Brandeis alumna named Pulitzer Prize finalist for feature writing
Opinion columnist for The Washington Post and Brandeis alumna Elizabeth Bruenig ’13 was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing, according to an April 16 announcement by the Pulitzer Prize committee.
Bruenig’s piece, “What do we owe her now?,” was nominated for “eloquent reflections on the exile of a teen sexual assault victim in the author’s West Texas hometown, delving with moral authority into why the crime remained unpunished,” per the statement from the Pulitzer committee.
The article, originally published on Sept. 19, 2018, chronicles her three-year investigation of the 2006 rape of one of her classmates, Amber Wyatt, and its aftermath. In the immediate period after Wyatt was raped, her peers were skeptical that it happened, which drove Wyatt to a different school and into obscurity, until all memory of her consisted of “sordid rumors and a nascent urban legend,” Bruenig wrote.
Bruenig wrote in an email to the Justice that at the beginning of her investigation that she “went in only knowing about the case what had been rumored when [she] was in high school.” As she conducted interviews and sifted through police evidence, however, she “became more convinced that there was strong evidence to support Amber’s version of events.”
Though the police found substantial evidence implicating Wyatt’s rapists, like many cases in Tarrant County, Texas at the time, her case was “no-billed,” or labelled as having insufficient evidence to prosecute. According to Bruenig’s article, 51 percent of Tarrant County rape cases were no-billed.
After Bruenig published Wyatt’s story, it gained significant national attention, inspiring hashtags like #IBelieveAmberWyatt, a striking contrast to the treatment by her peers in 2006. In the email, Bruenig wrote that she “hope[d] that [the story] at least raised concern about the dozens of Tarrant County cases that were no-billed during that time period, and have never received resolution.”
Over a decade after the incident, many of Wyatt’s high school classmates have apologized for their past behavior. Though they may have bullied Wyatt in the past, Bruenig wrote in the email that she thinks “people can absolutely change, especially when you factor in 12 years and a large amount of information that wasn’t publicly available at the time.” She added, “I know it meant something to Amber to hear from people who had changed their minds about the entire situation having read her story.”
Additionally, attitudes in Bruenig’s town have shown other signs of shifting. The legal system that once denied Amber justice “has since posted much higher prosecution rates for acquaintance rape,” Wyatt wrote in the email. “I hope that someone in Amber’s circumstance could expect a different response from the legal system [in Tarrant County] at this point.”
Bruenig has also heard that many current students at their high school have read the story and have found it to be “important and relevant.” However, Bruenig feels that a similar case to Amber’s “could still happen today, almost anywhere in the US, easily,” she wrote to the Justice.
Bruenig also wrote that she was “a little disappointed that [the piece] didn’t win,” but was “glad the Post would still receive some recognition nonetheless.”
Bruenig, née Stoker, was a Forum staff writer at the Justice from 2010-2011.