Numerous identity politics uproars, such as Ferguson, Trayvon, and Duke Lacrosse, have turned out to be humiliating fiascos for the national press when all the facts are finally toted up. Note that these were the mainstream media’s wars of choice, battlegrounds chosen to teach the public lessons.
What can we expect from the next crisis in the press’s pipeline, the purported fraternity initiation gang rape?
Even as the Ferguson narrative exploded, both metaphorically and literally, in an orgy of media-encouraged looting and arson (plus a white St. Louis man who was murdered with hammers on Sunday), vanguard elements were moving on to the upcoming obsession. A long article in Rolling Stone by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, entitled “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” appeared on November 19th:
Jackie was just starting her freshman year at the University of Virginia when she was brutally assaulted by seven men at a frat party. When she tried to hold them accountable, a whole new kind of abuse began.
Here’s the tale that has been acclaimed across the country with barely any journalistic skepticism for the first 10 days.
A stone-cold sober coed named Jackie is lured by her date “Drew” to an upstairs room at the fraternity house. She is immediately tackled by one of the eight men waiting in the pitch darkness. Their toppling bodies crash through a glass table unaccountably left out in the middle of the rape room. Amidst the shattered glass, the young men beat her and hold her down on the floor. The shards grind into her bleeding back as she is methodically raped in the dark for three hours by seven young men, while her upperclassman date and another man coach them.
The frat boys egg on one reluctant pledge: “Don’t you want to be a brother?”
“We all had to do it, so you do, too.”
In other words, this is supposed to be some sort of fraternity initiation rite. (That fraternities at UVA hold their initiations in the spring, not in September, isn’t mentioned in the article.)
The last lad, whom Jackie somehow recognizes in the dark as a boy in her anthropology class, rapes her with a glass bottle.
As a work of journalism, it’s most interesting for what it inadvertently reveals about the bizarre legends that seem plausible to American media consumers in 2014.
As a creative work of art, however, drawing (consciously or unconsciously) upon multiple influences such as the blockbuster Girl with the Dragon Tattoo hate porn franchise and the Shattered Glass biopic of magazine article fabricator Stephen Glass, it is more impressive. It’s first-rate propaganda, and Erdely’s adroit techniques should be studied by those concerned about how gullible Americans are.
Some of the literary power of Erdely’s nightmarish retelling of poor Jackie’s saga stems from the writer’s use of glass, both broken and bottle, as an ominous multipurpose metaphor. Throughout “A Rape on Campus,” glass stands for fragility, bloodshed, loss of virginity, alcohol, littering, male brutishness, danger, violence—even a literal phallic symbol. Glass represents not the calm transparency of a window pane, but the occluded viciousness of the white conservative Southern male power structure.
The first weeks of freshman year are when students are most vulnerable to sexual assault. … Hundreds of women in crop tops and men in khaki shorts stagger between handsome fraternity houses, against a call-and-response soundtrack of “Whoo!” and breaking glass. “Do you know where Delta Sig is?” a girl slurs, sloshed. Behind her, one of her dozen or so friends stumbles into the street, sending a beer bottle shattering.
Strangely, just about the only people in America who don’t seem to have accepted at face value Jackie’s theory of a nine-man conspiracy to rape her are those portrayed in the Rolling Stone article as knowing the poor young woman well.
Much of this immense article is devoted to puzzling scenes in which Jackie’s friends and female mentors tell her to cheer up and get over it. If you read the article carefully, you’ll notice that almost everybody who knows Jackie closely treats her about the way you’d treat a friend who starts talking about having been abducted by aliens. You would try to find out what the real actual thing that happened to her was. But if she kept talking about alien rectal probing, you’d try to change the subject.
Morally, Sabrina Rubin Erdely and Rolling Stone should not have exploited an unsettled young woman.
Late in her first year at UVA, depressed and in danger of flunking out, Jackie talks to Dean Nicole Eramo, Chair of the Sexual Misconduct Board. This dean patiently explains to Jackie the three ways she can file charges, but Jackie can’t make up her mind. Eventually, Dean Eramo suggests she join a campus rape survivors’ support group. There, Jackie makes new friends who appreciate her story (even though it’s more violent than their own).
