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Campus False Allegations Title IX

The Accusations Were Lies. But Could We Prove It?

By Sarah Viren March 18, 2020 We were at a friend’s doctoral graduation party on a Friday night at the end of March. I had a glass of wine in one hand and our toddler on my hip when Marta found me. “I got a really weird email,” she said. The moon hung full over our

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We were at a friend’s doctoral graduation party on a Friday night at the end of March. I had a glass of wine in one hand and our toddler on my hip when Marta found me. “I got a really weird email,” she said.

The moon hung full over our heads, and all of us were in short sleeves, holding beers or wine and licking barbecue off our fingers while our kids played hide-and-seek in the dark.

“What?” I said.

“Something about me sexually harassing students,” Marta said, taking F. from my arms.

“What?” I said, louder this time.

“It’s probably spam,” she said, and then she disappeared.

That night we toasted our friend and her newly minted Ph.D. She thanked her husband for his help, her professors swapped stories about her and we toasted them for their mentorship. Afterward, we all wandered around the backyard talking about our kids or research or how perfect Arizona can seem in March.

When it was time to leave, I found our older daughter, N., standing on our friend’s bed with another little girl, who held a fistful of toilet paper and looked at me the way kids do when they’ve done something wrong. Strips of toilet paper littered the carpet, and I wondered whether one of them had peed her pants. Or maybe they’d had a toilet-paper fight. Or this was their version of snow in the desert.

“We’re gonna pull out her tooth,” the girl said before I could say anything, looking at N. and her loose front tooth.

I laughed. Later, I realized I never would have guessed that a tooth was at the center of that mess. Only a confession gave it meaning.

That night, after the girls fell asleep, Marta and I crawled into bed and pulled out our phones to reread the email she received. The anonymous sender wanted her to be aware that someone was posting about her on the message board Reddit. The email included a screenshot of the first post, which came from a person claiming to be part of a sexual-harassment case against Marta. “If you, like me, have been harassed by Dr. Marta, please contact the anonymous email line with A.S.U.’s Title IX Office,” the person wrote on the subreddit for our university, Arizona State University.

Ten minutes later, another post had gone up, ostensibly from someone else. “I attended a party at Marta’s house one night, where she got several graduate students drunk and then asked me to her bedroom. When I tried to leave she inappropriately touched me and I dropped her as my graduate adviser.”

I turned to look at Marta. She was staring at her phone. I reached out to touch her hip. “This isn’t spam,” I finally said.

That was last year, the year I turned 40 and, in the span of four weeks in January and February, flew to four different states to interview for jobs at universities and colleges in places besides Arizona. This is an experience in academic circles called “being on the market,” a phrase that people tend to speak with both resignation and trepidation, as when facing the pillory.

To go on the market, you first apply to dozens of jobs at universities, all of which require individualized application materials — cover letters, teaching philosophies, writing samples, research statements. Of the sometimes hundreds of people who apply to each job, only about 15 get a screening interview, and of those, only around three are invited to what is called a “campus visit,” a process that entails flying out to a college or university, sitting for interviews with anyone from students to the president, giving a talk or a reading, often teaching a mock class and then going out for a nice meal or two with a handful of faculty members who might one day be your colleagues. That winter, I had four campus visits, which meant I was lucky, which also meant I was exhausted. Marta stayed home with our girls each time I was away. Which meant she was exhausted, too.

My dream job was at the University of Michigan. They were looking for someone to help develop a potential creative-nonfiction concentration at the university, which houses one of the best creative-writing programs in the country. The faculty members I’d met were smart and kind and the students bright and assertive. And then there was the town itself: small, pretty and filled with great public schools.

It was the kind of place we had hoped to live ever since Marta and I met in Iowa City 10 years earlier. She was a Spaniard who grew up in the suburbs of Madrid soon after the death of Franco and later lived in London, Paris, Santiago and Beijing before moving to Iowa City for a graduate degree in linguistics. I had moved to Iowa for an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction after half a dozen years as a newspaper reporter in Florida and Texas. What most attracted me about her, besides the way she looked in a leather jacket, was how little she cared about what anyone thought of her.

What she liked about me, she said, was my independence. That and the fact that I’m generous, even when I get mad.

By the time I turned 40, we had been married for six years, had two kids and had moved twice for academic jobs, and professionally, each of us felt as if we were beginning to find our place in the world. My first book had come out; Marta was publishing articles and presenting regularly at conferences. We also each had tenure-track jobs, me teaching creative nonfiction, Marta Spanish linguistics, at a university we liked — if only it weren’t so far away from our families on the East Coast and from the small-town life we dreamed of when we first decided to have children.

“Can we please move to Michigan?” Marta joked several times after I got back from my January interview.

“Stop it,” I said. But sometimes before bed, I looked at houses for sale in Ann Arbor. I most loved the Craftsman bungalows with their wide porches and green lawns that, from the desert of Arizona, looked like a world someone else had dreamed up.

