Rolling Stone apology leaves lingering questions about report's accuracy

Psychologist Rebecca Campbell says trauma survivors often have fragmented memories

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If UVIMCO decided to divest, it would not be the first time the University did so. In the 1980s, UVIMCO divested from companies that supported South African apartheid, and in 2006, it divested from Sudan.

Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana issued a statement Friday apologizing to readers for "inconsistencies" in the article published last month by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, which detailed an alleged gang rape of a then-first year student at the University — identified as Jackie — at a fraternity party in Sept. 2012.

As public attention is thrust toward the veracity of the claims laid out in the article — some of which have been specifically refuted by Phi Kappa Psi after the fraternity conducted an internal investigation — many are expressing fear that the focus and energy spent on finding solutions to combat sexual assault across college campuses will be redirected.

"Over the past two weeks, our community has been more focused than ever on one of the most difficult and critical issues facing higher education today: sexual violence on college campuses," University President Teresa Sullivan said in an email to students. "Today's news must not alter this focus. Here at U.Va., the safety of our students must continue to be our top priority, for all students, and especially for survivors of sexual assault."

But even as administrators and advocates work to promote a dialogue around policy and cultural change moving forward, questions linger about the accuracy of the Rolling Stone account. As Jackie's narrative is dissected, the extent of these "inconsistencies," and the status of the ongoing police investigation, are murky.

Recalling narratives

Survivors of sexual assault often have a difficult time recounting their narratives, said Michigan State University Psychology Prof. Rebecca Campbell, whose research focuses on trauma and its impact on memory.

"Imagine that you are in class and you are trying to take notes on an entire class lecture using nothing but little tiny Post-It Notes," she said. "At the end, if you dropped your Post-It Notes and scattered them, you would have little bits and pieces of that lecture on little tiny pieces of paper, all out of order, all disorganized, all scattered. That's how a traumatic memory is laid out in the brain — it's scattered."

Campbell said if survivors recall even one fact incorrectly, such as the time of an assault, prosecutors and adjudicators tend to discount the entire narrative.

"I have seen several cases in research I've done where victims disclose a piece of information that turns out to be factually inaccurate, and the police or campus officials say, 'Oh, well that piece over there must not be true — and that must not be true,'" she said. "And they actually don't even check. They make a declaration that the whole thing is un-true when in fact there's a small part of it that may be encoded incorrectly, that's fragmented — whatever the issue may be."

But this method, she said, ignores the very real traumas which have occurred and is damaging to the survivors.

For survivors of sexual assault in particular, Campbell said the chronological order of events, and specific details are often unclear in their memories.

"When a victim's recounting a story of sexual assault, we would at a minimum expect some jumping back and forth," she said. "It's not a simple process to describe, but disordered presentation, fuzziness of some details, and some things — particularly very specific, what we call 'context cues,' could be inaccurate. Specific time, specific dates, specific physical scene details — those would all be very vulnerable to not getting encoded correctly in memory, particularly if alcohol and drugs were on board in the victim's system."

Campbell said the certain facets of modern judicial policies can heighten the likelihood that survivors will incorrectly recall information.

"When victims often file a police report, the way in which police interview them is very interrogation-style," she said. "That in and of itself starts to heighten physiological re-activity that makes it much more difficult for them to do a complete, full, accurate recall."

Emily Renda, a University graduate who serves as a project coordinator for Sexual Assault Response and Prevention in the Office of the Dean of Students, said working with survivors can be challenging for this very reason.

"It takes good counseling, good advocacy and informed interviewing to elicit a story to really be able to act on for the purposes of justice, and act on for the sake of health care for that person," she said. "We know that traumatic memories are often jumbled, traumatic memories are often fuzzy, traumatic memories are often disclosed over a period of time. The reporting process through Rolling Stone didn't really make room for a lot of the things we know to be true about traumatic memories."

Campbell said there are ways to make survivors feel comfortable and safe which can improve memory recall — allowing the survivor to "calm down," both emotionally and physiologically — but ultimately she said it is important to review accounts comprehensively, rather than jumping to conclusions based on any particular incorrect fact.

