'A False Report' Highlights How Women Who Report Sexual Assault Are Treated NPR's Ailsa Chang talks with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ken Armstrong.

'A False Report' Highlights How Women Who Report Sexual Assault Are Treated

'A False Report' Highlights How Women Who Report Sexual Assault Are Treated

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NPR's Ailsa Chang talks with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ken Armstrong about the book A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America, which he wrote with T. Christian Miller, about rape and the criminal justice system.


Believe all women. That's been the rallying cry of the #MeToo movement. It's been embraced by some but viewed by others as just too naive. This tension over the credibility of women is nothing new, especially in rape investigations. Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller explore this tension in their new book "A False Report: A True Story Of Rape In America." The story begins with Marie, a young woman in Washington state who told police there she was raped at knifepoint in her apartment in 2008. A week later, police confronted Marie with inconsistencies in her story and they pressured her to recant. She did. The terrible thing was Marie had not lied, and her attacker went on to rape several more women.

Ken Armstrong joins us now to talk about this story. Welcome.

KEN ARMSTRONG: Hi, Ailsa. Thank you for having me on.

CHANG: What first drew you to the story of Marie? And we should clarify that that is her middle name. It is not the name she uses. But what drew you to this story? What questions did you think still needed answers in her case?

ARMSTRONG: I live in Seattle, and Marie was raped in Lynnwood, which is a suburb just north of here. Back in 2011, I was aware that police now knew that they had made an awful mistake in this case, that they now knew that they had accused and even charged Marie with lying when, in fact, she had told the truth. What wasn't known was the personal details of what Marie had gone through. She had never spoken publicly about her experience, about all she had endured. So I was really hoping that she might be in a position now to talk about that. The other thing I wanted to learn was how the police got this so wrong. What I hoped we could do was reconstruct the police investigation and see where the doubts started and how they spread.

CHANG: Before we get to those doubts and how they spread, I want to talk a little bit more about Marie. She was this young woman who had bounced from foster home to foster home who had wanted very badly to live just a normal life. Can you talk a little bit about that?

ARMSTRONG: That's exactly right. What she wanted most of all was normalcy. And when this happened, she was kind of on the path to that. She was living on her own for the first time in her life. She was 18. She had her first job. She had friends. She had a support system. Then this happened and all of those things fell away. She quit her job. Her housing was threatened. Friends abandoned her. All that she had worked so hard to gain, all of that was falling away.

CHANG: And it's important to say that the people who first doubted her credibility were people who were very close to her, her two foster moms. What made them have doubts about whether Marie was raped?

ARMSTRONG: The thing that made them doubt her the most was that she didn't act the way they thought a rape victim should act. They expected her to be hysterical, and she wasn't. They couldn't understand her tone of voice, how she seemed to be emotionally detached.

CHANG: I think one of the mothers said it sounded like she was just saying, I'm eating a sandwich or I'm making a sandwich, right?

ARMSTRONG: That's right, utterly devoid of emotion.

CHANG: But trauma comes out in all sorts of unexpected ways, right? I mean, there isn't some script that everyone agrees upon that you're supposed to follow when you're raped.

ARMSTRONG: We tend to have all of these preconceptions about how someone should act when they've been traumatized. That's a mistake. And that's a mistake that played out in Lynnwood.

CHANG: Can you explain - why did Marie recant? Why would someone take back a story that is actually true?

ARMSTRONG: When the police began doubting Marie, they turned on her. The focus of the investigation became her credibility. And instead of interviewing Marie as a victim, they began interrogating her as a suspect. Marie buckled under that pressure. It was the easiest way out for her. So she recanted. And the way she describes it, when she did recant, it came with this tremendous sense of relief. It was almost as though she had unburdened herself.

CHANG: Like a switch went off.

ARMSTRONG: That's right. That's what - the way she describes it, that a switch went off. It became the easiest way out of a terrible situation for her.

CHANG: And she ended up getting charged with a crime, the crime of false reporting. How often does that happen, law enforcement imposing criminal penalties on a woman for lying about rape?

ARMSTRONG: We don't have definitive numbers on that. What we can say is that Marie's case is not unique. It is not an aberration for police to doubt a rape victim's account and to even go so far as to file charges.

CHANG: Along the way, when you were reporting on Marie, you bumped into a fellow journalist, T. Christian Miller, who became your co-author for this book. And Miller was focused on police in Colorado who were trying to catch the serial rapist who had attacked Marie. It turned out to be him the whole time. How is that police investigation different than the one conducted in Marie's case?

ARMSTRONG: The police in Colorado got it right. They did not begin by doubting. They listened to the victims there. They showed respect. They reserved judgment. And then they investigated thoroughly. Maybe most important, what the police in Colorado did is they shared information. Instead of being turf-conscious, they teamed up with detectives and analysts working across jurisdictional lines. That allowed them to spot patterns - shoe prints, glove prints, the presence of a white Mazda pickup. And that proved critical in solving the case.

CHANG: All that happened in 2011, and now it's 2018. We're in the middle of this #MeToo moment when we want women to come forward even more and to feel believed even more. Are police investigation techniques any different today?

ARMSTRONG: I do think that police recognize the dangers of skepticism more now than they might have before. Joanne Archambault, she's a former sergeant for the San Diego Police Department where she supervised the Sex Crimes Unit. The way she puts it is skepticism can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When police challenge rape victims, accuse them of lying, victims often shut down and sometimes even recant, as in Marie's case. That then reinforces the belief that many rape claims are false, which leads police to challenge the next victim. It can become a cycle.

CHANG: So how's Marie doing now?

ARMSTRONG: She's doing well. One of the things that Marie told us is that after all of this happened, she didn't want to live in fear. She didn't want to let this experience limit her in how she went about the rest of her life. These days she's a long haul truck driver. She drives an 18-wheeler across the country. She and I speak fairly often. And it seems like every time I talk to her she's in a different state. She is strong. And she is resilient.

CHANG: Ken Armstrong - he and fellow journalist T. Christian Miller are out with a new book called "A False Report: A True Story Of Rape In America." Thanks very much.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Ailsa.


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