When Owen Labrie was an 18-year-old senior at the prestigious St. Paul’s School, he made plans via email to meet a 15-year-old freshman girl as part of the “Senior Salute,” a tradition that involves seniors attempting to sleep with as many underclassmen as possible. According to that freshman’s testimony, Labrie would force her to have sex in a closet, despite her repeated objections.
This past August, Labrie was found guilty of a few of the handful of charges set against him: one count of misdemeanor sexual assault, one count of endangering a child (also a misdemeanor), and of using a computer to lure a child (a felony). He has since been sentenced to a year in jail, five years of probation, and to register as a sex offender.
And on Tuesday, just a week after SB Nation posted and quickly deleted a tome that essentially erased the victims of former cop Daniel Holtzclaw, Vanity Fair published a 5,500 word article by St. Paul’s alumnus Todd S. Purdum that suggests because of one “encounter that turned sexual,” “two lives have been irreparably damaged.”
The piece leads with this description of Labrie and the unnamed freshman girl:
He was 18, a scholarship boy from a bitterly broken home, a star scholar-athlete—captain of the varsity soccer team—who had won full-ride admission to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Dartmouth, Brown, Duke, Stanford, Middlebury, and the University of Virginia, and two days later would be the winner of the headmaster’s award for “selfless devotion to School activities.”
She was 15, a privileged second-generation preppy who had been raised in Asia and whose older sister had briefly dated the boy and advised her to steer clear of him; by all accounts a naïve and impressionable freshman both flattered and flummoxed by the insistent e-mail entreaties of one of the most popular boys at St. Paul’s School, in Concord, New Hampshire.
The lede echoes tropes from so many male-authored deep dives into rape investigations: he was the star, she was the confused child who ruined his life.
“Like a Rashomon episode of Showtime’s The Affair,” Purdum continues, “almost everything else depends on the protagonists’ divergent perspectives, dueling recollections, and diametrically opposed interpretations of intent.”
The subject matter strikes us as decidedly outside the wheelhouse of Vanity Fair, which tends to excel at elevated features about celebrities, royals/America’s version of royals, and politics; this particular story we can posit interested them because it involves youth culture and a prep school. It is also seemingly new territory for Purdum, who is a political reporter.
But the author discloses that he has a stake in the game—he graduated from St. Paul in 1978, won the same award as Labrie, and was a visiting lecturer at the school while Labrie was a student. When the story broke, he emailed with the school rector, Michael Hirschfeld, about the school’s handling of the case.
“What I’ve learned has made me as sorry as if I were covering a crisis in my own family,” he writes, reaffirming his necessary lack of or potential desire for fairness, “which, in a sense, I am.”
Throughout the article, Purdum paints Labrie as a golden boy with a sexual dark side (“In the fall of 2013, Labrie wrote of a ‘lonely gynecologist’ sitting in a greasy-spoon diner in Michigan, ‘mulling over the undeniably miserable and miserably undeniable fact that his vast knowledge of the vagina had never, not even once, been of practical use,’”) and the survivor as a young girl burdened by various social and familial pressures.
For every secession he gives the survivor of sexual assault is one he affords one to Labrie. She was forced to change schools after St. Paul’s turned against her, but “Labrie’s life is also in shambles,” since his admission to Harvard was withdrawn, and he was eventually forced to register as a sex offender.
Ultimately, it seems that Purdum finds fault in a “rotating cadre of circle-the-wagons trustees and administrators who would defend the school’s reputation in the face of damning facts and obvious misconduct.” The Senior Salute continued not because of a global culture that rewards white, wealthy boys for having lots of sex, but instead because the administration alone allowed it to.
What is perhaps most depressing from the trial testimony, and documents submitted by the prosecution at the time of Labrie’s sentencing, is that the rite in which Labrie participated was not the province of disaffected or marginalized students who were known rule breakers. Instead it involved some acknowledged leaders of the school: the captain of the soccer team; editors of the newspaper; a class officer of the grade behind Labrie. They shared stolen keys not just to the science-building mechanical room but to other private spaces on the grounds. They shared e-mail templates for inviting girls to a salute and passed around a papier-mâché “slay” mask that amounted to a kind of trophy. This all apparently came as a shock to faculty and administrators—including Hirschfeld, a onetime scholarship kid and athlete, who is said to have seen in Labrie something of himself, the very model of a St. Paul’s student, the kind of person that the school’s diploma would have called in my day a “juvenis optimae spei,” a youth of brightest hope.
The article is not wholly bad—the author devotes several paragraphs to how the St. Paul’s community abandoned the young woman—but much of it is off-putting, and, at times, alarming. Its tone reads as written by someone who does not understand sex crimes or the society we all live in that allows and encourages them, and like it was edited by individuals who, yet again, did not quite understand what they were getting themselves into. Purdum writes from the perspective (and with the acute privilege) of a St. Paul’s community member, one that is shocked at the behavior condoned by the administration, rather than by the culture that repeatedly encouraged it.
Perhaps the article boils down to the idea that this one woman’s tragedy is a pox on Purdum’s heritage—and even American status symbols at large—and he is sad about it.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image via AP.