By March of 2011, the news was everywhere: An 11-year-old girl had been gang raped by eighteen (now known to be nineteen) teenagers and men, ranging in age from 16 to 27, in the East Texas town of Cleveland. The incident was captured on a cell phone video, and passed along from student to student. As media outlets across the nation fixed their attention on the assault, there were parallel cries of outrage: First, in response to the facts of the heinous assault itself, and second, to the way the crime was being covered.
Notably, a March 8, 2011 New York Times article included little information on the victim save a few opinions and questions from the people living in the neighborhood where she was raped — she allegedly “dressed older than her age” and would “hang out with teenage boys at a playground,” and “Where was her mother?” Online petitions, calling on the newspaper to apologize for propagating blame-the-victim rhetoric, made the rounds. (To its credit, theTimes went back and did a better job the second time around.)
The victim was Hispanic and the perpetrators were black, and coverage of the story quickly shifted from the crime itself to the story of a community divided. The title of the March 8, 2011 Times article reflected this preoccupation: “Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town.”
In a storm of flimsy and oversimplified coverage comes Kathy Dobie's new GQ piece. “The Girl from Trails End” is a piece of nuanced storytelling that focuses not only on the impact the incident has had on the community, but on the victim and her family. (To read more of Dobie's excellent work, check out “Tiny Little Laws,” Dobie's Investigative Fund supportedstory on sexual violence in Indian country which appeared in the January 2011 issue ofHarper’s.)
Dobie explores how “Regina” (pseudonym), was, as many adolescents are, chameleon-like, having recently made the shift from a more “preppy” image to adopting “the slang and style of the hood.” Drawn to the tight-knit community of the primarily black neighborhood called “the Quarters,” Regina was eager to fit in. Dobie also chronicles how, as more details came out about the case — details that didn't hew to a stereotypical (but statistically less common) scenario of the unknown attacker in a single incident of rape — people seemed to question Regina's right to victimhood.
The incident caught on a cell phone was only one instance in which Regina was raped. There were three others, all involving more than one male. And, yes, Regina knew some of them, spent time with some of them, was eager to please some of them. When Regina returned home after being assaulted by those nineteen men, she “tried to act as if nothing had happened.” Dobie writes, “Her exuberance had always been, in part, a ladder to climb up, up, up — far above every bad feeling and ugly situation that was beyond her capacity to handle.” Dobie writes of “…the rumors and accusations, the ill-informed but passionate opinions, the confusion and muddy thinking that obscured what should've been a clear-cut case of statutory rape,” adding on what is (sadly) a much-needed reminder amidst the shoddy media coverage: “An 11-year-old child cannot consent to having sex.”
“The Girl from Trails End” is a stirring investigative piece, one that plumbs both the history of abuse in Regina's family (Regina's mother was sexually assaulted as a child) as well as the complicated allegiances within Regina's community.
Dobie also quotes extensively from Facebook, finding a record of that combination of cruelty and obliviousness that adolescents seem so keenly proficient at subjecting their peers to. A 13-year-old cousin of one of the defendants writes that Regina was “like my best friend n i love her” before going on to say that “she ask for them to do that to her I do not care becuss that's just gross n I will never do that… she like a slut type of girl.”
Dobie writes, “At 13, this girl could no more grasp the susceptibility of an 11-year-old than an anorexic can see herself clearly in a mirror.”