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On November 28, 1987, Tawana Brawley was found conscious but unresponsive, lying in a garbage bag several feet from an apartment where she had once lived.

Tawana had been missing for four days. 

Her clothing was torn and burned, her body was smeared with feces. When she vanished, Miss Brawley had been wearing a hairpiece woven into her own short hair. When she was found, the hair-weave was gone. Her three-inch hair was matted by perspiration and fecal matter.

A detective from the Sheriff's Juvenile Aid Bureau was summoned to interview Brawley, but she remained unresponsive. The family requested an African-American officer, which the police granted. Brawley, described as having an "extremely spacey" look on her face, communicated with this officer by nods of the head, shoulder shrugs and written notes. Through gestures and writing, she indicated she had been raped repeatedly in a wooded area by three white men, at least one of them a police officer. A sexual assault kit was administered, and police began building a case.

But there were problems with Tawana's story.

On the morning after the alleged abduction, Tawana Brawley was seen entering the empty apartment where she had once lived. Witnesses claimed to have seen her at parties in a nearby town, at the time she was said to be missing. Tawana had no bruises, contusions, scratches or other injuries, except for a small bruise behind the left ear which was determined to be several days old. One witness claimed to have seen her climb into the garbage bag in which she was found.

Tawana's mother, Glenda, was spotted at the apartment complex shortly before Brawley was seen getting into the garbage bag. Her mother waited until that same afternoon to report Brawley missing. The investigation turned up evidence indicating that the damage done to Brawley's clothing had occurred in the apartment. According to the grand jury report, all of "the items and instrumentalities necessary to create the condition in which Brawley appeared on Saturday, November 28, were present inside of or in the immediate vicinity of the apartment where she was found."

The feces had come from a neighbor's dog.

Because of the popularity of movies such as “Silence of the Lambs”, and television shows like “Law and Order” and “CSI”, when we hear the term “profiling”, usually we think of criminal profiling. But there are characteristics common to crime victims, too.  One aspect of victimology, the study of crime victims and the psychological effects of their experience, is understanding the behavior of those who have truly suffered some abuse, and that of “pseudo-victims”—those who pretend to have been abused in order to get attention, or sympathy, or revenge.

The pseudo-victim's story tends to be bizarre or sensational. A female student at Hofstra University, for instance, claimed that after being “lured” by one man to an elevator in a building on the Hofstra campus, another man appeared. She said the second man had a cord with him, which was eventually used to bind her.  She also told sex crimes detectives she was able to call out, and that three other men appeared.

I was immediately suspicious of this story.

Pseudo-victims typically claim that overwhelming force was used, or that they resisted greatly, or that there were multiple assailants.  Notice also the use of the word “lured”; it creates the impression of being somehow enticed, and therefore relatively blameless.  This stands in contrast to true rape victims, who often blame themselves as a way of taking back the control they feel they’ve lost.

In recounting the event, the pseudo-victim is either overly detailed or vague. The Hofstra University student said she was separated from the crowded fraternity fund-raiser party she was attending by one young man, and that the other men had apparently either planned to meet up after she was lured away, or simply stumbled upon the rape in progress and decided to participate. Here we see examples of both vagueness and detail, but perhaps more importantly, the information this supposed victim is supplying is somewhat remote; rape victims generally report more immediate and sensory details, such as how their attacker “smelled”.  But generally speaking, they do not go the extra step of providing reasons for their attacker's presence.

Pseudo-victims are most likely to accuse strangers and often report that during the attack their eyes were closed, or that they were unconscious or passed out, and therefore have no memory of what happened. Or that they were drugged, and thus, cannot provide details.  

In the case of the Hofstra student, authorities were quick to jump; they arrested the alleged assailants and were preparing to send them away on sentences that could have ranged up to life in prison.  The prosecutor's case unraveled when it was discovered that one of the alleged rapists videotaped the entire act. One officer later described it as looking more like a porn movie and stated that the "victim" appeared to be enjoying herself. 

When confronted with the video, the young woman recanted her story and stated she did have consensual sex with all five men but claimed it was rape because she did not want her boyfriend to know it was consensual or her family to think ill of her.  Charges were dropped against all the men. The prosecutor did not pursue charges against their accuser, calling her "a troubled young woman who needs help."

I worked in counseling some time ago; I remember sitting in my office one particularly warm afternoon, listening to a terrible tale of abuse unfold. The young lady before me certainly seemed to have the marks to back up her story.

Unfortunately, the longer we sat there in my poorly ventilated cubbyhole, the "bruises" she had so carefully and artfully applied with pancake make-up and an eyebrow pencil, began to run...admittedly, such things did not occur with regularity.  But from personal experience and somewhat to my shame, I can tell you this: that single incident of false reporting of abuse, left me forever with a jaundiced eye.

Like most people, I don’t like being lied to, but I find this type of deceit particularly distressing.  When women like Tawana Brawley or the Hofstra student make these claims, it becomes that much harder for women who have actually been the victims of assault to be taken at their word. 

And it forever damages the men they name as their attacker.

In writing this, I hope I have given the reader some points to keep in mind the next time there is a similar story in the news.

Because rest assured, there will be a next time.




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