At some point during our interview, Julien Reiman, a history major in Columbia College, stops abruptly—“What are you doing at 5 p.m.?”
An hour later, I find myself standing in a circle of students outside Butler Library, a burning stick of sage in my hand. “We’re exorcising Butler!” Reiman calls out as people pass by. “Come join us!” This is the epicenter of Columbia’s toxic stress culture, he tells us, and it is here that we must cleanse the bad energy that pervades our campus. For the next twenty minutes I listen as people share moments of kindness they have experienced in the past few weeks. In the end, nearly 30 people partake in the exorcism.
“There’s a mental health crisis on this campus which ends in suicide,” he explained to me earlier that day. “It ends in people feeling lonely. It ends in people feeling aimless [and] feeling like they shouldn’t have come here. All of those things I have gone through.”
In his three years here since transferring from Washington University in St. Louis, Reiman has also been involved with the Philolexian Society, Third Wheel Improv and the Peer Health Exchange, for which he served as co-coordinator for this year. But in our conversation, we return again and again to the events he has hosted and to the importance of kindness.
Reiman agrees that part of the mental health crisis here could be alleviated with more resources from the administration: a 24/7 Counseling and Psychological Services, or a CPS that meets with students long-term. “But a lot of it, I think, is kindness,” he says, “People need to be nice to each other on campus.”
During his time here, Reiman tried to foster this at Columbia in his own way, drawing upon his studies of the past to do so. Reiman read about a 1967 “be-in” where over 1,000 people went to Central Park to dance and sing in protest of the Vietnam War. He decided Columbia needed one of its own.
“So I did a recreation of the Central Park be-in last April, right around this time, and about 40 people showed up. We danced. We burned sage. It was great.”
He later organized an exorcism of Butler library.
When I describe him as a mental health activist, though, Reiman is quick to correct me.
“I like to put on these events,” Reiman says simply. And later, he adds, “People are interested in doing weird shit.”
The idea for both Reiman’s events originated from the death of Columbia College student Mounia Abousaid in December of 2016. Though he didn’t know her very well, Reiman lived in the room right next to hers, and was there when her body was found. He had been dealing with own mental health issues at the time, including passive thoughts of suicide. Several other student deaths followed, and in the middle of spring semester of 2017, so did that of his beginner’s nonfiction writing workshop teacher.
Reiman theorized that there may be a “weird spiritual energy” present at Columbia. He tells me the history of the Morningside Campus: The land was taken from Lenape Native American people, became the site of a battle in the Revolutionary War, and then hosted an insane asylum. What if this energy resides beneath the land, he wonders, and some of it is released every time they cut into the ground to do road work?
“No, it’s probably not true,” Reiman admits. “But having that conversation and tackling the absurd amount of trauma … with an absurdist explanation made me feel good … and [I thought] ‘What if we had some sort of absurd, weird, fun thing to make people feel better?’”
Near the end of the exorcism, a student speaks up from the back of the crowd.
“You talk a lot about personal kindness being the cure to the sickness on campus,” he says, addressing Reiman. “I just want to thank you for all the work that you’ve done for that in the past two years.”
“The only way to survive at Columbia,” Reiman told me earlier that day, “is by finding these little, tiny pockets of warmth in this cold, dark space.”
At his suggestion, we end with a group hug. (It takes us two tries, as they forget to collect the burning sage at first—“Things are catching on fire!”) Reiman notices me on the outskirts of the circle and grabs me by my arm, pulling me deep into the center of the hug. There, surrounded by the kind faces of strangers, I think of all the pockets of warmth that he surely leaves behind.