“He’s the nicest person!!!”
In the photo insert of Bernard Lefkowitz’s 1997 book Our Guys, there’s a poor-quality close-up of a cute boy in a hoodie. It’s from the boy’s yearbook, where it was featured prominently. It was not originally a close-up — the yearbook editors cropped in on the cute face. I know this to be the case, although I’ve never seen the original photo or the yearbook itself. The photograph is captioned as follows:
Bryant Grober, the son of a doctor and one of the leaders of the Jock clique in high school, wrestled and played football. The senior poll said he had the “nicest eyes.” He later became a leading suspect in the rape investigation. State Exhibit: State v. Christopher Archer et al.
The subject of Our Guys is an incident known as the Glen Ridge rape. Glen Ridge is a wealthy New Jersey commuter town where serious crime is so rare, or so rarely reported, that no more specific appellation is required. On the afternoon of March 1, 1989, a 17-year-old girl whom Lefkowitz calls Leslie Faber was shooting baskets by herself in a park. A bunch of Glen Ridge High boys were hanging out nearby, and one of them — junior Chris Archer — approached Leslie and asked her to join him at the home of the Scherzer twins, Kyle and Kevin. All the guys were heading over there, he said; they were going to have a party. Leslie, who was intellectually disabled, had known Chris and most of the other boys since kindergarten. She badly wanted to be liked by them. “He was my hero,” she later said of one of them.
Leslie hesitated to go to this party where she knew she would be the only girl. But when Chris promised her that his older brother Paul would go on a date with her if she accepted the invitation, she said yes. Paul, a senior, was considered the most handsome boy at Glen Ridge High.
The thirteen Jocks — this is how Lefkowitz refers to them, Jocks with a capital J — adjourned to the Scherzers’ finished basement with Leslie. The guys gathered around Leslie and began urging her to disrobe. She took off all her clothes and then, at the Jocks’ behest, performed oral sex on Bryant Grober. She was then instructed to lie on a couch, where the Scherzers and Chris Archer took turns penetrating her with a miniature bat, a drumstick, and a broomstick. Richie Corcoran — a rambunctious lug of the type beloved in many a jock clique, a sort of mascot-enforcer — called her “Pigorskia” while this was taking place. Six boys got uncomfortable and split early on. None tried to stop what was happening, nor did any of them report it. The rape came to light when one of the guys’ football teammates, Charlie Figueroa, heard about it and told a teacher, at which point Figueroa became a social outcast. At his graduation later that year, his classmates booed him.
By then, State v. Christopher Archer et al. had embarked on its balky and byzantine course. The al. comprised Bryant and the Scherzer twins. Prosecutors had hoped to charge more of the thirteen Jocks but in the end concluded they could only win convictions against these four. Our Guys follows the trial closely and is riveting as courtroom drama, but it is also a nuanced sociological study. To contextualize the rape, Lefkowitz describes the sexual mores of the Glen Ridge Jocks in great detail. The boys, he tells us, never went on dates. Instead, they threw parties that followed a rigid script: first the guys would watch porn while the girls chatted among themselves. When the groups did interact, the guys would make a desultory show of chivalrous ardor, rolling their eyes at one another when they could without the girls noticing, until eventually everyone paired off. These couples rarely had intercourse — the boys preferred to receive handjobs or blowjobs — but the thing that really seemed to turn them on was what they called “voyeuring”: arranging situations where they could watch their friends fool around with unwitting girls. According to one of Lefkowitz’s informants, a guy at one such party said, “You gotta go up and see what they’re doing upstairs. She’s unbelievably gross.”
The boys craved a visual record of these experiences. Their oft-discussed fantasy was to produce their own homemade porno, presumably with girls who had no idea they’d been conscripted into the lead roles. One of the Jocks asked a friend to surreptitiously take a picture while he had sex, which he then put in a display case at school. They’d make up nicknames for their partners; one particularly ingratiating girl, for example, was dubbed “Seal.” Their collective term for sexually available young women was animals. At school, they’d pin female classmates to lockers and grind against them.
Lefkowitz does not limit his investigation to the Jocks’ teenage underworld. Much of Our Guys is devoted to the Glen Ridge community’s response to the crime, which involved support for the victim and a lot of collective soul searching. Just kidding! The whole town was completely in thrall to the Jocks, and the majority of Ridgers, as they called themselves, were furious that the boys were embroiled in such an unsavory situation. In the orgy of victim blaming that followed the rape, Ridgers did not hesitate to paint Leslie as a slutty seductress (as defense lawyers later did, too, inquiring into her sex life with such grotesque prurience that it led to the strengthening of New Jersey’s rape shield laws). After the defendants were charged in May, administrators called an assembly at Glen Ridge High and asked the student body to “stand by our boys.”
While none of their boys comes across as sympathetic, one does feel a pang for Grober, the most remorseful of the four defendants. When a classmate describes “Bry” as “the ultimate crowd-follower,” the reader is inclined to believe it, and to surmise that had it not been for peer pressure, Bryant would never have been involved in the rape of Leslie Faber.
