Abstract

In 1989, a group of teenage, male, student athletes in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, was accused of luring a young woman labeled retarded into a basement recreation room in one of their homes and sexually assaulting her. As is customary for sex abuse cases, the name of the victim never appeared in newspaper or television reports. However, her intellectual competence was scrutinized and contested throughout the legal and public discourse of the case. Relying on New York Times news accounts as well as a book length journalistic account and other related documents, we examine implications of being spoken about, of others speaking for the labeled person, and of a labeled person speaking for him or herself, and consider the possibility of an alternative narrative.

Editor in charge: John O'Brien

On March 1, 1989, a group of Glen Ridge, New Jersey, male high school students invited a 17-year-old girl to a basement room in the house of one of the boys, where they assaulted her. They penetrated her vagina with a broom handle, stick, and baseball bat. When law officials brought charges against seven of the young men, news accounts noted that they were all athletes, two of them the co-captains of the local high school football team. The young woman, also an athlete—co-captain of the women's junior varsity basketball team—was identified as retarded (Hanley, 1989). As is customary for sex abuse cases in the United States, the name of the victim never appeared in newspaper or television reports. However, judgments of the woman's abilities did. Indeed, her intellectual competence was contested throughout the public discourse of the case as well as in the courtroom trial. In this article, we examine implications of being spoken about and of others speaking for the labeled person; then, building from this analysis, we consider how a disability rights/People First framework could shift public and professional understandings of and responses to instances of human abuse.

Data for the article include all news and commentary articles about the case that appeared in the New York Times from 1989 through January 1994; selected news accounts from local and regional newspapers (“All Things Considered,” 1993; Benedict & Klein, 1995a, 1995b; Freeman, 1993; “Lawyer for Victim,” 1992; Mann, 1992; Mozingo, 1999; Muscatine, 1992; Owen, 1997); the book Our Guys, written in 1997 by Lefkowitz, a journalism professor at Columbia University; as well as law review articles and professional literature related to the topic. Included in these sources were major portions of the court testimony. (The transcript was not available to researchers because it was impounded by the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey. However, inasmuch as journalistic accounts quote major passages of the trial testimony as it occurred, and because we have referred to multiple journalistic accounts and law review articles concerning the same testimony, we are confident that the material cited is both accurate and exhaustive.) News accounts and the Lefkowitz book provided detailed documentation of testimony by the young woman as well as by teachers, psychiatrists, and the victim's family members; we carefully compared these accounts to reports of testimony that have appeared in law reviews and other related articles to ensure that we covered all relevant passages for this critique. Our analysis involved coding the news accounts and related documents and analyzing them in the tradition of the social construction of disability (Ferguson, Ferguson, & Taylor, 1992; Goode, 1994) and qualitative research (see Bogdan & Biklen, 1998; Taylor & Bogdan, 1984).

Consequences of the Professional and Public Reification of Mental Retardation

From Classification to Representation, the Clinical Diminishment of a Person

As the case against the alleged rapists/abusers went to trial, a parade of experts was brought forth by both prosecutors and the defendants' lawyers to explain the young woman's thinking, feeling, and general abilities. Stanley Brod, a member of Glen Ridge's Child Study Team reported that

there were some differences between assessments at different ages, but we were getting the same IQ scores (as) the person who did the assessments in the past—49. The exact same score. And my response was, she's MR. She's mentally retarded. (cited in Lefkowitz, 1997, p. 189)

The highest IQ recorded in any of the assessments was 64, although one account suggested she might not be retarded after all:

Over more than 10 years, the 21-year-old woman [story written 3 years after the assault] at the center of the Glen Ridge sex assault trials has been variously described by psychiatric experts as “neurologically impaired,” “severely retarded,” and as having “a high level of functioning that precludes mental retardation.” (Nieves, 1992b, p. B4)

In a pretrial proceeding, the judge in the case decided that the IQ of 64 would be the official assessment as far as the court was concerned (Hanley, 1992a, p. B25). In determining that she had mental retardation, the judge invoked the view that then prevailed in court: that her condition was permanent and essentially immutable:

A student who is only neurologically impaired you get a lot of variation in their abilities. That wasn't Leslie. A mentally retarded student will have a very flat intellectual profile, inability to think in abstract terms, not a lot of practical senses, an inability to improvise. (Stanley Brod, psychologist, quoted in Lefkowitz, p. 189)

With either 49 or 64 as intelligence scores, the young woman had, according to newspaper accounts of New Jersey education standards, mental retardation (moderate or mild) and was eligible for special education. In New Jersey at the time, a high percentage of special education students were consigned to special schools or special classes. The young woman in question was not accommodated at her home high school: “While technically a student at Glen Ridge High School, where she was co-captain of the junior varsity softball team this spring, she attends special education classes at West Orange High School nearby” (“5 youths held,” 1989, p. B17). Each of the witnesses exuded expert authority, assuming the prerogative to say what the young woman could and could not think or do. Gerland Meyerhoff, the psychiatrist employed by the prosecutors, characterized her as confused. In court he related that the young woman had told him, “They [the alleged rapists] really do like me and love me and think I'm special. I don't understand why they like me and take me down to the basement when they always call me retarded” (Meyerhoff, quoted in Hanley, 1992o). Although Meyerhoff acknowledged that this statement might indicate “understanding remotely” that she had “been taken advantage of,” he chose to interpret her in a negative way, concluding that “She did not fully understand being used,” and “did not comprehend she had the right to refuse” (Hanley, 1992o, p. 29). Later, he asserted that “Retarded people do things for some of the most bewildering reasons,” and that “there is no particular reason to believe there is consistency” in her giving or withholding consent (Nieves, 1992a, p. B5). His argument, in effect, was that mental retardation rendered her powerless to give or withhold consent for sexual relations.

One of the young woman's teachers, Ms. DePalma, interpreted her to the court as having mild mental retardation, “extremely passive,” with “a ‘lot of holes' in things she would try to explain,” and “unable to grasp abstract concepts, like . . . the simplest fractions” (Hanley, 1992f, p. B1). Like Brod and Meyerhoff, the psychologist and psychiatrist mentioned earlier, DePalma made her analysis without equivocation, with the implication that her findings were a kind of professional truth.

