Earlier this afternoon, Rolling Stone released a statement saying that its seismic article “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” is based on an opening anecdote whose key details are now seriously in question. Phi Psi has responded with its own statement, which makes clear that the fraternity did not have an event the night or weekend of the alleged attack and that it has no current or former members who match the description of the main assailant, Jackie’s alleged date on the night of Friday, September 28th, 2012 (pseudonym “Drew”).
September 2012 was the first month in over 3-and-a-half academic years in which I, as a brother of the house next door to Phi Psi, would’ve been living more than a stone’s throw away from the site of the alleged incident. This doesn’t make me unique, but it does make me unique among commentators. Whatever advantages may be conferred by author Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s being a woman twice my age, experience and recall of UVa campus life are not among them. And attempts to extract sweeping judgments about a school from a brief tour can, as so many high school seniors find out, give one a distorted picture of the place, particularly if you’re only looking for what you want to see.
Nevertheless, my purpose here is not to quarrel with Erdely’s general argument, that sexual assault and rape are rampant, under reported, and consistently ignored or mishandled on college campuses across the United States, including at UVa. Nor am I going to rehash the points contained in Phi Psi’s statement, which was carefully evaluated and will likely form the basis of a hefty lawsuit against Rolling Stone. Instead this is an exercise – albeit easy in retrospect – to show why exactly Jackie’s story is almost unbelievable on its face to someone who has been a hundred times to that date function that didn’t actually happen with those rowdy frat boys who probably don’t exist.
Erdely’s intitial approach
By now several critiques have been made of Erdely’s lack of due diligence in her report, including the fact she failed to contact the alleged perpetrators of the crime or the three “friends” Jackie encountered afterwards – a clear journalistic lapse which raises questions about her credibility. Though perhaps more striking is the fact she consciously reverse-engineered her article. As a profile in the Washington Post notes, Erdely initially “wanted to write about sexual assault at an elite university, so she “interviewed students from across the country… at Harvard, Yale, Princeton,” scouring the most prestigious universities in the United States for the most gruesome account she could find. After contacting a leader of a sexual assault education group at UVa, Erdely was put in touch with Jackie, who burst forth with her two-year-old story, which became the fuse and powder in Erdely’s investigative bombshell.
“A Rape on Campus” is fundamentally a piece of narrative journalism, one which is heavy on the narrative side, while bizarrely thin in terms of journalistic rigor. (Qualifiers like “allegedly” almost never appear in the story, even though Erdely bases her retelling on a single anonymous source.) This raises a simple question: if she’d combed the country for a rape story to lede an article on campus sexual assault, why didn’t Erdely use one of the countless cases for which there is a mountain of good evidence? The answer is obvious. The force of Erdely’s article – the reason it has been shared 173,000 times on Facebook as of this writing – is contained in Jackie’s story. It’s a stunning piece of narrative journalism with details that play off our blackest anxieties about sex, violence, and the destruction of innocence. Without Jackie’s story,,Erdely’s article is another 9,000 words on the politics of sexual assault. With it, it’s a stunning indictment of fraternities, colleges, and gender relations in America today – aRolling Stone article turned water cooler topic.
Though Erdely’s account of the incident is chock full of familiar collegiate details, from the plastic cups to the well-worn description of the UVa’s preppy student body, it contains little concrete information about the incident itself. In three paragraphs, Erdely introduces us to Jackie, her date “Drew,” and has them both ascending the stairs to the scene of the looming crime. Yet even this bare bones account is problematic, beginning with its date, Friday, September 28th, 2012.
To those unacquainted with Rugby Road, this detail would pass unnoticed, submerged as it is within the gruesome stream of Erdley’s narrative. Yet it is conspicuous because UVA has spring semester pledging and initiation for all fraternities. The assault, which is clearly portrayed as a ritual induction into the brotherhood, is lead by Drew and another brother who goad the seven potential new members into repeatedly raping Jackie (“Don’t you want to be a brother?” they jeer to the final assailant).
