I collect stories written by rape survivors. I find the details and textures of first-person accounts powerful antidotes to the homogenized, not-to-mention ubiquitous, stories offered up by media and the entertainment industry alike. Women and men who endure sexual violence — whether they choose to reveal their experiences or not — are all warriors, in my book.
(They are also, every last one, bad victims. In case you were curious.)
I know firsthand how the act of telling our own stories can be uplifting, healing, empowering, fraught, challenging, righteous, risky…and not the right choice for every person. The decision to reveal — including every what, how, and why of that disclosure — must lie with the survivor. I feel twitchy, not-to-mention occasionally stabby, at any indication that a particular survivor’s story has been taken out of hir hands to serve someone else’s agenda. Even an ostensibly well-intentioned agenda. (I am choosing the word survivor deliberately, by the way, though not to indicate self-disclosure as some empowered butterfly state that inevitably follows that of being a speechless victim. Simply put: the raped-and-then-murdered/suicided among us have not tongue left with which to speak their truths.)
So when I heard last month about Rolling Stone‘s immediately-viral blockbuster reporting of campus rape, which centered on the violent gang rape of a student identified by the pseudonym ‘Jackie,’ my skin began to crawl. When The Washington Post and others began to take issue with journalistic standards not met in the reporting — and the magazine’s initial response was to place all blame on Jackie herself (the statement by editor Will Dana has since been emended to remove the line about how they had “misplaced” their trust in her) — my skin crawled completely off. When I heard how Jackie ultimately asked to have her story taken out of the final article and Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely ran with it anyway — and then “was Jackie lying, yes or no” became a dominant discussion point in mainstream reporting — at that point, well…
According to its last postcard, my skin has boarded a bus and is now halfway to Puerta Vallarta.
Since skinless typing gets a little tricky (my fingertips keep slipping off the keys), I’m going to turn it over to Maya Dusenbery to explain the egregiousness of what Rolling Stone did, just from the perspective of journalism, when they put Jackie’s recollection front-and-center without even rudimentary fact-checking of her account:
“While journalism is sometimes willing to acknowledge that journalists, just like everyone else, bring individual perspectives and prejudices to their work, it doesn’t much like to cop to this general bias, since, while it can be partially checked by responsible reporting and rigorous fact-checking, it’s inherent to the form. A compelling, clean narrative is seductive to both writers and editors, and one of the main duties of a fact-checker is to fight that bias in themselves in order to balance the tendency toward dramatic arcs, villains and heroes, and neat conclusions — to constantly re-inject inconvenient nuance, to keep adding the jagged edges when everyone else involved in the process would ideally love to see them smoothed.
“Most importantly — in my opinion, at least — fact-checkers work to protect the integrity of sources’ stories against this bias. Journalists are storytellers who use other people’s stories to build their own. In doing so, they chop up other people’s truths, make them incomplete, and put them in service of their own overall narrative. That’s not a criticism of journalists, most of whom, in my experience, care deeply about responsibly representing their sources — it’s just the way journalism works. At its best, this process produces a story that tells a bigger truth than any of the partial truths that make it up. But in weaving their narrative, journalists always hold rather terrifying power to transform other people’s truths. Simply by how they choose to tell the larger story — what’s included and excluded, every tiny decision about how it’s framed — they can flatten the richness of lives, warp the meaning of words, gut so much of the context from someone’s story that it may be technically true but no longer, really, the truth. Again, this is inherent to journalism — the writing and editing process inevitably bends the meaning of the sources’ stories to support the journalist’s story — and part of a fact-checker’s work is to ensure that the tyranny of the overall narrative never fatally injures the basic truth of the individual stories it subsumes.”
[Dusenbery’s reckoning with the lessons to be learned stands as Must-See TV for anyone following this story. I encourage you to read the whole thing.]
