Boys town

Did Glen Ridge raise its sons to be rapists?


Leora Tanenbaum
August 13, 1997 3:02PM (UTC)

on a balmy night in June 1989, Bernard Lefkowitz, an investigative journalist and associate professor in the writing program at Columbia University, attended the graduation of the Class of '89 in Glen Ridge, N.J. Less than a month before, the manicured, upper-middle-class town had made news when four of its popular athletes were accused of raping a 17-year-old retarded girl. The boys, all high school seniors, lured the girl into the
basement of one of their homes with the promise that if she joined
them, she would be able to go out on a date with their friend,
a boy she idolized. Once there, they raped her with a broomstick, a
baseball bat and another stick while several other boys
cheered them on. Six in the group eventually left the basement, but not one
tried to stop their friends or intervene. The next day, a
group of 30 boys tried to convince her to return to the
basement for a repeat performance, but she refused.

The girl -- who
had no friends, attended a special school for retarded children and
had long been the target of jokes and pranks -- did not actively
resist the boys and was reluctant to report the assault because she
regarded them as her friends and desperately sought their approval. But when the story finally emerged, many people found the leafy town's reaction to the rape as stunning as the attack itself.

Advertisement:

"It's such a tragedy," remarked one of the parents at a graduation party Lefkowitz attended after the ceremony. It took Lefkowitz a moment to realize that the man was not talking about the victim, but about the boys who had raped her. "They're such beautiful boys and this will scar them forever."

Eight years and 250 interviews later, Lefkowitz's book, "Our Guys: The Glen Ridge
Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb," is a chilling examination of the character of the boys and their town. Lefkowtiz writes that the gang rape -- which town residents euphemistically called the boys' "alleged misconduct" -- provoked no community introspection in Glen Ridge. Instead, adults and fellow
students rallied around the accused athletes -- twins Kevin and Kyle Scherzer, Christopher Archer
and Bryant Grober -- and dismissed the victim,
who had the mental age of an 8-year-old, as a slut. During the five-month trial, neighbors donated over $30,000 to
the families of the defendants to defray their legal bills. Rather than exploring the incident with students, the staff at Glen Ridge High urged them "not to be judgmental"; the female superintendent of schools went further and asked them to "stand by our boys."

Lefkowitz paints a portrait of a town willing to go to almost any extreme to keep the image of its community and its favorite sons untarnished. It is a town that had paid little heed to a 1941 Yale University study that declared the local high school placed "too great emphasis on producing winning teams at the expense of important social values." In Lefkowitz's surreal picture, parents seem like mere spectators on the sidelines, closing their eyes as the behavior of their "beautiful boys" grows increasingly disturbing and brutal. Horrible events go ignored and unpunished by both the boys' own parents and those of the numerous girls they mistreat along the way.

Advertisement:

The boys' torture of the victim, whom Lefkowitz calls Leslie Faber, began at the age of 5, when they convinced her to lick the point of a ballpoint pen that had been coated in dog feces; by the time she was 16 and knocked on the door at one of their homes while selling Girl Scout cookies, they talked her into letting them stick a hot dog in her vagina. Students recall one of the boys openly masturbating through his sweat pants in class and occasionally fondling his penis openly, tapping on the shoulders of girls sitting nearby to make sure they saw. ("There's Kevin, with his hands down his pants again," sighs a teacher on one occasion.)

After Lefkowitz piles up enough shocking stories to convince the reader that these boys and this town must be an aberration, he produces a battery of statistics and studies intended to demonstrate just how much the Glen Ridge story fits into the classic pattern of gang rape: that elite groups who tend to be above suspicion -- football and basketball players and fraternity brothers -- are most likely to be involved in college rapes, that football and basketball players are reported for sexual assault 38 percent more often than the average male college students, that 81 percent of female public school students report that they have been sexually harassed. Not only could it happen elsewhere, says Lefkowitz, it probably has.

