An Unbelievable Book About Rape: New Work From Pulitzer Story Authors Is a ‘Reality Check’

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Culture & Conversation Violence

An Unbelievable Book About Rape: New Work From Pulitzer Story Authors Is a ‘Reality Check’

Lorraine Berry

In a new book, the authors of ProPublica's "An Unbelievable Story of Rape" provide historical context that explains how the police and the court system have adapted skepticism toward women reporting rape.

In A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong detail the experiences of “Marie.” When in 2008 Marie reported her rape to detectives in Lynnwood, Washington, her “matter-of-fact” reporting of the crime and inconsistencies in her story became big factors in why detectives doubted her. Suspicious of her motives, the two male detectives pressured her into saying she lied about the rape. Before Marie’s ordeal was over, prosecutors charged her with “filing a false report,” a crime that carries a jail term. Marie avoided jail, but only after months of exhausting trips to court.

Two years later in Colorado, detectives came across her case while investigating a series of rapes in their state. They discover that the man who had raped Marie was committing rape in Colorado in ways that mirrored her experience.

Miller and Armstrong are both reporters for ProPublica. Together, they won a Pulitzer for their 2015 article, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape.” In that article, the two reporters investigated the sequence of events that led to police charging Marie with filing a false report despite being the victim. In the new book, out this week, Miller and Armstrong provide historical context that explains how the police and the court system have adapted skepticism toward women reporting rape. As they said in a recent interview with Mother Jones, additional research documented that Marie’s experience is not unique: Other women have reported rape to their local police departments only to have their stories disbelieved and charges brought against them. Although it’s unclear how often this happens, based on what we know from Marie’s account, the system is rigged against survivors and has devastating effects on the lives of those it ensnares.

At this particular moment in the zeitgeist, when many well-known women have told stories of sexual harassment and assault and have been believed, reading A False Report feels like a reality check. When accusations by “ordinary” women pass through legal channels, their stories are still told to detectives who may or may not have proper training. Before a case can be prosecuted, it has to get past the police taking statements. The fact that a detective may believe that their “gut” or feelings are more reliable than the information they receive from a victim is a sharp reminder that the system is only as good as the people who work within it.

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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Each section of A False Report is structured in chronological order, with events in Colorado and events in Washington presented in alternate chapters, so that readers will experience Marie’s story as one narrative and the cases in Colorado as a separate story. It also means that readers will read about the detectives’ investigations in the order in which they happened. The authors treat questions about whether Marie was telling the truth about her rape as a mystery that readers unfamiliar with their ProPublica piece must wait to have resolved. And while disbelief at detectives’ decisions about her credibility are sure to anger readers, it’s knowing that one of Marie’s “friends” called police to share her feelings that Marie was lying that is most disconcerting—and that the police took her friend’s doubts more seriously than Marie’s account.

The lead detective on her case had 19 years of experience, but had only handled “one or two” rape investigations prior to the case. As a consequence, he and another male detective hadn’t encountered the behaviors exhibited by her attacker before, which made them doubt Marie almost immediately. She reported that the attacker had forced her to shower for a set period of time; he also lifted Marie’s shirt and took photos. She reported that she had been tied up, but detectives didn’t see ligature marks. And Marie’s upstairs neighbor hadn’t heard any kind of disturbance during the night. Marie was questioned more than once within just a few hours of reporting, and she changed her story, altering some details as she remembered them. The detectives’ feelings about how Marie was supposed to be acting became more important than the facts as Marie presented them, which allowed detectives to dismiss her because her experience was outside what the detectives understood about rapists’ behavior or the range of reactions that women have to being sexually assaulted.

To understand how detectives may have been primed to disbelieve Marie, Miller and Armstrong draw attention to nearly four centuries of jurisprudence that has institutionalized the idea that “women lie” when reporting rape. In addition, the authors document how detectives who doubt rape victims change the rules that govern taking a victim’s statement into a practice that is far more sinister.

If readers have never heard of Matthew Hale or John Henry Wigmore, they are not alone. Reading their names in this work was the first time that I had heard of them, but once I started searching, I was astounded to see just how ubiquitous their names are in law literature. Matthew Hale was lord chief justice of England in 1671. He also wrote an enormous treatise on the law, the Historia Placitorum Coronae, in which he detailed cases that had come before the courts. His experiences with charges of rape led him to write:

It is true rape is a most detestable crime, and therefore ought severely and impartially to be punished with death; but it must be remembered, that it is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho never so innocent.

