I was struck recently by an editorial in the Daily Princetonian on April 6 in which Ashley Wolf wrote what appeared to be a gang rape apologetic regarding the Duke lacrosse scandal. Forgive her, sort of: Princeton is a complicated place from which to read and watch as this scandal unfolds. We walk among the same “gothic buildings” that the New York Times used in metonymy-slur against Duke students, and most all of the Duke lacrosse team went to high schools that send a number of students to Princeton every year – feeder schools like Delbarton and Landon. Put simply, the students at the center of this level 5 shitstorm are our high school friends and teammates.
This scandal is situated emphatically at the intersection of all things contentious and American. It takes place at a predominantly white university in a former slave state – a
university founded on a tobacco fortune, in fact. This University has long been regarded romantically – well-nigh glamorously – as a bastion of privilege. In the last twenty-five years though, the University has been working to shed its provincial, vaguely aristocratic image, and indeed its successful rise from a regional school to an elite research university is widely acclaimed and almost universally recognized. Duke has a lot at stake in terms of image-management.
Durham, North Carolina has not grown up around Duke the way one might expect a university town to grow. It’s still a largely working-class community, relatively poor, and equally split between white people and black people. It’s a community where the inheritance of slavery is still immediate – a place where you can imagine a white man saying, “Thank your grandpa for my cotton shirt!” to a black woman, as a lacrosse player reportedly did – and from the porch, for Christ’s sake.
All of this placing makes for a singularly American story –American like OJ Simpson, or maybe like Michael Jackson’s postmodern tragic mulatto saga. It’s somewhat beyond the “only in America” designation that always seems to be attached to Don King and theme parks and stuff – this is an encounter not only shaped but enabled by its location. You cannot discount the primacy of place, not even for a second. The generalized public of this absurd America tends to confound issues of class and race, and of sex and violence – and in Durham we have all four in play: rich and poor, white and black, man and woman, extensive bruising. It’s all knotted together,<>
Given this remarkable combination of grave implication and sensationalist detail, an hour’s incident has become a cultural watershed before our very eyes. You can see the media-motor start to whirr, but this isn’t Natalee Holloway. It’s not just Nancy Grace or Geraldo; this time, the response is coming from across the spectrum of respectability. The story made the front-page of yahoo.com – it’s been taken up in the blogosphere, in New York Times op-eds; the University has issued statements and has installed several inquiry committees that will publish more – it is being analyzed, debriefed, bemoaned…in short, it is being recorded.
While I won’t deny the staying power of artificial fingernails (broken off) or championship seasons (cancelled), it seems to me that the Duke story has held our national attention for reasons apart from sordid details and shock value. In “Sentimental Journeys,” an essay published in the New York Review of Books and then in a collection called After Henry in 1992, Joan Didion writes that “crimes are universally understood to be news to the extent that they offer, however erroneously, a story, a lesson, a high concept.” This tendency is played out hard and fast here – especially because the purported facts of the case lend themselves so easily to American typing. It almost isn’t to be believed… rich, white, good-looking prep-school meatheads; a black single mother working her way through a historically-black college.
If you feel like you’ve seen this movie, you probably have. It was called The Skulls; it was also sort of called School Ties, and Scent of a Woman. In fact, the book has already been written. Tom Wolfe addressed this sort of despicable WASP character in Bonfire of the Vanities, the athlete of sexual appetite in A Man in Full, and he went ahead and pretty much wrote the whole megillah in I Am Charlotte Simmons – a fact that has not escaped the notice of the New York Times and Associated Press, among others, where Wolfe’s description of the fictional Dupont University lacrosse team has been all but projected onto Duke’s players.
The entire typology can be described as the preppy-on-a-rampage, and I think it has something to do with the Kennedys. America’s collective obsession with that first family of American glamour trickled down into a ravenous appetite for all things preppy, white, East Coasty and privileged; when John Jr. went to Brown, so did America’s tabloid interest – its hunger for sensational and racy and filthy stories landed squarely before the ivory tower – at Van Wickle Gate, probably.
Joan Didion observed the preppy-on-a-rampage typology in action in the 1986 Central Park murder of Jennifer Levin by Robert Chambers – included in the “Sentimental Journeys” essay. She wrote that the story imposed on the case, “largely extrapolated out of thin air but left largely uncorrected,” was that of preppies-running-amuck, of over-indulgence on the Upper East Side. Despite the rather profound untruth of the characterization, the case came to be called the Preppy Murder, and the name – and concept – stuck around.
Having been informed by prejudiced generations of black-on-white, poor-on-rich crime stories, we no longer seek to impose that narrative on our news. In Didion’s conception, those stories are no longer news because they no longer offer “a high concept.” By now we’ve heard that lesson so many times that we’ve passed the point of saturation; it is no longer compelling. We (some mythical, normative, news-receiving majority, I mean) know all about our societal vestiges of racism; we’ve addressed our inherent sense of the taboo of relations between white women and black men. Attention is paid to the converse situation – rampaging members of the privileged classes, perpetrating bloody injustice on a member of an underserved group. We’re no longer collectively, psychically compelled to impose the old narrative on our news stories. Instead, in our state of informed, liberal, post-Katrina injustice-seeking, we’re reading for the other story. We’re reading for the story that shows our sensitivity and also reveals the depravity of the privileged classes, and maybe also diagnoses a generalized ‘what’s wrong with America’.
In the case of the 1989 Central Park jogger rape, Didion identified that “one reason the victim…could be so readily abstracted, and her situation so readily made to stand for that of the city itself, was that she remained, as a victim of rape, unnamed in most press reports.” The same is true now in Durham: the alleged victim remains nameless (it is not the policy of the Associated Press to name alleged victims of sexual assault), and details of her identity have been tailored to fit a sympathetic template. Here, though, the boys are largely unnamed, too. The roster has been taken down from the Duke athletics website – and while some in the blogosphere have taken it upon themselves to post the roster – the general feeling is that the team deserves some protection of anonymity. Here again is a postmodern development, informed by a guilty sense of the necessary culpability of the man with the upper-hand in a given power dynamic – we almost recognize the fallibility of our justice-enacting impatience.
At this writing the players’ DNA tests have been completed, but the results have not been released. Suspended as we are in this moment of pure speculation – and thus of extrapolation, the wheels are turning and the narrative is being written and we’re here in the chasm and perhaps we can stop and look around. I am writing here from what Joan Didion calls the “chasm,” from the distance between “actual life and its preferred narratives.”