Excerpted from Our Guys by Bernard Lefkowitz. Copyright © 1998 by Bernard Lefkowitz. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: Why did you decide to write OUR GUYS?
A: I've always written about how events shed light on our contemporary culture. The rape of a retarded young woman by a group of high school athletes in a wealthy New Jersey suburb of Glen Ridge offered me such an opportunity for several reasons. First, there were 13 young men in the basement where the rape took place. And I soon learned that two dozen young men gathered the next day to pass around the bat and the broomstick that were used in the rape. The involvement of so many prominent and admired teenage boys suggested that this wasn't a case of a couple of guys gone bad, but rather a crime that reflected the values embedded in the surrounding culture.
I was also fascinated by the extensive support these young men received in the community and the intensive vilification of the victim, who had an IQ of 49. I wanted to know why so many people supported the accused and condemned the victim.
Q: You've written about how these boys routinely mistreated and humiliated girls for years before the rape happened. Why did adults look away from the behavior of these boys when they were growing up?
A: These boys were regarded as something special, as athletes often are in our culture. As long as they performed on the athletic field, they were spared the judgment and opprobrium of adults. Character was separated from achievement. Parents and the schools refused to make decent behavior a precondition for participating in organized sports.
Q: What sort of things did these boys do to girls?
A: It started with small things, like bra snapping in the middle schools, and developed into much more serious misconduct. One boy frequently exposed himself and masturbated in his high school classrooms; others wrecked the homes of girls they didn't like and stole hundreds of dollars from them. One of the real tragedies was that young women came to feel that the price of acceptance was submissiveness. Unless they were submissive to the demands of these guys, they would not be socially accepted in their community and schools. From the beginning, they knew that was the price they had to pay for acceptance.
Q: What made the victim vulnerable to these young men?
A: What made her vulnerable was what made so many other young women vulnerable. The boys were treated like celebrities in the town because they were athletes. She was athletic and for her there was no greater honor than to get a smile or greeting from them. When they invited her to a party at the basement of the co-captains of the football team, she took it as an invitation to enter a social world from which she had always been excluded.
Q: Is Glen Ridge unique? Could what happened in Glen Ridge have happened in other places?
A: There was nothing defective in the gene pool in Glen Ridge. The water supply wasn't contaminated. This was a perfectly norman suburb where children and teenagers got almost everything they asked for. I'm convinced that Glen Ridge's values resembled the values of thousands of other communities across the country. Since the book has been published, I've gotten hundreds of letters and phone calls from people who have had similar experiences with young men who were lionized in their towns and colleges and workplaces. I see Glen Ridge as a crucible for understanding the misbehavior of some men much later in life, at places like the Citadel, Wall Street firms, military bases, professional sports teams and fraternities. The fact is, when we try to respond to men who commit crimes when they're in their 20's and 30's we're way too late. Their values have been shaped when they were 12 and 13 years old. Clearly, that was the case with the young men of Glen Ridge.
1. One review of Our Guys described the priorities of the community of Glen Ridge as "large, protected homes, easy access to an endless array of consumer goods, and team sports, with education far down the line, except as a means of obtaining the first three" (New York Times Book Review). Is this a fair assessment?
2. How do the jocks classify the girls in their high school class, and what, if anything, do these classifications tell us about the roles of girls and women in this community? Why do the girls put up with the treatment the jocks hand out, even agreeing to call themselves "pigs" to gain admission to jock parties [p. 203]?
3. "The ruling clique of teenagers adhered to a code of behavior that mimicked, distorted and exaggerated the values of the adult world around them" [p. 493]. Does this square with what you have read about the parents of the perpetrators? Does it conform with what you read about the teachers, coaches, and others whose job it is to deal with the youth of Glen Ridge? How does this compare with what is going on in your own community?
4. Lefkowitz believes that the social hierarchy and the social conditioning in Glen Ridge reflects the larger American culture. Do you agree with him? How do the society and the values of Glen Ridge resemble, or differ from, other communities and schools with which you are familiar? Do you agree with Lefkowitz's implication that ours is an essentially unequal culture, where males get more breaks than women do?
5. "Of all the boys charged with sexually assaulting Leslie Faber, only Bryant Grober had sisters. The others grew up in families where males were the dominant personalities" [p. 68]. Also, Lefkowitz notes, there were no women in high positions in Glen Ridge High School. What effect might the lack of association between boys and girls have had upon these boys? Do you believe that it is the school's responsibility to ensure that more women have important, responsible, and visible positions within its hierarchy?
6. "Achievement was honored and respected almost to the point of pathology," said the minister of Glen Ridge Congregational Church, "whether it was the achievements of high school athletes or the achievements of corporate world conquerors" [p. 130]. "Compassion for the weak," adds Lefkowitz, "wasn't part of the curriculum." Are these traits--the worship of success and a lack of concern for the weak--characteristic of our culture as a whole? Are our major institutions, like the educational system and the press, making any attempt to counterbalance such ideas?
7. In Chapter 16, why did the kids get away with trashing Mary Ryan's house? Why was no legal action taken by the Ryans? Do you think that this sort of incident occurs, and gets covered up, in other towns or cities? What would have happened to these boys if they had been less affluent--or if they had not been white?
8. According to a national survey in 1993, 81 percent of female public school students said they had been sexually harassed in school; only 7 percent of those harassed told a teacher about it [p. 92]. Why do you think so few girls inform their teachers? Are they afraid of retaliation or of publicity? Do you believe that such fears are justified? What effect might the experiences of Leslie Faber or that of the Central Park jogger (whose story was in the news for months) at the hands of lawyers and media have on a woman who is wondering whether to report a rape?
9. "The guys prized their intimacy with each other far above what could be achieved with a girl" [p. 146]. What does sex represent for the boys in this jock culture? Why is it a passive experience--something "done to them, not something they actively participated in" [p. 148]? Do you think that Querques's tactics in painting Leslie as a sluttish Lolita were legitimate--that he was simply doing the best he could to acquit his clients? Or do you find his behavior despicable? Why is it legally acceptable to make the sexual history of the victim public but not to reveal that of the suspect? How might the legal system try rape suspects without putting the victim on trial too?
10. In what ways do you feel that Glen Ridge High School failed its students--both the jocks, who were growing increasingly delinquent, and their victims? How did it fail the other students: the "Giggers," for example, and those who were, or might have been, genuinely interested in their academic subjects? Do you see the schools in your community behaving similarly?
11. Do you agree with the final decision of the jury? That is, "was what the boys did a crime--or was it just a crummy thing to do" [p. 35]? What is your reaction to the judge's sentencing of the boys? What messages did the verdict and the sentencing convey to the boys, the town of Glen Ridge, and to those who took an interest in this case?
12. Are all young males aggressive, potentially dangerous, when they are part of a group? Are athletes, by nature or training, violent and dangerous?
13. Bernard Lefkowitz has said, "I think that when we try to respond to men who commit crimes when they're in their twenties and thirties, we're way too late. Their values have been shaped when they were twelve,thirteen, and fourteen years old" (Salon magazine, August 1997). If this is the case, what might we do as a society to change the values these boys are acquiring? How might such change be effected?
14. One of the questions posed by this book is: "Is it worth ruining so many lives to punish guys who got carried away for an hour?" [p. 284]. What is your own answer? If it is "no," do you believe that such leniency should apply in all similar cases?
15. Lefkowitz implies that there are two justice systems in America: one for the affluent, and one for everyone else. Does this seem a fair assessment of the situation? What other prominent legal cases in recent years might illustrate your point?