Trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault.
I read Jackie Fuchs’ account of her rape in The Huffington Post with a sense of deja vu. I had read her bandmate Cherie Currie’s memoir, Neon Angel, a few years ago, and her horrific story of a groupie’s rape had remained in my mind. The details of both events were remarkably similar.
Fuchs, who played bass for the Runaways under the name of Jackie Fox, was raped by Kim Fowley, the band’s manager and promoter, when she was 16. Fox had been drugged and was barely conscious or unconscious for much of the attack, which occurred in front of a roomful of people, none of whom objected. She had remained silent about the rape for forty years, but in the wake of the Cosby rape victims coming forward, she had decided to make her ordeal public. It’s a harrowing read, and the fact that Fox was able to continue to work with Fowley is a potent reminder of the power of compartmentalization: As Fox told HP, “I stuck it in an attic box and walled it in.” However, that wall couldn’t hold forever: she ultimately had a breakdown and left the band.
Anyone with half a brain could tell that the Runaways’ success came with a sizable portion of exploitation. They were jailbait rockers — so much so that the back cover of their debut album included each musician’s age (in fact, Jett’s age was lowered, although it’s not clear if it was a record label decision or merely an error). The manipulation didn’t end at the marketing, though; lead singer Cherie Currie’s autobiography, Neon Angel, details various ways that Fowley attempted to break the girls’ spirits backstage, including repeatedly referring to them as “dog cunts.” In fact, Fowley’s choice of Fox as a rape victim was highly strategic: it provided a cautionary tale for the other band members in case they decided to get out of line, and it encouraged the girls to dislike and distrust each other, which made them easier to manipulate. It worked: in account after account, the other members’ scorn for Fox was obvious, including the fact that the rape was a “running joke” with several of the other band members.
Fowley, who died earlier this year, danced around the subject of whether he’d had sex with any of the musicians. In Evelyn McDonnell’s, Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways, provided this comment, “They can talk about it until the cows come home, but in my mind, I didn’t make love to anybody in the Runaways nor did they make love to me.” A sleazier, cagier statement can hardly be imagined.
Currie added to Fox’s violation when she informed her that she planned to write about the rape in Neon Angel. Over Fox’s objections, the memoir contained a fictionalized account of the event, with the victim being an underage groupie who encouraged the assault. Fox was depicted as being in the room when it happened, but as doing nothing. Currie now acknowledges Fox’s rape in the HP story, and says that as teenagers, they knew of no other way to cope than to move on as if it never happened.
In the wake of the Huffington Post story, Joan Jett has experienced an immediate backlash in social media. Remarkably, few people seem to blame the teenage Jett for her response to the rape — people seem to understand that she was a victim herself. There is less understanding for her not speaking out about it as an adult, even though it’s hard to imagine a circumstance when it would be appropriate to come out with the story of someone else’s rape. And there is no forgiveness for Jett’s chilly response to Fox’s public account: she says she did not witness the event as it was depicted (my emphasis) and refers all other questions to Fox, since it was Fox’s story. It is a statement crafted to deflect legal blame, and the Twitterverse pounced on its guarded insincerity, a cardinal sin social media will never forgive.
Jett has repeatedly emphasized her desire to focus on the music, not on the problems behind the band, and that’s understandable: she doesn’t want the group’s legacy to be diminished by the fact that some, if not all, of them were victimized. Her longtime manager was critical of a 2004 documentary that emphasized the bands’ sexual exploitation, calling it “whining” and “revenge of the bassists.” In truth, Fox, Currie, Lita Ford, and Sandy West all contributed to the documentary, although Currie and West later expressed regrets that they had been too candid.
Like it or not, Jett is facing the reality that the Runaways’ legacy has been altered by Fox’s story. Fowley’s reputation as a sexual predator, which had been well known for years (at least since the initial publication of Currie’s memoir in 1989), is now a permanent, and central, part of the band’s history. As the most prominent former member, Jett’s unwillingness to acknowledge this aspect has become another part of the story, something that keeps the focus on the idea of the girls as victims, rather than artists. If Jett is unwilling to admit the truth despite the fact that it’s the right thing to do, perhaps her desire to preserve the band’s musical legacy will. If she doesn’t, the focus will stay on her denial, and on Fowley’s crimes.