Some years ago, when I was an editor at George magazine, I was unfortunate enough to work with the writer Stephen Glass on a number of articles. They proved to be fake, filled with fabrications, as was pretty much all of his work. The experience was painful but educational; it forced me to examine how easily I had been duped. Why did I believe those insinuations about Bill Clinton-friend Vernon Jordan being a lech? About the dubious ethics of uber-fundraiser (now Virginia governor) Terry McAuliffe?
The answer, I had to admit, was because they corroborated my pre-existing biases. I was well on the way to believing that Vernon Jordan was a philanderer, for example—everyone seemed to think so, back in the ’90s, during the Monica Lewinsky time.
So Stephen wrote what he knew I was inclined to believe. And because I was inclined to believe it, I abandoned my critical judgment. I lowered my guard.
The lesson I learned: One must be most critical, in the best sense of that word, about what one is already inclined to believe. So when, say, the Duke lacrosse scandal erupted, I applied that lesson. The story was so sensational! Believing it required indulging one’s biases: A southern school…rich white preppy boys…a privileged sports team…lower class African-American women…rape. It read like a Tom Wolfe novel.
And of course it never happened.
Which brings me to a magazine article that is causing an enormous furor in Virginia and around the country; it’s inescapable on social media. Written by a woman named Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the article is called “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA.”
The article alleges a truly horrifying gang rape at a UVA fraternity, and it has understandably shocked the campus and everyone who’s read it. The consequences have been pretty much instantaneous: The fraternity involved has voluntarily suspended its operations (without admitting that the incident happened); UVA’s president is promising an investigation and has since suspended all fraternity charters on campus; the alumni are in an uproar; the governor of Virginia has spoken out; students, particularly female students, are furious, and the concept of “rape culture” is further established. Federal intervention is sure to follow.
The only thing is…I’m not sure that I believe it. I’m not convinced that this gang rape actually happened. Something about this story doesn’t feel right.
The article tells the story of “Jackie”—we never learn her identity—an 18-year-old freshman at UVA. She’s a model student, “attending events, joining clubs, making friends and, now, being asked on an actual date” by a fraternity member she met while working as a lifeguard. Her date, “Drew”—for a reason Rolling Stone never explains, we never learn his identity either—leads Jackie upstairs so that they can talk “where it’s quieter.”
What Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rudin Erdely says happens next turns the stomach.
Drew ushered Jackie into a bedroom, shutting the door behind them. The room was pitch-black inside. Jackie blindly turned toward Drew, uttering his name. At that same moment, she says, she detected movement in the room – and felt someone bump into her. Jackie began to scream.
“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.
“Grab its motherfucking leg,” she heard a voice say. And that’s when Jackie knew she was going to be raped.
And, Rubin Erdley says, she was—repeatedly, and for an agonizingly long time.
She remembers every moment of the next three hours of agony, during which, she says, seven men took turns raping her, while two more – her date, Drew, and another man – gave instruction and encouragement. She remembers how the spectators swigged beers, and how they called each other nicknames like Armpit and Blanket. She remembers the men’s heft and their sour reek of alcohol mixed with the pungency of marijuana. Most of all, Jackie remembers the pain and the pounding that went on and on.
Let me be very clear: I don’t doubt that it’s possible that this happened. People can do terrible things, things that one doesn’t want to believe happen. And I certainly don’t want to think that this could have happened.
But more than that: I don’t believe that it happened—certainly not in the way that it is recounted.
Remember: One must be most critical about stories that play into existing biases. And this story nourishes a lot of them: biases against fraternities, against men, against the South; biases about the naivete of young women, especially Southern women; pre-existing beliefs about the prevalence—indeed, the existence—of rape culture; extant suspicions about the hostility of university bureaucracies to sexual assault complaints that can produce unflattering publicity.
And, of course, this is a very charged time when it comes to the issue of sexual assault on campuses. Emotion has outswept reason. Jackie, for example, alleges that one out of three women who go to UVA has been raped. This is silly.
So let’s look at this story with a different set of eyes—not the eyes of a man or a woman, but those of a magazine editor who has seen fakes before.
