Book review: A False Report, by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong
It’s early, but I’ll call it – this will be one of the most important nonfiction titles released this year.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong discovered every reporter’s nightmare – they were chasing nearly the same story. It was that of a serial rapist recently caught and imprisoned thanks to cooperation among multiple police jurisdictions. They decided to team up and tackle it together, since they had developed different angles in their reporting on the complicated, multi-faceted story. “We knitted our two halves into one – an investigation gone wrong tethered to one done right.”
The false report of the title refers to one made by Marie, one of the rapist’s earlier victims in the string of assaults that would eventually get him caught. Marie was a troubled eighteen-year-old at the time of her attack, newly living on her own after a childhood of abuse and neglect at the hands of her biological family followed by a shuffle through foster families. She was trying to get her life on track when she was targeted by a man in the throes of a psychological compulsion to tie women up and rape them.
I can’t emphasize enough that it’s must-read – especially with the rise of #metoo and with rapists like Brock Turner given slap-on-the-wrist sentences so as not to ruin their futures or lives, perish the thought of what the victim’s future will be like. But long story short, Marie ends up hit with legal charges for lying to police after being persuaded she made up the attack for attention. Then begins the familiar process of court appearances, fees, etc. that are so crippling for someone already down on their luck. (NPR’s This American Life covered Marie’s story as well, in the 2016 episode “Anatomy of Doubt”.)
Her attacker’s crimes are chillingly horrifying – he stalked (“hunted”) women, watching them for months before attacking, even breaking into their apartments multiple times to prepare as he became more “proficient”. One woman was 65 years old, another was recently on her own after suffering massive personal losses. He posed and photographed them throughout their ordeals, which lasted for hours. This is hard to read and know about. It’ll stay with you.
Which makes it all the more chilling that after enduring and surviving such an attack, the victims or survivors (whichever term they prefer) are faced not always with sympathy, but with skepticism – they have to pull themselves together enough to explain, multiple times to many parties, exactly what happened in excruciating detail. If any element of the crime scene or story has conflicts or inconsistencies, not only with their own versions of the story but with frequently accepted standards and protocols of forensics and psychology, doubt is quickly cast on them.
All I did was survive, and I was criminalized for it.
So wrote a woman named Denise Huskins, who was kidnapped from her home and sexually assaulted, then dismissed by detectives as having a Gone Girl-type fantasy. They insisted she owed the community an apology for lying. She was vindicated after video was eventually found of her being sexually assaulted by a disbarred lawyer.
The authors detail other too-common, “Kafka-esque” situations where police purposely lie and accuse rape victims of concocting their stories. It’s chilling.
What’s excellent about the authors’ research is their demonstration of how police techniques are finally changing (about time). Focus is turning towards the responsibility to listen to the story and thoroughly collect evidence, then determine what it all shows taken together, NOT to focus on proving or disproving a story. They’re learning or being trained to accept that shock, trauma, and the flood of emotions accompanying a sexual assault don’t always manifest in previously seen or expected ways. This should be a no-brainer yet it wasn’t.
Every survivor reacts differently, whether in the immediate aftermath of the assault, when telling their story, being questioned later, or when learning news related to their case. They can’t be judged on these perceptions or personal biases, or from other people saying their behavior seems strange or unnatural considering the situation. This is a big part of what began casting suspicion on Marie.
Two previous foster mothers expressed their doubts to an investigator on her case, saying she behaved strangely, had a complicated past, was struggling in her new apartment and needed attention. The investigator then began allowing the evidence to match this theory of doubt instead of telling its own story, leading to aggressive interrogation tactics and Marie’s confused recanting of the rape allegation, which predictably led to bigger problems when she most needed help.
As I’ve mentioned, I’m fascinated by the concept of false confessions, and this is another form of that, particularly heinous in that someone who’s experienced a trauma and most needs the help and support of law enforcement is punished again. I also felt sick because the crimes committed, detailed through the perspectives of multiple survivors and attending law enforcement, are heinous and disturbing. That’s not meant to scare anyone off from reading it: PLEASE READ THIS BOOK. I can’t stress enough how important I think this piece of reportage is and could be in changing the national dialogue and attitude about rape and rape reporting. Just be ready for what you’re going to learn, words aren’t minced.
For those who hate an unresolved crime story, know this one is satisfyingly covered through to the end. It was also a 48 Hours episode and drew heavy publicity in Colorado and Washington, where the crimes occurred.
One chapter particularly blew my mind: it lays out the historical foundations, legal, procedural, etc., that have contributed to the widespread culture of victim-blaming and a reluctance to accept rape victims’ stories and testimony. I knew this was nothing new, but the historical precedence is shocking and for lack of a better word, disappointing.
Consider passages like this, quoting the 20th century’s leading expert in the field of evidence, John Henry Wigmore: “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.” Sound familiar?
Or this line, referring to opinions expressed by certain Founding Fathers on women’s truthfulness regarding rape: “The man who had authored the Declaration of Independence was writing to the man who would author the Bill of Rights – to warn of the woman scorned, crying rape.”
This book will make you angry. It’s absolutely a must-read, well researched and compellingly written, on a crucially important topic as I hope we begin a long-overdue move away from horrifyingly outdated, antiquated attitudes about rape.
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.
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