What It Was Like to Survive an Elite Prep School Rape Saga Before #MeToo
Chessy Prout watched her assailant go to jail. Now she's telling her story.
Chessy Prout is the 19-year-old survivor at the center of the notorious St. Paul’s rape case, a sexual-assault nightmare that began years before #MeToo went mainstream, when the teenager was still a student at the prestigious New Hampshire prep school.
Throughout most of the ordeal, her age—she was just 15 when the crimes in question took place in 2014—meant Prout remaned nameless in court filings and rampant media coverage. While journalists like me took in the trial first hand, TV news stations blurred her image and distorted the audio from her wrenching cross examination, in which she testified, “I was raped, I was violated in so many ways.”
Prout was nonetheless doxed in dark corners of the Internet, and in civil litigation, attorneys for the school demanded she identify herself publicly. She eventually did so, but not before Owen Labrie—the former student she said raped her when he was a senior and she a freshman—was convicted of misdemeanor statutory rape and felony use of a computer to lure a child. Labrie, who was 18 the time of his crimes, was found not guilty on the most serious charge—felony rape—but required to register as a sex offender. Since then, he’s filed a series of appeals, some failed, some ongoing. While initially released pending the outcome of those appeals, he spent two months in a New Hampshire jail for violating the terms of his bail.
Now, at a time when sexual violence is finally getting at least some of the attention it deserves, Prout is speaking out again. In her memoir out Tuesday, I Have The Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope, Prout and co-author Jenn Abelson—a Boston Globe Spotlight reporter—tell her story in fuller detail. The memoir’s title alludes to the list of rights Prout believes all girls and people who have lived through sexual assault should enjoy, such as being able to “be alone with a boy without anything being assumed,” and being called “a survivor,” not an “alleged victim” or “accuser.”
A book by someone so young, so soon after the fact, provides a nuanced addition to the #MeToo conversation, one in which Prout nods to her privilege—financial and racial—as well as her family for giving her the support she needed to speak out. I reached out to her for some perspective on surviving the crime itself, being at the center of such a massive scandal at such a young age, and how she sees her story in the context of the ongoing movement to hold men accountable for sexual harassment and violence.
VICE: Having covered the trial and the aftermath, it’s crazy to look at this case in retrospect. It was a hugely public affair, but it started before #MeToo became inescapable, and even before Brock Turner’s case in California went to trial. What has it been like to go through all of this while sexual assault was still only on its way to being really deeply enmeshed in the wider national dialogue?
Chessy Prout: I’ve been encouraged by the fact that this has become something that people talk about. It started a chain. It’s also extremely depressing to see all of this come out, that, Oh my god, there are millions of other people out there who have felt the way that I’ve felt. I would never wish that on any of my enemies.
So, for a while, I was really depressed and feeling extremely hopeless about all the countless stories that are out there, feeling so defeated.
As the movement grew, as women and men started to feel more empowered by their voices, and as you see all these youth activists coming out and speaking up and claiming their voices, I’ve been encouraged. And I’m excited for what the future will hold in the victims’ rights movement.
Do you think things would have been different if what happened to you took place a couple of years later—if #MeToo were in full swing?
I honestly can’t imagine it. For my own sake and for my healing, I have tried not to wish that my circumstances were different, because I can’t change what happened to me and when it happened.
But also, the college campus movement had started as well, and in the half year after I was assaulted, The Hunting Ground came out and actually helped me in extreme ways. It helped me feel less alone, helped me feel validated in the way I reacted to my sexual assault.
I hope it would be better for somebody reporting today. I hope our culture has changed, at least a little, in the last three and a half years, and I hope it will continue to change into a culture of believing survivors and supporting survivors and eliminating the shame and blame from the immediate reaction.
Despite knowing a lot about the case, the dynamic between you and your friends was a little surprising to me as I read the book—I didn’t think I was going to see the complexity of teenage friendship and social climbing on that level, and in such detail. The Facebook messages, texts—why did you think all that detail was so important to include?
This is my story, my truth, my emotions and my view on what has happened in the last five or six years of my life. Yet, at the same time, I remember how it felt when I was on the witness stand and the defense attorney JW Carney, Jr., would misquote me, misuse what I was saying and twist my words, and I remember how that felt, and didn’t want to make anyone else feel that way. I wanted it to be the truth.
You’re going to go to college in the fall, and unlike a lot of survivors of assault, you’ve chosen not only to use your name but have a picture of yourself on your book, in addition to dozens of other photos inside. Why is that?
My story may be unique to me, but, sadly, the idea of it is not unique to the rest of the nation. The themes of victimization and bullying that survivors of sexual assault receive afterward is all too real for young women out there—young women and men. I wanted to show a real human being behind the word survivor, behind the word victim—again, that’s why I came forward in the first place, because I was tired of just being the 15-year-old victim, whereas my perpetrator was lauded with his accomplishments. So I think it’s important to see the humanity behind the words and to be compassionate and sympathetic to the victims of the crime.
You talk a lot about how the people who are accused of sex crimes are written up about in the press as opposed to the survivors. Can you talk a little bit about on the frustration of, on one hand, being protected—juveniles and survivors of sexual assault are not named in the press or in court documents as a general rule—but also being upset that your story wasn’t told?
Being protected as a minor is really a double-edged sword. Whereas it gave me a lot of privacy during the process, I was also outed on the Internet under comments of articles. People knew who I was.
I also had the privilege of having my family support me 100 percent—my family and extended family. And I was able to, unlike most survivors, leave the area, the place where I was assaulted and victimized.
I felt strong enough to step forward and use my name, and tell my story, and show my face because I had that support system in place, and by doing that I hoped to show that there is no perfect victim. You can pull us apart, you can try to tear us down, but at the end of the day we all deserve to be believed, to be heard, and to use our voices and receive justice.
In the book, you write about what you went through at trial, you describe Labrie’s defense attorney Jay Carney as having a “bald, egg-shaped head,” you call him a “cocky pretentious asshole.” At one point, you said, you wrote down, “Mr. Carney, are YOUR balls shaved right now?” after he grilled you about your grooming habits on the stand. Did it feel good to get that all out on paper and in public?
I’m not perfect. I have a lot of anger inside of me. He used terrible tactics, I was bullied on the stand, and I was angry. I’m glad I got to share some of that anger because it’s a part of healing.
Is there anything else you would say to survivors of sexual assault?
A lot of the time when I was going through my PTSD and the anxiety and depression that really enveloped me after my assault and especially during and after the trial, I thought I was going crazy. I didn’t know what disassociation was at the time and I thought I was literally going insane until a psychologist told me, “Well, that’s a normal response, that’s a symptom of PTSD.”
I want survivors to realize that their body is not betraying them, they aren’t going crazy. These are normal effects and we can get through this. We can survive this.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
To learn more about Prout's memoir, out Tuesday, click here.