Read the German version of this text.
Everything depends on just 56 pages: His reputation, his future, his life. The lawsuit "Paul Nungeßer versus Columbia University" starts with the statement: "Paul Nungesser has been an outstanding and talented student at Columbia University. He thrived in his first two years and then became the victim of harassment by another student. Columbia University first became a silent bystander and then turned into an active supporter of a fellow student's harassment campaing by institutionalizing it and heralding it."
New York in the spring of 2015. A few days before submitting his lawsuit to a New York district court, Paul Nungeßer walks across the Columbia campus. Stately buildings with columns and inscriptions frame the yard. On the lawns, students play soccer. Others laze in the sunshine with a cup of coffee.
Just like Paul did four years ago. Paul the German highflyer from Berlin. Paul, who attended an international school in Swaziland and loved cycling. Paul the responsible one, who was involved in development projects. And even Paul the feminist, who is now notorious around the world as an alleged rapist. Judged by the public, although he was never proven guilty. He is demanding compensation from the university, but more than anything, he just wants to have a court rule that Columbia’s treatment of him was unfair.
The incident made Emma famous and ruined Paul’s life
Paul points to the building. The library where he used to spend his days and that he now avoids. The student union, where he once worked and was later interrogated. The dorm that was the alleged scene of the crime and he was forced to vacate. He looks around repeatedly. Tomorrow there will be a new demonstration by female activists. "I emailed Columbia to request protection," says Paul. The university turned him down but sent him the telephone number of the security service: (212) 854-5555.
Paul Nungeßer is only 23 years old, but he walks with slumped shoulders. A pale boy, whose shirt tightens slightly over his belly. He doesn’t look a highflyer, an athlete. Along the Hudson River he sits on a bench. "We can talk here."
His story is focused on one image: A student dragging her blue mattress across the campus. Her name is Emma Sulkowicz. The art student claims she was raped on just such a mattress – by Paul. She wanted to carry the mattress until Paul was ejected from Columbia University.
Both recently graduated and Emma ended her art project "Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)," which made Emma a star and Paul’s life hell. Emma made the cover of New York Magazine with her mattress. The artist Marina Abramović said she was a fan and a female U.S. senator invited her to President Barack Obama’s "State of the Union" address and Hillary Clinton declared: "That image should haunt all of us." That Paul had already been absolved of wrongdoing by the university and the police refused to even open an investigation interested no one. On the contrary: The university gave its blessing to the performance by allowing it to be her senior thesis work for her visual arts degree.
Paul’s story sounds like absurd theater. But it’s not a piece by Beckett, it’s a very real part of society.
Paul had a generous scholarship to Columbia. His liberal arts degree covers everything from literature to architecture, everything an American Ivy League school has to offer. At first Paul enjoyed college life. He went rowing, had a radio show, a job as a technician and started a film collective with friends.
"And then," he says, "came April 18, 2013." On that day, he was ordered to report to the office for sexual misconduct and received a letter reading: "Specifically it is alleged that you engaged in behavior theat meets the definition of sexual assault." Paul supposedly had raped someone. "You are prohibited from having any contact with Emma Sulkowicz."
The ground seemed to open up below Paul, he says today, he tottered home to his dorm in the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity he belonged to. Just like Emma.