Content warning: Rape, sexual assault.
Author’s Note: So I wrote most of the post below on Monday and Tuesday, but we live in the internet age, so by Thursday when I was able to finish, enough new information was out that I am now questioning some of my conclusions. I tried, initially, to incorporate the new Washington Post reporting, but after 24 hours of thought, and thoughtful remarks from Mark Thompson, among others, I’m significantly less confident than I was a couple days ago.
It should be repeated that Jackie’s friends, including the friends who gave the Washington Post the most damning information, still seem to firmly believe that something happened to her on the evening of September 28, 2012, but what happened we will likely never know. That she appears to have fabricated and then impersonated her date, both before and after that evening, apparently in order to get another fellow student’s attention, suggests that there may be more going on, but we don’t have all of the facts, or even a substantial portion of them. This is entirely the fault of Rolling Stone and Erdely, and it is a shame that it has had to come this far.
I thought about not posting this at all, but I wrote it and a few people were kind enough to read it and provide some feedback, and I think the first part may be of some interest. I offer it mostly in sadness, at this point, because I fear that we have another Duke lacrosse here, and it will be used against victims of sexual assault for years to come.
Perhaps the most important thing to understand about memory is that it is fiction, fiction constructed to represent an experienced reality — it is, in the language of Hollywood, “based on a true story,” but recalled with a certain, shall we say, mnemonic license. There is no such thing as photographic memory, in which the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and perhaps even feelings are printed onto the neural equivalent of a negative, to be developed at will, with perfect fidelity, at any point in the near or distant future. Instead, beginning in the moments a memory is stored, we are adding and subtracting, twisting and turning the information contained within it. There is no point at which a memory is, in the strictest sense, true. That is, there is no point at which memory bears a one-to-one correspondence with a past state of the world external to it.
The process of memory begins with a dynamic interaction between attention, context, and both past experience and the one currently being developed into a memory: attention determines the aspects of context that cause us to retrieve memories of past, similar experiences, which further direct attention, and serve as a sort of template onto which information about the current experience is printed. This template brings with it information that, in most cases, will become indistinguishable from information in the present experience, and may even replace specific details, so that our memory for the present experience is infected with information from past, similar experiences. The template determines our expectations, and these in turn determine which information we notice, and which we don’t, in an experience. We’re likely to notice certain types of violations of our expectations, while other types of violations will go unnoticed entirely, and therefore form no part of our memory, while our brains will deem certain expectation-consistent information as unworthy of remembering at all.
The relationship between a memory of an experience and the experience itself grows even more complicated as we recall it: the cues that lead to a memory’s retrieval can influence which information is retrieved and which gets left behind in storage, and once retrieved, the memory is in a sense re-stored based on the most recent retrieval. Things we say about it, things we’re told about it while it’s active, even the context in which we retrieve it can therefore infect a stored memory so that each time we bring it back to our awareness it is different from the time before. What’s more, we’re particularly bad at recalling the sources of information memory, so that once a memory is altered by talking about it, or hearing something about it, we are likely to be unable to tell which parts of the memory are the altered ones and which are the ones that have been there all along. It becomes impossible to tell, for example, whether certain details we recall about an event were details we noticed at the time or details someone told us were present when we talked to them about the event moments or even years later.
And all of that is just for memories of normal, everyday experiences. Traumatic experiences, because of the way we experience them, that is, because of the way in which or minds and bodies react to trauma, involve all sorts of additional factors influencing what gets stored, how it gets stored, and how we retrieve it. It was long thought, following Freud, that traumatic memories could be, and often were, “repressed,” so that they weren’t available at all without intense therapeutic intervention (in the form of hypnosis, e.g.). While decades of research have provided little evidence for the existence of repressed memories, what has emerged from this research, is that traumatic events are often recalled not in a coherent, easily verbalizable narrative, but in strong, sometimes disconnected somatosensory impressions and affective reactions. Like all memories, it is possible to alter them over the course of time, through suggestion say, or mistakes made in the process of trying to describe complex events when they are only retrievable in somewhat disconnected fragments. Survivors of traumatic events have very strong recall for one thing for sure, though: the gist of what happened. They may get details wrong, they may get their order and the relationships between particular actors and events wrong, especially when those actors and events are peripheral to the immediate cause of a trauma, but they know at a very basic level what happened.
Reading the Rolling Stone story, here is what I got the impression Jackie remembers: she was raped by multiple men (at least more than 2) at a party, the men were frat boys (or at least frat boy types), and she met her friends afterwards, perhaps feeling they were dismissive of her experience at the time. She knows the date it happened, and she strongly believes she knows where it happens (a house that she apparently did not realize was a fraternity house until someone pointed it out a year later).
