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.
People without any legal expertise interrogated Paul
Paul met the art student in 2011. She hails from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, attended an elite school and both her parents are psychoanalysts. Her family has Jewish, Japanese and Chinese roots. Like Paul, Emma was an athlete, who enjoyed fencing. Paul liked the girl, who was so similar to him and yet from a completely different world. In the spring of 2012 they slept together twice, but decided afterwards to just remain friends. In August 2012 they met at a party and went later to Emma’s room.
Paul’s version of what happened next is that they became intimate and also had anal sex. He stayed the whole night. In the morning he got up and quietly left the room.
Emma’s version is that Paul suddenly became violent while they were having sex, hitting and choking her before raping her anally even though she screamed in pain. But he ran away before he had an orgasm.
Paul says that he only heard these accusations during the proceedings against him. And there are, in fact, no details to the alleged crime in the letter from the university seen by DIE ZEIT. Paul was subject over the next seven months to dozens of questionings by university staff; he was forced to make statements and can't go to certain parts of the campus. He could barely continue doing his job and has to move out of his dorm. People without any legal expertise interrogated him. Although the accusation is of a serious crime, the alleged victim only reported him eight months after the night in question and only to the university authorities. The police were not notified. Assessments necessary for criminal proceedings were not done. Emma wasn’t examined medically for signs she was choked or injured and there was no search for evidence on the mattress. Paul received no legal defense, since lawyers were not allowed at the university proceedings. He also wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone about the accusations. But he was clearly being talked about. Students started to avoid him, making it clear to him that Emma was talking. In his lawsuit against the university it reads: "Paul’s request to be represented by an attorney was denied by Columbia, important evidence was excluded, and Paul faced immediate social isolation due to the interim measures and Confidentiality Policy on Columbia campus."
Columbia University responded to an inquiry by DIE ZEIT that it would not comment on specific cases. But documents obtained by DIE ZEIT corroborate Paul’s statements.
"I thought: either I’m crazy or everyone else is," Paul says. In November 2013, he was exonerated by the university. He received a puffed-up form letter in which the university used lots of words to try to extricate itself from the affair. The only clear sentence: "The accusations are unfounded."
Karin Nungeßer, Paul’s mother, sits in her office in Berlin, where she works as a freelance editor. She appears thin next to the mountains of paper stacked on a table. On the other side sits Andreas Probosch, Paul’s father. Paul was born at his parent's home. Both his mother and his father still studied and shared the responsibilities as caretakers. As a baby, Paul wore cloth diapers to help the environment.
In the lawsuit it reads: "Paul grew up in a progressive home. Paul’s mother works as a journalist for [the magazine] of the German women’s council. She is the co-founder of a feminist blog Weibblick and writes about gender topics. Paul’s father was a teacher for years in one of the poorest and most multiethnic areas of the city." "We weren’t anxious parents," she says. "No," he says.
The fear only came in those nights they started surfing the Internet, to try to understand what their son was facing in a faraway land that they thought they knew. Andreas Probosch studied at Yale in the 1990s, not so much could have changed in America since then, right? Wrong. Probosch summarizes it: "Title IX, 1 in 5, Dear colleague letter, preponderance of evidence and Yes means Yes."
There have been arguments at U.S. colleges about these terms for the past several years. Underneath, the premise is that there is a culture of rape among college students, which has gotten so bad that universities are supposedly violating Title IX of the U.S. law guaranteeing everyone free access to education regardless of their gender.
Allegedly responsible for this misery is heavy drinking, fraternities and an overblown athletic cult, as well as the hypocritical worry of universities that it damages their reputation when sexual assaults are made public. The so-called 1 in 5 study also caused an uproar by claiming that a fifth of all female students had been victims of sexual assault.
"For me, feminism is inseparable from social justice"
In 2011 the American government called on universities to immediately take action in cases of sexual assault, otherwise it would be a violation of the Title IX law, which could mean losing access to funding. The letter, called the "Dear colleague letter," included concrete measures, the most cutting of which was effectively removing the presumption of innocence. From then on, judgments were to be passed based on the principle of a "preponderance of evidence," in which the accused is automatically considered guilty, if it appears somehow more likely that the victim is right. Anyone "convicted" this way can be expelled, but there are no legal consequences. What is unimaginable in Germany has a tradition in the United States. It also is because until the 1960s, universities operated under the principle of "in loco parentis," acting like parents caring for students.
