TIME Sexual Assault

UVA Rape Survivor: Don’t Doubt a Victim’s Story Just Because It Sounds Horrific

The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., Nov. 24, 2014. A Rolling Stone article last week alleged a gang rape at the house which has since suspended operations.
Steve Helber—AP The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., on Nov. 24, 2014. A Rolling Stone article alleged a gang rape at the hous

Liz Seccuro is a speaker, victims' advocate and writer.

The victim of a UVA gang rape 30 years ago — also at Phi Kappa Psi — on why no one believed her then. And why she, too, was afraid to name her attackers

Like many Americans, I read the gruesome account of a gang rape at the University of Virginia’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house, as told by reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely in a recent issue of Rolling Stone. Unlike most people who read the article, I was not shocked by it; I was gang-raped at Phi Kappa Psi at UVA in 1984. My story was a small part of the article, for which I spent hours speaking with Erdely from July through November. I was encouraged that my story — a very public one in the last eight years — would be told again in order to give context to the eerily similar rape of Jackie, the student victim in Erdely’s story.

Days of public outrage have trickled into weeks, with new firestorms erupting almost daily to the fallout from the article. On Monday, UVA president Teresa Sullivan chose an undisclosed location — to which reporters were not invited — from which to call on “the wisdom and research of our faculty members, the creativity and imaginations of our students, and the passion and concern of our alumni to find real solutions.” But this week, various media outlets began asking if maybe, just maybe, the whole horrifying story in Rolling Stone is a giant hoax.

Over 30 years ago, I told my own story to then student journalist Gayle Wald, who wrote extensively of my rape in the now defunct UVA newspaper, the University Journal. I asked that she use a pseudonym (Kate) for me, and, like Jackie, I begged her not to interview the one man I knew had raped me, as I feared repercussions. There were two other attackers whose names I did not know. When I went to the dean of students at that time, Robert Canevari, I was covered in bruises, still bloodied, and had broken bones. He sat at his big desk across from me and suggested I was a liar and had mental problems for reporting my rape. Some of my new friends told me not to tell, that no one would believe me, that I would ruin my own reputation and that of “Mr. Jefferson’s University.” Almost a quarter-century after my gang rape, one attacker was arrested and jailed for his participation in it, for about six months. He had written me a letter of apology in 2005, which became the basis for a case against him. I wrote about the crime, the investigation, the plea deal, and its effects on my life in my memoir, Crash Into Me, which Bloomsbury published in 2011. I have become a victims’-rights advocate. The similarities between my experience and Jackie’s story are astounding because the culture has remained almost identical in the three decades separating our rapes.

Do you believe me?

Former George journalist Richard Bradley fired the first shot at the Rolling Stone story. “I’m not sure that this gang rape actually happened,” he wrote in a blog post, using brilliant plagiarist Stephen Glass (whom he edited, and who duped him) as a comparison base for the idea that astounding and uncomfortable stories must be fabricated. Though Bradley’s rant was on his personal blog, doubts have now burbled up at established outlets. Jonah Goldberg shares his opinion in an incredibly dismissive piece at the Los Angeles Times — “Much of what is alleged (though Erdely never uses the word ‘alleged’) isn’t suitable for a family paper,” he writes, as if the brutality of an assault could possibly be a measure of its veracity. (His colleague Meghan Daum was more reasonable.) Slate’s Alison Benedikt and Hanna Rosin, posted a thoughtful piece and podcast that asks the journalistic questions without doubting that brutal gang rapes happen.

And that’s what’s missing in all of this: the distinction between discussing journalism ethics and dismantling an important discussion because the subject matter seems extremely distressing. Wholesale doubt or dismissal of a rape account because it sounds “too bad to be true” is ridiculous. Is it easier to believe a rape by a single stranger upon a woman in a dark alley? What about marital rape? What if a prostitute is raped? Just how bad was it? We should not have a rape continuum as part of the dialogue, ever.

Of course nobody wants to believe that an ugly gang rape could happen at a venerated institution of higher learning, even though our rape statistics prove something is rotten in Charlottesville, in South Bend, in Tallahassee, in Boulder. But Americans are still a puritanical and repressed bunch who would prefer to see the only rosiest picture of our sweet land of liberty.

It’s also why we have struggled to comprehend the allegations leveled against Bill Cosby by 20-something (and counting) different women. Why couldn’t it just be the one, 10 years ago, who we believed? Cliff Huxtable, with his goofy faces, goofier sweaters and lovingly imparted life lessons, could never drug and rape women. But, allegedly, Cosby could, and has.

When the words Duke Lacrosse or Tawana Brawley are mentioned in the same context of the rape story in Rolling Stone, as Goldberg did, and as do the comments of many of the articles posted, including the actual Rolling Stone piece, I am filled with a hollow sadness, and rage. False reporting of rape is rare; it is not a myth perpetrated by the feminist machine. Those who make false accusations are despicable, and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But we cannot choose to disbelieve an account simply because it’s too awful to fathom. I am living proof — verified by the Virginia courts — that the horror is all too real.

Seccuro is a speaker, victims’ advocate and the author of the memoir Crash Into Me: A Survivor’s Search for Justice. She is currently at work on a novel, and lives in Long Island, N.Y., with her husband and two young children.

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