Erika Krouse is the author of “Come Up and See Me Sometime,” a New York Times Noteworthy 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 first memoir, “Tell Me Everything”, was picked up for a TV adaptation by Playground Entertainment.
“Tell Me Everything: The Story of a Private Investigation” is the story of Krouse’s work from 2002 to 2007 as a private investigator on a rape case against a Colorado college football team that broke. turned into a historic Title IX civil rights case. It’s also a scathing account of the toll of childhood sexual abuse on his own life. Krouse recently discussed her book with the Sun correspondent Catherine Eastburn.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you decide to write the parallel narrative of your childhood abuse versus the trial story? One of the blurbs at the back of the book calls it “an ingenious take on an impossible story.”
Krouse: I did not want. That was not the goal when I started. But I was just a person working on the trial, 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 was cowardly to avoid my own story when writing about these women who risked their lives. There were serious threats, death threats against them when they came forward. It was a tough decision. I’m a very private person with friends I’ve known for decades who knew nothing about this stuff.
Corn [writing my personal story] was surprisingly not difficult. There was all this pressure behind it that I hadn’t noticed. I don’t want to use the dam break cliché, but it was a story I knew by heart, that I had been thinking about since I was 4 years old. It was oddly easy to write, and I know that’s not true for a lot of people.
It’s hard to read about sexual assault in general and I really, really wanted the book to be safe for anyone who’s been sexually assaulted. I didn’t want to diminish what anyone’s been through, so I focused on balance, changing the tones so that someone like me – I sometimes choose books that trigger me too much – could read this book.
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The book dives deep into rape culture and college football, specifically using sex as a recruiting tool, a kind of entitlement, something that’s pretty widely documented but still hard to believe because it’s so preposterous. Did this investigation and the lawsuit that followed change anything?
Krouse: It really is a horrible story, especially when you consider the age of the players. They have and suffer brain damage. When you think of these people being trained in this way for the sake of a game, it’s infuriating, especially for me when I think of the women, the survivors. But I am also angry at this system that prepares young men for a life that can end in criminal activity.
I think this kind of behavior is more exposed now that the law protects survivors under Title IX. Theoretically, there are more laws protecting survivors when they come forward and more people are held accountable than before. The voices of survivors can be heard more safely.
Because of this case, there is a legal precedent that means the school is more responsible. Are they still compliant? No. It seems there is a different new case every week. But this Colorado case has changed the university’s perceived responsibility to its students, saying the university is responsible for the safety of its students no matter what. Are people’s behaviors changing? Not really. Coaches? Not really. But schools now have this responsibility on their shoulders and some schools are really stepping up.
Do you fear a backlash by re-examining this case? I was living in Colorado in 2007 and even had a son in college at the time and was unaware of the vast 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 closed before it came to life. But that’s one of the reasons I had to write this book. There were thousands and thousands of articles about the case, but from an outside perspective, people didn’t know how to put it all together. It was like this scattered mess of a case that really needed a book-length narrative to put it all together.
As you note, this case was front page news at the time, yet you told the story without naming any of the main subjects or even the University of Colorado. What motivated this decision?
Krouse: It has always been an enigma. From the start, it was a priority for me to protect the identities of survivors while telling the truth about what happened. Disguising the survivors is a no-brainer, but strangely I also had to disguise the authors 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 detective, probing people for personal information and gaining people’s trust only to expose them to judgment and scrutiny. You bring up the example of Janet Malcolm’s “The Reporter and the Assassin”, a fairly well-known look at the similar journalist’s dilemma, but there are few other books that delve into this as deeply as yours.
Krouse: The feeling I experienced during this time was that I knew I was working for the right cause, but I wasn’t always sure I was approaching it in an ethical way. Journalists are seen as people pursuing the truth for a higher purpose, but private investigators, private investigators, have always had this rather sketchy reputation, you know, the person in the trench coat pulling out a camera and taking pictures at the wrong time, chasing the truth at all costs, no matter who is hurt. But that’s not really my personality. I still haven’t solved it. It’s tricky to work with trauma.
The book is very journalistic, not just a memoir. We had to go through a thorough legal review and we were rigorous in safeguarding every fact. I’m not worried about anyone getting smeared by something that wasn’t true or didn’t happen. But, of course, you worry about unintended consequences. I tried to be respectful.
Another aspect of this book that I haven’t seen covered elsewhere is a mother disowning her child for telling the truth about his sexual assault. This is a prime example of the power imbalance and how victims of sexual assault are often blamed, shamed, ostracized and silenced.
Krouse: After being disowned, I searched for books about it, wondering: how do you navigate this idea? I didn’t find any. I searched for support groups of people who have been disowned, but it turned out they were for parents who have disowned their children. Except for the many examples of children who came out as gay to their parents and were disowned for it, in my exact situation, I couldn’t find anyone who wrote about it.
I think when you’re in a situation like mine, you feel like you’re the only one and somehow responsible for it. You feel like it’s your fault. But I can’t be the only one. There is someone else who needs to know this, who needs their experience reflected.
When you had a traumatic childhood, there’s the trauma but there’s also the thing you didn’t have. It’s a feeling of two different kinds of loss. It’s hard to write without whining. Self-pity is a sure 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 now. We are inundated with news of horrific events and to get through the day many people adopt indifference because if you care about everything how can you get out of bed in the morning?
For me, it’s a kind of spiritual death. I think we have to concern ourselves with the problems of people in our community and that requires the endurance of benevolence. My ultimate hope is to make people care a little more about each other. It takes a lot of strength to have hope in the face of all the things we see every day that are wrong and horrible. It’s easy to say and hard to do.
I was also very attached to this affair. It’s the most famous court case you’ve never heard of. I’ve read entire books on Title IX and sexual assault that didn’t even mention this case. I hope the book will give more visibility to the case. It was a massive event not only for Title IX, but also for combating sexual violence. This changed not only the law, but also the culture.