In Erdely’s telling, Dean Eramo, a middle-aged lady, is a sinister figure, a sonderkommando who shields the rape culture by getting students to confide in her instead of exposing the vileness all about. But there’s a problem with the author’s interpretation: Jackie and numerous other young women love Dean Eramo. She listens. Jackie and others responded to the Rolling Stone hit piece against Eramo by writing a long letter to the college newspaper praising the dean.
My vague impression is that Jackie seems like a troubled soul who drew needed comfort from talking to listeners who were sympathetic. She doesn’t appear to have been in any hurry over the last couple of years to talk to people who might ask her tough questions about the validity of her allegations, such as police detectives or defense attorneys. That appears to have been prudent on her part.
Unfortunately, Rolling Stone was eager to use her for its own commercial and political purposes.
And so her story is now our latest national media crisis.
During her sophomore year, Jackie became prominent in the struggle on campus against rape culture. But the patriarchy struck back brutally last spring, using its favorite tool of violence, the glass bottle. Outside a bar at the Corner:
One man flung a bottle at Jackie that broke on the side of her face, leaving a blood-red bruise around her eye.
That’s horrifying … assuming it happened. Or are we deep into Gone Girl territory now? (There’s nothing in the article about anybody calling the police over this presumably open-and-shut case.) Erdely continues:
She e-mailed Eramo so they could discuss the attack—and discuss another matter, too, which was troubling Jackie a great deal. Through her ever expanding network, Jackie had come across something deeply disturbing: two other young women who, she says, confided that they, too, had recently been Phi Kappa Psi gang-rape victims.
A bruise still mottling her face, Jackie sat in Eramo’s office in May 2014 and told her about the two others. … (Neither woman was willing to talk to RS.)
Eramo had been listening to Jackie’s stories for a year at this point:
As Jackie wrapped up her story, she was disappointed by Eramo’s nonreaction. She’d expected shock, disgust, horror.
Erdely attributes this widespread ho-hum reaction among Jackie’s old friends and confidantes to a second massive conspiracy, this one to cover up the first conspiracy in order to protect that bastion of the right, UVA.
Erdely’s explanation for why those who know Jackie best didn’t rush her to the hospital or call 911 or even pay much attention to her claims over the next two years is that the University of Virginia is an alien, hostile, conservative country club with an
… aura of preppy success, where throngs of toned, tanned and overwhelmingly blond students fanned across a landscape of neoclassical brick buildings.
The Rolling Stone writer is bothered by how UVA students look up to founder Thomas Jefferson (a notorious rapist of a black body, I might add).
Erdely finds offense in the campus honor code, by which students promise not to cheat on papers.
By the way, how conservative is UVA? In 2008, Barack Obama carried Charlottesville, home of UVA, by a sizable 11,600 votes. But Charlottesville is probably less extremely liberal than, say, Penn. So to Erdely, UVA is, basically, the Other.
I suppose that Erdely’s positing two conspiracy theories is logically consistent. But Occam’s razor suggests that the real campus conspiracy may have been to gently humor the unhappy girl.
Perhaps the first person of any prominence in the media to read the Rolling Stone article skeptically was Richard Bradley, a veteran author and magazine editor (who used to be named Richard Blow). Bradley asked on his personal blog on November 24th, five days after publication, the simple question: “Is the Rolling Stone Story True?”
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. … The answer, I had to admit, was because they corroborated my pre-existing biases.
The career of Stephen Glass at The New Republic was made into a decent little movie called Shattered Glass, with the fellow who played young Darth Vader in the Star Wars prequels as Glass and the always good Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck Lane, the new TNR editor who was the first to figure out Glass was just making up all his fabulous stories. The title card to the movie explained one major reason for TNR’s naiveté: the median age of New Republic staffers was 26.
(In contrast, we columnists here at Taki’s Magazine tend to be, shall we say, less callow. For instance, Pat Buchanan, as he recounts in his memoir The Greatest Comeback, was in the Congo with Richard Nixon 47 years ago when dictator Mobutu Sese Seko leaned in close to explain what his developing country needed most from America: “Twenty Chrysler Imperials and twenty Harley-Davidsons.”)
By the way, Erdely said in 1998 that she “adored” Stephen Glass when they were colleagues on a student publication at Penn.
Bradley went on:
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.
Except the Duke lacrosse team gang rape never happened.
Like most 21st-century brouhahas, “A Rape on Campus” recapitulates many themes of Wolfe’s novels. For example, in A Man in Full, Atlanta’s establishment mobilizes to make go away a Georgia Tech coed’s allegation that she was raped by the school’s Heisman Trophy winner, Fareek Fanon.
