Tawana Brawley was an abused child. We all owe her an apology
Tawana Brawley was 15 years old. A tenth grader growing up in a crumbling district of New York, I wonder how many of her classmates knew what was happening when she went home from school. If they saw the bruises that lined her arms. If she ever talked about what her stepfather did to her when the door closed. If they ever knew her mother watched, or joined in. If she ever shared with a friend how he had stabbed his first wife fourteen times with a steak knife, before beating her and shooting her to death. If they ever heard how he had beaten her up in a police station in front of officers. Certainly neighbours and family friends were concerned about how he spoke about her, in an intensely sexual way. One thing was for sure: on that cold November night in 1987, this wasn’t a happy little girl in a loving home.
Perhaps you forgot that, in all the media furore: she was a little girl.
We don’t often afford black girls a childhood. We don’t shrug off their minor misdemeanours as teenage tantrums, or a stolen soda from a store as a moment of stupidity. We don’t see their skipping school or sneaking out to a party as a childish rebellion. What would often result in a stern word from a community officer for a white girl can result in a criminal record and even a jail sentence for a girl of color. What Tawana needed wasn’t hard parenting or harsher policing; it was love.
She needed someone who loved her, not someone who beat her. Someone who knew what was going on at home, someone who cared. Someone who understood why she stole, someone who understood why she was sexually active while still so young. With every raised fist and arrest, Tawana withdrew from the adults who were supposed to protect her to the last glimmers of happiness available to her: parties, a bad boy high school boyfriend, a few stolen pleasures slipped into her bag from stores when no one ever bought her anything. We all know that girl. We all grew up with her. The girl who needed, so badly, to be loved, at any cost to her safety, future, and consent. A victim. A survivor.
We didn’t listen then. Maybe now we can hear Tawana.
28th November, 1987.
Wappingers Falls, New York
Two miles north east of the Hudson River, Tawana lived with her mother and stepfather in a small apartment. She often snuck out for parties, and after one incident where she didn’t return before 5am in the morning, was grounded by her parents. She was scared of them, telling her jailed boyfriend’s mother while skipping school a few days before her disappearance that she ‘was already in trouble’ if they found out, recalling her stepfather’s terrifying rage a few days before. But today, something strange happened.
Tawana emerged after four days of a disappearance, something that happened from time to time, but something was wrong. Lying naked in a garbage bag near a former apartment she had once lived in, Tawana had racial and misogynist slurs written upside down on her body, appeared ‘spaced out’ or high, and her clothes were torn and burned, her hair smeared with faeces. But strangely, there were no burn marks or bruises on her body. Her family rushed her to hospital and demanded to see a black police officer to investigate what had happened. She communicated through nods and written notes, uttering only one word through the whole twenty minute interview: neon. She communicated that she had been raped repeatedly over several days in a wooded area, some distance from her home, by six white men, one of whom was an officer in police uniform.
Her condition had the markers of a gang rape: her nakedness, the sexual slurs, and the humiliation of the attack were all symptomatic of an assault. But when the nurses performed a rape test, Tawana suddenly said she hadn’t been raped, only assaulted in other ways. But strangely, there was no evidence that that had happened, either. She couldn’t provide any descriptions of her attackers, or an explanation as to how she’d survived several nights in below freezing conditions without developing hypothermia. Tawana’s story didn’t add up.
As the case began to fall apart, with several friends saying they’d seen Tawana at a party during the days when she was allegedly being assaulted, and another witness saying they’d seen her climb into a garbage bag on the site of her discovery, media outrage blew up. There was evidence she’d eaten and brushed her teeth shortly before being found, and the faeces was identified as belonging to her neighbour’s dog. The handwriting on her and angle allegedly matched her own. The final nail in the case was the discovery of burnt fibers under Tawana’s nails, something that could only have happened if she had burnt her clothes herself, not her attackers. Everything pointed, fairly conclusively, to the fact 15 year old Tawana had staged an assault herself and burnt her clothes and written the racial slurs to avoid getting beaten and abused by her father for running away.
The media had a field day. A black girl had lied about being raped and accused white men in the process. This was gasoline on the fire of white supremacist hysteria, with many triumphantly claiming the incident as further proof that racism wasn’t real and black people as lying. Tawana was evil, a destroyer of lives. A malicious, deceptive monster. Thirty or so years on, her name comes up frequently when discussing whether women lie in rape cases. But there is something everyone seems to have forgotten:
Tawana was an abused child growing up in fear of a convicted murderer.
Tawana was a 15 year old. She didn’t kill anyone. She didn’t rape anyone. She didn’t do anything apart from trying to survive, as best she could in a world where she had no control, and no sanctuary, or adult help. She was trying to avoid being beaten, abused, assaulted. She was so desperate she smeared faeces on her body and climbed naked into a garbage bag. She kept up an impossible fairytale just to keep her body safe from his fists, his rage.
We should have protected you, Tawana. We should have recognised what was going on and protected you. But we didn’t. We enjoyed putting a 15 year old girl in a media and criminal circus to make a wider statement on race and the reality of racism, long after it was obvious you were trying to protect yourself.
Let’s make her name synonymous with what little girls are prepared to do when they are desperate to save themselves from abuse. Tawana, I am so, so sorry.