No one is comfortable doubting the word of a woman who says that she was raped. Yet many people have begun to doubt a young woman named Jackie who told Rolling Stone magazine that she was gang raped at a University of Virginia fraternity house.
As reported by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, Jackie’s accusations ring true. Many have questioned the facts of the case, and they ought to be questioned, but Jackie’s account of her mental trauma and emotional pain seems plausible.
The psychological aftershock makes the story appear to be true.
And yet, the story comes at a time when colleges, and especially fraternities are being denounced for encouraging and countenancing the sexual assault of innocent young women. In today’s world the narrative often counts more than the facts.
We know that a University of Chicago student recently fabricated a story of a rape threat in order to help disseminate the narrative.
In a world where we have increasingly been told that everything is a narrative, facts only matter to the extent that they sustain the beliefs of those who have bought the narrative.
Bret Stephens explained it well in the Wall Street Journal yesterday:
It isn’t surprising that a generation of journalists schooled in the idea that “narrative” contains truth independent of fact are so easily taken in by stories that ultimately prove less than accurate, if not utterly untrue. Nor is it surprising that American distrust in the news media is near an all-time high. Bad journalism is bad for journalism, and good journalists have a responsibility and an interest in calling out sensationalist stories whose details ring false even as they play to what we’re inclined to believe is true.
Jackie’s story was first questioned by Richard Bradley. Former editor of George magazine, Bradley noted astutely that we are more likely to accept stories that confirm the narrative we believe in.
Which isn’t to say that the rape did not happen, even if it may not have happened precisely in the way described in the piece. But it ought to raise a skeptical eyebrow. Mr. Bradley’s sharpest observation is that the journalistic fabrications that most often make it into print are those that “play into existing biases.” In the UVA case, he notes, those include biases against fraternities, men and the South—exactly the kinds of biases that led to the fabricated rape charges against the Duke lacrosse players in 2006.
Bradley has stated that Erdely was remiss for not having spoken to the young men who were accused in the story. It is a simple question of correct journalistic practice. Moreso since the author made no effort to hide identifying characteristics.
In the judicial system and in journalism someone who is accused of a crime should be able to offer his version of events.
Erdely claimed that Jackie did not want her to interview the men, but now that their reputations are being destroyed, we ought at least to allow them to decline to comment.
One is surprised that with this much attention no one has “outed” the accused men. Surely, enough information exists online to allow an enterprising reporter to identify the guilty Phi Kappa Psi fraternity brothers.
One understands that Jackie herself does not want to come forward, but if she allowed Erdely to use her name, by now a lot of people must know who she is. One appreciates their concern for her privacy and her safety, but now her story is being investigated by the police—as it ought to have been from the first—so privacy is not going to be the issue for very long.
Megan McArdle points out:
If the Rolling Stone article's allegations are true, there’s also enough detail to put at least a couple of people in jail, and possibly the whole group, even if Jackie (the victim) is reluctant to assist the investigation.
For starters, there are two people whom the university can surely identify right now. First is “Drew,” the boy who worked as a lifeguard at the university pool with her, invited her to the party, and handed her over to his brothers to be raped. There are about 80 brothers in this fraternity; the odds that more than one of them was an upperclassman lifeguard in 2012 seem pretty small, unless this happens to be the swim team frat.
Second is the kid who raped her with a beer bottle when he found himself unable to maintain an erection; she says she recognized him as a classmate from a small anthropology discussion group. The story strongly implies that the rape was an initiation ritual for the fraternity, and since fraternity rush takes place in the second half of freshman year at UVA, this boy was almost certainly a sophomore, or maybe an upperclassman who transferred in. At any rate, it’s very unlikely that there is more than one young man who was a new member of Phi Kappa Psi in 2012, and also a member of lower-level anthropology class. The university ought to be able to identify these two young men in a matter of a few hours.
The fact that no one yet knows the identity of any of these people has caused some people to doubt the story.
If we assume that Jackie is so afraid of Drew that she does not want to mention his name, we must add that publishing the story and making it easy to identify him does not solve her problem. Also, once he is identified he is much less likely to approach her for any reason whatever.
Writing in the Washington Post, Paul Farhi raises some important considerations:
One of the many remarkable things about Erdely’s article is that no one had reported it before. At least a few dozen people in and around U-Va. were aware of Jackie’s story — friends, family, administrators and the small circle of people associated with One Less, the campus sexual assault awareness organization that Jackie had joined. Yet, for more than two years after the events described in the Rolling Stone article allegedly took place, the story remained untold.
Some elements of the story, however, are apparently too delicate for Erdely to talk about now. She won’t say, for example, whether she knows the names of Jackie’s alleged attackers or whether in her reporting she approached “Drew,” the alleged ringleader, for comment. She is bound to silence about those details, she said, by an agreement with Jackie, who “is very fearful of these men, in particular Drew. . . . She now considers herself an empty shell. So when it comes down to identifying them, she has a very hard time with that.”
Unfortunately, the gory and grisly details of the rape itself produce doubt. Here is the Rolling Stone account:
"Shut up," she heard a man's voice say as a body barreled into her, tripping her backward and sending them both crashing through a low glass table. There was a heavy person on top of her, spreading open her thighs, and another person kneeling on her hair, hands pinning down her arms, sharp shards digging into her back, and excited male voices rising all around her. When yet another hand clamped over her mouth, Jackie bit it, and the hand became a fist that punched her in the face. The men surrounding her began to laugh. For a hopeful moment Jackie wondered if this wasn't some collegiate prank. Perhaps at any second someone would flick on the lights and they'd return to the party.
A young woman is led young woman into a “pitch-black” room. She is shoved by a man, who falls on her; they crash through a glass table and she lands in shards of glass. She bites his hand; he punches her; the men laugh. (Really? A man punches a woman and people laugh?) With the smell of marijuana (not usually known as a violence-inducing drug) hovering over the room, he and six more men rape her. The last uses a beer bottle; allegedly he can not get an erection, so his fellow frat brothers goad him on, mock him, then finally give him a tool with which to violate Jackie. (This is the man whom Jackie allegedly knew because they were in an anthropology seminar together.) This, after all, is who men really are, in anonymous darkness.
The story of what happened to Jackie is similarly horrifying—and similarly incredible. Having been raped for three hours while lying in shards of glass “digging into her back”—three hours of which Jackie remembers every detail, despite the fact of the room’s pitch-blackness—she passes out and wakes up at 3 AM in an empty room.
Jackie makes her way downstairs, her red dress apparently sufficiently intact to wear; the party is still raging. Though she is blood-stained—three hours with shards of glass “digging into her back,” and gang-raped, including with a beer bottle— and must surely look deeply traumatized, no one notices her. She makes her way out a side entrance she hadn’t seen before. She calls her friends, who tell her that she doesn’t want to be known as the girl who cried rape and worry that if they take her to the hospital they won’t get invited to subsequent frat parties.
Put that way, doubt seems to be a legitimate response.
One understands that the events recounted would have traumatized Jackie severely.
One also understands that someone whose back was cut up by shards of glass might look to be in urgent need of medical attention.
One understands that college students are morally deficient—something about brain development—but one suspects that at least one of Jackie’s friends, seeing her bleeding and bruised from a gang rape would think of something other than frat parties.
One does well not to overestimate the moral sense of college freshmen. One does well not to overestimate the moral scruples of fraternity brothers. But, how does it happen that today’s liberated young women will sell out a friends’ well-being for an invitation to a frat party? And, how does it happen that no one noticed Jackie when she walked out of the party, bloodied and bruised, and how does it happen that no one thought to take Jackie to a hospital?