In reaction to the new policy, numerous universities introduced a "Yes means yes" rule. It says that sex is only consensual if both partners says yes and are therefore accountable.
The art professor raved about the power of her mattress performance
When Karin Nungeßer hears all of that her face turns red with anger. "A few highly privileged women have created their own jurisdiction," she said. "For me, feminism is inseparable from social justice."
An elementary school teacher in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg and a feminist lecturer. The representative of a milieu that sees itself as being on the side of good: the disadvantaged, women, victims. People who reflect and understand the context of things. But how does someone understand a world in which everything that is right is upside down?
Paul’s parents do not believe the accusations. They continue to read and do research. "A coping strategy," said Karin Nungeßer. "When Paul was absolved we thought that justice had prevailed," said Andreas Probosch.
That was his second mistake. In the winter of 2013, shortly after he was found not guilty, reporters lurked in front of Paul’s dorm, and Columbia students wrote about the incident on their blogs. Paul’s parents wrote an email to Columbia University, asking the university to make a public statement and to intervene. The university answered that it was taking the fears seriously, but nothing happened.
In May 2014, graffiti and flyers appeared in which Paul was described as a "serial rapist." Then, almost two years after the alleged incident, Emma suddenly reported him to the police, making it possible for his name to be made public, which the college newspaper promptly did. Paul’s parents wrote another email to the university, which then declared it was not responsible.
Paul presented himself to the New York District Attorney’s office, which questioned him and did not take up an investigation. Emma withdrew the complaint, giving the reason that the proceedings were too lengthy. A couple of days later she first appeared with the mattress on campus, and then she was seen worldwide on the front pages of newspapers. Her art professor raved about the personal nature of the work as the "site of her rape." Emma’s supporters organized a National Day of Action, on which students across the country marched through their campuses with mattresses. Emma stated that Paul should not feel safe any longer. Activists took photos of him in classes. Someone wrote on Emma’s Facebook page that he wanted to cut Paul’s throat.
The parents asked the university to stop this "campaign of persecution." Columbia answered that they were taking the concerns seriously. Emma continued on, unimpeded. Andreas Probosch flew to New York and looked for an attorney. The lawyers were interested, but expensive. Karin Nungeßer said: "We were in the right, but we knew that we would not get justice." But they got Andrew Miltenberg.
The office in Manhattan is on the fifth floor. On the walls of the corridors there are engravings of soldiers celebrating. In the men’s bathroom there is a poster of Churchill "Deserve Victory!" In a room at the end of a hall sat a man at a desk, slicing skin from his fingers with a knife. The knife was large, but the man was not. Andrew Miltenberg asked: "What do you want to know?"
Mr. Miltenberg is a corporate attorney. But he also represents outsiders: street artists against the city of New York, a building owner against the jet-setting friends of Madonna. They are battles that are only fought by someone who himself is an outsider, someone who as a small, Jewish student manage to prevail at a southern university. Mr. Miltenberg said: "Emma is lying. She is camouflaging her attacks on Paul as a fight for a good cause." The tip of the knife was thrust in the direction of the visitor. "Can we both stand on campus with a sign reading ‘Emma Sulkowicz is a whore’? Of course not." Another thrust of the knife. "But Emma is permitted to hold rallies. Columbia is her accomplice."
Mr. Miltenberg’s complaint lists Emma’s contradictions: "There were no witnesses to Emma’s alleged screams in the badly soundproofed student dorm. There was no medical report, even though an attack as massive as described would with great likelihood have caused serious injuries in dire need of medical attention. There was no testimony from Emma’s friends or family members who could confirm such injuries or changes in her behavior. On the contrary, in the days following the alleged attack, Emma participated in various social events on campus. There were varying accounts by Emma as to whether and when she had spoken to anyone about the alleged assault. Paul was able to present numerous love messages that Emma wrote to him before and after the alleged event with no apparent change in mood. Even though these messages were excluded as exculpatory evidence from the investigation, Columbia was informed about their existence and content. Columbia was also informed that Emma had a history of alleging of sexual assault. These messages, too, were excluded from evidence."
