Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey are the New York Times journalists that, in 2017, first broke the story of Harvey Weinstein’s impunity despite accusations of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape that are alleged to have gone on for a period of nearly 40 years. Just after their article, came Ronan Farrow’s in The New Yorker. And now both stories about the struggle to publish are out as fine narrative books. We have already commented on Farrow’s Catch and Kill (on 3 December 2019 in the News Section or this site), and today we are looking at the two women journalists’ excellent book, She Said.
The lasting effect of sexual assault and harassment on those who have suffered it is sensitively dealt with all through the book. The tone of the book is both empathetic and also factual, a delicate balance.
The riveting title She Said comes from the American expression, “He said, she said,” referring to how you can prove cases of rape and sexual assault only with great difficulty, if at all, because there is so often no other witness than “him” and “her”. In fact, there are many other indicators as to who is telling the truth – him or her – and the journalists share with us their painstaking task of working through this. And the “He said, she said” argument, as the book shows, only stands so long as victims remain atomised, separate from all the other victims, thus unable to establish patterns of behavior in the perpetrator.
The book, in fact, then goes on to show how the “He said, she said,” argument, is not the only problem.
There is at least one other big problem. Once she begins to say, there is constant covering-up – usually because of the relative power of the perpetrator over others who might speak out, as well as over the victim. The boss-employee or film producer-actor relationship first keeps the truth masked, then conspires to cover it up. The perpetrator also goes to great lengths to silence the victim. He may actually employ secret legal devices like NDAs (yes, they are now so thoroughly exposed that they’ve got an acronym!) or Non-Disclosure Agreements that force the victim (and her entire support network) into eternal silence. So, in the USA where free speech is the most sacred of rights, NDA’s were so powerful and air-tight that victims and other witnesses were gagged from speaking about even illegal behavior. This silence is secured via a whole lawyers’ mafia that often includes the victim’s own lawyers, who take 30% to 40% of the settlement money. It is presented as the only possible “victory” against powerful perpetrators. The NDA’s are being challenged now, as a direct result of the #MeToo movement having exposed them.
The covering up can be worse still. The perpetrators employ private detective agencies, including notorious ones like Black Cube set up by ex-Mossad agents and since closed down in disgrace, that spy on both victims and journalists working on victims’ stories. This way they find out what can be used as blackmail or what might scare individual victims and journalists. Worse still, these secret agents become active covert agents, actually pretending also to be victims or also to be journalists, thus laying traps for victims and journalists as they attempt to unite to gain strength in collective action.
What is interesting about the book is that it starts with the audio tape of Donald Trump’s bragging about sexual assault (Hollywood Access tapes), after the exposure of which he was still elected President of the USA. His election despite this, shows the impunity of 5,000 years of patriarchy continues. “Everyone” excuses this bragging about sexual assault – either maintaining that sexual assault is inevitable, or that this was supposedly just locker talk of Trumps. He gets voted in anyway. But, not “everyone” remains silent. Dozens of women have accused him. The Independent of 2 December, 2019 catalogues 20 cases. He denies all accusations. But then Trump advises all men to deny all. Just as Weinstein denies all. And even this tactic has now been exposed.
And the work done by these two New York Times journalists is both a sign that literally millions of women are not part of that “everyone” who excuses actual sexual assault or bragging about it. Women who manage to speak out help stop the on-going cover-up. And the book shows just how difficult it is to speak out – each victim is in the middle of something important in life, like breast cancer surgery, starting a new business, having a baby – and thus how important it is to develop social mechanisms for putting an end to this silent form of domination that sexual assault is.
Interestingly, the book does not only start chronicling from before the Weinstein accusations come out, but also goes on after the Weinstein case to the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford about having been sexually assaulted by now Supreme Court judge Brett Kavanaugh when they were teens.
For the record, right in the middle of the Kavanaugh senate hearings, there was a crucial moment when, after Christine Blasey Ford had proved a thoroughly credible witness, and had stood up to questioning from the Republican woman lawyer and when Kavanaugh was faring very badly by going off the deep end like a loon, coming across as both defiant and not truthful, suddenly Republican Senator Lindsay Graham came in on a new tack: attack the process. He just flew off the handle, and cobbled together an alliance to protect poor males victimized by the Democratic party – a new form of defence – and to counter-attack the accusers by attacking the process.
And the book has a very beautiful last section where some 12 women who have accused Weinstein (in public or just in private), very famous actresses and little known restaurant workers, meet with the journalists for a two-day on-the-record follow-up of what it feels like to have gone through the process of denouncing sexual harassment and assault. This section is uplifting because, for me at least, I read the relief, the pride, the hope and the collective power that the women now feel, compared with the anger, distress, powerlessness and solitude they felt while they bottled up the aggression in silence previously. I guess the women (including the two journalists) also feel proud, and rightly so, of being part of a collective effort to make history move forward. What, in life, could be more fulfilling?
She Said reads like a gripping novel, even though the prose is always sober, even though the facts are always checked and re-checked. Even though, as a reader, you are always aware that the writers are tempering their discourse knowing that they are up against big odds: the cornered wild beast of patriarchy.
But then again, patriarchy has only dominated society for some 5,000 to 10,000 years, here and there, while humans have a history of 200,000 years or so without it. Nothing about the unequal organization of existing society is ever, thus, inevitable. But, exposing the inequality now is necessary, if not sufficient, to getting rid of it one day.
The book also, unconsciously sometimes, exposes just as well the cruelty of capitalist hierarchies of today’s society. These, have existed for even less time, only some 250 years since capitalism came to power by ousting rule by kings, war lords and zaminndars. People at the top under capitalist organization have immense power over their underlings, however famous these may be: they control the food for the children of the underlings’ mouths. There are the owners of companies who hire and fire – in the film world, in restaurant chains, in media outlets – and they employ at the top, people with immense power, too – and then there is all the rest of us, a vast majority of people who, in the final analysis, work as underlings of varying status, but with little voice let alone power.
Not forever, though.