Late bloomer flowers brilliantly at Yale Law School Student overcomes rocky youth, MS


Jesselyn Brown sits on a couch in her mother's house in Columbia flipping through photos from her first two months at Yale Law School. She quickly comes to her favorite: a picture of herself arm-in-arm with Hillary Clinton on Alumni Day.

Both wear relaxed, confident smiles. Although they have just met, they look as though they have known each other for some time.

"She has done so many amazing things," says Ms. Brown of the fellow feminist and Yale-educated attorney.

Some might say the same of Ms. Brown.

Last spring, she became the first student in the history of Brown University to graduate with honors in three majors.

As a junior, she made national news as one of the leaders of a movement to reform the school's sexual harassment and sexual assault policies.

The issue caught fire after she and other women wrote anonymous accusations on bathroom walls charging specific men with rape and other sexual offenses.

This fall, she was elected president of her incoming class at Yale. She threw her hat in the ring after she noticed that no other women had been nominated.

Ms. Brown's greatest challenge, however, is not of her own choosing.

While trying to learn the law in New Haven, she endures periodic bouts of dizziness, tremors and partial blindness. They are the symptoms of multiple sclerosis -- a neurological illness she was diagnosed with last year.

The signs began showing up during Ms. Brown's freshman year of college, but the campus health services couldn't identify the disease.

At times, parts of her face would go numb. While shampooing her hair in the shower with her eyes closed, she would lose her balance and tip over.

"I felt I was losing control," she said.

One winter morning last year she sat down to type a paper and found that her hands were numb. She shook them, ran them under a faucet, but they still felt asleep. When she was unable to button her overalls, she knew something was seriously wrong.

Soon after, she was diagnosed by a private physician.

People with multiple sclerosis have patches of hardened tissue on their brains or spinal cords that periodically short circuit parts of their nervous systems. Many live relatively full lives; about 15 percent degenerate and die.

So far, Ms. Brown appears to be among the former. Now 21, she has not had to be hospitalized for an attack in a year and a half.

Still, the symptoms occur often enough so that she has to copy friends' class notes because her hands shake too much. The episodes are triggered by fatigue, so she has to take naps and cannot pull all-nighters -- a decided disadvantage in law school.

"Why do I need to be dealing with this right now?" she says, staring at the ceiling in frustration. "I'm trying to be a student."

Some people are born achievers.

Jesselyn Brown isn't one of them.

The daughter of a Washington attorney and a computer analyst who divorced when she was a child, Ms. Brown was a good student in Howard County, but not an outstanding one.

At Wilde Lake High School she was in the top 10 percent to 15 percent of her class, recalled her guidance counselor, Sam Nissen. Ms. Brown performed well on standardized tests, but not exceptionally so.

"It was like she was achieving at her level or above her capabilities," said Mr. Nissen, who recalled that she was a very hard worker.

Neither she nor Mr. Nissen thought Brown University would accept her. Mr. Nissen admits that he is surprised at how well she has done.

The explanation seems to lie in Ms. Brown's final years of high school.

At 16, she left her mother's home and moved in with a friend because of family problems she prefers not to discuss. She cut classes during much of her senior year to look after her two younger brothers and sort out her family troubles, she said. After graduation, she was determined to become completely independent.

"Basically, going to college was a lifesaver," said Ms. Brown, who has a much better relationship with her parents now. "I only had to take care of myself."

Surprised by her acceptance to Brown, she arrived in Providence with an inferiority complex and has been compensating for it ever since. With the exception of one class, she got all As and wrote two theses her senior year. Her majors were American civilization, women's studies and political science.

Ms. Brown's involvement in the campus feminist movement began on a warm September evening at the beginning of her sophomore year. On her way home from a dance, several freshman football players began harassing her, she said. The men had been drinking. They requested sex and began groping her.

They clearly chose the wrong woman.

Coming from a turbulent household where she said she had sometimes feared for her safety, Ms. Brown said she could not believe she had to put up with this at an Ivy League school.

"Part of going to college was to get away from this kind of thing," she said.

Ms. Brown returned to her dorm that night and found that two of the men had left a signed, sexually explicit note on her memo board. Armed with a photo copy, she went to the dean's office, presented her case and asked that the students be punished.

The dean, she said, thought she was overreacting and noted that they were just freshmen. As punishment, they had to run extra laps at practice. One was told to write her an apology, which Ms. Brown said she never received.

Over time, Ms. Brown met other women who had been sexually harassed or assaulted on campus and been frustrated by the administration's response. Four of them formed a student education and advocacy group called Brown Against Sexual Assault and Harassment (BASH).

In the meantime, she and other similarly frustrated women were also writing about their experiences on bathroom walls. In an anonymous dialogue, they accused men of sexually assaulting and raping them.

In the fall of 1990, an Op-Ed piece on the subject appeared in the campus newspaper, the Brown Daily Herald, and "it just exploded overnight," Ms. Brown said.

As one of the leading campus feminists, she found herself in the middle of a major controversy. Suddenly, Newsweek and the New York Times were calling as well as TV morning talk shows.

"Sally Jessy called and said, 'Just come up and cry a lot,' " she recalled, referring to TV talk show host Sally Jessy Raphael. Ms. Brown and several other female students appeared on "Donahue" that December.

While some on campus saw Ms. Brown as a champion of feminism, others labeled her a McCarthyite.

One of the men named as a rapist wrote the Daily Herald, saying that he was innocent and that his reputation had been destroyed.

Ms. Brown is ill at ease when discussing the anonymous accusations. However, she says that after years of frustration, it was the only thing that made the administration confront the problem. When the dust finally settled, Brown had revamped its handling of sexual assault cases, created a position for a Dean of Women's Concerns and established mandatory discussion sessions for freshmen on the topic.

In person, Ms. Brown is both pleasant and high voltage. She smiles often while answering questions in a rapid-fire string of sentences.

Despite her drive and work schedule, she finds time for a personal life.

For the past 13 months she has been dating a fellow Brown classmate, James Kaplan.

Mr. Kaplan was the editor of the Brown Daily Herald, which broke the rape list story.

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