The Runaways' Jackie Fox on Righting Rape Wrongs: 'It's Never Too Late to Do the Right Thing'

·Writer
image

Jackie Fox in 1976 [photo: Michael Ochs Archives]

Who would have contended, 40 years or a month ago, that Jackie Fox was the most important Runaway? That might still be a brash assertion, in the same year that found Joan Jett inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But despite having seemed the least aggressive member of that pioneering all-girl group in the ‘70s, Fox — or Jackie Fuchs, as she went back to being known after leaving the pioneering all-female rock band in the mid-‘70s — is the ex-member suddenly putting a new spin on girl power in the 21st century.

The Go-Gos’ Kathy Valentine, one of the musicians her old group most clearly influenced, has even boldly proclaimed: “Jackie has done FAR more for women by speaking out than the Runaways ever did.”

It’s not the kind of “comeback” anyone would wish upon themselves: Fuchs has captured the rock world’s attention by recounting her alleged rape at the hands of Kim Fowley, the Runaways’ legendary Svengali, who died in January. Although other female musicians have been open in discussing their experiences with rape, here was the rare instance of one prominent personality in the music business alleging sexual assault at the hands of another, which speaks truth not just to terror but to power-mongering. Runaways fans have always had to weigh the mythos of teen girls changing rock history against the knowledge that they were manipulated by an apparently cretinous older man while they were busting that glass ceiling. As Valentine suggests, finally opening the lid on this real-life story may represent an even greater form of female empowerment than dropping a “Cherry Bomb” ever was.

Fuchs talked with Yahoo Music over the weekend about the aftermath of having instigated a social media firestorm with a personal account that was first reported in a riveting Huffington Post story July 8. At least one parallel with the ongoing Bill Cosby saga was clear, since this tale also involves a young woman plied with Quaaludes. But Fuchs’s alleged assault took place in full view of — if not to provide entertainment for —a roomful of people. That shocking wrinkle has led the Harvard-educated rocker-turned-attorney to use her moment to advocate for greater awareness of “bystander syndrome,” a name offered for the psychological inurement or shock that might keep observers to a crime from realizing they need to intervene.

How does the incident fit into, or upend, the Runaways’ ever-expanding mythology? Victory Tischler-Blue, the woman who replaced Fuchs as the band’s bassist, put it this way on Facebook: “Stripped down and raw: A 16-year-old girl was raped in front of her peers by a 36-year-old man who held the perceived key to all their future hopes and dreams. It’s not about the Runaways or Joan Jett…”

But to some extent it is, if only for the diehard fans alarmed to hear Jett and Runaways singer Cherie Currie named in the Huffington Post story as being among the inactive bystanders at that 1975 party. Despite Fuchs’s stated sympathy for her bandmates as fellow victims in their own way, neither musician was eager to be portrayed as a passive witness. Jett released a statement wishing Fuchs healing but claiming no knowledge of the assault. Currie has spoken up at much greater and more vehement length on her Facebook accounts, insisting she did witness the alleged rape but saw only a consensual encounter. “I never saw her unconscious, only a willing participant who instructed Kim what to do. That was traumatizing to me!” Currie wrote, painting a wildly different picture of the incident than the one other witnesses, like Runaways co-founder Kari Krome, had provided to the Huffington Post. “She took a pill, got loose and engaged in a sex show… The worst part was me protesting but not being heard much by either of them. They were busy,” Currie said.

Fuchs established ahead of our interview that she had no interest in directly countering Currie’s shocking statements. Her emphasis: steering the conversation away from intra-band gossip and back to the universal issues, like how to educate young people about what to do if they find themselves at a party and suddenly watching a situation escalate past the point of consent to acquaintance rape.

YAHOO MUSIC: You certainly knew this story would get a reaction, but are you surprised that these events of 40 years ago have become the buzz topic of the rock ‘n’ roll world for close to two weeks now?

JACKIE FUCHS: I was wondering if anybody would even read it. Jason Cherkis, who wrote the piece for the Huffington Post, did an amazing job of making this digestible and putting a human face on rape and on bystanders, but he spent half a year working on this story. In the light of what happened with Rolling Stone’s coverage of the UVA alleged rape, he was really mindful of being sensitive to me but of getting the story right and getting it complete. It was really important to me for his story to be pretty much unassailable. And I say “pretty much” because there are always going to be people who will try to pick apart a story like this, because it’s such an uncomfortable topic — I think for women especially. Because I think if they can look at someone who is claiming to be a victim of rape and find a reason why she’s not likeable or not f—able, or she did something that would make her blameworthy, they can separate themselves and say, “See, I‘m not like that, so this will never happen to me.” A big part of my goal in coming forward was to make it easier not just for victims of rape and families of rape victims to talk about it, and also to hopefully change the way the media look at it. Because on college campuses, you have so much going against these girls who are anonymous or just local. I’m not a particularly big celebrity, but at least there’s some celebrity interest in this because of the Runaways and because of Joan Jett’s and [Runaways guitarist] Lita Ford’s later successes, so people do get that curiosity factor and they’ll click on the story. I think the good thing is that they are now thinking about what they would do if they were confronted with a situation like mine. I’ve gotten a lot of messages from people saying they’re talking about this with their daughters and sons, and even from kids saying they’re talking about it with their parents, which has really been heartening.