Whose purposes were served, when Erdely contacted a young woman who never initially intended for her story to go further than a campus Take Back The Night event? Whose purposes are ever served when a rape survivor’s story is elevated not for its commonality with other stories but for its very exceptionalism? As Slate’s Hanna Rosin reports, Erdely’s desire to report on something “sensational” led her to reject many other “typical stories about sexual violence” before settling on Jackie as her oracle. This detail concerns me deeply. As Melissa McEwan at Shakesville points out:
“if it turns out Jackie’s story was ’embellished,’ [maybe] she was coerced into doing it (like she was coerced to keep participating even after she wanted to drop out) by someone who decided to take a pass on stories that weren’t big enough; take a pass on survivors who weren’t hurt badly enough. But Jackie’s story was a ‘blockbuster,’ a ‘massive scoop,’ an ‘intense story’. It was, per Rosin, ‘sensational’.”
Survivors do not owe their storytelling to anyone but themselves. They do not owe it to college administrations with long histories of botching their responsibilities to raped students or to journalists fueling the backlash against campus anti-rape activism. They do not owe it to zealous DAs or any “possible future victims” their story might protect. They do not owe it to a public already swimming in commercialized rape narratives. And they sure as sh!t don’t owe it to eager journalists on assignment to cover campus sexual assaults — but only, yknow, the not-boring ones.
Here’s the thing you learn when you listen to survivors: almost all the stories are typical, in their own horrifying and complexly atypical ways. We need to listen anyway.
As a society, we generally do a piss-poor job of listening to the stories of people who are (or have been) victimized. In Kate Harding’s words,
“We live in a country full of racism, but no racists; rape, but no rapists. And the common denominator is power. To believe a rape survivor’s word over that of her male classmate, colleague, teacher, or superior officer is to upset the natural order of things, privileging the voice with less cultural authority over the one we expect to have all the answers.” (h/t Feministing)
To recap: NO DUH the frat denies the allegations. Is anyone actually mystified what Jackie’s alleged assailants would have said to Erdely, had Rolling Stone decided to interview them before the initial story ran? The precision of a trauma survivor’s memory of detail does not dictate the veracity of hir experience, let alone render questionable whether or not s/he endured any trauma at all. Sexual assault is not an evenly two-sided, I-say/you-say kinda deal. By seeking out Jackie’s story — and then grotesquely mishandling its dissemination — Erdely, Dana, and everyone else at Rolling Stone involved in this story has done a massive disservice to us all.
Melissa McEwan reports people dismissing Jackie’s account as “cartoonishly evil,” as “mind-boggling,” as so unbelievable that they have no choice but to disbelieve. My mind is not so easily boggled. The difference between those who truly listen to survivor stories and those who don’t reveals itself, seems to me, in how people hear these four words: “Grab its motherfucking leg.” (This is what Jackie remembers one of her attackers saying, sometime in the course of the gang-rape.) “Grab its motherfucking leg.” This is the detail that haunts Roxane Gay, herself a survivor and truth-teller about her own experience of being rendered an “it,” a mere thing. This is the detail that prompts Sarah Jeong to write: “I believe Jackie. It’s a different kind of believe from believing that her story is a historical, factual account. But she’s not lying.”
I believe Jackie, too.
I stand with survivors — #IStandWithJackie — not because of some axiomatic stance whereby I suspend any and all disbelief I might otherwise have once someone invokes the word “rape” or “sexual assault.” I am appalled at the irresponsible “affirmative journalism” Rolling Stone practiced here. While I do not think feminist anti-rape activism rises and falls on this particular story, or my allegiance to its details — I nonetheless believe there is a young woman in Virginia struggling to recover from grievous harm. I don’t know what stories Jackie tells to herself in the dark, in the flashbacks and the fear, nor what further harm has been done her by these recent media events. I hope she has trusted people close to her who are listening, even now, and helping her to rebuild the narrative of her life into something she can carry forward as the new story of herself.
I am listening, too.