In the hazy darkness of a new morning, a young woman climbs into a boat and pushes off into the Passaic River.
Gliding across the black water can sometimes bring her comfort. But it reminds her of all she’s lost, too.
Two years ago, Daisy Tackett was a rower at the University of Kansas. Then she says she was raped, starting a painful journey through a system she says failed her — and irreparably changed her. It has taken her out of KU and away from the sport she loves, back home to her parents in Florida and finally to New York University and this river just to the west in New Jersey.
Tackett, now 20, is slowly reclaiming pieces of herself that were lost in the trauma of the attack, and the process that followed. Rowing is one of those pieces, a sport that has shown her what she is capable of.
Never miss a local story.
“It’s like testing how much you can put yourself through,” Tackett says, “and come out on the other side and be fine.”
She wants that same gratification from her life. Maybe someday she’ll find it.
Within days of the worst night of her life, Daisy Tackett lost a friend by simply admitting her grief.
She confided to her rowing teammate that then-KU football player Jordan Goldenberg Jr. had raped her in his dorm room following a 2014 Halloween party. But the friend didn’t believe Tackett, accusing her of having “buyer’s remorse,” as if her assault was an overpriced latte or a pair of insensible shoes.
“I was just really scared,” Tackett said. “I was embarrassed that it happened. I was embarrassed that afterwards, the one person I told was not very supportive.
“Now I’m like, ‘OK, no one is going to listen to this.”
Tackett, weeks into her freshman year, never reported to police that she had been raped. For almost a year, Tackett didn’t report what happened to university officials, either.
Nearly one-quarter of female undergraduates in the United States will be raped or sexually assaulted while in college, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. It’s estimated that only 40 percent of rapes are reported to police.
“Victims go into a mindset of, ‘I just want to get back to life the way it used to be,’” Kristen Houser of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center said. “Many people just try to carry on and realize weeks, months, maybe years later that it’s not working out so great.”
Staying quiet didn’t help Tackett, who couldn’t be protected from seeing her attacker. Panic attacks consumed her, and the anxiety bled into the sport she loved. The rowing team ran stairs at the football stadium, but Tackett couldn’t stand to be in the building. To avoid seeing Goldenberg or other football players, she ate lunch by herself off campus.
Shellshocked, Tackett continued to row into her sophomore year. Then she found out that a teammate, Sarah McClure, also said she was sexually assaulted by Goldenberg.
Tackett decided to speak up, hoping that doing so would result in quick, decisive action from KU.
“If I had reported it, maybe this wouldn’t have happened (to McClure),” Tackett said. “I can’t blame myself, but at that point, I felt it was my responsibility. I knew that it had happened to someone else and I needed to make it better.”
A KU Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access investigation into both women’s accusations would take nearly six months. During her wait, Tackett said, the coaching staff ignored her struggles with anxiety, and punished her for missing practice to meet with investigators. Rowing coach Rob Catloth didn’t allow Tackett to attend a training trip to Florida, an exclusion she took as retaliation for coming forward.
Still, Tackett trusted that her coming forward would be validated as a positive decision.
“I didn’t even think I would need to get an attorney for the internal investigation,” she said. “That thought never even crossed my mind. To me, I was like, ‘Why would I need that? Why wouldn’t the school want to protect me?’”
The KU athletic department, including Catloth, has declined comment on Tackett’s accusations, citing pending litigation. University of Kansas media relations director Erinn Barcomb-Peterson has previously said KU does not comment on individual sexual-assault investigations but added that “any suggestion that we do not support those who report sexual assault on our campuses is baseless.”
Tackett began to think otherwise. As the months dragged on, she continued to feel unsafe and unwanted on KU’s campus. Goldenberg was still there, and she realized her sense of normalcy would never return in Lawrence.
To try to find peace, Tackett would have to give up rowing.
She had tried soccer, field hockey and track and field in high school, but nothing stuck until she got in a boat. On her first 2,000-meter stretch, Tackett beat her high school’s senior captain and knew she’d found her niche.
But the pain of her experience at KU had tainted the sport.
With the investigation ongoing, Tackett packed up her car in January 2016 and filled out paperwork to withdraw from KU.
“They made me feel like I wasn’t even supposed to be there,” she said, “that I wasn’t important enough to the team, that whatever I had going on wasn’t worth it to help me out.”
For months, Tackett felt like she couldn’t budge.
She went home to her parents in Jacksonville, Fla., and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. During the day, she stayed in bed; at night, she slept with the lights on. A trip to Target for a tube of mascara ended in a panic attack.