"A victim's industry"
These are Facebook messages that DIE ZEIT has and has partially published. On June 26, 2012, Emma wrote to Paul: "Ahhh Paul I miss you so much," and that when she was high at a party she had sex with a friend and his buddies. On Aug. 29, 2012, two days after the alleged rape, she wrote she wanted to see Paul. "We still haven’t really had a paul-emma chill sesh since summmmerrrr." And on Oct. 4 she wrote: "I love you Paul. Where are you!?!?!?!?!"
"Paul is privileged and portrays himself as a victim," said an activist
Emma confirmed that the messages were authentic when asked by DIE ZEIT for her version of the story, but she did not give a reaction. Her father, Kerry Sulkowicz, a well-known psychoanalyst, also did not want to comment.
But Andrew Miltenberg likes to comment. "The basic problem is that this country, in its attempt to prevent sexual abuse, has lost any balance since 2011," he said. The universities are under pressure from the government and the public and tried to avoid making mistakes, at the expense of the accused, he said.
Mr. Miltenberg had already represented some of them, also at Columbia. His stories involve young men who first are presented with the accusations shortly before the hearing, of interrogations conducted by cafeteria managers and through universities which change the rules of the procedure surprisingly, as needed, do not accept proof and allow complainants to stay away. "Besides that, no one there has to tell the truth because there are neither affidavits nor is there cross examinations," he said.
These are stories as though from a Kafka novel. Or from a country that is prepared to sacrifice the rights of individuals for the larger goal, such as after 9-11. Maybe the country did not change at all, but only the front lines did. And maybe it takes someone who is an outsider to see how dangerous that is.
"Many say that at the most, they expel someone from the university," said Andrew Miltenberg. He tapped the knife on the table. "That is true. But with an expulsion no one can get into another college or get a job where they run a background check." Mr. Miltenberg’s clients were straight-A students and athletes from Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth. "Now they can’t even get in to a local college, and are depressed, suicidal and in debt."
Others are profiting from this. "A victims’ industry made up of female activists, lawyers and therapists," he said. "The government has surrendered to interest groups who attack anyone who calls for fair proceedings." Such as a Yale professor, who warned against the removal of the presumption of innocence, or the magazine writer Emily Yoffe, who castigated the new rules as just an overreaction. Furious activists said both of them were defending rapists.
Paul’s complaint also mentions these interest groups. In December, 2014, Columbia student activists from No Red Tape and Carry That Weight, Becca Breslaw and Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, read a letter at President Bollinger’s office containing the following passage: "(Emma’s) serial rapist still remains on campus today."
Becca Breslaw leans on the lectern, looking at the students. Eighty-eight had registered, but only a dozen came. They sat somewhat lost in the room in Knox Hall, a few meters away from campus. "This is No Red Tape’s teach-in," said Becca.
No Red Tape, set up in winter 2014, has a dozen members. Becca describes some of the group’s activities: the sign ‘Columbia protects rapists’ she projected onto the wall of the main building last night; the campaign when she covered the campus with red tape because the university refused to release any data about sexual assault. "A bit of vandalism." The people laugh.
Becca talks openly, gesticulates, she blushes. Sometimes she has to push a lock of her brown hair out of her face. Becca is 20, an anthropology student who wears a ring with a heart on it. She finds it hard to reconcile herself with the stories of Andreas Probosch and Andrew Miltenberg. It is even harder for her to realize that a governor is talking with her about draft laws.
But that is the case. It is a law that is to end sexual assault at universities in New York.
One of the people working for the governor’s office called Becca, asking "if we couldn’t get two ‘survivors’ to stand beside him for the announcement. But the law was terrible." The police were to teach campus security about dealing with sexual misdemeanors. But "survivors" as the activists call the victims of sexual violence, are usually minorities, and the police are racist, Becca says.
The law was adjusted. The activists are few in number but they have strong networks and highly professional. They use social media; they hand out guidelines for journalists, partly to ensure that the victims are presented in a credible way. And they support students with complaints about breaches of the Title IX law. With success: in 2009, just 9 breaches were registered, compared to 102 in 2014 and 51 up to April 2015.
The activists make use of the fact that in the United States, universities have become brands. Like an Apple product, a Yale diploma is also a sign of distinction. The difference is the price and that would fall if the brand is damaged. That is why the universities work with the activists, like Columbia, which changed its policy against sexual assault: obligatory training sessions, more personnel, new delegates.
