IT GETS BETTER
Still Healing a Year After U-VA ‘Rape on Campus’
I defended Jackie’s story when it was published, because the same thing happened to me at U-VA 30 years ago.
On November 19, 2014, I was nervous, because I knew it was imminent: a long-form article in Rolling Stone magazine about campus sexual assault. The focus was on an alleged 2012 gang rape at the Phi Kappa Psi house at the University of Virginia, an echo of the same thing that happened to me there in October of 1984.
I was in my kitchen when the phone rang at approximately 6:30 p.m. It was Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the article’s author, who I had worked closely with since July. We had been introduced by RAINN, an anti-sexual assault organization I work with. I was cooking dinner for my young children, but I answered anyway. I knew the call meant that the piece was going live on the Web that night or early the next morning.
Our rapport was easy. Sabrina told me that the article should be live by 11 p.m. She was palpably excited, the months of research finally paying off. We talked about the media attention, the way the public would view it, the social media firestorm. I had not seen the article, but knew from our many conversations, emails, and texts that it would be a game-changing exposé. A story like mine, but 30 years later.
Sabrina only had a few minutes to speak, and as we wrapped up, she asked me if I wouldn’t mind talking to “Jackie,” the story’s central figure. So that was her name. Sabrina had asked me via email in September, and tonight, she repeated the request. I agreed heartily. What are the odds of meeting someone whose dark moment was nearly identical to your own? Was she prepared for the intense media scrutiny? Jackie was excited but nervous, Sabrina told me. She was glad her story was going to be told.
From Sabrina Rubin Erdely on 9/19/14:
P.S. After this article comes out, if it’s OK with you, I’d really love to connect you with the main girl in my article, who’s still at U-VA. I think she’d gain a lot from connecting with someone who survived such a similar experience, and to know that “it gets better.” She’s so strong and courageous but having a hard time dealing, as you might imagine.
The problem, Sabrina explained, was that Jackie “could not see a life for herself past her 30th birthday.” I understood. I hung up the phone with a sadness for this faceless young woman. She quite obviously didn’t know how intense the media would be if she was happy to have her story see the light of day.
My kingdom for a meeting with this woman, I thought. My kingdom for just five minutes, to look into her eyes.
But that was not to be.
“A Rape on Campus” did indeed post online on Nov. 19, 2014, and in the Dave Grohl-covered hard copy, dated Dec. 4, 2014. Reaction was swift, earth-shattering, and everything Sabrina thought it would be. My quotes, used to provide context and color, were but a tiny fraction of the extensive piece. I didn’t need to read it—I had spent hours talking with the author and I knew what the article contained.
A week after publishing, fraternities at U-VA were shut down amidst protests. There was a sense of pain and hopelessness about rape culture in general, and pain for Jackie in particular.
But the tide quickly shifted, then bowled us over with wave after punishing wave. One by one, my fellow journalists discovered cracks in the narrative. Richard Bradley was the first, followed by a polarizing piece by Jonah Goldberg at the National Review. Meghan Daum of the Los Angeles Times was more thoughtful. Slate’s Hanna Rosin and her colleague Alison Benedikt did some great work.
Many didn’t believe a story so horrible could happen. Some interviewed Sabrina hoping for answers, as Rosin and Benedikt did. Most didn’t think such a thing could happen on a modern college campus. I believed, because the exact thing did happen to me, so I defended the piece. I was wrong.
Finally, Erik Wemple and T. Rees Shapiro of The Washington Post interviewed Jackie. They chipped away at her story, bit by bit, until it completely unraveled. The end result? An apology from Rolling Stone’s managing editor, Will Dana, which basically blamed Jackie. After a furious backlash, he amended the apology to say it was the fault of Rolling Stone and its journalistic processes.
When the article was retracted that chilly Friday afternoon, I ran to the powder room near my office and vomited. My work was ruined, the work of all who fight against sexual violence was invalidated, and many quarterbacking journalists, caring not so much about victims, were seemingly glorifying the whole “gotcha!” aspect of discrediting Rolling Stone.
A year later, beyond the journalistic train wreck, where are we now? Careers were destroyed, investigations stalled, lawsuits filed, rape victims disheartened, and rape apologists bolstered in their beliefs that most women who report sexual assaults are liars.
So much of what was in that now-retracted article was right. You cannot convince me for one moment that Rolling Stone ever set out to perpetuate a hoax on the American public. They’ve done too much good journalism. Sabrina was dazzled by a story that was supported by mine, and her editors, both male, did not want to question the way a supposed rape victim was interviewed. I get it. We all fell prey to a yarn woven by Jackie, a troubled, possibly mentally ill woman who, perhaps, wanted to win the attentions of a young man who was a classmate by telling this tale for sympathy and love.
