Any story about the University of Virginia must begin with its founder, Thomas Jefferson, who is often referred to locally as “Mr. Jefferson”; with an invocation of the Rotunda and the surrounding “academical village”; and with a discussion of the venerable Honor Code and the exclusive secret societies. There must be a reference to the university as a “Public Ivy” or perhaps a “Southern Ivy,” and to the act of being physically on campus as being “on grounds.” There must be a nod to “girls in pearls and guys in ties” attending football games and horse races but paying attention to neither.
I like the dreams of the future
better than the history of the past.
More recently, there’s another thing that any story about the University of Virginia must mention: the horrific period the institution has just come through. The school year started in September 2014 with the disappearance and murder of Hannah Graham, an undergraduate in her second year. Then came the publication, in November 2014, of an explosive Rolling Stone story about the alleged gang rape of a young woman named Jackie at a U.Va. fraternity—an investigative report that was quickly discredited and has now been retracted but that has left lasting divisions. In late November, a second-year U.Va. student and heir to the D’Agostino supermarket chain committed suicide, one of three students to do so last fall. The following March there occurred an incident involving a 20-year-old African-American honor student, Martese Johnson, who presented his driver’s license at a bar near the school and was turned away. Shortly afterward, after questioning the validity of his ID, two white state Alcoholic Beverage Control (A.B.C.) agents had him pinned to the ground. With rivulets of blood lining his face, he was heard to scream, “I go to U.Va.! I go to U.Va., you fucking racists!” Any one of these events would have been enough to puncture the idyllic façade of Mr. Jefferson’s university. Taken together, the impact has been profound. The entire school seems to be suffering an institutional form of PTSD.
I recently returned to my alma mater on a glorious day in May. Final exams were under way, amid radiant bursts of azaleas, tulips, and dogwoods. I walked the serpentine gardens that surround the Lawn with an old friend who has settled in Charlottesville, and we talked about how hard and strange the year had been. I felt the familiar pull of the loveliness of the place—eliciting a desire, built into the mortar of the undulating brick walls, not to dwell too much on the negative.
When I arrived at U.Va., in 1992, Bill Clinton was on the presidential campaign trail for the first time. We were already hearing stories about his alleged longtime mistress, Gennifer Flowers. We took it for granted that Clinton was the Horndog President. He was a recognizable archetype—the roguish, charming, bad-boy southerner, though far too plebeian for the University of Virginia’s tastes, which run to a Regency-rake version of the same basic character. But Clinton’s election spurred a revived discussion of a New South, one that was modern and attractive to the rest of the country. It was this part of Clinton that appealed to students at U.Va., who are always engaged in an exercise of trying on the variety of southern raiment that the university has to offer.
U.Va. honor student Martese Johnson (left) with his lawyer, Daniel Watkins, after his arrest in Charlottesville, March 2015.
Many people love their alma mater, but the University of Virginia invites a special loyalty. Part of this, I think, has to do with the care Jefferson took when he conceived the place. He designed the campus personally and regarded the creation of the university as more significant than his presidency. U.Va. has been at the forefront of defining what an American university should be ever since its founding, in 1819. The ranks of its alumni range from Edgar Allan Poe and Woodrow Wilson to Tina Fey and Katie Couric to Tiki Barber and Ralph Sampson. This year, U.S. News & World Report ranked it as the second-best public university in the country (behind Berkeley and tied with U.C.L.A.). About 70 percent of the school’s 16,000 undergraduates come from Virginia and pay $13,000 a year to attend, one of the great bargains in higher education; the 30 percent from out of state pay $42,000, still a relative bargain. Poet laureate Rita Dove, civil-rights leader Julian Bond, and philosopher Richard Rorty have all taught at U.Va. William Faulkner was a writer-in-residence. Graduates of U.Va. see the place as particularly distinctive. Whenever my husband wants to get a rise out of me, he tells me that U.Va. is a great school, just like Michigan or Wisconsin. And like any place that is particularly distinctive, the flaws are distinctive as well.
If the Deep South is determined to position itself deliberately as “Other,” something that is separate and apart from the rest of the country, U.Va. provides a southern buffet, a place where one can dabble as a Virginia gentleman or a southern belle—trying on a lifestyle if not fully committing to a life. In her book, Bossypants, alumna Tina Fey wrote, “At the University of Virginia in 1990, I was Mexican. I looked Mexican, that is, next to my fifteen thousand blond and blue-eyed classmates, most of whom owned horses, or at least resembled them.” One friend recently described U.Va. to me as the “first layer” of the South—the safe version. U.Va. sets itself apart from its coarser cousins in the Deep South, the region that elites up North reject and that revels in this rejection. Even so, it embodies the South in all its inconsistencies and contradictions. The university is a defining institution in a state that, perhaps more than any other, has a rooted aristocracy. Wealthy donors, many of whom sit on the university’s Board of Visitors, are hugely influential. In the past, U.Va. students looked at Ole Miss, with its Confederate flags hanging in fraternity-house windows, and felt superior. Sure, you might have come across the occasional Confederate flag at U.Va. too, but they were hardly ubiquitous and were usually met with a roll of the eyes. In the Deep South, the shadowy side is actually out in the sunlight. Thomas Jefferson’s U.Va. prefers the shadows to be in the shadows.
