December 03, 2014

University of Virginia

University of Virginia

Source: Shutterstock

I suppose that Erdely’s positing two conspiracy theories is logically consistent. But Occam’s razor suggests that the real campus conspiracy may have been to gently humor the unhappy girl.

Perhaps the first person of any prominence in the media to read the Rolling Stone article skeptically was Richard Bradley, a veteran author and magazine editor (who used to be named Richard Blow). Bradley asked on his personal blog on November 24th, five days after publication, the simple question: “€œIs the Rolling Stone Story True?“€

Bradley began:

Some years ago, when I was an editor at George magazine, I was unfortunate enough to work with the writer Stephen Glass on a number of articles. They proved to be fake, filled with fabrications, as was pretty much all of his work. The experience was painful but educational; it forced me to examine how easily I had been duped. … The answer, I had to admit, was because they corroborated my pre-existing biases.

The career of Stephen Glass at The New Republic was made into a decent little movie called Shattered Glass, with the fellow who played young Darth Vader in the Star Wars prequels as Glass and the always good Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck Lane, the new TNR editor who was the first to figure out Glass was just making up all his fabulous stories. The title card to the movie explained one major reason for TNR’s naiveté: the median age of New Republic staffers was 26. 

(In contrast, we columnists here at Taki’s Magazine tend to be, shall we say, less callow. For instance, Pat Buchanan, as he recounts in his memoir The Greatest Comeback, was in the Congo with Richard Nixon 47 years ago when dictator Mobutu Sese Seko leaned in close to explain what his developing country needed most from America: “€œTwenty Chrysler Imperials and twenty Harley-Davidsons.”€)

By the way, Erdely said in 1998 that she “€œadored“€ Stephen Glass when they were colleagues on a student publication at Penn.

Bradley went on:

So when, say, the Duke lacrosse scandal erupted, I applied that lesson. The story was so sensational! Believing it required indulging one’s biases: A southern school … rich white preppy boys … a privileged sports team … lower class African-American women … rape. It read like a Tom Wolfe novel.

Except the Duke lacrosse team gang rape never happened.

Like most 21st-century brouhahas, “€œA Rape on Campus”€ recapitulates many themes of Wolfe’s novels. For example, in A Man in Full, Atlanta’s establishment mobilizes to make go away a Georgia Tech coed’s allegation that she was raped by the school’s Heisman Trophy winner, Fareek Fanon.

Moreover, Jackie is portrayed as similar to the title character in Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, in which a first-year coed at a prestigious university is plunged into suicidal depression after she semi-consensually loses her virginity to a handsome but callous fraternity boy. Something deeply upsetting likely happened to Jackie, too, but exactly what is a mystery. 

The fraternity rape story serves as a welcome distraction from the October arrest of black cabdriver Jesse Matthew for the September murder of white UVA coed Hannah Graham. (DNA evidence has since linked Matthew to another dead coed and another rape, and he is now being considered in 10 cold cases of crimes against women.)

A timeline of how Richard Bradley’s critique finally made its way to the general public may be of interest.

A reader kindly alerted me to Bradley’s post on November 24th. I made four scattershot comments on it on November 25th, beginning with my question:

Wouldn”€™t the rapists get cut by the broken glass all over the floor, too? I guess they were such sex-crazed animals that they didn”€™t notice the glass cutting their hands and knees for the first three hours.

I continued to mull over the issues that had been raised. (I hate being publicly wrong, so I”€™m cautious.) On the 27th I returned to Bradley’s blog to find I was still the only commenter, and added a fifth:

Sorry to keep coming back to this, but I”€™ve done some more thinking and here’s where the story falls apart: pitch darkness _and_ broken glass on the floor. The glass table is smashed, but nobody turns on the light to see what happened or where the broken glass is? Instead, each man, having heard the glass table get smashed, still gets down on the floor covered with shards of broken glass, risking not only his hands and knees, but also pulling out an even more personal part of his anatomy, one that he only has one of. 


By the 29th I was still the only commenter, but I finally felt confident enough that there were major problems with the Rolling Stone account to link to Bradley’s critique from my iSteve blog at the Unz Review.

That opened the floodgates. Comments finally poured in to Bradley’s blog. And on the first two days of December, numerous well-known publications weighed in with skeptical assessments based on Bradley’s analysis: Robby Soave at Reason, Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit, Megan McArdle at Bloomberg, Ashe Schow at the Washington Examiner, Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal, Judith Shulevitz at The New Republic, Jonah Goldberg at the Los Angeles Times, and Erik Wemple at the Washington Post.

I remain struck by the literary aspect of the article. This is not crude agitprop, but a polished performance by somebody who has at least thought about how famous journalists negotiate the sometimes blurry line between fact and fiction.

For example, studded throughout Erdely’s text is evidence (for instance, her phrase “€œbrutal tableau”€) of the influence of Wolfe’s rival as the greatest comic journalist/novelist of their era, Hunter S. Thompson. The summit of Rolling Stone‘s literary history was the 1971 publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, a book that has long been subject to debate over whether it should be called New Journalism or a novel. It’s full of paranoid fantasies about violence, but also very little action.

The subtitle of Erdely’s article, “€œA Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,”€ sounds like a parody of a Thompson subtitle. Indeed, in his self-parodying old age, Thompson published Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist.

This is not to assert that Erdely inserted some coded message into her text. I merely observe that the allusions to famous figures like Glass, Wolfe, and Thompson”€”who fell on various sides of the divide between journalism and novels”€”reflects a formidable level of literary contrivance on Erdely’s part. It’s like a serious anti-parody of old parodies. This may help explain why so many readers assumed it to be a trustworthy work of high quality.

Toward the end of Fear and Loathing, shattered glass starts becoming a repeated element within narrator Raoul Duke’s paranoid skull:

The [hotel] room looked like the site of some disastrous zoological experiment involving whiskey and gorillas. The ten-foot mirror was shattered, but still hanging together”€”bad evidence of that afternoon when my attorney ran amok with the coconut hammer, smashing the mirror and all the light bulbs. … 

The bathroom floor was about six inches deep with soap bars, vomit, and grapefruit rinds, mixed with broken glass. I had to put my boots on every time I went in there to piss. … 

But then why all this booze? And these crude pornographic photos … that were plastered on the broken mirror … and all these signs of violence, these strange red and blue bulbs and shards of broken glass embedded in the wall plaster …

The penultimate joke in Fear and Loathing is that almost all the brutal and bizarre violence in the book never actually happens outside of Duke’s head. 

The ultimate joke in Fear and Loathing is that few readers ever got the penultimate joke.

Thanks to Richard Bradley, more people have an opportunity to appreciate this new joke.


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