The Right Way to Fight for Your Life
The story of Pieper Lewis
This is the mid-week edition of Men Yell at Me, a newsletter about the places our personhood and politics meet.
On June 1, 2020, Pieper Lewis, then only 15 years old, stabbed and killed Zachary Brooks, the man she said raped her. The Des Moines Register reported, “Lewis, who was initially charged with first-degree murder after her arrest on June 2, 2020, agreed to plead guilty to charges of voluntary manslaughter and willful injury, both felonies punishable by up to 10 years in prison. She’s been held at the Polk County Juvenile Detention Center for the past two years.”
Yesterday, Lewis, also a victim of sex trafficking, was sentenced to five years probation, which included 1,200 hours of community service, and paying $150,000 to the victim’s family. The judge called the sentence a second chance for Lewis, emphasizing that there were no third chances.
It’s a paternalistic judgment. One that chides Lewis for her fighting for her life. But what other options did she have? The subtext is unstated, but clear: A more perfect woman wouldn’t have fought back. A more perfect woman would be dead.
The irony shouldn’t go unnoted. Iowa, which has a stand-your-ground law, that allows for people under threat to fight back, prosecuted a teen for doing just that — for fighting back against her alleged rapist. In Wisconsin, Kyle Rittenhouse, was just two years older than Lewis when he shot and killed two men and injured a third. Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges and now has a career as a vigilante hero. Lewis, despite the judge’s ruling, isn’t allowed that same kind of redemption story.
Lewis is more than a story or a morality tale. Lewis is a human being, who got to that moment when she stabbed her alleged rapist, after every single system and safeguard failed her. These failures were no accident. In Iowa, after the home for delinquent girls was shut down in Tama due to the illegal use of isolation, there is nowhere for girls like Lewis, homeless and in trouble, to go. One of the prosecutors admitted as such, noting that some of Lewis’ behavioral issues were because Iowa had no home for delinquent girls. Additionally, in a state that has systematically defunded Planned Parenthood and Medicaid and is working on making abortion illegal, there is no safety net for victims.
According to Lewis, she did tell her mother about the abuse she suffered, but her mother accused her of being promiscuous. Prosecutors, in turn, accused Lewis of sending sexts and wearing revealing clothes. As if these normal expressions of teenage sexuality were somehow evidence that she deserved what happened to her, as if she didn’t deserve to fight for her own life.
One out of every six women in America has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. RAINN reports that, on average, there are 463,634 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States. Women shouldn’t experience abuse. But sexual assault is endemic in our society. And women and girls who are abused become the victims of the very system that should offer them justice.
And where do women go for help? Who do we look to? What system? What faith? What institution has room? Has patience? Has understanding for a woman who needs help? Lewis had a choice to either continue to be a victim or to try to save her own life. She chose life.
There was a moment in 2018 when it felt like people would listen, when the #MeToo movement allowed women the space to speak of all the things done to them. But that ended almost as soon as it began. The backlash was almost immediate. Did women go too far? Be angry, women were advised, but not too angry. Seek justice, but do it the right way. A confounding standard where the victims who do speak up find themselves once again victimized.
Once again, the subtext is a more perfect woman would fight but not too viciously. As if there is a right way to fight for your life in a world designed to kill you.
Women who have the privilege of seeking justice through the system are still punished. Writing in The Guardian, Moira Donegan noted that women who do speak out are often met with threats of defamation lawsuits. “Defamation suits are becoming a routine tool of retaliation and revenge for men accused of sexual and domestic abuse – and a growing threat to women’s ability to safely and freely speak about their own lives. The advocacy group Know Your IX, which lobbies on behalf of student survivors of sexual violence, says that 23% of students who make Title IX complaints are threatened with defamation suits by their alleged abusers.”
“If it’s between you and them, I want you. I want you to ferociously fight for your right to live and not just live but to thrive in a world that would rather see you dead.”
I’ll never forget the interview I had with a woman in 2020, who told me a story of abuse but then declined my offer to write the story. “I don’t want to be victimized all over again,” she said and pointed to the case of state Senator Nate Boulton, who was accused of sexual harassment in 2018. While Boulton, who was running for governor at the time, dropped out of the race and was stripped of his committee assignments, in 2020 he was appointed as one of five assistant minority leaders. It’s a quiet kind of forgiveness that’s never offered to victims. “If you write this story, it will follow me forever,” she said. “He will be forgiven.” And I wonder how many women see these stories and realize that justice is not for them? How many more will stay silent?
This is what we want. We want silence. We want the death. We don’t want to hear the screams and face the ugly reality of the systems we created. How much easier to redeem a man for a mistake than a woman for fighting for her life.
I sometimes wonder what is the point of writing about stories like this? It’s not to spark outrage. While outrage is good for clicks and shares, outrage presumes that there is something we can do, some action to take, some justice to advocate for. (Update: there is a GoFundMe for Lewis.) But this isn’t an oversight of the heavy bureaucracy of justice. But in the case of Lewis, the systemic failure is intentional. Our social systems are not set up to help the most marginalized – one slip, one failure, catalyzes a free fall through society, ending in death or a vicious and punished survival.
So maybe I write stories like this so I can say, Lewis lives and I’m so glad she does. I’m glad she fought for her life. I would tell my daughter to do the same. If it’s between you and them, I want you. I want you to ferociously fight for your right to live and not just live but to thrive in a world that would rather see you dead.
Updated to add: There is a GoFundMe for Pieper Lewis set up by one of her former teachers, who writes:
Pieper wants to go to college, she wants to create art, and she wants to advocate for other girls who find themselves in situations like she endured. She does not deserve a massive debt looming over her, holding her back from pursuing her ambitions.
Our system if broken. It will take decades of advocacy and electing people committed to rethinking and reimagining our criminal justice system, especially our juvenile one, to fix the system.
Also, adding a link to Lewis’ full statement.
This is the mid-week edition of Men Yell at Me, an independent media endeavor that focuses on the places our politics and personhood meet. It’s written by me, a journalist and author living in the middle of America and if you’ve been meaning to subscribe today is a great day to do it.