The idea of being spoken for is fraught with difficulty. Alcoff (1994) noted two of the problems:

First, there is a growing awareness that where one speaks from affects the meaning and truth of what one says, and thus that one cannot assume an ability to transcend one's location. In other words, a speaker's location [which we take here to refer to their social location, or social identity] has an epistemically significant impact on that speaker's claims and can serve either to authorize or disauthorize one's speech. . . . The second claim holds that, not only is location epistemically salient, but certain privileged locations are discursively dangerous. In particular, the practice of privileged persons speaking for or on behalf of less privileged persons has actually resulted (in many cases) in increasing or reinforcing the oppression of the group spoken for. (pp. 286–287)

Clearly, both difficulties can be seen in the testimony of experts who testified as to the Glen Ridge victim's competence. First, these experts' pronouncements about competence, as inconsistent and sometimes contradictory as they may be, are all given with authority, as if stated from an impartial, objective position, what Haraway (1991) called “the view from nowhere” (p. 194). In claiming an objective or neutral location, these experts attempt to transform their opinions into facts. Perlin (1996) characterized this as a common behavior of experts giving testimony in the courtroom:

Experts frequently testify in accordance with their own self-referential concepts of “morality” and openly subvert statutory and case-law criteria. . . . Often this testimony is further warped by a heuristic bias. Expert witnesses, like the rest of us, succumb to the seductive allure of simplifying cognitive devices in their thinking and employ such heuristic gambits as the vividness effect or attribution theory in their testimony. (p. 230)

Perlin argued that such behavior on the part of experts spills over to judges and juries as well, for an atmosphere is created where pretextuality comes to prevail. By pretextuality Perlin means everyday commonsense beliefs or prejudices that individuals—whether jurors, judges, or psychiatric and other experts—bring with them into the courtroom. His point is that when experts dress up their own predilections as truths, such pretextuality “infects all participants in the judicial system” (p. 31). At the very least, we must ask, is there any benefit in having psychiatrists, special educators, and others granted a role to make opinionated pronouncements in court about the competency of the victim of a crime? We return to this question later in this article.

Alcoff's (1994) second point is that when people in privileged positions—in this case a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and a special educator—assume the authority to speak for people who are less privileged, they typically exacerbate their oppression. Certainly in this situation, it is hard to see how the stature and authority of the woman who was the victim in the Glen Ridge case were raised by the expert pronouncements about her. Rather, the comments amount to a free-for-all critique of her competence.

Reifying Mental Retardation and Putting a Victim on Trial

Lawyers both for the defense and the prosecution in the Glen Ridge case had a difficult challenge in deciding how to handle the assessment of mental retardation, which the judge had settled on before the trial even began. The prosecution had to prove either that the defendants knew or should have known that the young woman was “mentally defective” and/or that the defendants used coercion to violate her (Hanley, 1992a, pp. 21, 25), for one of the charges against the young men was that they committed sexual assault against a “mentally defective person.” Prosecution lawyers, therefore, needed to paradoxically depict her as mentally incompetent (i.e., incapable of consenting) and yet a credible witness when it came to recounting the events and tactics used by the accused in the basement. The success of the defense would depend on discrediting her testimony, while at the same time on convincing the jury that the young woman did not have mental retardation, at least in regard to sexuality (Hanley, 1990; Sullivan, 1991). Defense attorneys would have to show that she was competent enough to know about sex and to have given consent to all that was done to her in the basement, including having the baseball bat, broom handle, and stick shoved up her vagina.

“The Glen Ridge Defense team” made “the victim out as a manipulative ‘Lolita’ (Querques' defense arguments reported in Hanley, 1992e, p. 31), with sexual needs beyond her mental years. Mr. Ford, one of the defense attorneys, called the Glen Ridge rape victim an expert “mechanic” in sexual matters, with a “long history” of sexual activity who acted out of “desire” in the basement (Hanley, 1992d, p. B4). Later he would say, “‘She knew deep in her own mind, in her own heart that everything that occurred there was something she willingly participated in” (Hanley, 1993a, p. B6). He asked the victim's mother if she was not a “danger to the welfare” of other students (Hanley, 1992j, p. 24). Another defense attorney also pursued this victim-as-perpetrator reasoning when he argued that the young woman

craved the embracing . . . craved the euphoria because her brain functioned in that way. . . . her feeling for sex and her drive—her genitals' signals—are greater than normal. (Hanley, 1992e, p. B1)

Whether they knew it or not, these defense arguments, which characterized the rape victim as a dangerous perpetrator who caused her own situation, drew upon a nearly century-old stereotype of the person labeled retarded as sexually ravenous. Goddard, an early advocate for social control of people labeled mentally retarded, noted that the intelligent person could control sexual urges but not so the person classified as intellectually incompetent: “Consider for a moment the sex emotion, supposed to be the most uncontrollable of all human instincts; yet it is notorious that the intelligent man controls even this” (quoted in Gould, 1986, p. 164). Persons classified as retarded, he asserted, “are not only lacking in control but they are lacking often in the perception of moral qualities” (quoted in Gould, p. 164). Goddard recommended colonization (institutionalization) and sterilization.

In pursuing a put-the-victim-on-trial strategy in the courtroom, the defense attorneys actually used a common rape-defense strategy, albeit with the added advantage of being able to rely upon historical prejudices about mental retardation as part of their ploy. Attributing the young woman's victimization to her mental classification conforms to the more generalized strategy of “blaming the victim” (Lamb, 1996; Ryan, 1971) that is typical in rape defense. Victims are often portrayed as either incompetent or manipulative. For example, Desiree Washington, the rape victim in the Mike Tyson case, was maligned in a St. Louis news commentary (Freeman, 1993, p. B11): “What was Desiree doing in his room at that time in the morning? She must have wanted to have sex. No one is that naive.” (The prosecution was clearly depicting the young woman in Glen Ridge as “that naive.”) Such victim-blaming is banal in relation to rape: “Attitudes toward victims of sexual violence are reflective of the actual status of women in society” (Ward, 1995, p. 62). Bechhofer and Parrot (1991) explained that such attitudes are commonly aired in relation to acquaintance rape, perhaps because myths and stereotypes about rape are fundamentally discordant with the circumstances of acquaintance rape:

When the common perception of rape was that it was committed by perverted, crazy men, ‘nice’ women didn't feel threatened because they doubted that they would interact with such men. But now we know that ‘nice’ men do rape, and that they rape ‘nice’ women. The crime is far too common to be blamed on a small minority of psychopaths. (p. 21)

They went on to conclude: “Forced sex between people who know each other is real rape with real consequences for its victims” (p. 23).

Goldberg, one of the prosecuting attorneys, asserted that the brutal rape happened to the particular victim in Glen Ridge because she was not normal: “This is not something that could have been done or would have been done to a girlfriend of one of the defendants. Normal human beings wouldn't tolerate such acts of cruelty, humiliation and degradation” (Hanley, 1992d, p. B4). So the problem, according to Goldberg, was the victim's mental retardation.

Goldberg never related the Glen Ridge case to the countless incidents of sexual abuse by the accused men in which they targeted all female students at Glen Ridge High School. One girl, harassed by one of the accused, recounted how she was cornered by the guys: “Come on, Diane. Suck it, blow it, put it in your mouth. Then, she said later, “He took my hand and he put it on his crotch. . . later he walked up to another girl sitting at her desk, pulled his pants down and exposed himself. I saw it” (Lefkowitz, 1997, p. 170). A university student at Boston College reported to prosecutors in 1990 that Chris Archer, one of the accused in the Glen Ridge trial, raped her on a public street: “In a sworn affidavit, the woman said Mr. Archer forced her to the ground, forcibly removed her clothing and then punched her in the vaginal area” (Hanley, 1993c, p. 25). “She said Archer penetrated her vagina and anus with his fingers” (Lefkowitz, 1997, p. 325). This woman was described as “physically attractive, highly intelligent and very articulate” (p. 325).