Chris Archer is a different story. In a photograph in Our Guys, he stands beside his brother, both of them in sweatshirts and varsity jackets. The caption reads:
Paul Archer (left) and his brother, Chris. Chris, a junior when this photo was taken, wrestled and played football. The brothers had known Leslie Faber since she was a child. State Exhibit: State v. Christopher Archer et al.
It’s not difficult to see why prosecutors chose to admit this particular photograph into evidence. Paul’s fair-haired cuteness could not have been a more effective foil for everything un-cute about the kid standing next to him with his game face on. In Our Guys, Chris emerges as a classic charismatic sociopath, and Lefkowitz, usually dry to a fault, waxes melodramatic: “People might describe Chris’s appearance as ‘arresting.’. . . it was the eyes, the freezing intensity, that could stop you dead. His eyes could read your soul.” Our antihero never studies but makes excellent grades. He overflows with energy. A fellow Jock recalls, “There was something about Chris. . . . He was just fearless. He was the hardest hitter on the football team. And the way he carried himself on the mat.”
Both boys were rapists, not just the one who had the brio to announce it so insouciantly.Tweet
Chris won “nicest eyes” the year after Bryant did. (He was free on bail at the time.) He must have had innumerable opportunities to hook up with girls, but it appears he had a thing for Leslie Faber. Soon after the rape, Leslie — whom Lefkowitz describes as “tall for her age, broad-shouldered, and somewhat overweight” — disclosed that Chris “had been bothering her” for the previous year and a half, calling her, wanting to talk about sex, trying to get her to meet him at night in a shed. “On the way to parties,” Lefkowitz writes, “Chris would pound the dashboard of the car and chant lines from ‘Paul Revere’ about being hunted by the sheriff. Why was the sheriff after him? Because he ‘did it’ to the sheriff’s daughter ‘with a wiffleball bat.’”
The case took forever to adjudicate, but by 1993, Chris and the Scherzer twins had been found guilty of first-degree sexual assault, which in New Jersey is equivalent to rape, and Bryant had been found guilty of conspiracy to commit the same. Chris and the Scherzers appealed, but eventually, in 1997, all three began serving (short) prison terms. In the long interim between crime and punishment, life for the defendants went on at least somewhat normally. Chris, still free on bail, graduated from high school and matriculated at Boston College in 1990. Some months later, a Boston College security staffer contacted the Glen Ridge police to suggest they speak to a female student who had a story to tell about Archer. The young woman — who did not want to testify for fear of having her name “dragged through the mud” — told prosecutors that Chris had pulled her behind some bushes one night as they walked home from a bar. “Right here, right now,” he said, and started attempting to remove her clothes. When she resisted, she stated, he “began punching her in her vagina” and “penetrated her vagina and her anus with his fingers.” Then he jumped up and declared “I’m a rapist.”
If you went to an American high school with an average parental tax bracket in the “comfortable” range, there’s a good chance you know Bryant Grober. Bry: cute and popular, on the teams it was cool to be on, kind of a dick around his friends but perfectly cordial when you were lab partners. Somewhere in your yearbook, there’s a picture of him. It’s a close-up reproduced large, because the yearbook editors wanted everyone to appreciate Bry’s amazing eyes. Chris, with his equally amazing but soul-freezing eyes, might seem a more unheimlich figure. Both boys were rapists, not just the one who had the brio to announce it so insouciantly. Follower and leader, sheep and beastie boy, wound up in the same place. One was, by all accounts, miserable about it afterward; the other, not at all. But they both participated in sexually assaulting Leslie Faber and stripping her utterly of dignity. The father of a young woman who went to school with the guys said:
If I think back about that period, I can see the group getting stronger, closer, every time they got together and humiliated a girl. What they enjoyed in common wasn’t football. This was their shared experience. For them, this was what being a man among men was. My daughter would come home with stories — I’d just shake my head and wonder if they thought a girl was human.
When I was growing up, I never paid much attention to jocks. A robust mutual disinterest prevailed between my popular athletic male classmates and me. Lately, though, I’ve been trying to summon my memories of these boys. I remember the way they dressed: loose T-shirts obscuring their cultivated pecs; long, baggy, unflattering shorts; man-sandals that made them look like pensioners on a kibbutz. It was as if they were daring the world to find them unfoxy. The ensemble was both mufti and dishabille, conveying that the wearer was only really dressed when on the field, in full football or lacrosse regalia.
The way they sat — that too I recall quite vividly. They sprawled with weary abandon, feet on the rungs of their desks, knees apart, like women in birthing chairs. But there would be all this tension in their jaws — an inordinate amount, as if all their testosterone had bivouacked there to rest up for the next hallway dominance display. Lolling, practically supine, they’d chew gum, bearing down hard. Or they’d glare at the clock, masseters flexing. I can picture one of them punctuating a smart-ass remark with a sudden, teeth-gnashing smile — louche, twinkly, crocodilian.
Oh my God, you are so immature, their female friends would say, constantly. They were immature, but there was also something extremely precocious about them, something oddly adult. They acted just like cocky assholes twice their age, drawling their way through off-color anecdotes with the jaded amusement of i-bankers, and hailing one another in the halls with an air of grim camaraderie that said, We few, we happy few. How did they figure it all out so early — style, demeanor, a whole way of being a person — when the rest of us were still bumbling around? I didn’t understand it then, but now I realize that, just like aristocrats, the jocks in my high school truly were the heirs of a venerable and highly prestigious tradition, one that has been handed down, older brother to younger, senior to freshman, ever since jocks became jocks, whenever that was.
