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Outrage is Easy. Change is Hard.

This week, as news spread of the seemingly light punishment for former Stanford student and athlete Brock Turner after his rape conviction, social media erupted with righteous indignation. It is, of course, worth celebrating that the  victim’s voice is being heard and even broadcast after her assault on January 18, 2015. However, the general public outrage feels like bullshit.

Let me explain.

Years ago, when next fall’s incoming freshmen were being born, two rapes at another venerable university generated similar debate and outrage on campus and in the media. Joshua Elster, a Harvard student, pled guilty to three counts of rape, two counts of assault and battery and one count of indecent assault and battery.

The Harvard Crimson reported:

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At the turn of the millennium, two women whose rapists were convicted in court but not (initially) forced to leave Harvard told their stories to a campus newspaper that granted them anonymity.

Under the conditions of the sentence issued by Judge Paul A. Chernoff, the former Kirkland House resident is prohibited from further contact with the victim and cannot walk on Harvard property or enter University buildings during three years [of probation].

After that time, Elster could legally return, pending approval by Harvard’s Administrative Board. But Elster’s lawyer, Kenneth F. D’Arcy ’58 said Elster “has realized his education, if he seeks to follow it further, would be at another institution [than Harvard]. This was difficult for him to accept at first.”…

Elster, speaking through his attorney, had contended that he and the victim had engaged in consensual sex.

But Assistant District Attorney Thomas F. O’Reilly told The Crimson that the prosecution had enough strong evidence to bring the case to trial, including pictures of a bruise on the victim’s cheekbone and numerous scratches on her back and chest, reports by doctors and nurses and statements from witnesses who saw her immediately after the incident.

He added he does not view Elster as a serious enough threat to the community to require jail time.

Elster’s victim apparently felt otherwise, and left Harvard.


In the second case, Drew Douglas pled guilty to indecent assault and battery, but apparently this was still not enough to convince some Harvard faculty that he should be dismissed. Five faculty members submitted a motion for a lesser penalty, writing that they concluded Douglas was not a threat to the community. According to the Crimson article from 1999: 

The woman assaulted by Douglas said yesterday that the continued debate over consent and miscommunication has reopened old wounds. 

“[The account in Tuesday’s Boston Globe] makes the events sound like a harmless date after which I was ‘upset,’ the woman wrote in an e-mail message. “I was upset…because I was raped in my own bed against my will.”

In the intervening years, rape continues to happen every day, both on and off campuses everywhere, and yet much about public standards of dialogue and media coverage remains unchanged.

In 2007, the New York Times published a “Modern Love” column by a woman (writing under the pseudonym Ashley Cross) who dated Douglas after he left Harvard. Cross trashed Douglas’s victim, whom she had never met, as “hysterical” and “intoxicated”, and complained about her sexual disappointment with Douglas after he started counseling required by his probation. In response to widespread criticism for publishing what amounted to a baseless re-telling of a crime Douglas had admitted to, the editor of the column asserted, perversely, that “We felt the Modern Love column was not a venue to reargue the case but to explore this angle of the aftermath.” Talk about reopening old wounds.

(Check out the Onion’s incisive parody of this brand of hypocrisy in their 2011 two-minute video, “College Basketball Star Heroically Overcomes Tragic Rape He Committed.”)

When public outrage erupts once in a while, it is directed at easy villains. The embedded message is that if we recall this one judge, shame this one father, punish this one rapist, we can all sleep peacefully feeling like we did the right thing and move on with our lives.

Victims face a more complex road after an assault. What does it mean to be part of a community that doesn’t consider your rape “a threat”? How do you remain part of such a community? Is it possible to feel safe or to heal fully in a world where those in positions of authority do not acknowledge the crime, or the wounds it inflicted? What does it mean to leave, if that is even an option? As years pass, how does it feel to hear the same stories, participate in the same arguments, observe the same activism unfold over and over again?

The fact that Brock Turner is getting time at all and that we are reading about it makes this case stand out from so many others where the victim’s voice is silenced: by shame, by a lack of courage like that shown by those who intervened, and by a system that cannot acknowledge that “accomplished” young men are capable of rape.

I celebrate the amplification of the victim’s voice in this case. I would like to see it change our course to a more meaningful, more difficult path that eventually ends the institutional denial and public hypocrisy that leaves a majority of victims unheard and a majority of perpetrators “confused”, unrepentant, or unpunished.

Righteous indignation finds easy targets in stories that reflect our prevailing notions of what “real rape” looks like. It is cathartic to get riled up about what happened late at night “behind a dumpster”. We certainly find it easier to throw stones when the perpetrator is not someone we grew up with, a family member, or someone we consider a friend. The greater the outrage, the more it sets us apart, relieves us of our own accountability and self-examination.

