The Devastating Oddness of E. Jean Carroll’s Trump Accusation

E. Jean Carroll
E. Jean Carroll in 2006. Photo by julieannesmo/Wikipedia

Reading E. Jean Carroll’s account in the Cut of her 21 “Hideous Men”—packed as it is with details about Girl Scout knives and cheerleading and jokes and echoes of David Foster Wallace’s story collection of a similar name—it occurred to me that in the contest to be heard and believed, #MeToo allegations were always bound to become literature. They had to. The vehicle through which these incidents are reported would at some point adapt in order to address the formal impossibilities of the things it’s asked to do. Carroll’s essay is just such an expansion. What she produces, instead of a direct account of what was done and by whom, is an arch and experimental essay that keeps nodding at readerly expectations and deciding not to meet them.

Carroll’s piece, an excerpt from her upcoming book, What Do We Need Men For?, is filled with jokes—not just because a writer like Carroll has joked liberally throughout her career as an advice columnist, but also, perhaps, because jokes are how a lot of people deal with trauma. It abounds in incompletions and uncertainties—maybe because that’s how people remember an attack, partially, with certain details writ large and others missing. It replicates the limited perspective in which survivors, too, live their lives. When you’re joking around with a real estate magnate, you’re probably not taking a careful inventory of the layout of that floor of Bergdorf’s. When you’re a kid and a boy penetrates you with an object (a stick or a rock, you don’t remember) then stuffs a cloth of some kind down your underpants to absorb the blood, it might not occur to you until many, many years later that this is what was repeatedly done to him. No one is omniscient, not even about their own sexual assault, and the essayistic approach expresses the confusion—what was that piece of fabric about?—in ways news stories can’t and won’t. Carroll’s response to America’s lax reaction to the 22 women who accused Donald Trump of assault before her was to do things differently. Rather than go straight to the news, she wrote the thing herself. In so doing, she forces the reader to acknowledge her first and foremost—her humor and her boy-craziness and her flaws, but also her centrality, her life experience, and her fame. And presents her story without any trace of self-pity.

Instead of giving us all 21 men at once, or at all, Carroll gives us flashes: of No. 13, or 16, or 1. And if you expected her Most Hideous Men of My Life List to be produced in full, this is one of many expectations she raises in order to rhetorically disappoint. There are others: Because she is a survivor and an observer of survival, Carroll perfectly understands both the questions that will be asked of her and the ways she will fail their tests. “Do I write that I went to the campus police and reported the boy? Do I say I went to the university health clinic and talked with a therapist?” she says of rereading her diary entry about the time a guy she’d gone on a drive with attacked her and pulled out a knife. She does not. Instead, she channels her anger into a resolution not to “waste my time with CREEPY BOYS.” As if creepiness could be divined far enough in advance.

The piece expresses the scattershot relationship between fear and memory, performs the “above-it-all” way women—especially in Carroll’s youth—were expected to take harassment and assault in stride, and in a devastating, casual drive-by of a last sentence, reveals what that performance has cost her. The boy-crazy teenager we met, the cheerleader who has spent decades telling people to pick themselves up and dust themselves off, has failed to do so in one crucially important way. Her resistance to being changed by the experience—her refusal to be a “victim”—is undermined by the losses evident in her own text. “Why does this woman seem so unfazed by all this horrible crap?” Carroll asks at one point in her essay. She jokes about her “shallowness” before writing: “I think it is because I have done the thing no Indiana University football team has ever done in history—I have won a national championship: Miss Cheerleader USA.” That sprightly tone, reminiscent of so many of her columns, is playing a double game. On a second read, once you’ve experienced the ending, it comes across as less resilient than dissociative.

Having witnessed the vicious abuse women who came forward with allegations against Trump endured, Carroll approached her disclosure obliquely. More straightforward accounts—of allegedly groping a woman on an airplane until she had to leave first class to get away, or grabbing and kissing a People magazine writer, or feeling up a former Miss Finland, or kissing a receptionist in a building where he had office space, or fingering a woman he hadn’t met or spoken to while sitting next to her at a nightclub, or grabbing an Apprentice contestant—hadn’t worked. The women quickly got sorted into categories as victims or opportunists, and all it took was a weirdly phrased denial, often accompanied by a Trumpian swipe at their looks, for their claims to be, it not forgotten, then certainly abandoned by the public and the press.