Over the past few months, I’ve spoken to students and administrators at U.Va., and to many of the school’s alumni. They described a feeling of deep exhaustion. I have also spoken to people who were close to Jackie, the woman at the heart of the Rolling Stone story, and who were willing to address on the record for the first time how the story came together, now that the official police investigation has concluded. These young women are exhausted, too, as well as confused and angry. Visiting U.Va., you can’t escape a beleaguered defensiveness. When I walked onto the front porch of Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity at the heart of the Rolling Stone story, one of the brothers politely gave me the name of the fraternity’s public-relations representative and said that he and others had been instructed not to talk to anyone. The notion of college kids’ being fluent in the art of public-relations deflection saddened me. But it seemed fitting, given the horrors of the year that had just ended.
At the end of the third week of classes, in the early-morning hours of Saturday, September 13, 2014, an 18-year-old student at the university, Hannah Graham, texted her friends: “I’m coming to a party … but I’m lost.” It was the last anyone heard from her that night, or the next day—or ever. On Sunday, the police were notified. On Monday, the university’s president, Teresa Sullivan, issued a statement expressing “deep concern.” On Thursday, the police released a surveillance video of Graham and a black man walking separately on Charlottesville’s downtown pedestrian mall, and that night students held a vigil. Graham was freckled and blue-eyed. She had studied abroad and was on U.Va.’s alpine-ski and snowboard team. Many people I spoke to about the episode followed it like a grim soap opera, relating emotionally to Hannah and her parents.
A student-led vigil for Graham, September 2014.
Students felt unsafe. No one wanted to walk alone from the libraries. The case became even more emotionally charged when, on September 23, an African-American man who worked at the U.Va. medical center, Jesse Matthew Jr., 32, was identified as a suspect in Graham’s disappearance. The next day, Matthew was arrested and charged with abduction with “intent to defile” in the Graham case. In early October, with Hannah still missing, Hannah’s parents delivered a tearful, televised plea for her safe return. The divide between Jefferson’s privileged university and the neighborhoods that surround it moved from the back of students’ minds to the front. “We saw Charlottesville breaking into the world of U.Va.,” one student told me.
On October 18, five weeks after Graham had disappeared, Kevin Spacey was in Charlottesville to give a speech on the arts, the second in a series inaugurated a year earlier by Tina Fey. The much-anticipated Spacey event was to start at six P.M., in the John Paul Jones Arena, named for the father of hedge-fund manager and U.Va. alumnus Paul Tudor Jones II. Spacey took the stage, but members of the audience were distracted by something else: the police had found remains that would turn out to be those of Hannah Graham. Jesse Matthew Jr. was charged with her murder and will face the death penalty when he goes on trial next July. (In June of this year, Matthew was found guilty of attempted murder and sexual assault of a young woman in Fairfax, Virginia, in 2005. He faces up to three life sentences. And forensic evidence links him to the 2009 slaying of 20-year-old Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington.)
Hannah Graham, the second-year student who was abducted and murdered at the start of the fall 2014 semester.
The search for Hannah Graham was still in full swing when another series of events began to roil the campus. Emily Renda, who had graduated from U.Va. in the spring of 2014 and taken a job at the university as the project coordinator for sexual-misconduct prevention, would find herself in the middle of them. Renda had arrived at U.Va. in August 2010, planning to major in religious or environmental studies. “I thought I was going to be a pastor or a park ranger,” she recalls. Her path was deflected by a sexual assault six weeks into her first year. Those first three months of college are a period that some experts refer to as the Red Zone, when new students are most vulnerable to sexual assault as well as accidents due to alcohol abuse. Renda told me she had let her perpetrator walk her home after a party, and he suggested they go back to his room until she sobered up. She agreed, and what happened next shaped the rest of her college experience.
Renda’s assault involved “pushing, hitting, and punching,” elements that, she explained, later helped her realize that the incident was not her fault. She didn’t report the assault initially, and listed for me the reasons why not: “I didn’t want to ruin someone else’s life. It was a mistake. This person had parents, too. It wasn’t worth it.” She became an intern at the university Women’s Center and an advocate for sexual-assault survivors. She also became involved in the school’s annual Take Back the Night events, whose centerpiece is a candlelight vigil during which sexual-assault survivors can speak out about their experiences. By the time Renda was ready to report to the university what had happened, her alleged attacker had transferred to a different school and the issue was moot. Under federal Title IX legislation, colleges and universities are required to have procedures in place to adjudicate all such complaints. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, in 2015 U.Va. was one of 106 colleges and universities across the country with open Title IX sexual-violence investigations. Renda never considered going to the police or the courts, believing that she didn’t have the kind of evidence she needed for a successful prosecution.