On Valentine’s Day, I flew out to Virginia to give a reading, and the next day, before flying home, I noticed that I had missed a call. Listening to the message, I heard the voice of a faculty member from Michigan asking me to call him back. He sounded as if he were smiling.

After I hung up the phone with him, I texted Marta: “JOB OFFER FROM MICHIGAN.”

I was told the offer letter would arrive soon, and in the meantime, the university would have a “dual-career coordinator” looking for possible jobs for Marta.

The following week, the same faculty member explained that a final committee approval meant we would have to wait a little longer. But then two weeks passed, and three, and four, and I still hadn’t received the contract, nor had we heard anything concrete about a position for Marta. I started to worry. “We shouldn’t have started looking at houses,” Marta said, only half kidding.

“We’ll hear something soon,” I said.

“Or not,” Marta said.

That was a joke between us. I always assume the news will be good. Marta is the dour Euro­pean. When I say something hopeful, she responds, “Or not.”

By the end of March, the job had begun to feel like something I’d imagined. I still looked at houses in Ann Arbor, but I had also started looking in Arizona again too. Our lease was up at the end of June, and we had to move either way.

That Friday, we went to our friend’s party, hoping that it would distract us from the anxiety of waiting. About halfway through, though, Marta got that strange email she thought was spam. And then, everything changed.

The first two Reddit posts about Marta were quickly taken down, but I kept checking the site all weekend. One more went up on Saturday, and another on Monday morning. The first complained about the previous posts’ being deleted. Its author wrote: “Lesbian professors, too, are capable of harassing students despite common narratives.”

But it was the second post that scared me. “Hi y’all,” it read. “I’m looking for advice. My linguistics professor has offered me wine several times in her office and acted inappropriately when I see her in various queer spaces in Tempe or Phoenix.”

The mention of wine and Marta’s office reinforced what I already felt I knew: that the accusations were false. Marta almost never used her office; she met students at coffee shops or via Zoom. And she rarely drank wine. Or went to any “queer spaces” that I knew of.

The use of “y’all,” though, made me stop. We were in Arizona. No one says y’all here.

I decided someone outside our university had to be behind the posts. But who? And why? Marta and I talked about it every night that weekend, after the girls went to bed, trying to remember an enemy she might have. We brought up former graduate students and classmates, colleagues and exes, but none of them made sense. I had one more idea, but I didn’t want to say it out loud. I felt guilty for thinking anyone might be doing this to her, to us — even though it was clear someone was.

After dropping off the girls that Monday morning, I wrote to the department chair at Michigan to check in. He responded right away. “I understand — and share — the wish for expediency here,” he wrote. “I’ve been told the deans hope to wrap this up by the end of this week.”

“Doesn’t that seem like an odd phrase?” I asked Marta.

“No,” she said. “Why?”

“‘Wrap up’ indicates a problem being solved,” I said.

The only good news was that Marta also received an email that morning from an associate dean at Michigan asking if she could talk the following day. “It has to be about a job,” I said.

“Or not,” she said, but she was smiling this time.

The next morning, I stood just outside the door of Marta’s study as she answered the associate dean’s call. I heard her say hello and how nice it was to finally talk. Then I watched her listen. She nodded. She looked up at me. She shook her head. She said, yes, that she understood. Then she wagged her finger, as if scolding hope. When she started to talk, it wasn’t about her research or teaching, but about the Reddit posts. I heard her say that as far as she knew, she wasn’t under a Title IX investigation, and she had no idea why someone said she was. I heard her promise to figure out what was going on. Then she hung up and looked over my shoulder at a shadow on the wall. “She told me they had credible information that I’m under a Title IX investigation,” she said.

“What?” I said.

“So,” she said. “It’s not great news.”

In academia, the phrase “Title IX investigation” is so common that we sometimes forget that many people have never heard the term. When I called my dad after Marta hung up with the associate dean and left to go teach, he asked me — once I stopped crying — what a Title IX investigation even was.

What it usually means, I said, is an investigation of sexual misconduct. We hear about them most often in cases of sexual assault — usually of a female student by a male student, usually in relation to the campus rape crisis. But Title IX also applies to faculty or staff: that professor who won’t stop asking his student out for drinks; that teacher who touches students on the arm, thigh, breast; that mentor who persuades her graduate student to sleep with her, even after he has said no.

We found out that Marta was under investigation later that day. The first accusation against her, we learned, had come in via A.S.U.’s anonymous reporting system at 5:21 a.m. on March 14, almost two weeks before we knew anything about it. It was sent by someone calling herself “Rebecca James,” who said she was a graduate student in Marta’s department.

“I have had two undergrads come to me and one fellow graduate student regarding Dr. Marta Cabrero,” “Rebecca” wrote. “Dr. Cabrero has put these students in sexually compromising situations. Inviting them to meet her in her office late at night — when the building is mostly empty — she has offered to help their careers (grad student) or grades and standing in the department (undergrad) in exchange for sexual favors.”

