It is now almost universally agreed upon: The media screwed up the E. Jean Carroll story. Over the weekend, most of the major newspapers ignored Carroll’s account alleging that Donald Trump raped her in the 1990s. The major Sunday shows never touched it. The New York Times treated it as a literary event before Dean Baquet acknowledged, on Monday, that the Times had “mishandled” it, ostensibly because some other paper broke the story. In acknowledging that an accusation of rape against the president of the United States didn’t get the coverage it warranted, the Columbia Journalism Review suggested the reason for this was the public’s “fatigue” with Trump’s sexual assault stories: “We are hit so often with claims of Trump’s misconduct—and liberals, at least, have such low expectations of him—that horrifying allegations lose their shock value and slide off.” In USA Today, Melinda Hennenberger suggests that we’re bored with all three—Trump scandals, rape scandals, and Trump rape scandals: “Maybe if he had been accused of swiping a sweater from Bergdorf’s, that would be new and different?” In some instances, the story was simply suppressed—on Friday, the Murdoch-owned New York Post did run a story about Carroll’s allegations but then took it down, evidently at the instruction of a former editor.
I understand why so many people think the media’s failure here is the result of boredom. One reality of the Trump era is how profoundly boring it is—we watch the same dramas unfold, again and again; we debunk the same lies, again and again; and we issue the same warnings, again and again. But I don’t think that what happened here is the result of boredom so much as an almost perfect journalistic incapacity for telling any story it hasn’t told a thousand times before. Maybe we’re not bored. Maybe we’re just boring.
Because E. Jean Carroll flipped the script. Having watched, and watched, and watched the #MeToo stories play out over the past several years, she decided she wasn’t going to do it as it had been done. She was going to tell her own story on her own terms, publishing it in her own book. Because, as she wrote in the excerpt published in New York magazine last Friday:
Why haven’t I “come forward” before now?
Receiving death threats, being driven from my home, being dismissed, being dragged through the mud, and joining the 15 women who’ve come forward with credible stories about how the man grabbed, badgered, belittled, mauled, molested, and assaulted them, only to see the man turn it around, deny, threaten, and attack them, never sounded like much fun. Also, I am a coward.
Well, she sure told us so—on Monday night, after previous denials, the president helpfully explained that he couldn’t have raped Carroll because she was “not my type.” It’s also not clear Carroll was wrong to invent a new form for the post-#MeToo era. Because what we have built post-Kavanaugh is not tenable. If you doubted that for a minute, consider the president aligning himself with Kavanaugh this weekend as men falsely accused, then painting women who make such accusations as motivated by money or fame or publicity. See again, Carroll’s explanation of why she didn’t come forward sooner. See, also, Lindsey Graham and other alleged political “leaders” claiming that based on nothing other than his truthfulness in general, they believe Trump’s denial.
No wonder Carroll opted to take a different approach. Having watched as over a dozen other women came forward with claims against the president that were batted away, and having watched as even more women came forward against Trump armed with a bank of microphones and an attorney, or six, and been batted away, she created a new story. Having watched a woman testify for hours about trauma she had never wanted to share, only to be told that something bad probably did happen, but she must be mistaken about her attacker, E. Jean Carroll made the decision to do it differently.
So, she put it in a book from which she would profit. How Trumpian. Also, good for her. And instead of calling out a single powerful man, she essentially pointed out something well-known to most women, and certainly to working women of Carroll’s generation: that sexual predation, assault, and threats have been the waters women have been swimming in forever; that men have been grabbing their female campers, attempting to rape their college dates, and groping their female employees for precisely as long, and exactly as maximally as they could get away with it. Trump exonerating himself by describing Carroll as “not my type” is exactly the point, because the implication is that had she been his type, he’d have been entitled to have sex with her. He could have—as he has admitted to doing on a hot mic—“just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. Grab ’em by the pussy.” I don’t know why we ever accepted that his “locker room talk” stays in the locker room, when it clearly migrates to the dressing room and then on to the Oval Office.