"It's like if they don't tell the whole darn thing from start to finish in chronological order in perfect detail then it's written off as a false report," she said. "When it fact something did happen, something criminal did happen — something that's the legal definition of rape did happen. But police mark it as a false report."

Support vs. investigation

Renda said in her role as a supporter for survivors, she focuses not on the credibility of claims, but on how she can help the survivors through their trauma.

"You don't have to believe someone necessarily to support them," Renda said. "You just have to make them feel validated and believed so that they can get the health care and the resources so that they can file a formal report, if that's what they want. That's the type of culture we need — is a culture of advocacy."

Third-year College student Sara Surface, external chair of the Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition, adopts a similar stance in her work to combat sexual assault on Grounds.

"As an advocate, it's not my job to be an investigator — it's my job to support survivors, and I will continue to support their voices and any processes of recovery," she said.

Renda said this is why advocates and people who work to offer support for sexual assault survivors are distinct from those who investigate crimes and those who render judgments, including within the University Sexual Misconduct Board process.

"Rolling Stone decided to blur the lines between these three very critical roles [advocacy, investigation and judgment]," she said. "They did a slipshod job of investigating and they passed hasty judgment. And as such, it means that fairness was thrown to the wind — and frankly, Jackie's health and well-being was also thrown to the wind."

Jackie's narrative

The article and its author took heat from various critics in the days leading up to Rolling Stone's partial retraction for failing to speak with the alleged attackers in Jackie's case. Ultimately, Renda said the fault for the article's inaccuracies or inconsistencies must lie with Erdely and Rolling Stone.

"We stood by Jackie's decisions not to disclose [the names of her attackers], because we stand by Jackie in all of her decisions, and that's our job as empathetic human beings and advocates," Renda said. "But if Sabrina didn't impress on Jackie why, for the sack of rebuffing criticism and validating the story, she needed to talk to other people — that's on Sabrina, as a result. And it's on Rolling Stone, for also not caring to fact check it."

Jackie "is being supported," as the truthfulness of her story is called into question, Renda said. Renda was one of the people interviewed for the initial Rolling Stone article and has been working with Jackie for more than a year. She said she was one of the people who first spoke to Erdely about Jackie, though she said she doesn't know if she was a "direct link" between the two.

"I support Jackie in speaking out and Jackie wanted to speak out — I asked Jackie ahead of time if she was OK being contacted, and she said that she was," Renda said. "She cares very deeply about this issue. So I don't regret having any hand in her introduction, in some ways. I regret the way that Rolling Stone took the story, and I regret the amount of pressure they put on Jackie."

Surface said the focus on the facts underlying Jackie's case is damaging not just to her, but to all survivors.

"Really what’s happening right now to survivors and to Jackie is that they’re being re-traumatized," she said. "This is an experience. Jackie has trauma. Lets acknowledge this happened and move on and work together to support survivors."

Impacts on University prevention efforts

Beyond Jackie, Renda said it is the broader movement which is impacted when attention is drawn to the truth of a survivor's claim, rather than focusing on the prevalence of sexual assault.

"The movement suffers from this, because we have been building somewhere over 40 years worth of work to try and break down the myth that women lie," Renda said. "Rolling Stone told Jackie's story for her, and now she's being crucified against that story. And that's a crime against her."

Renda said the fallout will not change the way she or others in her office do their jobs. She said she thinks it is fruitful to have a conversation about sexual assault policies at the University — considering whether deans should be survivor supporters or more principally focused on investigation, for instance. She added it is particularly important to have the dialogue at the state and national legislative levels, but she worries the conversation moving forward will lose that focus.

"Jackie's still somebody who needed help," Renda said. "She's somebody who still needs help. That doesn't mean that her story isn't true. It's unfortunate that this becomes the focus now, because we now have to fight for the credibility of survivors everywhere."

Even as people continue to exam the article, Surface said efforts are best spent focusing on how to combat the problem moving forward.

"The reality is there are too many survivors out there and we need to continue to advocate for them and advocate for the prevention of sexual assault completely," Surface said.

In its statement, One in Four advocated a similar approach: "We implore all those who have demanded change, who have pled for humanity, and who have felt compassion to continue to do so alongside us. We are here for you, standing confident in our resolve. Today and every day."

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