An imperfect world In beautiful Glen Ridge, N.J., a mentally disabled woman was raped by teens. Author Bernard Lefkowitz needed to find out how such a thing could happen, no matter how long it took.

July 06, 1998|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff

WASHINGTON -- The first time Bernard Lefkowitz saw the woman he would come to call "Leslie Faber," it was an anniversary, the kind that only journalists recognize. Was it year to the day since the retarded teen-ager had been assaulted, or a year to the day the so-called Glen Ridge rape case had come to light? That detail eludes him.

But he remembers standing in front of Glen Ridge High School in the spring of 1990, talking to another student. Not one of the boys accused of assaulting Leslie, but someone outside that clique of popular jocks.

The boy elbowed Lefkowitz and mouthed: That's her. Only he used her real name, the name that Lefkowitz would never use in print, although Leslie Faber's privacy was pretty much decimated the moment the New Jersey case became public. Now there it was, a year later, and a television news truck was moving slowly down the street. Lefkowitz turned and saw an obviously flustered young woman, pacing nervously.

"I saw this stocky, very plain woman, looking completely bewildered," says Lefkowitz, 60, who has settled into a hotel bar one recent afternoon to chain-smoke as he talks about "Our Guys: The Glen Ridge Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb" (Vintage Books, $15).

"She'd walk 10 feet in one direction, 10 feet in another direction, and she'd circle around. And finally -- she just look terrified -- she walked over to the boy I was standing with and she said, 'John, could you walk me home?'

"That was the first time I had ever heard her speak. There was something so plaintive in her voice and -- it's an overused word -- something child-like."

For Lefkowitz, who had received a fairly large advance to write a book about the Glen Ridge rape, it wasn't easy to watch Leslie walk away. After all, it might have been his only chance to talk to the victim.

But trying to take advantage of a young woman with the mind of an 8-year-old was just another way of exploiting her, he decided. To trick her into talking to him, to take advantage of her trusting nature -- well, that wasn't so different from the high school jocks who had lured her into a basement and raped her with a baseball bat and a broomstick, was it?

Getting the story

There was a lot that Lefkowitz didn't know that day, as he watched Leslie Faber walk away.

He didn't know her family would finally grant him an interview, once the trial was over.

He didn't know he would never persuade the accused to talk to him, other than quick, on-the-run encounters in the courthouse corridors.

And he didn't know that the story of his book could be a book in itself.

Here are just a few of the things that happened to Lefkowitz as he worked on "Our Guys": He was dropped by his publisher, which then tried to recover its advance. His agent died. His new publisher, University of California Press, printed so few books that the supply had already been exhausted when it received a rave on the cover of the New York Times Book Review.

But today, a year after the book first appeared, things are looking up. "Our Guys" was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Edgar this spring. The book is a best seller in Boston. Lefkowitz's paperback publisher, Vintage Books, which made a best seller out of Jonathan Harr's "A Civil Action," is giving "Our Guys" the same big push. The new edition even includes a blurb from Harr.

But the reader who comes to "Our Guys" expecting "A Criminal Action" will be surprised. This is not, Lefkowitz says firmly, a true-crime book or a study of legal strategy. It is his attempt to understand how an ugly thing happened in such a pretty place.

His book starts with a scene that another writer might have chosen to withhold, to build suspense. It is March 1, 1989, and Leslie Faber has been lured to the basement of the Scherzer home. Kevin and Kyle Scherzer were twins, handsome, popular athletes, as were most of the boys in the basement that day. Thirteen were there when Leslie arrived, but six left when Bryant Grober dropped his pants.

"Leslie [is] left alone with the inner circle of jocks," Lefkowitz writes. "Kyle and Kevin, Bryant Grober, Paul and Chris Archer, and two of their friends and teammates, Peter Quigley and Richard Corcoran . . . Leslie hears the voice say, Let's play a joke on her. A neighborhood boy, a boy she has known all her life, is walking toward the 'fridge, reaching for the broom with the bright red handle."

The backdrop

Lefkowitz, a former reporter who makes his living from nonfiction books, remembers exactly how he first heard about the Glen Ridge rape case when it broke in 1989. He was in the Brooklyn apartment he shares with his wife, Rebecca Aikman, when he saw the local news broadcast.

"The camera panned to this town and it was this absolutely picture-perfect place," he says. "I found out later it was the backdrop for these 'Morning in America' commercials that Reagan used in the '80s. And with good reason. It was a town with these huge trees, and original gas lamps, and you could see that."

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