Lefkowitz, B. (1998). Our guys: The Glen Ridge rape and the secret life of the perfect suburb. New York: Vintage Books.
This spell-binding story examines America’s "jock culture and the hidden world of unrestrained adolescent sexuality."
On a March afternoon in 1998, a group of boys, star football players, and wrestlers lured a retarded girl they had known since kindergarten into the basement of one of their homes and raped her. Although rumors of the ugly incident quickly circulated through the high school and town, it was weeks before any report reached the police.
Several questions bothered this investigative reporter (and bothers many of us):
- How could these young leaders in their high school so brutalize a classmate they had known since childhood?
- How could so many of their parents and elders deny the rape and rally to support the perpetrators?
- How could a community (so proud of its status) refuse to examine itself and learn a lesson from such an event?
The great preponderance of sociological literature describes the pathology of the ghetto; this book traces the pathology of the suburbs…in a privileged town that considered itself above neighboring towns.
The passion of Glen Ridge was to win. And winning on the football field or wrestling mat was the symbol of its winning attitude. The town reveled in and rehearsed its victories. In this town young people grew up with the terrible pressure to achieve athletic prowess—or somehow to get into close proximity with someone who had. "To the sports-obsessed crowd of Glen Ridge, you were a jock or you were nothing." (p. 126) The only way to survive high school when you are a nothing is to find a group of nobodies.
This author spent a great deal of time in town around kids and came to recognize their subcultures or groups (as any effective youth worker would).
As a group (the mass of kids pouring out of school at 2 pm) looked like nothing more than standard-issue suburban teenagers (of the mid-1980s): a wave of Spandex and sweatpants, faded Guess jeans and pastel Benneton blouses. But these youngsters didn’t constitute an undifferentiated bloc. The easiest way to distinguish the tribal styles of the kids was to watch how they divided up, the groups they formed naturally, easily on the lawn; who shared cars with whom, who walked together down Ridgewood Ave.
When the students left the school building, they drifted over to the piece of turf that was claimed by their group. The Freaks, known in Glen Ridge as ‘Giggers,’ gathered on the smoking patio. The Greasers, here called ‘Guidos,’ sauntered over to the Glen, a grassy area close to the school, where they could consume their stash of beer without adult interference. The ‘Achievers,’ except for those involved in after-school clubs, lingered briefly on the lawn and then hurried home. They had homework to do. Meanwhile, the ‘Jocks,’ held court in the parking lot. Homework was not their highest priority.
Not many kids drifted from one group to another. They had formed their alliances as early as the elementary and middle grades, and once they found their place on the social map of adolescent Glen Ridge, they stayed there. (pp. 126-127)
The author goes on to explain the social dynamics of each clique. Special attention is given to the Jocks, as they are the subject of this book. It is important to recognize youthful subcultures, how status is achieved within these groups, and how the groups are ranked according to community status and power. Groups that had been excluded and looked down upon by the Glen Ridge Jocks later understood what had happened to the rape victim—and how the town covered it up.
The heroes in this town’s drama were males; females could achieve strictly in supportive roles. So, these talented athletes grew up encouraged by fathers and coaches. As freshmen and sophomores, they looked up to and followed junior and senior athletes. As they came into their own as juniors and seniors, younger boys looked up to them; girls aspired to their favor, and older men cheered them on.
Surrounding these boys were the cheerleaders and a supporting cast of female friends who lived to enter into their glory, to serve them, and to protect them from criticism or punishment. With these girls, the athletes have a brotherly rather than sexual relationship. To go steady or enter into a romantic relationship would have separated them from their buddies. For these rulers of the high school culture, others girls were potential sex toys for short episodes often watched by the gang…bragged and joked about over the weekend and following Mondays.
The Jocks dreamed of achieving all-American status in sports. But in the sexual sphere their performance didn’t measure up to the all-American model of dating and courtship. In fact, as the guys advanced through adolescence, their relationships with girls deviated further from this romantic ideal. Their approach to sexual relations became darker, more twisted.
Much of the sexual behavior by the leaders of the clique revolved around acts that put them at an emotional distance from individual girls. And they wanted to avoid such intimacy because only one relationship meant anything to them: the close ties with their male buddies. (p. 182)
The sexual pattern of this group was pornographic and voyeuristic. From porno videos to watching their buddies with a younger girl, the boys became sexual predators and spectators rather than involved participants. There was no chance for intimacy and vulnerability to grow in their social scene.
This book is about a terrible rape of a mentally retarded girl who wanted desperately to be a friend of the boys. But the investigation of this story found a pattern of abuse which hurt many girls. Girls started life in this town with love and care "expecting to be treated as equal human beings by the boys they knew…But they quickly learned it was better not to trust anybody…" (p. 491)
To resist the demands of the leaders in this youth culture meant being turned into an outcast, subject to ridicule and rumors. No one in the community seemed ready to stand by these middle-school girls, these young freshmen and sophomores. And if they did submit, it only meant unusual humiliation and further demands. "The ultimate effects of the damage these young men inflicted on some young women in Glen Ridge will be difficult to measure until they are adults." (p. 492)
Three men ran the high school in the mid and late 1980s, and they were all closely connected to Glen Ridge sports. Harsh punishments were not the norm, and athletes were particularly protected.
