UVA Rape Scandal: A Look Back

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This column originally appeared in The Federalist.

In November 2014, Rolling Stone published an article about a gruesome gang rape. It featured a young college student, Jackie, just weeks into her freshman year at the prestigious University of Virginia. She bravely agreed to speak with Sabrina Rubin Erdely and recount a harrowing, detailed account of the brutal gang rape she had experienced at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house on a first date.

Almost immediately, the story was cause for concern. The university suspended all fraternities, a signal that transmitted the allegations Jackie made were, at the very least, plausible. The rise of high-profile Title IX cases at some of the nation’s most exclusive universities further enforced the belief that Jackie’s tale, however horrific, was real.

Disputes emerged quickly. The fraternity had not hosted a party on the night in question. Erdely had never interviewed the man Jackie alleged was the mastermind of her attack, Drew. Erdely had interviewed none of the alleged perpetrators. Quotes appeared to have been manufactured. Not one person at Rolling Stone, not the reporter or a fact-checker, and not one editor, had completed the most basic verification of facts. The story went viral in two waves—first because of the barbarity and neglect it described, then for the disintegration of journalistic ethics and standards it revealed.

Rolling Stone’s Apathy Silences Rape Survivors

The definitive analysis by Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s team exposed the myriad, multi-level failures at Rolling Stone. This episode further undermines American confidence in media, and has ignited a political debate about journalism.

Allowing the “A Rape on Campus” story to dissolve without addressing the impact on survivors is a mistake. To be clear, I have a dog in this fight. I am a survivor of a vicious gang rape that lasted six days. I was silent for more than 20 years. I am also the mother of a young woman attending university. Like most parents, I worry about the safety of her and her friends every day.

Every young woman or man who survives rape should feel comfortable communicating with the appropriate legal authorities, including the campus authorities. Survivors alone should determine whether they want to speak out publicly.

Rolling Stone is complicit in more than bad journalism. Rolling Stone is complicit in silencing survivors. Erdely will continue to write for the magazine. The fact-checkers who denied Drew and Phi Kappa Psi a chance to tell their side of the story will all keep their jobs. The editor and publisher are standing by their staff. No consequences, just a bad review from Columbia School of Journalism. They enabled unverified allegations to catch fire, without regard for impact on Jackie, or survivors.

Social Media Shaming and Blaming Isn’t Enough

Perhaps this is where a discussion about generational understanding of the media space is changing. Millennials are accustomed to 24/7 saturation of information, news, social media, and even the practice of catfishing—where someone sets up a fake profile to lure someone into a relationship, or to bully them endlessly.

Those of us in Generation X, Generation Jones, or the Baby Boomer generation need to rethink our management strategies in media and communications. Not only for deeply troubling stories involving rape and campus culture but also in civil rights, human rights, and other important culturally defining issues. Riding in the front seat of the outrage machine is not the same as tangibly impacting policy, leading a movement, or making a real difference in cultural perception. The intellectual laziness of blaming the press, or blaming the victim, or blaming perpetrators—real or imagined—is not enough. We must be better citizens and better advocates for ethics, integrity, and accountability measures.

None of us know the truth about Jackie. Two things linger in my mind. Was she raped? If so, she needs psychosocial care and counseling. Unnecessarily demonizing men or frat culture is not a path to justice. I pray she finds the help and support she needs. Truth and healing will light the path, if she chooses.

If she is not a survivor, she knowingly and willingly chose to tell a story that at best would hurt the fraternity, the university, and her own credibility. Maybe she didn’t understand the story would explode onto the media stage the way it did. Maybe she never considered that a story like this, if unverifiable, impacts survivors and discourages reporting of rape.

Rolling Stone Has Assisted Rapists

Rolling Stone, by not verifying facts, despite their considerable resources, perpetrated a grave injustice against survivors, silencing them and robbing them of their voice. This story damaged the reputations of young men and a university. Men and women are survivors of sexual violence.

To lie about rape is to enable evil. There is no polite way around that fact. It’s not the job of survivors to package rape into a neat media package for liberals and conservatives to eviscerate each other with.

The terror clings to you. Facing it, reporting it, enduring the medical exams and procedures, and following the judicial process is unimaginably difficult. What Rolling Stone did was provide an assist to perpetrators, robbing survivors of credibility. It’s unconscionable. It degrades our shared existence as Americans.

Beyond Jackie and Rolling Stone, there are voices worthy of reading and understanding. Jenny Wilkinson tells her powerful story that also began at the University of Virginia, where she was raped in 1997. She won her case and saw her rapist punished. Her story lacks the graphic details of her rape but is more powerful because it is the truth.

Rolling Stone made it clear that no one will be fired, or resign, after this egregious violation of ethical reporting. The Columbia report should serve as the catalyst for strengthening accountability and fact-checking standards. A retraction is simply not enough.

