shirts on the plastic table outside the campground that displays a sign reading “FREE HAIL TO THE VICTIMS T-SHIRTS.” Next to the table is a maize mailbox labeled “815 ½ Vaughn.”
After sharing his own Anderson story, Tad then tells me about another survivor who was so scarred by Anderson that he refused to seek any medical attention for decades after his abuse physically ended. The survivor, Chuck Christian, is the first former U-M football player to publicly speak out against his abuse by Anderson; he told the Detroit Free Press in April 2020 that he refused to seek proper medical attention for decades because he “associated (doctors) with fear, with pain,” despite having suffered from symptoms of serious illness since around 2005. And now, Christian is terminally ill, with stage four prostate cancer. “No matter how sick I was, I would never go to the doctor,” he said in the 2020 Free Press interview. Decades after his time at the University, Christian’s abuse has directly, and irreparably, cost him his life.
Christian is not the only Anderson survivor whose trauma has caused trepidation toward seeking proper medical care. According to a GoFundMe page update, on his 32nd day of protesting outside the president’s house, Anderson survivor Jon Vaughn felt a lump in his neck. Shannon Henry, his friend and fellow survivor of sexual assault who had established the page, urged Vaughn to seek medical attention. She writes, “But after being sexually assaulted by a doctor, the last person you want to see is a doctor.” Eventually and thankfully, however, he sought medical care and was diagnosed: Vaughn had thyroid cancer.
The day Tad talked to me, Jan. 21, was the day that Vaughn underwent surgery to remove the nodule in his thyroid. Tad says that he received a text earlier that day at around 2 p.m. informing him that Vaughn had about an hour of surgery left. And rather than get the proper rest he needs at home or in the hospital, Vaughn, in his tireless commitment to holding the University accountable for its long history of covering for sexual abusers, wanted to return to his campsite the next day. A GoFundMe page update penned on the day of the surgery by Larry Nassar survivor Trinea Gonczar says, “Most know us as these freedom fighter radicals that have been on the front lines of survival. But today, this, is different. Life is precious. I’m reminded.”
Back at the campground, signs rooted in snow articulate slogans like “Hail to the Victims,” and “Students + Survivors Equally STAND.” One simply inscribed in blue Sharpie catches my eye: “Mark — I AM STILL HERE -Jon.” Under it, someone has replied hauntingly in red marker: “(and you won’t be!).” As students of this University — which has actively worked to protect predators, time and time again — we have a moral obligation to stand with all survivors of sexual assault on this campus, like Vaughn, in support and solidarity. When I ask Tad what someone like me can do to help his cause, he tells me he would appreciate receiving hand warmers such as those from HotHands which can be found at the Target on State Street. But, Tad says, the most important asset that students can give to the survivors is our support, through actions like wearing a “Hail to the Victims” T-shirt, attending the future rallies that Tad says the survivors are currently organizing and spreading awareness to denounce and address the culture of sexual violence and lack of accountability that the University has continually maintained. Additionally, the aforementioned GoFundMe effort donates financial support to Vaughn’s mission “to ensure the safety and healing of those entrusted to the University of Michigan’s care, past, present, and future.”
Tad says it has been incredible to witness students approaching him and sharing their stories, confiding in him their own encounters with sexual abuse. And then I feel compelled to tell him something that not many people in my life know, which is that I, too, am a survivor of sexual assault.
Tad’s brows immediately furrow. “Did this happen here?” he asks me, his tone somber and urgent. I answer, and he looks into my eyes and tells me, “I believe you.” It is my first time hearing those words.
I count myself lucky that nobody I’ve trusted with my story has even once doubted me, but their acceptance has always been implied. And until Tad said it, I hadn’t known how it feels and what it means to be explicitly told by someone, anyone — even a stranger — those three simple words: I believe you. Being hurt in the way that I was hurt; in the way that Tad was hurt; in the way Anderson hurt over a thousand lives; in the way to which too many higher-ups at the University have turned a blind eye and in the way that over one in three women and nearly one in four men in their lifetimes are hurt… being hurt in that way feels bitterly, crushingly, indescribably lonely. But to hear those words — “I believe you” — from a fellow survivor broke a dam in my soul, a dam on which I am constantly patting cement and laying bricks in desperate, futile attempts — a dam that I’d hastily forged around the memory of the incident, when I’d forced myself to move on because I had school, and work, and more pressing, easier matters to dwell on than what had happened to me. “I believe you” chased me down, forced me to confront my grief; and in turn, these words endowed me with the cathartic bliss of being heard and understood by someone who had been in my shoes, years ago. There is power in the words “I believe you”; they’re healing, in a way. At least, for me they are.
And so, thank you, thank you, thank you; thank you again and thank you forever, to Tad and to Christian and to Vaughn and to all other survivors who demand that the University, and powerful individuals within it, be held accountable for their roles in perpetuating sexual violence. I feel brave enough to declare that I am a survivor because so have they. To anybody reading this who is a survivor themself: I believe you. And from someone who, at times, genuinely didn’t believe she would or could survive a pain like that: it gets better.
Hail to the victims. Hail to the victims. Hail to the victims.
For help in the aftermath of a sexual assault, you can utilize the support services provided by the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center at the University of Michigan such as peer-led support groups, including ones which cater specifically to survivors of Color and Queer survivors. You can also call 1-800-656-4673 to reach RAINN’s 24-hour national sexual assault hotline. And again, here is the link to Jon Vaughn’s GoFundMe page: This Is Why We Stand.
MiC Managing Editor Jessica Kwon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.