It’s a challenge to wrap your head around this spellbinding memoir that digs as deep on the personal side as it also lays waste to a university jock culture and hyper bureaucratic ivory tower administration that tolerated sexual assault. It’s impossible to read Tell Me Everything and not wonder if you would be able to do what Erika Krouse managed to do—even if you hadn’t endured what Erika Krouse experienced as a young girl.
The subtitle carries a lot of weight—The Story of a Private Investigation. Yes, private alright. Krouse rips out her soul, spills it all over the stage. But the account is cool to the touch. It’s reflective. You might expect white-hot rage. Krouse gives us brainpower. And humor.
Tell Me Everything in a nutshell: the key investigator (that’s Krouse) on a protracted case that ultimately exposes a repulsive college culture of sexual assault and exploitation was repeatedly sexually assaulted as a very young girl. The New York Times review headline was perfect: “She Became a Private Eye. And Investigated Her Past.”
Krouse is unlikely P.I. material. She was writer. She was, in fact, a “destitute” writer. She’d been well-published and won major awards, but “already forgotten and even more broke than before. I felt cheated by my own fantasies.”
But Krouse also recognizes she has a special talent—an ordinary-looking face that prompts strangers to start talking. Even as a kid, Krouse was a “storage locker” for others’ secrets. The gig as an investigator begins with a chance encounter in a bookstore (a nearly “meet cute” moment, a reach for a Paul Auster novel—good choice!). The lawyer she meets in the bookstore recognizes Krouse’s special skill and asks her to work with him. Immediately. On the spot. Krouse would talk to witnesses. “Get them to open up.” Krouse is encouraged. “The idea was amazing, getting paid money for what usually ended up happening anyway.”
The idea suits her.
“I loved secrets, even terrible ones. Especially terrible ones. When people told me things, I felt happy. The more they didn’t want to tell me that secret, the happier I felt when they did. Secret information was something I earned at a cost—someone else’s cost. I could hoard that intelligence and never lose it. It was one of the few things in the world that was entirely mine.”
Krouse is worried about her lack of experience, but the lawyer (identified only as “Grayson”) starts her out with personal injury cases but then soon shifts focus to a lawsuit that might go after the local university (also not specifically identified, but clearly the University of Colorado in Boulder) on a Title IX violation for failing to protect students from discrimination. The case involves a woman named Simone who was hosting a girls-only party at her apartment when twenty college football players and recruits unexpectedly showed up. Simone was drunk and went to lie down. At least five of the players followed her into her bedroom and several raped her while others watched “as spectators.” Krouse is to start “discreetly gathering evidence” and she immediately realizes she will need to turn down the job.
“My own sexual assault had been different from Simone’s. I had been a small child, not a college student. I was abused not by multiple peers, but by one adult I now call X. The attacks continued from when I was four until I was about seven, not just one brutal time.
“But all differences felt academic now with this dizzying, whirling feeling in my chest. I knew I should leave. Instead, I pressed my back against the mesh ergonomic chair. I was too light-headed to think of a lie that would transport me out of there. And I wasn’t about to tell Grayson one bit of my history, then or ever.”
But Krouse steels herself and dives in. That “dizzying, whirling feeling” permeates the book. Krouse soon realizes the magnitude of the case she’s involved with and recognizes her own deep distaste for the culture that would tolerate this kind of behavior. Her first interview turns out to be a with a woman who had been raped by several of the jocks who had turned up at Simone’s party. Krouse might have started out feeling like an impostor P.I., but quickly finds the fuel she needs to dive in—hard.
Krouse’s P.I. work alone would make for a worthy book, especially given Krouse’s own interesting eye for details (she’s capable of some going down some beautiful, brief rabbit holes such as a quick lesson on the devastating pine beetle) and her way with words. But she’s also unflinching in exposing her own trauma. And her attempts to seek help from her own mother are either unheeded or repulsed. Krouse is equally blunt about her own failed relationships, even as she details the odd and unusual start to a relationship (and marriage) to “J.D.”
As one might expect for someone who was assaulted from such a young age, Krouse struggles with romance.
“I did not understand love, although I had often felt it. I just didn’t know how it was supposed to work once you separated the feeling from itself and turned it into action, doing things together. I hardly ever dated anyone after I graduated from college. Before that, when I truly liked someone, I wouldn’t pursue a relationship even if he thought he liked me. I was doing him a favor by saying no. Who would want to get involved with the mess that was me? Even now, I mostly dated people who seemed already broken in some way. We’d spend some time together, he would barely notice me, and we would both emerge intact.”
Krouse moves back and forth between her personal story and work on the lawsuit, which waffles between bleak moments and bright spots as Krouse gathers evidence and talks to potential witnesses. And, as she dredges through her memories, one blistering moment from her terrifying youth comes roaring back and she realizes why she’s always felt trapped, caged, and cornered. Writhing. But don’t think there is some too-perfect parallel track between Krouse’s increased self-awareness and work on the case as it progresses toward bringing accountability to the university and justice to the victims. Not hardly. Krouse doesn’t play cute. Or cliché. Instead, Tell Me Everything makes keen observations right up through its moving epilogue.
One of a kind. A must-read.