It’s true fall pledging is technically allowed at UVa, but this is exceedingly rare and never have I seen a fraternity take more than two pledges during it. (Someone with access to the fraternity rosters can easily confirm this point.) Some fraternities do keep pledges uninitiated until the fall – usually to help with brothers moving in for the new school year – but this is unusual and wouldn’t last into the final week of September. An outside reporter, no matter how well versed in the IFC handbook, would be unaware of these facts and thus unable to press the relevant sources for clarification.
“Fine,” one may object, “but what if this was some sort of delayed initiatory rite that came after formal initiation the previous spring?” Again such a question raises uncomfortable issues with Jackie’s account. If indeed the seven assailants and two ringleaders were all active members of Phi Psi, then they would have compromised nearly half of a pledge class and about one-sixth of the entire house. Their “three hour” absence during a date function would be highly conspicuous, especially to their respective dates.
It’s important to clear up what date functions at UVa look like. They are closed parties, meaning only brothers and their dates are present. A fraternity of 75 guys will have roughly that many guests, making it a smallish event that, while occasionally wild, never gets very crowded. Four weeks into the school year, such events commonly open up to a select group of first years interested in joining the fraternity – “rushees” in UVa speak – but this only happens around midnight, after the alleged crime was already in progress.
If the fraternity knew the attack was to occur at that date and time – as the article seems to suggest, given its high degree of orchestration – then it certainly was a very risky choice given the circumstances, and the fact Phi Psi is one of the biggest fraternities on campus in terms of membership also exacerbates this problem. UVa’s Greek system is notoriously porous; secrets, even those that involve only members, are exceedingly difficult to keep. A serial case of premeditated gang rape within a fairly observable fraternity is, to say the very least, a ritual that would be nearly impossible to keep buried.
The recollected “pungency of marijuana” is a strange detail. Like Don Lemon’s recent flub at the Ferguson protests, it reflects a Reefer Madness-like misunderstanding of how marijuana affects young men. While some drugs (perhaps steroids or powder amphetamines) may make the mania described in the article more likely, marijuana, with its low-testosterone high marked by docility and passivity, is not one of them. This is merely an observation of howseven fraternity guys smoking weed in a room at a party would tend to behave compared to their binge-drinking counterparts.
The scene of the crime
After Jackie is ushered by Drew into a “pitch-black” upstairs room, the following immediately occurs:
“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.
This is the moment when the reader’s throat swells. Its animalism – driven home by the faceless carnality of “body” – is juxtaposed with Drew’s handsome, enticing smile a few paragraphs before. Here we know the “rape” in the title won’t be nice guy Drew taking it a little too far at the end of the night.
But the violence of the scene is so intense that unlike in many instances of sexual assault, the physical wounds sustained by Jackie would be visible, perhaps even to this day. The rape occurred on a bed of broken glass the size of a coffee table, with its “sharp shards digging into her back.” Jackie was gagged, pinned to the floor, and punched in the face. The excruciating ordeal lasted one-hundred-and-eighty minutes and involved seven attackers as well as violation with a beer bottle. It is absolutely critical to keep these numbers and their attendant scale and severity in mind. Individually, these injuries are gruesome enough, though their combined impact seems almost unendurable, especially when one considers that lacerations from single shards of glass routinely require stitches.
Furthermore, because all first years live with a residential advisor, in addition to a roommate and handful of suite or hall mates, it would be extremely difficult to conceal much less heal injuries of that nature. My first year RA, lax by UVA standards, consistently monitored our behavior and wellbeing in what is a universal feature of dorm life that’s been moaned by first years for decades now.
The perpetrators’ insane pathology
The final and most peculiar aspect of Jackie’s account is the gratuitous and psychopathological cruelty of her attackers. A vast majority of campus sexual assaults involve a single aggressor and a prostrate, often unconscious victim. Jackie’s story isn’t like that. The nine assailants call her “it” throughout the attack, in a sadistic touch that Richard Bradley, skeptical of the article, compares to Silence of the Lambs (“It rubs the lotion on its skin”). But, as Bradley notes, that film is a fiction. How often are two such psychopaths enrolled in the same school? How often do nine of them find each other in the same respectable fraternity? Of course the forces of mob mentality and peer pressure can make young men do strange, stupid, and even wicked things. But again, Jackie’s story is fundamentally beyond even the worst of what we’ve seen from frat house antics.
