A Crucial, Timely Work of Narrative Reportage on Rape Investigation

Book review: A False Report, by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong
Amazon Book Depository

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.
Verdict: 4.5/5

A False Report:
A True Story of Rape in America
by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong
published February 6, 2018 by Crown

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

Amazon Book Depository

12 thoughts on “A Crucial, Timely Work of Narrative Reportage on Rape Investigation

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  1. This is indeed an important though painful topic. I was introduced to some of the issues by reading Missoula – our cultural drive to exonerate rapists and not “ruin their lives” came home to me powerfully there, as well as the soul-shattering impact of rape which the legal system ignores by blaming the victim. It seems to me this is not just about sexual misconduct, but about a whole view of ourselves as human beings that desperately needs to be changed. Kudos to these reporters for their investigation that might make a difference.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Missoula has been on my list to read for awhile now. I’m also repulsed at this seeming perception of rape convictions being so detrimental to the rapists that they should be given plenty of opportunity to redeem themselves without consequence, meanwhile the victims suffer unbelievably – “soul-shattering” is absolutely the right descriptor. I completely agree that we have to change how we view so much about this situation and ourselves. In that sense, this was a frustrating read because it lays out so clearly how far back these attitudes go. I knew that, of course, but seeing the examples here left me gobsmacked. I really hope this book gets the attention it deserves because it’s an excellent all-around case study.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. For reasons I won’t delve into here, my interest in our rape culture began two years ago when someone I know very well was the victim of rape. Since then I’ve read Kate Harding’s book and started digging into local stats. Brock Turner grew up 30 minutes from my hometown and the dispicable viewpoints his father gave in his letter to the court are commonplace here. The only type of rape the local prosecuting attorney’s office is skilled enough to win in court are the ones involving an older family member and a preteen child. Don’t get me wrong, those need to be avenged, but it’s hardly the most common type of rape in our culture…I’ll definitely be reading the book.
    Thanks for the excellent review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That Brock Turner attitude of “he’s a good kid, he messed up once, cut him a break” floors me. I feel like I’ve heard it so often that I wasn’t even shocked when he was let off so lightly. It’s as you say, almost like if they can create any possibility that something might’ve been consensual, or brought upon a victim themselves, instead of those horrifying no-brainer to condemn cases like you mention, then the legal system drops the ball on it. Not even to mention the backlog of untested rape kits that exist, how is that even possible? I’m sorry to hear this happened to someone close to you, but I applaud your researching more into it. I think so many people aren’t even aware or deny the topic discussion that it deserves. I need to check out the Harding book. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this one!


  3. Excellent review. We as a culture have become adept at questioning the woman first when a crime is committed and I hope that changes gradually. In the meantime, I hope books like these help in opening the eyes of everyone to the prevailing rape culture across the world which additionally punishes women for being victims of the crime as well as having the audacity of reporting it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I know, it’s like rape victims are forced to prove their innocence first before they even have a chance of being heard and believed, and that includes dredging through their pasts. It’s enraging. I really hope this gets a lot of attention and eyes on it, it’s such a deserving study. There’s no way to come away from it without feeling very strongly that something is very wrong with how this issue is treated.


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