The UVA Rape Case: Could PTSD Be A Factor?

The UVA Rape Case: Could PTSD Be A Factor?

Messages left by students about the rape on the University of Virginia campus. (Photo: Steve Helber/AP Photo)

On November 19, Rolling Stone published its story “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, an investigative journalist and two-time winner of the National Magazine Award for investigative reporting.

The article was disturbing, detailing the brutal gang rape of  “Jackie” — reportedly her real nickname — at a fraternity house during the beginning months of her freshman year at the college, as part of an initiation ritual for the frat’s pledges. Most chilling, perhaps, was the victim recalling hearing herself referred to as an “it” when one young man said, “Grab it’s [expletive] leg!” while she struggled in vain.

This week, however, multiple news sources began calling Jackie’s story — and the Rolling Stone piece — into question.

Many highlighted the reporter’s decision to not interview the accused men, and also pointed to recent revelations that the primary assailant was not a member of Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity named in the story. The Washington Post also found evidence that there was no social event at the fraternity on the night Jackie claims a party was going on during her rape. 

On Friday afternoon, Rolling Stone issued a statement saying, “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account.”

What happened to Jackie? 

In their investigation of Jackie’s story, The Washington Post comments that, “A group of Jackie’s close friends, who are sex assault awareness advocates at U-Va., said they believe something traumatic happened to Jackie but also have come to doubt her account. They said details have changed over time, and they have not been able to verify key points of the story in recent days.” 

The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house on the UVA campus. (Photo: Steve Helber/AP Photo) 

When questioned on a Slate podcast about her choice to not speak with the accused, Erdely said, “There’s no doubt that — people seem to know who these people are….[I]nside a frat house…[p]eople are living lives closely with one another and it seems impossible to imagine that people didn’t know about this.”

The Washington Post goes on to report that after initially being interviewed for the Rolling Stone piece, Jackie says she asked to be taken out of the article, but that Erdely refused and told Jackie that the article would go forward regardless. Jackie said she relented and agreed to participate.

Among the many details of this story, one important one seems to have been glossed over: The fact that Jackie says she has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and is taking anti-depressants.

How PTSD induced by sexual violence can affect memory 

PTSD can dramatically effect the way in which a person speaks of their own trauma; the repercussions of the trauma itself can inhibit a survivor’s ability to narrate their own story in full as a means of psychological defense.

According to the Mayo Clinic, one of the primary symptoms of PTSD is the presence of “intrusive memories,” which cause the survivor to relive their trauma as if it were happening all over again and causing them to seek out linguistic “safety nets” to prevent them from having to relive their abuse.

The National Institute of Health clarifies that PTSD in rape survivors can render individuals “unable to remember major parts of the trauma.”

“A natural response to a traumatic event is to disengage in ways that can make it hard to remember what you saw, heard, and felt,” says Art Markman, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Texas.

The events themselves are usually chaotic and unpredictable. “Memory is best for events that follow a familiar pattern, so the chaos itself makes it difficult to establish a timeline and to remember specific details,” Markman tells Yahoo Health.  

Additionally, the ability to recall a piece of information depends on finding specific cues to help you recall the information. “When the cues that might call information to mind are painful, then people may avoid focusing on them, which may make it hard for them to recall other details from the event as well,” Markman adds. 

This psychological impact makes it all the more important to not allow discrepancies in victims’s stories to automatically falsify or discredit their allegations. 

“A victim’s memory for an event is likely to be fragmentary,” Markman tells Yahoo Health. “It may be vivid in spots and then be missing key details. It may be hard to remember the order of events as well.” A study published in 2011 by Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience reinforces that PTSD has lasting effects on a victim’s declarative memory, their ability to recall facts and knowledge from their own experiences. 

Adds Markman, “One difficulty of this facet of memory is that we typically judge people as remembering accurately when they have clear and confident memories of a situation and are certain of the order in which events occurred. Deviations from this ideal case lead people to think that the victim might have faulty memory. However, we also know from several decades worth of research that people’s confidence in their memory is not a good predictor of the accuracy of that memory.”

What does it take for a story of rape to “count”?

“What people aren’t taking into account here are the effects of trauma,” says Alyssa Peterson, a Know Your IX policy organizer. ”Just because Jackie’s story is inconsistent in places doesn’t mean that it wasn’t true. It just reflects the nature of the trauma she experienced. There are no perfect victims, and we shouldn’t dismiss Jackie for failing to meet our impossible standards. We should believe her.”

Jennifer Marsh, the Vice President of Victims Services at the Rape, Abuse Incest National Network, which runs the National Sexual Assault Hotline, adds that when discussing rape survivors, it is important to remember that not all survivors experience PTSD, although they may have varying short and long-term symptoms of trauma.

“A trauma survivor may have a number of short and long-term challenges following an assault, one of which is the ability to recall details of the assault or the appropriate chronology of events leading up to, and following, the assault,” Marsh tells Yahoo Health. “Survivors may try to fill in the gaps with what they think may have happened, oftentimes out of fear that if they can’t describe the assault in detail they will not be believed.” 

This failure of journalistic oversight is an unfortunate setback for the work being done by all those who advocate for the survivors of assault, especially on college campuses. Sadly, Rolling Stone’s retraction may fuel those who insist that women who claim to have been raped are lying; it reinforces that a woman’s word alone is not enough.

The National Sexual Assault Hotline can be reached at (800.656.HOPE) and online.rainn.org

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