Becca stands in front of Knox Hall, smoking. She isn’t satisfied with Columbia‘s Sexual Respect Inititiative. "At the trainings you can do an art project, like writing a haiku. Absurd." Furthermore, each crime is handled separately, even if it has been committed by the same person. "And the penalties are a joke. One person was suspended for a semester but can come back and be a tutor again." Would the police be better? "The legal system supports violence. We want a society without violence. We want to re-educate the criminals."
The initiatives might be extreme but the universities have a problem. According to a Congress report, only 5 percent of sexual assaults are reported. Only half of the universities asked had set up a telephone hotline for victims; just as few universities enabled victims to make reports online.
The case against Joshua
Becca grew up in Princeton. An article in a student blog led her to become an activist; it was about Emma: "She’s a symbol for the movement." She doesn’t comment on the Facebook posts or death threats. "But I’m not sorry for Paul. He’s privileged and is presenting himself as a victim."
Becca wasn’t a victim herself, but she knows many. According to their reports. "Sometimes I think I’m on a blacklist." She looks down at the ground. "That sounds paranoid, doesn’t it? But I’m scared they’ll take my grant away and I’ll have to leave." She doesn’t tell her parents any of this, "My mother teaches in an elementary school, my father is a crossing guard." – A what? – "He helps children over the crossing." she blushes.
The idealism, the intelligence, the origins – Becca and Paul should surely be on the same side. But Paul’s allies are elsewhere, not among the liberals at the universities or the big cities, but where America is so big and empty that only guns help. And the Bible.
Universities that aren’t educational institutions but businesses
Spartanburg, South Carolina, 40,000 inhabitants. Plenty of car industry and not a lot else. The SUVs on the roads are as broad as the accent. Joshua Strange has a big smile too. He is driving to his parents‘ house. It’s a brick building with windows that are almost as big as doors. Trees bend in the wind. Inside, there are tables piled with paper. Alongside them, a middle aged woman is seated, Allison Strange, Joshua’s mother. The scene recalls Paul’s mother. Aside from the US flag, the Republican sticker and the gun in the corner.
Joshua Strange studied politics at Auburn University, until he met his girlfriend Sophia [name changed] in May 2011. Soon after, she moved into his student room. In the night of June 29 she called the police. Joshua forced her into having sex, she said. She wanted to have sex; then she suddenly got angry, he said. That night, the police interrogated the couple. They found nothing to suggest a rape. At dawn, Sophia came back to him. But by the end of August, it was over. A week later, the police put handcuffs on Joshua in the parking lot outside the dorm. He is accused of hitting Sophia in the face.
But Joshua had spent that questionable evening in the bar with friends, according to witnesses. Also, his girlfriend called him at 22.30.
Joshua was 20 years old then, a boy from the south with a boyish face, who liked hunting, fishing and hanging out with his friends. "Well-raised with a lot of respect for women, almost courtly," his mother said. It’s a four and a half hour ride to Auburn. Allison Strange and her husband know the route pretty well by now.
Sophia also filed a complaint with the university about sexual abuse and rape on the night of June 29. When he walked across the campus, other students whisper. People he knows tell him that Sophia is saying Joshua is a rapist.
Right on the top of the pile is a picture of a young woman in a stadium who is smiling. "That’s her, two days after Joshua supposedly beat her black and blue. I was so naïve." Mrs. Strange voice trembles. A paralegal, each night she sits at the computer doing research. "I though the truth would win out." She sobs.
Her truth won too. But only in court. A grand jury closed the proceedings in February 2012. But the proof was enough for the university. Joshua was expelled from Auburn. The hearing was chaired by a librarian; just earlier, the threshold for conviction was lowered. Joshua staggered from the room. He moved back to Spartanburg. He suffered from depression it took him months to overcome.
The family took advice about whether to sue Auburn. But a case would cost a hundred thousand dollars and would have to be heard by the federal courts. Against a university which is based there and worth half a billion dollars. "These are businesses, not educational institutions," Joshua said. They opted to go public. Joshua hadn’t signed a confidentiality clause. "That was our chance," said Allison Strange. The news was reported on CNN and in the Wall Street Journal, and in November 2012, an unexpected mail arrived.
