After some lighter reading (see A Charmed Life), the books I’ve picked up recently have taken me to some pretty challenging places. It’s not enough that I read A False Report; a few days ago I also started on Anna Bikont’s The Crime and the Silence, which is horrifying and I’ll need to read it in short bursts with other things in between.
A False Report is a really fantastic example of extended journalism. There’s a gripping central story, a history lesson, plenty of light shining into deeply murky corners and enough uncomfortable facts to light a fire directly under your chair. God this book made me mad. Which of course it’s designed to do, and rightly so. I don’t think it told me anything I didn’t know in a general sense because I know that there are many marathons to run before rape victims are universally treated with dignity and sensitivity, and I know that rape is one of the most complex of crimes to investigate, and I also know that in no other sphere are victims of trauma critiqued as to whether they respond appropriately or not, and not treated like, I don’t know, victims. of. trauma.
However, even if you know all those things too, you should definitely definitely still read this book. I always find, no matter how well-versed I think I am in a particular subject, or how well-established my views are, that I will learn something I didn’t know before or be given a different perspective from which to approach a familiar topic.
A False Report focuses on the case of a serial rapist who attacked women across at least two states in America. One of his victims, Marie, reported that she had been raped in her home in Lynnwood, a suburb of Seattle. Following a few tip-offs, police became suspicious of Marie’s story and eventually, unbelievably – given that this was based purely on the word of a few people she knew and not actual evidence that she was lying – charged her with making a false report. Her reputation was ruined, her friends deserted her and life as she knew it was over.
Over two years later, in Denver, detectives Stacy Galbraith and Edna Hendershot joined forces when two cases of sexual assault occurring within months of each other proved to have disturbing similarities. Their investigation linked officers, crime analysts and investigative tools across the state of Colorado, and took them on a trail that led all the way back to Lynnwood.
The book began as an extended article for Pro Publica, an American non-profit investigative journalism organisation. It largely still reads like an article but I liked that approach. With a clean writing style and plenty of short, snappy, to-the-point sentences, it feels a bit like the way that police officers brief on a crime scene. As if the facts are powerful enough to speak for themselves. Structurally, it jumps around in time so that I did have to look back a few times to get myself oriented. But the text is carefully constructed for the reveal and, unlike some other reviews, I didn’t mind the occasional segue into the wider context of why so many rape victims have to work harder to be believed. As well as following the progress of the case, the authors also build up a comprehensive picture of the failings in Lynnwood, the successes in Denver and lessons we can learn from both.
Armstrong and Miller delve into the backgrounds of all of the key players: investigators, victims and – to prepare you – the rapist. This has the effect of humanising (but not absolving) everyone. The victims aren’t defined solely by the crime perpetrated against them, the officers become more than just representatives of the ‘law’, and we are forced to understand the rapist as an abhorrent but human being, so that we can’t make the mistake of writing him off as an anomaly or a monster. Again, I’ve seen criticism of the fact that the authors don’t delve deeper into the psychology of the rapist – to them, I’d say that this book ultimately isn’t about him. He gets just enough attention for me. The focus is and should be on the women affected by his actions, and what their experiences tell us about the many problems we still have to address in our society and justice system.
For a tough read, there are things to be uplifted by. The story of Martha Goddard, the creation of the rape kit and a most unlikely financial backer probably deserves a book in itself. And contrary to the many Netflix* docs out there highlighting police corruption and incompetence, Galbraith and Hendershot are the kind of police detectives that make you feel genuine hope. Plus, their joined-up investigation was an excellent example of policing done well. Even the Lynnwood miscarriage of justice is handled with a degree of grace by most of the officers involved, although it’s impossible to undo the harm done. [*Apparently this book has been optioned for Netflix…]
I also really liked the way the authors explored in detail how the law has been coloured by the ‘fear of the false accuser’. At one point, this takes us back as far as 1671, when Sir Matthew Hale, Lord Chief Justice (in England), author of the phrase about rape being ‘an accusation easy to make and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused…’, enshrined an idea about the possibility of women using accusations of rape for revenge/attention that persists today. This, despite the fact that crime statistics on unreported rape indicate that it is far from an easy accusation to make.
Ultimately, this isn’t one of those topics where there are easy answers. But the central message of the book – the idea that more police officers should be listening to victims of sexual assault, rather than passing judgement on their lives, actions and reactions – is extremely important.