In the spring of her final year, 2014, Renda was nearly finished with her major in sociology and had been accepted to a joint law-school and master’s-in-public-health program at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins. That was when, through her work with the sexual-assault-prevention community, she met a young woman at the university named Jackie. It was a fateful encounter. Jackie told Renda that she had been raped during her first year at U.Va., in 2012, by multiple assailants. Renda says that the conversation between the two women focused primarily on the unsupportive reactions that Jackie said she had received from friends and family, not on the alleged assault itself. Renda elected to stay at U.Va. as an intern in the Office of Student Affairs. In June 2014, Renda testified before a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and used Jackie’s story to underscore the need for increased reporting of sexual assault. She referred to Jackie anonymously and told lawmakers that Jackie didn’t report her assault until almost a year after it happened “because immediately after the attack she confided in peers who did not believe her,” a reaction that meant that the young men she claimed had attacked her “went unpunished and remained a threat to the other students throughout that year.”
Another young woman drawn into Jackie’s orbit was Alex Pinkleton, who had come to the university in 2012. Pinkleton sailed through the Red Zone with no problem, but in November of her second year, she says, she was sexually assaulted at a party. She had been drinking, and all she remembers is eventually coming to, naked, with a friend’s friend on top of her, and asking him what had happened. She put on her clothes and walked out. Afterward, she tried to joke about it but grew increasingly uncomfortable. She says the young man she had had sex with later told her, via a private Facebook message, that she had been so drunk she had forgotten his name four times in the course of the evening. The two ran into each other at parties and were, in Pinkleton’s telling, hostile to each other. Eventually, she says, she talked about the incident with Nicole Eramo, U.Va.’s associate dean of students and the school administrator responsible for handling sexual-assault complaints. Eramo asked Pinkleton if she felt safe, how she was doing emotionally, and if she wanted to pursue a formal or informal complaint through the university system, or instead wished to report the incident to the police. Pinkleton told Eramo she didn’t know what she wanted to do and deferred any decision.
In February 2014, as Pinkleton was walking out of the bathroom in New Cabell Hall, a 1950s-era brick building with classrooms and faculty offices, a young woman stopped her. It was Jackie. Because of her role in One Less, a student sexual-assault-education group, Pinkleton was well known as a victims’ advocate. Jackie told Pinkleton her story—which allegedly involved being raped by multiple perpetrators—and asked Pinkleton about her own history. The discussion, again, focused not on the details of any assault on Jackie but on the reaction from friends and family afterward; on how to feel safe; and on what action she might take to help the healing process, such as an adjudication through U.Va. The two women ultimately agreed to make their accounts public at the next Take Back the Night rally. “We decided, ‘If you do it, I’ll do it,’ ” Pinkleton remembers. They did speak at the event, but Pinkleton says Jackie offered few details about the assault itself—it was very much in the background.
That was the state of affairs when, on July 8, 2014, after most of her fellow class-of-2014 graduates had left Charlottesville, Emily Renda received a phone call from a woman named Sabrina Rubin Erdely, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine. According to her notes—as laid out in a report by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, which Rolling Stone asked to investigate its article after serious questions about it arose—Erdely was intending to write about rape at colleges and universities and was looking for an emblematic case that would show what it is like to be on a college campus today—where, in her view, sexual harassment and assault were so prevalent as to constitute a “rape culture.” Renda was soon to begin a new job at the university. “She was talking broadly about rape culture, and we talked about whether it was even an appropriate term,” Renda recalled, adding, “I think it is divisive”—her argument being that it makes the conversation immediately contentious when it doesn’t need to be, and therefore makes finding a response all the harder. The conversation ranged from psychology and advocacy to policy and law. Renda remembers speaking to Erdely for “four very unpleasant hours about my own experience.” In the end, Renda directed Erdely to five women, all of whom had very different stories to tell. Jackie’s was meant to represent the invalidating responses women often get from their friends and family. Another woman had successfully prosecuted her rapist through the criminal-justice system. Yet another had received protective orders through the school. She also put Erdely in touch with another woman, who had gone through the school process.
The article’s author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely.
Erdely contacted multiple women but evidently came to view Jackie’s story as the most dramatic. (Erdely, through a Rolling Stone spokeswoman, has declined to comment for this story.) The next time Renda spoke with Erdely, in August, Renda learned that the writer was focusing her article narrowly on the alleged gang rape of Jackie. Renda says she regarded Erdely’s journalistic focus on a single extreme episode as misleading—an outlier, even if true. She told Erdely that Jackie’s story “wasn’t representative of campus rape as a whole.” Much of Renda’s work involved speaking to students whose cases do not include explicit violence, that occur in the context of a lot of drinking and between people who already know each other. Even though Renda didn’t have the details of Jackie’s story, she was aware that it allegedly included multiple assailants, and she worried that it could make the experience of other victims, whose stories weren’t nearly as dramatic and yet were personally devastating, seem almost trivial by comparison.
