On October 2, in front of a large, lively and captive audience at Sixth & I in Washington DC, Bob Woodward interviewed Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey about their new book, She Said, a deeply reported build on their initial series of Pulitzer-Prize winning articles exposing Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long history of sexual misconduct in 2017.
“You spend all this time on [Weinstein] and you have to ask the question—which you really don’t address in the book—and that is why he behaves this way,” Woodward said.
“I will tell you what we know is that the story is an x-ray into power,” Kantor responded. “How power works. That is what the evidence says.”
“It’s also about sex, isn’t it?”
It isn’t—and judging by the audience’s audible and vehement displays of disagreement in response, they knew that too. In 2019, Woodward’s focus on Weinstein felt off base.
Three recent books address narratives of sexual assault within larger investigations of unchecked power.
The powerful have long misappropriated sexual acts in order to maintain and protect the very power that enables them; and as we’ve seen in the #MeToo movement, as more of those stories come to light, they’ve been frequently aided by those whose own power is achieved or maintained by association. Now, three recent books, She Said included, attempt to address narratives of sexual assault within larger investigations of unchecked power, with a notable shift in focus to the women behind the stories that brought these powerful men’s actions to light. The Education of Brett Kavanaugh, an investigation by Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly, and Know My Name, Chanel Miller’s memoir of surviving a sexual assault on Stanford’s campus, all grapple with the type of power that begets violence and the byproduct of this violence that our society still somehow associates with sex.
Each of these books began as smaller works. Miller’s Victim Impact Statement, read aloud by Miller to Turner directly at his sentencing, was initially published by BuzzFeed anonymously, while the foundation of both She Said and The Education were articles for The New York Times. The period between these articles’ initial publication and the release of their book-length follow-ups not only allowed the authors time for additional reporting or reflection, but offered the general public an incubation period in which to ruminate on the larger picture painted by these high-profile instances of abuse.
In an essay for The Cut earlier this fall, Rebecca Traister assessed “The Toll of Me Too.”
“By and large, those tales of harassment and assault told mostly by women were heard (and are still understood) as stories about men, stories about what powerful (and middling) men had done with their hands or their words or their workplace authority or their penises. We have spent far less time considering those who told the stories that purportedly ruined the lives of these men. How did the storytellers themselves fare?” These three books—She Said, The Education and, perhaps most poignantly, Know My Name—all, in some way, address this question.
In their reporting, Kantor and Twohey identified countless people in Weinstein’s closest circle and broader orbit who protected his abusive behavior for years, at times even utilizing the corporate crisis of reputation that ensued from Weinstein’s actions to accumulate further clout for themselves. Harvey Weinstein’s brother, Bob Weinstein, and high-powered attorney David Boies were both aware of and complicit in Weinstein’s abuse of women, allowing it to continue as long as the company’s bottom line was not affected.
And it was not just men who benefitted from harboring Harvey’s crimes.
Superstar “feminist” lawyers Gloria Allred and Lisa Bloom both played active roles in keeping Weinstein’s accusers quiet in order to prevent a larger case against Weinstein from building. In 2004, Allred’s firm negotiated a confidential settlement between Weinstein and Ashley Matthau, who alleged Weinstein groped and restrained her when she was working as a backup dancer on Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights.
“At the urging of her fiancé, Matthau had turned to Gloria Allred,” Kantor and Twohey report in She Said. “Fearful of going up against Weinstein, and all his power, in public, Matthau had quickly agreed to accept $125,000 in exchange for a legally binding promise to never speak of the allegations again, she said. ‘I remember [Allred’s partner] not negotiating that much because he thought I was an emotional wreck and couldn’t handle it,’ Matthau explained. ‘He suggested I just take the money and move on and try to heal.’” The firm walked away with 40 percent of the settlement as their fee. Allred’s firm engaged in similar settlements with Bill O’Reilly and Larry Nassar, as well.
Allred’s daughter, Lisa Bloom, played a much more direct and insidious role in the covering up of Weinstein’s pattern of harassment and abuse. She was retained by Weinstein in December 2016 in order to address the swelling of rumors following Rose McGowan’s thinly veiled accusations shared on Twitter—ones that first jumped out at Kantor, as well.
Utilizing Bloom’s own billing records from this time, Kantor and Twohey reported in She Said that she not only helped collect information on McGowan, Battilana Gutierrez and Ashley Judd, but several other women who his camp suspected might accuse Weinstein. She also collaborated directly with the undercover, private investigator Weinstein had hired to keep track of journalists who were investigating his history, attempting to learn the identities of their sources.
“Why had Bloom signed on to work with a rumored sexual predator?” Kantor and Twohey ask in the book. “What motivated her, and how did she operate?”