Reading that email, I remembered the year I arrived in Iowa. All the local newspapers were reporting on a professor who was accused of requesting sexual favors from students in exchange for higher grades. When confronted, he drove out to the same woods where I ran each morning and shot himself. I tried to imagine Marta in his place, asking to touch or kiss students in exchange for a grade. But I couldn’t do it. I know many spouses of sexual criminals say this, but I was sure: She just wasn’t the type.

What Marta obsessed over was that “Rebecca James” had referred to her as Marta Cabrero. In Spain, everyone has two last names. Hers are Tecedor and Cabrero. The first last name is the primary one, so people in her department would call her Dr. Tecedor, though most of the time, per her preference, everyone just calls her Marta.

Marta tried to explain the discrepancy to Melanie, the university investigator assigned to her case, during her first interview on March 28, but Melanie seemed unimpressed. “I do think it’s relevant to point that out,” she said, before pivoting back to a long list of questions she had: Did Marta meet with students at night? Did Marta offer alcohol to students? Did Marta ask for sexual favors from her students? Did Marta know anyone named Rebecca James? No, Marta said, no and no and no.

Melanie also hadn’t been able to locate a current student named Rebecca James in Marta’s department, but she said that the name could always be an alias, and she was still obligated to investigate Marta now that a “credible” accusation had been made.

Their interview at the university’s Office of University Rights and Responsibilities, which manages Title IX complaints, lasted almost an hour. Afterward, I briefly met with Melanie in a large conference room with a box of tissues on the table. She said she didn’t have anything to ask me, but she could answer any questions I had.

“We just want to figure this out as quickly as possible,” I told her. “It might have already jeopardized our job opportunities —” My voice broke.

I reached for a tissue. Melanie was young, probably in her late 20s or early 30s, with long straight hair and an impassive face. “You’re fine,” she said, though it was clear I wasn’t.

“If you can figure out that it’s an outsider or somebody from the outside that’s posing as a student,” I finally said, “can you just close the investigation?”

“Good question,” Melanie responded, her voice bright again. “Because of the funding that we receive through Title IX, we’re required to investigate everything. And with that we want to really run everything to the ground.”

I nodded. I knew that universities could lose federal funding if they didn’t show they were protecting students, and I was glad — I am glad — for that. But I was still confused. Melanie continued. “If we find out that — and Marta asked the question — if we find out that the information is false, for our purposes that’s not really our end goal; we’re just trying to determine whether or not there’s a policy violation.”

Listening to my recording of our conversation recently, I wondered why I didn’t stop Melanie at that point. Was she really saying that if they realized the accusations were invented, if the accuser herself was a fiction, they would still investigate? Did it not matter whether the complaints were true or false?

The first time I went on the academic job market was during the 2016 election. I sat for a Skype interview only a month and a half after giving birth to F., and only a month after Donald Trump was elected president. I was still bleary-eyed and foggy-headed from the birth and the lack of sleep that followed, and one interviewer asked me, given the recent crisis regarding fake news and alternative facts, what responsibility I thought writers of creative nonfiction had toward our collective understanding of truth.

My answer meandered into platitudes about truth being subjective and facts being contingent; I wasn’t invited to a campus visit for that job. But I’ve thought about that question a lot since then and how I might have answered it better.

A true story written about Marta and me at this point could easily include all the facts we know right now: that complaints were made about Marta, that Reddit posts appeared and that an investigation was opened. And if I were to read a story like that — without knowing Marta or me or any other facts that came to light later — I would conclude either that Marta had done it or, at the very least, that she was the kind of professor who crossed the line, and that her actions had been misconstrued. I would assume, that is, that even if some of the facts were wrong, the truth lay somewhere in the middle.

So while truth may be subjective, its balustrades are always the facts at hand. And in the case of our story, I quickly realized that we would never persuade anyone of what we knew to be true — that the accusations were invented — if we couldn’t isolate one key fact: who was making them up.

But Title IX investigations are a different genre of storytelling, so the facts the investigators want are different, too. As Melanie explained during that first interview, her investigation would end with what is called a “determination letter.” And that letter could offer only two story lines: Either Marta had violated a policy — and then there would be consequences for her job, including possible dismissal — or there was “insufficient evidence” that Marta had violated a policy, and we could presumably go back to the way things were before.

When I asked Melanie how long it would take for her to determine that there was insufficient evidence, she told me she couldn’t say — it depended on the factors, by which I think she also meant the facts. (Later a spokesman told me A.S.U. aims to close all sexual-harassment cases within 60 days.)

“For us this is purely administrative,” Melanie said at one point. In other words, Title IX investigations are not criminal in nature, even if they feel that way at times. This is why Marta wasn’t allowed to have a lawyer present during her interview, even as she was told that any of her answers could be used against her. And it’s the reason that even if we could prove that someone was targeting Marta, Melanie could never compel that person to talk to her if they weren’t part of our university. But also, that person would never face consequences for what they were doing.