Erdely, meanwhile, had been in touch with Jackie by e-mail, and on July 14 they spoke on the phone. According to Erdely’s notes, Jackie seems to have shared her rape story with Erdely in a way she never had with Renda or Pinkleton. A fellow lifeguard, given the name “Drew,” had invited her to her first fraternity party, and after midnight he led her upstairs. As reported in Rolling Stone:
“My eyes were adjusting to the dark. And I said his name and turned around…. I heard voices and I started to scream and someone pummeled into me and told me to shut up. And that’s when I tripped and fell against the coffee table and it smashed underneath me and this other boy, who was throwing his weight on top of me. Then one of them grabbed my shoulders…. One of them put his hand over my mouth and I bit him—and he straight-up punched me in the face…. One of them said, ‘Grab its motherfucking leg.’ As soon as they said it, I knew they were going to rape me.”
Jackie’s account was graphic. She described the lifeguard’s coaching seven other young men as they raped her, seemingly as part of a fraternity pledge ritual. “Don’t you want to be a brother?” one of the young men asked another who had hesitated. Erdely told the Columbia investigators that she had been “sickened and shaken” after the call, even though she was also “a bit incredulous” about some of the details, such as a glass table shattering under Jackie as the first rapist assaulted her. The article, published in the fall, described U.Va. as an institution so defined by rape culture that women had taken to calling it “UVrApe.” Erdely portrayed U.Va. as a place that discouraged the reporting of sexual assault and infantilized survivors by telling them to focus on healing rather than justice. In the article, Nicole Eramo, the associate dean of students who served as a counselor to sexual-assault survivors, was quoted as responding this way to a question posed by Jackie about why U.Va. statistics on rape were hard to find: “Because nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school.”
In the fall of 2014, Pinkleton felt she had somehow become a main pillar of support for Jackie as she navigated the process of telling her story publicly to a reporter for a national magazine. In Pinkleton’s recollection, Jackie appeared increasingly distressed. “She would message me at four A.M.,” Pinkleton told me. To give Jackie someone else to talk to, Pinkleton introduced her to Sara Surface, a fellow U.Va. student and a co-selection chair for One Less. The three women met in September at Para Coffee, on the Corner, the commercial strip of shops and bars where U.Va. students regularly socialize. They sat outside, and, Pinkleton says, Jackie shared certain general elements of her story with Surface, though not in anything like as much detail as she had with Sabrina Rubin Erdely. Jackie was talkative and friendly but appeared anxious about the upcoming Rolling Stone article. “I don’t think she fully grasped how big the article would become, but she was worried about it,” Pinkleton recalled. Pinkleton was worried, too. “The extra stress on someone who had been gang-raped by tons of people would be a reason someone might do something dramatic,” Pinkleton told me. “I was worried she would kill herself.”
Erdely arrived in Charlottesville for interviews two days before Hannah Graham went missing. Pinkleton told me Jackie met with Erdely alone, and then the three of them had dinner the night Graham disappeared. By that time Erdely had been reaching out to various administrators and students at U.Va. but making little headway. The administration seemed to be media-shy—a consequence, possibly, of ugly events in 2012, when some high-profile members of the Board of Visitors had led a failed coup against the university’s president, Teresa Sullivan. But it was also preoccupied: Around this time, Erdely “called to complain that no one was talking to her,” Renda told me. President Sullivan had postponed phone interviews with Erdely. Renda thought at the time, Do you know we have a student missing and an all-out manhunt for her?
There was another reason the U.Va. administration may have seemed guarded. Word was getting around—based on the nature of Erdely’s questioning and her apparent disdain for university officials—that the article was likely to be deeply critical of the administration’s handling of sexual-assault cases. “People thought it was best not to talk to her, because anything you told her was not going to be fairly represented,” Renda told me. This made Erdely’s reporting all the more difficult. At that point, Renda felt hesitant about continuing to speak to Erdely, and told me she emphasized to the reporter that anything she said reflected nothing more than her own personal experience—that she didn’t have access to case files from Jackie’s discussions with Dean Eramo or any other U.Va. administrators, could not have shared them even if she did, and knew only what Jackie was telling her. “I knew so little about the actual story,” Renda explained—meaning the specific details of the alleged gang rape.
U.Va.’s Nicole Eramo, associate dean and a counselor to sexual-assault survivors.