A lot of people are still curious about what prompted you to tell your story 40 years later.

I really had been telling myself all this time that I was OK, I was over it, I was past it, moving on with my life. And a year and a half ago, I realized that wasn’t the case. I took some time to examine what had happened to me, and to learn about the bystander effect. Only then did I contact a lawyer and just start exploring what my options were, and try to get ahold of Kim, because what I really wanted was to hear what he had to say about it, and to tell him what his actions had done to me. And Kim didn’t want to face me.

Did watching how rape cases were coming up in the news affect you at all?

I think the final straw that made me want to come forward was how the media were treating Kesha’s rape allegations against Dr. Luke, her former producer. Because Dr. Luke’s attorneys had come up with a birthday card that Kesha supposedly sent Dr. Luke after the alleged drugging and raping occurred. And the card read, “Happy birthday, you’re still the hottest,” or something along those lines. [Editor’s note: Kesha’s actual reported inscription: “To the foxxy-est producer ever! Ur just getting better with time! Thank you for making my wildest dreams come true!”] And the media treated this as kind of proof that she was making up the story. Now, obviously we don’t know what really happened in this case. Like a lot of these cases, it’s a he said/she said. But I think it’s really important for people to know that victims of rape and abuse often stay friendly with their abusers. And I stayed friendly with Kim Fowley for years. It was a way to prove to myself that what he had done to me hadn’t affected me. And I didn’t even realize how much of a lie that was to myself, until a year and a half ago.

As with the birthday card Kesha sent, there have been people who’ve posted a vintage photo of you posing with a bared leg up against Fowley later on, to suggest you must not have really been bothered by whatever happened.

Let’s talk about that picture a little. We were playing the Santa Monica Civic, which was the biggest place we’d ever played in our hometown. We had Cheap Trick opening for us. It was a night that we were on a real musical high. And when you have a lot of photographers saying, “Oh, can we get a picture together?” — what are you going to do? What you’re going to do is what you always do when you’re in a band and there are photographers at a show: You keep performing. And we were still on our way up. As painful as some moments were, I loved making music and loved being in a band. I never wanted to compromise that ability or dash the hopes of my bandmates. It’s not like we had other bands we could go off and be in, because we were teenage girls. Where were we going to go?

If there is a reluctance to process this on some fans’ parts, it may be because there is such a strong myth associated with the Runaways and the belief they had in your power as a seminal all-female band. At least subconsciously, there may be a tendency for people to think, “If they weren’t the embodiment of female empowerment that I believed, then I can’t enjoy their music anymore.”

I think maybe we were the embodiment of females seeking empowerment in an era when women were really just beginning to assert themselves. I mean, we were kids. But I still love the band. The band is not to blame for what happened to me. I think that unfortunately what happened to me always tinged everything that came later, behind the scenes. I think Kim was trying to assert this power over the band by saying, “I can do anything I want with you. You are mine.” And us not having the emotional vocabulary to talk about this with each other and figure out how we were going to confront it without losing the band is sad, and I would hope that people in the music industry now would not be in the same situation. That they’d have better protection and an easier time talking to their friends, their parents, their lawyers — anybody.

It was a time when groupies were glamorized, and when you had the Rolling Stones doing a song like “Stray Cat Blues,” with lines like “I can see that you’re 15 years old/No, I don’t want your ID… It’s no hanging matter.” And Jimmy Page was with groupie Lori Maddox when she was 14. Ted Nugent had a song called “Jailbait.” Few rock fans thought of these things as “rape” at the time, but the idea of statutory rape was part of the rock mainstream in a way that seems inconceivable today.

People thought so negatively of groupies, it was like the guys were cool and the girls deserve it because they’re sluts. The words “slut-shaming” and “acquaintance rape” and all of these things we now think of as commonplace matters for discussion didn’t exist then. When I was a teenager, rapists were guys who lurked in the bushes and dragged you into them, or broke into your windows and held a knife or a gun to you. It wasn’t somebody that you knew and trusted slipping a drug into your drink or plying you with drugs or alcohol and waiting till you were wasted and taking advantage of you. And I put “taking advantage of you” in quotes. “Taking advantage” to me suggests “I’m a rock star and therefore I’m irresistible.” Rape is not taking advantage of. It’s rape.

