Review: ‘Roll Red Roll,’ by Nancy Schwartzman

ROLL RED ROLL: Rape, Power, and Football in the American Heartland, by Nancy Schwartzman

It’s the grim ordinariness of the Steubenville rape case — an August 2012 incident involving an unconscious teenage girl, members of a revered high school football team and the small town that protected the perpetrators — that shines through most brightly in Nancy Schwartzman’s “Roll Red Roll. ” A meticulous account of the “first rape case ever to go viral in the United States,” the book moves from the facts of one summer night in Rust Belt Ohio into a broader reckoning with American masculinity and the emerging influence of the internet on sexual assault cases. Schwartzman clearly conveys the brutal banality of what happened in that town, the way rape culture, victim blaming and institutional complicity are the rule rather than the exception in American communities. Steubenville could be anywhere.

Something of a companion piece to Schwartzman’s 2018 documentary of the same name, the book expands on the film’s insights by combining vast amounts of contemporaneous evidence with historical analysis, personal reflections and skillful interviews. The book makes an effort to stress that the Steubenville case was made up of individuals, and though we learn virtually nothing about the victim — anonymized as “Jane Doe” — the attackers, townspeople, police officers, parents and school officials transcend archetypes to become textured, tangible individuals, all of them navigating cultural myths, conflicted loyalties and the potent pull of denial. But Schwartzman’s compassionate attention to these figures renders her depiction of their moral failures all the more damning: These are human beings, otherwise capable of responsibility and empathy, who did not manage to show these traits to Jane Doe.

Perhaps the most compelling of Schwartzman’s characters, and the hardest to pin down, is the internet itself. In 2012, social media was a much less familiar ecosystem than it is today. It was just barely expanding from Facebook into platforms like Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, and while the Steubenville teenagers fluently incorporated their phones into their social lives, they didn’t seem to understand the internet as a source of surveillance. As a result, they left quite the paper trail: The attackers filmed much of their assault on their phones, creating a copious evidentiary record of texts, tweets and pictures as they bragged about it to their friends. Their boasting added a dark element of digital shaming to the case, one that shocked and disturbed a country then still unaccustomed to the cruelties of 21st-century “revenge porn.” Most famous was the image of Jane Doe clearly unconscious, her head her falling back, being carried around a house party by the boys like a limp rag doll as they stepped on her hair. There were videos, too. In one, the boys mocked Jane Doe: “She’s so raped right now.”

But the internet also became an unlikely site for solidarity with Jane Doe, and for organized calls for accountability. Alex Goddard, a true-crime blogger in Northern California who had once lived in Steubenville, began compiling the attackers’ social media posts into a dossier of a case she feared would be swept under the rug by local authorities. After the family of Jane Doe’s ex-boyfriend (a boy who’d “snapped a photo of her passed out, head thrown back, and posted the photograph to Instagram” with the caption, “Never seen anything this sloppy lol”) sued Goddard for defamation, the hacker group Anonymous got involved, taking over the Steubenville football team’s website and rallying locals. An Anonymous protest outside the Steubenville courthouse became the stage for women to share their own stories. One by one, women ascended the courthouse steps, removed their novelty Guy Fawkes masks and disclosed how they, like Jane Doe, had been abused, blamed and, until that moment, silenced.

How does Jane Doe feel about being this kind of symbol? We don’t know, and that’s as it should be. “Roll Red Roll” is meticulous about protecting her identity her, telling readers only that the girl grew up, got married and tried to move on. Shielded by anonymity, she gets to live a fuller life, becoming more than the worst thing that ever happened to her.

But as Jane Doe, she becomes a stand-in for all the victims of sexual abuse who never got justice. This is the price, perhaps, of the cultural forces that conspire to keep sexual abuse victims in the shadows: Those who do come forward have to carry the weight of all those who can’t.

Moira Donegan is a gender and politics columnist for The Guardian US

ROLL RED ROLL: Rape, Power, and Football in the American Heartland, by Nancy Schwartzman with Nora Zelevansky | 283 pp. | Hachette | $29

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