Of the allegations against Trump, Carroll’s is among the most serious, and while she isn’t the first to publish a first-person account (Natasha Stoynoff did, too) her approach is startlingly frank. The results have been mixed: Conservatives on Twitter spent much of Monday night mocking Carroll’s surprising comment to Anderson Cooper that people find rape “sexy”—(“think of the fantasies,” she said, clarifying in the interview that her attack had been anything but sexy). But she’s basically right. Decades as an advice columnist have taught Carroll something about American psychology; she might understand, better than most, that many of Trump’s devotees seem to find sexual harassment and assault more titillating than objectionable. They might actually kind of like the idea of his having done what he is on record as saying he does. Seen through this looking glass, it’s evidence of red-blooded American manhood. Of power. “I run the risk of making him more popular by revealing what he did,” Carroll writes. By not saying the ordinary or expected things, Carroll tells the story of her rape differently. The lack of coverage it received despite or because of her efforts is evidence that survivors understand perfectly well that there are no good options.

The fact is, there is no format for a rape report that guarantees the victim a fair reception. The tacit “common sense” expectations people usually have of survivors—that they be both distraught enough to dispel any idea that they might have consented but also clear-headed and proactive enough to visit both a hospital and a police station in the immediate aftermath of their attack—are in practice not particularly compatible with anything we know about how people work. This failure to understand human nature is not, however, what seems to trouble #MeToo skeptics. What troubles them more is the suspicion that #MeToo is a blunt and Manichean instrument turning gray-area (and even transactional) casting-couch scenarios into a struggle between innocents and malefactors. That the movement fails to describe a very different kind of “human nature”—what really happened—which is that the women knew what they were doing at the time and only now were reneging on the deal like bad sports.

I’d expect this camp to be appeased by Carroll’s piece, in which Carroll is brutally candid about the crude “battle of the sexes” gamesmanship she took willing part in—like the pleasure she got from tracking the boys who wouldn’t call her and the boys she wouldn’t call. Carroll does not pretend she wasn’t sexually adventurous. She also does not hide that she remained in a bizarre situation with her boss in order to have the filet mignon, and clarifies that she saw this then as spunky rather than dangerous conduct: “50 years before #MeToo, 40 years before women even begin expecting things could be different Jeanie Carroll, who takes her licks and doesn’t look back, is not about to pass up a dinner in the goddamn Pump Room!” She is also, however, brutally clear about the point in some of the encounters she describes where the game—which she sometimes voluntarily joined—suddenly turned frightening and moved clearly beyond anything that could possibly be understood as consent. And it’s only ever frightening for one party, who ends up having to fight and flee.

Carroll’s candor extends to the way she recounts meeting Trump, whom she describes as not just good-looking but “prettier than ever.” She enjoys the shopping game he seems to be playing, finds it hilarious and vaguely thrilling to be browsing for a gift for some unspecified woman with the famous and blustery real estate guy. Carroll’s essay risks a great deal, in short, to acknowledge the blundering human complexity of the situation. If anything, Carroll’s piece dwells on the oddities. She doesn’t just acknowledge the weirdness of an unlocked dressing room and absent salesperson in Bergdorf’s, she lingers on it: “[I]t is almost easier to accept the fact that I was attacked than the fact that, for a very brief period, there was no sales attendant in the lingerie department. Inconceivable is the word.” When I say this is literary, this is what I mean. The essay is doing things a news report can’t and wouldn’t.

Not least of these is the choice to leave Trump to the very last—not just because the allegation about him is the one readers are likely to be most curious about, but because that position demonstrates to us what the “list” was all about. At first, it seemed strange to me to keep talking about a list but fail to include it. Only later did I realize that the list wasn’t the point: The point was that Trump was the last man on it. This is an essay about slow renunciations of things Carroll once loved. Like the filet mignon: “one of the last times I ever eat meat, so disgusting is this night,” Carroll writes of her encounter with her boss. Like fond memories of camp. And, finally, like sex. “And that was my last hideous man,” Carroll writes—and if at first that sounds like a declaration that she subsequently found love and happiness with a non-hideous man, it slowly becomes clear, over the rest of the paragraph, that this is not that ending. It is, instead, the story of how the cheerleader we’ve come to know, the girl who knew how to take her licks and keep going, called it quits.