How graphic writing distorted the focus of the Rolling Stone rape story
As a Poynter source, I have answered dozens of questions now about the implications of the Rolling Stone story “A Rape on Campus,” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely. I notice now that the title of the story is not the same as the headline on the print magazine's cover, which reads “Sexual Assault on Campus.”
It may just be that the problems with the story, reported by The Washington Post and others, are embedded in the tension between those two titles. The phrase “Sexual Assault,” however disturbing, is more general and less graphic than “Rape.” Add the indefinite article, and you have something specific and more graphic, with promises of details to come: “A Rape on Campus.”
The particularity of that phrase is expressed most dramatically in the graphic scene that opens the narrative, a scene in which a particular woman enters a particular fraternity house with a particular date who betrays her to seven rapists, one of whom uses a beer bottle on her, another who utters the horrific, dehumanizing phrase “Grab its motherfucking leg.”
I almost gasped when I read that phrase, and why not? It was designed to outrage me. It forced me to pay attention. More problematically, it forced me to watch with no ability to help or avert my eyes, a guilty bystander. Did it ring true? Yes. As someone who was robbed at gunpoint in a motel room in 1976, I remember the details as if they happened yesterday.
When the details of the story began to fall apart, the author and some advocates noted that the point of the story was not just about this woman and what happened in that room, it was about a larger story at many colleges and universities: How can an institution as big and important as the University of Virginia mishandle the complaints and needs of someone who says she’s been raped?
But that is not the story titled “A Rape on Campus”; that story is titled “Sexual Assault on Campus.”
Surely, you can and should have both, you are thinking. Isn’t it the particular crime that reveals the institutional corruption? And isn’t it the anecdote, the story, the profile, the case study that provides the evidence for reform?
In the words of Joseph Conrad, isn’t it the writer’s duty to make us “see.” That word, though, has two meanings. One involves the eye: to write in a way that we can picture it. But the word also refers to a higher level of understanding. “I was blind,” writes the author Amazing Grace, “but now I see.”
The graphic nature of the opening scene winds up distorting rather than focusing the point of the larger story. One test of the focus of a story is what the graphic designer decides to do with it. There are no charts and graphs here. No Big Data analysis of sexual abuse on campus. Instead, illustrator John Ritter offers tabloid style red, black, and blue imagery, bloody handprints on the body of a woman who is shielding her face, the tableau of a prone woman, surrounded by empty red beer cups, ignored by others at the party, her bra discarded, someone holding a beer bottle like a weapon.
When the details of the author’s opening scene began to crumble, its weakness threatened the architecture of the whole. For those trying to prevent rape, the undermining of the source’s testimony turns out to have a terrible outcome: continuing skepticism about the claims of future rape victims and survivors.
There are certain kinds of stories in which writers have to be especially cautious about the use of graphic detail. Stories about suicide need a bright amber light. So do stories about child abuse. Disaster stories – even the narratives and images of 9/11 – more often than not reveal the respectful restraint of reporters.
In classical literature, that restraint had a name. It was called “decorum.” In the Greek tragedy, Oedipus blinds himself off-stage, then walks on with his bloody mask. Certain things should not, could not, be acted out.
In the era of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo the idea of decorum must seem quaint and irrelevant, perhaps even a betrayal of the sins of the real world. But the rape of the protagonist in that novel and film, and its graphic nature, is only tolerable because she is later able to enact one of the great rape revenge fantasies of all time, the total humiliation of her betrayer.
That fit between purpose and execution is missing in “A Rape on Campus.” What might have been an effective anecdote or case study came to dominate the story and, ultimately, undermine it. Like other writing teachers, I have been a champion of showing over telling, of an appeal to the senses, of the power of vicarious experience through narrative. But there is another, more important move we teach at Poynter, a lesson about focus embodied in the question: “What is this story really about?” When an important investigation about sexual assault on campus became the gruesome story about “a rape,” a magazine – and all its stakeholders – lost its way.