Elizabeth Blackney is the media and communications director for the Panzi Foundation. An author, mother, and survivor, she develops training for core constituencies in the human rights, political, and philanthropic environments.

American University’s Rape Culture & Frat Problems

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Below is an excerpt of my latest piece in The Huffington Post. After learning of the unfolding, evolving scandal with the de-chartered fraternity Epsilon Iota, EI. The organization was a chapter of Alpha Tau Omega until it lost its charter in 2001 from American University and the national organization.

My choice not to attend was difficult. This column addresses why, and as I speak with many more students, faculty, and alum of American – I realize just how much more there is to this story. There are enough young women who do not feel safe on the campus to compel action, oversight, and tangible changes. Strongly worded statements aren’t enough. Stay tuned for my follow up later this week.

In part, my column reads thus:

Date rape and the occasional tussle exists only on the fringes, right? We whisper and gossip. We hope it’s not happening to our daughters. We hope it’s not our sons and their friends. We hope our daughters are not rounding up their girlfriends to go to parties like this. We hope our sons wouldn’t drop a roofy, rohypnol, into the glass of an unsuspecting girl with the express intent of raping her. Or vomiting on her for amusement. We hope.

Unfortunately the Epsilon Iota gents, dechartered by American and by Alpha Tau Omega’s national organization in 2001, bragged and joked about both. One brother offers that he’s got the “hook up” for Adderall and other study drugs. They are not technically a part of Greek life at American but they still have a house. They attend school and receive their degrees, without consequences. The brothers involved are not exclusively privileged white kids; reviewing cached images of their deleted LinkedIn and other social media profiles shows their bad behavior is color blind. It’s not just the behavior, though; it is evil.

One young man notes, “She had a friend who got raped at our house? I would like to meet this lying c&#t and show her how African men treat their woman.” Another encouraged his brothers to “hit me up if you need a hot b!#%h to vomit all over.”

Concerned about rumors that EI was being characterized as a “rape gang” on campus, and the accusations being made by a female student, another brother engaged in this way “…I think if my goal was to beat her, first of all she would have been in the hospital, second, I would have probably been in jail by now…” Classic victim-blaming with a huge dose of “she deserved it” rhetoric for good measure. Charming…

Read the rest HERE.

GirlHQ: love and our living well philosophy

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Live right. Be worthy. Make a difference. This is the philosophy governing GirlHQ. The definition came about, quite by mistake, when a colleague asked how my daughter and I seem so happy, so calm, so close all the time. We breezed through the teens without yelling, without all the things many others complain about when raising children. I want my daughter to not just be a kid but to also have a road map to living a fulfilled, happy life. That doesn’t mean we zen out over crises. It does mean we keep all obstacles and difficulties in perspective.

Being an aware, active participant in every little decision and every big decision alleviates much of the day to day “overwhelmed” narrative common in today’s culture. Social media blurs the lines between public, private, personal, and emotional space. I am exceedingly private about certain aspects of my life. When I share something publicly, it’s generally well known already by the people who matter most to me. As in: my daughter is awesome and I am – yet again – proud of her character, her work ethic, her devotion to being a great human being. Or: my bestie makes life better. Or: love matters and I’m humming a happy tune like a Disney princess today. Life is good. Or: I almost died (ICU for my life) and really want women to know that getting your checkups, fighting for yourself, and for better healthcare, is really important. Life is tenuous at best, leave everything on the table. Remember to tell everyone you love that you do, in fact, love them.

Live right. Forgiveness plays a huge role. Forgiving ourselves for mistakes matters. Forgiveness of others does too. Not punishing people who we choose to keep in our life is difficult. Forgive and keep them in your life, or forgive and cut them loose. Pick one. Don’t string yourself or anyone else along. That is cruel laziness. Forgive and let it go. Once you get the hang of forgiveness, a lot of emotional space is freed up on your heart’s hard drive. Forgiveness frees up time to express devotion to our loved ones, our communities.

Living right is about self-discipline. Love, forgiveness, volunteering, and setting an example are core principles. It means accepting people for who they really are. Accepting moments of great connection for what they are: moments. We spend a great deal of time wanting things to be different. Let it go. That is a waste of time and treasure. Spending an afternoon with someone you admire doesn’t mean it has to evolve into a forever kind of thing. Maybe, it’s just an afternoon. Make the most of it. Put the memory someplace special and revel in the happiness. Take the good from every moment in your life and meditate on it. Learn from the heartbreaks and disappointments but discard the pain. Pain serves negativity, not your soul.

