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The Boston Phoenix Licensed To Ill

Behind the ugly story of a high-school rape lies an equally troubling tale of jock worship in an American suburb.

By Jason Gay

AUGUST 10, 1998: 

OUR GUYS, by Bernard Lefkowitz. Vintage Books, 516 pages, $15 paper.

Something terrible happened in the home of Kevin and Kyle Scherzer, twin brothers and stars of the high-school baseball team in the idyllic suburb of Glen Ridge, New Jersey. One afternoon, a mentally retarded teenage girl from the neighborhood was lured into the Scherzers' basement, where she was greeted by more than half a dozen jocks from Glen Ridge High School. In the minutes that followed, the young girl would be asked to perform oral sex. She would have a broomstick inserted into her vagina, and later, a regulation-size baseball bat. And then, she would be told to leave the basement and never, ever say anything about it again.

This crime is the central moment of Our Guys, Bernard Lefkowitz's disturbing examination of the events surrounding the 1989 Glen Ridge gang rape and the high-profile trial that followed. Lefkowitz, a journalism professor at Columbia University, spent several years interviewing hundreds of Glen Ridge residents, including the teenage victim and her family. The result, originally published in 1997 and now available in paperback, is an exhaustive, uncompromising parable about what happens when a horrible crime infects the suburban American dream.

The behavior of the Glen Ridge rapists, many of whom were stars of the high-school baseball and wrestling teams, is undeniably sickening. But, as Lefkowitz points out, almost equally appalling is the way this small, affluent community -- especially its adults -- embraces the perpetrators in the wake of the incident. As months pass, Lefkowitz relates, the young men return to their adolescent lives with minimal disruption. All their lives, they have been pampered by an environment that celebrates their athletic prowess while ignoring their considerable (and ultimately, dangerous) developmental shortcomings. Meanwhile, the victim's account of the assault is continually disparaged -- she wanted it, her critics claim -- and her family is increasingly ostracized.

Throughout the book, Lefkowitz deftly describes how the insular nature of a suburban town can work to minimize the impact of a discomforting criminal case. Glen Ridge, about an hour's drive from Manhattan, is populated by the families of doctors, lawyers, and successful entrepreneurs, people just as interested in protecting the town's reputation as they are their green, manicured lawns. As a result, the community never makes a serious attempt to understand the causes of the rape incident; rather, residents blame the New York media for sensationalizing the case and wonder aloud why the victim would want to "ruin" the lives of such talented student-athletes by taking them to court. (Lefkowitz also devotes considerable space to discussing the victim's mental disability, since much of the prosecution's case hinged on whether the jocks took advantage of her retardation.)

Our Guys is a courageous book, unafraid to question a community that may have not only fostered the crime committed in the Scherzer basement but also led the perpetrators to believe that they could escape punishment. Unfortunately, however, Lefkowitz's devotion to analysis and fact-gathering can be as cumbersome as it is exhaustive. He insists on profiling even some of the most tangential individuals in the case, and he retraces far too much of Glen Ridge's mostly uninteresting town history. Our Guys does have its riveting moments -- especially the narrative introduction to the case that opens the book and the legal resolution at the end -- but many sections of it drag like a well-researched but uninspired graduate thesis.

It's the Glen Ridge jocks themselves who are the book's biggest dramatic handicap. Virtually anyone who attended high school can remember their kind: handsome, popular athletes whose exploits on the playing field are placed above the accomplishments of the rest of the student body. These kids certainly aren't the first golden-boy student-athletes to commit a crime and try to get away with it. In fact, they're clichés come to life. For some reason, though, Lefkowitz writes as if he's mining new territory by revealing that (a) many adolescent jocks live charmed lives and (b) much of suburban America goes out of its way to protect them. Sadly, we've seen it all before. Indeed, though the Glen Ridge gang rape may be singularly indefensible, Our Guys is an old story.


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