Its writer was Sherry Warner Seefeld. Her son had also been unjustly accused. The mothers began to listen to each other’s stories and build up a network. In July 2014 they set up Face – families advocating for campus equality. Andrew Miltenberg is now a member, too. "We want a system that’s functional and fair," said Allison Strange. The presumption of innocence, cross-examination, legal counsel, and trained, independent experts. "Rape. That’s a crime, so an issue for the police and the courts."
What about the violence and racism that the activists describe? Allison Strange draws a deep breath. "There’s no helping these neo-feminists."
Their actions confirmed Mrs. Allison Strange’s feeling that her country was edging toward madness. One must only watch American sitcoms, with their dim-witted fathers and smart mothers, she said. "Equal rights are great, but the neo-feminists want to clobber men," she said. And, she added, the government is contributing by releasing numbers such as the 1 in 5 statistic. "A ridiculously biased study."
An American culture clash
It is no longer about the truth, but about the better story
Actually, the data was only praised at two universities, and even the authors of the study say that the data is not representative. A representative study, which was based on a survey conducted by the Justice Department from 1995 to 2011, found a very different number: 6 of every 1,000 female students are victims of sexual assault. That rate is 30 percent higher for women of the same age without a university education. Another survey shows that women without a college degree are four times as likely to be victims of sexual assault than women with a college diploma. Basically: the less educated and poorer a woman is, the more likely she is to be a victim.
The majority of reports filed with the police station responsible for Columbia are incidents of theft valued over more than $1,000. They involve bags with laptops, iPads and smartphones that students in cafes leave in their seats to hold their place when they place an order at the counter.
About 150 young men have registered with Face since its founding. Their stories are the ones that Allison Strange and her female comrades-in-arms are now telling the politicians. But it has not helped much so far. "Young women are a giant voting block in this country," said Mrs. Strange. "We simply need better stories. The young men are shy about fighting back."
The fight against rape on campus has turned into an American culture clash, such as gay marriage or abortion. It is no longer about who has the right numbers, but rather about who tells the most disturbing stories. And no one tells stories as well as Stanley Arkin.
He is mentioned in Paul’s complaint. In the winter of 2013 "Emma was advised by a PR consultant and/or lawyer with a lot of experience with the media, which she had already threatened to use."
Stores such as Dior and Armani jockey for space on Madison Avenue in the shadows of Manhattan’s high-rises. At 590 Madison Avenue the names of visitors have to be given to security guards at the door. The Arkin Group is on the 35th floor. The windows offer visitors a view of Central Park spread out like a carpet in front of them.
"Emma’s mattress performance is great for America," said Stanley Arkin. "Her protest stands for our most noble traditions." His voice sounds frail and his head is bald. He is 77 years old and almost looks as if he has disappeared into his jacket. Mr. Arkin is the man that Paul said he cannot afford. "I cannot pay $600 per hour," Paul said. But Mr. Arkin looked at the visitor and said, "I charge $1,000." Unless, he said, it involves justice or friends. And in the case of the Sulkowicz family it allegedly involves both. "They are good people, and the girl is an impressive representative of her generation – interested, intelligent, creative and with great integrity," he said.
Before he started focusing on PR, Mr. Arking worked as an attorney for bankers. His success redefined "insider trading," wrote the Los Angeles Times, and a list of his clients reads like a Who’s Who of Wall Street.
Stanley Arkin now has another goal. "The campus must be cleansed of criminals," he said. He said Paul’s absolution from Columbia is laughable. "This proceeding followed no legal standards," he said. "A university wanted to protect its reputation and save an athlete. Again."
But critics argue that Emma is practicing vigilante justice. "Nonsense," he said, shaking his head. "In America we do not end abuses by whining but through deeds, through the battle for a just cause."
America, tradition, justice. A question of fate arose from a night between Emma and Paul. The fate of two young people. And a moral issue for an entire nation.
On May 20 Paul received his diploma. How things will go from here, he does not know. He wants to be a cameraman. But an offer that he already had was rescinded because of the accusations. Paul says he lacks the strength to think about the future.
An American flag fluttered on a high-rise across from Stanley Arkin’s office. Everything else looks very small from this far up.
Translated by Mary Beth Warner, Marc Young und Allison Williams