Separating victims, perpetrators, and acts of sexual assault into neat categories is a tactic, conscious or not, that has long been used to invalidate and discredit the most difficult, yet basic, definition of sexual assault: the unwanted touching and/or penetration of one human being by another without consent.

This definition does not require the act to be committed with a weapon, by a stranger, by a man against a woman, in a dark alley, or against a completely unconscious victim. It can be more nuanced than that. It can be committed by the smiling blond angel in the yearbook photo, not the bedraggled guy in the mug shot, and it can still be rape. 

Rape can be committed even by those who look like us and are loved by us, and that is where we prefer outrage to more complicated conversations. Rapists can be accomplished young men; they are our sons, our brothers, our friends, our lovers. They can look innocent. They may not have “meant” to hurt anyone. But they did. And these crimes will continue until we can reconcile just how pervasive they are with just how how difficult it is to change the culture that, in the aftermath, casts victims either as heroes or liars.

Outrage is a mask we wear in public while most victims, even those with “clear-cut” cases, cannot reveal themselves for fear of retribution, public judgment, and even worse, a lifetime of being defined by the worst thing they’ve ever experienced. What does that tell us?

For decades, if not longer, the mask of outrage has not changed a damn thing. Change is what happens when the most privileged and powerful among us take off our masks and open ourselves to bearing witness to the most inconvenient truths, internal and external. It’s time to try something new. 

Daughter

216128_7041024612_3296_n“Stay wonderful. We can be happy. Love can go anywhere. Wherever you are, my love is with you, and it’s good love.”

Your dad wrote these words to me before he died, and I believe they are still true. I have loved you for a long time. I fell for you when you curled up in my lap after my first weekend at a new dropzone and snoozed as he gave me a lift home.

Later, when he and I moved in together and I played more of a role in your weekend visits, we spent special time with our imaginary friends — Alice the flying dolphin and of course the toenail shark, who appeared in the bath to bite children whose nails weren’t trimmed.

You were at the skydiving club when his landing went wrong and he couldn’t get up to drive you back to your mom’s house. Nine years old, and there was nothing but to hold you and your sister tight while I still could, and hope that you would come looking for me someday.

Eventually, you did. 

The people who have stepped up to help both of us are former skydivers whose lives your dad touched through his instruction and presence. It is complicated that what he loved took him away, but somehow continues to pay the love back.

Your dad enjoyed jumping out of airplanes and flying fast parachutes, but skydiving was more than a selfish indulgence for him. Teaching and interacting with jumpers were his ways of making a difference in people’s lives. He believed in love; he believed in you; and he had a strong sense of his own path and the obligations that came with it.

He’s not here to hold you, and it’s not fair. Yet, more than ever, now is the time to begin a deeper understanding of who he was, and to learn from that wisdom. I want you to know unconditional love; to believe in yourself; and to develop strength in your convictions as you work hard to create an adventurous, fulfilling life.

From our conversation earlier today, I know there are times you’d rather be “stabbed with a butter knife” than finish high school. You’re 17, and I guess we’ve all been there. What would your dad say? He’d probably tell you he understands, but he also wrote to your uncle one time, “If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that there is no action without consequence.”

You can do this, and the rewards will be worth it. You will not be alone. 

Our actions, even the smallest ones, make ripples that we can never know the end of. When you cast a stone into the ocean, it seems to disappear, and the surface of the water continues to churn. But from the moment the stone leaves your hand, the entire universe has become a different place.

Act wisely, and the world will show you its magic.

I love you, for always.

Edgeington


Taya Jess XRWOur goal was to explore the limits of a high-performance canopy pilot docking with a wingsuit flyer in freefall. The idea had been around for a while, but we wanted to do it in new ways that showed it could be developed as a discipline and not just advertised as a stunt.

Up late one night working on a funding proposal, I dubbed the effort “Project XRW” (Extreme Relative Work). It stuck. The first round featured Jonathan Tagle of the Performance Designs Factory Team under a 71-square-foot Velocity, surfing on the back of Jeff Nebelkopf flying his TonySuit X Bird wingsuit. The project logo had their names emblazoned across the letters XRW: Tagle. Nebelkopf.

It wasn’t until a few months later during the next iteration of the project that I aimed my own TonySuit X Bird in the direction of the PD Factory Team’s only female canopy pilot, Jessica Edgeington. She had bright pink nail polish on, her hand waving at me to come in closer as I balanced on the outside of my performance range in the wingsuit, trying not to screw up.

We became the first women to do XRW, but we hadn’t even met until we were on the verge of attempting what then seemed nearly impossible (or at least, very dangerous). It’s a hell of a way to meet your future best friend, midair at high speed wearing various forms of nylon and trying to hold hands.

Edgeington. Weiss.