Skeptical of U.Va. officials, Erdely appears to have relied increasingly on Jackie and her circle of supporters, but her friends knew only what they had been told, which was relatively little and not always the same thing. Although Jackie had told Erdely her story in graphic detail, she wasn’t always eager to maintain contact with the reporter. Jackie seems to have cut off contact with Erdely, or tried to. At one point, Renda says, she received an e-mail from Erdely asking if she had heard from Jackie lately, because Erdely hadn’t. After getting Erdely’s message, Renda contacted Jackie directly and told her that if the story was becoming too much she could drop out of participation at any time. Jackie told Renda that she was fine—just stressed out by school. Jackie wavered on whether she should name the fraternity explicitly. Pinkleton felt that Erdely was trying to manipulate Jackie into cooperating, though Pinkleton’s view of the dynamics would gradually become more complicated. Pinkleton remembers contacting Erdely on one occasion to tell her that Jackie didn’t want her name in the story. Erdely called back, confused, saying she had just spoken to Jackie, who did want her name in the story. “At first I thought Sabrina was manipulating us,” Pinkleton told me. Later, after everything unraveled, she came to a different conclusion: “Jackie was manipulating us as well.”
In October, according to Pinkleton, arguments and tensions mounted among Jackie, Surface, Pinkleton, and Erdely. Surface and Pinkleton were trying to shield Jackie, or help Jackie shield herself. For her part, Jackie seemed uncertain about how she wanted to be represented in the story. She went from not wanting to be named at all to agreeing to the use of just her first name. Pinkleton said, “She started evading questions from us and confessing more to Sabrina.” And Pinkleton went on: “I just feel like she really started telling us things that didn’t make sense. We offered her help in standing up to Sabrina, but she didn’t want it.” Pinkleton noted a few worrying signs as the story was closing and Rolling Stone was calling to confirm various pieces of information: “I remember telling the fact-checkers that ‘UVrApe’ was nothing I had ever heard of.” Other rape-prevention advocates at the school had never heard the term, either.
The week the Rolling Stone story came out, the four women—Renda, Surface, Pinkleton, and Jackie—were scrambling to prepare for what they suspected would be a bombshell. On Tuesday, November 18, a friend of Sara Surface’s found a copy of the magazine on a newsstand. The friend took pictures of the pages with her cell phone and sent them to Surface, who downloaded them onto a laptop. All four women had been anticipating the story for months. Some of them had come to distrust Erdely. Nobody wanted to read it alone. They wanted to see one another’s reactions and talk about it afterward. “Everybody come to my apartment now,” texted Renda. She lived off campus, far enough away from most student housing to feel truly removed. Everyone arrived right away. “We were really nervous, and we knew it was going to be really bad,” Pinkleton told me. Bad for U.Va. and bad for Dean Eramo, whom the women, save perhaps Jackie, regarded as a mentor.
Once the women had gathered, Renda read the story aloud, detail by harrowing detail. Jackie was identified by her first name only, and the leader of her alleged rapists, as noted, was given the pseudonym “Drew.” Three allegedly unsympathetic friends whom Jackie had sought out in the aftermath of the attack were also given pseudonyms—“Cindy,” “Randall,” and “Andy.” Renda read aloud the story of Jackie’s brutal gang rape at the hands of seven men at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. She read aloud how, after the attack, her friends and U.Va. officials had discouraged Jackie from reporting the incident to the police or the university. As some of the women had feared, Dean Eramo became the face of an administration that was depicted as unsympathetic and indifferent to a pervasive rape culture.
As Pinkleton listened to the horrific details, she said, she thought, Oh, I didn’t hear that, and Oh, I didn’t know that. While they were aware of the outlines of the story, much of the specific information was being imparted to them for the first time. Looking back on it now, Pinkleton remembers that Jackie seemed upset as Renda read the story but did not break down. At one point, Pinkleton reached over to pat Jackie’s back to comfort her. Renda told me that hearing the story read aloud was “like being hit over the head with a baseball bat,” because the details of Jackie’s rape were so shocking and because the dean had been treated so unfairly. After Renda finished reading, Jackie’s boyfriend, who had driven her to Renda’s apartment, took her home. Once Jackie had departed, the three women left behind looked at one another, realizing that there was a lot they didn’t know about what had happened to Jackie. And maybe a lot they didn’t know about Jackie.
Protesters demonstrate at U.Va.’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity in November 2014, soon after the Rolling Stone article appeared.
The next day, “A Rape on Campus” was on nearly every laptop before, during, and after classes at U.Va. There were countless “I stand with Jackie” messages on Facebook, Yik Yak, and other social media. There was a lot of anger at Jackie’s friends—“Cindy,” “Randall,” and “Andy”—who were portrayed as unsupportive in Rolling Stone. Renda described to me the protests that followed the story. Vandals painted UVA CENTER FOR RAPE STUDIES on the side of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. They threw rocks through the windows. The Phi Kappa Psi brothers moved out. Especially distressing to Renda was a sign she saw at a protest march: PROTECT OUR WOMEN. The sign seemed to epitomize all the “damsel in distress” tropes that women like Renda had been trying to dispel—a difficult task anywhere but particularly at a place like U.Va., with its ethic, in some quarters, of chivalrous paternalism. “I remember feeling really overwhelmed and like this was going to set back all the positive work that had been done,” Renda told me. There were only two types of women in Erdely’s story, she explained: bimbos and victims. “There were no women of agency,” she said. One key issue from Renda’s perspective was that much of her work had been trying to help women who had suffered a much less violent, much less dramatic version of Jackie’s story—the so-called gray area of rape, one that, Renda says, is all too common at U.Va. and other college campuses. For her part, Pinkleton was annoyed that she and Surface weren’t identified as working to prevent sexual assault at U.Va., nor was anyone else. Erdely “acted like there were no feminists or anyone supporting survivors,” Pinkleton told me. Pinkleton was also upset that Erdely “had destroyed the administration’s credibility and said”—falsely—“that there is no one at this school who will listen to your story and believe you.”
