By Gene Lyons, NEA Columnist
Like the best crime fiction, Rolling Stone's infamous article about a purported gang rape at the University of Virginia was vividly written. I'm embarrassed to say that it almost convinced me.
My first reaction to the article's premise was incredulity. Seven UVA students assault a total stranger at a fraternity party, knowing that if she goes to the cops or anybody gets a guilty conscience they all go to prison? The victim's friends, after finding her covered in blood outside the Phi Kappa Psi house, urge her to keep quiet lest it wreck their chances of attending future frat parties?
"Animal House" meets "The Shining"? I wouldn't go to a movie with such cartoon villains.
Then I saw author Sabrina Rubin Erdeley on TV, and found her persuasive. So I read the article with mounting dismay:
"She remembers how the spectators swigged beers, and how they called each other nicknames like Armpit and Blanket. She remembers the men's heft and their sour reek of alcohol mixed with the pungency of marijuana. Most of all, Jackie remembers the pain and the pounding that went on and on."
Without even finishing, I sent a link to my wife Diane, who read it in one horrified take. Having met and married at the University of Virginia, we have only good memories of the Charlottesville campus.
Even Thomas Jefferson's architecture had a powerful impact: the visible expression of his optimistic 18th-century rationalism. He took more pride in founding UVA than being president. Jefferson's public and private sins notwithstanding, walking up the Lawn to the Rotunda can still be an emotional experience.
We had long talks about the Rolling Stone piece. Had American culture really coarsened to where college boys could rape with impunity? Were campus administrators really more interested in protecting the university's prestige than its women students? Put that way, it seemed possible.
As graduate students, we'd known several members of the fraternity where the alleged atrocity took place through my time playing rugby. The team captain and his brother both belonged to Phi Kappa Psi -- terrific fellows.
Otherwise, we'd had little contact with UVA fraternities. But what we did know, we didn't like: Arrogant, entitled fops and snobs, we agreed, although when I'd mention particular individuals, she'd demur.
"Well, no," she'd say. "Not him."
Preppy WASPs, of course, are America's last acceptable criminal class. A journalist can "profile" them all she wants with no fear of chastisement. On a recent Slate podcast, Erdeley explained she'd decided to write about UVA's heavy-drinking "elitist fraternity culture" even before she'd met "Jackie," the alleged victim.
"Southern" was a big part of it, too.
The good news is that it was the feminist writers Hanna Rosin and Allison Benedikt of Slate's "XX" blog who first expressed incredulity that Erdeley made no serious effort to contact Jackie's supposed assailants -- and that Rolling Stone editors apparently let her get away with it.
Does Rolling Stone employ no lawyers? No publication I've ever written for would let me accuse identifiable individuals of serious felonies without giving them a chance to speak.
Then Washington Post reporters went to work. What they found should shock every working journalist in the USA, and lead to everybody involved in the Rolling Stone piece being drummed out of the profession.
Erdeley's turns out to be a one-source story, based entirely on Jackie's say-so. What's more, blow away the smoke from people blathering about "rape culture" and insisting that women (almost) never lie about such things, and there's no firm evidence that anybody at Phi Kappa Psi (or anywhere else at UVA) ever laid a hand on her.
It's simply impossible to know.
If Rolling Stone's story reads like a Stephen King novel, that may be because it's largely imaginary.
UVA pledge events take place during spring semester, not September; there was no fraternity party. The side door Jackie escaped from doesn't exist. Her three friends say they encountered her about a mile from Phi Kappa Psi that night, telling a lurid, but very different story involving forced oral sex. Jackie had no visible wounds. It was she who insisted on keeping quiet.
They also say Erdeley never interviewed them.
Jackie's alleged seducer "Drew" never belonged to the fraternity and denies ever dating Jackie -- an easy alibi to break, unless true.
The scales having fallen from my eyes, I keep returning to the scene where guys outside an off-campus bar supposedly called Jackie a "feminazi bitch."
"One flung a bottle at Jackie that broke on the side of her face," we're told, "leaving a blood-red bruise around her eye."
Maybe an NFL quarterback could throw a beer bottle hard enough to break on somebody's face, but I doubt it. The victim, however, would be more than bruised. She'd be lucky to survive.
And there would definitely be a police report.