Prosecuting Attorney Goldberg ignored history when he argued that the woman in Glen Ridge whom he characterized as “not normal” was somehow uniquely situated for what happened to her and fundamentally unlike other female victims of assault. Notably, the prosecutor did not relate the Glen Ridge case to the prevalence of gang rapes on U.S. university campuses carried out by groups of male students against individual, nonlabeled female students familiar to the victims or to any gang rapes of other nonlabeled women (Brownmiller, 1976; Sanday, 1990). Lefkowitz (1997) noted that:

Bernice Sandler studied 110 cases of gang rapes on college campuses during the 1980‘s for the Association of American Colleges. Comparing these rapes to the Glen Ridge case, she told the New York Times, “I thought, No difference. Same scenario” (cited on p. 278).

One woman with whom we shared a draft of this article, an Ivy League graduate, recounted the reactions she received after she revealed that a popular athlete sexually assaulted her in his room. She said people were suspicious that someone reasonable would allow this to happen: “But it's not about intelligence, it's about expectations,” she told us. “When someone you know, who you admire, does this, you can't believe what is happening. You can't process it. You become paralyzed” (Anonymous, personal communication, July 11, 2000). It is noteworthy that in the Glen Ridge case, the victim reported that the grandmother of two of the assailants was in the house at the time of the assault, and before it happened had come halfway down the basement stairs to tell one of her grandsons that he had a phone call (Lefkowitz, 1997, p. 236).

Denno (1997) argued that the victim in Glen Ridge was actually “like most rape victims” in that she “knew her offenders, ‘gang acquaintance rapists,’ and trusted them in a way that she would not trust a stranger” (p. 372). She and her attackers were all teenagers, “that age group most apt to commit and be victimized by acquaintance rape” (p. 373). The author also reported that “Gang acquaintance rapists typically select victims who are incapacitated in some way, either through alcohol, drugs, or mental impairment” (p. 373).

Although we are not prepared to say that “mental impairment” (i.e., perceived mental impairment, classified mental impairment, socially constructed notion of mental impairment) incapacitated the Glen Ridge victim (such a position would, in our view, reify mental retardation as a physical state or, at least, implies an essentialist [i.e., disability is seen as a medical/physiological, psychological state that has clear, objective, knowable, socially decontextualized consequences] perspective on individuals so classified), there may be some basis for saying that this victim was especially vulnerable. Rioux, Crawford, Ticoll, and Bach (1997) argued, for example, that:

The radically unequal social and economic position of persons with disabilities places them at a disproportionate risk, as well as the lack of individual control and choice that makes it difficult for the individual to avoid and escape situations of risk. (p. 203)

Similarly, Andrews and Veronen (1993) remarked,

People with disabilities may be relatively socially isolated and lonely, more vulnerable to exploitation through manipulative relationships that initially appear to be affectionate and indicative of social acceptance. Their emotional and social needs may lead them to be easily led, wanting to please their associates. (p. 147)

Further, Sobsey (1994) noted that “sexual offenses are among the most frequent crimes against people with disabilities” (p. 52). Yet, it is also the case, as Denno's (1997) analysis cited earlier makes obvious, that what may make people classified as having mental retardation vulnerable is also what makes others vulnerable.

The prosecution's representation of the victim also diminished her, albeit with a different emphasis than that of the defense. As noted, the prosecution used the assessment of mental retardation in an effort to convince the jury that the young woman in Glen Ridge was a childlike innocent, incapable of complex motives. Prosecutors argued that the young woman was known to be “mentally defective,” was “incapable of saying no to sex,” and that her attackers “maliciously used” her (Hanley, 1993b. p. B7). As the trial began, Prosecutor Laurino referred to the young woman as “physically and mentally helpless” (Foderaro, 1989, p. B14). Prosecutor Goldberg borrowed from expert narratives about mental retardation, saying “the woman, now 21 years old, suffered from an ‘organic brain disorder’” (Hanley, 1992d, p. B4), and, because of it, she could not “sew, follow a recipe, keep a bank account, make change, understand prices on a menu or take a train or a bus. She was ‘easily deceived’ and ‘thirsted for friends’” (Goldberg quoted by Hanley, 1992d, p. B4). The prosecution characterized her as someone who wanted friends and social relations. “How could [she] go out on a date with an ordinary teenager,” the prosecutor asked the jurors, “when she couldn't really carry on a normal conversation?” (cited in Denno, 1997, p. 367). Clearly, the prosecution calculated that arguments accentuating perceived deficits exhibited by the young woman would be given more credibility than arguments discrediting the accused. (Such treatment is not uncommon. In another recent assault case, a man who was labeled as having mental retardation and was severely beaten was able to give authorities great detail recounting the events and his response to the assault, and yet he was depicted by the prosecutor as incompetent and amoral: “Just on the vulnerability factor alone, this man doesn't appreciate anything that's happened to him. He's innocent like a baby. Mr. Donovan has an IQ of 58 and the emotions of a third grader” [Halbfinger, 1999, p. B5.]) In her legal policy critique of the Glen Ridge case, Denno (1997) concluded that the prosecution in Glen Ridge was disingenuous with the jury, a strategy that could “weaken a prosecution's stance in a case where the trappings for conviction are less clear” (p. 367).

The respective depictions by the prosecution and defense attorneys of people labeled with mental retardation as being childlike (the prosecution's argument) yet sexually driven (the defense's argument), and vulnerable (prosecution claim) yet potentially dangerous (defense claim) are common stereotypes, remnants left over from the “eugenics beliefs” (Denno, 1997, p. 321). Such contradictory depictions of labeled teenagers as both innocent and a menace exist in the mainstream today, especially in the rhetoric of lobbyists against the proposed closures of institutions. In Ontario, Canada, for example, teenagers in one institution were described by deinstitutionalization opponents as “being childlike . . . having the strength and libido of a 16-year-old but with a 6-year-old mind” (Owen, 1997, p. A23). Recently, in California, adults labeled “retarded” were described as, “acting like children—vulnerable, impassioned and high strung. Often they cannot control their impulses, and some turn violent, experts say. Many in the forensic group have molested children, with whom they relate mentally” (Mozingo, 1999, p. B10). Both the prosecution and defense portraits of the rape victim reduced her life experience to mental and emotional ages and the complexity of her actions and thoughts to simple myths about what it means to be retarded.