The only way to accomplish that, a defamation lawyer told us when we set up a consultation with him, was if we pursued that person ourselves. Which brought me back to that question of y’all.

Sarah and Marta at home with one of their children.Credit…Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times


A couple of weeks after I was offered the Michigan job, an acquaintance of mine — whom I will refer to as J., though that’s not his real initial — reached out to see whether I planned to take it. I knew through friends that he had also been a finalist, and in his texts to me, he said he wanted to acknowledge the “weirdness” of the situation. J. told me he was miserable where he was living — a conservative town where it is difficult to be openly gay — and implied that if I turned down the job, it would be offered to him. “Don’t respond,” Marta told me. “He shouldn’t be contacting you.”

But I remembered how hard it was for Marta and me when we lived in West Texas for four years after Iowa and before we got jobs in Arizona, the way we were scared to hold hands while walking with our girls in the neighborhood. Then I imagined being a gay man in a similar situation, how it must wear him down. I remembered, too, how emotionally draining the academic job market can be.

I texted J. back. I said I wanted to accept the job, but we were waiting to hear if Marta would be offered a spousal hire. I promised to let him know as soon as we had more news. “Totally!” he wrote back. “That makes sense!”

But after that, he kept texting. He congratulated me on being a finalist for a book award and said he hoped negotiations with Michigan were going well. He asked for travel recommendations in Santa Fe and told me he was reading Jonathan Franzen’s new essay collection. “Any news?” he wrote midway through March, when my offer letter still hadn’t arrived. “I’ve been thinking of y’all.”

“I promise I’ll tell you once we decide one way or the other,” I responded.

“Thank you for being a good human,” he texted back.

Then on a Friday evening near the end of March, he wrote, “WHY ARE THEY DOING THIS TO US.”

That same night, the first Reddit posts went up.

“It has to be him,” I told Marta after her conversation with the associate dean, after I was finally ready to speak my fear out loud. I showed her his other texts. I told her how desperately he seemed to want the job. I mentioned how often he used “y’all” — in texts but also on social media.

Afterward, she didn’t say “or not.” She just stared at me. “But how do we prove it?”

March slipped into April, and I stopped sleeping. When I did sleep, I woke up from dreams that I was forgetting everything. I canceled my trip to a writing conference where I was supposed to present because I worried J. would be there, but then at home I kept scrolling through his social-media posts looking for clues.

I wrote draft emails to people at Michigan or A.S.U. filled with rhetorical arguments that I hoped would make them see the truth, but Marta would read them and say I sounded desperate or unhinged. “We just have to wait,” she said.

A friend had reached out to me by then about J., to let me know he’d been complaining for weeks that I was offered the job over him. He had also told others about Marta’s Title IX investigation — something he shouldn’t have known about on his own. After talking to that friend, I no longer doubted that he was behind everything that was happening to us. But I still had no idea how to prove it. (The New York Times reached out repeatedly to J. and a lawyer who has represented him for comment about this article. No one responded to the queries.)

Eventually, we decided to tell Melanie about our suspicions. She wrote back almost immediately: “I would actually like to meet with you both a second time, as I received some new information yesterday.”

We hoped she was dropping the case, or maybe she’d talked with someone from Michigan about the information they’d received, as we’d recommended. Instead, when we arrived and took seats together across the table from her, Melanie said: “I’ve received another anonymous complaint.”

The accusation had come from a different email and ostensibly a different person, someone calling herself “Jessica P. Newman.” It had been sent on April Fools’ Day.

The opening paragraph identified “Jessica” as one of Marta’s graduate students and repeated parts of the previous complaints. Then the email took a turn I should have expected but still didn’t.

“One night,” “Jessica” wrote, “Marta and her wife Sarah had a party for queer students and faculty at their house, and offered me glass of wine after glass of wine and eventually shots of whiskey. When most of the others had left, Marta asked to show me a painting in her bedroom, and when we entered, Sarah was on the bed, topless, and asked us to join her. I said I would be calling an Uber now, but before I could leave the room, Marta took my hand and placed it on her wife’s bare chest.”

The interview room we were in was smaller this time, and Marta and I sat on the same side of a table, reading the email together, while Melanie watched us. It felt like a test we were failing or a novel that had stopped making sense. I imagined everyone who would read or had read this email — Melanie, her supervisor, the university provost — and how they would all picture me topless on my bed, trying to seduce a student, while presumably my kids slept in their bedroom down the hall.

In closing, “Jessica” wrote: “I do not know how to proceed at this point, but thank you for your guidance. I do wish to remain anonymous at this time.”

When we finished reading, Melanie said she wanted to talk to us separately. I watched Marta leave the room and set my phone on the table to record the interview. Melanie told me I was now also under investigation and said she needed to ask me some questions. “I want to talk about these parties,” she said. “So tell me what that looks like.”