The final outrage in the Glen Ridge story came when justice was at last handed down. Although three of the four young men were found guilty of first-degree rape, they were allowed to go free for years while their cases were appealed. Just six weeks ago, they received relatively light sentences. This didn't surprise prosecutor Robert Laurino, who remarks in the book that sexual offenders usually receive lighter sentences when the victim is retarded. Even the judge seemed to feel that that the damage done to the lives of the boys outweighed that done to their victim. "If it hadn't been for that horrible day," writes Lefkowitz, "they would have been someone's all-American boys."

Advertisement:

Salon spoke recently with Lefkowitz in New York.

Why were you interested in writing this book?

One reason was the large number of young men who were involved in
one way or another in this crime. There were 13 boys in the basement
and seven of them stayed throughout the rape. On the day after the
rape, some 30 boys gathered in front of the house where the rape had
taken place and passed around the bat and broomstick that had been
used to violate this retarded young woman as if they were trophies
after a sporting game. And it seemed to me that with such large
numbers of young men involved -- we're talking about 30 to 40 percent of
the males in the high school graduating class -- this was part
of the larger culture. It wasn't a case of one or two young men who
turned out to be bad apples, but it was something that reflected the
values embedded in the larger culture.

Advertisement:

A second thing was the amount of support that the defendants of the
case, the boys who were accused, received from the community at large. I wanted to know why so many people in the community felt it necessary
to support the young men. And what's important to realize is that
regardless of whether this was a crime, there was no question about
the moral transgression that had taken place; it wasn't as if this
was a gray area subject to ambiguity. We were talking about someone
with a 49 IQ, someone who had been targeted for
a long time by these young men. So I wanted to understand something about the culture that had produced these young men.

And of course, when I began to examine that culture, I realized that
Glen Ridge was not atypical but reflected the values of communities
across the country. Since the book has been published, I've gotten
hundreds of letters and phone calls from people who've had similar
experiences with young men who were lionized in their high schools and
communities when they were growing up. But I saw it as a crucible for
understanding events that occur later such as the sexual offenses we
read about every day in the papers that are committed by commanders of
military bases, young men at the Citadel, professional athletes and
fraternity members. I think that when we try to respond to men who
commit crimes when they're in their 20s and 30s, we're way
too late. Their values have been shaped when they were 12, 13 and 14
years old. Clearly that was the case with these young men.

You attended the graduation ceremony. What was it like?

Advertisement:

It was in the early evening, and the first thing I was struck by was what they were wearing. The young men were dressed in tuxedos and the young women were dressed in evening gowns that must have cost $1,000. And a significant number of them, nearly half the women, were wearing yellow ribbons on their dresses. I asked them what they were for, and I was told that they were in memory of the four young men who had been arrested a few weeks before on the charge of rape and had not been allowed to attend the graduation. This was their way of recognizing these young men and proclaiming their loyalty to them.

Another thing that was striking about the graduation was that there were three
African-American graduates, and one of them was Charles Figueroa, the only young man in the school
who told his teacher what he had heard about what had occurred in the
basement on March 1. And when he was called up to receive his diploma,
you could hear the shouts of "snitch, snitch" go through the audience.
He had broken the code of loyalty -- or, I should say, the code of silence --
that distinguished this town. He had done the honorable thing when so
many other young men had not, and yet he was chastised. There were
parties that were held after the graduation and he decided not to attend
any of them. He was a massive kid, maybe 300 pounds, a
football player and a wrestler. In the book I've written about how he
went home and started to cry. For a long time he was the villain in
the community.

Why did the adults of Glen Ridge look away from the behavior of these kids when they were growing up?

