Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Gang rape at the University of Virginia

Re: the errors of fact in the Rolling Stone article, see postscript.

Back in the 1950s, as many Virginians my age will remember, a girl (not yet old enough to be called a woman, at that time) from an upper-class girl's prep school (high school) in Virginia was installed in a room on Thomas Jefferson's sacred Lawn, where only the most superior student leaders are granted living space, and young men from the "best" fraternities came and went all night. The details, which I will forbear to include, were explicit. Next day (or soon after), her parents complained, and the president, former governor Colgate Darden -- often described as the most distinguished Virginian of his time -- promptly suspended a number of the perpetrators.

That was not the end of the story. The parents of the accused perps called their top-rung lawyers and pressured the governor who, being part of the old-Virginia network, was friendly with the lawyers. The young girl was identified in the rumor mill as a "nymphomaniac," and that, supposedly, was enough to stifle any further protests. I am told that to this day, the UVa records pertaining to this sensational event are sealed.

I emphasize that my account may not be absolutely accurate in every detail. The whole episode was surrounded by such a smoke screen of sensational gossip, salacious details, and massive cover-up that now, sixty years later, it is probably impossible to ascertain what really happened. Incredibly, an internet search yields nothing, and yet it was a major topic of conversation in Virginia for months. I can't even find the exact date, yet I have never forgotten it. I was probably about 15 at the time, and I could not understand why no one seemed outraged. It was passed over as just something men did, and if they did it, it was the girl's fault. I particularly remember being shocked and distressed at the way my girlfriends discussed it, without outrage, without disgust, without fellow-feeling, without moral perspective.

Bulletin: An enterprising young female reporter at www.c' has unearthed the 1954 story for the first time, to my knowledge, since it was hushed up. A full account, with some (not all) names named, will be found at   I would particularly like to note the reaction of Colgate Darden, whose already-established stature can only be increased by the quotation in the article. (If the link does not work, just go to www.c' and search for "buried history."

All this has come back to me in light of the now-notorious alleged gang rape at the Phi Psi fraternity house on September 2012 that, thanks to reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely of Rolling Stone (December 4 issue), has now become the most-discussed issue not only around the Grounds (don't call it the campus!) but across the land and even the oceans. One of the most striking phenomena in the article is the description of the reaction of the female students, supposed "friends," who showed no sympathy to the rape victim, a first-year student who had not been drinking heavily at the time of the assault in an upstairs room at the fraternity house. Apparently no one thought to take her directly to the hospital for the collection of data.

The president of the University (a woman) issued a statement widely derided as tepid. Her second statement was more forceful, but nowhere near the level of moral passion reached by the student president of the Inter-Fraternity Council (IFC), Thomas Reid, who addressed a student gathering in these words: "It makes me personally sick to my stomach to make me think about what happened that one night in that specific fraternity house, and it disorients my understanding of this community." That is the sort of statement that gets at the real truth of the situation. The IFC issued a statement calling its members "horrified, disgusted, and viscerally saddened." That is the tone that the University president failed to produce. The New York Times reporters observed that it seemed as though "the fraternities, themselves, reacted more strongly than the administration." (11/25/14)

An interview with the associate dean of students Nicole P. Eramo, widely available on the Internet, is conducted with penetrating skill by a student with WUVA,  the student news network. The interview exposes the indirection and evasion typical of institutional officials everywhere when they are guarding the institution above all else. It's time to stop pointing to the Roman Catholic Church as if it were the only institution that protected its own in the face of atrocities.

Rape is a crime. Rape is a violation of human rights. Rape is an act of aggression and domination against another human being. Rape is an invasion and violation of another person's body and as such, an act of violence against another person's very self. In that sense it is a form of torture.  Judaeo-Christian anthropology envisions the human person as a psychosomatic whole, so that intentional injury done to the body is injury done to the soul, for they are one. Rape is also injurious to the perpetrator(s); a person who cavalierly (pun intended) does something so callous and cruel to the body of another person is severely damaged in his inmost being. He carries this abomination with him all his life. (Women can attack other women in a sexual manner, equally reprehensible, but at the moment we are talking about male culture.)

The University of Virginia was not coed when I was an undergraduate at neighboring Sweet Briar, but my roots in the institution are as deep as anyone's. My great-great-grandfather was on the original faculty. My grandfather was professor of history for 49 years. My uncle was the university historian. My father and another uncle were graduates of the Law School. My husband has two degrees from Virginia; he has been an active, devoted alumnus and was chairman of his fiftieth class reunion. My grandparents lived on Rugby Road for most of a century; I spent every summer of the first 20 years of my life in Charlottesville. As an undergraduate I spend most weekends staying in my grandmother's house on Rugby Road while hanging out in the relatively restrained St Anthony Hall fraternity house, in a parallel existence to what may have been going on elsewhere around "Mad Bowl." To this day I find walking on the Lawn and Ranges one of the most enriching aesthetic experiences available anywhere in the world. I am neither naive nor sentimental, but this most recent violation of what Virginia meant to my family is sickening to me, and the lukewarm response of those who would protect the institution at all costs is beyond appalling.

There is an Edwardian text (not exactly a poem) called "The Honor Men," by James Hays (class of 1903), which was widely reproduced at the University for a century, even though it is mawkish by any post-Jazz Age standard. It reads in part:

If you live a long, long time, and hold honesty of conscience above honesty of purse,
And turn aside without ostentation to aid the weak...
And track no man to his undeserved hurt,
And pursue no woman to her tears...  
Then you may say in your reverence and thanksgiving,
I have worn the honors of Honor;
I graduated from Virginia.

I read that thing a zillion times in my youth and the line that stayed with me is the one about pursuing no woman to her tears.


Postscript: I don't take back a single word of this in light of the errors of fact uncovered by investigation into the Rolling Stone article. The lamentable failure of the journalist (and her editors) to pursue the details more strenuously will, however, make it that much more difficult to persuade victims to come forward, and will encourage rape-deniers and others who don't care to understand that rape is a crime to feel gleefully vindicated. Something very bad almost certainly happened to Jackie, whatever the confusion in her testimony, and if not to her, to numerous other silent and not-so-silent victims. In the Duke lacrosse team case, although the players were found not guilty in court, it is a fact that the team hired a woman to "dance" at one of their alcohol-laced gatherings, and that some extraordinarily ugly things were publicly written and said about her by at least one of the players.