The litigation over Rolling Stone’s discredited 2014 cover story about a horrific (and fictional) fraternity gang rape at the University of Virginia is the gift that keeps giving. Only recently, we learned that someone accessed the email account of non-existent rapist “Haven Monahan” from the office of lawyers for the pseudo-victim, Jackie. And now, newly released affidavits from reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely, as well Erdely’s notes and correspondence related to the story, offer a revealing look at the article’s origins. Erdely set out to write an exposé of campus “rape culture.” Instead, she inadvertently exposed a rape-hoax culture, both on college campuses and in the mainstream media — a culture in which “believe the survivors” is such an article of faith that a not-very-clever fabulist with half-decent acting skills can get away with blatant lies.
Jackie’s story, in particular, had more red flags than a Soviet military parade. To begin with, there was the alleged attack itself, in which Jackie was supposedly lured into an ambush for a gang rape as part of a fraternity initiation ritual. She was supposedly thrown through a glass table and raped by seven men for three hours amidst broken glass, yet required no medical attention. The three friends she called for help afterward supposedly dissuaded her from going to the police or the hospital because they worried about not getting invited to frat parties. The UVA dean in whom she finally confided, Nicole Eramo, supposedly told her the university doesn’t publicize campus sexual assault statistics because “who wants to send their daughter to a rape school.”
But there’s a lot more in the new documents made public as part of Eramo’s defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone and Erdely. We now know that Erdely did not simply neglect to interview the man who supposedly engineered the attack — called “Drew” in the Rolling Stone piece — or the three friends who saw Jackie that night and could have been key witnesses to her condition. In fact, Erdely repeatedly pressed Jackie for those contacts. But Jackie adamantly refused to put her in touch with “Drew” (she did not give Erdely the name “Haven Monahan” until after the story was published), and Erdely finally decided to go along with her wishes.
Jackie also strung Erdely along with promises to arrange an interview with Ryan Duffin, one of the three friends who came to her aid after the alleged attack. First, she claimed that she wasn’t able to get hold of Duffin, even though he was a friend living on the same campus, and that he wasn’t returning her text messages. Then, she said that she had finally spoken to Duffin but he refused to cooperate out of loyalty to “the Greek system” which he felt she wanted to undermine. She would not give Erdely Duffin’s last name, or those of the other two friends — Kathryn Hendley and Alex Stock. Erdely now acknowledges that “perhaps I stopped pushing as hard as I could for those names.” Yet at the time she seemed, as history professor and writer K.C. Johnson put it on Twitter, “remarkably non-curious” about Jackie’s odd behavior.
While Jackie initially said that her mother was willing to talk to Erdely — and perhaps even to produce the bloodstained dress Jackie wore during the alleged rape — that interview never materialized, either. And two women who Jackie said had been raped at the same fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, proved equally elusive. This pattern of important witnesses being unavailable did not set off any alarm bells for Erdely, either.
As Johnson sums up their interaction, “Throughout: Erdely wants info. Jackie refuses to provide. Erdely excuses: consistent w/being victim. True believer.”
Then there was a matter of Jackie’s scars from the broken glass. Erdely wrote in her notes that she saw “nothing” when Jackie showed her what she said were scars on her arms; she blamed the “dim lighting.” When she asked about scars on Jackie’s back, Jackie said that they were “not distinct anymore.” Her boyfriend Connor, who was present at the conversation, volunteered, “I haven’t really seen any marks on your back.” Yet Erdely states in her affidavit, “None of this struck me as odd or raised any concerns.”
When Erdely did notice inconsistencies and contradictions in Jackie’s various accounts, she readily explained them away as typical behavior for a victim of trauma: “I know that [victims’] stories can sometimes evolve over time as they come to terms with what happened to them and work through their own shame and self-blame, and that this process can result in the victim revealing new or different details over time.” She also “knew,” from her research and writing, that “false allegations of sexual assault are extremely rare,” which evidently reassured her that Jackie wasn’t making it up.
For Erdely, Jackie’s credibility was also bolstered by the fact that her friends and fellow activists at UVA unquestioningly accepted her story. So did UVA employee Emily Renda, the school’s project coordinator for sexual assault prevention (and a 2014 UVA graduate); Renda had introduced Erdely to Jackie and had told Jackie’s story at a congressional hearing on campus rape. In Erdely’s eyes, this gave Jackie “UVA’s imprimatur.”
And just how credulous were the true believers from Jackie’s circle of supporters at UVA? So credulous that even after they realized Jackie’s claims did not add up (The Washington Post had shot down some key details, and Jackie had decided that Phi Kappa Psi wasn’t the rape frat), they still insisted that Jackie was a victim. Erdely reports that one campus activist told her, “It pains me to say that she’s not credible because I don’t think that’s the case. I think the trauma has done something to the details.” No inconvenient facts could disrupt the narrative in which campus rape is an epidemic and universities protect the rapists.
In Johnson’s words, “Erdely had a great story here — how a campus atmosphere of moral panic was exploited by a fabulist. But she was too closed-minded to see it.”
Erdely was further emboldened, as the new materials show, by the knowledge that other media including The New York Times had run accounts by alleged rape survivors without interviewing the accused. One instance that she cited was the May 2014 Times profile of Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia student who later began to carry a mattress on campus to protest the university’s exoneration of the man she accused of rape.
And indeed, Erdely’s reporting, which treated a woman’s account of a rape on campus and a callous response from the college bureaucracy as presumptive fact despite the lack of any corroboration, was not particularly out of line with prevailing journalistic standards. The Times story on Sulkowicz was one example; there was also National Public Radio’s 2010 coverage of campus rape activist Laura Dunn and Slate’s 2014 report on Brown University student Lena Sclove’s accusations against fellow student Daniel Kopin. Both stories turned out to be considerably more complicated than made out to be in the initial reports.
While the Rolling Stone UVA fiasco was a lesson in skepticism, the “listen and believe” mentality is alive and well. Just a few months after Erdely’s piece was retracted, the media lavished praise on the college-rape documentary The Hunting Ground, hailed in the Times as “a must-watch work of cine-activism,” later broadcast on CNN, and honored with a “Best Original Song” Oscar nomination. Yet the film presented the stories of alleged victims with no attempt at fact-checking or balance; some of those accounts eventually came under withering scrutiny from dissenters. Legal analyst Stuart Taylor Jr. obtained an email in which TV journalist Amy Herdy, who worked on the film, assured an interviewee’s attorney, “This is a film project very much in the corner of advocacy for victims, so there would be no insensitive questions or the need to get the perpetrator’s side.”
Pity poor Jackie. If Erdely hadn’t chosen her as the heroine of the Rolling Stone story, she could have been one of the stars of The Hunting Ground.