From the night of the assault forward she has exhibited the signs of someone who has suffered a significant trauma. Even as they question the details of the story as presented in the Rolling Stone article, her friends (who, it should be noted, came off rather poorly in the article) have said that when they found her that evening, she was clearly upset. As one friend put it in an interview with the Washington Post:
“She had very clearly just experienced a horrific trauma,” Randall said. “I had never seen anybody acting like she was on that night before, and I really hope I never have to again. .?.?. If she was acting on the night of Sept. 28, 2012, then she deserves an Oscar.”
Her suitemate wrote a letter to the UVA student daily detailing the changes in Jackie’s behavior and demeanor after September 28th:
I fully support Jackie, and I believe wholeheartedly that she went through a traumatizing sexual assault. I remember my first semester here, and I remember Jackie’s. Jackie came to UVA bright, happy and bubbly. She was kind, funny, outgoing, friendly, and a pleasant person to be around. That all notably changed by December 2012, and I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Our suite bonded that first semester and talked many times about the new troubles we were facing in college. Jackie never mentioned anything about her assault to us until much later. But I, as well as others, noticed Jackie becoming more and more withdrawn and depressed.
In December 2012, Jackie broke down. All of a sudden she was going home and none of us knew why. It was right before finals, and I couldn’t believe she was leaving. She was distraught, and only said she needed to go home.
Reading the accounts of her friends, it will come as no surprise that she has since been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. One of the most difficult aspects of PTSD is the inability to separate a memory for trauma from the emotional reaction to the trauma, which results in experiencing the emotional reaction any time the memory is retrieved. If the memory is fragmentary and difficult to interpret, this can lead to PTSD sufferers understandably exaggerating the traumatic events, so that a horrible trauma becomes even more unthinkably horrible. With each retelling, the memory is reconstructed and then re-stored, with any elaborations being stored as though they had bene part of the stored memory all along.
It is becoming increasingly clear that Jackie’s story, as told to and by Sabrina Rubin Erdely in her Rolling Stone piece, is not true: there was no hazing ritual for pledges at the fraternity she implicates, there may not even have been an event at that fraternity on the evening in question at all, some of the key players appear to not be who Jackie says they were, her friends tell a very different story about what Jackie said the on the night of September 28th, and how she reacted, and it appears that her story has changed over time, from the initial story of a sexual assault at a party involving several men forcing her to perform oral sex to the much more elaborate story in Rolling Stone, with even the number of men involved changing (from 5 to 7 with 2 more watching). I admit that I find this wholly unsurprising: the thing I found the most unrealistic in the Rolling Stone article was the level of detail. If Jackie remembered the events of that evening as well as the story suggests, that would be remarkable, because victims of trauma as severe as the one described in the article (one that, we should recall, resulted in her losing consciousness altogether, in the story!) rarely do.
I do not, however, find this to be evidence that nothing happened to Jackie on that evening. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know what happened to her, if anything did, and I am fairly certain that the scale of public opinion has been so weighed against her that it would take overwhelming evidence of an assault, evidence that would be almost impossible to obtain at this point, simply to keep this story becoming another rallying cry, along with the Duke lacrosse team, for those who prefer to believe that rape is not as serious a problem on college campuses and in the world at large as many women, and empirical research, say it is, and who prefer to assume that a substantial proportion of all rape accusations are false.
The very nature of traumatic memory has therefore shown itself to be but one more barrier to justice in the case of rape, and one more reason for women to refrain from reporting rape in the first place. Inconsistencies and inaccuracies in an autobiographical story are not a sign of lying; they are a sign of humanity, as are even extreme inaccuracies in a story of severe trauma. Is Jackie a victim of sexual assault? Her friends, who were with her that evening, and have been around her since, believe she was. Who are we to decide otherwise, with the bits and pieces of information we’ve received from at times shoddy reporting (the Washington Post, which has done the lion’s share of follow-up reporting, has made its share of mistakes as well)? Yet we can’t seem to let the fact that her story, as told two years and many retellings after the fact, is not true in its details and overall narrative, because we can’t accept that our memories can be that fickle and inaccurate.
In conclusion, let me add this**: even if something happened to Jackie that night, and I still tend to believe that something did, it seems quite clear that Jackie, through Erdely and Rolling Stone, has falsely accused the men she somewhat vaguely refers to as the perpetrators of the assault (for most of them, all she says is that they are pledges of a particular fraternity). It is important, particularly when memory is involved, to separate the questions of if and what from the question of who. Unfortunately, the nature of traumatic memory will make for precisely the sorts of inconsistencies and inaccuracies that will create the sort of reasonable doubt that will allow rapists to get off, but it should also makes the standard of innocent until proven guilty all the more important.
*Never mind that sensory perception itself is largely a construction, built not from complete, unaltered information from the outside world, but from fragments of information connected by the addition of information from experience and inductive tendencies built into the perceptual system itself.
** Thank you to Tod for pointing out to me that this is something that needs to be said.
Image: Buckingham Palace, 1913, from Wikipedia Commons