Moreover, Jackie is portrayed as similar to the title character in Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, in which a first-year coed at a prestigious university is plunged into suicidal depression after she semi-consensually loses her virginity to a handsome but callous fraternity boy. Something deeply upsetting likely happened to Jackie, too, but exactly what is a mystery.
The fraternity rape story serves as a welcome distraction from the October arrest of black cabdriver Jesse Matthew for the September murder of white UVA coed Hannah Graham. (DNA evidence has since linked Matthew to another dead coed and another rape, and he is now being considered in 10 cold cases of crimes against women.)
A timeline of how Richard Bradley’s critique finally made its way to the general public may be of interest.
A reader kindly alerted me to Bradley’s post on November 24th. I made four scattershot comments on it on November 25th, beginning with my question:
Wouldn’t the rapists get cut by the broken glass all over the floor, too? I guess they were such sex-crazed animals that they didn’t notice the glass cutting their hands and knees for the first three hours.
I continued to mull over the issues that had been raised. (I hate being publicly wrong, so I’m cautious.) On the 27th I returned to Bradley’s blog to find I was still the only commenter, and added a fifth:
Sorry to keep coming back to this, but I’ve done some more thinking and here’s where the story falls apart: pitch darkness _and_ broken glass on the floor. The glass table is smashed, but nobody turns on the light to see what happened or where the broken glass is? Instead, each man, having heard the glass table get smashed, still gets down on the floor covered with shards of broken glass, risking not only his hands and knees, but also pulling out an even more personal part of his anatomy, one that he only has one of.
By the 29th I was still the only commenter, but I finally felt confident enough that there were major problems with the Rolling Stone account to link to Bradley’s critique from my iSteve blog at the Unz Review.
That opened the floodgates. Comments finally poured in to Bradley’s blog. And on the first two days of December, numerous well-known publications weighed in with skeptical assessments based on Bradley’s analysis: Robby Soave at Reason, Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit, Megan McArdle at Bloomberg, Ashe Schow at the Washington Examiner, Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal, Judith Shulevitz at The New Republic, Jonah Goldberg at the Los Angeles Times, and Erik Wemple at the Washington Post.
I remain struck by the literary aspect of the article. This is not crude agitprop, but a polished performance by somebody who has at least thought about how famous journalists negotiate the sometimes blurry line between fact and fiction.
For example, studded throughout Erdely’s text is evidence (for instance, her phrase “brutal tableau”) of the influence of Wolfe’s rival as the greatest comic journalist/novelist of their era, Hunter S. Thompson. The summit of Rolling Stone’s literary history was the 1971 publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, a book that has long been subject to debate over whether it should be called New Journalism or a novel. It’s full of paranoid fantasies about violence, but also very little action.
The subtitle of Erdely’s article, “A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” sounds like a parody of a Thompson subtitle. Indeed, in his self-parodying old age, Thompson published Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist.
This is not to assert that Erdely inserted some coded message into her text. I merely observe that the allusions to famous figures like Glass, Wolfe, and Thompson—who fell on various sides of the divide between journalism and novels—reflects a formidable level of literary contrivance on Erdely’s part. It’s like a serious anti-parody of old parodies. This may help explain why so many readers assumed it to be a trustworthy work of high quality.
Toward the end of Fear and Loathing, shattered glass starts becoming a repeated element within narrator Raoul Duke’s paranoid skull:
The [hotel] room looked like the site of some disastrous zoological experiment involving whiskey and gorillas. The ten-foot mirror was shattered, but still hanging together—bad evidence of that afternoon when my attorney ran amok with the coconut hammer, smashing the mirror and all the light bulbs. …
The bathroom floor was about six inches deep with soap bars, vomit, and grapefruit rinds, mixed with broken glass. I had to put my boots on every time I went in there to piss. …
But then why all this booze? And these crude pornographic photos … that were plastered on the broken mirror … and all these signs of violence, these strange red and blue bulbs and shards of broken glass embedded in the wall plaster …
The penultimate joke in Fear and Loathing is that almost all the brutal and bizarre violence in the book never actually happens outside of Duke’s head.
The ultimate joke in Fear and Loathing is that few readers ever got the penultimate joke.
Thanks to Richard Bradley, more people have an opportunity to appreciate this new joke.
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