Bloom’s participation and Allred’s complacency in the attempted silencing of the women who were brave enough to come forward against Weinstein reveals a similar addiction to a very specific iteration of power—one emulated and dangled like a prize to others by Weinstein.
By the time President Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in 2018, the judge’s classmates from elite Georgetown Prep had gone on to become “sports executives, lawyers, government officials, non-profit advocates, and entrepreneurs—many of whom united behind him,” as noted by Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly in The Education of Brett Kavanaugh, a continuation of the FBI’s investigation of the Supreme Court Justice that was far from exhaustive or complete in light of the allegations of assault from the 1980s he faced from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez.
Following Justice Anthony Kennedy’s announcement that he was retiring from the Supreme Court, Kavanaugh was not high on the shortlist of judges the GOP’s conservative base hoped would become Trump’s nominee.
“Kavanaugh was a known ‘bro,’ a highly social animal whose proximity to powerful men had raised uncomfortable questions about his connection to their own controversial policies,” Pogrebin and Kelly write in The Education. Most notably and “potentially radioactive, some thought, was Kavanaugh’s long association with Judge Alex Kozinski, who in December 2017 had retired after six women accused him of sexual harassment, a number that eventually grew to fifteen.”
Even before Christine Blasey Ford’s identity became public knowledge, the Washington elite whom had come to rally around Kavanaugh as their conservative plug circled the wagons around him even tighter when The New Yorker first published Blasey Ford’s account without using her name.
Some of Kavanaugh’s most vocal and energetic supporters were women. As reported by Pogrebin and Kelly in The Education, the wife of one of of Kavanaugh’s Georgetown Prep schoolmates wrote a letter on behalf of 65 women in their shared network, defending Kavanaugh’s character, particularly with regard to his treatment of women.
In this system, who is untouchable? Who is disposable? Whose lives are we intent on preserving? Who goes unaccounted for?
“‘Through the more than 35 years we have known him, Brett has stood out for his friendship, character and integrity,’ the women stated,” according to Pogrebin and Kelly’s reporting. “‘In particular, he has always treated women with decency and respect. That was true when he was in high school, and it has remained true to this day.”
It’s possible these women were speaking the truth about their specific experiences with Kavanaugh, but within the context of what has since been revealed about Kavanaugh’s interactions with other women, their defense of his character rings hollow.
According to Pogrebin and Kelly’s reporting, Kavanaugh had a “ham handedness” when it came to his interactions with women, possibly a result of his all-boys school upbringing and the lack of opportunity to engage with women as peers, rather than romantic conquests, an awkwardness exacerbated by his heavy drinking in high school and college. At Yale Law School, “Kavanaugh appeared to use alcohol as a social lubricant in order to feel empowered around men and emboldened toward women,” Pogrebin and Kelly report.
The reporters interviewed a classmate of Kavanaugh’s from Yale who remembered encountering a drunk Kavanaugh attempting to punch and damage the classmate’s car for apparently no reason. When Ford recounted the experience of Kavanaugh pinning her underneath him in a dark room, with a locked door, she did so knowing it was an experience Kavanaugh himself might not even remember due to his drunkenness at the time, “…perhaps he had blanked on it because it has registered with him at the time as harmless—and therefore forgettable—horsing around.”
Exerting his physicality, whether in the street or playing sports or showing off to his friends—Ford noted in her testimony that he and Judge laughed together as he attacked her—was an early way to telegraph his power to his peers and the world.
When Brock Turner’s trial concluded in March of 2016, Blasey Ford shared with a close friend that she had been assaulted in high school. The light, six-month sentence Turner received—after being found guilty of three felonies following his assault on Chanel Miller at a Stanford University fraternity party—was igniting outrage in Blasey Ford’s Palo Alto neighborhood, as well as emboldening Blasey Ford.
“If punishment is based on potential, privileged people will be given lighter sentences,” Miller writes in Know My Name:
Brock was shielded inside projections of what people like him to grow up to become, or are supposed to become. Orthopedic surgeon. Biomedical engineer. All-American Athlete. Olympian. The judge argued he’d already lost so much, given up so many opportunities. …
My point can be summed up in a line Brock wrote: I just existed in a reality where nothing can go wrong or nobody could think of what I was doing as wrong. Privilege accompanies the light skinned, helped maintain his belief that consequences do not apply to him. In this system, who is untouchable? Who is disposable? Whose lives are we intent on preserving? Who goes unaccounted for?
Know My Name ends with the victim impact statement Miller wrote and delivered in court to Turner directly following his sentencing. In it, Miller exposes the cracks in Turner’s account of the assault and describes the power structures that enabled him to drag out the legal proceedings between him and Miller for more than a year. She repeats the inane and sexist line of questioning she endured from Turner’s attorney, who attempted to paint a picture of consensual sexual activity between Turner and an unconscious Miller.
“I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you,” Miller wrote.