I’ve received hundreds of emails from students at the University of Virginia and other schools about the shoddy treatment they received in the wake of reporting their sexual assaults. There is a reason that, when the article came out, people on Grounds (which is what campus is called at U-VA) as well as alumni nodded their collective heads, saying, “Yep, I can totally see that happening–wondering why it took this long to expose.” But few people read past the grafs detailing Jackie’s alleged assault to understand the long-standing culture of sexual violence at U-VA.
In May, U-VA Associate Dean Nicole Eramo filed a suit for $7.5 million against Rolling Stone and Sabrina Rubin Erdely for what she claims is a false and damaging portrayal of her in the piece. In April, rumblings of a lawsuit coming from Phi Kappa Psi started, beginning with former U-VA Alpha PKP Chapter President Steve Scipione’s bold statements:
“It’s completely tarnished our reputation… It’s completely destroyed a semester of our lives, specifically mine. It’s put us in the worst position possible in our community here, in front of our peers and in the classroom.”
“Clearly our fraternity and its members have been defamed, but more importantly we fear this entire episode may prompt some victims to remain in the shadows, fearful to confront their attackers...If Rolling Stone wants to play a real role in addressing this problem, it’s time to get serious."
On Nov. 9 of this year, Phi Kappa Psi did what everyone expected and sued the magazine for $25 million. Additionally, three individuals who were members of the fraternity at the time of publication also sued. They’ll probably win. Why? Because Rolling Stone didn’t use best practices.
Phi Kappa Psi’s astounding 300-plus-page filing is full of “we care about women” and “we would never do such a thing” tropes.
From page 6 of the complaint: “Rape is a brutal and heinous crime, and sexual assault on American campuses must not be tolerated; however, serious public discourse about sexual assault is not served by the intentional publication of a lurid and horrific story…” A story that mirrors what happened to me 30 years ago.
From Page 10: “Of Phi Kappa Psi’s 1600 initiates, many have contributed generously to the University of Virginia financially and through service. Several alumni have served U-VA on the Board of Visitors and in other capacities of significance to the University.” Yes, yes, money and connections.
In my experience, Phi Kappa Psi National is an organization with mastery in wordsmithing and parsing of language. They told various members of the media, even in the aftermath of “A Rape on Campus,” that the three suspects in my case were not Phi Kappa Psi brothers. They said that William Beebe, the man who pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault, was merely “renting a room” from the fraternity. So explain this part of the suit:
From page 14: “The Article’s account of Jackie’s rape was graphic and detailed. It precisely identified the location of the rape as an upstairs bedroom in the Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity House. Upstairs bedrooms at the Phi Kappa Psi House were leased to and occupied only by Phi Kappa Psi brothers. Any reader would understand the bedroom in the Article as belonging to a Phi Kappa Psi brother…”
I have a photograph in the now-defunct University of Virginia yearbook, titled “Corks and Curls,” of all three of my alleged rapists in the official Phi Kappa Psi photograph. These aren’t just people “who rented room[s].” How many fraternities rent rooms to non-brother strangers? I’d guess none.
On page 31 of the complaint: “There has never been a situation quite like Jackie’s narrative at Phi Kappa Psi, either thirty years ago or in any time since Phi Kappa Psi’s founding at the University of Virginia.” Except mine.
On pages 41-42 of the complaint, additionally: “Prior to the publication of the Articles attached as Exhibits A and B, Phi Kappa Psi, a private figure, enjoyed an excellent reputation in the Charlottesville and U-VA communities. Contrary to Rolling Stone’s suggestion and implication, the fraternity had never been publicly identified as an institution with a culture of rape, gang-rape, or sexual assault.”
This is laughably inaccurate. As much as Phi Psi tries, they cannot wish me away or lie about an actual investigation, court process, jail term, and memoir—not to mention international media coverage for a year after my assault.
An entire police department, court system, and publishing house legal department agreed that my rape happened at Phi Psi 30 years ago. Every member of the fraternity that could be accounted for was interviewed by Charlottesville Police during the investigation. Two brothers were brought before a Grand Jury, each pleading the Fifth Amendment on every single question. William Beebe, a Phi Kappa Psi, went to jail for his part in my sexual assault. His defense attorneys uncovered the gang rape via their personal investigator and offered me the file for $30,000.
Yes, Phi Kappa Psi, you are absolutely a victim of shoddy journalism, but gang rape has indeed occurred in your house.
My own experience with Phi Kappa Psi corporate came after William Beebe’s preliminary hearing in 2006, where I testified about the events of my rape at the fraternity. After exhaustedly walking back to then-Commonwealth’s Attorney Claude Worrell’s office, my husband Mike and I were told that the Executive Office of Phi Kappa Psi had called. I assumed this meant he was offering an apology. “No,” said Worrell. “They want to know if you are going to sue Phi Kappa Psi.” I did not.