“So, there’s never been a party,” I said. I told her that we’d hosted two staid dinners for Marta’s graduate-seminar students. But at some point both evenings, I had put the kids to bed, and after that no one went near the bedrooms. “And I definitely was never topless on the bed,” I added, interrupting whatever question Melanie had next. I wanted to move past that part of the interview as quickly as possible, but saying the words out loud only made it worse — as if by negating the accusation I had somehow reinforced it. “I’m trying to think if we even have a painting.”

Melanie interrupted this time: “That’s what I was going to ask.”

I tried to picture our bedroom walls while she waited for me to answer. I saw a print of a map of Galveston hanging above our dresser and the antique mirror I bought at an auction in Iowa on another wall. Then I remembered a third wall, and my favorite painting hanging there. I’d found it at a garage sale while working my first newspaper job in Florida. It’s of an androgynous kid in a flat cap smoking a cigarette, looking out with a brazen stare I immediately loved. So much so that I’d put it in our bedroom — just as the email claimed.

And that fact — or the fact that one fact in my life lined up with a fiction being created about us — disoriented me. For a second, I could almost picture myself on the bed, just like what “Jessica” had described. “There is a painting, a small painting,” I told Melanie after a pause, and she took notes as I described it.

Before I left, Melanie asked if I still wanted to name the person we thought was behind the accusations. I told her I was worried that if she contacted him, things might escalate. But I also couldn’t think of anything else to do. I said yes.

That weekend, we went camping. We needed to do something normal. We needed to stop looking at our email, waiting for the next shoe to drop, the gun to go off.

The day before we left, we filed what is known as a “John Doe” lawsuit. The lawyer we had hired explained that the suit would allow us to subpoena identifying information associated with the emails used in the accusations and the Reddit posts, and once we had that proof, we could directly sue whoever owned those email addresses.

I also blocked J. on social media. I worried it might tip him off, but I couldn’t stand the thought of him having access to my life, to pictures of my kids.

We left town early Saturday, and as we drove into the mountains, I tried to stop going over the case in my head the way I had been doing for the past couple of weeks, like a mouse on a wheel, searching for a way off.

We got to Prescott by midmorning and found a spot overlooking a pine forest bordered by a stream. On a hike later that afternoon, F. tramped through brush and over rocks without complaints, and N. led us with a walking stick clutched in her fist. I realized I was finally thinking about something else, like how good a sudden breeze felt on my skin after sweating through my shirt, like F.’s dimpled legs moving so fast through the brush, like the sound of water falling somewhere we couldn’t yet see.

Afterward, Marta dropped F. and me off at the tent for a nap while she and N. went to buy marshmallows in town. I read F. a book in the tent and sang her a song, and then I looked at my phone and saw a text from a friend: “He’s stalking you on social media.” J. had apparently been asking friends we had in common to check if I was still on Facebook and Twitter. He wanted to know if I had blocked him or just closed my accounts.

A few minutes later, he texted me himself. This despite the fact that I hadn’t responded to any of his recent texts. Not the one in all caps the day the Reddit posts went up. Not the one the following Monday asking if I was going to that writers’ conference. Nor the one a couple of days before, which read, “How are you holding up, friend?” And I didn’t answer his final one either.

“I’m genuinely sorry if communicating with you made you uncomfortable,” he wrote. “I had hoped admitting to the awkwardness of the situation would make everything OK. I guess I was wrong, and I apologize.”

  1. moved around in the mound of sleeping bags, still not asleep. I felt sick. Part of me wondered if I was wrong. But mostly, I knew he was responsible and was scared by how easily he could lie to me directly — and by what he might do next.

My biggest fear — one I told no one but thought about every day — was that J. would call in a fake child-abuse accusation against us. Sometimes the fear would come out of nowhere. I’d be watching N. draw a picture of a sun behind a mountain made out of a coffee filter, and suddenly it would be there. The knock on the door. The woman introducing herself to us. The panic as we tried to reach our lawyer. Some days I could almost smell the caseworker’s perfume, hear her polite request to interview each child separately, alone in a room where we weren’t. I thought about our house. All the toys we hadn’t found time to pick up. The smell of F.’s last diaper in the kitchen trash can. The bruise on her knee from falling down at day care. I thought about a line in the email from “Jessica,” how she wrote that she felt powerless.

I put away my phone and gave F. a hand to hold, but neither of us could fall asleep.

When we got back in town, Melanie wrote to ask for another meeting. Again, she had new information, and again, we hoped that meant she was closing the case. Instead, she said that she’d been able to talk to Michigan, and they had sent her all the emails they’d received.

“Emails?” I thought. We had assumed there was just one.

Melanie told us that she had put them in date order, and she would go through them and then we could talk. She sounded more tired than she had in our previous interviews, and I realized this was probably wearing her down too. The constant bombardment of information. The feeling that none of it made sense.