Those names never appeared oWeiss Edgeingtonn a logo. Not that we cared. As we navigated the high-testosterone dynamics of that week, we both enjoyed laughing at the very masculine world we inhabited and thrived in. Mostly, we wanted the same leeway to train and achieve as the men around us.

When we narrowly missed the surf dock on the very first try, the guys were quick to pull the photographer away from us, worried it would be a waste if we took too long to figure it out (we nailed it on the very next jump).

We grew to be more than just dropzone buddies. We created, for and with each other, a safe place to share, bond, and vent about the often ridiculous challenges we faced. We spent time at each other’s family homes, planned weekends away together, and helped each other unconditionally through some very tough times. She once played the ukelele and sang to me while we sat on the banks of Walden Pond after a long swim.  

We were both serious about our skydiving, and struggled with the frustrations (unspeakable and unspoken in public, of course) of being women in our professional environment. But we never stopped laughing about it all, and using humor to keep each other afloat. Years after Project XRW’s initial success, we still started calls, voicemails, and text messages by intoning each other’s last name. If spoken, we went for either a wrestling-announcer voice or an evening news-anchor persona, no matter how mundane the subject matter following. 

“Edgeington. What time do you get off work?”

“Weiss. Mark and I are raising a baby… squirrel!”

“Edgeington. Shit’s hitting the fan. May drunk dial you later.”

“Weiss. I almost had a meltdown.”

“Edgeington. Time for a weekend catch-up.”

“EDGE-ING-TOOOOONNNN!!!!”

“WEEEEEEIIIISSSSSSS!”

In April, I got a call from the scene as soon as it happened. There was no filter, no lead-in, just the words: “Jess went in.”

Edgeington Weiss Pooch

Why I Still Skydive

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On April 2, 2015 I published a story about how I started skydiving, and why I continue, as part of a Smithsonian project. This was a difficult exercise because it makes me vulnerable to acknowledge both the huge impact that skydiving has had on my life, and to share some of the raw, personal grief that shaped me and my choices. It was also exciting that a mainstream outlet like the Smithsonian magazine (and later, Time Magazine, which ran the piece as well) was interested in the relevance of sport skydiving to larger issues like what it means to be an American, and how risk taking in our small community can reverberate with meaning for a larger readership.

Six days after this piece was published, my best friend Jessica Edgeington died in a skydiving accident in Florida. She was a professional high-performance canopy pilot, one of the few women at the top of the sport, a true pioneer and legend and inspiration. No one’s death other than my partner, Eric’s, has hit me harder. It took me several weeks to stop feeling like my guts were being removed by a dull spoon. My family and non-skydiving friends were hit hard, too, not only because she was like a sister but also because a woman dying in the sport signaled that it’s not just an overabundance of testosterone that kills. I could die, too. Part of what helped me to emerge from the shock was a feeling that I have nothing left to lose in telling my, and others’ stories. Jessica and I always had project ideas simmering, but we were both too busy making ends meet to prioritize them. I hope I can fulfill a commitment to her memory, by finally giving voice to our joint passions and her extraordinary, quiet, under-celebrated contributions to this world.

Winking at the Reaper

P1010399Jeff Nebelkopf is dead. Jeff and I shared our personal and professional lives through formative years for both of us. I haven’t fully processed anything about his passing, and I don’t know if I ever will. But today, here are my thoughts.

We’re all going to die. Some of us push harder than others against this reality. We seek the magical portals that lead to moments of flight, to the edge between safety and oblivion, to the forced meditation of spending a minute or two within seconds of falling onto the reaper’s scythe.

For skydivers and BASE jumpers, these portals exist at the intersection of the physical world and our collective belief that we have to fly to live. The open door of an airplane in flight beckons towards the immediacy of freefall. The quiet cliff’s edge is there for us to push off as we leap against our brain’s ancient protests and leave convention behind. Fuck Normal Life, we say. We will be different. We will be epic.

We wink at the reaper and then deploy our nylon into the void with faith that it will save us. Most of the time, we survive. Sometimes, we die. When death comes, grief and anguish follow. The band of seekers gathers to learn from the mistakes and profess love for each other, for the magical doors, and for the shared quest. Some question the wisdom of going through the doors, and some give up their nylon. Eventually, and sometimes immediately, the jumping resumes.

Far from the magical doors, in hospitals and morgues, in houses late at night and just before sunrise, mothers writhe with dreams of giving birth to children who died too young. Husbands and wives and partners and friends lie awake with guts roiled by loss, by the emptiness in the universe the seeker left behind.

I am a seeker and a flyer, a daughter and a friend. I am addicted to the magical doors and the places they lead me to. I want to believe that we can be brave explorers of gravity’s potential and worthy adversaries of its dangers without having to kill ourselves in the process.But after witnessing so many deaths, I am having doubts. I want to keep on feeling. I want to choose experience and pain over numbness. And I want to understand why I’m still here.