book review: a false report

A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong
Crown Publishing, 304 pp.
Published February 6, 2018

A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America

DISCLAIMER: I received a free digital ARC of this book from Crown Publishing via First to Read in exchange for my honest review.

Summary (via Goodreads): Two Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists tell the riveting true story of Marie, a teenager who was charged with lying about having been raped, and the detectives who followed a winding path to arrive at the truth.

On August 11, 2008, eighteen-year-old Marie truthfully reported that a masked man broke into her apartment near Seattle, Washington, and raped her, but within days police and even those closest to Marie became suspicious of her story. The police swiftly pivoted and began investigating her. Confronted with inconsistencies in her story and the doubts of others, Marie broke down and said her story was a lie. Police charged her with false reporting. One of her best friends created a web page branding her a liar.

More than two years later, Colorado detective Stacy Galbraith was assigned to investigate a case of sexual assault. Describing the crime to her husband that night--the attacker's calm and practiced demeanor, which led the victim to surmise "he's done this before"--Galbraith learned that the case bore an eerie resemblance to a rape that had taken place months earlier in a nearby town. She joined forces with the detective on that case, Edna Hendershot, and the two soon realized they were dealing with a serial rapist: a man who photographed his victims, threatening to release the images online, and whose calculated steps to erase all physical evidence suggested he might be a soldier or a cop. Through meticulous police work the detectives would eventually connect the rapist to other attacks in Colorado--and beyond.

Based on investigative files and extensive interviews with the principals, A False Report is a serpentine tale of doubt, lies, and a hunt for justice, unveiling the disturbing reality of how sexual assault is investigated today--and the long history of skepticism toward rape victims.

My thoughts: At times a very difficult book to read because of its subject material, A False Report nonetheless represents both outstanding journalism on the part of the authors and exemplary investigating by law enforcement officials in Colorado and across the country. Miller and Armstrong started their reporting on separate sides of the story: one looking at an investigation gone wrong in Washington, while the other focused on a successful example of cooperation between police departments in the Denver, CO area. Combining both narratives into this one book (which grew out of a Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica article) emphasizes the story's most important aspects, drawing a series of chilling anti-parallels in how different agencies pursued someone who turned out to be a serial rapist.

Miller and Armstrong treat the material with a perfect balance of tact and detail. They explain their methods further in an afterword, outlining how much thought went into how they would handle such a sensitive topic. Any reader concerned at seeing two men as the authors of a book on sexual assault should rest assured that they have done a diligent and respectful job.

A False Report is a quick read. Sometimes, in the chapters concerning Marie's case, hurt and indignation drive you forward in search of a happy ending. In the chapters focused on the growing collaboration in Colorado, a sense of urgency permeates every phone call, every e-mail, and the discovery of every lead. The authors manage to capture a tense mood without condescending into a tawdry, tabloid recollection. It might not be quite accurate to call this an enjoyable read, given the subject matter, but it certainly is compelling.

Some of the most interesting passages in A False Report are those that give background into the history of investigating and prosecuting sexual assault cases. They trace skepticism in the legal system towards rape victims as far back as a revered 17th century English judge, whose views were upheld well into the 20th century, as well as to Thomas Jefferson. Learning how deeply this suspicion is embedded in our culture offers little comfort compared to the frustration over its persistence. On a somewhat lighter note is the anecdote about how the modern "rape kit" came to exist. Developed by a victim's advocate and Chicago crime lab technician, the first batch of kits was produced thanks to a $10,000 donation from the philanthropic arm of Playboy.

These small diversions into the history of the American justice system provide important context to this particular case. The skepticism that informed decades of law enforcement and interrogation training is in no way an excuse for the behavior of some detectives; knowing where this skepticism began and how it was fed over time, however, can help us better understand how to combat it.

A False Report works exceptionally well on two different levels. On the surface, it provides a captivating portrait of wildly different investigations linked by one perpetrator. Anyone who enjoys the true crime genre will be pleased at the meticulous break-down of both the Washington and Colorado cases. At a deeper level, though, A False Report examines how rape culture has permeated the very institutions that victims should be able to rely upon without question: the police and the justice system. We cannot solve problems if we refuse to be aware of them, or to discuss them; while it is a harrowing read at times, A False Report is also an essential look at just how right (or wrong) sexual assault investigations can go.

RATING: ★★★★

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