TCR Interviews Erika Krouse
By Kaia Gallagher
An award-winning novelist and short story writer, Erika Krouse published her first book of nonfiction, Tell Me Everything: The Story of a Private Investigation, in March of 2022.
Described by The Washington Post as masterful and mesmerizing, Tell Me Everything recounts Krouse’s role as a private investigator who gathered evidence during a five-year investigation into a culture of sexual assault within a university football program. Krouse’s efforts to interview witnesses who were victims of sexual violence and gang rape were complicated by her own history of childhood sexual abuse. As a result of the compelling testimony Krouse was able to compile, her legal team won the first Title IX sex discrimination case and established a legal precedent that has required colleges and universities to institute protections against sexual violence.
A Colorado-based author, Erika Krouse works as a teacher, editor, and coach at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop.
The Coachella Review: Over your career, you have published a novel, a collection of short stories, and fiction for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and other publications. How difficult was it for you to switch to nonfiction and make yourself the narrator of your recent book, Tell Me Everything?
Erika Krouse: I was pretty dumb. I thought it was going to be simple because I already knew the basics—the protagonist, me, what her problems were, the plot, etc. I thought, How hard could it be? You just have to tell the truth!
But you can’t hide in nonfiction the way you can in fiction, and I had to be honest about my own bad behavior. And for me to write a book that meant something, I also had to write about things I never talked about. I couldn’t tell these brave women’s stories if I didn’t have the courage to tell my own. Sometimes, I would just type blindly with my eyes closed and my head down on my desk. I think I cried every day.
TCR: Throughout your book, you detail the skills you developed as a private investigator, yet you eventually rejected the person you became as someone who was a manipulator, a liar, a thief, and an intruder. When you encouraged people to share their stories, what made this process difficult for you? What were the ethical principles you adopted as you collected information about the horrific crimes the women you interviewed had experienced?
EK: That’s so kind of you to assume that I adopted ethical principles on the job! And, alas, not true. I quickly fell into a means-to-an-end philosophy; if it was for a good cause, I could do anything, right? Right? I was obsessed, and the case was intensely personal to me. I would have done anything. It made me good at getting information, but it also made me a bully. I’m still ashamed of some of the things I did to be a good P.I.
TCR: As you gathered information for the Title IX lawsuit, you recognized that the sexual abuse you were investigating had parallels with the abuse you suffered as a young child. In previous interviews, you have said that you wanted to assure that your readers, particularly survivors of abuse, could read your account without being triggered. What process did you use to achieve a balance between describing enough about the abuse that was committed without becoming overly descriptive?
EK: I’ve never been able to read books that detail abuse in graphic, sensory, drawn-out detail. They make me feel dizzy, and besides, that style never feels true to me. Most survivors of violence—sexual, physical, war—avoid describing their traumatic experiences in graphic detail. We usually talk in code. It’s a cultural thing.
But I didn’t want to sugarcoat what these perpetrators did, either, or try to make horror “nice.” So I used a bare-bones, journalistic style to describe the violence, only covering the necessary facts. But the facts were so awful even this flat style might feel graphic to some people, depending on what they’ve been through.
TCR: Since Tell Me Everything deals with a legal case, your book was carefully fact-checked before it was published. You also masked the names of those involved in the case. Did you end up using a variety of journalistic techniques to compile the facts surrounding this story? Given the legal ramifications associated with the story you told, were there additional precautions you needed to take to assure that you told the story accurately while not damaging anyone’s reputation?
EK: My outline was a ridiculous one hundred thousand words long. I used the work memos I had created long ago, newspaper articles from reputable sources—The New York Times, Washington Post, ESPN—research from books, and publicly available court documents. Except for two public figures, I changed or disguised everyone’s appearances and names, including the name of the university, just in case someone was inadvertently exposed via association with someone else. It felt very strange, trying to tell the truth while also disguising everything.
I also had five lawyers look at this book, and three of them read it several times. One attorney did a meticulous sentence-by-sentence legal review that lasted over five months, and we reworded everything that had teeth. I used to joke that the book’s title should be changed to Allegedly.
TCR: Even though none of the perpetrators of abuse faced any criminal sanctions for their crimes, the university system was found guilty of allowing a pattern of abuse and sexual assault to persist. Do you believe the outcome of this case has had a positive impact on forcing other university systems throughout the US to recognize their responsibility—and potential liability—when sexual abuse within sports programs occurs?
EK: I know it has. Absolutely. After our case set the legal precedent, Title IX, college sexual assault cases started springing up all over. The NCAA instituted new rules around recruiting, and universities started hiring Title IX coordinators. Universities were now liable for the safety of their students, so they started being more proactive by increasing their lighting, monitoring their sports programs, etc. I believe that thousands of attacks were prevented, maybe more.
TCR: Two decades after the lawsuit you described in your book occurred, the #MeToo movement has galvanized public attention and heightened awareness of the challenges women face in reporting cases of sexual abuse. Have we as a culture made any progress in acknowledging the sexual crimes that are committed against women? Is it any easier for women to speak up and seek legal remedies for the abuse they have suffered?
EK: I think we have made progress, and we also haven’t. I mean, look at Roe v. Wade. The fact that I now have fewer rights than a cluster of cells means we’ve moved backward. And women still face retribution for breaking their silence.
But our Title IX lawsuit did give women a new way to talk about sexual assault as a civil rights and equality issue, rather than “just” a criminal one. The conversation entered the civil courts as well as the criminal courts. These additional venues make the conversation louder and give women extra tools for if they decide to speak up and seek justice. I’m very proud of that.
TCR: Tell us about your upcoming projects.
EK: My next project is a book of short stories called Save Me. I also have a novel in the works, and I’m considering a book of essays. And after that . . . here be dragons.
A Colorado-based author, Kaia Gallagher enjoys experimenting with a variety of creative non-fiction formats. Her publications include personal essays, memoir and flash fiction.
In her upcoming book, Candles for the Defiant and Forgotten, she details how her Estonian mother struggled to survive during World War II.
Kaia earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California-Riverside. She also has a Ph.D. in Sociology from Brown University.