I was always gleaning scattered bits of information about their sex lives — not on purpose. Once, one of them turned to me in homeroom and remarked, “So, last night this beautiful girl was lying on my bed, and I couldn’t get it up. She’s lying there naked, like, ‘Hello?’ and I’m just sitting there, looking down at my dick, like — ” and here he shrugged puckishly. I found this cavalier disclosure striking, and enviable, suggesting as it did that his sexual confidence, like his parents’ money, was an endlessly renewable resource. It was obvious that for him, sex was as ordinary as our suburb itself, a terrain he navigated absentmindedly in his black Wrangler, chanting words he knew by heart because he’d heard them so many times on the boom box in the weight room: You ain’t in between the sheets, I give it to you real raw in the back seat, What’s my name, what’s my name, what’s my name, what’s my name . . .
When they talked in class about their conquests, it was always “this girl,” as in “this girl was so fucking hot,” or — less often, but just as boastfully — “this girl was so fucking fat/ugly.” One girl they used to call Bloody Mary, much to her chagrin, because (I heard) one of the guys had gone down on her while she had her period. She then became a laughingstock. Another girl I worked with on the school paper dated a jock for a long time. It was said that he had secretly videotaped her giving him a blowjob while he was doing bong hits, and then duped this hilarious footage and given copies to his friends.
When I first read Our Guys, in my early twenties, it felt familiar to me. At certain moments — when Lefkowitz talks about voyeuring, or when he describes the cryptically coded jokes the boys included in their senior yearbook blurbs — I had that commonplace, unremarkable feeling you have when one piece of information fits smoothly into a broader constellation of things you already know. Granted, there were some real distinctions between my schoolmates and the Glen Ridge crew. A Glen Ridge Jock would have sooner shown up at school in a tennis dress than admit to performing oral sex, whereas the Bloody Mary story indicates that such reciprocity was not, in and of itself, stigmatized at my school. But it was the same culture. By early adulthood I had friends who had told me about the same kinds of behaviors in their own high schools and among frat guys in college. I knew without having to ask that the guys in these stories wore co-ed naked lacrosse T-shirts and Tevas, and that they were also part of the culture. It might look different in different places and at different times, and like any other culture, it had its internal critics and dissidents, but it was still substantially homogeneous. That rape was part of it — not something everyone did, maybe something only a small percentage did, but nevertheless a defining custom or tradition — that was so obvious it went without saying, even to myself.
“The events described below are not isolated or rare occurrences. These experiences — acquaintance gang rape — happen all too frequently at fraternity and/or other campus parties at colleges and universities across the country.” So begins Julie K. Ehrhart and Bernice R. Sandler’s 1985 report “Campus Gang Rape: Party Games?” Commissioned by the Association of American Colleges, the report marked the first effort to systematically examine the titular crime. The authors note that they began the project assuming that the few campus gang rapes they’d heard about were indeed isolated incidents. But after identifying more than fifty cases at schools across the United States, they came to believe the opposite: that these crimes were so frequent as to qualify as mundane. “On some campuses, [we] were told ‘it happens almost every week.’”
The cases they looked at followed a consistent pattern from coast to coast, in schools small and large, public and private. There was remarkable consistency, for example, in the identity of the perpetrators. The authors did not find that campus gang rapes were committed by comp lit professors at some schools, at other schools by custodians, and at others by premed students. Rather, the crimes were overwhelmingly committed by athletes and fraternity brothers, and “the great majority of the reported incidents occurred at fraternity parties.”
This was the frat guys’ shared experience, their most intense form of bonding.Tweet
In every one of the frat-party rapes, “the scenario is basically the same”: an intoxicated young woman becomes the target of “the ‘friendly’ persuasion of the brothers,” unaware that their blandishments are “actually a planned pursuit of easy prey.” Once the attack gets under way, “her confusion has turned to fear and panic, and escape seems impossible. She is unable to protest or her protests are ignored.” While the victim is raped by multiple fraternity brothers, other men are probably watching. “Voyeurism is often a part of the acquaintance gang rape. At one campus, brothers not involved directly in the rape watched through a peephole; at another campus, pictures were taken.”
The authors found a striking sameness in the fraternity brothers’ terminology as well: gang bang and pulling train were the preferred designations. Fraternity members viewed pulling train as “‘normal’ party behavior. In fact, in almost all instances the men involved are unaware that their behavior is gang rape.” Some frats even mentioned the activity on party invitations. If the woman was too intoxicated to resist, this was believed by the brothers to mean that she was “asking for it.” Another thing that the fraternity gang rapists had in common was porn: they watched a great deal of it. As to what motivated them to commit rape, Ehrhart and Sandler arrived at exactly the same conclusion as the Glen Ridge dad: This was the frat guys’ shared experience, their most intense form of bonding.