The journalist Caitlin Flanagan, who just published a damning, year-long investigation into fraternities published in the Atlantic, made the followingcomment about Jackie’s story:
In all my time studying fraternity rapes for my own essay, I didn’t come across a single report of anything like this. I did find reports of women who were raped by multiple men on one night—but those always involved incapacitation, either by alcohol or a drugged drink. And I did also find accounts of violent, push-down rape of the kind in the essay—but those were always by one member, not a bunch of members. (In fact, many of that kind—now that I think about it—were committed by non-members, or by visiting former members). But a planned gang rape, without alcohol or drugs, and keyed to initiation—I have never seen a case like that. Nor have I seen penetration with a foreign object—I’ve seen plenty of that committed by brothers to pledges as hazing, but I haven’t seen it in sexual assault cases. I’m sure it’s happened, but again—as part of a ritualized gang rape … Never anything like it.
Erdely’s general unfamiliarity with UVA
There are many minor points barely worth making, but which nevertheless show Erdeley’s general unfamiliarity with UVa and tendency to distort for narrative effect. It may well be true that Jackie “was harassed outside bars on the corner by men who recognized [her] from presentations.” What isn’t true is that one of those men “flung a bottle at Jackie that broke on the side of her face, leaving a blood-red bruise around her eye.” That’s a detail worthy of a Jackie Chan movie, but no thrown beer bottle has ever broken on someone’s face, and if it did, it’d leave more than a bruise. Moreover, Phi Psi is known for several things, though “upper tier” and “tremendous wealth,” as relative as the terms may be, are generally not among them.
Erdely peppers her account with the lyrics to “Rugby Road,” a lurid old fight song whose title and lyrics suggest some longstanding, deeply imbedded misogyny at the heart of UVa’s Greek scene. For the record, I’ve never heard the song. When polled, only one member of my twelve-person pledge class claimed to know of it, and presumably because men in his family have been attending UVa since long before women were admitted. Moreover, the stanzas which divide the article like some sardonic, derisive scoff at female rape victims, are deliberately placed to heighten and toy with readers’ emotions at key moments – the closest thing Erdely has to a film score reverberating in the background.
But once its effect wears off, perhaps during a second pass over the piece, this trope begins to reveal Erdely’s general underhandedness. Coarse and misogynic impulses are expressed in all sorts of ways by today’s young men; nineteenth century ditties, however, are not among them. Why not focus on those issues, real and immediate to any reader, instead of aiming for the kill with a theatrical flourish? Such a question reflects the original one about Erdley’s consistent care for style over substance: why pick Jackie’s story when so many other, better grounded accounts of rape are out there? The answer to both is very simple. Erdley is not in the business of exposition; she’s in the business of advocating for a cause, and her credibility as a tour guide through American campus life is continually eroded as she points here and there screaming, “Wow!”
Ultimately Jackie’s story is far from over. While Rolling Stone’s disclaimer seems to indicate where this is going, we can’t be sure exactly how it will end. Whether Jackie is deluded or misled, deliberately lying or suffering from some mental disorder, or perhaps even telling the general truth with some major inaccuracies, this saga has been utterly calamitous for her, the members of Phi Psi, and the University of Virginia, most especially its administration and the students who work hard to illuminate the issue of sexual violence on campus. Though perhaps the most tragic consequence is saved for past and future rape victims, whose stories, so often dismissed and defamed, now bear an even heavier burden of proof in the court of public opinion.
While this cynical generation has shown a desire to side with the victims, on social media and beyond, it nevertheless teeters dangerously close to hearing “Wolf!” cried one too many times. That common question Why would the girl just make this up? is about to have its answer: I don’t know, but she has before.
Bio: Originally from Houston, Texas, John Benjamin currently lives in Washington, DC, where he works as a fellow with Smart Growth America and writes when he has a spare minute. His work can be found on http://jrbenjamin.com . You can follow him on Twitter via @JRMBenjamin
Synopsis: A recent UVA grad who lived next door to the house in question crime scene examines the Rolling Stone allegation and illustrates how improbable it looks and how the resulting media attention [could] damage the credibility of future rape victims.