Loss of Citizenship: A Consequence of Labeling and its Reification

All but 3 states in the United States have laws that in one degree or another prohibit the defense from introducing evidence about the victim's past sexual conduct (Robayo, 1994). Prior to implementation of these rape shield laws, Robayo noted that “a defendant accused of rape was free to submit evidence of a female sexual assault victim's reputation and past sexual history to refute the charges against him” (p. 278). However, in the Glen Ridge case, the court allowed the defense to submit evidence in precisely the manner that was common prior to passage of rape shield laws. New Jersey's rape shield law prohibited lawyers from using a woman's personal history (i.e., sexual history) as a defense for the accused, unless this prohibition could reasonably be interpreted to abridge the rights of the accused; that exception proved enormous in this case. “‘Bedrock in our system of justice is the constitutional right to a fair trial,” Judge Humphreys said. “That right will be violated if the evidence is not admitted here” (Hanley, 1992a, p. B.1).

Given that the defense argument depended on showing that the victim understood the meaning of sexual contact (see Hanley, 1990, 1992e) and relations between men and women, and arguably, therefore, would not be retarded with respect to the acts involved in this case, the defense insisted upon and won the opportunity to draw in testimony about past sexual conduct. Their argument was that if they could show that she had previously consented to sexual acts, and if there was evidence she had understood those acts, then such information would be relevant to the Glen Ridge case. Thus, the contestation over whether the woman had mental retardation opened her to personal scrutiny far beyond what would be allowed for a person who was not classified as having mental retardation.

Defense lawyer Zegas asked her: “Now you know from your experience that if you are too rough with a boy[‘s] penis, that could be painful to him right?” (Lefkowitz, p. 421). She was asked about sexual intercourse she might have had at her high school, to which she responded, “a couple times” (Hanley, 1992m, p. B5). Her gynecological records, transcripts with therapists, and even her conversations with a female student, Marie Carmen Ferraez (who taped the young woman unknowingly and later pleaded to a charge of witness tampering [Hanley, 1990; Nieves, 1992b]), were all fair game. Denno (1997) pointed out that

The court allowed the defense to introduce evidence that, since age twelve, [the victim] . . . had been ‘sexually active’; yet it disallowed prosecution evidence showing that this “activity” was actually sexual molestation that occurred two weeks before Betty's twelfth birthday. (p. 363)

The defense asserted that the victim had been:

expelled from school for sexual misbehavior, that she had bared her breasts while in school, and that she had engaged in intercourse in a school tower. [Her mother] . . . countered, however, that she had not been expelled, only transferred because she needed special classes; she had not bared her breasts but . . . had difficulty removing pullover shirts without the underlying T-shirts lifting; and she had only been “touched” in the school tower. (Denno, 1997, p. 363)

This type of intense interrogation, which puts the onus on an often traumatized victim to defend her sexual history, has been coined a “second assault” (Williams & Holmes, 1981) or “second rape” (Madigan & Gamble, 1990). The victim's own attorney charged that this was the first time in New Jersey that patient–doctor confidentiality had been violated: “Somebody should come out with a more definitive definition of victims' rights,” he said. “The records are confidential and no one on this earth is entitled to them” (Hanley, 1992b, p. B6)

Myra Terry, president of the New Jersey chapter of the National Organization of Women (NOW) arguably stood up for the young woman's right to be protected against rapists, but in making her point, she also diminished her by suggesting that she was, after all, childlike:

Rape is a crime, not a sport, and they made this into fun, games and excitement. We're going to stop this ‘boys will be boys' attitude from continuing in this country. This is a pathetic 8-year-old in a woman's body. How could she consent? (Hanley, 1992c, p. B4)

Similarly, Christine McGoey of NOW wondered aloud to the press, “If this childlike victim can't have protection from the rape shield law, who can?” (Glaberson 1992, pp. B1, B6). Ironically, the victim's classification as “having mental retardation,” and the attendant rhetoric that equates it with being childlike, which comments such as McGoey's and Terry's typify, may have made her especially open to losing the rape shield protections that other women can claim.

Being classified as having mental retardation raised questions (i.e., Could she understand the meaning and consequences of sexual relations? Did she understand the consequences in this situation? Could she give consent for sexual relations?) that led the court to set aside rape shield law protections? Yet, as Denno (1997) argued, opening the victim's medical records and sexual history in order, purportedly, to assess her understanding of sexuality and her ability to decide whether or not to participate in sexual relations, in effect “holds the mentally retarded persons to a higher consent standard than the nonretarded” (p. 370). Denno explained, “knowledge of the nature and consequences [of sexual relations] is so amorphous that even a substantial portion of nonretarded individuals may not be able to pass the test” (pp. 370–371).

A simpler test that focuses on the context of a particular situation, namely whether the person understands the sexual nature of the conduct (in the particular situation of the alleged attack) and is voluntarily able to participate (in a particular situation in question) is reasonable content to come up in a court's handling of a rape case, and it can be assessed for any victim, including a victim labeled as having mental retardation, without delving into the victim's past sexual conduct. This is essentially the argument made by the first author of this article at the time of the Glen Ridge trial:

In any situation like this, one has to look at the particular facts and ask, in this case, could she make a judgment? Did she know what was going on? Was she outnumbered? Was she vulnerable? There are a whole lot of questions that come up before one gets to the issue of mental retardation. (quoted in All Things Considered, March 16, 1993).

Denno (1997) referred to this as a contextual approach, where the “situational context of the sexual conduct is the most critical factor for courts to consider” (p. 373). She pointed out that the victim in this case had her head pushed down for fellatio (force), had objects pushed into her vagina (force), was in a basement with a number of men (creating a coercive or threatening situation), was threatened to have the events told to her parents, and was enticed by promises of a date with one of the victimizers.

Had New Jersey adopted a more narrowly drawn rape shield law, mental retardation would have not needed to be a consideration in its application. An approach to rape shield law protection adopted by Michigan and 23 other states prohibits “admissibility of all previous sexual conduct evidence with the exception of: 1) evidence of the victim's past sexual conduct with the actor, and 2) evidence of specific instances of sexual activity showing the source of semen, pregnancy, or disease” (Robayo, 1994, p. 297). These limited criteria make a victim's classification as “having mental retardation” irrelevant to the proceedings; these limited criteria do not provide a rationale for using the classification of mental retardation to justify obviating rape shield law protections.

Self-Representation: Narrating in One's Own Voice

Speaking for Herself, Rejecting the Label of Incompetent

The victim's own voice was heard in three ways during the case. First, she had spoken to a psychologist, a psychiatrist, to teachers and others, including one news reporter, who in turn reported to the court and, in the one instance, through a newspaper on what she had said. Second, she gave testimony directly to the court during the trial. Third, recordings of the Marie Carmen Farraez “tampering” tape were heard by lawyers and the jury. In this section of our paper, through analysis of her own account in relation to the accounts of others in this and related cases, it should become clear that the victim's account was not dissimilar to the accounts of other victims of rape and that a jury should have been able to judge this case on its merits, including the victim's recollection of the events in question, without additional interpretations of the victim's competence by professional or lay witnesses. Mental retardation need not have been at issue in the case and need not have been prominent in any discourse about the case. As will become clear in the conclusion to this article, support for her position can be found in recent legal and disability rights narratives.