In 1987, the research psychologist Mary P. Koss and her colleagues Christine A. Gidycz and Nadine Wisniewski released the results of the first comprehensive study of sexual assault on campus. Having questioned thousands of students at dozens of American institutions of higher learning, Koss et al. found that one in four college women had been raped or had experienced attempted rape. They also found that thirty-eight per thousand female respondents had been raped in the preceding six months — a figure more than nine times higher than the federal government’s estimate. And the study had serious implications beyond campus: “The findings support published assertions of high rates of rape and other forms of sexual aggression among large normal populations. Although the results are limited in generalizability to postsecondary students, this group represents 26% of all persons aged 18–24 in the United States.”
When word got out that high school football heroes in affluent Glen Ridge had been charged with gang-raping an intellectually disabled young woman, hordes of journalists converged upon the town. None of them characterized the unfolding drama as a man-bites-dog story. There was disagreement about where, exactly, the wider problem lay: youth culture, the culture of masculinity, the culture of sports, or the culture of team sports. But from the beginning, the Glen Ridge rape was characterized by the media not as a shocking anomaly but as an abominable exemplar.
The Bergen County Record: “The Glen Ridge case raises troubling questions that should concern all of us. . . . What are we teaching our sons about the difference between acceptable sexual behavior and rape?”
The Washington Post: “Like so many men, [the Glen Ridge defendants] mistake hostility toward women for manly behavior. . . . For too long some of those acts have been seen as ‘normal.’”
The New York Times: “The arc of the current mini-series begins in a suburban basement. High school football players are having their way with a retarded female classmate. . . . The real story [is] an anecdotal litany of sexual assaults by high school, college and professional athletes, singly and in groups. The evidence is mounting that athletes are disproportionately involved in exploitative, if not criminal, sexual acts.”
NPR’s Morning Edition: “There is then the awful conclusion [from Glen Ridge and similar cases] that there is a kind of esprit de corps, good old-fashioned team spirit, that encourages rape when young men on teams are together with women after hours.”
Just a few years earlier, this understanding would have been conceptually impossible. As Koss put it in the Times in January 1989, “Ten years ago, there was no convincing evidence that acquaintance rape existed, although counselors suspected it. . . . Today the situation is dramatically different.” At long last, Koss had proved the bizarrely controversial proposition that it is possible to be raped by an acquaintance. From there, it was but a small step to the idea that it is possible to be raped by more than one acquaintance at a time.
On February 17, 1986, the New York Times reporter Nadine Brozan cited Ehrhart and Sandler’s research in a piece headlined “Gang Rape: A Rising Campus Concern.” “Only now is the cloak of secrecy around group rape in collegiate settings beginning to lift,” wrote Brozan. “Incidents of collegiate group rape seem to have many elements in common.” An administrator told Brozan that the crime “can occur in a dormitory . . . but more often it happens in the fraternal or athletic setting because the members have that close relationship.” The director of a university women’s center added, “Many of the men seem to believe that having intercourse with a woman who is semiconscious, unconscious or severely intoxicated is sex rather than rape, because she is not fighting back.”
Brozan noted that athletes and fraternity brothers at several large universities had recently been accused of felony rape. Less than two weeks after being acquitted of rape charges, University of Minnesota basketball player Mitch Lee had been arrested, with two of his teammates, on other rape charges. The Lee case caused “frustration and outrage . . . on the national level,” wrote Philadelphia Daily News sports columnist Rich Hofmann in a four-part series on athletes and rape that ran in March 1986.
Then, in 1987, Koss and her colleagues published their study. This was hard data, not anecdote, and it was greeted with shock. It was at this point that the word epidemic began to crop up. A wave of rape awareness engulfed the nation, registering its magnitude via that enduring highwater mark, Saturday Night Live (“Let’s take a look at our board. The categories are ‘Halter Top,’ ‘She Was Drunk,’ ‘I Was Drunk’ . . .”).
Glen Ridge was one of a number of high-profile stories that broke against this backdrop of intensifying national concern. There was a gang rape involving Pi Kappa Alpha brothers at Florida State University in 1988, in which a female Florida State student was found passed out with her underwear pulled down and her skirt pulled up. She was bruised and scraped, and misogynistic epithets and fraternity symbols had been scrawled on her thighs. Her blood alcohol concentration was a near-lethal .349. Football players at Oklahoma; lacrosse players at St. John’s . . . As the litany got longer, more opinion writers took up the matter. Perhaps the most thoughtful of these meditations was Robert Lipsyte’s August 4, 1991, New York Times column, “The Manly Art of Self-Delusion.” Among mainstream commentators, Lipsyte was unusual in asserting that phenomena often considered separately — gang rapes and single-perp rapes and domestic battery, misogyny and violence, behavior on the playing field and in the Pentagon — were in fact aspects of a single phenomenon: “Naked power. What you can get away with because you’re a big boy, because too many people are afraid of you and dependent on you and hooked on a system of male entitlement.” Lipsyte was also one of the only commentators to point out that despite all the attention that had been paid to these crimes, “the larger issue, of why a group of young men, particularly attractive, strong, privileged athletes, would engage in such activity, has yet to be fully discussed.”