When drugs are involved, that blurs the lines, for some people.

Even now there are people who are saying, ”Well, you took this drug voluntarily, and then you just made a bad decision.” That wasn’t the case with me. But even if it had been, somebody who gets voluntarily trashed and is too wasted to give meaningful consent to sex has been raped. I was very happy to hear President Obama come out and address the fact that drugging someone without their knowledge and having sex with them without their consent is rape. But I think that was a statement crafted very quickly in response to calls for revoking Bill Cosby’s medal, and if he had thought about it, he would have added: Even if somebody takes drugs voluntarily and is not capable of giving consent, you can’t have sex with that person. It’s rape. California penal code section 261 clearly defines rape as sex when someone is too inebriated to give consent, and when the rapist has reason to know that the person is intoxicated.

Your situation is much more universal than the Cosby situation. Maybe not in the music business so much anymore, but certainly on college campuses, where semi-public assaults continue to happen at parties.

I think what would really be awesome would be for young men to have conversations about this with each other. Look, some of these guys are predators and they’re [inherently] dangerous, but some are guys that are themselves getting really drunk and not reading signals properly and making bad decisions. And I feel like, when bystanders see that, if they would intervene, they would keep a friend from ruining his life and going to jail when that’s going on. I think guys need to have each other’s backs as well as women’s. In these fraternity situations, for instance, you’ve got young people that are intoxicated in a situation that might at first appear a little ambiguous to some of the people in the room, and then by the time they realize what’s happening, it’s been going on for a little while, and it feels really weird to suddenly step up. And there are a lot of reasons why people don’t act. I think of the people who had been watching what happened to me. Because even the ones that weren’t maybe sure what was going on were all deeply uncomfortable. By the time it was clear what was happening, those who stuck around were horrified and felt guilty about it for decades afterwards. And if somebody had given them some tools to break the situation up, they could have, but they didn’t know to do that.

You’ve been very gracious in talking about “bystander syndrome” and not casting blame on those who don’t intervene because they’ve been lulled or are in a state of shock themselves. But in your case, some of the people involved seem to want to resist that interpretation. It’s easy to imagine that they think of themselves as strong people who would act no matter what, so invoking bystander syndrome, however sympathetic, is not something they’d want to take on for themselves, if it makes them seem like victims too.

You have to talk to the people who were there who have come forward and said what the effect of my rape was on them. You know, I hate the fact that I even have to call it “my rape.” Because somebody else did this to me. We don’t even have the vocabulary to talk about this in a way where I’m not talking about it as being mine. It still feels like it’s on me when I say that. But it’s really hard to know what to do when something like that unfolds in front of you. It’s not like seeing an accident where something is very sudden, and you know one moment it’s OK and one moment it’s not. This is something that started out with a drugged girl on New Year’s Eve, so at what point does that become a signal that you need to intervene and do something? Especially if you’re drinking, too, and maybe your judgment is not what it would be if you were completely sober. And then, as Helen Roessler [one of the bystanders] reported, Kim started unbuttoning my blouse. This made her really uncomfortable. But even at that point I could see people who were a little drunk on New Year’s Eve kind of thinking that was a joke. At the point at which he started taking my pants off, I would think most people would have known that that was crossing the line, if for no other reason than because of my age and because at that point I was pretty f—ed up. But I don’t know what any given person was thinking on that night, and when they realized something was wrong, and how hard it was for them to do anything. There were at least one and maybe two other adult males in the room, and if they’re not doing anything to stop what’s going on, it’s got to be very hard for a 16- or 17-year-old girl. I think now it might be easier for people to come forward and talk about being bystanders, because now we have a name for it. I keep coming back to having a vocabulary for things, but sometimes if you can’t put a name to things it feels wrong.

On social media, you do see people who love the Runaways and don’t want to think anything ill of anyone in the group, so they will say, “We can never know what really happened.” You’ve used the term “the Rashomon effect”…