Jackie’s circle of supporters were in an unenviable situation. They ostensibly knew more than anyone about what had happened to Jackie—but began to appreciate that they really didn’t know what they knew, or whether what they thought they knew was true. At some point during the two weeks that followed the story’s publication, Jackie told Pinkleton and Surface what she claimed to be the real name of “Drew,” the alleged ringleader of her rape. Pinkleton says that, when she and Surface looked him up, they realized he didn’t fit the story. There was no one by his name who was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. Then it began to get worse: a Washington Post reporter, T. Rees Shapiro—one of the many reporters who had descended on U.Va.—was attempting to speak to the student Jackie identified as “Drew.” “We realized the chances of it happening at Phi Kappa Psi at that point were slim to none,” said Pinkleton. And they realized that they had, in Pinkleton’s words, a “moral obligation” to tell Shapiro about discrepancies in Jackie’s story. Sara Surface added, “At a certain point Alex and I had to start making decisions about Jackie versus every other survivor in our cause. It wasn’t a distinction that we as advocates ever thought we would need to make.”
On Tuesday, December 2, two weeks after the Rolling Stone story’s release, Surface and Pinkleton had dinner with Jackie and told her they were concerned that the person Jackie had identified to them didn’t match the description of the Drew character named in the story. Pinkleton says that Jackie avoided answering their questions. She began to cry and told them she was stressed and tired and overwhelmed. On Thursday, December 4, Surface and Pinkleton met with Shapiro, the Post reporter, and essentially compared notes. They had all identified what seemed like discrepancies in Jackie’s story. “We just sat there, like, ‘Holy shit—what is going on?,’ ” Pinkleton told me. “Meanwhile, Sara and I are, minds blown, but we also felt like we had betrayed her. Did we just have it wrong?”
Later that Thursday was the traditional “Lighting of the Lawn,” when students string lights, sing, play music, and have a party. Pinkleton, Surface, and Renda missed the lighting and instead met with Jackie at her apartment. “We needed to tell her that the Washington Post article was coming out and destroying her story the very next day, because we didn’t want mental-breakdown suicide going on,” Pinkleton told me. The meeting included a university-affiliated counselor in the event some sort of emergency arose.
“We all got together to say, ‘Jackie, this is what’s coming. How are you going to prepare for this?,’ ” Renda told me. What was coming, they feared, was a virulent backlash against a false accusation—and an onslaught of victim blaming. The women wanted to support Jackie, because they sensed that what was about to follow would be difficult. They also, gingerly, wanted to get some explanations for the inconsistencies in her story. They told her that the Post story would be out soon, and she said she knew. Pinkleton lost her temper. She told Jackie she should stop thinking about herself and start thinking about the damage a discredited story would do to the movement against sexual assault. Pinkleton told me that the conversation was heated and that she doesn’t remember what everyone said, but she does remember that at one point Jackie, frustrated, told them: “I don’t even know why I talk to you guys anymore. Sara and Alex, you all have been such shitty friends lately.” The women told Jackie that Shapiro had offered her one last chance to tell him what really happened.
Sara Surface and Alex Pinkleton, friends of Jackie, the young woman whose story about her alleged gang rape at a fraternity formed the heart of a now retracted 2014 Rolling Stone article.
Later that night they met with Shapiro in an academic building, where Jackie repeated her story again, including details such as the color of the alarm clock. To Pinkleton, the level of detail about the room seemed unusually vivid. Jackie was adamant: what she had told Erdely was what really happened. “That is my story,” Jackie said.
That night, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who had been engaged in her own effort to find Drew and who had just spoken to Jackie, called Pinkleton at one A.M. “I need to hear from you if her story was true,” she said, in Pinkleton’s recollection. “And I just said, ‘I don’t think you should have written the article.’ ” The following morning, December 5, Pinkleton said, she received another call from Erdely. “ ‘I’m writing the retraction right now. I just need to hear one more time what you think,’ ” Pinkleton told me. “She started bawling and said, ‘I am going to lose my job.’ ” That same day, The Washington Post wrote that Phi Kappa Psi said that it had not held an event the night of Jackie’s alleged rape, and that the “friends” who had spoken to Jackie then had heard details of her attack that differed from what was in the Rolling Stone article. *Rolling Stone’*s managing editor, Will Dana, issued a statement later that day in which the magazine admitted to mistakes in the story and apologized to readers. Dana would leave the magazine in August.