Be worthy. Know your worth and live it. Whatever your talents, passions, and gifts are: embrace them and grow from there. We can’t all be polymaths, or cutting edge publishers of digital content, or human rights advocates, or builders of globally recognized hubs of justice and peace, or musically gifted prodigies. We can all be masters of goodness. Of capacity building in our families and relationships and communities. We can live interesting and worthy lives. A couple who devotes their entire life to each other, their home, their friends, and family with grace while privately fighting with nature and biology and infertility are living worthy lives. The men and women serving in our military too. Aid workers in war torn countries. Teachers who inspire. Mothers and fathers who choose their family over status. The kids donating time at a soup kitchen and listening to the stories of a homeless man or woman. Listening to a stranger in their moment of need. Whispering to a stranger that they have toilet paper tacked to their shoe, or lipstick on her teeth. Whatever. No act of kindness is too small or too big.

Doing the right thing is always worthy. Sometimes it means walking away from someone or something that doesn’t work in your life anymore. Remove emotional, spiritual, professional clutter from your life. Work with colleagues and for causes, companies that represent the kind of person you truly are. Understand money is just money, it isn’t everything. Don’t be defined by money or other people. Define yourself. None of this is easy but it is worthy of you, your inner peace, and certainly a worthy lesson to teach your children, interns, and others you influence. Love and goodness are the legacy we build every day.

If you live right, be worthy – then you will already make a difference. Choose activities, whether intellectual or physical pursuits, that increase your appetite for life. For love. For intellectual and spiritual stimulation. That spur you on, inspire you to do more with every day. Laugh out loud. Cry out loud too. When you need to grieve: do it. Wail. Sob. Yell. Curl up with your blanket and a photo or whatever you need. Let it go. Whatever you cannot control, let it go.

Finding a place less busy, more focused on love and goodness gives us a chance to be better. To do more. Make more money. Be our best, most authentic self. No one has a moral obligation to stay in a place where your beliefs, your values are compromised to the point of being unrecognizable.  We have no obligation to hold on tight to that which does not work.

Anne Lamott says it best:

You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people want you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.

After waking up in ICU last September, the urgency of living right, being worthy, and making a difference was fierce within me. I knew I would live and be safe. When I close my eyes, I still feel the warmth and presence of our Creator I felt before the blood transfusions and heart monitors and surgery. All the love I ever experienced was there, all in one place, in one moment – peaceful and serene, without want or question.

For each of us, the journey is different. I don’t know what feeling God’s presence is like for others. To me, it was about discovering pure love and peace and optimism. Take the wins as they come. Discard negativity daily. Persevere. Choose love.

—Media Lizzy

Rich Williamson, A Giant Among Men

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There are few in this world with the character and integrity and giant heart of Rich Williamson. He left this world night before last, after complications from a cerebral hemorrhage. There are many who will miss him. His wife Jane, his children, his colleagues, and to be sure advocates for human rights – especially in Sudan.

Josh Rogin has an excellent piece in The Daily Beast. The Sun Times does too. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum released a moving statement, as did the Chicago Council. Rich worked for three US Presidents. He attended Princeton and the University of Virginia’s law school. I shall leave it to others to list and detail his many contributions to governance and policy.

I will remember him for being a friend and mentor. He always made time to help with writing and editing and helping to guide a statement. He was a great collaborator. He was generous with his time. He was generous with his wisdom. He was a teacher and a true believer. He was practical. He was a realist and an idealist. He was always rushing to get home. He loved his wife and family and his life with them. He was exceedingly kind, and gave great advice to my seventeen year old daughter about learning, inspiration, and being true to self. His actions saved lives in Darfur, and his policy prescriptions would save even more lives if President Obama and his successors implement them. He was a Republican, and the kind of partisan that this world needs. He understood the nature and necessity for what is known as the Responsibility to Protect. He believed eradicating poverty was a moral challenge for us all, and in our individual ability to do just that. He believed in humanity’s capacity for goodness. He was the very definition and embodiment of a good man.

There seems only one who understands the depth of loss, W. H. Auden. His Funeral Blues has been ringing through my ears since I heard the news yesterday morning:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public
doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Requiescat en pace, Ambassador. We will miss you, Rich. Every day.

29 Years Later: Do They Know It’s Christmas?

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Twenty-nine years ago this song was released. I was twelve. I had been carrying the little orange UNICEF box around for most of my life. Today, the famine in Ethiopia may be over but in Sudan, Congo, Uganda, and across the world, war and natural disasters still ravage innocent people. Whatever struggles we face here, there are those who have little more than love or hope. Be grateful. Give, even if you can only afford a smile or a kind word to a stranger. Compassion matters and it gives us all strength.

 

All Men Are Created Equal

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One hundred fifty years later, President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address resonates as a fundamental truth. There are few texts, few speeches that so clearly articulate what it means to be an American. President Lincoln’s message revealed an intrinsic truth – that freedom is not free. But it is necessary nonetheless.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

—President Abraham Lincoln, 19 November 1863

 

 

ICU for (my) Life

The nurse did not ask for my identification. She did not ask how she might help me. She lifted her index finger, flicked her wrist, and declared “Let me get you a wheelchair.” Her name is Linda. She works in the emergency room of a hospital. Along with physicians and multiple blood transfusions, Linda saved my life on September 17, 2013.

