The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A survivor’s truth, hiding in plain sight

Amber Wyatt in San Marcos, Tex., on Aug. 2018.
Amber Wyatt in San Marcos, Tex., on Aug. 2018. (Amanda Voisard/For the Washington Post)
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The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that “nature loves to hide,” which is a puzzling sentiment to parse given that nature is inescapable. Wherever you look, you’re staring right at it. But you don’t always see the things you observe, and you can’t understand what you don’t really see.

Nature loves to hide: As a child, I saw a woolly black spider lingering in the shade of my house’s gutter pipe. When I drew closer to get a better look at her, hundreds of miniature spiders poured off of her back: She was smooth and gray, neither woolen nor black. As a teenager in 2006, I saw the word “FAITH” chalk-painted across the rear windshields of several cars in the parking lot of my north Texas high school and assumed I was seeing some kind of youth group slogan issuing from the local Christian club. I would learn in due course that I was actually looking at an acronym: “F--- Amber in the Head,” or “F--- Amber in Three Holes.”

Amber Wyatt, it turned out, was the name of a 16-year-old cheerleader who had reported to the police that she had been raped by a pair of boys from our school, prompting the metamorphosis of an ordinary suburban town into an open-air ring for bloodsport. Wyatt eventually left our school, and consensus seemed to converge on the idea that she had made up the whole thing. Friends of the accused turned on her, rumors vilified her, authorities failed her. Just human nature, you might say: But nature loves to hide.

Read Elizabeth Bruenig’s investigation into Amber Wyatt’s story

For years — even after I had left Texas, graduated college, lived overseas, married, moved on — I still contemplated that year and its hideous disclosures, which in time came to seem more and more substantial. What had I seen?

Answering that question eventually required an investigation that unfolded on-and-off over three years. During that time I interviewed the detectives who had investigated the original case, witnesses who had been present the night of, friends and acquaintances of the accused and the accuser, lawyers and doctors.

And, most important, Wyatt, at the center of it all but still herself in the dark when it came to certain aspects of her own ordeal. When I initially spoke with her in 2015, for example, she didn’t know that a Texas grand jury had apparently chosen not to indict the two young men she had accused of raping her in a shed on a summer night in Arlington. All she knew was that no legal consequences had befallen them, which was both true and and yet still short of the truth, which was much worse than that alone.

What I found in my investigation is now available to read here. But discovering a fuller account of what happened that year did more than satisfy a grim curiosity: It confirmed my suspicion that in many cases — very important ones — we both know the truth and don’t, both see the nature of things and look right past it. Understanding the truth requires more than a common function of memory, intuition and insight; it takes contemplation, consideration and reconsideration, and time, and time.

All that could amount to despair. But nature loves to hide, not to vanish. What hides can be found. Over the three years I spent looking into the alleged sexual assault that took place when I was a teenager mutely observing its aftershocks, I did discover truth. Not the entire edifice, but facets of it — slivers, like remnants of ancient artifacts recovered from the earth. It took time, but the truth was there, hidden: in DNA findings, crime-scene photographs taken the day after the alleged assault, reports about the district attorney’s failure to get indictments in similar cases, evidence logs and sworn statements. It needed only to be excavated and pieced together. 

The fact that it remains discoverable opened in me a wellspring of hope, even despite the fear, the worry, the darkness of the case itself. I can’t know whether, in the grand scheme of things, understanding the truth or telling it will make any difference in how anyone encounters similar events they witness in their own lives, when they are bystanders, as I was. 

Still, I know this: It means something to Wyatt, who was heretofore widely presumed to have lied about the entire episode, to see the truth uncovered, both for her own sake and for the good of other young women like her. Rendering the truth isn’t the same as delivering justice. But after everything Wyatt has been through, it is its own kind of solace, though late, though small.

Read more:

She reported her rape. Her hometown turned against her. Can justice ever be served?

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