In 2016, before Tarana Burke’s Me Too movement gained national attention, popular podcast, This American Life aired “Anatomy of Doubt.” In part of that podcast, they compared the experiences of two survivors of sexual assault. The first woman, Marie, was not believed by the people closest to her, law enforcement, and those in her community. The second woman, assaulted by the same offender in a different place, had a drastically different experience.
Three SARC volunteers, Jasmine, Anders, and Jessie, were interested in listening to the podcast, and answering some questions around its enduring significance. You can listen to the podcast here or read it here, and answer these same questions for yourself.
This podcast is from 2016 — how is it still relevant, or more relevant, today with the Me Too movement?
Jessie: As long as survivors have the courage to speak the truth about sexual violence, podcasts and articles like this will remains relevant and important.
Anders: I would say it is more relevant today, even.
Jasmine: Even though Marie’s experience is pretty different from the high profile cases we are hearing about in the media today (it was a stranger assault, it was reported right away, etc.), the way Marie was treated is how so many survivors associated with the #MeToo movement are also being treated.
The people closest to Marie don’t believe that she was assaulted, largely because they think that her trauma response is not “normal” behavior. They shun her and share their doubts with investigators. Now believing that Marie has lied to them, these investigators are “bullying” and “coercive” towards her, as described by another investigator who specializes in sex crimes. They go so far as to charge her for false reporting. And they stop investigating the assault.
By showing how Marie is mistreated after she publicly talks about the assault, this podcast addresses why many survivors of harassment and assault are hesitant to share their stories.
How did you hear biases or assumptions come up in the podcast? What impact did they have?
Anders: Marie’s friends thought it was weird that she would tell so many people about the assault. They thought it meant that she just wanted attention. Peggy thought Marie was covering up a sexual encounter turned bad.When an officer called Marie to come in, she asked if she was in trouble. He said in his experience, only guilty people/people hiding things ask that question. Just to name a few.
Jasmine: Sergeant Jeffrey Mason and Detective Jerry Rittgarn, the investigators for Marie’s case, incorrectly attribute significance to certain things that Marie says and does. For example, when Marie asks Mason if she is in trouble after he requests to speak with her at the police station, Mason begins to doubt Marie. He later says, “…in the 25 years in law enforcement, my experience has been people that ask that are usually in trouble.” By being overly reliant on his past experience, Mason does not consider Marie’s question in the context of her youth, trauma, and concern about being distrusted.
Jessie: The way we impress our personal biases onto others goes hand in hand with victim blaming. How would this investigation have gone if Peggy had not gone to the police to say she thought Marie was lying? Biases can alienate survivors, and create doubt. In Marie’s story, doubt snowballed so out of control that it ended up poisoning the police’s perspective on the case. So much that they not only closed the case and ceased investigating a serial rapist, but also charged the victim with false reporting.
Why is it important for survivors to have support systems believe in them, or at least, suspend their disbelief?
Jessie: In order to come forward as a survivor, a lot of strength has to be harnessed. Strength like this can be nourished by loving and supportive people in our lives. Affirmative responses are a basic need. As humans, we want to feel validated. Feeling blamed and ashamed of an incredibly traumatic event can make someone only feel worse.
Anders: Anytime someone is going through a traumatic experience it is only beneficial to have friends and family support you. Marie could have had a completely different experience if she had a support system that believed in her. In the case of Law Enforcement, we read about two officers going from treating Marie as a victim, to treating her as a criminal.
Jasmine: If survivors don’t have supportive friends and relatives, it can be difficult for them to cope with what has happened to them. This podcast also shows how disbelieving friends and relatives can amplify doubt in detectives’ minds and, thereby, compromise the investigation.
We all have the ability to foster safe and supportive environments for survivors to come forward. If you’ve experienced sexual assault and need support, you can always contact SARC’s 24-hour Support Line at 503-640-5311.
Image by Jennifer Heuer