Senior student sells English thesis on sexual harassment  

Taylor Reese,’ 19, spent her senior year writing her English thesis that grew into a 172-page book.


Taylor Reese, ’19, reads from her thesis in the spring. Photo courtesy of Taylor Reese

Laura Calhoun

After Taylor Reese,’ 19, spent her senior year writing her English thesis that grew into a 172-page book, she’s selling copies of it. 

“I ordered for myself and my thesis adviser hard copies,” Reese said. “Once people saw that, they started asking if I could get that printed for them.” 

Reese described her thesis, I Don’t Know How to Tell You, as “a fragmented collection of nonfiction stories about sexual assault, harassment and more.”  

She had the idea fall of her junior year, the same semester she declared an English major, while in a Creative Writing for Nonfiction class. She started writing down her experiences with sexual assault and harassment, including about a professor who hit on her during her freshman year. 

When it came time to apply for her thesis in winter term of her junior year, Reese knew this was the topic she wanted to write about. 

“I wanted to give myself the time and the space to write about it and work through it,” she said. “It felt like it was going to be as much of a healing process as an actual writing project.” 

At the beginning, writing and sharing her work about this topic was especially challenging for Reese because of the personal nature of the stories and the vulnerability it required, she said 

The first few times she met with her thesis group, a component of the course where English majors working on their theses share their writing, Reese said she “cherry-picked” pieces she felt were the most palatable for the group. But throughout the semester, she challenged herself to be more open about her work with others. 

“Every time I got nervous about people reading it… I would make myself share it with them,” Reese said. 

Beyond her thesis group, she also read her work at Take Back the Night, an event in the fall semester hosted by SPEAK in support of survivors of sexual assault and to bring awareness to the problem, Friday Underground (FUDG) and at her thesis presentation. 

Reese said that one of the things that kept her going during the tough times was a support network that included her friends, trusted readers and her thesis advisor, English professor Chris Gavaler. 

“He was kind of my rock,” Reese said. “He’s been so supportive – He came to Take Back the Night… and other events he didn’t have to come to.” 

Gavaler said that Reese is an incredible student, and that working with her on her thesis was extremely rewarding. 

“It was the best experience I’ve had working with a student,” Gavaler said. “To clarify, that’s a high bar because I’ve worked with fantastic students with fantastic theses.” 

Gavaler said that Reese’s thesis is unlike any he has ever advised before, both in subject matter and in the writing process. Reese’s thesis is broken up into relatively short segments, with some stories continued later in the book. There are also visuals included, like headlines for stories about sexual assault or harassment and altered children’s books. 

Reese also wrote the thesis out of chronological order. Gavaler recalls laying out all of the pages on a seminar table in Payne with Reese to figure out which order made the most sense.  

“At least you know when you have to do a puzzle the pieces go together and they will form a picture,” he said. “It’s like cutting one puzzle piece and setting it down and cutting another puzzle piece and setting it down… what if they don’t go together?” 

The pieces went together incredibly well, and the two decided on an order more quickly than Gavaler anticipated. 

Another atypical aspect of Taylor’s thesis was the way that the writing process became part of the thesis, Gavaler said. 

“It’s a memoir,” he said. “Her experience over that semester working on that material started to become one of the things she was reflecting on.” 

Gavaler said he believes that Reese’s thesis is significant to Washington and Lee’s campus because there is not a body of work that examines sexual assault and harassment in the context of this campus. 

“[Washington and Lee] is aggressively rape culture – anything that gets at that is incredibly important,” Gavaler said. “I think it’s fantastic that there are going to be copies of this book around.” 

Reese said that other students who are interested in writing memoirs about traumatic subject matter should understand the process is difficult and should not be afraid to seek support from people in their lives or the university’s counseling center. 

“I felt like at first I had to do it alone,” Reese said. “Being willing to ask for help and letting people help you is probably the most valuable… part of it.” 

Thirty-five students and professors have purchased the book so far, and Reese said she hopes her work will resonate with her readers. 

“If people read it and see that other people went through the same thing, or even if it’s different and you can find strength in that vulnerability, that’s really important to me,” Reese said. 

Contact Reese at [email protected] to purchase a copy.