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Woman Deals With Long-Term Impact Of Sex Abuse At The Hotchkiss School

Aug 30, 2018

An investigation has found that seven former faculty members at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville sexually abused students over a 23-year period.

The school hired a law firm to conduct the investigation and write a report, which it released earlier this month.

Now, one of the victims is speaking out.

Hilary Mullins was 14, sitting on a couch in her teacher’s house.

“It’s cool. He’s got a wood fire going and all this,” Mullins said. “He made physicality seem nice. He’d give you a hug--it’d feel so good. He puts his arm around me and he starts to work his way into me. I said to him at the time: ‘I wouldn’t have never let anyone else do that.”

Mullins had been sexually abused before. “As a kid,” she said. But she didn’t realize that it was happening again.

She looks back on it now differently, characterizing her one-time teacher as a “heat-seeking missile.”

“I was an easy mark and I think he completely knew,” Mullins said.

The teacher was Leif Thorne-Thomsen. He was 20 years older than her. He's named in the investigative report by Hotchkiss. The investigators corroborated the accounts of seven students who accused Thorne-Thomsen of sexual misconduct.

You won’t find Mullins’ name listed in that independent investigation. Instead, she said she’s the person identified only as “Student 4.”

The report says that a second teacher had sex with her when she was 17.

“I was his student. He didn’t just seek me out, I was his student,” said Mullins. “He was an amazing teacher for me.”

His name was Christopher Carlisle.

It seemed like romance at the time to the 17 year-old.

“He basically taught me how to be a writer,” Mullins said. “This is the same guy who I ended up having this abusive relationship with. But I loved him.”

But she realizes now it wasn’t right.

Neither Carlisle nor Thorne-Thomsen were prosecuted for their actions. Carlisle committed suicide in 1982. Thorne-Thomsen - Mullins’ original abuser - is still alive at 76.

Through a lawyer, he declined to be interviewed for the school’s investigative report. Connecticut Public Radio’s attempts to reach him for comment on the report were unsuccessful.

This photo of Mullins (right) was taken in the 1970s, when she attended The Hotchkiss School.
Credit Frankie Graziano / Connecticut Public Radio

As she sits on the couch in her Vermont home, Mullins is still finding ways to cope with the abuse -- which she said has damaged both her long-term physical and mental health. 

She demonstrated a device she was told recently could sharpen her focus.

“This is something called the integrated listening systems,” she said. “I got it from the local psychiatrist. It has an effect on the central nervous system through the vagus nerve.”

Listening to the device is a way to treat Attention Deficit Disorder, which Mullins traces to the abuse.

She also links it to early menopause, which she said she went into 19 years ago when she was 37.

“I feel like the abuse messed up my brain. It’s had impacts on my body. It’s had significant impacts on my relationships,” she said.

After graduating from Wesleyan University, Mullins couldn’t hold down a full-time job. She’s struggled to make a living since. She said she did get some money 20 years ago in a settlement after she sued Hotchkiss. Mullins had written letters to the school to detail the abuse—and even participated in an investigation of Thorne-Thomsen. But, she wasn’t satisfied with the school’s response.

“I decided to come forward and make a claim,” she said. “I think at that time, they would’ve just laughed at me. I think they would’ve said ‘oh, there, there.’ I don’t know what they would’ve said, but I’m, sure I wouldn’t have gotten help. The only recourse was to have a suit. So, I did that.”

Across from Mullins’ couch is a chalkboard. Scrawled on it in pink writing is a phrase that has echoed in her mind since she watched the movie Spotlight -- about the Boston Globe’s coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The phrase is “they knew and they let it happen.”

She said Hotchkiss did the same thing.

The school was aware of allegations of abuse by Thorne-Thomsen in the 1970s. He was briefly placed on leave in 1979, but then headmaster William Olsen welcomed him back seven months later with a letter.

In it, Olsen said that Thorne Thomsen’s problems stemmed from the school going co-ed.

“All the investigations I have pursued since last summer convince me that you have not been guilty of morally improper actions or advances with any Hotchkiss students,” Olsen wrote.

“If they had gotten rid of him when he messed with that first student, my life wouldn’t be like it is today,” said Mullins. “It would be different -- really different. They let it happen and they shouldn’t have.”

Thorne Thomsen continued to teach at Hotchkiss until 1992. Headmaster William Olsen died in 1997. Mullins said she’s haunted by the fact that she never got to speak to him -- to ask why, after getting those complaints, he never fired the teacher who abused her.