Dear Nodaway County Sherrif’s Department,
You gave filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk impressive access to your office, your archives, and even your Sherriff, Darren White. For that, no doubt they were thankful. Their film, Audrie & Daisy, would have been a compelling documentary even without your co-operation—but your involvement adds a vital layer to the narrative.
Why? Because your department – and specifically Sheriff White – epitomize the kind of environment that enables sexual assault and victim blaming/shaming to blossom. The willful ignorance and hubris your department displayed is indicative of the small town fuckery and pervasive sense of entitlement that provide fertile ground for rape culture to flourish.
Audrie & Daisy tells the story of two teen girls who, in separate incidents, were sexually assaulted by male classmates and subsequently bullied online. Daisy Coleman survived an appalling public backlash following her assault. Audrie Potts committed suicide just eight days after hers. This documentary follows Daisy and Audrie’s families as they attempt to find justice and put back the broken pieces of their shattered lives.
Cohen and Shenk understand that these young women’s stories are dramatic enough to be compelling. But it’s how they tell the stories that is emotionally gripping and brilliantly nuanced. Audrie’s assailants, teen boys themselves, are shown in interviews and court depositions, but have been animated, rotoscope-style. This has the dual effect of protecting their identities and still allowing the audience to see that anyone is capable of perpetrating assault. The filmmakers use Daisy’s own drawings, and animate them, which allows us to see the events through her eyes and gives her the power to tell her own story. Both effects are haunting and profound. Yet neither are as painfully illustrated as the real-life characters that inhabit your department.
Audrie & Daisy should make us angry. But Cohen and Shenk aren’t interested in scoring easy points. Aerial shots of the California suburbs and Maryville farmland where each of the girls lived are a subtle reminder of the teen hierarchies and narrow-minded alliances that feed the fires of ignorance. Social media posts – from Facebook chats to texts and Instagram posts pop up onscreen – show just how quickly the witch-hunt expanded, and how despondent Daisy became. Her mom lost her job, their house was vandalised and burned to the ground, and when the hacktivist group Anonymous showed up, Daisy’s story went international.
Her story began on a cold January night in 2011. Daisy, then 14, and her friend Paige, then 13, snuck out of the Coleman’s Maryville, Missouri home and headed to a party. Both had been drinking. At the party, the girls were given more alcohol and were separated. Paige was sexually assaulted by a 15 year-old, and Daisy was raped by then 17 year-old Matt Barnett while two other boys filmed the assault. Drunk and disoriented, Daisy and Paige were then dropped off on the road near the Coleman home. Daisy was found at 5:00 am, in a hypothermic state, her hair frozen to the ground. A physical exam taken that day noted that her blood alcohol level was 134.92—this, some eight hours after the assault.
Sheriff White seems very proud that within four hours of Daisy’s discovery, the four boys had been taken into custody. Footage of their questioning shows deputies handling these perps with kid gloves, going so far as to praise them for seeing the girls home, and handing the phone with footage of Daisy’s assault back to the boy who filmed it (without ever retrieving the footage). Matt Barnett (who happens to be the grandson of a former GOP state representative) even admits to having had sex with Daisy. Sheriff White arrogantly reminds us that sex with someone over 14 isn’t statutory rape (conveniently omitting that Missouri law states that an unconscious person cannot give consent). All charges are eventually dropped.
This film inspired Jesus Camp-levels of visceral rage in me (watching that doc was the last time I felt an uncontrollable urge to reach inside a television set and throttle a documentary subject). This was worse. Where the subjects of Jesus Camp seemed, at least on the surface, blithely unaware of the deleterious effects of their dogma on their young charges, your department is overly defensive and unwilling to accept any responsibility for its actions. Like the Jesus Camp filmmakers, Cohen and Shenk know that there’s nothing more satisfying than watching powerful people hoist themselves on their own petard, which you do. Spectacularly.
Coming from a small town myself, I am painfully aware of how the good ol’ boy network operates. That the compulsion to protect your own whatever the cost can feel heroic, even though history will inevitably prove otherwise. The myth of rural living – that it’s safer, people are more neighbourly, and family values are paramount – is an insulated worldview that allows a toxic kind of cognitive dissonance to fester. Sheriff White can’t fathom the reality that a horrible crime happened in his small town, therefore he convinces himself that it didn’t. Maybe that’s why he makes unbelievably tone-deaf statements like: “Don’t underestimate the need for attention, especially young girls.” And: “Girls have as much culpability as boys do.” It’s all he (and his deputies, and even the mayor) can do not to say, “well, boys will be boys.” If this seems unfair, consider the fact that White has two young daughters himself, and brags about his accountability in his first scene, boasting: “the buck stops with me.”
This isn’t just a doc that should be shown in schools, it should be required viewing for anyone with a pulse who lives in the 21st Century. Audrie’s parents, along with Daisy and her family, will survive these horrible events by bringing awareness to the epidemic of sexual violence in the form of this unflinching and powerful documentary. In the court of public opinion, your department will be weighed and measured by its actions and inactions. I feel confident that your uppence will come. If it hasn’t already.