First, from the accounts of her statements as presented by others, the victim comes across as conflicted, as many victims of acquaintance rape do (Burkhardt, 1991), yet also clearly harmed. According to a psychologist, Dr. Susan Esquilin, the woman was highly distraught by the case and felt guilt for any harm that might come to the students who had hurt her. She spoke of “‘wanting to be dead’” (Hanley, 1992g, p. B6). Pointing out that such a reaction was common among victims of abuse, Dr. Esquilin said the woman was having difficulty sleeping, had experienced loss of appetite, and was angry at being depicted publicly as having mental retardation (Hanley, 1992g). Dr. Esquilin also reported that the young woman said that she continued to perform oral sex on Bryant Grober, one of the accused, because she “didn't want to put him down. It would be putting him down not to do it” (Lefkowitz, p. 375). Similarly, Ms. Dawn Lipinsky, a family friend, reported that the victim “‘felt bad because these boys being tried are her friends and she doesn't want to lose their friendship and she feels it was all her fault’” (Hanley, 1992i, p. B1). At the same time, this family friend added that what had been done to her “was a terrible thing—those are her words. She said it hurt her” (Hanley, 1992i, p. B1). She reported that the woman had said specifically that the broom handle and bat hurt her. The young woman's swimming instructor reported being asked by the victim, “‘How do I say ‘no’ if this happens again?” (Lefkowitz, 1997, p. 440). Esquilin also reported that the young woman was clearly aware of the coercion; she said of Bryant Grober, “I didn't want to and he pushed me down,” and of the bats and broomstick, “I would never do that . . . You probably think I'm sick to let them do that” (p. 375). Blaming oneself for being raped and/or feeling not “good” in the eyes of friends and others after having been the object of acquaintance rape are common responses among victims mainly because “the victim's reality” of having been raped is often denied by those around her (Burkhart, 1991, pp. 287–289).

Second, the victim testified on the events with substantial, indicting detail. But, before the young woman could give her own testimony in the case, the judge asked her several questions, seeking to establish her competence to understand right from wrong. New York Times reporter, Robert Hanley (1992l), provided this accounting:

The judge pointed to his black robe and asked her if he called it red if that would be the truth. ‘No,’ the young woman said. He then mentioned her sister's nickname, Betsy, and asked if calling her sister Judy would be the truth. The young woman smiled and with a childlike inflection, said, ‘Noooo.’ The judge asked if it was ‘bad’ to tell a lie. The young woman agreed (p. B1).

Although such questioning is common throughout the United States and is routinely referred to as competency testing, the only contextually relevant issues at hand are whether the person can communicate in a manner to be understood (i.e., if necessary, with communication aids such as translators) and acknowledge the requirement to tell the truth. In this sense, mental retardation need not have been raised as an issue. Sobsey noted in this regard that:

The general trend throughout the 1980s and 1990s has been to allow greater latitude in presuming the competence of witnesses and leave judgment concerning the value of their testimonies to the juries and judges hearing their cases. Fifteen states now follow the lead of the U.S. federal rules of evidence and have passed laws that presume every person to be competent to testify regardless of age or disability. . . . These laws should make competency hearings unnecessary. (p. 285)

Indeed, the jury and all other witnesses in the courtroom could begin to assess the credibility of the victim's account the minute she began to give testimony. When asked to identify the defendants accused of hurting her, she asked, “Do I have to?” When told that she did, she looked across the courtroom and said, after pausing for 10 seconds, “a lot of them” (Hanley, 1992l). She then identified Bryant Grober as the plaintiff on whom she had performed fellatio.

“What happened next,” Mr. Laurino asked. “Then came the broomstick,” she said, going on to say that Kyle Scherzer handed the broom to his brother, Kevin, who “stuck it into me.” “Where,” the prosecutor asked. “In my vagina,” she answered. “They were saying, ‘Go further, go further.’” “What happened next,” Mr. Laurino said. “Then came the bat,” she answered. She said Kyle Scherzer gave the bat to Christopher Archer, who “stuck it in my vagina.” After that, she said, a stick was “stuck up my vagina” by Richard Corcoran. (Hanley, 1992l, p. B1)

When asked how it felt the next day, she said she was too embarrassed to answer the question. But then she allowed as how “it hurt when I went to the bathroom.” When asked why she had not left the basement during the rape, she replied, “I didn't want to hurt their feelings” (Hanley, 1992l, p. B1). Thus far, her account was detailed and clear.

Under cross examination, she held by her account. Defense attorney Ford tried to put words in her mouth, saying Mr. Archer “never did anything to hurt you,” but she countered, “Yes he did” and “He did the bat,” referring to the baseball bat (Hanley, 1992m, p. B1). Then, when told by Mr. Ford “Nobody told you you had to do this or that in the basement,” she responded, “They said they were going to tell my mother,” (Hanley, 1992m, p. B1). She did agree that no one had told her not to leave and that this was not something she would do in front of her [mother] (Fritsch, 1992, p. B1).

The issue of not actively resisting is complex. “The prosecution” wrote Lefkowitz, “was aided by a recent ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court. The court said that a defendant could be found guilty of sexual assault even if the victim did not resist or audibly say no (Lefkowitz, 1997, p. 350). This is typical in most rape cases. “It is rare,” said Fuller, a defense lawyer in the Mike Tyson rape trial, “that someone offers verbal consent in sexual matters” (Mann, 1992, p. E3). “This is a double bind” wrote Madigan and Gamble (1991): “A jury often will condemn a woman if she did not fight her attacker. It appears that a woman is suddenly supposed to change her personality and become physically aggressive when rape is attempted” (p.17). Ward (1995) concurred, explaining that society as a whole has certain expectations of how women are supposed to respond to rape. If assaulted, the victim is supposed to “stage vigorous resistance,” “be devastated by the event,” and be “emotionally expressive,” not “calm” (p. 77). Yet, reality may not fit with such “popular visions of sexual violence” (Ward, p. 76). Stromsness (1993) noted that it is common for victims not to report abuse for some time after the event for fear of consequences from their telling. Similarly, Calderbank (2000) argued that the situation facing a person with a disability in a rape situation is similar to that of other victims, if only more dire:

Power and control are the basic tools of an abuser. . . . To break an abusive cycle takes courage and the support of others. For anyone this is a major step, but for a disabled person the opportunity to talk to someone and gain support may be more limited. The fear of not being believed and lack of the opportunities to escape is often much greater. (p. 526)

The young woman's role in the basement events was characterized by the defense as either sanctioning the men's actions or a pathological symptom of her mental retardation. Apparently, after the rape, she did not leave the house immediately, because “I thought he (one of the young men) might still want to go out with me” (Fritsch, 1992, p. B3). When defense attorney Querques asked whether she wanted to hurt the defendant, she replied, “No, I don't want to hurt anybody. I care about them. I know they don't give a hoot about me, but I care about them” (Hanley, 1992n, p. B1). Her reaction was strikingly similar to the account of a nonlabeled student at school who laughed as a nervous reaction to an assault by one of the accused: “I laughed because I was shocked, and because I'd seen him do it to other girls . . . I still felt degraded but I also felt in a way accepted” (Lefkowitz, 1997, p. 170).

