The Only Way To Discuss The Rolling Stone Assault Case Is Psychologically

On November 19, I, like many others, read Rolling Stone's piece about Jackie, a freshman at UVA who, during a “date function” at the Phi Kappa Psi house on September 28, 2012, was brutally gang raped by seven fraternity brothers.

The violent event, which described Jackie being thrown through a glass table, punched in the face and penetrated with a beer bottle, left her physically and emotionally distraught.

After reading the piece, I was at once appalled, sharing it on my social media pages and becoming enraged, once again, at the inadequate and confusing way universities handle college rape.

In the past week, the public has learned that Jackie’s story may be false. The Washington Post reported that interviews with key people mentioned in the story revealed inconsistencies with Jackie’s account of what happened.

The UVA fraternity in question, Phi Kappa Psi, has been working with the police to investigate what happened and discovered that there was no event at the house the night that Jackie alleged she was raped in 2012.

Further, Jackie’s close friends, advocates for sexual assault awareness at UVA, have come to doubt her story as well.

While they certainly believe something happened to her, one male student in particular who came to Jackie’s rescue that night doesn’t remember Jackie appearing physically injured.

The student says Jackie appeared shaken and had told him and two other friends that she had indeed been at a fraternity party where a group of men forced her into having oral sex.

Additionally, for the first time this past week, Jackie identified the name of one of the fraternity brothers who raped her to a group of friends, alleging that he was a junior in 2012 who worked with her as a university lifeguard.

Upon contacting the man in question, a UVA graduate, they discovered that he did work at the Aquatic and Fitness Center and knew Jackie’s name, but he wasn’t a member of Phi Kappa Psi and had never taken her on a date.

Rolling Stone journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely is under scrutiny for the way she handled this case. Mostly, she’s been criticized for not trying hard enough to reach out to the accused and for not attempting to hear both sides of this violent story.

It's true that the inconsistencies in Jackie's version matter. While reporting the inconsistent details along with Jackie’s account of the rape in the original story would have certainly been fair, it still would have raised questions about Jackie’s credibility. People would still wonder why the stories misaligned.

If Erdely went to check verifiable details that had been public, like the date of the party, or the point of view of the friend who said Jackie needed to go to the hospital, and found out that these were inconsistent with Jackie’s version, Rolling Stone would have had to frame the entire story differently.

The focus, then, should have been entirely psychological. It should have been how rape survivors often block out or mistakenly remember details of their traumatic experiences because of how painful they were. Why do victims sometimes fabricate or incorrectly remember details about their experiences? How can we be more sympathetic to a victim's potentially imperfect retelling of a traumatic event?

Perhaps Erdely could have interviewed a psychologist or a trauma specialist. Perhaps that could give us a clearer picture of why Jackie might have exaggerated some parts of her story, which could have positively contributed to the conversation about the deeply traumatic effects of sexual assault.

In a nationally recognized guide entitled, "Successfully Investigating Acquaintance Sexual Assault: A National Training Manual for Law Enforcement," The National Center for Women and Policing reports that in the first stage of recovery after sexual assault, victims are inconsistent or unclear in their description of what happened to them, which, most notably, is indicative of trauma, not fabrication.

Victims can also "experience some or all of the stages, and they can skip forward and backward through the stages as they try to make sense of the experience in their own lives." An investigation of the incident, for example, by a police officer, could send a victim back to the first stage.

Under the eye of a journalist, Jackie could certainly have bounced back to that preliminary stage, which likely occurred back in 2012, right after the incident happened.

This information took me about 10 minutes to find on Google.

Vox's Amanda Taub, who worked with refugee victims and trauma victims as a lawyer before becoming a journalist, notes the difficulty with which victims can tell accurate stories:

It is incredibly difficult for traumatized people to tell an accurate story, even if they are trying to do so... Even in less severe cases, people's stories often contained errors or omissions. Dates would be wrong. Sometimes people would mistakenly name the wrong group as being responsible for persecuting them... All of that could easily have been reason to doubt the entire story, but when I checked the fundamental facts involved against other evidence — medical records, news stories, sometimes even the accounts of the perpetrators themselves — they would turn out to be true.