It is, of course, distressing that a person who has been accused of sexual misconduct by 22 women now is the president of the United States. But Donald Trump, who Carroll alleges raped her in a Bergdorf Goodman’s dressing room over 20 years ago, is not the only sexual predator out there. There is no one bad apple. Certainly, he is one of the most famous to be accused of almost identical conduct by multiple women. But really, his principal distinction for Carroll is that he’s merely the one who caused the popular advice columnist to give up sex forever.
This is perhaps why it is so hard to write about. And why it’s hard to talk about on the Sunday shows. And why it is so hard to litigate. Because it is everywhere. When #MeToo was trending, we learned how everywhere it really was. This also happens to be why it was so hard to live through—because it is everywhere, and it is horrible, and we don’t know what to do about it, so really, it cannot be all that horrible. Indeed, the consensus seems to be that it’s more useful to litigate Carroll’s word choice (why won’t she say rape?) or her tone (too bubbly … too detached) or her timing (why not earlier?) or her motive ($$$$?) or her lack of contemporaneous witnesses (oh, wait, she has those!). In other words, the bulk of the discussion around E. Jean Carroll’s account of being raped by Donald Trump became just a new version of an ancient story: Victimhood, You’re Doing It Wrong.
Carroll responds to virtually all of these complaints about her performance of victimhood in her book excerpt. She writes, guttingly, that she knows her easy breezy tone is freaking you out: “Why does this woman seem so unfazed by all this horrible crap? Well, I am shallower than most people. I do not dwell on the past. I feel greater empathy for others than for myself. I do not try to control everything.” She explains in detail why she didn’t come forward, and notes the advice she received from her friends, which has proven prophetic.
And so, at 75, having watched, alongside the rest of us, the parade of perfect, flawless, pain-wracked, somber victims, from Anita Hill to Christine Blasey Ford, and having seen them dismissed for being not, well, not something enough to be taken seriously, E. Jean Carroll opts to reinvent victimhood on her own terms; she doesn’t take herself fully seriously. No lawyers. No tears. No pleas. No whispers. She instead strides out in the same coat dress she was raped in and says she has had enough, and that if she’s going to open a vein for fleeting public titillation, she is sure as hell going to produce a spectacularly gem-like piece of prose, and she is also sure as hell going to get paid for it. Good. For. Her.
E. Jean Carroll’s original sin here isn’t her timing or her tone. It’s her refusal to be the kind of victim that keeps being ignored. She did all that by being original. And none of us knows what to do with that beyond questioning the ways in which she owned this story completely.
The problem is this: What were her choices? She could have taken it to a press that has attempted to fill in the gaps of our broken system for litigating sexual harassment, though we know that this is a stopgap. And the press remedy, while effective in certain cases with enough victims and enough stakeholders to feel shame, was never going to work on the president, as there are already too many victims, and he has no capacity for shame. She could have taken it to a lawyer, but again, there are 16 other cases before hers, and I don’t quite know who would have the confidence to believe that would work either. Or she could take her prodigious skills as a writer, a television personality, and a raconteur and tell her own story in her own way.
You can go ahead and quibble with her choices, but if you do, remember that she had no good ones. Instead, you can take seriously what she alleges. Which deserved more than a fly-by on MSNBC. If you’re bored of Donald Trump, welcome, there are millions of us that feel the same way. But if you’re bored by hearing the same story of how so many women have endured the same thing, well, imagine living it. Imagine knowing that the country has grown numb to it. And instead of being bored, notice the patterns and the ways in which women must now contort themselves into balloon animals to have their stories heard.
E. Jean Carroll broke all the rules and tried to do it with authenticity and style. If no other part of this tragedy is capable of capturing our media attention, at least that part should. But the real question we need to ask ourselves is why, knowing we couldn’t take it in, she told it anyway.
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