by valerie morales
Because a rape trial doesn’t anesthetize the wound, Jessica Mann sobbed. Her exhausting, often painful testimony, was gut-wrenching. She had an intimate relationship with Harvey Weinstein and she had a verbally abusive relationship with Harvey Weinstein. Both were symbiotic, like a god and a monster hovering nearby. There were loving emails Jessica wrote. There was humiliation and degradation Weinstein inflicted. On two separate occasions, Weinstein furthered the complexity by assaulting Jessica Mann in a hotel room. That first time, he forced her to perform oral sex.
Despite the filth he spewed, Jessica continued her consensual relationship with Weinstein. When she began a relationship with another man and told Weinstein she had a boyfriend, he was defiant. Jessica testified, “his eyes changed and he wasn’t there. He picked me up from the chair…he was screaming ‘You owe me! You owe me one more [sexual] time!’” Then he raped her. Obedient, and perhaps fearful, she sated his sexual desires several times thereafter, seeking his approval.
Mimi Haley met with Weinstein in Soho in 2006. She had known him for two years; he helped her acquire a job on Project Runway. In one memorable encounter, Weinstein showed up at her apartment and invited Haley to join him in Paris but she wasn’t interested and told him his reputation with women preceded him. Her candor was flip and intentional, it extricated her from the Paris trip but she made a cunning enemy.
Enter 2006 and Soho and the velocity of a Weinstein rage. He kissed Mimi against her will and in a panic she screamed at him that she was menstruating, hoping for any kind of masculine decency so Weinstein would stop. Please, stop. But, he was volatile and lucid. Haley testified “he pushed me down. He held me down by my arms…and I said ‘No, no’ and at that time I started realizing what was actually happening and I thought…this is being raped.” Two weeks later, Weinstein called her a “bitch” and “whore”. While she lay passive, he raped her.
Harvey Weinstein’s rape trial is a flawed history lesson. History is mocked in the short term only to be sanctioned and fetishized as the decades pass and everything has settled. One of the more compelling testimonies came from aspiring actress Lauren Young who said in 2013 she was having drinks with Weinstein and a third party, a woman named Claudia Salinas (who made the networking possible).
Young wanted to talk about a script. In the middle of drinking at the bar, Weinstein said he had to get ready to accept an award with Quentin Tarantino and asked would Young mind if they continued the conversation in his hotel room. Feeling safe because another woman was present she followed him upstairs and into his room. There was a hall Weinstein traveled down and Young went with him, with the other woman trailing behind.
Weinstein entered a room that was the bathroom. As Young tried to leave, the door was blocked from the other side. Claudia Salinas was pushing it closed. That’s when Young knew it was a setup. (Claudia Salinas took the stand and said her memory of the event was vague. Under examination, she said she didn’t remember going to Weinstein’s hotel room, a contradiction from what she told investigators.)
The next day Young had a prearranged meeting with Weinstein’s assistant. She expected Weinstein to appear. She was going to tell him off for molesting her and then jacking off in a towel but he never showed. She didn’t have further contact with Weinstein.
Our imagery of a rape victim is simplistic, grounded as it is in a myth. It is of a young woman with white skin, young for the most part, forced into sex with someone she does not know very well. She screams until her throat is raw and she claws, leaving marks upon him. She fights back. Afterward, she is either meek and subdued, or angry as hell. The myth demands heroines to behave quietly. If a man rapes you, the anodyne compliance that shapes male-female encounters is severed permanently. You may not rat him out to the cops but you won’t have anything to do with him again. Ever.
One of the most searing literary works about rape traumatization is Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger. It tells the nuanced and complicated story of her obesity which is a consequence of a gang rape when she was 13 years old. Post-rape she continued to befriend one of the rapists as if her mind was suddenly detached from her body and her rage. She had to be ordinary.
That’s the thing about a rape trial, the ordinary is on the witness stand too. As in, does any of this make sense to you?
Deliberations are set to begin and the Weinstein jury of 7 men and 5 women have to come to terms with the testimony of Dr. Elizabeth Loftus whose research on memory has been used to discredit trauma survivors. She argued that memories can be contaminated and are sometimes false.
Memory is one of those gendered defects used to taint women and exonerate men. But what about Weinstein’s memory? Because he didn’t testify in his own defense, it’s irrelevant if he is lying. It is a glaring absence of omission.
Harvey Weinstein amassed power and influence over a five-decade career. Weinstein was authoritative, abusive, and cruel. His accusers feared his reactions and the consequences of his behavior were deadly.
In a bid to spare him a prison term, Weinstein’s attorneys argued that the survivors of his violence were no survivors at all. They were climbers. It was about what they could get from him. Jobs. Film relevance. Hollywood insider status. Why else, they argued, would a grieving Jessica Mann who lost her father contact the man who raped her? Why would Dawn Dunning agree to meet with Weinstein a second time when the first time he put his hand up her skirt? Why would a rape victim call her rapist a genius?
