How a rape case got botched due to failure to believe her
On Oct. 31, The Washington Post reported that two women had accused NPR news head Michael Oreskes of sexual harassment. By the next morning, he’d resigned. In late November, NBC received a complaint accusing “Today’’ show host Matt Lauer of sexual misconduct. Within days, he was fired. It’s not just media men who’ve been toppled by #MeToo. From factory floors to US gymnastics, consequences suddenly abound.
All of this represents a foundational change. Not one in how men are treated — but a shift in how women are. Women are finally being believed.
If only people had been as swift to believe Marie, the teenager at the heart of T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong’s new book “A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America.’’ When, in August 2008, the 18-year-old told her caseworkers that a man had broken into the bedroom in her apartment, blindfolded her, raped her, and then taken photographs of her (she’d heard the camera’s click) before fleeing, the police initially responded the way we’d all hope. They collected evidence, sent her to the hospital, and took Marie’s statement.
But slowly, they began to doubt her story. She often contradicted herself. There were gaps in her story that didn’t make sense. Even Marie’s foster mother doubted her and told the police she believed Marie had made the rape up for attention. Under pressure from seemingly every adult around her, Marie recanted.
Feminist scholar Catherine MacKinnon recently wrote in a New York Times op-ed that in decades of tracking campus sexual assault, she grew to expect it would take three or four assaults reported against the same man for people to begin believing the women who accused him. “That made a woman, for credibility purposes, one-fourth of a person,” MacKinnon wrote. That terrible calculus proved true in Marie’s case, with devastating consequences. It would take two more rapes committed by the same man in the same horrifying fashion — a break-in, the blindfold, the photographs — before investigators realized they’d made a fateful error.
When Miller and Armstrong began digging into how the police investigation had gone so wrong, they couldn’t have known they were just ahead of a coming sea change. Their reporting led to a 12,000-word article, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” published through a collaboration between ProPublica (Miller’s employer) and the Marshall Project (then Armstrong’s), a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting — and now, this book.
To say their work is needed is an understatement. And the longer format of the book has given them space to tackle more than the article could. They delve deeply into the history of rape kits as well as how investigators are trained to approach rape victims, and even offer a fascinating section on how rape was historically regarded — including by Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that he did not support punishment for rape because women who reported it should not often be believed.
But in other ways, the book’s length has weakened their endeavor. The prose is often breathless, indulgent of its own shock. Not content to tell us that the rapist was sentenced to 327 1/2 years in prison, the authors follow that stunning number with a one-sentence paragraph: “O’Leary would never get out.” In book form, the tone quickly becomes not just grating, but wearying. On one page alone, I counted seven one-sentence paragraphs.
The details of Marie’s rape are recounted several times, and the repetition begins to seem not emphatic but voyeuristic. For the investigators — of whom there are so many it is difficult to keep track — the authors have an eye for miniscule detail: the tie knot (“Ties.com gave it five out of five for difficulty”), the Starbucks order (“a venti upside-down skinny caramel macchiato”). If only we could learn as much about Marie.
Most troublingly, this indulgence on the part of the authors extends to sections in which they write from the perspective of the rapist. “[W]hat the monster [inside him] needed, was fear,” the authors write. To call the impulse to rape “a monster” — to go no deeper than that, and, as they do elsewhere, to attribute the rapist’s impulses to having watched at an impressionable age the scene in “Star Wars’’ in which a scantily-clad Princess Leia is chained to Jabba the Hutt — is a profoundly missed opportunity. There’s no insight to be had here.
That is the main disappointment of “A False Report.’’ The article the authors wrote was an investigation, an explanation, an examination. The book, with its endless focus on the investigators’ moves, might more rightly be called a police procedural — untroubled by nuance, more concerned with suspense.
Still, the argument could be made that this is not the moment for nuance. It is instead a corrective moment, one in which we as a society finally recognize that women who report sexual crimes must be believed. In making that case, “A False Report’’ succeeds.
A FALSE REPORT:
A True Story of Rape in America
By T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, 291 pp., illustrated, $28
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Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich is the author of “The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir.’’ She teaches at Harvard.