This pronouncement by a respected jurist would lead many judges to issue what was known as the “Hale Warning” to juries, in which the judges would caution jury members considering the fate of men accused of rape, that women were known to lie about such matters. (Hale also insisted that it was impossible for a man to rape his wife as sex was part of the marriage contract.)

But in addition to the Hale Warning, another scholar, John Henry Wigmore, also contributed a more “modern” approach to understanding women who charge rape. Wigmore’s writings on psychiatry were influenced by Sigmund Freud, so for him, it wasn’t that women so much lied about rape as they were unable to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. He wrote, “No judge should ever let a sex offense charge go to the jury unless the female complainant’s social history and mental makeup have been examined and testified to by a qualified physician.”

For Wigmore, women’s inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality was of such concern that a physician should be asked to testify to the woman’s mental health. The reason for someone to attest to a woman’s character was because, as Wigmore wrote, “The unchaste (let us call it) mentality finds incidental but direct expression in the narration of imaginary sex incidents of which the narrator is the heroine or the victim.” A woman with Wigmore’s “unchaste mentality” was capable of imagining the crime. What it meant was that a woman would be judged to be credible based on her past sexual experiences, with the assumption being that a sexually experienced woman was a poor risk when it came to the possibility of condemning a man. And, as jurists had done with Hale, Wigmore’s writings about rape were incorporated into legal understandings, and had an impact on the way police departments validated rape accusations.

Miller and Armstrong offer this history as a means for understanding why the canard that all women lie about rape has taken such a strong hold in narratives. Determinations of what percentage of rape accusations are false are problematic because of the large number of sexual assaults that are never reported. But, using what data is available, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center claims that the percentage is somewhere between 2 and 10 percent.

For me, Miller and Armstrong’s information about the legal presumptions of the past served as another missing link in trying to comprehend why women are doubted. While myths that women don’t tell the truth are culture-wide, understanding the routes by which those stories gain such traction provides knowledge for combating them. The Bible contains stories of false rape accusations—Potiphar’s wife accused Joseph of rape—but U.S. jurisprudence is supposed to be secular. Understanding that still-consulted books on rules of evidence assert such things is unsettling.

But Marie’s story and her own faith in herself may not have broken down if detectives had continued to treat her like a victim, rather than a suspect. As part of the Reid technique for interrogation, “They provoked. They deceived. They studied physical reactions,” wrote Miller and Armstrong. Confronted with detectives who were looking to catch her lying, three days after being raped, Marie shut down under the pressure and asked to have the charges dropped, no longer willing to go through the ordeal. Three weeks after the attack, prosecutors charged Marie with false reporting.

While experts who are familiar with the way rape victims may act know that details reported immediately after the attack may change as the victim begins to recover memories of what happened, the two detectives in Marie’s case saw any inconsistencies in her report as suspicious. And as the detectives became suspicious, they created a “self-fulfilling prophecy” of assuming that Marie was lying.

The actions of the Washington detectives, who were provided with similar evidence, resembles a nightmare scenario, a Black Mirror-image in which victims become suspects. The Colorado pursuit of a serial rapist gives readers a compulsively readable detective story, one in which good police work leads to justice.

A False Report is an important work. Miller and Armstrong reported to Mother Jones that even more expansion of Marie’s story is in process. “The underlying story is under development as an eight-episode Netflix series titled ‘Unbelievable’—which showrunner Suzanna Grant is co-writing with the husband-and-wife team of Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman.”

I did, however, find the structure of the narrative frustrating. Reading the book in the order in which events occurred will mean that many readers will feel frustration not only with the detectives, but also with the authors, who appear to be taking all of the events at face value. For example, readers who have watched episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit will be aware that it is common for rape victims to change their stories in the immediate aftermath of an attack. They will also know that women who have been attacked show a full complement of emotional reactions. While many women will show signs of extreme distress while reporting, others may protect themselves by acting calm or may still suffer from shock as they give first accounts to police. Basing the credibility of a complainant on her emotional reaction seems like a rookie mistake for a detective, but Miller and Armstrong withhold judgment of the detectives’ actions until the last section of the book, where all is resolved.

Their choice of narrative structure may make the outcome suspenseful, but I found myself impatient for the earlier intervention of the authors’ voices to point out just how badly the detectives were handling the investigation.

Still, I highly recommend the book. At a time when “facts” are dismissed as “fake news” by a misogynist president who doesn’t like the information provided, this book documents the ways in which women’s facts have been treated as fake news by men in power for centuries.