In the wake of Rolling Stone’s multiple clarifications to its bombshell story, "A Rape On Campus," about a University of Virginia student that the magazine called “Jackie” who recounted her gang rape at UVA, some are interpreting the “discrepancies” that Rolling Stone subsequently discovered in Jackie’s story as a sign that she lied about everything. But according to Leah Foster, who for five years has been the director of Trauma Recovery Services at the New Orleans Family Justice Center and who works with sexual assault survivors, regularly hearing their chaotic testimony, science is increasingly proving that, similar to war veterans and police officers with post-traumatic stress disorder, rape survivors' memories and stories tend to be nonlinear, fragmented and confused -- "a mishmash," as Foster put it. And it takes special training to ask them for and to make sense of their often jumbled accounts.
In a conversation with International Business Times, Foster explained that new research into the neurobiology of the brain shows that when people are in what feels like life or death situations (soldiers, police, rape survivors, etc.), chemicals get released that turn off the higher functioning of their brains, triggering a very primitive, "reptilian" part of the brain that throws them into survival mode. In trauma situations, this research shows, what a person perceives as a life or death situation is experienced differently, is processed differently and is remembered differently than ordinary experiences. Trauma memories themselves are different, and "discrepancies" are part of all trauma survivors' testimonies -- the rule rather than the exception.
It’s being reported that Jackie has hired an attorney. Mark Eiglarsh, a criminal defense attorney in Miami, Florida, told ABC News that it may be that she fears being sued herself. "If Jackie allegedly lied and that perpetrator suffered injury as a result, she could be sued for damages," said Eiglarsh. So loud has the din gotten to discredit Jackie's story completely that friends close to her situation have stepped up to support her.
On Sunday, Emily Clark wrote an open letter in UVA student paper the Daily Cavalier titled, "Letter from a friend: Jackie's story is not a hoax."
My name is Emily, and I was Jackie’s suitemate first year. I am writing to you in regards to Rolling Stone’s recent statement of "misplaced trust" in Jackie. I feel this statement is backwards, as it seems it was Jackie who misplaced her trust in Rolling Stone.... I fully support Jackie, and I believe wholeheartedly that she went through a traumatizing sexual assault. Whether the details are correct or not, and whether the reporting was faulty, or the hazy memories of a traumatizing night got skewed ... the blame should never fall on the victim’s shoulders.
IBT discussed the case with Leah Foster.
IBT: You work with survivors of sexual assault, childhood sexual abuse, stalking and domestic violence cases. What have you learned from hearing their stories?
Foster: There's been a lot of research on the neurobiology of trauma. Trauma impacts the brain in specific ways, and often survivors' accounts are nonlinear, not identical each time the story's told. Trauma memory is processed in fragmented ways, and sometimes the memory is sensory, a smell or even a bodily sensation that is linked to the trauma, but the survivor just may not realize or communicate that.
So when the police, media or friends hear the survivor's story, it sometimes sounds confusing or even incredible because the story doesn't line up in a linear way.
The oldest part of the brain, the one triggered during trauma, has been called the "reptilian" part of the brain. It's the oldest one from an evolutionary point of view, and controls "fight or flight" responses, adrenaline, hormones that help the survivor in what feels like a life or death situation deal with the situation. When it's triggered, other parts of the brain don't function the way they usually do, at a higher cognitive capacity. To keep yourself alive, rational thought is not going to help.
"Why Didn't She Fight Back?"
Foster (continued): David Lisak, who works on the neurobiology of trauma, gives an example about the functioning of the higher vs. "reptilian" parts of the brain. When a zebra is at a watering hole and it sees a tiger, rational thought would tell it, "I'm going to take one sip." But that would get it killed. The same is with a human being. During what feels like a life or death situation, the old part of the brain takes over. We're not processing rational thought but rather sound, sight, smell. What do you do to keep yourself alive? Usually it's running away or freezing.
People often ask, "Why didn't she fight back?" Well, if she thought she was in a life or death situation, she may have frozen. That's what the brain might have told her to do. Also, women are socialized to be compliant. So a lot of them don't fight back. She might be consciously de-escalating the situation by not fighting back.