“It is hard to accept that violence is as simple as it is complicated, that you can love someone who hurts you, that you can stay with someone who hurts you, that you can be hurt by someone who loves you, that you can be hurt by a complete stranger, that you can be hurt in so many terrible, intimate ways.” Roxane Gay, Hunger
Because we don’t punish rapists in this country, and because we eroticize rape through porn, and because violent pejoratives are the tag line to jokes about women, we water down the impact of sexual violence. Women then are forced to be reductive and do math gymnastics when their rapist is someone powerful and crucial to their careers. Is it worth it to tell? What is going to happen to my career? Will I ever work again?
As far as monsters go, Weinstein has cleaned up a little bit in order to hopscotch the toxic white man with a violent dick archetype. He doesn’t have the gravitas to be elegant in his mourning; he remains heavy as lard even with weight loss, even as aging and sickness have swallowed him whole. He can barely walk. Long gone is the boorish bully; his face walking into the courtroom is often slack. We have seen men like him before, their faded silhouette a lonely look, but only when compared to who they used to be. And that is what the rape trial is all about. The man Harvey Weinstein was.
Still. Our affliction holds. We forgive men who look like Weinstein all the time for all kinds of things, heaping upon them a pang of attendant guilt they never really feel. In Weinstein’s submission, some will see their father. How will the jury assess the old man at the table and the flagrant crimes he is being accused of? How are they going to judge women? That’s part of the calculus of any rape trial. The prosecutor, Joan Illuzi-Orbon, in her closing arguments, said to the jurors, “the question is whether or not Jessica [Mann] is lying. If she’s telling you the truth, she’s the victim of rape. She could have had his name tattooed on her arm. She could have been writing him love notes every single day. It still wouldn’t make a difference. He still wouldn’t be allowed to rape her on March 18, 2013.”
Rape intolerance works against prosecutions. Jurors cling to an image and refuse to grow their minds. It is an act of retrogression, how they can’t grasp the complications women have to deal with when in the presence of powerful men who can shape their careers. On the surface, Jessica Mann’s emails contradict her testimony of a monster; Weinstein is softened. But as Illuzi-Orbon pointed out, rape can occur within a consensual framework of cinematic theology; just because you don’t mention it in an email doesn’t erase non-consent.
I know a young woman who interned for a very powerful Hollywood movie star. She had just graduated from college and was honored he chose her among hundreds of applications. He had a sitcom at the time and she was the grunt on the set. She saw women going in and out of his dressing room and she didn’t judge. She had written a script and would have done anything for him to read it. Once, he took her out to dinner. Once, he took her to his home. But it was all above board. Years later, he was implicated in the reckoning that #MeToo created. It could have been her abuse, that time she went to his house in the hills, but it wasn’t. Nothing untoward happened between them. She was one of the lucky ones.
Roxanne Gay wasn’t one of the lucky ones. In her memoir Hunger, she writes “I am not brave or heroic. I am not strong. I am not special. I am one woman who has experienced something countless women have experienced. I am a victim who has survived. It could have been worse. That’s what matters and is even more a travesty here, that having this kind of story, by joining a chorus of women and men who share their stories too, more people can become appropriately horrified by how much suffering is born out of sexual violence, how far reaching the repercussions can be.”
Women have lost so much time keeping their wounds private. They have lost joy. They have lost breaths. Reculer pour mieux sauter is the French way of saying take a step back, regroup. But survivors are bullied when this is their go-to.
Sadly, justice unleashes its knives only when women punish themselves in public, and even then they are often the trope beneath the headline you forget after a week. It is unthinkable that it has to be this way, that a rape trial is tant bien que mal, partly successful, even if Weinstein is convicted. We are forced into taking sides for social progress. Rape is one of the few criminal complaints in which much of the evidence is in the language of the victim, in her dress, her emails, her non-screams, her passivity, her silence. Her silence. Her silence.
Harvey Weinstein does not know his fate yet but this is clear: patriarchy has already won, absent any spoils. Despite evidence of rage, most don’t want to believe powerful men are capable of atrocities. We want the privileged to maintain their benefits because we hope one day to join them, or marry them, or friend them, or copy them, or lust after them.
In her closing, Joan Illuzi-Orbon compared the survivors to “ants Weinstein could step on” recreating Weinstein’s insipid misogynistic language. She said of the victims, “they were scared. They felt isolated. They were alone.”
One of her strongest arguments was “if you have to trick someone, it is not consent.” She reminded the jury of what rape creates down the line, the wounds it opens up, the blood that seeps. “To have to tell you that she [Annabella Sciorra] was cutting herself and then dabbing her blood with a tissue and putting it on the wall with gold leaf, do you think that’s a career booster?”
We don’t do enough for survivors; really we do nothing for survivors except parade them for their closeup in hugely fantastical trials like Harvey Weinstein and then we forget they put everything on the line because a monster brutalized them.
Illuzi-Orbon explained, “They didn’t come for a beauty contest. They didn’t come for money. They didn’t come for fame. They came to be heard. They sacrificed their dignity, their privacy, and their peace.”