Advertisement:

I think there are a couple of reasons. The more obvious one is
that because these kids were athletes and had formed an athletic
clique early in their lives, they were regarded as something special,
as athletes often are in our culture. And they were held to a very
different standard. As long as they performed on the athletic field,
and as long as they provided a way for the people in Glen Ridge,
particularly the males, to relive their own youth, they were
spared the judgment of influential adults. But I think equally
important was the unwillingness of Glen Ridge, and so many other
communities like it, to confront sexual issues regarding youngsters.
When we read about school district reprimanding a young man who tries to kiss a girl in elementary school, the tendency is to snicker that the school has tried to do something about it. But in fact, the school is behaving honorably and is trying to teach a lesson to the young people involved. In this community, it was regarded as a taint on their
reputation, a scandal, to engage any of the boys who misbehaved. So
something that started as bra snapping in the hallways of the middle
school evolved into exposing oneself in the classrooms of the high
school.

I found it unbelievable to read that Kevin Scherzer masturbated in
the middle of class.

Yes, it sounds unbelievable, but I was struck by
how banal it seemed to the young women who were describing it. Because
this had become such a part of the routine of their life that they
were incapable of the rage and resentment that you and I feel when we
hear about it. One of the real tragedies of this whole experience was
that young women in this community came to feel that the price of
acceptance was submissiveness. Unless they were submissive to the
demands of these guys and guys like them, they would not be socially
accepted in their community and in their school. And they knew that
from the beginning and that was the price they continued to pay
throughout their adolescence.

Were the parents aware that their sons were involved in such
predatory sexual behaviors?

Advertisement:

They may not have known all the specifics, but in a general sense
it was very clear that these boys were exceeding normal, conventional
bounds, and you couldn't miss it. Several of these boys stole hundreds
of dollars from girls at a high school dance, and the principal wrote
to the parents about it. The parents were called in for conferences
frequently. The behavior, in a general sense, was quite well-known to
responsible parents in the community.

I'm curious about the way that the boys, and the girls as well,
divided all girls into the two familiar categories of "good girl"
and "bad girl." There were the girls you call the "Little
Mothers," who fawned over the jocks, and then there were the sex
objects. How does that perception of femininity develop?

Partly it forms because these boys grew up, for the most part, in
isolation. Their lives were really contained within this athletic
clique. So from a very young age, they were very separate from the
general school population. When they met girls, they either perceived
them as acolytes, as servants, to tend to their needs or support them,
or, as they grew older, as sexual objects. But they never were really
put in situations where they came to see young women as individuals, as
people whom they needed to deal with and relate with as human beings,
like they treated their own male friends.
To some extent, I think that
schools, and Glen Ridge schools are not alone, are to blame for
permitting that isolation, for not requiring these young men to
participate in events and experiences as part of their education on an
equal footing with young women.

Another thing
that's crucial in understanding how these boys developed is that of
the four defendants, three had no sisters. So in addition to growing
up in a male clique, they also didn't have day-to-day experiences
encountering young women as human beings. Also, in their families,
their fathers were avid in their enthusiasm for sports, and I think
exercised a powerful, if not dominant, role in the family.

Advertisement:

I'm always amazed to hear about how so many communities value
sports so much. I didn't grow up myself in that kind of environment,
so it seems somewhat alien to me.

Well, we live in a fragmented society in which there aren't that
many things that hold a community, or even a family, together. And in
suburban communities, there is this idea that sports is something that
people can rally around, rather than books or the arts. Also, sports
provides a way to escape class boundaries. For some of these young men
who came from relatively working-class or blue-collar backgrounds, if
they excelled in sports and were recognized for their performance, it
was a way for the families to gain at least a temporary equality with
much more affluent families. This was an upper-middle-class community
at its heart, but there were lots of people who worked in well-paying
but blue-collar jobs. And if your son was the quarterback on the
football team or the cleanup hitter on the baseball team, for that
moment, you've gained a certain recognition and fame that puts you on
a somewhat equal footing at the country club.

Whereas if your son or daughter is the valedictorian, people
wouldn't care so much?

Right. You know, people would certainly go through the customary
rituals of saying congratulations, but it sure wouldn't be the same as
if your son scored a touchdown on a Saturday afternoon when 1,000
people were cheering him on.

Advertisement:

Did you speak with the
parents of the defendants?