As she washed dishes one day, Tackett let a bowl slip through her hands and shatter on the floor. As her mom rushed into the kitchen, she found her daughter crumpled among the broken porcelain, her knees up to her chest, crying.
“After Daisy came back from campus, it was like she was dead,” said Amanda Tackett, Daisy’s mother. “She was a shell of herself.”
She also was mostly alone. Besides her parents, Tackett had few others to confide in. Most of her friends were away at college.
Aside from Marv — the puppy her parents had adopted for her as they drove from KU back to Florida — there was Marisa Griffin, a friend from high school. When the anxiety stole her sleep, Tackett would go on late-night milkshake runs with Griffin. They’d stay in the car and talk.
“Imagine having your life at a university, with loads of friends, extracurricular activities, the rowing team,” Griffin said. “Then one day, you have to leave it all behind because you decided to take a stand for yourself against someone that sexually assaulted you.
“Nobody asks for that. Nobody asks to build a life in another state, succeed in academics and sports, and then have everything they’ve worked for taken away.”
Throughout her life, Tackett had been adaptable. Her father had worked in television production, and she had rolled with the punches as the family jumped from St. Louis to Dallas to Alabama to Florida. She’d even spent a semester abroad in Switzerland at 15.
Slowly, Tackett began finding her way in yet another — albeit scarier — new situation.
Tackett and her parents had filed suit against KU, under the Kansas Consumer Protection Act, for false advertising of safety at campus housing. She also filed suit accusing KU of violating provisions of Title IX for retaliation and allowing a hostile educational environment.
Victims of sexual assault are usually afforded anonymity in such cases. But during her days in bed, as Tackett went over and over what had happened, she decided the impact of putting her name on the lawsuits, instead of “Jane Doe,” would be worth it.
She was frustrated with a system that wasn’t anything like the TV series “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” which Tackett watched from bed during those days in Jacksonville. The show’s episodes, which almost always feature a narrative of sexual assault that ends tidily in justice for the perpetrators, were cathartic.
During KU’s investigation, Tackett said it was difficult to receive updates, that deadlines passed with no word on the status of the case.
She was irritated that Goldenberg wasn’t immediately suspended from the football team despite the two sexual assault accusations against him — one by Tackett, the other by McClure.
In March 2016, with Tackett watching re-runs in Florida, KU concluded its investigation.
According to the school, Goldenberg had violated KU’s sexual harassment policy by touching McClure’s breasts without consent. And, officially putting a name to Tackett’s trauma, KU determined that Goldenberg had “nonconsensual sex” with Tackett.
Tackett’s reaction was equal parts angry and exasperation.
“There’s an easier word for that,” she said.
Tackett’s cynicism about the system was growing. KU’s punishment of Goldenberg was communicated differently to each party: He was “effectively expelled,” according to letters sent to both Tackett and McClure. But according to his lawyers, Goldenberg was allowed to “withdraw for non-academic misconduct in lieu of expulsion.”
Tackett’s life had been upturned: She was out of school, no longer rowing and unsure of her next step. Goldenberg found a spot on the Indiana State University football team — that is, until he was removed from the roster in August after The Star requested an interview with him. He remains a student there, and has repeatedly declined to comment to The Star through his attorneys, other than to “strongly deny” he sexually assaulted either woman. He has never been charged with a crime.
Because KU’s investigation was not criminal, it was conducted using a “preponderance of evidence” standard, thus the absence of the word “rape” in the school’s findings. Still, according to Tackett, that communication was yet another tally against the system that was only adding frustration to her PTSD and depression.
“On the one hand, at least they (KU) believe me that this happened,” she said. “But on the other hand … why can’t you just call it what it is?
“It’s condescending to call it nonconsensual sex. It makes you feel like you did something wrong. … I think it diminishes the severity of what happened.”
After KU released its findings, Tackett’s father, James, told her maybe it was time to start thinking about a return to school someplace else.
Education had always been important to Tackett, an honor-roll student in high school who had a triple major at KU. So she started filling out college applications for the second time in less than three years — NYU, Columbia, a few schools in Florida, if she decided to stay closer to home. Tackett researched each school’s history with Title IX and sexual-assault cases. She was troubled by Columbia’s response to such incidents but found more encouraging results at NYU.
New York became the next spot on the map for Tackett, as an old piece of her fearlessness about moving to new places clinked into place.
“All of her power had been taken away and she felt powerless, alone, discarded,” Amanda Tackett said. “Little by little, she was taking back her power.”
