Don Rogers: Betrayal in the age of social media
The text messages were tragic, awful. Have you seen? Hope you’re covering this. A woman had posted a message on Facebook that she’d been drugged and raped while videoed with a cell phone one summer night in 2018.
She included a photograph of the man she said did this, talked about how the authorities didn’t support her. The Placer County District Attorney’s Office had declined to press charges.
“I’m tired of battling and being blamed,” the post ended. “I just want to go somewhere I can find peace again.”
Tiffany Thiele was still young at 38, an avid climber, a fifth-grade teacher, had friends who cherished her, family who loved her, and this awful event in her life.
The photographs of her on Facebook and news stories are of a smiling, healthy, beautiful person in her element — perched over a great view, climbing a sheer cliff, with a snowboard daggered in the slope behind her. She looks like an achiever, like she’s got this, whatever this is.
But she didn’t, not this time. Her body was found a few hours later in Truckee.
She apologized in her post to those she was leaving behind. “Things haven’t been the same for me these past three years.”
WHAT WOMEN BEAR
In the ashes of her suicide lies a too-familiar dilemma concerning the most intimate of crimes: sexual violation.
Perpetrators almost always get away with it. He said, she said. No witnesses. What is consent? When does one thing become quite another? Who gets to have personal power in society today? Who is believed? What constitutes proof in a court of law?
These questions go on, of course. But justice rests however uneasily on innocent until proven guilty. And the nature of this horrific abuse leaves cases so often unprovable. Usually, victims don’t bother trying. The sorrow and frustration expressed on the Facebook page “Justice for Tiff Thiele” brim over.
I know from my wife, my sister, my daughter, my female friends that normal life is different for them than me. They must be vigilant in ways I can’t imagine. Walking to their parked car. Having a drink in a bar. Going for a run. So many things.
Throw in that men tend to be bigger, stronger, more aggressive, crazier in certain ways than women. Even I’m wary of my gender sometimes. We all bear watching, given what the least of us is capable of. Sad to say.
This is modern life. We all live with this tension at some level. I remind myself that here we are in the safest place and in the safest time ever for humanity. But bad stuff still happens.
And when the worst does, well, it can change a person and wreck their relationship to the world.
That’s how I interpreted these events. Something awful happened. Too awful, ultimately, for one person to continue on.
NOT WHAT WE THOUGHT
And then I read the investigative reports. Whatever happened, she did not tell authorities that she’d been slipped something in a drink or that she had been sexually assaulted.
The man was not a stranger, but her boyfriend since the beginning of the year and they were having consensual sex, to be clinical about it. Then she noticed the phone propped just so. They were being videoed. She was what, in some sex tape?
He told the detective he thought she had known, had apologized immediately and deleted the video and two more. She said she wasn’t convinced and was concerned he’d done this with other women, and would again.
They had continued to communicate after that night while she was on a three-week mountain-climbing trip to Europe, they had sex again, she thought he was cheating on her, and they had what the man described as an ugly breakup, his first like that, he said.
The crime she reported was a misdemeanor. The prosecutors didn’t find enough clarity to pursue the case, considering as always how it would stand up before a jury.
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED?
Real life doesn’t conform easily to our stories, and every once in a while this news flash comes in dramatic and puzzling form. The Facebook post wasn’t strictly true. There was no spiked drink, no rape. The sense of betrayal and violation was real enough, however, to torment someone enough to take her own life.
Has the former boyfriend been violated now, too? How must he feel, known as an accused rapist, maybe one of those Cosby-like creeps who drop sedatives into their victim’s drinks? Or was setting up a discreet camera enough? Worthy of poetic justice via last Facebook post?
I think about perceptions. Hers in that she felt the need to tell a true tale much taller. His that caused him to cheapen an intimate, private moment between two people — for viewing later? Then, the consequences. Lifelong, and death.
Obvious questions about mental health begin to factor in here, no less tragic and awful than the Facebook story line, only more tangled.
A secondary, very secondary, tragedy is more vague and connected to our online era. A woman’s last words were performative and so, so public. Like a video she might have believed still existed and could be posted to her everlasting shame.
This is the world the rest of us live in now, no longer Tiffany’s concern.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299
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