This piece by Elizabeth Bruenig about a rape in her hometown high school is “devastating.” She’s right. It’s about Amber Wyatt, a cheerleader who says she was raped in 2006 by two athletes who drove her away from a party. She reported the rape to adults that night, and to the police the next day. But the boys got away with it, in part, Bruenig argues, because society turned against Amber Wyatt.
Here’s an important part of the story Bruenig tells. It happened a decade earlier in the same town — Arlington, Texas:
On Sept. 13, 1996, a 16-year-old junior at Arlington High School was allegedly sexually assaulted at a party while she was drunk. According to contemporaneous news reports, she alleged that dozens of her peers stood by as others assaulted her with a condom-topped broomstick, exposed their genitals and urinated on her. The girl was hospitalized, but no sexual assault charges were filed against her assailants. The town helped see to that.
Police interviewed some 35 students after the incident; none supported the girl’s allegations. Coupled with the victim’s broken memory, this meant police were never able to bring any perpetrator to justice for the sexual assault. Instead, police issued simple assault and disorderly conduct citations to a smattering of teens who had been at the party, a light reprimand given the circumstances. Nonetheless, some parents resented even those meager reprisals.
The parents’ objections might have remained at the muted level of privileged suburbanites grousing over traffic tickets had it not been for Lynn Hale, then superintendent of the Arlington Independent School District, who took it upon herself to try to prevent another such episode.
Less than two weeks after the girl’s report, Hale told a reporter from the Dallas Morning News that she wasn’t convinced the district was “implementing the appropriate consequences . . . for students who drink.” And she followed through, instituting a district-wide policy under which any student caught at a location where alcohol or drugs were being used would be banned from extracurricular activities for the entire school year, regardless of whether police cited them for use.
Parents revolted. Seven families of students affected by the policy filed suit, and in January 1997, a local judge invited them to debate the policy with members of the school board. After meeting with the students and their parents and considering the arguments of the school board and its attorney, the judge, saying he was speaking “as a parent,” thanked Hale for her attempt to do something — anything — about the problem. And then the judge effectively overturned Hale’s policy, reinstating some 20 students to their extracurricular activities.
Hale didn’t remain in her post much longer to see what would become of the phenomenon she had observed and tried to halt. By the summer of 1998, she had already been replaced as superintendent by Mac Bernd, who eased the anti-drinking policy to include a penalty of just six weeks for first-time offenders. “I have a somewhat jaundiced view of how much control we do have over teenagers,” Bernd, several years retired, told me in 2015 in an Arlington restaurant lined with framed drawings of Texas college and high school mascots. He wanted to preserve, Bernd said, “an opportunity for redemption.”
It’s impossible to know whether Hale’s tougher policy would have given pause to anyone present at the 2006 party that Wyatt attended. For a deterrent to be effective, consequences must seem real. And it’s easy to see how, with Hale’s rule a vanquished memory and the case that sparked it an item of urban legend, a pair of Arlington teenagers with ample opportunity and bad intentions might have reasonably concluded no harm would come to them should they wantonly violate rules, policies or people. They would have been exactly right.
That passage is superficially ancillary to the story Bruenig tells, which involves Wyatt’s rape in 2006. (And it really was rape: the medical evidence was entirely consistent with violent sexual encounter with a woman too drunk to consent.) But it’s actually key to the heart of the Wyatt tale, which is summed up here:
For Pam Millican, the mother of two Martin cheerleaders, Wyatt’s case became an eerie and unsettling cautionary tale. “What really ticked me off is the herd mentality of everybody,” Millican said in an interview this April, “of the cheerleaders and football players and all those queen bees and wannabes who basically sided with the football players and said that, oh, she wanted it, and it was consensual.”
Even adults in Arlington tuned on Wyatt. She became a scapegoat who had to be destroyed to return peace to the community. It was she who accused these two popular athletes, and brought this curse onto the community.
There was no indictment of these boys, despite the physical evidence. They never had to answer for their alleged actions. Amber Wyatt spiraled into depression and drug abuse. She overdosed once, and spent time in ICU. Bruenig updates her readers on where Wyatt is today.
Please read the whole thing. It’s extraordinary.
Of course this appears while we’re all at each other’s throats over Brett Kavanaugh and the allegations against him. It’s important to remember that Amber Wyatt wasn’t just assaulted, she was actually violently raped. There is — or was, until it was destroyed in 2009 — medical evidence to that effect. It would be unjust to somehow transfer rage at the injustice of Wyatt’s case to Kavanaugh — to scapegoat him because some SOB has to pay for what was done to Amber Wyatt. Kavanaugh should be judged on the facts of his own case.
Still, it is important to think, and think deeply, about how we deal with issues like this. Scapegoating is part of the human condition. When the UVA fraternity rape story came out in Rolling Stone, I was eager to believe it because it resonated with my own biases about college fraternities. Of course the story was a destructive hoax. If Brett Kavanaugh is not guilty of this allegation, then whether or not he is confirmed, he will have had his reputation shredded in public, and will never escape the cloud. There are plenty of people who are just certain that he’s guilty, because he’s an upperclass white male, and they know how upperclass white men are. There are also people who are certain that he’s not guilty, because the Left hates white men, and will stop at nothing to bring him down.
