Erika Krouse is the author of “Come Up and See Me Sometime,” a New York Times Notable Book, and “Contenders,” a finalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. She teaches creative writing at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop and lives in Colorado. Her debut memoir, “Tell Me Everything,” has been optioned for TV adaptation by Playground Entertainment.
“Tell Me Everything: The Story of a Private Investigation,” is the tale of Krouse’s work from 2002 to 2007 as a private investigator on a rape case against a Colorado university football team that evolved into a landmark Title IX civil rights case. It’s also a blistering account of the toll of childhood sexual assault on her own life. Krouse recently spoke about her book with Sun correspondent Kathryn Eastburn.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you decide to write the parallel narrative of your abuse as a child against the story of the lawsuit? One of the blurbs on the back of the book calls it “an ingenious approach to an impossible story.”
Krouse: I didn’t want to. That was not the aim when I first started out. But I was just one person working on the lawsuit, and narratively I kept coming back to the question: Why should I write the book when I don’t even have my own skin in the game? It felt cowardly to avoid my own story when I was writing about these women who risked their lives. There were serious threats, death threats against them when they came forward. It was a hard decision. I’m a very private person with friends I’ve known for decades who didn’t know about this stuff.
But [writing my personal story] was strangely not difficult. There was all this pressure behind it that I hadn’t noticed. I don’t want to use the cliché of the dam breaking, but this was a story I knew by heart, something I’d been thinking about since I was 4 years old. It was strangely easy to write about, and I know that’s not true for lots of people.
It’s hard to read about sexual assault in general and I really, really wanted to make the book safe for anyone who’d experienced sexual violence. I didn’t want to diminish what anyone went through, so I focused on balance, shifting tones so that somebody like me — I sometimes pick up books that are too triggering for me — could read this book.
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The book digs deep into rape culture and college football, especially using sex as a recruiting tool, a sort of entitlement, something that’s pretty widely documented but still hard to believe because it’s so grotesque. Did this investigation and the subsequent civil rights lawsuit change anything?
Krouse: It really is a horrible story, especially when you consider the age of the players. They have and are experiencing brain damage. When you think about these people being formed in this way for the sake of a game, it’s enraging, especially for me when I think of the women, the survivors. But I’m also angry at this system that grooms young men toward a life that can end up in criminal activity.
I think this kind of behavior is more exposed now that the law protects survivors under Title IX. Theoretically there’s more law protecting survivors when they come forward and more people are being held accountable than before. The voices of survivors can be heard in a safer way.
Because of this case there’s a legal precedent that means the school is more responsible. Do they always comply? No. It seems like there’s a different new case every week. But this case in Colorado changed the perceived responsibility of the university toward its students, saying the university is responsible for the safety of its students, no matter what. Are the behaviors of individuals changing? Not so much. Of coaches? Not so much. But schools now have this responsibility on their shoulders and some schools are really stepping up.
Do you fear a backlash in revisiting this case? I lived in Colorado in 2007 and even had a son at the university at that time and I was unaware of the broad ramifications of this case and the impact it had.
Krouse: I have nightmares about it every night. Then I keep telling myself that hardly anyone reads anymore. This book was almost shut down before it came to life. But that is one of the reasons I just had to write this book. There have been thousands and thousands of articles about the case, but from an outsider perspective, people didn’t know how to put it all together. It was like this scattered mess of a case that really did need a book-length narrative to put it all together.
As you note, this case was all over the news at the time, yet you’ve told the story without naming any of the principal subjects or even the Colorado university. What went into that decision?
Krouse: It’s been a conundrum all along. From the start, it was a priority for me to protect the identity of the survivors while also telling the truth of what happened. Disguising the survivors is a no-brainer, but strangely, I also had to disguise the perpetrators and the university, so the survivors weren’t likely to be identified by association with them.
One of the themes you keep revisiting in the book is the moral dilemma of the private investigator, probing people for personal information and obtaining people’s trust only to expose them to judgment and scrutiny. You raise the example of Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Murderer,” a fairly well-known look at the journalist’s similar dilemma, but there are few other books that dig as deeply into this as yours does.
Krouse: The feeling I lived under during that period was I knew I was working for the right cause, but I wasn’t always sure I was approaching it ethically. Journalists are perceived as people pursuing the truth for a higher purpose, but private investigators, PIs, have always had this pretty sketchy reputation, you know, the person in a trench coat pulling out a camera and snapping pictures at the wrong time, chasing the truth at all costs no matter who gets hurt. But that’s not really my personality. I still haven’t resolved it. It’s tricky working with trauma.
The book is very journalistic, not just a memoir. We had to go through an extensive legal review and we were rigorous in backing up every fact. I’m not worried about anyone being besmirched by something that wasn’t true or didn’t happen. But, of course, you worry about unintended consequences. I’ve tried to be respectful.
Another aspect of this book I haven’t seen treated elsewhere is a mother disowning her child because she told the truth about her sexual assault. It’s a great example of the power imbalance and how survivors of sexual assault are often blamed, shamed, ostracized and silenced.
Krouse: After I was disowned, I looked for books about it, wondering: How do you navigate this idea? I couldn’t find any. I looked for support groups of people who were disowned but it turned out they were for the parents who disowned their kids. Except for the many examples of kids who came out to their parents as gay and were disowned for that, in my exact situation I couldn’t find anyone who’s written about it.
I think when you’re in a situation like mine, you feel like you’re the only one and you’re somehow to blame for it. You feel like it’s your fault. But I can’t be the only one. There’s somebody else who needs to know this, who needs to have their experience mirrored.
When you’ve had a traumatic childhood, there’s the trauma but there’s also the thing you didn’t get. It’s a feeling of two different kinds of loss. It’s hard to write about without whining. Going into self-pity is a definite temptation. It’s a narrative battle.
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What do you want people to take away from this book?
Krouse: I think it’s really easy to stop caring right now. We’re inundated with news of horrible events and to get through the day a lot of people embrace indifference, because if you care about everything, how can you get out of bed in the morning?
For me, that’s a kind of spiritual death. I think we have to worry about the problems of people in our community and that requires a stamina of caring. My ultimate hope is to make people care a little more about each other. To have hope in the face of all the things we see daily that are wrong and horrific takes a lot of strength. It’s easy to say and hard to do.
I also really cared about this case. It’s the most famous legal case you never heard of. I’ve read entire books about Title IX and sexual assault that didn’t even mention this case. I hope the book gives the case more visibility. It was a massive event not just for Title IX but for addressing sexual violence. It changed not only the law but changed the culture.