If Lipsyte hoped his essay would initiate such a discussion, he must have been disappointed. Not long after his column ran, the acquaintance-rape backlash began in earnest. The story of this disinformation campaign has been well told elsewhere (for example in Jody Raphael’s 2013 book Rape Is Rape), but the upshot is that by 1993, rape deniers succeeded in shifting the debate to the question of whether sexual assault statistics were wildly inflated.
As to the general direction of coverage at that time, Koss, the lead researcher on the major 1987 study of sexual assault on campus, made the following comment in 1994: “I’ve actually had reporters tell me that they would love to write a story about the legitimate problem of rape but that their editors tell them that the only thing they’re interested in hearing about is that rape is a bogus issue.”
On September 26, 2018, the attorney Michael Avenatti released an affidavit in which his client Julie Swetnick stated that when Judge Brett Kavanaugh was in high school, he and his friends regularly spiked the punch at parties with drugs or grain alcohol to incapacitate girls, who were then gang-raped “in a side room or bedroom by a ‘train’ of numerous boys.” Swetnick said that she had been the victim of “one of these ‘gang’ or ‘train’ rapes where Mark Judge and Brett Kavanaugh were present.”
The affidavit followed on the heels of Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer’s report in the New Yorker that Kavanaugh had dropped his pants during a dorm party in his first year at Yale and thrust his penis into the face of his fellow student Deborah Ramirez, causing her “to touch it without her consent.” Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations that Kavanaugh had assaulted her at a house party in 1982, when they were both teenagers, had preceded the Ramirez story.
Of the three allegations, only Swetnick’s was widely dismissed as prima facie absurd. No one denied that a high school boy might hypothetically try to rape a peer at a house party, or that some notional young man might drop his pants in the course of collegiate carousing. But a number of Kavanaugh supporters let it be known that the idea that a bunch of prep school jocks would regularly gang-rape incapacitated young women was the craziest thing they’d ever heard. National Review stalwart David French — whose 2015 article “The Campus-Rape Lie” revisited the early-’90s rape-denial playbook so faithfully I could practically hear Wilson Phillips singing as I read — begged, “Please someone help me with this. Georgetown Prep boys frequently committed gang rape. Lots of people knew they were committing gang rape. And despite this common knowledge no one has talked publicly for three decades, until the day before a crucial Senate hearing. What?” Lindsey Graham (a Pi Kappa Phi man) weighed in with this: “I have a difficult time believing any person would continue to go to — according to the affidavit — ten parties over a two-year period where women were routinely gang raped and not report it.”
Eventually, these hot takes congealed into the glob of craven fatuity that Susan Collins served up in her speech explaining why she would vote to confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Before repeating the freewheelingly arbitrary GOP conclusion that Ford has the capacity to accurately perceive her own experience (in this case, the experience of someone trying to rape her) but not the capacity to distinguish between a person she knows (Brett Kavanaugh) and another person (the mystery teen who attacked her that long-ago night), Collins used the word outlandish to describe “the allegation that, when he was a teenager, Judge Kavanaugh drugged multiple girls and used their weakened state to facilitate gang rape.”
And finally, Senate Democrats themselves took up the theme, arguing that the case against confirmation had been gaining traction until Avenatti jumped the shark. “We should have focused on the serious allegations that certainly appeared very credible to me,” Gary Peters told CNN’s Manu Raju.
“In almost all instances the men involved are unaware that their behavior is gang rape.” “Many of the men seem to believe that having intercourse with a woman who is semiconscious, unconscious or severely intoxicated is sex rather than rape, because she is not fighting back.” These aforementioned statements date from 1985 and 1986, respectively. Thirtysome years and two waves of rape awareness later, cluelessness continues to prevail. “Despite this common knowledge no one has talked publicly for three decades. . . .” The truly outlandish thing is not Swetnick’s allegation, but how the utterly unexceptional and well-documented scenario she describes in fact refuses to become common knowledge. There is something genuinely uncanny about this learning curve that keeps swallowing its own tail.
If progress is radically provisional, it’s not really progress.Tweet
I don’t think French, Graham, et al. were pretending to be incredulous while really knowing full well that Justice Kavanaugh, to use his current honorific, has a history of abetting rape, attempting rape, and probably committing rape. When they hear rape, they likely think of stranger rape. They can’t envision Brett and Squi and P. J. and Mark as gang rapists; if they did, they might have to reevaluate their own past behavior or wonder about their friends’ past behavior.
In her 2007 book Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker uses the term credibility economy to describe the social system that determines who is heard, who is believed, whose word carries weight. This is a useful concept, in part because it helps us to appreciate the fundamental dementedness of the system in question. Economists long ago abandoned their “rational actor” model, conceding that humans are, to put it mildly, not rational actors, and that human economies are therefore not rational, either. When bubbles collapse we see footage of frantic traders, but we don’t see the meetings where finance professionals are like, “OK, so we’re all in agreement, we’re going to bet a billion dollars that housing prices will literally never go down.” The same goes for the craziness of the credibility economy: it’s usually hidden. But the Kavanaugh confirmation process made it blatantly, outrageously visible.
