Magazine writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely knew she wanted to write about sexual assaults at an elite university. What she didn’t know was which university.
So, for six weeks starting in June, Erdely interviewed students from across the country. She talked to people at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. None of those schools felt quite right. But one did: the University of Virginia, a public school, Southern and genteel, brimming with what Erdely calls “super-smart kids” and steeped in the legacy of its founder, Thomas Jefferson.
What Erdely eventually found in Charlottesville shocked her, and it eventually shocked the nation.
In a searing investigative piece published by Rolling Stone magazine last week, Erdely told the story of Jackie, who as a first-year student was allegedly gang-raped by seven men at a U-Va. fraternity party in 2012.
The gruesome details of the alleged assault and the hard-drinking atmosphere surrounding it were harrowing enough. But the story also focused on what happened to Jackie after she told friends and campus officials that she had been brutalized. Erdely recounted a virtually systemic whitewashing of Jackie’s allegations, from peers who counseled her to remain silent to an indifferent and conflicted school administration, caught between adjudicating a serious crime and protecting the university’s platinum reputation.
The 9,000-word story prompted a wave of outrage and revulsion at U-Va., an institution still reeling from the kidnapping and death of another female student, Hannah Graham, in September. Within hours of publication, Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity where the alleged assault took place, was vandalized, with “UVA Center for Rape Studies” spray-painted on its exterior.
Faced with an uproar from students, faculty and alumni, university President Teresa Sullivan quickly suspended all fraternity and sorority activities until early January, saying there needed to be a discussion about “our next steps in preventing sexual assault and sexual violence.” Elected officials expressed concern, too, and rallies and demonstrations roiled the campus.
The reaction surprised, as well as gratified, Erdely, 42, a contributing editor to Rolling Stone and a freelancer who writes frequently about crime and social issues.
“I was concerned, very late in the game, that no one would be willing to read this story,” she said in an interview. “I thought the reaction would be, ‘We know about this problem,’ and they’d turn the page. But this has really sparked a huge discussion. It’s really heartening.”
One of the many remarkable things about Erdely’s article is that no one had reported it before. At least a few dozen people in and around U-Va. were aware of Jackie’s story — friends, family, administrators and the small circle of people associated with One Less, the campus sexual assault awareness organization that Jackie had joined. Yet, for more than two years after the events described in the Rolling Stone article allegedly took place, the story remained untold.
Erdely was introduced to Jackie — her real name, unlike the pseudonyms given other figures in the article — by Emily Renda, a leader of the One Less group and one of Jackie’s confidants. Although reluctant to disclose certain details at first, Jackie proved an enthusiastic source.
“She was absolutely bursting to tell this story,” Erdely said. “I could not believe how it poured out of her in one long narrative. She spoke so fast, I hardly had a chance to ask her a question. She was dying to share it.”
She hadn’t done so before, Erdely said, for a simple reason: No reporter had asked her.
Erdely spent weeks corroborating details of Jackie’s account, including such minutiae as her work as a lifeguard. She concluded: “I find her completely credible. It’s impossible to know for certain what happened in that room, because I wasn’t in it. But I certainly believe that she described an experience that was incredibly traumatic to her.”
Some elements of the story, however, are apparently too delicate for Erdely to talk about now. She won’t say, for example, whether she knows the names of Jackie’s alleged attackers or whether in her reporting she approached “Drew,” the alleged ringleader, for comment. She is bound to silence about those details, she said, by an agreement with Jackie, who “is very fearful of these men, in particular Drew. . . . She now considers herself an empty shell. So when it comes down to identifying them, she has a very hard time with that.”
The story does take one journalistic shortcut. The alleged assault, described in graphic detail, is presented largely without traditional qualifiers, such as “according to Jackie” or “allegedly.” The absence of such attribution or qualification leaves the impression that the events in question are undisputed facts, rather than accusations. Erdely said, however, that her writing style makes it clear that the events are being told from Jackie’s point of view.
In any case, there have been no outright denials from any party about the alleged crime Erdely reported, a rarity given the relative specificity of the allegations and the enormous impact of the story. A general statement on the matter came from Phi Kappa Psi’s Virginia chapter, which pledged its cooperation with a police investigation but said: “We have no specific knowledge of the claims” contained in the article.
More problematic, at least to Erdely, was the university’s response, or lack of one, as she investigated Jackie’s story. She says that the university “stonewalled” her repeatedly. Among other things, her requests for statistics about alleged sexual assaults on campus were blocked, as were her inquiries about the university’s policies and procedures for handling such crimes, she said. She also said that university officials cancelled interviews with her, including one as she was about to board a plane to fly to Charlottesville.
“At first, I thought they were just incompetent,” she said. “But when I realized that they were not cooperating and there was no transparency at all . . . it occurred to me that they were stonewalling. All they cared about was [protecting] their reputation.”
A university spokesman, Anthony P. de Bruyn, said Friday that U-Va. “provided Sabrina on Oct. 2 all of the information and statistics we are able to disclose. We provided her links to the university’s policies and supporting information.” He also said that Sullivan, the university’s president, gave Erdely an interview.
As for Jackie, she said in a series of text messages that “she’s really happy about the article and really proud of it,” Erdely said. But she isn’t saying anything more. Erdely said Jackie has declined many interview requests, including those Erdely has received on her behalf.
“Right now, Jackie’s goal is to get through finals,” she said. “She doesn’t want this [experience] to define her. She’s worried that when she’s 35, which seems to be the oldest age she can imagine, she’ll still going to be having panic attacks when she sees someone who looks like her attackers. She hopes she’s going to get better. . . . But my guess is she’s taking shelter right now. She’s kind of barricaded herself in.”