This summer was busy, full of changes. Plagued by fatigue, I trimmed my calendar. I assumed the problem would ameliorate itself. It always had before. Women’s health is a focus of my work and yet, I often neglected my own. My regular physician and I worked on a pretty holistic program. Improving my diet, adding iron rich foods, getting more rest, eliminating stress, negativity, toxic people and unnecessary projects from my life became a priority. Over the course of the summer, the fatigue came and went.

On the evening of September 16th, I hemorrhaged. After convincing myself that I could handle the bleeding and the pain, I went to bed. Faintness consumed me when I laid down, then I felt an incredible peace descend. Warmth enveloped me and I was carried off to a deep sleep. I dreamed of being with my grandparents, swimming in the small irrigation canal along the edge of their property, breathing in the smell of the pasture. I dreamed of sitting on the ottoman and laying across my grandmother’s lap. For the first time since March of 1996, I heard her voice. She was telling me it was time to go back, that it was okay to want to go back. I dreamed of the tree house in their backyard and the sound of the willow branches swishing in the wind.

Then came the dream with my late husband. We were nowhere, sitting together bathed in light and warmth. He held my hand. He did not speak, only smiled as I told him about our daughter. We sat in silence. After some time, he was gone and I was alone. I felt total peace for the first time since I was a child playing in the backyard waiting for fireflies to make their magic. I felt a flood of love, or forgiveness, and tremendous letting go. When the letting go began to feel like separation, I asked and prayed for God to help me. A moment later I was awake.

I stood and went to my mirror. My normally pale skin was almost ghostly, the whites of my eyes were milky white. My nail beds had lost every tinge of pink. The bleeding slowed. I went back to bed, knowing I would be okay. The warmth and sense of peace were still within me.

After a cup of coffee and breakfast with my daughter, I assured her I was going to the emergency room. I would call and text her. The look of relief on her face, the too tight hug, was all we needed. Love communicates with honesty, not always with words. Never have I been so grateful to wake from a dream. I did not realize how accustomed to fatigue and menorrhagia I had become.

Linda took my identification and wheeled me into the emergency room, immediately nurses and doctors flooded the room. A young man appeared and with some frustration was finally able to insert an IV into a vein in my hand, draw blood, and begin intravenous fluids. A rush of tests, ultrasounds, exams, and consultations between the emergency room physicians led to a terrifying moment. Consent forms for blood transfusions needed to be signed, as my hemoglobin and hematocrit were dangerously low. Stress and average grade anemia were not at work here. I had hemorrhaged. I had been hemorrhaging on and off all summer. I was not superhuman. I was human. And they were moving me to the Intensive Care Unit.

The gynecologic surgeon met me in ICU. She introduced herself and we went through my results. Two large fibroid tumors were at the center of my drama. One, a pedunculated fibroid, was dilating my cervix and starting to prolapse. It was time for some real talk. It was time to consider a hysterectomy. It was time to prioritize my health. This inspiring woman assuaged my concerns about my immediate situation and left me to my own thoughts. Before anything else happened, there would be five blood transfusions.

The body is one big miracle. Mine had compensated mightily but the window was closing when I arrived that morning. I called my daughter. I called my mother. I texted my two closest friends. And nobody else. I tweeted as if I wasn’t afraid that my life was hanging in the balance. I replied to emails. I wondered what to say in my email’s vacation responder.

With nothing to do but wait for the blood to drip, drip, drip into my veins, I rested. The warmth and light came again, and I was alone with what I can only describe as God. In that space, the sounds of life support machines down the hall disappeared. My body began to heal. A stranger donated blood that saved my life, as much as Linda or my surgeon or any of the skilled, loving people in that hospital. An act of kindness that will never be taken for granted by me, or those who love me.

I live in a country where experienced professionals provide superb healthcare services. Gratitude seems inadequate but it will mark every day of my life. 

This was a reality check. Not only personally, but professionally as well. My work often straddles human rights, women’s health, foreign policy and politics. The women of Congo, suffer traumatic and obstetric fistulas. The women of Sudan are often forced to bear the children of genocidal oppressors. Women held in bondage in Cambodia or India. Forced labor. Forced marriages. Poverty. Hunger. Illiteracy. Women across the globe enslaved by poverty and evil. Basic health services, let alone services for complex medical situations, are scarce where oppression and impunity reign. The voiceless, the vulnerable deserve equality.

Tomorrow, I will have a hysterectomy. The power of unconditional love and the power of science and skill, will give me back my health. New adventures await. 

Prayers and good juju are welcome.  It is time for rest.

— Media Lizzy

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