Daughters trades polarizing politics for sobering dose of reality

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

Sexual assault is an exceptionally difficult problem to talk about on the campus of a conscientiously Catholic university. Academic panels and “awareness” weeks have broached the topic in the past but did little to break the culture of silence on sexual matters that, according to many students and some professors, perpetuates some real problems. Then there was the matter of the polarizing play The Vagina Monologues, that smothered discussion under a layer of anger and competing ideologies.

Turns out, the University’s loyal daughters—and some of its sons, too—have something to say about all of this.

Loyal Daughters, a play written by senior English and anthropology major Emily Weisbecker, borrows from the _Monologues_’ concept of creating provocative theater out of the experiences of ordinary people. In this case the ordinary people were 55 Domers interviewed in spring 2006 about their experiences of love, relationships, sex, faith, violence and the University’s policies and culture. Weisbecker said most of the volunteer interviewees were students, including “about 15” men, plus a handful of faculty and staff.

As four November nights in the full-house Decio Theatre attested, Notre Dame—like every other university—has problems with students, sex and sexual assault on its campus.

Produced and performed by students, Daughters owes its existence to the Monologues, too. Weisbecker received an early green light on her nascent concept from University President Father John Jenkins, CSC. In his April 5 “Closing Statement on Academic Freedom and Catholic Character,” Jenkins explained his decision not to prohibit performances of the Monlogues but sought other ways the University could address the play’s “laudable” goals, the “most urgent” of which was “to work with greater determination to eliminate violence against women.”

Sexual assault stands at the core of _Daughters_’ 25 sketches. In the lightly comic “Second Base,” a young woman persuades her aggressive but reasonable date not to push things too far. That scene finds its counterpoint in a later sketch, an undergraduate’s horrific recounting of being trapped and raped by her much larger study partner in a library bathroom.

These were just two of the stories shared with Weisbecker during nearly 70 hours of interviews. Students talked about body image and low self-esteem, romantic confusion, peer pressure, inadequate moral formation, struggles to remain chaste, homosexual encounters, guilt and forgiveness. Others spotlighted the roles played by alcohol and the perfectionism and pride typical of a community of overachievers.

Weisbecker notes that much of the play could speak to the experiences of students at other schools. But several moments were uniquely Notre Dame. “Logic,” a fictional classroom lecture, sharply questions the University’s policy of disciplinary action for consensual premarital sex, implying that it discourages victims from reporting assaults and chills candid talk about sexual morality. In “Mary,” a young woman prays at the Grotto about her relationship with her boyfriend.

Funded by a University Research Opportunity Program grant, Weisbecker spent the summer at home in Minnesota crafting the stories into what she hoped would be a representative picture of an uncomfortable aspect of student life.

“People want and need to talk about it,” Weisbecker said, noting the grave responsibility she felt in working with the interviews. “They’re looking for the right kind of venues where they can bring it up. Some didn’t feel they could talk about what had happened to them, even with their friends or their parents. And just being able to tell the story was healing to them.”

Although it shucked the _Monologues_’ shock tactics, Daughters was not free of controversy. In October, Weisbecker voluntarily showed the script to Father Jenkins and the members of the ad-hoc committee he appointed in April to steer campus discussion of gender-related issues and violence. Days before the play opened, Jenkins announced that although he continued to support the discussion, he could not endorse the play’s content.

Margot O’Brien ’92J.D., a business law instructor in the Mendoza College of Business, resigned her place on the committee, which promoted the play. “The horror of sexual assault and violence suffered by our students—sometimes at the hands of other students—is real, as is the physical and emotional destruction that such violence inflicts,” she wrote in the Nov. 15 edition of The Observer.

“However,” O’Brien continued, “_Loyal Daughters_ takes advantage of the spotlight to present in a morally neutral way illicit sexual activity . . . at times in a celebratory tone.”

Student reaction was varied. Noting the “multiple sexual attacks” she was aware of on campus, senior Katherine Cordelli said limiting discussion to “questions that fit only the beliefs of the Catholic Church . . . [does] the students a disservice.”

Laura Miller, a junior, said portions of the play brought her to tears. “I believe that Notre Dame should strive to teach and live up to the moral theology of the Catholic Church. I also believe that we cannot ignore the reality of student life,” she said.

Sophomore Daniel Amiri, writing in The Observer, cautioned that “free talk” about sexuality would merely dilute the Catholic Church’s teachings on chastity.

The campus discussion continues in the spring semester. The Edith Stein Project will host a conference on Feb. 23–24 focused on healing the victims of sexual violence, pornography and eating disorders. The following week, a panel of faculty and students will discuss “Sex in the City of God,” an “attempt to bring Catholic teaching into conversation with contemporary issues of sexual morality, feminism and family life.”