These three men (principal, vice-principal, and athletic director) were the caretakers of all the students in the school, both boys and girls. Nevertheless, those young women seeking assertive role models—seeking a responsive and comprehending school elder to whom they might whisper an intimate confidence about how young women were treated by certain male classmates, would not find that confidant in the old-boy administration of the school…
No question about it: In Glen Ridge High School, jocks ruled. And it had been that way for a long time. In fact, forty-four years before, in 1941, a study by Yale University’s Education Department had found that the school placed ‘too great emphasis on producing winning teams at the expense of important social values.’ (p. 122)
Mary Ryan (not her real name and not the rape victim) was considered a social reject in this jock culture. As one male student stated: " ‘If you’re a girl and they don’t respect you and they don’t like you, forget it.’ " Hoping for popularity on a weekend when her parents were away, Mary invited one and all to her house for a party in February, 1987. It became a disaster; the house and all furniture was completely trashed. Even the family cat was burnt in the microwave. Finally, as Mary stood on an upstairs balcony crying and threatening to jump if they didn’t stop it (with kids urging her to jump), Glen Ridge’s African-American athlete who liked Mary called the cops. Eleven athletes were detained by the police, briefly questioned, their parents notified, and then released without record or even a reprimand. Along with similar incidents at other parties—even at the country club—this seemed proof that they could get away with anything. Mary’s family had to move away and she was put in another school.
The rape of their retarded friend was an ugly affair. It was staged, she was set up, and the situation in the basement felt so ominous that six boys left—but seven remained. The girl was at least partially undressed, forced into oral sex, and then raped with a baseball bat. After they were done with her, the boys huddled up and promised secrecy. What Leslie heard was
‘We’re not going to tell anybody. This is our little secret…Hurry up. Go. Get out of here.’ (p. 25)
It was three weeks and a day before the same African American athlete who had felt the party had gotten out of hand told school administrators of a rumor about sex between a number of athletes and a retarded girl. (His family, too, would later feel forced to move out of town.) Even after this shocking news came out, most of the town blamed the incident on the flirtatious and promiscuous ways of the victim rather than on the boys themselves. Adult attitudes in this town deeply concern of the author:
Where were the grownups of Glen Ridge while (all that has been related) was going on? The most common explanation they gave for their passivity was that they didn’t know. The Jocks, they said, were sustained by an impenetrable, subterranean youth culture whose members were bound by a code of secrecy.
Adults heard the warning (signs) and saw the evidence, but they chose to ignore them. Partly, this was because they didn’t want to taint the town they treasured—the place they considered ‘Valhalla,’ as one school official put it—with scandal. But there was another reason: self-protection. The Jocks didn’t invent the idea of mistreating young women. The ruling clique of teenagers adhered to a code of behavior that mimicked, distorted, and exaggerated the values of the adult world around them.
These values extolled ‘winners’—the rich businessmen, the esteemed professionals, the attractive, fashion-conscious wives, the high-achieving children. They denigrated the ‘losers’—the less affluent breadwinners, the decidedly dowdy wives, the inconspicuous, bashful, ungainly kids. (pp. 492-493)
As of the writing of this book, eight years after the rape, none of the young men had served time and appeals to their convictions were still pending. The sentence for those found guilty was so light, the boys "hugged each other and laughed as if they were celebrating a victory." (p. 487) Their parents beamed and gave a "thumbs up."
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
- Do you consider this a plausible and realistic story? How does it leave you feeling? What troubles you most in this description and analysis?
- How would you have reacted if you had seen the party getting out of hand? What would you have done if you saw nothing done to punish those who trashed the house?
- What would you have said (early on as a teacher, youth leader, or concerned resident) to these athletes who abused girls and ruled this high school scene? How could you have influenced them positively?
- What kind of a friend would you have been to this retarded victim who sought desperately for friendship?
- What would you have done if you were a parent of one of the athletes who sexually abused this retarded girl? What would it have cost you?
- What would you like to say to the perpetrators if you saw them today?
- This is a true story; it happened in a very nice suburb of New York City. And it describes happenings possible in many suburban communities.
- These were real boys who did permanent harm to many girls and were praised for their mediocre athletic prowess. Both they, and the social milieu in which they worked out their identities and relationships, need to be judged and changed. Books such as Gurian’s Wonder of Boys and Pollack’s Real Boys can help us.
- The negative impact of jock culture and macho styles—especially on women—must be considered and responded to.
Dean Borgman cCYS