If you know Vesper, then you know that she is a fighter and a survivor. For those of us who do know her it was no surprise when she became chair of an academic department at age 28 and went on to build a nationally ranked online degree program in Communication Studies, while also mentoring and publishing research articles at an amazing rate. She was at the top of her game—happy at home, wildly successful in her chosen career. Vesper navigated a number of adverse life experiences as a teen and young adult to achieve these successes, but 2017 confronted her with a truly catastrophic event that set the stage for where she is now. To better understand Vesper and how desperately she needs your help, please follow along as I share excerpts of her tragic journey.
To any academic, the beginning of Vesper’s tale will seem familiar. It’s one many of us have experienced and/or heard over and over: the story of the toxic, harassing university administrator whose abusive behavior is knowingly hidden by a university that is only invested in saving its reputation.
In this story, an abusive administrator arrives at a new institution after being shipped off from a previous university with a clear record and the tacit license to abuse again. In Vesper’s experience, the administrator was the Dean over her nationally recognized Communication Studies program. Like many of this man’s other victims, Vesper had no way of knowing his history of workplace harassment and abuse. Only after the fact did Vesper learn that his victim immediately prior to her had committed suicide after experiencing bullying, harassment, and emotional abuse of the kinds she suffered from him.
Those of us who knew Vesper then remember her bewilderment as she disclosed the Dean’s treatment of her. His abusive patterns quickly emerged after his arrival at her university, and everyone who had the option to avoid him gladly did so. Being directly under his authority, Vesper was trapped, and she took the brunt of his sadistic bullying.
In the spring of 2017 Vesper contracted a MRSA infection and used her saved time to take 3 days off to recover. She took the appropriate steps, documenting the time with the university’s HR department. Upon her return, she was shocked when the Dean called her into his office and kept her there for 3 hours, abusively berating her for taking the time off. He told her she wasn’t sick enough to add to his workload, she needed to be “dead or dying.”
Due to her hospitalization, Vesper wasn’t able to submit student grades. During her short absence, several students had complained to the dean about the missing grades. Though the grades were posted within days of Vesper’s return to campus, the abuse from this Dean escalated. Subsequent closed-door tirades of verbal abuse and humiliation lasted between 3-5 hours. During these sessions, he even bragged about the suicide of his last victim.
Months of this treatment had the intended effect, tanking Vesper’s self-esteem. As anyone who’s been in a toxic and hierarchical workplace can attest, stopping the abuse by reporting the behavior runs the risk of retaliation, so Vesper held on. Under this constant psychological assault, the bouncy, resilient woman most of us knew started to fade.
Vesper’s situation worsened from there. In July of 2017, her husband vanished without a word, taking their car and cleaning out her bank account. Vesper was left alone to cope with her toxic supervisor.
By November of that year, she could no longer withstand her supervisor’s abuse, so she retained a lawyer to file a formal grievance with the university. Rather than look into the issue and support Vesper, this university resented the complaint and retaliated by putting her on administrative leave. Then the university’s administration doubled down and opened an investigation into HER. Adding insult to injury, the administration had security escort her off campus.
She returned to an empty house, her career and her husband both taken from her. And where was her family in all this? They called her weak and offered to help the university in its sham case against her.
One thing kept Vesper going through that time and the additional traumas to come. Before her husband absconded with her savings, they had founded a small cat rescue. The efforts to save cats and kittens became the happy center of their life together. By the time he disappeared, they had more than a dozen “kids”.
With catastrophes at work and at home, Vesper was foundering financially and emotionally, her perseverance only sustained by her sense of responsibility for the animals in her care.
Texas, where Vesper lives, is notorious for the poverty of its animal-rescue resources. There is not a single no-kill shelter in the State. Vesper was unable to transfer the animals in her care to any facility where they would not be killed immediately. She knew that if she were to give up on herself, the cats would be collected by the county and destroyed as a matter of course. Vesper has expressed to me many times that knowing the cats’ lives depended on her own survival is the only reason she is still alive. She said, “They gave me a purpose when everything else was taken from me. They saved my life, and I owe them.”
Vesper’s life-altering misfortunes have continued to multiply since 2017. The list of obstacles, setbacks, attacks, and bereavements she has been forced to endure over the past three years is long, and winnowing it down to a few of the most traumatic cannot fully convey the effect of living under their cumulative weight as they piled up on her, one after another. In reviewing these recent years, however, a few of the traumas that Vesper described as most damaging to her self-esteem and ability to cope were:
*The death of a loving aunt who represented her only positive family relationship;
*The second-trimester miscarriage of a much-wanted child;
* Victimization in six robberies and burglaries;
*Divorce from the husband who abandoned her;
*Loss of her home to foreclosure as a result of her husband’s emptying their bank account and the reduction in her income while she was on forced leave after bringing a complaint against the abusive Dean in her workplace;
*The death of five of the cats in her rescue from a vaccine-resistant strain of distemper, as well as a companion cat, Autumn, who had been with Vesper since she was 17;
*Increasing estrangement from her family, who responded to the crises in her life with a concerted effort to persuade her that she deserved them because she was inherently and irredeemably a “failure.”