But she never said as much. It seemed clear she was beginning to believe us, but she also kept reminding us that she couldn’t close the investigation until she had “examined all of the information.” That included talking to Michigan; it included interviewing Marta’s students and colleagues, and mine as well; and now it also included an upcoming appointment to talk with “Jessica,” who had recently emailed that she was willing to meet with Melanie in person — but not until the following week.

“I assure you I’m doing all I can to wrap this up as quickly as possible,” Melanie had written to us when we once again asked her about the timeline. And perhaps in testament to that fact, she had asked us to come meet with her that day — and she had received permission from the university’s lawyers to share the stack of emails on the table before her.

The first few emails, she told us, had been sent from the same email address used to file the original accusation against Marta, the one ostensibly from a student named Rebecca James. Only this time, the author claimed to be a colleague of Marta’s named R. Orlich. She told the associate dean at Michigan that she was reaching out because she had heard that Marta was being considered for a spousal hire. “I wanted to make you aware, especially in this moment of reconciliation for folks who abuse their positions, that we are investigating three credible allegations against her putting students in sexually abusive and compromising situations.” The email was sent on March 6 — the day after J. first texted me about the job.

Less than a week later, “R. Orlich” emailed again to say that two new students had come forward. “ASU will likely settle the case quietly,” she wrote, “but you should be aware, I believe as someone who believes in the university as a safe space for people to learn and grow, that Marta’s behavior has been abhorrent and completely unacceptable.”

After that, the remaining emails came from “Jessica P. Newman,” Marta’s supposed graduate student. These emails were sent to the same department chair with whom I had been communicating about the job. “Dr. Cabrero should not be working with students, and I shudder at the thought that this problem will leap from university to university,” the first one read. “It is, I have now found out through a graduate colleague, why she left her previous university as well — the sexual manipulation of students under the guise of mentorship.”

Subsequent emails from “Jessica” included screenshots of the Reddit posts, a screenshot of a supposed email between Marta’s colleagues discussing her removal from a dissertation committee “given the recent investigation into Dr. Cabrero’s relationship with students in our program” and a warning that both The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education would most likely be coming out with articles about Marta’s supposed history of abuse soon.

Rereading the emails later, I could see how they capitalized on real weaknesses in academia: the way that harassers are often passed on between institutions, the fact that graduate students have so few rights — and are so dependent on their faculty mentors — that they fear going public with stories of abuse and then all the other realities that have come to light with #MeToo, realities that have been lived experiences for both Marta and me, and for most women we know.

But at the time of that meeting with Melanie, as she read parts of each email aloud to us and waited for us to react, what I felt was stunned — at the audacity and expansiveness of this whole story that had been written, and believed, for weeks about Marta, and me, all without either of us ever knowing.

“The reason that I contacted you,” Melanie eventually said, “is because I got another email from Michigan today.” The email, she told us, was titled “Text Tonight,” and in it, “Jessica” wrote, “I am turning this over to the authorities and wanted your administration to have this text message from Marta as well.”

Melanie then read out loud what she said was a screenshot of a text between Marta and “Jessica”:

“Marta: Jessica, we need to talk

Jessica: Please stop contacting me. All communication needs to be processed through the Title IX coordinator, as you know.

Marta: We will ruin your career. I will make sure you never get a job once your dissertation is done. My wife and I are well-connected.”

Marta exhaled loudly. I held my breath.

“I know,” Melanie eventually said. “I understand.” She told us that she had checked several key facts and disproved them one by one: There is a Professor Orlich in Marta’s department, but she hadn’t sent any emails to Michigan. Marta’s colleagues also denied emailing about her and said she had never been taken off a dissertation committee. And not only was there not an A.S.U. graduate student named “Rebecca James,” there also wasn’t any named “Jessica P. Newman.”

I felt something tight in me release. “Does this mean,” I asked, “at this point you can actually close the investigation?”

But Melanie shook her head. “Jessica,” she reminded us, had scheduled that appointment with her to talk. And even though we now knew that “Jessica” didn’t exist, Melanie said she still had an obligation to see if she showed up for the appointment she’d made.

I took the girls to school that Thursday, and when I got back home, Marta was outside pacing. She’d been calling me for the past half-hour, but I hadn’t had my ringer on. “Melanie called again,” she said, her voice flat.

“Jessica,” it seemed, was now claiming that Marta had showed up at her apartment on Monday. “But we met with Melanie on Monday,” I said, as if that were the least believable part of the whole scenario.

“Melanie said it was in the afternoon,” Marta said. “We met with her in the morning, so now Melanie wants to know what I did that afternoon.” She was shaking. “Sarah,” she said. “I couldn’t remember. I said I thought I was home working, but I really can’t remember.”

My first thought — and I still can’t reckon with this — was doubt. We knew “Jessica” wasn’t real, but I couldn’t understand why Marta didn’t remember where she was on Monday afternoon. That was only three days earlier.

