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Meet the P.I. who helped unlock key testimony in a sexual assault case

In the masterful ‘Tell Me Everything,' Erika Krouse explores her uncanny ability to elicit candor, even from perfect strangers

(Flatiron; Courtesy of the author)

In the fall of 2002, Erika Krouse was broke and jobless. One day, she went into a bookstore and met an attorney while they were both reaching for the same novel. “We withdrew, laughed, chatted briefly about the author and books, and then he started telling me about his life,” she writes in her extraordinary new book, “Tell Me Everything.”

The lawyer, whom she calls Grayson, began confiding in her about how he had come to hate his job so much he was thinking of leaving the law altogether. Then he caught himself, shocked that he had spoken so openly to a total stranger.

This wasn’t the first time Krouse’s countenance had elicited an immediate connection, a familiarity that led to a confession. “[I have] an ordinary-looking face,” she explains, “but if I ask ‘How are you?’ sometimes people start crying. ‘I’m getting a divorce,’ they say. … Or ‘I was just diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease.’ ... Or an immaculately dressed woman suddenly tells me, ‘I hate my job so much I want to kill myself. I’ve been saving up Ambiens.’ ”

This unusual access to the inner lives of others was surely an asset in her chosen career, fiction writing. But though Krouse’s first story collection, “Come Up and See Me Sometime” was well-published and well-received, and she was seeing her work in places like Granta and the New Yorker, none of this was paying the bills. So, when Grayson offered her a job as a private investigator, she signed on.

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Krouse spent the next several years investigating what became a high-profile case, amply covered in the national media, centering on sexual assaults at a party during a college football recruiting weekend. (Krouse doesn’t name the school, but it is easily recognizable as the University of Colorado at Boulder.) She interviewed victims, perpetrators, witnesses and even a local madam, approaching each of them with not just her seemingly magical face, but her equally impressive skills of empathy and discernment. She can usually tell when people are lying and developed additional tricks of the trade as she went along, for example, learning to mirror the language of her subjects.

“We’re just talking here, right?” was a phrase players often interjected into their accounts of their behavior. So she began using it herself, finding that it helped people open right up. She also learned to divide her subjects into two types. “Yes-witnesses” like to agree, thus should be asked questions like “So you were expected to get the recruits drunk?” To get a “no-witness” going, it’s the opposite. “So you didn’t hear what happened that night?” “No, I did …” they will protest. It’s fascinating to see these skills in action in her detailed accounts of her interviews.

As the investigation progresses, Krouse unfurls a storyline as compelling as any detective novel. “Lawsuits are about stories,” Grayson tells her. “Sad stories. We still have to create a narrative, but a bigger one, the story of a system. Focus your lens wider, on the program as a whole, how it’s run. Recruiting. Football.” To prosecute the case using Title IX, they would have to prove not only that the alleged rapes occurred, but also that there was persistent harassment of women, that the coach knew about it, and that the university was “deliberately indifferent” to the problem.

From the moment she began investigating the rape case, Krouse knew she was taking a personal risk. Having been sexually abused starting at a young age by a man she calls only “X,” the details of this investigation triggered her pain and trauma at every turn.

“The deeper I sank into my work, the more I wanted to see my mother. It seemed like all the people in the case — survivors, players, witnesses — were in constant contact with their mothers … They relied on parents for help, advice, comfort, perspective, advocacy. I knew my mother would not give me those things, but I still felt a blistering need to see her, to understand her denial of me.”

Krouse pleaded with her mother to visit; because of X, who remained close to her mother, Krouse had not been home in 10 years, nor would she ever return.

Unable to escape the delusion that her mother could become a parent like the ones other people seemed to have, Krouse became increasingly unmoored. It’s hard to imagine how badly things could have turned out if she hadn’t developed an intractable case of ringworm in her armpits contracted from a Brazilian jujitsu opponent who worked with tigers. She was sent to an acupuncturist named JD who promptly cured her, fell in love with her and stuck by her side as she navigated the parallel hellscapes of her past and the investigation.

By 2004, the scandal had hit the national media, students were protesting on campus and “a hidden world of athletic money” had been unearthed by auditors. Yet the school’s head football coach was voted Big 12 Coach of the Year by the Associated Press. But what had been sacrificed in pursuit of his 8-5 season and Big 12 North championship? Without absolving the players for their actions, Krouse lays a steaming bag of blame at the doorstep of the coach and his organization. “Perhaps by ghettoizing these men, isolating them, removing consequences, delivering regular blunt force trauma to their brains, and teaching them daily to hurt people, the university was molding an elite group of potential perpetrators for its own financial gain.”

As gifted as she is at listening, Krouse is equally good at telling a story. There are many memorable characters in “Tell Me Everything” — from the plus-size sex worker to the beady-eyed coach to the incomparable Mr. Fixit that is JD — but it’s Krouse’s own persona, with her supernatural powers, her supersize wounds and her spiritual speedball of courage and vulnerability, that makes this book mesmerizing on every page.

Marion Winik, a professor at the University of Baltimore, is the author of numerous books, including “First Comes Love” “The Big Book of the Dead” and, most recently, “Above Us Only Sky.”

Tell Me Everything

The Story of a Private Investigation

By Erika Krouse

Flatiron. 288 pp. $28.99

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