Kavanaugh, to the GOP, is sort of like a collateralized debt obligation: an instrument no one really understands and no one really wants to understand. The more you think about a given CDO — the more closely you scrutinize its trash assets, the longer you contemplate the insane upside-down ziggurat of risk you’re buying into . . . Well, when you stare into the abyss it stares back into you. Kavanaugh’s material weaknesses, as an accountant might say, have always been apparent to anyone who cared to look. But by virtue of his race and gender and the education and upbringing his parents purchased for him, he entered the credibility economy with considerable wealth. And that meant others would grant him credibility, the way having money means you can borrow money. Informal transactions of belief, gentlemen’s agreements that aren’t on the books, propelled him upward as they have propelled so many of the mediocrities of the ruling class. “I never met him,” said Donald Trump on October 2, “but [I’ve] been hearing [about] this guy named Brett Kavanaugh who is, who is like a perfect person, who is destined for the Supreme Court. I’ve heard that for a long time.”
And so it went, right up to the moment when this perfect person was accused of attempted rape. Then, the fact that Kavanaugh was merely one of many interchangeable Federalist Society orcs became irrelevant. If a Republican Supreme Court nominee had been brought down by a woman who said she had been sexually assaulted and was believed, it would’ve triggered an unthinkable cascade of catastrophes. And so, as the revelations and repudiations piled up — former clerks, former roommates, clergy, a retired Supreme Court justice, all saying that this man was unfit for a lifetime appointment to a position of immense power — Senate Republicans were forced to pick up the slack. They had no choice but to take a big, big position on Brett.
Perhaps you had thought, as I had, that women were making progress, that our credibility, relative to men’s, was rising. This is in fact occurring. But if progress is radically provisional, it’s not really progress. Another useful thing about Fricker’s “economy” formulation is that it implies the existence of a credibility precariat, to which women belong.
People in precarious positions have to move carefully. The witness keeps everything rigorously well modulated. She says she went up a very narrow set of stairs. She got to the top and suddenly someone was pushing her from behind. She was shoved into the bedroom and the boys, two Prep guys, locked the door and turned up the music.
Christine Blasey, a 15-year-old girl who had spent every day all summer swimming and diving at the pool, had thrown on some clothes over her bathing suit and gone to this party. And then this guy Brett Kavanaugh, a senior, a Prep guy, was on top of her, clumsy, heavy, drunk, and gross, smelling of beer, groping stupidly, trying to get her bathing suit off. When she tried to yell, he put his hand over her mouth, and suddenly she couldn’t breathe.
“I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me.” But he didn’t kill her. Mark jumped on top of them and they rolled off the bed. She ran into the bathroom. She heard the boys stumble down the stairs, and then she left the bathroom, walked downstairs, past Brett and Mark and the other people at the party, and out the front door. She doesn’t say what that gauntlet felt like, but we can infer from her statement that it was terrifying: “I remember being on the street and feeling this enormous sense of relief that I had escaped that house and that Brett and Mark were not coming outside after me.” It must have been surreal to escape and find herself back in the same world she’d left, on a quiet street in a nice suburban neighborhood, with everyone going about their business as if nothing had happened.
Too much scene setting is as dangerous as too much interiority: it could make a true story sound like fiction. What Ford provided in her testimony were the kinds of details that would be excluded from fiction because of their unsatisfying randomness (he jumped on top of them and they rolled off the bed?). She talked about the neurological signatures of trauma and PTSD. She used the word sequelae. She said, “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter.” The statement, with its clinical detachment and the eerie absence of a possessive pronoun, conveys the numb dissociation of terror.
She knows that trauma smashes its own timeline into smithereens, a product of terror’s disruptive effect on the normal imprinting of memory. She pieced together an event she probably remembers as a jumble of strobe flashes and told the tale seamlessly, chronologically, and calmly but not dispassionately. She knew she’d be penalized for too much emotion or too little. She walked the line flawlessly. It didn’t do any good.
St . Joseph’s was founded by the Jesuits in 1789, which means this year is its Bicentennial, so . . . get ready to party! (Awkward beat.) No, no, I’m kidding — Uh, the campus is one hundred and two acres (including, yes, a golf course, these . . . pastoral hills all around us).
This is Brandon Hardy, “handsome, wearing a navy blazer, khakis, and striped tie,” leading a tour group around the hills and dales of his prep school campus. In addition to being handsome, Brandon is a senior and the captain of the St. Joseph’s football team. He’s basically the king of the school, and yet here he is, humbly playing docent, making a disarmingly lame joke, showing a pleasing hint of irony in the emphasis on pastoral. We’re maybe thirty seconds into Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s 2008 play Good Boys and True, and the protagonist has been deftly established as a likable kid. In addition to being a playwright, Aguirre-Sacasa has written for Marvel Comics and for television series including Glee and Riverdale. He knows how to write likable kids.
The plot centers on a sex tape that has been making the rounds at St. Joseph’s. What exactly is going on in the video, which features a boy and a girl, is never made clear, but there is doubt as to whether the encounter is consensual. The boy can only be seen from the back. It looks like it could be Brandon. He insists that it’s not.
