OUTRAGE The Story Behind the Tawana Brawley Hoax By Robert McFadden, Ralph Blumenthal, M.A. Farber, E.R. Shipp, Charles Strum, Craig Wolff of the New York Times Bantam. 408 pp. $21.95
IF IT IS TRUE, as the late Andy Warhol said, that everyone gets to be famous for 15 minutes, then Tawana Brawley has already had far more than her share -- at least a month or two.
But there is something perversely riveting about the tale of this black teenager who, on Thanksgiving of 1987, claimed to have been abducted and raped by a gang of white racists, including law enforcement officials, in Dutchess County, New York.
Found in a garbage bag outside an apartment building where she had once lived, her body smeared with excrement and racial slurs, Brawley achieved almost instant celebrity status. Thanks to a team of clever, high-profile "advisers" who gained influence over her family, her case came to be regarded as one more test of the flawed American criminal justice system, with the reputations of no less than Gov. Mario Cuomo and his attorney general at stake. Thousands of supporters rallied and marched on her behalf, and a busload of people traveled to the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta in 1988 to make Tawana Brawley's treatment a national issue.
There was just one problem: according to a grand jury that painstakingly examined the evidence, accusations and recriminations in the case, Tawana Brawley was lying. The grand jury reported almost a year later that she had been neither abducted nor raped during the four November days when she was missing, and that her condition at the time she was found was almost certainly "self-inflicted."
No one has yet come up with any evidence to contradict this disturbing conclusion. And, on the contrary, a team of six New York Times reporters who worked on the Tawana Brawley story have now produced a book that reinforces and documents the view that the entire affair was a cruel hoax.
Outrage is a stunning piece of work. Except at a few points where it becomes too self-consciously involved with the reporters' own attitudes and tactics, it reads like a good thriller -- full of corruption, venality and human imperfection, with almost no heroes and plenty of villains.
Although the reader knows from the start what the end of the story will be, he feels irresistibly compelled to read on.
Employing the best techniques of investigative reporting, the authors reconstruct a plausible version of Tawana Brawley's adventures. They conclude that her "disappearance" was concocted, with her mother's connivance, to fool Ralph King, her mother's boyfriend, who was increasingly harsh with the teenager and sometimes abused her physically.
The deception, apparently modeled after a well-publicized case involving another young woman named Tawana, was originally intended to be a private matter to ease family tensions. But, as is often the case with this genre of behavior, it quickly got out of hand. Brawley's aunt, who had helped raise her and was genuinely concerned about her well-being, was seemingly left out of the conspiracy (at least initially). She panicked and went to the police. As the first victim of the hoax, she ironically became its most ardent promoter, demanding justice and advocating publicity.
It was after the arrival on the scene of three people the authors frankly label as "charlatans" -- the Rev. Al Sharpton, C. Vernon Mason and Alton Maddox -- that matters truly passed the point of no return. This trio's activism obviously grows out of a genuine concern for the plight of African-Americans, but their behavior in the Brawley case was so reprehensible -- at least for this reader -- as to cast doubt on almost anything else they ever do. THEREIN LIES one of the most troubling issues at the heart of the Tawana Brawley affair, and of this book. Perhaps it is naive to be shocked by the tactics of Sharpton, Mason and Maddox, but it is painful to recognize that the cynical things they did here, with the help of Minister Louis Farrakhan and others, contributed significantly to racial polarization in the United States.
The authors attempt to deal with the undercurrent of racism in this story through a kind of Greek chorus of black people who patronize a Brooklyn restaurant called Edgar's. This is one of the few elements of the book that does not work very well, in my view, but I was nonetheless gratified to read the conclusion reached by one of the regulars at Edgar's about the Brawley case: "It was wrong to think that you could fight centuries of white hatred with black lies."
There is another issue in the Brawley case that has received inadequate attention -- the role of the media, both print and broadcast, in giving currency to accusations that had no merit.
When reporters rushed into print and onto the air, for example, with Maddox's claim that a young Dutchess County prosecutor had been one of Brawley's assailants, they were performing in the great tradition of the journalists who, in the 1950s, passed along uncritically Sen. Joseph McCarthy's allegations of Communist influence in the State Department.
It is obviously difficult to craft rules of professional conduct that will keep reporters from becoming accomplices to fraud, but not every statement uttered by a public or a controversial figure is worth attention and credibility.
Had more sensible restraint been shown in the coverage of the Tawana Brawley affair from the start, many people, including Brawley herself, might have been spared a great deal of pain.
She, of course, cannot possibly live up to her reputation among those who still believe her discredited tale. Now a student at Howard University (where an organization run by Sharpton pays her tuition), she is brought out from time to time to endorse various causes, but really has little to say.
A recent photograph in the New York Times showed Brawley outside State Supreme Court in Manhattan, where she had attended the trial of a teenager accused of participating in the rape and attempted murder of a white woman jogging in Central Park. She was between Sharpton and Mason, holding their hands, and seemed to smirk at the camera. They were there, Sharpton said, to "observe the differences in the court system between a white and a black victim."
Yeah, sure. My reaction was that three questions might legitimately be asked: "Whose victim is Tawana Brawley, anyway?" "Why doesn't she leave us alone?" And "why don't the media stop covering her until and unless she does something truly newsworthy?"
Sanford J. Ungar is dean of the School of Communication at American University.