In the next week, the Post identified further holes in the story. The friends of Jackie’s provided Shapiro with text messages from Jackie that made it seem that she may have simply invented the Drew character in the Rolling Stone article. Some speculated about another source for certain details in Jackie’s account: in 2011, a U.Va. alumna named Liz Seccuro published a book in which she described how, as a student in 1984, in the midst of a date function at Phi Kappa Psi, she had ventured upstairs, been drugged, dragged into a room, and raped repeatedly.
Eramo has sued Erdely and Rolling Stone for nearly $8 million for the way she is described and quoted in the story, which she has claimed is false and defamatory. Three Phi Kappa Psi brothers, one of whom lived in a second-floor bedroom of the fraternity house, have sued Rolling Stone and Erdely for causing them “mental anguish and severe emotional distress,” even though none were named in Erdely’s story. Renda and Pinkleton, not to mention Jackie, have all been personally attacked by media outlets for their role in the article.
Shortly after the publication of *Rolling Stone’*s statement, Jackie vanished. Renda, Surface, and Pinkleton have not heard from her in the nine months since her story fell apart. Approached through her attorney, Jackie has declined to answer questions. For Renda, the rest of the year has been “all hell and hopelessness.” The experience has made her abandon the idea of working with sexual-assault survivors, she told me. She is headed to law school—electing to go to Berkeley, as far away from U.Va. as she can get. “I don’t want to say it’s been the worst year of my life, but it has been the worst year of my life.”
When the Rolling Stone story appeared, my U.Va. friends and I were transfixed by it—and took the account at face value. There was a reason for that. Extreme as Jackie’s story was, it touched on something recognizable about U.Va. While a fraternity pledging ritual that involved gang rape was shocking, there were certain aspects of U.Va.—in its history and its rituals—that could be characterized as debauched, dehumanizing, or just plain bizarre.
When I was applying to college, my brother, who had gone to Princeton, was in his first year at U.Va. law school. My mother told me she thought I’d like the young women better at U.Va. than at Princeton, and I applied early and was accepted. I arrived with a flowered bedspread and a curling iron. I dressed up for football games and, in the spring of my first year, pledged a sorority. We attended fraternity mixers where we drank “grain punch” scooped from a garbage can. I heard stories of fraternity hazing and secret societies. On the night I was inducted into Tri Delt, we drank a lot and wore blindfolds, and I think we may have had to wear our bras outside our blouses, but only for a short time, and only in the company of our sorority sisters. Any hazing was halfhearted. There was no forced vomiting or the occasional simulated fellatio on bottles—as there was, however, for the women’s society at U.Va. known as Thursdays, a “secret” society that was essentially a drinking club. There was no staged fighting or bodily penetration with fruit—as I had heard about, however, from friends in the male drinking society known as Eli Banana, which at one point in the late 19th century was disbanded for its behavior (but then allowed to re-materialize). On bid night—when secret societies tap their initiates—some of the drinking societies have been known to gather privately in a basement for a cockfight. This is the kind of atmosphere where someone could be forgiven for thinking that misogynistic or violent episodes might occur.
“Pimps and Hos” mixers between fraternities and sororities were still pretty common when I was a student, and when I started reporting this story I was certain that I didn’t know anyone who had been sexually assaulted at U.Va. That changed within hours of calling friends, and I came to understand that what passed for a “bad hookup” when I was in college is today what we would rightly call rape—which was precisely Renda’s point. We just weren’t talking much about any of it. When we did talk about it, we tried to laugh it off. I’m sure this is true at most colleges. But U.Va. has a particularly challenging past. It was among the last of the flagship state universities in the country to become co-educational (in 1970), and did so even then under the threat of a federal lawsuit. When women were first admitted, U.Va. men referred to female classmates as “U-bags.”
An act of violence was responsible for the creation of the vaunted Honor System in the first place. During a disturbance in 1840, a masked student shot and killed a professor who had tried to restore order. The Honor System at U.Va., today overseen by a 27-student Honor Committee, grew out of that incident: students agreed to “vouch” for one another and to voluntarily report episodes of misbehavior. Since 1998, U.Va. has expelled 187 students for lying, cheating, or stealing, but not a single person has been kicked out for sexual assault. The deliberations are confidential, and there have been allegations both of vigilante justice and of a double standard at play. In 1990, The Washington Post, in an article exploring the Honor System, reported that in 1988 J. Brady Lum, the Honor Committee chair at the time, was accused of plagiarism in a letter he wrote to incoming students introducing them, ironically, to the Honor System. He was cleared by an investigation. Lum’s successor, Lonnie Chafin, had been convicted of an assault involving the Charlottesville police. He was voted off the Honor Committee but not expelled from the university.