No, I didn’t use that. Evelyn [McDonnell, author of the Runaways biography Queens of Noise] said that [about her book]. I really don’t think it’s a Rashomon situation. For the Huffington Post piece, anything that could be taken as a statement of fact was checked, double-checked, and in many cases triple-checked. And remember, Cherie Currie wrote about my rape in her book. The headlines have put that she denies that this happened. She didn’t. She just is asserting a different take on what exactly was going on. She’s not denying that I was… well, in her last… see, I don’t want to get into this. Joan says she doesn’t remember the event, and she remembers whatever she remembers. She’s never said it didn’t happen… Other than a handful of people who had a relationship with Kim later in life, who feel like it’s an attack on Kim and therefore an attack on them for the association, I really haven’t heard very many people saying, “We don’t believe that Jackie was raped.” There are always going to be people who don’t want to believe it when someone says something that’s so uncomfortable for them to think about. I can’t worry about them. I just want to make people aware of the bystander effect, and I want to keep other people from going through what I went through, and that’s my sole motivation for going forward. The timing is what it is because it took me 40 years to really put together what had happened and the fact that I was not OK with it. For people to say, “Well, why didn’t you come forward before now, it’s been 40 years?” — I hope they never really understand the reason why. Because until you’ve been there, it’s hard to fathom. Up until recently, and even now, there’s a lot of horrible victim-blaming that takes place, and it does take courage for somebody to come forward and say, “I was raped” — particularly when the event is fresh, I know, because it’s very hard to relive this 40 years after the fact.

There’s been some confusion because Cherie, in her attempt to prove she was not a bystander at a rape, posted a link to a blog entry you wrote in 2000 where you seemed to deny that any incident like this had happened at all. In that blog, you wrote that she was working on a memoir with a chapter about the incident, in which she had written it as if it happened to a fictional girl, and then you were a passive bystander yourself. Then you said she was threatening to change it to make the girl in the chapter you, and you said it hadn’t happened at all. When her book finally did come out 10 years later, it was back to being about a fictional girl, but removed the part about you being there as a witness. Meanwhile, her fictionalized portrait of the girl being a more-than-willing participant is disturbing to read now in light of the account you’ve brought to light. When you denied it in 2000, was that at a point at which you still just wanted to get past the whole thing?

I was denying this in the context of being in the role of being portrayed as an apathetic bystander, and other inaccuracies — in particular, the allegation that the person in this chapter had encouraged Kim. I took issue with standing there watching Kim rape a young girl and not having done anything, both because I knew that that wasn’t true, and I also thought that being a bystander was a horrible thing to be accused of. A position, by the way, I obviously no longer take. When I posted that blog, it was because I believed I was about to be outed as the victim of an inaccurate account. And when I said I never saw Kim drug anyone, that was true. Still, to this day, the only reason I know that Kim drugged me is because other witnesses have come forth and explained what I never could. I never saw Kim do what was described in that book. There were enough inaccuracies in that account that I assumed that other things that didn’t jibe with my memories were made up. And I’ve apologized to Cherie for this before, for saying, “I’m sorry I didn’t believe some of what you wrote because I didn’t remember it at the time, and I thought that your co-writer just made this up” — in particular the incident [of being violated] with the hairbrush, which I still don’t remember. I’m very happy I don’t remember that, because in so many ways that’s more horrifying even than being raped… Everybody in that room knew that I could not give meaningful consent. And even in Cherie’s account, she talks about this girl’s head lolling around on her shoulders. So I will just leave you with that thought.

Does it feel like taking a load off to finally be talking about this? Or is it so intense to relive it publicly that relief really isn’t the right term?

I just feel like I can’t change what happened to me 40 years ago. But I can find something in the experience that I can maybe pay forward. Just the number of people that have written to me and said, “Thank you for giving me the courage to talk about my rape or my abuse for the first time in my life,” it really makes me feel that I’ve done something good by finally coming forward. The single best moment for me in all of this was learning that my niece and nephew, who are barely older than I was when I got raped, had posted this story to their social media pages, and their friends are talking about it. So if I’ve helped prevent some other people from getting raped or groped or harassed, then it doesn’t matter that it’s painful to relive it. You know, I have a lot of hope that we as a society can change. I think we are living in a very exciting time for civil rights. And society moves forward by inches, not miles.

It’s ironic that when Fowley died earlier this year, he was the subject of so many laudatory obituaries, yet now, on virtually every social media thread involving music business or Hollywood types, you find a plethora of people saying it was far from a secret he had these sinister proclivities. But people didn’t feel comfortable talking about it and he apparently never faced repercussions.

There was an op-ed at Slate by a guy who had appeared on Jian Ghomeshi’s show [“I Knew About Jian Ghomeshi,” by Carl Wilson]. He was the CBC broadcaster who was accused of sexual harassment by a whole bunch of women last year. And this guy [Wilson] said that he felt culpable because he had heard rumors of [Ghomeshi’s] behavior and had ignored them because he wanted to continue to be a guest on his show, and he felt really guilty about that. His piece, which is really moving, was also something that I thought about when I was deciding whether or not to make my rape public. I just wanted to empower people who sense something wrong happening to try to do something about it before it becomes a situation they’re going to feel horrible about later. If they don’t and they can’t, it’s understandable. Sometimes it’s really hard to know what to do and when to do it. But it is never too late to try to do the right thing.