As it turns out, we learn early in the play, Brandon is indeed the guy on the tape. From there, Aguirre-Sacasa just keeps revealing more and more awful things about Brandon. He is casually exploiting his best friend Justin, who is in love with him, for sexual favors. He brought the tape to school and engineered its “accidental” discovery. He’s a homophobe who eventually denounces Justin as a “faggot.” He targeted a vulnerable girl — one who goes to public school and is not pretty — because he wanted somebody he could pick up at the mall and manipulate into having sex with him that same afternoon, in an empty house where he’d already set up the camera.
In the final act, Brandon’s mom, Elizabeth, confronts him, and he admits that he “used” the girl “and didn’t care about her feelings.” She demands to know how he could have behaved that way. “We all show each other . . . what we do,” he explains. By “we” he means the football team. “It’s like a game.” Unsatisfied with this, she presses him until he confesses: “I wanted to do it! . . . I wanted to feel what it would feel like to — to — ”
elizabeth. Tell me!
brandon. I DON’T KNOW! Something happened mom, inside me. Something happened, and I thought I could hurt her . . . Make her feel scared. . . . Because . . . she doesn’t matter.
This outburst is the play’s climactic revelation, but Elizabeth has already offered a startling confession of her own. It has to do with Brandon’s father, Michael, who also attended St. Joseph’s and was captain of the football team. Elizabeth grew up in the same area, and she and Michael began dating in their teens. One night at a party when the pair were in high school, in the late ’50s, Michael disappeared with one of his friends. Elizabeth followed them to the back of the house, where she found a bunch of football players gathered. “And one of them was up on a ladder that had been set against the house, and he was . . . peering into a window. . . . Your father and his friends had organized a windowsill party.”
Elizabeth explains that a girl from her school, Alice, was losing her virginity to a boy from St. Joe’s, and “the boy’s friends . . . were taking turns, watching them.” Michael had specifically asked Elizabeth to bring Alice to the party. Elizabeth doesn’t say Alice was raped, but she does say the boys targeted her because she was new in town and socially vulnerable.
Aguirre-Sacasa went to Georgetown Prep. He graduated in the late 1980s, when Good Boys and True is set. He has said in interviews that St. Joseph’s is modeled on his alma mater, although the videotape scandal is fictional. I don’t know if he made up the phrase windowsill party, but the incident itself doesn’t feel like fiction to me.
To the extent that any actual argument was put forward in Kavanaugh’s defense, this was it: He’s the nicest person . . .an extremely nice guy.Tweet
Whether the windowsill party described in Good Boys and True is drawn from life or not, there’s clearly more fact in Aguirre-Sacasa’s fiction than there was in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s own theatrical inquiry into the character of a Prep guy. While Christine Blasey Ford had to be temperate and measured, neither the nominee nor the Republican senators faced such constraints on their histrionics. They wound up staging a passive-aggressively gladiatorial spectacle as bizarre and decadent as anything imperial Rome produced.
One almost had to admire Lindsey Graham’s deranged philippic. I have rarely felt as stunned as I did while watching the senator work himself to the brink of myocardial infarction, his disgustingly fake righteous fury visibly evolving into the even more disgusting real thing as he delivered himself of the opinion that a hearing in which a distinguished man is called to account for sexual misconduct is HELL, and then, without the slightest sign of awareness that rape and PTSD might also be hell, proceeded to a rhetorical anticlimax — “He’s the nicest person!!!” — that surely ranks as one of the most ludicrous moments in the history of political oratory.
To the extent that any actual argument was put forward in Kavanaugh’s defense, this was it: He’s the nicest person. Affable, likable, a great dad, an extremely nice guy, which means he could not have done this, which proves he did not do this. Later, Renate Dolphin Schroeder, one of sixty-five women who signed a letter expressing this belief, learned that she was fodder for one of Brett and his friends’ degrading jokes in Cupola 1983, their senior yearbook. But when the letter was signed, all the women presumably believed in the well-mannered and likable Brett who was organized and responsible, who primly recorded his Ivy League college interviews and his summery weekend plans on his calendar (“Go to St. Michael’s,” “Go to Connecticut”), who mugged goofily for the camera in Cupola 1983. The photo — Brett in a football shirt and shoulder pads, sticking out his tongue — appears in a collage of candid shots titled “Those Prep Guys Are the Biggest . . .”
The biggest what? It is left to the imagination of uninformed readers. The same phrase with the same dot-dot-dot crops up in a couple of the seniors’ individual blurbs, including Kavanaugh’s, confirming that it’s an inside joke. As you turn each page, when you see a lengthy blurb, you know this is a popular guy. A paucity of private jokes indicates an uncool person, somebody who did not have enough friends, or whose friends did not have enough forbidden adventures, to build up that dense thicket of secret memories.
The other Brett, the perhaps not so likable Brett, is invisible in Cupola 1983, hidden in those coded references whose precise meaning is mostly irretrievable. And he is not in the calendars except as a cryptic trace, an ominous all-caps mantra among the cursive scrawls: lift. lift. lift.
“You’ve never forgotten that laughter,” Vermont senator Patrick Leahy said to Ford during the hearing. “You’ve never forgotten them laughing at you.”
“They were laughing with each other,” Ford corrected.