I spoke briefly with the parents of a couple of the defendants,
but I did not do extended interviews with them. They were disinclined
to participate. But I did interview at great length the parents of
some of the young men who were in the basement when the rape occurred
and who were present the next day when the bat and the broomstick were
handed around.

A number of these parents were really ambivalent about what had
happened. On one level, they were pleased that their sons had left the
basement before the rape was consummated. But on the other hand, they
were deeply distressed that their sons had been there in the first
place and didn't come forward and
tell anybody about what had gone on, and particularly hadn't done
anything to help the young woman.

I spent a great deal of time with
the mother and father of Philip Grant, one of the young men who had
been in the basement. His mother, Linda Grant, is a feminist who is
responsible for establishing the sexual assault unit of the Essex
County Prosecutor's Office long before this had happened. She had long
tried to dissuade her son from being a part of this clique of guys
because she knew about their behavior and knew how they were treating
young women. But she wasn't entirely successful, and to this day, she has
regrets that Philip sought out his friends in this group. But it
shows, I think, that even a concerned, well-intentioned and highly
sensitive parent has difficulty influencing her son unless the rest of
the community supports that effort.

What made the rape victim, Leslie Faber, vulnerable?

To start with, in 1987, about a year and a half before the rape
occurred, she was tested by her high school and was found to have an
IQ of 49 and a performance level of a second grader. So she did not perceive things that other people with
more sophistication might. She was also an athletic youngster and
loved sports and loved participating in sports. For her, these guys
were in the pantheon of Glen Ridge social life. We are talking about
the standout athletes in the community. And to be accepted by them
meant, to her, that she could have a social life. There was no greater
honor than to get a smile or a greeting from them. One of the truly heart-rending
moments came after they raped her with a bat and a broomstick. They
told her to leave the basement, and for the next half hour she
wandered around the playing field, walking between home plate and the
pitcher's mound, hoping that the young man who had been promised to be
her date would show up. And of course, he never did.

What has Leslie been doing in the last few years?

She works in a mall in New Jersey in a department store. She does
menial jobs. And she socializes with other youngsters who have
handicaps. But no matter how hard her parents try for her to
live a normal, mainstream life, I think the scars that have resulted
from the rape will never heal. I know that her parents and the
prosecutor's office have worked hard to make her understand that she
performed a valiant role by testifying in this trial against her
hometown heroes. Although the defendants in the case and their friends
try to make her feel guilty for taking the stand, I think that the
support she's gotten -- not only from her family and the prosecutor
but also from people around the country who've written and called --
has made her realize that what she did was a courageous thing, and
that people respect her for it.

What have the defendants been up to since the rape?

Eight years after the rape, two of them were sentenced to maximum
terms of 15 years and one to a maximum term of seven years. In
actuality, that means that if they behave themselves, two will be out
in two years and one will be out in 10 months.

Before that, Chris Archer went on to college, where he was accused of
raping someone before this case went to trial. But the charges were
never pressed by the woman who accused him. I think she feared the
pain of having her life exposed. Because the primary defense with
Leslie, of course, was to savage her reputation, and anybody else
who brought charges against these guys would undoubtedly have met with
the same defense strategy.

The two twins, Kevin and Kyle Scherzer, worked for a floor finishing
firm in New Jersey and lived in the same community with their
parents, which was not Glen Ridge but another community.

We should also remember that there was a fourth defendant,
Bryant Grober. He was convicted of conspiracy and the judge, in his
infinite wisdom, sentenced him to three years of probation and
community service, and he was not sent to jail. Grober had fellatio
with the victim in the basement. His was the first act and set the
stage for what was to come. But his lawyer was particularly skillful
in separating him from the other boys in the basement and was able to
persuade the jury to convict him on a lesser charge.

In order to arrive at a guilty verdict for first-degree rape, the
jury had to consider two separate counts. They had to find that the
defendants had used coercion or force or that the victim was "mentally
defective" and that the defendants knew it. Which count did they find?

