When Martha Hennessey hit the “share” button on the Facebook post she’d written on Friday, disclosing publicly for the first time that she had been assaulted by a classmate at Dartmouth College in 1976, she felt she was on the verge of tears.
But despite the shaky feeling of fragility — memory of the assault carried in her body for decades — in the ensuing moments as her story went viral, she was “surprised” to find that she didn’t regret her decision.
“The only thing that I think that pushed me toward regret at any point was any hint of an accusation that I was doing this for my own personal gain,” Hennessey told Boston.com. “And that I think feeds right into the reason why people don’t report in the first place.”
The Democratic New Hampshire state senator said it was President Donald Trump’s tweets on Friday, which questioned the credibility of Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, that pushed her to make public her experience on her college campus 42 years ago.
“It just felt to me as though I should be as brave as I could be and let it be out there,” she said. “It doesn’t define me. It doesn’t define me, and I have to keep saying that. But it certainly has lived with me for a long time.”
The mother of three and grandmother of four granddaughters said she’d been “composing something like” the post in her head a lot recently, seeing how Ford was being attacked after coming forward with her allegations.
“I just really couldn’t wait any longer, and I felt that the more people who came forward and talked about why they didn’t report assault, perhaps the better it would be for those who felt they were in the same predicament and needed support,” Hennessey said.
The 64-year-old, who is seeking a second term and whose District 5 seat includes Claremont, Lebanon, and Hanover, was a member of the first coeducational class at Dartmouth College.
She told Boston.com she was physically attacked by a male classmate at a fraternity during the winter term of her senior year, in 1976. She said a friend was celebrating her birthday in the basement of the fraternity that night and she had decided to take a break from studying for an exam the next day to walk over and say happy birthday.
“People were, as they generally are in the basement of a fraternity, pretty drunk,” Hennessey said. “And I was walking in on that and not interested in drinking since I had an exam the next day. I just stopped in, and, as I was going to leave this gathering, a very large man, who was a member of the fraternity I believe, grabbed the keys that were in my hand to try to keep me from going.”
She said she grabbed his arm as he was going up the stairs to the first floor of the fraternity, trying to get her keys back.
“He turned it into an affront that I had grabbed him in trying to get my keys back,” she said. “He started throwing me against a fireplace and against the floor and grabbing my keys and throwing them down to taunt me.”
Each time she went for her keys, she said her assailant would “pick [her] up and throw [her] again,” even as people who had been attending the party in the basement started coming upstairs.
They were watching as she was thrown around, Hennessey said.
“No one did anything,” the state senator said.
She said she was eventually able to escape, running to her nearby dorm where she shut herself in her room and sobbed. A dorm mate heard her and came to ask her what was wrong. Hennessey told her what had happened, then called her boyfriend at the time, her now-husband, who was getting his graduate degree at MIT.
The next morning Hennessey said she was contacted by campus police.
“They had heard something had happened and that I had something to do with it — almost in an accusatory way,” she recalled. “So I told them a little bit about what had happened.”
She said she was asked to meet with the dean of the college, which she did. The dean asked her to “at the very least” speak with her father, who was the head of the business school at the time.
She told her dad she didn’t want to report the assault.
“People were already accusing me of having gone straight to the campus police and pulling favors from the fact that my dad was a dean, etc., and I just couldn’t take any of it,” Hennessey said. “I just wanted it to go away. So I told my father I was not going to press charges. And he said that the one thing he had to do to appease himself was — which I totally understand — was that he wanted to talk to the perpetrator. So I told him his name. He called him into the dean of the business school’s office, and I think he spoke to him quite harshly, including telling him that he would personally see to it that he never got a Dartmouth diploma if he ever looked at me in any intimidating way again.”
After that day, Hennessey said she continued to get people telling her that she shouldn’t say anything negative about Dartmouth or fraternities on campus.
In her Facebook post, the elected official described how friends blamed her for being assaulted and false information about the incident spread on campus.
“There was a lot of animosity about having gone co-ed, and so I can only imagine that this was gender-related,” Hennessey told Boston.com. “I have no idea whether it would have been a different kind of assault if I hadn’t gotten away. And it was extremely painful at that point, and I thought about it the whole rest of my time.”
Hennessey said, at the time, she didn’t want being assaulted to “define” her.
“That was something that I was very concerned if I reported it that my name would be associated with this — that many people would have disdain for it in perpetuity,” she said. “And now I’m finding myself in part reliving the trauma, which I think those who’ve been through something like this, we relive that trauma every time we hear about someone reporting.”
In the past, the longtime Hanover resident said she’s reached out to survivors sharing their stories to tell them that she believes them and that she understands, and to offer that she’s available if they want to talk.
But on Friday something changed.
“This was a time where I just couldn’t stand once again being re-traumatized myself as well as knowing all the people who were traumatized over and over again because men don’t believe them, and many women don’t either,” she said.
The state senator said what is even more “excruciating” than the initial trauma is what can happen when someone comes forward to share or report their assault.“It’s the re-traumatizing that happens when people don’t believe you and when people call you a liar and when people question you,” she said.
Since sharing her story on Facebook, Hennessey said she’s heard from other women who spent time at Dartmouth, expressing similar experiences. She had not heard from the school directly.
A spokeswoman for the college sent the following statement to Boston.com:
We applaud state Senator Martha Hennessey’s courage in sharing her experience. Dartmouth is committed to maintaining a safe and nondiscriminatory environment in which all individuals are treated with respect and dignity, and we strongly condemn and will not tolerate violence of any kind directed against members of our community.
Overall, Hennessey said the response to her post has been largely positive. Though she still has gotten people writing that they don’t believe her, which she said is evidence in itself of why many victims of assault don’t report.
“To people who are not believing or who are writing hateful things, this is why we don’t report,” Hennessey said. “This is why people don’t report. And we have to rise above that. We have to realize that people who write such things are not the ones who are ever going to understand or help us or get us through this. They have their own issues that I hope they get help for, but, in the meantime, you can’t listen to the haters.”
She said the “most important people” in her life have been aware of what she went through since it happened.
And when her three children went off to college, she told them too, wanting them to understand the culture they could encounter on a campus and urging them to speak up for women “who were in that position.”
“It’s important for someone who has experienced assault of any type to know that the people who don’t believe you, don’t matter,” Hennessey said. “The people who matter will believe you. And you know what happened, and that’s the truth. Nobody can take that away from you, and there are many, many people out there, out here, who will believe you and do support you.”
The state senator said she doesn’t know how speaking about the assault will continue to affect her, but she said she knows that people will see her “through a different lens” now that she’s written about it.
“That’s a risk at the age of 64 I’m willing to take more than I was before in my life,” she said. “And I know I have the full support of everyone in my family and certainly most, if not all, of the people who know me well. So that makes a big difference.”