The opening pages of the Rolling Stone story.
The Columbia report on the Rolling Stone article, which found failures at all levels of the magazine’s editorial process, was made public in early April. By then the university was caught up in yet another controversy. The day after Saint Patrick’s Day, U.Va. students started seeing a cell-phone video from the night before pop up in their social-media feeds. It showed a fellow U.Va. student, Martese Johnson, who is black, lying on the pavement outside a bar on the Corner, his face bloodied, with two white A.B.C. agents on his back. He kept yelling, “I go to U.Va.!” It was a linguistic amulet that was both heartbreaking and ineffective.
The issue of race has never been faced squarely by the university, just as Jefferson never faced it squarely. Johnson is an honor student, heavily involved in extra-curricular activities, and one of only two African-Americans on the Honor Committee. Virginia’s population is 20 percent black, but the percentage of African-American students at U.Va. has dropped from 12 percent in the 1990s to around 6 percent today.
Most black U.Va. students I spoke to told me that they face a choice when they arrive in Charlottesville. They have to decide whether they want to be part of the black culture of U.Va.—which has its own sororities and fraternities, its own clubs, and, effectively, because of self-segregation, historically, even its own bus stop—or be part of the white culture, which entails joining predominantly white organizations such as the predominantly white fraternities and sororities and the predominantly white debating societies and other clubs. U.Va. throws a “spring fling” for incoming black students, hosted by the office of admissions. “A lot of African-Americans come with a bit of apprehension as to whether there is a place for them” at an institution with “a southern, white, aristocratic history,” Vendarryl Jenkins, an African-American second-year student, told me. The spring fling is designed to show “there is a community here for you.”
The white and black communities don’t mix much. Memories of those “Pimps and Hos” mixers can’t help. Jenkins told me of the night last fall when Martese Johnson, who happened to be a friend of his, was tapped to be a member of the secret society IMP. Not many African-Americans are tapped for secret societies, but Johnson brought Jenkins and a few other black friends to the party for new members. At first, everyone, black and white, was in the main room of the house hosting the party, listening to music together and dancing. “As the party continued, a slow separation began to take form,” Jenkins later wrote in an unpublished account of that night, which he shared with me. “Black students remained in the main room, lights off, blasting hip-hop, and dancing jovially in celebration.” The white students migrated into a separate room, brought up the lights, and turned on Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” “with the door shut.”
Last December, black students at U.Va. protested the decision not to indict a police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner, an African-American who died on Staten Island after police arrested him for selling loose cigarettes and the officer held him in a choke hold. Among other things, the black students marched through the university’s libraries. Virulently racist messages soon appeared on Yik Yak. “I hope the people who protested ride back home on the back of the bus,” one commenter wrote. Another, referring to the protesters as if they were field slaves on a plantation, wrote, “Did anyone just see all that farm equipment walk through Clemons?” Jenkins told me, “That is what people are saying in private. It’s not what you see on a tour of grounds.” All this occurred before Martese Johnson was turned away from a bar on the Corner and found himself set upon by law-enforcement officers. Johnson spent several hours in jail and was released that morning. All charges against him have since been dropped. No charges were lodged against the A.B.C. agents. A crucial six-minute segment of a police surveillance video had apparently gone missing.
There is a temptation among many in Charlottesville to blame the national media for the sheer intensity of this year’s events, and it’s certainly true that the continual presence of camera crews has not been a positive inducement. Others voice what I think of as the Pantene theory of U.Va.’s situation: some people dislike the school in part because it’s beautiful. If nothing else, the year has been hard to explain and translate to outsiders. One student told me about a conversation she had had with a former high-school teacher. “How’s U.Va.?” he asked her. The student replied, “What do you want to talk about—murder, rape, or beating?” For all that, students I spoke to said time and again that they loved U.Va. I can understand why. Though fraternities and sororities dominate the popular image of the school, only 30 percent of students participate in Greek life. Two of the most prestigious and secret of the secret societies, the Sevens and the Z’s, are primarily philanthropic in nature, not sowers of drunken discord. An active minority, a layer of elites within the university’s elite clubs and other institutions, sets an inescapable school-wide tone, but a great variety of experiences are available to students at U.Va., and there are many communities to join. The people I met there remain some of my dearest friends today.
But the university is also a petri dish of issues facing society at large, and a little more intensely so, given its location and its special history. The events of the past year forced a reckoning of sorts, and some students and professors I spoke to said they were optimistic that the trauma would bring positive changes: it’s an example of that Cavalier instinct to look for solutions. But the feeling was by no means universal. In one dialogue group that Jenkins moderated last semester, a young woman said to him, “I just want everything to go back to normal.” A return to normal is not what U.Va. needs. Normal is part of the problem. It was Jefferson himself who said that he liked the dreams of the future better than the history of the past. If there’s anything U.Va. should be able to get behind, it’s a directive from Mr. Jefferson.
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