The tragedies in Vesper’s life accumulated rapidly but steadily until 2019, when she found herself in even greater danger and hardship. First, the university that had put her on administrative leave stopped paying her. She was an at-will employee, so she had no recourse when the administration summarily decided to terminate her contract, even though the university’s gratuitous investigation had found no evidence of wrongdoing on her part, and the firing was officiously without cause.
This injustice was made even more irrevocable when the lawyer Vesper had retained at significant expense to help her obtain justice from her employer simply stopped responding to her communications, but continued to bill her despite not having touched her case in months. Vesper later learned that the lawyer’s malpractice extended to missing a key filing deadline for her EEOC complaint against the university.
Vesper had lost her job, her husband, her home, her companion animal, and gained only intense PTSD. She filed for unemployment to stay afloat financially while she looked for another job, but after an initial denial she had to fight the State through a long appeals process. She won, and but did not receive her payments for months, the first payment coinciding with record filings due to the first surge of COVID. The immense demand for assistance exhausted the funding and left her again without any financial relief.
In the spring of this year Vesper thought that the period of trauma and despair was finally over when she began dating a man who seemed as devoted to her rescue cats as she was. Just as her lease expired, he invited her to live with him, and together they converted a four-plex into a house for them and a shelter facility for the rescue cats.
The move took her hours away from familiar surroundings and everyone she knew, but she and her boyfriend lived together happily for months, caring for 20 rescue cats, and their two dogs. But one night he came home drunk and inexplicably furious.
Vesper demanded to know what was behind his erratic behavior, and in response, he brutally beat her before attempting to strangle her. She escaped just long enough to call 911, and her boyfriend fled.
The police made no attempt to intervene, citing her boyfriend’s apparent flight from the jurisdiction as an obstacle to prosecution. Vesper had no income, no home, and nowhere to go, and she did not know when or whether her boyfriend would return, having fled before learning that the police would not help her. She also had the rescue cats to care for.
No DV shelter would accept her while she had them, and any facility where she might leave them would have put them to sleep. These were the animals she credited with having kept her alive during a period of hardship when she otherwise saw no reason to persevere. She believed that she owed her life to the animals whose lives she was working to save. To protect them, she summoned her remaining resiliency and started looking for ways to get out of her boyfriend’s home and bring her rescue cats with her. She was not optimistic, though. She told me that she believed she was going to die in Texas.
Vesper’s situation appeared to improve when she found a job three hours away in New Mexico. She leased a home where she could install her rescue, knowing that her former partner would return to the home he owned eventually and not trusting him to protect the animals after he had so brutally and causelessly attacked her.
The only remaining loose end to tie off before she left for her new home in New Mexico was a health issue she was experiencing, a shortness of breath that had started a few weeks before and was steadily worsening. The doctor dismissed her concerns, claiming the condition was asthma.
The day before she was to move to New Mexico and start her new job, Vesper was standing near her kitchen counter when she briefly lost consciousness. She fell backwards. Her spine struck the edge of the tile counter before she fell to the floor. When she regained consciousness, her lower body appeared to be paralyzed. She was not able to move herself, but she was able to call 911.
At the hospital, scans revealed that she had cracked two vertebrae in her fall, an injury that would result in partial disability and eventually require surgery. The scans also revealed the reason for her shortness of breath. It was not asthma. The cause was a pulmonary embolism that had been working its way toward her brain. If she had not fallen, she could have died.
The supervisor who was waiting for her in New Mexico was unsympathetic, however. They gave Vesper an ultimatum: either appear for work in the neighboring state in 12 hours, or be fired before she could start. Vesper could not travel with a newly cracked spine. True to their word, the new boss terminated her. Vesper was back to having nowhere to go.
Half her belongings were in New Mexico and half were still in Texas. She knew she would be unable to pay the rent at the new home without a job, so she had to move everything back to Texas. Her hope was that the boyfriend who had tried to strangle her would still be gone when she returned. Her luck had not improved, though. Right after she returned, so did he.
Like many women in her situation, Vesper was stuck. She had no family, no friends near (or far) willing to help, no money, no job, and nowhere to sleep if she slept, unless she left the rescue animals at her boyfriend’s mercy so she could qualify for a bed in a battered women’s shelter.
So she struck a deal with the abusive (now ex-) boyfriend. as a gambling addict, he was experiencing financial hardship as well. He agreed to share the four-plex on a platonic basis. The arrangement was far from ideal, but Vesper hoped that if she wasn’t intimately involved with him, he would leave her alone enough that she could put together the resources she needed for a permanent move with the rescue cats. She never lost sight of the obligation she owed the animals who sustained her when she had given up hope.