Two months into her time at NYU, Tackett is picking the strawberries off her French toast in a small café near campus. She comes to this place a lot, to study or eat brunch; the lines are much shorter than they are at the restaurant across the street. It’s close to her new dorm and around the corner from her favorite place for bubble tea.
These are the little neighborhood discoveries Tackett is starting to make. The relative anonymity New York offers can be comforting at times: “There’s so many people; there’s so much going on,” she said. “There’s no focus on you. … You can kind of hide.”
But life in New York is a constant see-saw of emotions. Her grief is a dichotomy that’s still confusing to sort through each day.
Sometimes she feels strong enough to do something as normal as going out to a Kesha concert. The pop star has launched her own battle against sexual assault, and after the concert, Tackett tweeted that Kesha’s fight has inspired her own.
“Watching her go through a public battle like that let me know I could go through mine and be OK,” Tackett wrote.
That strength has extended to her studies: She’s double-majoring in history and political science on her way to becoming, she hopes, a lobbyist for groups concerned with women’s rights. By no coincidence, she wants to focus on legislation aiming to stop campus sexual assault.
One such bill, introduced Thursday by California congresswoman Jackie Speier, would require colleges to add the reasoning for expulsion to a student’s transcript, if that student has been expelled for sexual misconduct. These are the kinds of laws Tackett wants to one day fight for.
But other times, Tackett is knocked down again. She reads the comment sections under stories about her, scrolls through Facebook messages and tweets sent by strangers, and feels hated.
“Shouldn’t have led him on,” reads one comment. Another suggests she waited to file suit for financial reasons. “Why wait? Needing extra money?”
She has learned to fight back, lofting her own grenades. “Are you having fun being a bully?” she tweeted to one man.
“Why do men go to college parties, drink uncontrollably and then rape people?” she tweeted to another who had criticized sexual-assault victims’ alcohol intake.
But other times, she feels guilty, insecure. Internalizing some of the hate has come naturally.
“I know it’s not my fault in any way,” Tackett said. “But when you read stuff that people say, it’s like, ‘Well, maybe it was my fault.’ No, it’s not. But it’s an inner dialogue you’re constantly having to sort through — what you know, versus what you feel, is true.”
One of the first things Tackett did when planning her move to New York was set up weekly appointments with a therapist. She takes medication for anxiety.
Making friends is difficult when there are days she just doesn’t want to go outside.
“It’s made it hard for me to be around people,” she said. “I don’t want to go on dates. I don’t want to hang out with people. I’d rather just stay at home with my dogs.”
Sometimes she walks through Washington Square Park so she can watch the dogs there, because her own are back in Florida. She’s in a Facebook group called “Dogspotting,” where she earns points for photos she can snap of dogs in public.
“It really does make me miss Marv,” she said, pointing out one that she thinks looks like him — all pointy ears and short, dark hair. She’s thinking about bringing Marv to the city, so he can serve as an official “emotional support” animal.
But for now, she goes it alone.
Once she got to New York, it took Tackett a month to get back on the water.
She started out by coaching with a nonprofit, Row New York, that works with underprivileged high school rowers.
Then Tackett realized part of her healing process would include joining the university’s club rowing team. So the 4:25 a.m. wake-up calls began, leading her to the boathouse off the Passaic River.
It all started coming back to her: the burn in her lungs and shoulders, followed by a feeling of instant gratification when she pulled a fast time. “Type 2 fun,” she calls it — painful at the time, worth it in the end.
She hopes a similar satisfaction can occur in her fight against campus sexual assault. Dozens of women have reached out to her since her name went public, she said, and Tackett realizes the change she can effect: “The impact (of going public) is greater than the benefits of staying private,” she said.
Outside of the public eye, Tackett’s comeback is in motion, even if it’s incomplete and constantly evolving.
“To what degree this will affect her for the rest of her life remains to be seen,” said her mom, Amanda Tackett. “The burden is on the victim to deal with the aftermath.”
Tackett knows of a few things that could help. One would be a win in the courtroom, in her lawsuits against KU: “That’s the kind of validation that’s important — that they’re saying your pain is worth something,” she said.
The other piece of healing has been aquatic: In her first competition with NYU, the squad won a silver medal. No, this wasn’t a Division I race. But the stakes were somehow higher.
As Tackett stepped back on land that day, tears streamed down her face. If only for a moment, she felt like herself again.
“I honestly have no idea what any of this will produce,” she said. “I have no idea what I need to do or what I’m waiting for. It feels like I’m in the dark and I’m waiting for the lights to come on, and I have no concept of how that’ll happen.
“I don’t know if someone else will turn the lights on. Or maybe I’m going to be able to do it myself.”