The jury convicted on both counts. It wasn't necessary for the
jury to convict on both. It would have been sufficient to find
first-degree rape only on one count. But the jury, in its wisdom,
convicted on both. This year the appellate court struck down the force
and coercion count but sustained the other count, that the boys knew
or should have known that she was "mentally defective," which is a
legal term. This was a very questionable decision, in my view.

One of the things that made the case so compelling is that this was
not a victim who had been beaten or tortured. It was not a victim who
fled the scene or demanded she be released. It was a victim who really
had no defenses against being seduced and hustled and conned into
doing this. And yet the boys did have to threaten her, because they
themselves knew that what they were doing was wrong. When she left
that basement, she knew they could retaliate. And for all of that, the
appellate court thinks that no force and coercion were used, but I
think they have to place themselves in the mentality and state of mind
of this young woman.

What motivated Charles Figueroa to step forward?

As Charlie would tell you himself, he didn't cast himself in the
role of the hero. He was talking to another young man about the rumors
that were going around the school, and he was overheard by a male
teacher. The teacher said, "What are you talking about, Charlie?" And
then Charlie had to make a decision, and I think his decision was
shaped by his feelings about how he would respond if his own
sister, who was 10 or 11 at that time, would have been the victim.

Do you think his status as an outsider because he's black led him
to sympathize with Leslie?

I'm sure it did, because even though he was an athlete, he was not
accepted by these guys. He was tolerated. They had to get along with
him because he was part of the team. But he was not trusted. He was
not part of the inner circle of the group of confidantes and he wasn't
present at many of their social events. So many of the young men in
this clique were exceedingly racist. When Kevin Scherzer found out
that Charlie had told about what had happened, he said, "The nigger
told on us." Charlie was often referred to as "nigger." He came from a
highly intelligent, morally sensitive family. The family
felt that he should try to integrate himself into the community and
get along with others and not stand out, but they also made him very
much aware of what was morally the right thing to do.

Why do you think the judge let the defendants free after the
verdict, until after their appeals were decided?

When the judge looked out on that courtroom, what did he see? He
saw upper-middle-class families with their grandchildren and their
relatives and their elderly grandparents and with priests and
ministers and with teammates and classmates, all looking a hell of a
lot like the people the judge knew in his own New Jersey suburb every
day of his life. And who was missing from this courtroom? A
marginalized, retarded young woman. I think he was overly concerned
about the future welfare of the families of the defendants. There were legitimate and genuine issues in this
case that would be heard on appeal, but there are legitimate and
genuine issues in many, many cases. I think his views were reflected when he said, "I don't think
they're going to go out on a rape spree." The fact that they had raped
this young woman in the most atrocious, horrible way you can imagine
was not enough to send them to jail.

What can parents do to ensure that their sons develop into men who
value women as equals?

I think there are a number of things that are very important, and
I don't think we should limit this to just parents, because we know
how limited their roles can be. We need to think about the schools and
other influential adults and what they can do.

The terrible flaw in Glen Ridge was that achievement was divorced from character. I think parents need to
understand that character is an important thing and that achievement
can't be regarded separately. For instance, if the participation in
high school athletics for these guys had been preconditioned on
qualities of character as well as the ability to throw a football,
then they might have turned out a whole lot differently.

The other crucial element is that young women need to be taught to
understand that they have support from their parents and other adults,
that they can be assured that their complaints will be heard and that
they will be defended, that their self-esteem will be supported. The
tragedy in Glen Ridge is that there was one victim of a terrible
crime, but there were dozens and dozens of other girls whose childhood
was scarred, and will be scarred forever, by the submissiveness that
was required for them to be accepted. It's really important for
parents to say: If the price of social acceptance is submissiveness,
we've got to take you someplace where you'll be accepted and you won't
have to pay that price.


Leora Tanenbaum

Leora Tanenbaum writes about gender and culture for Ms. and other magazines. She lives in New York City.

MORE FROM Leora Tanenbaum


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Violence Against Women

Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •