Long ago and far away, a woman we hardly knew presented herself bruised and weeping on our doorstep one night. She told a vivid tale of woe. An old friend of our family she'd been dating had supposedly beaten her and thrown her down the stairs. Why she'd come to our house instead of police headquarters wasn't entirely clear.
The story went on for hours. After she'd gone, I asked my wife, "What percentage of that did you believe?"
Her eyes got big. She's a warm, compassionate soul whom people frequently seek out for advice.
"What do you mean?" she said.
"I mean that you've known X closely for 20 years. Do you really think he's just started beating up women at age 45?"
When I put it that way, she did not.
I know, I know. Domestic abuse is shockingly common. Along with sexual abuse, furtive alcoholism and other terrible sins. But the circumstances of my upbringing, as they say in 19th-century novels, didn't predispose me to believe the first story I hear.
Then I went into journalism, where skepticism is a (rapidly vanishing) virtue. I'd also written "Widow's Web," a book about a pathological liar whose exciting stories made her a statewide celebrity until homicide detectives sent her away.
Anybody can say anything about anybody else. Sometimes it's crucial to remember that.
In time, our late-night visitor's charges proved false. Our friend was the fourth or fifth man she'd accused that we learned about — none suspected of hurting women before or since. Like the others, he'd been forced to restrain her from attacking him. Flinging herself down staircases was evidently a dramatic specialty of hers.
She eventually left town, seemingly in search of more gullible audiences.
Based on a fascinating article by Emily Shire in The Daily Beast, Amherst, Massachusetts, might have been a promising destination. It's based upon on two lawsuits filed by male undergraduates at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who allege they were banished into academic limbo by absurdly biased Title IX "assault hearings" in which activist professors played at being judge and jury.
Subject to the proviso that damn near anybody can also file a lawsuit, Shire's piece definitely sounds like the UMass I knew in my youth: the New England birthplace of daft political correctness and serio-comic identity politics.
Actually, I'd wondered when I saw UMass identified as one of 55 schools under investigation by a White House Task Force for devoting insufficient zeal to sexual assault probes. UMass-Amherst on a list of colleges failing to protect women from predatory frat boys? A list that did not include, say, Arkansas-Fayetteville or Ole Miss, where they've been known to have some crazy parties on football weekends.
Now anybody sending a daughter off to college these days would be well-advised to hire a professional referee to give her the final instruction boxers get before the bell: "Protect yourself at all times." That said, isn't it odd that with violent crime rates dropping sharply everywhere, sexual assaults are supposedly metastasizing on campus?
Supposedly, one in five women college students gets sexually assaulted. Never mind that if one in five Starbucks customers got molested, the chain would soon go out of business. It follows that nobody outside the Task Force really believes those numbers. Alarming statistics are manufactured by including in the definition of "sexual assault" things like trying to steal a kiss or patting a girl on the fanny — ill-advised and boorish but not normally a crime.
It's probable that the list of 55 offending schools reflects not so much bad male behavior as the prevalence of institutionalized academic feminism on campus. The more "soldier sisters," as a sarcastic woman friend calls them, the more sexual assault complaints.
This is not to make light of real sexual crimes. Quite the opposite. Those should be prosecuted in real courts by law enforcement professionals. It's an imperfect system, but these faculty tribunals are a joke.
The details of the two UMass cases are classic: One is a how-drunk-were-you dispute between a woman who sent grammatically correct text messages announcing her intention to seduce the guy she subsequently accused of rape.
The other is rather like our late-night visitor's tale of woe. The defendant claimed the woman was the real aggressor, submitting photos of injuries and witness statements to substantiate his claim. Although she tried to drop the complaint, he got expelled anyway.
Neither allegation resulted in legal charges.
"Both Haidak and Doe," Shire writes, "allege the school denied the accused the opportunity to present key witnesses or submit questions to witnesses that would have potentially bolstered their cases."
Both say faculty acted openly and contemptuously dismissive of their claims. Good intentions notwithstanding, one lawyer says, colleges have "created an environment where these male students ... are treated as guilty before innocent."
And that can't be good for men or women.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.