In terms of traumatic memory, because of the chemicals triggered in what human beings perceive as life or death situations, memory doesn't work in the same way as everyday memories. What we perceive as a life or death situation feels different, is processed differently and is remembered differently.
There doesn't need to be a weapon or a spoken threat. All that matters is that the person feels threatened. In cases of domestic partner rape or rape by someone you know, what's not to say that this person you trusted who now is raping you might not kill you, too?
"PTSD In Soldiers And Rape Survivors Is The Same"
Foster (continued): It's important with rape survivors to remember that although it might not be a war zone, they're in a situation where it feels like anything could happen. What's happening in the brain is the same with a soldier in wartime and a person being raped. PTSD in soldiers and rape survivors is the same.
Sometimes survivors can't even remember who was there. They're remembering things in fragments, sounds, events, not in a sequential way. And if I'm not trained to ask things in the right way, some memories aren't going to be triggered.
People dissociate as a way of maintaining sanity. Senses are overwhelmed when someone is violently invading your body. One coping mechanism is to dissociate, go numb, check out as a means of psychically surviving. We hear about this in descriptions of police shootouts, from war vets and from sexual assault survivors. They all describe feeling like they're watching what's happening but not feeling present -- that's dissociation. All of this makes it hard to remember if you're not paying attention to things the way you normally would be.
IBT: You'd mentioned special training for talking to sexual assault survivors. Do you think that's something the media need training in? Some are saying that the Rolling Stone journalist might have made a deal with Jackie -- who at a certain point had told her she didn't want to talk anymore -- that she would not question the alleged rapists if Jackie kept talking. What do you think about this?
Foster: Without speaking specifically to the Rolling Stone case, I think that everyone needs to be clear of the goal of their role. For journalists, it's to help someone tell a story. So you have to do what's ethical to your profession -- for example, that would mean interviewing the accused perpetrator. In social work, there are ethical guidelines I have to follow that might mean I'm doing things the survivor doesn't want. But within those ethical boundaries, you want to do what's best for the survivor.
"There Is So Little To Be Gained From A False Allegation"
IBT: What's a big misconception about rape?
Foster: I'm so confused by why people would think someone would make false rape allegations. It's a painful, difficult, often humiliating experience. Why would anyone put themselves through this? There's no money to be had at the end of a criminal process. The best that can be expected is that the criminal is punished. You spend years of your life having every decision you made leading up to the rape questioned. Civil cases get settled with athletes sometimes, yes, but in the majority of cases, there is so little to be gained from a false allegation. People don't seem to understand how the process works.
I also think a lot of the victim blaming that goes on in our culture is because of our refusal to accept that men who are nice guys can be potential rapists. It's not an anomaly -- the scary-looking guy jumping out of the bushes. It's people we know, even love, work with. It's regular guys who are doing very bad things. Most women are assaulted by men that they know. Yes, men are raped. But usually, men are raped by other men. And yes, women are rapists too. But the majority of rapes are committed by men.
Rape Culture: What Is It, And Are We Living In One?
IBT: Are we living in a rape culture? And what is rape culture, do you think?
Foster: We are living in a rape culture. The fact that we can name it, though, it means we're potentially changing things. It's not so normalized that we don't see it. It's our belief about how people are supposed to act. We live in a puritanical society. We don't talk about consent, about negotiating consent. Every romantic comedy ever made is about a man going after a woman relentlessly until she gives in to him. This isn't consent! We need to teach boys and men that it's OK to be a man and accept "no" as an answer. Sometimes you need to be sensitive enough to be able to stop before someone has to say "no."
Women are socialized to say "no" in indirect ways. Men are socialized to ignore "noes." This is a recipe for disaster. This trickles down to law enforcement and law. I've heard police ask victims, "Are you sure he doesn't just really love you?" Or: "Just accept that he really likes you. Don't worry about it." Part of the response is denial. Police aren't sure how to handle it. Laws are structured so that nothing is done until something happens.
We know that sexual predators are almost always repeat offenders. The preteen sexual harasser, the inappropriate boundary crossing, grabbing a girl's butt in seventh grade -- that's assault. If we're aware of this in our culture and intervene earlier instead of saying "boys will be boys," it will be easier to deal with later.