Third, the young woman's voice was also taped unknowingly by a fellow female student, Marie Carmen. In these tapes she told, or was manipulated into telling, stories that apparently contradicted her testimony. Yet, changing her account or, rather, saying different things to different audiences, was not unlike how some nondisabled assailants have handled this type of situation. But perhaps because the ways in which the nondisabled students responded were in keeping with normative standards, perhaps because they were not victims, or perhaps because these students had not been classified as having mental retardation, psychologists and other experts were not summoned to interpret their actions. After the trial, one of the young men accused of the crimes said he would have acted differently had he not feared his friends “talking bad about me, calling me a wimp” (Lefkowitz, 1997, p. 329).

Similarly, the Glen Ridge victim, in explaining what she told or did not tell her parents about what had happened, said, “I was embarrassed . . . I was too scared to tell them. They wouldn't understand” (Lefkowitz, 1997, p. 236). One of her defense attorneys was reported to have said that she did not want her parents in the courtroom when giving testimony (Fritsch, 1992, p. B 1). On the stand, she was asked by defense attorney Ford, “Nobody threatened you,” to which she eventually responded, “They said they were going to tell my mother” (Hanley, 1992m, 1992, p. B5). Then about being forced, “Some of it was force, some of it I allowed . . . because they wouldn't think I'd like them [if I didn't]” (Lefkowitz, 1997, p. 289).

Charles Figueroa, the high school student who first informed the police of the rape and abuse, also changed his story. Initially, he failed to tell the police about Corcoran. Seemingly, his reluctance to be forthcoming could be likened to the young woman's calculation about her own circumstances. Lefkowitz (1997) wrote:

Corcoran's questioning . . . turned to the detective's three sons who attended the high school. “He asked, was my boy involved?” I said, “No.” He said, “It's a wonder, all these boys are there. My boys weren't there.” I wasn't going to tell him, “Oh, yeah, Richie was there watching.” I wasn't about to say that. He's handling the case. He has, more or less, my life in his hands. (p. 240)

Figueroa worried that if he informed on the athletes, he would be isolated at school. After he did inform on them, he became the object of hate calls at home. Lefkowitz (1997) reported that the family took their phone off the hook and decided to never allow him to return to Glen Ridge High School (p. 248). Similarly, the woman who was raped at Boston College refused to file a criminal complaint, saying “my name would be dragged through mud” (Lefkowitz, p. 325). The Boston College student also declined to appear in a court proceeding that could have led to Archer's bail being revoked in New Jersey (Hanley, 1993d, p. 25). Her fears were consistent with national statistics indicating that “most athletes are never accused of criminally violating women” (Benedict & Klein, 1995). The young woman in Glen Ridge was in many ways similar to these other students in how she had accurately calculated and weighed the consequences of testifying against this group of popular students who were esteemed athletes with powerful family connections in the community.

Throughout the period leading up to and during the case, the victim's ability to understand what had happened to her was at issue. Defense attorney Ford told reporters that he wished the young woman were a “Phi Beta Kappa graduate from Wellesley. . . someone that's very intelligent” (Lefkowitz, 1997, p.408) so he could highlight her inconsistencies; if he emphasized this, however, she'd seem even more incompetent and susceptible to manipulation.

As noted earlier, psychiatrist Meyerhoff characterized her as confused. In the trial, at several points, in contrast to the clear statements noted previously about how she had been abused, she made a few remarks that were interpreted as evidence that she was unable to think clearly and that she was fundamentally different from other people. In court, she was described as lucid and straightforward at moments, hedging and reticent at others, and occasionally fractured and jumbled. She talked openly about fellatio in everyday language that New York Times reporter Hanley said was “as a child might talk about a candy bar or soda”; when asked whether a detective was a sergeant or a captain, she replied “detective”; when a lawyer used the term sexual nature, she asked what that meant; when she was seemingly unable to follow a lawyer's question, or to hear or concentrate on the question asked, she said in an openly annoyed, and familiar way, “I mean what's your point?” which drew laughter in the courtroom; and she pronounced one of the defendant's names as Grover rather than Grober (Hanley, 1992m, p. B5).

In her sessions with psychologist Esquilin, the young woman gave insightful observations about the events that indicated a more complex understanding of the coercion: “The way they looked at me, like I was supposed to do it—like a movie” (in Lefkowitz, 1997, p. 375). Querques, one of the defense attorneys, noted that some people thought of her as having mental retardation. She agreed: “Lots of kids in school said that.” But then she also agreed when he said she was “proving (herself) . . . not retarded.” “If I was retarded,” she said, “I could never answer all these questions” (Hanley, 1992n, p. B6). As discussed in the conclusion to this article, her demand to be seen as competent and deserving of being heard is similar to demands of the People First movement; she understood that being classified as having mental retardation meant not being taken seriously.

Also, her testimony was not unlike that of many other rape victims. For example, Desiree Washington, the victim in the Tyson case, said she may have neglected certain facts: “I may have left little details out,” she testified. “I was traumatized and I was just trying to tell him what happened. I felt uncomfortable talking to a man about personal things, about my body” (Muscatine, 1992, p. D1). One law enforcement official cited by Lefkowitz (1997), noted that even “the most intelligent witnesses don't always give a sequential coherent account of how they were raped” (p. 308). Parrot (1991) reported that an “inability to think clearly . . . is common in the rape trauma syndrome . . . [such that] the victim may have difficulty remembering her medical history and her remarks may be inconsistent” (p. 307) and “fears, stresses, and anxieties” may get in the way of recalling the details of the rape (p. 311). The young woman in the Glen Ridge case, however, provided a convincing account, giving a precise detailed description of the basement, the sequence of events, and the people involved.

Although the prosecutors' case hinged in part on the premise that she was too retarded to understand sexual acts, her testimony challenged the prosecutors' witnesses' claims that she did not understand what had happened. She demonstrated her understanding of the words pressured and forced, for example. One of the defendant's attorneys, Mr. Zegas, asked her whether she understood the word pressuring, to which she responded, “When somebody pressures you to do anything against your will.” Then she said that she had never been pressured to do anything against her will. Asked to explain the word force, she said when “somebody does something without-of your will.” When asked for an example of how somebody could do something “against your will,” she responded, “If, like, if somebody sticks a broomstick up you.” When asked “How does somebody force you?” she responded, “They make you do, I mean not make you do it but they do it to you” (Lefkowitz, 1997, pp. 433–434).