Details that were important to Taub as a lawyer were not as important to the victim, so it's understandable why Jackie may not remember everything perfectly clearly:

For instance, when I asked one young woman how she could be unsure which armed group was responsible for the attack that had forced her and her family to flee their home, she told me, 'When someone comes to your house to kill you, you don't ask them for their ID card.' And there are some details that are simply difficult for anyone to notice and remember, such as the names of streets in a town with which a person is unfamiliar, the dates of events far in the past, or the faces of strangers they had never met before the trauma in question.

Advocates for sexual assault victims must operate very specifically. The first reaction to victims' account of their sexual assaults must be, “I believe you and I am here to listen to you,” which is what Erdely did.

After all, it would have been hurtful to Jackie if Erdely interviewed her and then, upon interviewing those on the other side and finding details inconsistent with Jackie’s account, decided not to go forward with the story. This would imply that Erdely didn’t believe Jackie, a move that victim advocates would rightfully say is damaging.

Even worse, Erdely has since retracted her belief in the details of her own story, which now adds to the chaos.

In a podcast interview, she told Slate that “given the degree of her trauma, there’s no doubt in my mind that something happened to her that night. What exactly happened, I don’t know. I wasn’t in that room. I don’t know.”

The “I don’t know” here is pretty awful, considering Erdely reported the case in such a way that implied she did know.

Not contacting the other side of the story and instead merely trusting Jackie’s account wholeheartedly -- while theoretically a step in the right direction towards giving voice to the victims -- implies that Erdely had no doubt about what happened to Jackie.

Retracting such a steadfast belief in one side of the story, especially because Erdely had already implied that she had no reason to be skeptical of Jackie, casts doubt on the entire story.

That something happened to Jackie, as Erdely and as lots of friends of Jackie still assert, is certainly enough to write a story about sexual assault.

What’s a journalist to do if information from one side of a rather sensitive issue, like rape, conflicts with information from another side of the same story? Only two percent of rapes are falsely accused, so the likelihood that Jackie lied is, statistically, almost non-existent.

But what’s a journalist to do in a culture that’s trying to reverse the idea that “false rape” stories are common when, in actuality, Jackie’s story seems to cry false rape?

Here, the actual, post-traumatic effects of rape are far more important than anything else: Inconsistencies are not signs of false rape. Instead, they are signs of psychological trauma. Jackie told Erdely that she was brutally gang raped, but if Erdely had also interviewed the student who rescued her and learned that Jackie told him that she was forced to have oral sex, Erdely could have justified the discrepancy psychologically.

Other discrepancies – the name of the frat, the date of the event – could also be explained this way.

By attempting to tell only Jackie’s side of the story, Erdely did Jackie a disservice. Jackie had told Erdely that she did not want the name of the men identified in the article because “she’s so fearful of them,” and Erdely respected her request.

This is understandable: In order to hear Jackie’s full side of the story, Erdely had to cultivate enough of Jackie’s trust, which would include keeping a promise like that.

This, however, should not have stopped Erdely from attempting to reach out to the accused and putting a line in her story to note the trouble she went through to try to find them.

Erdely and her editor Sean Woods told The New Republic that they had decided they were going to tell the story from Jackie’s point of view because “it’s her story.”

Yet, if this is supposedly "Jackie's story," why did nobody care about her at all? Why didn't we read more about the real, sometimes messy way survivors, including Jackie, tell their stories? Why didn't someone protect Jackie from herself by confirming the technical, hard-to-remember details for her?

Perhaps if these important psychological ideas were taken into account in Erdely's story, the brave women who come forward to tell their stories whose details of their accounts may not be perfect would still be believed.

Perhaps the women whose imperfect memories are preventing them from telling their story at all will come forward and tell it. Perhaps, then, Jackie could have been a hero.