The first thing that strikes me about it, of course, is that Jackie is never identified. I don’t love that—it makes me uncomfortable to base an entire story on an unnamed source, and I can’t think of any other situation other than rape where a publication would allow that—but certainly one can see the rationale.
Then we have three friends who talked to Jackie right after the rape, and apparently discouraged her from going to the hospital or the authorities because they might subsequently be banned from frat parties. Not one of them is named, or interviewed; so the three people who could allegedly corroborate the assault don’t.
Then there’s the fact that Jackie apparently knew two of her rapists, but they are not named, nor does Rubin Erdley contact them, which is basically a cardinal rule of journalism: If someone in your story is accused of something, you’d better do your damnedest to give them a chance to respond. There’s no sign that Rubin Erdley did so. Why not? Did she not know their names? Would Jackie not tell her? Because if Rubin Erdley knew their names and didn’t call them, that is horrible journalism and undermines confidence in her reporting. And if she didn’t know their names—well, we’re back in Patrick Witt-land again.
Finally there’s the narrative of the gang rape itself. It is a terrible story—so terrible that, if it weren’t for the power of our preexisting biases, we would be hard-pressed to believe it.
A young woman is lured to a fraternity in order to be gang-raped as part of a fraternity initiation. It’s a premeditated gang rape. I am not, thankfully, an expert on premeditated gang rape, but to the extent that it exists, it seems to be most prevalent in war-torn lands or countries with a strain of a punitive, misogynist and violent religious culture (Pakistan, for example).
The allegation here is that, at U.Va., gang rape is a rite of passage for young men to become fraternity “brothers.” It’s possible. One would think that we’d have heard of this before—gang rape as a fraternity initiation is hard to keep secret—but it’s possible.
So then we have a scene that boggles the mind. (Again, doesn’t mean it’s untrue; does mean we have to be critical.)
A young woman is led 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.
It is hard for me here not to think of Tawana Brawley, who not too long ago—but too far back for many of this article’s readers to remember—showed up at her home after going missing for a couple of days wearing only a garbage bag, covered in feces and with racial slurs scrawled on her body. Brawley told her family that she’d been kidnapped and raped by six white men.
Turned out she made the whole thing up to avoid a potential punishment from her stepfather. But before that truth was discovered, the lives of the men she accused were very nearly destroyed.
(Jackie: “She remembers how…the men called each other nicknames like ‘Armpit’ and ‘Blanket'”—which apparently explains why she doesn’t know the names of seven of the men involved.)
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.
Again: It’s possible. You can’t say it isn’t. But I am reminded of the urban myth about someone waking up in a bathtub full of ice in New Orleans. This story contains a lot of apocryphal tropes.
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.
Nothing in this story is impossible; it’s important to note that. It could have happened. But to believe it beyond a doubt, without a question mark—as virtually all the people who’ve read the article seem to—requires a lot of leaps of faith. It requires you to indulge your pre-existing biases.
Or perhaps I should say your pre-existing fantasies—your nightmares about the worst possible thing that could happen to you, or your friend or your daughter or sister; your deepest fears about what men are capable of; your horror at the horror of rape; your outrage about the lack of outrage.
“Grab its motherfucking leg,” says the first rapist to one of his “brothers.” It reminds me of Silence of the Lambs: “It rubs the lotion on its skin…” But Silence of the Lambs was fiction.
What happens now? There will be investigations; the police will likely be involved. If there really were nine men in that pitch-black room, it is hard to imagine that we won’t find out the truth, or at least more information. And Jackie could, I believe, waive her legal protections and allow the university to disclose the file it allegedly has on her case.
But we do not know who Jackie is, and she will not put her name to this, for fear of backlash.
If it didn’t happen, this story will be impossible to disprove—some people seem to want to believe it—and U.Va’s reputation will likely not recover for decades. Rolling Stone—which published several articles by Stephen Glass, by the way, and always insisted that it was the one publication in which Glass did not tell lies—will stand by its story. And we will never know the truth.