On Sept. 21 of this year, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) entered into a resolution with the University of Virginia that basically states that the school handled sexual assault improperly, created a “hostile environment” for victims, and violated several federal rules and guidelines, including Title IX. For the first time, there is an acknowledgement that the university has not treated sexual assault victims on campus properly, or in accordance with DOE rules and Title IX requirements. Never has there been this sort of admission on the university’s part. Now a third party, the U.S. government, will enforce and monitor the changes that I and many others have been advocating for years at U-VA. Hopefully, other campuses will follow based on this model.
The university fought mightily to influence the findings of the federal investigation, a move which most people found right and just. Yes, we should absolutely be certain that fairness and due process is given to U-VA during this investigation. But what of the fairness and due process given to victims?
I’ve grown up a great deal in the eight years I’ve been working for justice for sexual assault and domestic violence victims, and especially in the year since Jackie’s story crumbled. What I perceived as my own greater sense of pain and persecution is gone. I am much more concerned with the broader issues of gender violence and why we simply cannot come to agree on some basic human truths. I’ve come to understand that we live in a country that at best, deeply misunderstands—and at worst, hates—women, and allows expression of that hate to be the norm.
Rape apologists and Men’s’ Rights Activists (MRAs) try to point to cases like mine as extreme outliers, but that’s not the case. The CDC reports that 19.3 percent of women will be victims of rape, defined as “completed forced penetration,” “attempted forced penetration” or “completed alcohol- or drug-facilitated penetration.” Thanks to Rolling Stone, now MRAs get to yell louder, dragging rape victims in the comments sections and on Twitter. They’ve always been there, but they have a bigger podium and a louder mic now.
The issue of sexual assault should not be something we fight about; we should all be united in agreeing it’s horrible. How is this not already a reality?
I’m so grateful that I get to go to work each day writing and speaking about gender violence at colleges, universities, and law firms, to women’s groups, sports teams, and law enforcement. It really is a joy to partner with the great people I do and guide each other as we figure out how to help victims, protect everyone’s rights, and treat each other with compassion. That’s the job. It’s not to sensationalize rape culture or whip everyone into hysterics. We’re past that. Most people I work for understand that Rolling Stone’s story was a disaster. They’ve brushed it off as a fluke, and so should all of us. But the problem of sexual violence is real.
Lately, I’ve been reflective about all that has happened since July of last year, when I first spoke to Sabrina. I’m not angry anymore. My journey is more global and compassionate, and yes, professional in its nature. I’m still impassioned about what I do. But recently, I had a moment where something that had been growing creepily in my soul started pushing itself out much more forcefully than before. I had to acknowledge it before it suffocated me.
Jackie stole my story. She told it as her own.
It’s deeply injurious and personal to think that someone lied, using the worst event of your life to do so. I’m the only person who can stand here and explain that kind of pain. Not Phi Kappa Psi, not U-VA, not Rolling Stone, not Sabrina Rubin Erdely, not Jackie.
The University of Virginia never uttered a word of regret for what happened to me, but on the public record, they apologized to Jackie, who Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner called “a really expert fabulist storyteller.”
It took the advice of friends and strangers alike to help me through that darkness. It was as deep as an ocean, and as wide. I couldn’t fathom how someone would want to go public with such a tale. Whenever I meet someone new and they ask what I do, can you imagine my awkward answers? They press on, “What’s your book about?” or “What kind of speaking do you do?” or “What do you write about?” I stammer, hedge, then mumble something about my memoir. When completely cornered, I finally blurt it out. Eyes grow wide with recognition about 90 percent of the time: “Oh my God, you’re that woman.”
I’m that woman. Jackie isn’t. I am.
My own experience dealing with gang rape and its aftermath at the University of Virginia was nothing short of disastrous, if not criminal. When colleges and universities systematically lie to and about victims, all of us lose.
Change and healing can begin, but not in a vacuum. We can have bad deans who enjoy the status quo. There can be administrators who possess deeply entrenched cultural biases that prevent them from being able to adequately deal with such crimes. A culture of “look the other way” can endure unless universities are policed from the inside and the outside. What happened to me, and to many others, can happen again, and probably will.
Campuses that care about students as human beings, first and foremost, should be the norm. Colleges can have all the best policies and practices in the world, but must have basic empathy afforded the victims of this most devastating crime. This is, to me, the ultimate outcome of this tragedy and how we should be moving forward.
As for me, I choose to love. I will not allow the bitterness of the past year to rob me of life’s sweetness. The horror of what happened to me, and to so many others, will not take up more space in the journey of my life.
That said, my response to Sabrina’s questions stand. Yes, Jackie, I would like to meet you. In fact, I’m extending my invitation here in the hopes that you will read this. I’ve extended prior invitations and told you I’d be on a plane the minute you agreed to meet with me. So, I’m asking again.
Will you talk with me? The weight has to be lifted. I’d love to hear your real story.
All of us would.
Erdely and Dana did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article.