In 2016 I listened to an episode of This American Life on NPR that stunned me. I had known for years that police often failed to take allegations of sexual assault seriously, but it had never really hit home that persons could also be charged for making a false report if the investigating officer felt that the story did not add up and the person must be lying.
The story that was told on This American Life was taken from an article authored by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong in ProPublica. Miller and Armstrong had been working on the story separately and came together after finding that each had separate parts of the narrative.
The story begins in Lynnwood, Washington with a young woman being raped by an intruder shortly after she had moved into her new apartment. She had spent years in the foster care system and was now on her own. She had decisive plans for her future. The rape was brutal and she would have certainly have experienced some long term trauma from the experience but the accusations by the police, friends, and foster families that she had made up the story to get attention laid the groundwork for years of depression.
Along with Marie’s story we also learn the details of the investigations into a string of rapes occurring in Colorado. Fortunately, the police departments in Colorado used cooperation and the most-up-to-date forms of forensic investigation to eventually find the man who had broken into a number of homes and raped women. The writers of A False Report were able to obtain interview materials to tell the story of Marc O’Leary and how he came to live a life that even he described as “depraved.”
In weaving the three narratives together we learn how police departments can either believe victims no matter how they present and move forward an active investigation or disregard an allegation based on the internal biases and stigmas officers may have regarding how victims should behave. These responses can lead to either validation and closure or ongoing pain and trauma for victims of sexual assault.
Even though we know that most rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, we can learn a lot from the rapist’s story. He was not a trauma survivor. He admitted to having a safe upbringing without any abuse. He had a stellar military record. However, he was also a methodical predator who honed his skills and threatened his victims with the possibility that he would post video and photos of them on his pornographic websites.
As disturbing as all this was to read, and I knew the bones of the story, I was appalled at the history behind the ingrained cultural belief that allegations of sexual assault (particularly those made by women) are more often than not false. In fact, the Lord Chief Justice of England in 1671, Sir Matthew Hale, laid the groundwork by denouncing women for their maliciousness and tendency to tell false stories. Thomas Jefferson even wrote in a letter to James Madison of his opposition to harsh punishment for rape, “on account of the temptation women would be under to make it the instrument of vengeance against an inconstant lover, and of disappointment to a rival”. This insistence that women are prone to “contrive false charges” about “imaginary” sexual assaults continued in to the 20th century by Harvard Law Review founder John Henry Wigmore. As seen by the 2018 Kavanaugh hearings, we know that there continues to be a deeply held cultural belief that men are to be protected against the false allegations of unhinged women rather than believing in the possibility that a woman could be telling the truth.In their book, Armstrong and Miller walk us through the damage that the ongoing belief in false reporting has on the criminal justice system and on the many victims of assault who are left alone and ostracized by friends and family. Victims who are not believed are not only further traumatized but in their failure to investigate and eventually prosecute the rapist, the criminal justice system is leaving rapists with the opportunity to rape again… and again.
This book should be required reading for all police departments and prosecutors.