Verdict

On the charge of conspiracy to commit aggravated sexual assault and aggravated sexual conduct, the jury found Christopher Archer, Kevin Scherzer, and Kyle Scherzer guilty in the 2nd degree, and Bryant Grober guilty in the 3rd degree. On the charge of aggravated sexual assault (penetration of a ”mentally defective person” with bat, broom, and stick with use of force or coercion), the jury found Christopher Archer and Kevin Scherzer guilty in the 1st degree and Kyle Scherzer guilty in the 2nd degree. On the charge of aggravated sexual assault (penetration with bat, broom, and stick with use of force or coercion), the jury found Christopher Archer, Kevin Scherzer, and Kyle Scherzer guilty in the 1st degree (Strum, 1993, p. B4).

Archer and the Scherzer brothers were sentenced to “up to 15 years” in a “campus like complex for youthful offenders” (Hanley, 1993c, p. 1). The fourth assailant was given 3 years of probation and 200 hours of community service. According to news accounts, the three who were given up to 15 years could be released after serving as little as 22 months. The New York Times reported that the Essex County Prosecutor, Clifford J. Minor, “denounced the sentences . . . as too lenient. He said it was highly unusual to both impose an indeterminate sentence and allow freedom on bail for a first-degree crime. ‘In mild terms, I'm shocked and appalled,’ Mr. Minor said” (Hanley, 1993c, p. 28). Carole Vasile, a coordinator of the Essex County Chapter of NOW, reacted similarly: “The clear message to women is the crime of rape is not a crime worthy of punishment. Its [the verdict] a blow to women today (Hanley, 1993c, p. 28).

It could be that in sentencing, as in the trial itself, and in the discourse that surrounded the trial, ideas about mental retardation may have played a part in the outcome. The Times' editorial writers implied this when they wrote,

Bet you think that anybody who committed those obscenities [the Glen Ridge assault] on any woman, let alone one who was mentally defective, would end up doing a few years' hard time. Think again. … [The verdict does not] give lie to a suspicion shared by millions of Americans: that justice isn't color-blind. When it comes to crime, it seems, there's still nothing like being white, middle-class and suburban to get you the benefit of the doubt. (“‘Justice’ in Glen Ridge, 1993, p. A20)

The Times could have added that it does count that a victim is seen as having mental retardation and being female, inversely to the benefits of being perceived as ‘able,’ white, middle class, and male. Sobsey (1997) conducted research on how victim characteristics might influence sentencing. He found significant prejudice concerning disability:

Eight times as many people thought a suspended sentence was adequate when the crime victim was described as having a developmental disability, and almost twice as many people felt that time in jail should be required when the victim was described [as a professional] without a disability. In addition, when jail time was recommended, the average sentence was shorter for the crime when it was committed against a victim with a disability. (p. 7)

This finding is similar to data that have been reported on race and rape, where convictions are less likely in cases with black women victims and more likely with longer sentences in cases in which black men are accused of raping white women (Ward, 1995, pp. 102–103). Denno (1997) implied that the Glen Ridge prosecutors and New Jersey law may have undermined the chance of harsh sentences by emphasizing the victim's mental retardation classification, in effect helping to create the conditions that led the court to mete out a light sentence; she noted that in another case at the time, where a woman labeled as mentally retarded was raped by 5 young men, but where prosecutors did not emphasize the victim's mental abilities and where the victim's sexual history was not subject to open inquiry, the accused received prison sentences ranging from 5 to 15 years in a plea agreement (p. 375).

Conclusion: Finding an Alternative Discourse to Professional and Public Conceptions of Mental Retardation

Courts and the media, like school psychologists' offices, are sites for defining and reproducing the idea of mental retardation. As the Glen Ridge case reveals, they typically do so in a manner that says: Mental retardation is real, an objectively observable condition. It is presumed to be physically located in the classified person, a static reality. Even Lefkowitz (1997), who seemed to appreciate the complexity of the young woman and the disparity between her testimony and the preceding description of mental retardation, still subscribed to the notion of an arbitrary, definitive demarcation between “normal” and disabled. Commenting on the victim's basketball skills, he wrote, “similar . . . to many disabled children,” in years to come, she “might forget who the opponent was that night, who won, even whether the game was at home or away. She would remember the shot, the pleasure of seeing the ball go through the hoop, of hearing the applause and the cheers, of seeing her dad smile” (Lefkowitz, 1997, p. 162). In fact, neither Lefkowitz nor anyone else could possibly know what the young woman would remember about her basketball games, yet he acted as if he and the experts could know. In accepting the mental-retardation-as-static, objectivist definition of the young woman, where the disability classification dictates how she is understood, he contradicted even his own evidence. For example, he remarked on page 38 of Our Guys that “Sometimes in the course of her conversation she appeared unfocused and illogical. But at other times her account was precise and coherent” (p. 38); and then on page 21, Lefkowitz wrote, “with her excellent memory for details, [she] never forgot the color of the broomstick.” Perhaps it is an indication of the power of how mental retardation has been socially constructed as a static condition that even Lefkowitz could not see how his own voluminous data did not fit this prevailing script about mental retardation.

In this concluding section, we consider an alternative legal framework within which the Glen Ridge case could have been considered, one in which the term mental retardation and associated concepts such as mental age (MA) and IQ would be put aside. Further, we show how this framework complements an emerging disability rights discourse. As we have seen in the various venues of the Glen Ridge case (i.e., in the courtroom, in news accounts, and in narratives about the case), the young woman in Glen Ridge was rendered as one whom others were entitled to interpret rather than as an equal with whom to engage in dialogue. In all of the accounts of the Glen Ridge case, a professional discourse of defectology predominated, marginalizing her in terms of power and social status. Even the young woman's family was called upon by prosecutors to echo the discrediting judgment, calling her confused and vulnerable. Her mother testified: “She's extremely vulnerable because she does not know how to say no” (Hanley, 1992k, p. B4). Her older sister recalled an incident of abuse by two of the accused, when the victim was only 5 years old: “She was with playmates and they made her eat dog feces. Kyle and Kevin (two of the accused rapists) were there” (Hanley, 1992h, p. B6). The dilemma was that this person who everyone characterized as incompetent by reason of supposed childlike-thinking abilities, and, therefore, to be presumed especially vulnerable (i.e., her victimizers should have known better!), was also a person upon whom prosecutors had to rely as a competent (i.e., truthful, of good memory, reliable) witness to what happened in the basement. Was it possible for these competing notions of what it means to have “mental retardation” to coexist? Could the victim be special in terms of needing protection from male predators and yet ordinary in terms of deserving rights (to have consenting sexual relations, to give testimony, to vote)?