I felt the stick of my sweat from the morning heat. I tried not to say anything critical. “My phone!” Marta said, suddenly breaking the silence. She pulled out her iPhone quickly, and began scrolling through the GPS data. After a minute, she found a little blue dot proving that she had, in fact, been inside our house that whole afternoon. Until about 4:30 p.m., when she went to get the kids. I felt my chest release. But below that lay shame. Why did I believe her only once her phone told me she wasn’t lying?

What Marta didn’t tell me until later was that Melanie had also asked her about an email that “Jessica” claimed Marta had sent her that same week. Again, “Jessica” had sent a screenshot of the email instead of the email itself. “You wanted to sleep with us, or at least that is what your body was saying,” Marta supposedly wrote. “In Spain this would never happen. People understand their bodies and desires there.” It closed: “Be careful what you do. You need to text me back.”

“Why didn’t you tell me about that before?” I asked after Marta eventually summarized the email. My stomach tightened again. Marta shook her head. We were walking the dog before going to pick up the girls that afternoon. She had been on the couch all day, almost comatose. “There are just too many things,” she said.

On days like that — when I saw Marta destroyed or when I thought about all the real victims out there, afraid to come forward — I was angry at J. Other days I was scared of what he would do next. But I also worried about him too — even if everyone I knew told me I shouldn’t.

Before I blocked him on social media, J. had posted a lot about being unhappy. Friends kept me updated on what he was saying or doing, and at times he seemed to be getting worse. He posted that he had an ulcer, that he was taking a mental health day, that his father was sick. Sometimes I feared that once we had the proof we needed, once all the bricks came tumbling down around him, he might hurt himself. What I hadn’t remembered, though, is that sometimes when the house falls down, we move on and rebuild in other places, new structures made from the same materials but shaped to tell a different story.

Around the middle of April, J. learned about our lawsuit. That same day, he started telling people that he was being trolled online. Homophobic comments about him were posted on the subreddit for his university that afternoon, and an anonymous letter was sent to his university mailbox that read “Die fag professor” later that week. He even did a presentation about the harassment as part of a panel at his university on discrimination, subtext and the power of language. The audience was outraged and horrified.

“That’s a classic horror-movie move!” a friend of mine said when I told her what was happening. “The villain injures himself.”

If J. were the villain, though, that meant we were the victims — and at some point, I realized we were. Later, I wondered why it took me so long to recognize that.

One reason, I think now, is because at the beginning of this story, we were given the role of perpetrators. I spent so much time trying to prove we were innocent that I didn’t think to question the parameters of the narrative itself.

Once we began sharing what was happening to us with others, almost everyone we knew was aghast, horrified. They said they’d never heard of anything like this. But now I wonder how true that is. Think about so-called deepfakes, those women’s faces being fastened on the bodies of porn stars and passed around. Think about the trolling and doxxing of women online. Our story is more akin to those tales than anything that has to do with Title IX. But because the narrative got started one way, it was hard for us, and even harder for academic institutions — who “must investigate all allegations of discrimination, harassment and retaliation,” as an A.S.U. spokesman later told me — to change direction.

When I finally recognized that we were the ones being harassed, I wrote to Melanie and asked for help. She recommended that I contact the university’s victims’ advocate, who works with the police. I left a message explaining our situation and my fear. I never got a call back.

We also asked our lawyer about a restraining order, but he said we needed proof that the person we thought was harassing us really was harassing us. And we didn’t have that yet — we were still waiting for the results of the subpoenas.

Eventually, I wrote to the president of A.S.U. He had told us during our faculty orientation that we should always feel free to reach out directly to him, so I decided to take him at his word. I told him that someone had been using the university’s Title IX process to harass us, that this person had impersonated students and faculty members and had posted false statements about Marta on Reddit. I explained that there was no evidence that either Marta or I had done anything wrong, yet the Title IX office had told us that it could not close its investigation if emails kept coming in from this anonymous individual. “We are strong believers in the importance of Title IX protections,” I concluded, “but we also feel like there has to be a system in place to protect faculty and students from outsiders who might use that system to defame and harass.”

That afternoon, I received a response from the vice provost, who assured me that investigators were being urged to move expeditiously. “I know it can be frustrating to wait for findings,” she added, “but we are obligated to look into allegations that are brought to us.”

Two weeks passed. We met with Melanie and her supervisor and were told that, in the future, anonymous accusations would be fact-checked before new investigations were opened. Melanie told us she had started writing up her report, but she said she couldn’t give us a timeline for its completion. I wrote again to the vice provost. She said the report was now with the provost, and we could expect an answer soon.

The last weekend in April, we planned to drive up to the mountains again to camp with the girls. In the car that Friday evening, I checked my email from my phone and saw that the provost had written to us at 4:58 p.m. I read the email out loud to Marta as she drove. His determination letter found no credible evidence of a policy violation. “Respondents 1 and 2 are both highly regarded in their respective departments and both received much praise and adoration in their course evaluations from students,” the letter concluded. “Both credibly denied all of the allegations against them.”