In her 1990 book Fraternity Gang Rape, the anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday notes, “I did not use the word ‘fraternity’ in the title to refer to fraternities generally as an institution. The phrase ‘fraternity gang rape’ refers to bonding through sex. . . . I use the word ‘fraternity’ . . . to mean a group of persons associated by or as if by ties of brotherhood.” Mark and Brett strengthened the ties of brotherhood while assaulting Christine Blasey Ford. In their world — the world of Prep guys, and the Glen Ridge guys, and Brock Turner, and Owen Labrie, and the Steubenville football players, and the fraternity brothers Ehrhart and Sandler studied, and on and on — many guys hold the old-fashioned view that sex is something you do with someone you love. It’s just that the people they love are their bros.
For them, sex is something you do to a woman, with your friends. Guys who organize their sex lives around these prepositional relationships engage in any or all of a specific array of behaviors, ranging from mild caddishness to heinous crime: talking about their partners in a degrading way; voyeuring; circulating photos or videos of sex; making adversarial efforts to seduce women they consciously disdain; hogging (slang for seeking out partners who are considered unattractive); conspiring to get prospective conquests drunk, slip them roofies, or otherwise diminish their capacity to consent; rape. The woman’s responsiveness or lack thereof is irrelevant, because it is the responsiveness of the rapists’ male friends that matters — whether the friends are standing right there during the act or are brought up to speed afterward.
And while what’s happening is group bonding through sex, what’s also happening is group bonding through shared risk, transgression, and secrets. The Glen Ridge numbers are worth reflecting upon. Thirteen boys were involved to varying degrees in a rape committed by four of them and conceived and set in motion by only one. Even the ones who wanted no part of the rape and left kept the crime secret, becoming, in effect, accessories after the fact. Chris Archer was at the center of a sprawling web of culpability and complicity. There is no data I know of indicating that jocks and frat guys rape at higher rates than other men in the general population.1 But if rapists are not necessarily overrepresented in this milieu, accomplices to rape — helpers, watchers, or, to paraphrase Collins, facilitators — very likely are.
During the trial of Owen Labrie, the St. Paul’s soccer captain who in 2014 assaulted a younger student as part of a contest in which male seniors vied to hook up with the most girls (the Senior Salute), it emerged that “Deny til you die” was an unofficial motto at the school. Texts and emails provided details about what Labrie and his friends were so intent on denying, revealing, for instance, that slay was the boys’ word for sex. They used it in deliberately bad puns, referring to the last two months of the school year as Slaypril and Slay. This terminology is unusually vivid, but the predatory attitude it bespeaks is widespread. Whether crime is involved or not, sexual partners (excluding a privileged caste of girls, like Elizabeth in Good Boys and True) are viewed as quarry, something to catch via strength and/or cunning. Labrie said he “pulled every trick in the book” on the young woman he assaulted.
In a 1997 review of Our Guys, Russell Banks posed the following question: “If we are raising our male children to be feral, which is to say, if they are becoming incapable of empathy for others, especially their female counterparts, then what will their children be like?” Now we know the answer. Banks was talking about the generation of boys who graduated from high school in the late ’80s, like the Glen Ridge rapists and like the Prep guys on whom Aguirre-Sacasa based Brandon, the nice, likable boy who decides to find a girl who doesn’t matter and abuse and degrade her, just to see how it feels. This cohort had most of its children from the mid-’90s to the mid-2000s. Owen, Brock, the Steubenville defendants: all were born in that window. We’re now trying to socialize this generation into our evolved ideas, but they’ve already been socialized, and in a few years they’ll be socializing their sons.
Our privileged classes, elite and haute bourgeois alike, don’t really need to produce men who are rapists, any more than they need to produce men who are good at soccer or football or lacrosse. What they need to produce are men who win contests, who modulate effortlessly between competing against their friends and allying with their friends to fend off the challenges of outsiders. Past their early twenties, men like Brett Kavanaugh are not supposed to live in big raucous groups and have drunken parties every weekend where they manipulate or force women to have sex with them. Men like Brett Kavanaugh are supposed to grow up and become basketball dads and leave their libertine ways behind. And they mostly do. They learn to channel their aggression into socially sanctioned pursuits, such as expanding their professional, social, political, and financial power. They play by the rules, except when they don’t. (What’s a little cronyism among friends?) Webs of complicity — or as the men themselves would likely put it, brotherly bonds with one’s oldest pals — become embedded in larger networks through which an intangible currency circulates.
Credibility should rest on reason, on a person’s track record of truthfulness, on the presence or absence of corroboration. But like any other currency, it ultimately rests on a consensus about value, about what matters. This is the magical scaffolding of Brett Kavanaugh’s good name. He’s this perfect person, the nicest person. He just is. And now he is the law.
What that rate is — the percentage of all men who are rapists — is highly contested; a few years ago I frequently saw the figure 6 percent, but there is a school of thought that this is way too high. Six percent is certainly a staggeringly high number; it would mean, for instance, that should you find yourself in a New York City subway car that is crowded to capacity, you may estimate that there are two rapists with you in that car. Happily, if the 6 percent figure is wildly inflated to twice the real number, that would mean an average of only one rapist per car. ↩