People will go along with the crowd, and facts be damned. This is not a left or a right wing thing. It’s not a white or black thing, or a male or female thing. It’s how we are. It’s the human stain.
Bruenig offers this thought:
It’s obvious that vulnerability will elicit viciousness from predators. But then there are the rest of us — the cast of Arlingtonians beginning with midnight partygoers and ending with high school rumor-listeners who, with honorable exceptions, ridiculed Wyatt at worst and ignored her at best. Wyatt’s story calls on us to inquire: What motivates otherwise ordinary people to abandon all pretense of mercy when faced with the abject need for it?
This passage made me think about a girl I’m going to call Marla. If you come from my town, and you were in high school in the first half of the 1980s, you’ll probably recognize her. She was younger than I was. I didn’t really know her. But I know that she was targeted by the same gang of cool kids — the queen bees, especially; the female bullies were the most vicious — that targeted me, and others. Marla got it far worse than anybody else. She was thin, and came from a social background that made her vulnerable. Her parents were working class religious folks. Nothing wrong with them at all, but they weren’t socially prominent; they were on the margins, and so was she.
For whatever reason, the queen bees and their circle identified her as weak, and were merciless. They made up a demeaning name for her, and taunted her constantly. She was younger than most of them, but it didn’t matter. She was weak, and therefore despicable in their eyes.
One day, I was sitting on a school bus outside the high school, waiting for the driver to come so we could go on a field trip. A boy in Marla’s class unwrapped a coat hanger and stretched it out full-length. Then he came at Marla with it. She was sitting in the seat in front of me. He mocked her, and tried to poke her in the eye. She ducked her head and covered her eyes, but he wouldn’t quit. A couple of guys stood behind him, egging him on.
This, to a thin, defenseless girl.
I sat right behind her, and wanted to defend her, but I was too cowardly. I just put my head down, afraid that if I did the right thing, they would turn on me. They would have, too, and I would have had my ass kicked. So, gutless, I turned my head and hoped the driver would come and make them stop.
I had to put up with bullying from that crowd for two years, until I could get the hell out of town. Marla suffered it for at least four years — and again, she had it much worse than I did, and, to my knowledge, worse than anybody else those SOBs tormented. I don’t have any reason to believe the bullying was physical (or sexual), but it was emotional and psychological, and it was savage.
How did she endure it? I have no idea. I looked her up just now, and found her on Facebook. She’s beautiful. She’s married now, but I don’t know any other information about her, because you have to be her friend to find out more. I don’t much use Facebook, and haven’t accepted new friend requests for years. The deeper truth is that I don’t want to be her Facebook friend because I’m ashamed of myself for not standing up for her that day on the bus. She might not remember that moment — God knows she had so many just like it — but I do, because I knew it was a test of my courage and decency, and I failed. I pretty much used her as a shield. If they take Marla, they’ll leave me alone.
I said here the other day that this crowd assaulted me in a hotel room on a beach trip, and tried to humiliate me in a sexual way — and the chaperones on that trip, eager to be cool moms, stepped over me, held down on the floor, to get out of that room. That was the event that started two years of casual bullying. I’m not friends with any of those people now, though when I moved back to my hometown, I made a deliberate choice not to dwell on any of that if I saw them. That whole experience deeply formed me — made me someone who has a profound suspicion of the crowd, and contemptuous of authorities who have the power to bring about justice, but are too cowardly to use it.
(To be honest: My subsequent experience as an adult has forced me to confront the “crowd” inside myself. And let’s face it, I would not be all that surprised if I were to be confronted by someone today who told me that when we were in school, I bullied them, and hurt them terribly. I never intimidated anyone physically, but I have a sharp wit and a vicious tongue. In my childhood, I teased my younger sister a lot. She was unkind and unjust to me in our adulthood, but I certainly laid the groundwork for it in our childhood, when I was mean to her just for meanness’ sake. The human stain.)
I still could not see the justification for using what those kids did to me in high school, or to Marla, as a reason to deny them something like a judgeship. I didn’t follow closely the lives of that crowd, but it’s my impression that none of them turned into monsters in adulthood. Junior high and high school is a terrible time, and as unpleasant as ninth and tenth grade were for me, I just don’t have it in me to carry around anger over it. Now, if I had been beaten up, or, God forbid, raped, that would be a different story. If either of the boys who raped Amber Wyatt and got away with it ever get nominated for a public office, I hope she comes at them with both barrels.
What do we do with situations that fall somewhere between minor (but still traumatic) examples of sexualized violence like what happened to me, and full-blown rape for which there is clear evidence, like what happened to Amber Wyatt? How do we think about them, think through them? How do we guard ourselves from falling into scapegoating on either side?
What is just?
What if it were your daughter? What if it were your son?
What kind of teenage violence is forgivable, in terms of public redemption? What must we forgive for the sake of living together in peace? What must we refuse to forgive for the sake of living together in justice?