Two days later, as we were rolling up our sleeping bags and folding the tent into neat triangles, I received the official offer letter from Michigan — two and a half months after that phone call telling me I had the job. We also got word that the job search for Marta had begun again. “It’s over,” I said.

“Or not,” Marta didn’t say. But she should have.

Our house was half packed when we received an email from our law firm with the first response to our subpoenas. It was for the email account used by both “Rebecca James” and “R. Orlich.” The released information was a mere three pages, and we first thought it held nothing important. But just as Marta was walking away, I noticed a line indicating that the account had been verified and listing a phone number. “Marta,” I said too loudly, “where’s my phone?”

I was shaking as I tried to call up J.’s last message. I was nervous I would accidentally call him. I felt as if I was doing something wrong. But then, there it was: an exact match.

The account had been opened the same day J. first texted me about the job. His phone had been used to verify the account. And the I.P. address, when we checked, was from the town where he was living at the time. “We’ve got him,” I said.

And for the smallest moment, it felt as if our story actually had come to an end. Because the way I wanted it all to end was like this: Marta would be offered a spousal hire at Michigan, and I would accept a dream job teaching creative nonfiction. We would find a cute Craftsman house in Ann Arbor in which to move the boxes that had been accumulating all around us. The kids would be happy, and so would we.

But also, J. would admit what he had done to us. He would pay our legal fees, and we would all agree to move on. Maybe he’d issue a public apology. Maybe there would be a moment of reckoning in which I could forgive him. Maybe he would even write a memoir about what an awful person he had been.

But we rarely get the stories we want, and so here is how this one ends. Marta was not offered a spousal hire. After waiting another month and a half while a dual-career coordinator tried to find something for her, after ordering two PODS containers in which to store the boxes of all our belongings while we waited, after telling day cares and schools and parents and friends and colleagues that we still didn’t know where we would be living the following year, Marta was eventually told that there was no job the University of Michigan could offer her. Delaying the search until after the end of the semester was part of the problem, but it was also possible that Michigan would never have been able to find something for her. In which case, if J. had just waited, he might have been offered the job anyway.

And so, at the end of June, I turned down a job I was offered four and a half months before.

We also named J. as a defendant in our suit. I worried at first about what he would do when he received the news, but as far as I know, J. did not try to harm himself. Instead, he began reporting that someone was trying to hurt him. Four days after he was served, J. posted that his university and private email accounts had been hacked. His colleagues started receiving emails from those accounts with messages calling him a faggot.

Five days after he was served, J. claimed he received an anonymous email from a so-called burner account. In that email, someone claiming to be his stalker wrote that he was in love with J. and that being rejected by him had caused “a mental break i cannot explain.”

“i began trolling you online, sent death threats, broke into your house when you were gone,” the person wrote. “i tried to [expletive] up your job applications by getting into your [work] email, i trolled a friend of yours in arizona…”

The confession read like the end of a “Scooby-Doo” episode, when the mask is pulled off and the criminal lays out his line of transgressions. It was the kind of confession I had once hoped J. would give us.

A week after J. was served, he emailed the police at his university to say that his stalker had thrown a rock through his car window. He attached a photo of the shattered glass, along with a handwritten note that read “STOP TRYING TO FIND ME.”

By the time a response was due from J. regarding our lawsuit, I already knew what he would say. All the bricks came tumbling down, but they had been rebuilt into enough of a structure that the only way to prove his story false would be to go to court. We had paid more than $10,000 in legal fees at that point. Our lawyer told us that taking the case to court could cost tens of thousands more. We thought about it. We argued about it. But in the end, we decided we weren’t willing to pay for more truth.

I think a lot about that scene of snow and two little girls on a bed, one with a loose tooth. How facts are like that. They tell different stories depending on who is picking them out and placing them in a narrative line. The most reliable way to find the truth in any moment is to have someone come clean, the way that little girl did when I entered the room. But I don’t believe J. will ever do that.

At the end of July, we settled our lawsuit. Per that agreement, we can write or say anything we want about what happened. We can tell the whole story, using any and all of the facts. But we made one major concession: We cannot use J.’s real name.

At the time, the concession seemed worth it if it meant ending a story we needed to stop. But in the weeks and months since, I’ve wondered if we made a mistake. I think about all the people — friends, colleagues, students — whom J. will most likely continue to fool. I think how we never really know who is behind anything we read. Unless we have a physical person to pin it to. But then I realized this story isn’t about J. It’s about us.

If I could return to that job interview from more than three years ago, to that moment when I was asked about my responsibility as a creative-nonfiction writer in the post-truth world, I know what I would say now: Our allegiance as nonfiction writers is not so much to truth as it is to honesty. Because truth can be spoken into a void, while honesty implies an audience, a reader, real people to whom you commit to tell your story as accurately and truthfully as you can so that they can then differentiate for themselves the facts from the lies, the truth from the fiction.

I’ve done that here. Now the story belongs to you.