This is the same dilemma that surrounds discussions about capital punishment and intellectual competence. Calnan and Blackman (1992) pointed out, one “can't argue for the categorical immaturity of people with mental retardation when they are accused of capital felonies and then argue for specific instances of maturity and competence in the self-management of other areas of their lives” (p. 561), for example, in community living, voting, and decision making of all kinds. Denno (1997) noted this dilemma in how courts have regarded sexual relations by people labeled as having mental retardation:

When courts test a mentally retarded person's capacity to consent to sexual activity, they engage in far more than simply a legal venture. Rather they often dictate whether that individual can ever legally engage in a consensual sexual relationship. Many states criminalize the conduct of the nonretarded sexual partner of a mentally retarded person. (p. 343)

A preferred framework, what Denno (1997) called the contextual approach (see also Biklen, 1977, where he refers to a ‘non-exceptional’ approach), would eliminate “the separate statutory section for mentally retarded individuals” (p. 366). The classification of mental retardation would not be used as justification, whether implied or explicit, for a person losing his her due process rights. In the Glen Ridge case, she explained, the contextual approach would curtail testimony on IQ and MA. More appropriately, the courts could be expected to explore the victim's relationship to the defendant, a “factor . . . important in all rape cases” (Denno, 1997, p. 372), whether the victim could have consented to sexual relations in the context in question, and whether force was used (i.e., through threats, physical force, intimidation). Further, lawyers on either side of the case could be expected to explore the witness' ability to recall events and present them accurately, as they would with any nonlabeled witness. Although Denno would “exclude from statutory specification mental retardation or any other pejorative label currently encompassing it” (p. 376), she would allow testimony about intellectual competence, if it were contextually relevant, for example concerning a person's ability to make his or her wishes known and in what contexts. Ellis and Luckasson (1985) noted that the ability of some individuals to “perform tasks required at trial” may be hampered by limited “receptive and expressive language skills, vocabulary, conceptual ability, and low level of general knowledge” (p. 455). These presumably are also considerations for many other witnesses and defendants, including people who speak languages other than English, people who have grown up in cultures other than the United States, and people who have had poor education. (Even juries may have difficulty understanding aspects of a trial. Perlin, 1996, argued, for example, that “social science research . . . suggests that jurors frequently do not understand jury instructions as to the construction of mitigating circumstances” [p. 233]. But, again, these can be considered in the context of actual trials, with judges and juries making assessments about a person's believability. Sobsey [1994] noted that oaths do little more than allow individuals to be heard in court and that it is still the responsibility of judges and juries to determine believability. “Allowing testimony from all potential witnesses lets the courts weigh each piece of evidence as they see fit” [p. 285].)

Not surprisingly, the nonexceptional or contextual frame complements an emerging alternative, disability rights discourse, although the latter goes even further in advocating that people who have traditionally been labeled as having mental retardation should not be so labeled and should have the same rights as nonlabeled people to speak for themselves, albeit with support if needed. Beginning in the 1980s, the People First movement in North America argued that people with the classification of mental retardation were held back more by societal discrimination than by limitations associated with disability. In the People First documentary, We Can Do It, one leader describes a rape case where a man accused of accosting a woman who was labeled as having mental retardation was let free, purportedly because the woman with the label was not a strong witness. The analysis by the People First commentator for the film is that the woman was discriminated against because of her classification as having mental retardation:

This discrimination deal has got to stop. We are not going to take this. Anyone who tells us we cannot, we will set the record straight. We often can't because we are labeled retarded. That label does strange things to many people. Tom and Linda [Linda was the woman raped and Tom is her husband] are a good example. (Tom asked rhetorically,) “Couldn't they [the police] understand that she was very scared? She didn't change her story. She just told the truth. Couldn't they understand that? I just don't think she got a fair shake in court. That's all I don't think.”

As noted earlier in this article, concerns about getting the sequence and details of events straight are common in rape trials, but victims who are defined as “retarded” may be especially weakened as potential witnesses, for in many courtrooms, as in Glen Ridge, their credibility will predictably be undermined if prosecutors' and/or defense attorneys' courtroom strategies involve attacking their competency.

The People First movement has actively sought equal access to employment, to schooling, to community living, to a living wage, and for sexual rights. In We Can Do It, Patrick Worth, president of People First of Ontario, Canada, recalls that his mother wanted him to have a vasectomy:

When I was 16, my mother wanted me to have the operation. “You ought to have yourself fixed” (she said). Just like a dog. . . . You know the real reason? She doesn't want you to have a child like you. Just because he's different doesn't mean you shouldn't love him. (Worrell, 1987)

A central agenda of the People First movement is to reject the label mental retardation and to demand participation in community life, in sexuality, as well as in every other area, and to demand equal protection under the law.

The People First/disability rights discourse resists the idea of seeing people with disabilities as individual cases and, instead, locates the individual as among a group of similarly situated people who have faced systematic, legally sanctioned discrimination, often in the name of specialized treatment, protection, and care. The People First discourse also speaks to an agenda of affiliation, of alliance with others in similar circumstances to change the social conditions of exclusion and disempowerment, recognizing that equality and empowerment cannot come without some way of entering into dialogue with others, and of sharing in power and authority:

How do we show them (i.e., society)? By going and fighting and demanding. I don't like to be taken advantage of or used. We can help each other. That's what People First is all about. We hear what other people have to say. We learn from each other. We can be united in the same way that society can be united. (Smith, 1999)

There apparently was no disability rights movement immediately available with which the victim in Glen Ridge might have affiliated and from which she might have gained support. If she had been part of a disability rights community, she would have found support for her rejection of the label mentally retarded, for abolition of this separate designation is a key theme in the self-advocacy movement:

We don't like the word mentally retarded. It hurts our feelings. It hurts us. Would you like us to call you stupid? It doesn't help us in any way. It prohibits us from getting real jobs. We want to get rid of that label. We don't want it. This is about us. We will get change. It [the label mental retardation] doesn't give us any dignity. We will get change. (Gloria Steinbring cited in Smith, 1999)

The similarity of these sentiments to those of the Glen Ridge victim is unmistakable.

Unfortunately, without access to a disability rights community and a collective disability justice discourse, the victim in Glen Ridge became the object of others' representation and interpretation. Throughout the court proceedings and news coverage of the trial of her abusers, each of her utterances and each of her actions were examined and interpreted, often in a decontextualized way, by psychologists, psychiatrists, news media, attorneys, family, and others. She became seemingly more and more isolated as a stereotypical case example of mental retardation, the object of other people's authority to judge her. Just as she had been segregated in her school years, so too was she isolated now. Emblematic of her isolated, disempowered position, fully defined as a defective person, Paul Archer, one of the convicted abusers remarked, “I now understand. . . how sick she really is, and I just feel a great feeling of guilt and shame and I wish nothing had ever happened” (Lefkowitz, 1997, p. 162). She was, apparently, to Paul Archer and quite possibly to much of the rest of the world, someone to feel sorry for, but not to respect, even though, in the final analysis, it was her words and her strength in giving testimony about being abused that made the convictions of the rapists possible.

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Author notes

Authors:Douglas Biklen, PhD, Professor ( dpbiklen@syr.edu) and Philip Lambert Schein, MA, Doctoral Student ( prlamber@syr.edu), Cultural Foundations of Education, Syracuse University, 376 and 350 Huntington Hall, respectively, Syracuse, NY 13244.