Elizabeth Minneman, a tall strawberry-blonde fourth-year student at the University of Virginia, wearing a stylish elbow-sleeved black dress and black boots, took me on a tour one day last spring of her sorority house, Zeta Tau Alpha, just north of the campus. Zeta, nearly deserted during our midafternoon visit when most of its residents were likely in class, was one of eight Greek houses (five fraternities, three sororities) strung along a Charlottesville street called Madison Lane that fronts onto the Madison Bowl, a vast greensward.
On the opposite side of the Madison Bowl, running parallel to Madison Lane, was Rugby Road—the Rugby Road made infamous last fall in Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s Rolling Stone story “A Rape on Campus,” since discredited but still electrically potent at UVA. The story revolved around an alleged gang-rape of a first-year student named “Jackie” in September 2012 at the massive Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house situated on an incline at the far end of Madison Bowl. Erdely, a Rolling Stone contributing editor, asserted that the three-hour-long serial sexual assault by seven Phi Psi brothers while Jackie lay bleeding and helpless amid the shards of a broken glass table, was part of a fraternity initiation ritual. Erdely quoted epigraphically from an antique Glee Club standard titled “Rugby Road,” whose coonskin-coat-era verses celebrated beer-bibbing and seduction, to paint a grim picture of a poisonous fraternity “rape culture” that Erdely argued tainted nearly all of UVA life, up to the highest administrative levels. Erdely’s article maintained that Nicole Eramo, the associate dean of students in charge of handling sexual-assault issues, had discouraged Jackie from taking action on her rape claim, and that Allen W. Groves, the dean of students, had pooh-poohed concerns about campus sexual assault at a meeting with the university’s trustees (UVA is one of about 100 colleges and universities being investigated for their handling of sexual assault by the Obama administration Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights). Eramo has filed a defamation suit against Rolling Stone. On July 29 three Phi Psi brothers who have since graduated from UVA sued Rolling Stone for causing them emotional distress by allegedly implicating them in the reported assault.
Subsequent reporting by the Washington Post, followed by investigations by the Columbia School of Journalism and the Charlottesville Police Department, revealed that not a single detail of Jackie’s rape story as reported by Erdely could be independently verified, including the party where the assault was supposed to have occurred. “Drew,” the Phi Psi brother who had supposedly lured Jackie into the frat house that fateful night, had apparently been invented by Jackie well before the alleged rape in an effort to make a male classmate jealous.
Lining Rugby Road and its feeder streets were the rest of the 40-odd fraternity and sorority houses, interspersed with a handful of university-owned buildings. Beyond them, Rugby Road turned into a suburban thoroughfare, winding through the dogwood clumps and daffodil beds of one of Charlottesville’s oldest and most affluent neighborhoods. Some of the Greek chapter houses, built during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in a style that copied the red-brick walls and white-columned porches of Thomas Jefferson’s idiosyncratic architecture for the original campus, had once belonged to the most affluent residents. Now, they were distinctly the worse for wear after well over a century of Greek ownership, haphazard landscaping, and sloppy-student housekeeping. Like many other UVA-affiliated structures, they were mildly defaced with the graffiti tags “Z” and “I.M.P.,” symbols of two secret societies that are even more esoteric than the Greek houses themselves. Nonetheless, the dense, barn-colored brickwork and double-story porches lent them a grandeur that seemed indestructible.