The day after her 29th birthday, which was also the day after her story first appeared online, Amber Wyatt, now Wilson, stood in the shower in her San Marcos home and sobbed — hard, wrenching, wrung-out tears. They had been a long time in coming.
“I’m trying to face my emotions, because the last time, I didn’t. I numbed myself,” Wyatt explained in a Thursday afternoon phone call. She sounded tired, and she was: She had just arisen from a midday nap — the good counsel of her husband, Stephen, who had come home to be with her after her breakdown in the shower.
The publication’s timing — not just on Wyatt’s birthday, but in the midst of yet another convulsive national debate about the treatment, or mistreatment, of women and girls, and how to reconcile conflicting stories — was one of those accidents of perfect cosmic coincidence. But it found Wyatt as the unexpected, somewhat overwhelmed recipient of gifts — not in the form of material goods but in the shape of words and, more important, of emotions, of comfort, of respect, of regret. In short, the opposite of what had greeted her in the dark days — the dark years, really — after the party that August night a dozen years ago.
Wyatt had quite a bit of giving to do, herself. There was, of course, the enormous effort of having shared herself — her story, her pain, her face, her name, all in the hopes that her act of self-giving could rescue someone in need. On her Facebook page, she set up a fundraiser for a Dallas-area rape crisis center; she asked her friends to donate to the group in lieu of presents for herself. The goal she set was $200, a fine amount. By Thursday night, a day and a half after this story was posted and curious readers found their way to her profile, Wyatt had raised $1,275.
That felt good. But for all the old saw about it being better to give, the gifts that Wyatt received felt better, even more so for how long they were in coming. The influx of support was sudden and drastic, almost surreal. In the illuminated scroll of Wyatt’s life, those old, cruel inscriptions — the spray-painted slurs on the school wall and the declarations of “FAITH” scrawled on cars — were superseded this week by new words: The hashtag #IBelieveAmberWyatt appeared on Twitter hours after the article went live, amplified by hundreds of messages echoing the same sentiment. I had shared the final version of the article with Wyatt a few days before it was published, and reading her story brought its own sense of satisfaction and closure, but neither of us had anticipated anything like this outpouring of support. If anything, she had been braced for more anger and ugliness.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Wyatt told me. “There’s a side of me that’s so excited that everyone’s opening up and listening. But there’s still a 16-year-old girl inside of me who’s just overwhelmed. … It’s overwhelming to go from nobody believing me at all, to how many people believe me now.”
The new believers weren’t all strangers. Some voices came from the past, and that, it turned out, was the most powerful gift of all. “I was at Martin at the time of Amber’s rape and was a team captain on the football team,” one former student wrote in a lengthy email to me. “I also attended the party in the article. I wanted to share my thoughts on what I think I owe Amber. I owe her my regret of not doing more in the moment and after. While I did not participate in the after-effects of writing on the wall and FAITH, I didn’t do anything to stop it, and I had a voice that might have been listened to.”
Other Martin students and Arlington residents have contacted Wyatt to apologize for how they treated her back then, and to disavow their loyalties to those who hurt her. In the Martin High School Class of 2008 reunion Facebook group where she posted her story, several former students sounded similar notes of regret. “Amber, I’m not sure why I pretended to know what happened,” one male classmate wrote, “and then even how vastly incorrect my understanding of the situation was. ... I’m sorry we all thought 6 months of sports was more important than your livelihood.” A female classmate added: “I am so sorry we all failed you when you needed help.” And another: “I’m disgusted by my own behavior at the time and I apologize.”
Still others shared accounts of their own assaults, including one email that arrived in my inbox the evening the article was published from a woman who had attended Martin not long before Wyatt. “Like Amber I was a cheerleader and like Amber, I have a similar experience,” she wrote. “She was brave enough to immediately come forward, but I was not. This happened to me and it happened to other girls I knew. We never talked about it after the parties. We just went on, I guess accepting what happened as a consequence of being intoxicated. Embarrassed to hear talk of it in school the following week, the best thing I felt I could do was minimize the experience. I didn’t see it as a violation until much later in life.”
She concluded on a point both hopeful and haunting. “I hope my children will have a very different experience than we did,” she wrote. “It never leaves you after all.”