The truce with her ex-boyfriend lasted for 4 days. Then, drunk again, he assaulted Vesper with verbal abuse and paranoid accusations. Instinctively, Vesper defended herself by telling him to shut up. This time, he didn’t strike at her directly. Instead, he went to a different part of their home, and then he left. Vesper was still in shock from his sudden attack and the fear that his attempt to strangle her would be repeated. His apparent departure gave her hope of relief. But when she calmed enough to look for them, she could not find her four permanent cats.
From Arizona, I read her reports of these events helplessly as they unfolded. At first, she wrote of her feeling of dread from the suspicion that her ex- had done something to her cats before he left. She anticipated the guilt and despair she would feel if he had taken them away or harmed them. Soon, she reached a state of utter panic. She did not find her cats that night. But I hoped, as did Vesper, that her cats had simply gotten loose during the chaos of her ex’s most recent departure.
It took two days later for her to find all their remains buried in shallow graves on the property, where her ex had left them for her to find. Her grief broke her heart. She blamed herself because she believed she had failed to protect them. Those of us who were following Vesper’s accounts during these days and trying to offer what support we could were also heartbroken. But although we could not help but feel respect for Vesper’s dedication and foresight in sensing that the cats were now in danger from her ex—including the 20 rescue cats still alive and in her care—we were terrified that this rapidly escalating pattern of violence would culminate in her ex’s doing even more terrible harm to her.
Until this point, Vesper's and my relationship had been professionally oriented. Seeing all this unfold, and knowing she had no one to turn to--nowhere to go, I knew I had to do something. Since that day she has repeatedly confided to me that she feels like she’s drowning in guilt, that the death of the cats is her fault. For my part, knowing that it is not her fault, and understanding that a person who could randomly, viciously kill 4 animals in retribution is pretty much capable of anything, I offered her a safe haven to start over in Arizona. I promised to introduce her to my circle of strong survivor women and community activists, and facilitate her access to trauma therapy and mental health supports.
After being isolated and without resources for so long, Vesper was doubtful of my offer but she knew that there is no future for her in Texas. Even if she wanted to stay in the state, the DV, mental health, and animal rescue resources are spread so thin as to be inaccessible. Once she realized I (and my family) were sincere in our offer she agreed to make the move - on one condition. She and the cats were a package deal. Though she is aware of the additional complications that go along with transporting the rescued cats, she cannot in good conscience leave them behind. After the years they have given her, the purpose that pushed her through all the other traumas, leaving them behind or giving them up to die at a shelter is inconceivable.
We know that she is in danger and that the sooner she can leave the better. Together, Vesper and I have been planning her escape. This is where you come in.
One of the biggest barriers to women leaving abusive situations is financial. In addition to the cost associated with moving Vesper also needs assistance in covering the payments for her medication and for the cats. Once we get her to Arizona she and the rescue cats will be staying with me and my family until she’s able to move into her own place. Though we are happy to welcome her into our home, we rent and this means we have to find a more suitable, permanent place for her and the rescue as soon as possible. Vesper and I have been proactive in searching for employment that she can do online, and she is being considered for several positions. Though this is good in the long run it will not be soon enough to ensure her safety.
Vesper’s ideal relocation setup includes having a home where she can also have the rescue. In what you might call divine intervention, we have found an ideal place for her. We have found a reasonably priced mobile home that is for sale. The seller has used it for his dog rescue. For Vesper, having a safe and stable home is essential to her physical and mental recovery. It will also allow her to fulfill her responsibilities to the cats in her care.
Vesper and I realize the immensity of the ask that we are making. We know that raising the amount needed for the move itself and a few months' basic expenses is already asking a lot, and that raising enough for her to purchase the mobile home is unlikely. Even with this acknowledgement, I can’t help but feel that a person cannot receive what they need if they don’t ask for it. So, with the hope that asking is part of manifesting her ideal new start into reality, I have set the goal of this fundraiser at $10,000 (which includes the $7,800 asking price for the mobile home).
Vesper has endured so much, and suffered alone for so long she has nearly given up hope. My hope is that her narrative strikes a chord in you as it has in me, and that you believe as I do that she deserves a safe place to heal and start over. I want to show her that compassionate, generous souls do exist, and just how many people care about her. With our collective efforts she can receive the resources she needs to be healthy, happy, and successful. This holiday season, help me show her that new beginnings and happy endings are possible.
Arrangements are being made for the first stage of Vesper's rescue-physically moving her and the cats from their present location. Any amount you can contribute will help both a good woman and defenseless cats get the new start they deserve. Vesper and I thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your generosity and kindness.
*Note: Image NOT Vesper in order to protect her privacy and safety.
- Rachel Presley
- Mariaelena Bartesaghi
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