Meghan Daum

E. Jean Carroll’s Advice and Non-Consent

Shouldn’t a rape allegation against the president be bigger news?

OnOn June 21, New York Magazine published a 6,000-word excerpt from a new memoir, What Do We Need Men For?, in which the Elle Magazine advice columnist E. Jean Carroll describes Donald Trump raping her in a department store dressing room more than two decades ago. Carroll didn’t use the word rape — she has also said she does not see herself as a victim — but by any reasonable definition, even considering that the encounter began as a flirtatious game, the word applies. The president has denied Carroll’s account, saying that he doesn’t know her (never mind the photo of them together) and that “she’s not my type.”

Carroll’s story was almost immediately followed by the story of why it wasn’t a bigger story. Out of the more than 20 women who’ve publicly accused Trump of assault or sexual misconduct, Carroll is only the second to recount an incident involving forced penetration. (The other was his first wife, Ivana Trump, who recanted her story after their divorce settlement.) In any other presidency, this would almost certainly have been thunderous news, but the only major newspaper to put it on the front page was The Washington Post, which ran it under the fold of the print edition. New York Times editor Dean Baquet later admitted that editors had been “overly cautious” (the paper had buried the story in its books section) and, indeed, the Times then followed up, running a powerful audio interview with Carroll and two friends she’d told about the assault at the time.

To many observers, it seemed that stories of Trump’s sexual misconduct had become so commonplace that even this frightening new revelation was effectively old news. Assault had become normalized. As Moira Donegan wrote in The Atlantic, “we have become comfortable with the hideous, made a friendly acquaintance with it, and are now at home being ugly, content to live alongside horrible things.”

That is undoubtedly true. But I wasn’t sure two weeks ago and I’m not sure now that Trump’s great numbing effect is the only reason the media hesitated on Carroll’s story. There’s no telling what goes on in the mind of any given reporter or editor during any given news cycle, but there was a moment there — a three-day moment — where you could almost feel the tension as the media gatekeepers decided what to do, perhaps mentally calculating whether Carroll’s persona and story was a net benefit to #MeToo or a gift to Trump’s defenders. On one hand, she was utterly believable. Her recollection of laughing all the way through the encounter and her explanation of why she didn’t come forward sooner — “receiving death threats, being driven from my home, being dismissed, being dragged through the mud . . . never sounded like much fun” — actually made her all the more credible to lots of women, many of whom are trained from birth in the fine art of defusing tense or perilous situations by trying to keep things light.

But Carroll herself — despite describing an encounter that clearly constituted rape as most of us define it — was reluctant to call it that, perhaps because, as Nina Burleigh noted, she came of age at a time (she is 75) when many women were trained to see an acknowledgment of victimization as disempowering. Instead, they experienced abuse as caddishness, dusted themselves off and tried to move forward.

This approach has been steadily abandoned in recent decades, and rightly so. You could see how outdated it seemed while watching the television interview in which Carroll — in the midst of making a rather complex point about people’s associations with the word rape and why she was reluctant to use it — told Anderson Cooper that “I think most people think of rape as being sexy.” (A stunned Cooper went to commercial. The exchange was cut from the version of the interview that CNN published online, although many right-wing sites were happy to post the unedited version.)

Carroll’s memoir is a feminist cri de coeur — a candy colored, highly diluted SCUM Manifesto for the Pilates and gelato set.

The other problem, perhaps, was that the Trump incident, horrifying as it was, somehow seemed not to be the main story. The main story was something much more complicated and ultimately more horrifying. It was the story of how Carroll came to live a life that involved being choked, chased, pinned and fondled so many different times by the “21 revolting scoundrels” that comprise what Carroll calls the Most Hideous Men Of My Life List. These include men as powerful as former CBS chairman Les Moonves, whom she says attacked her in an elevator (Moonves has denied it) and nameless creeps like the boyfriend of a babysitter who (along with the sitter) touched her genitals when she was young. They include a male camp counselor who repeatedly fondled her, as well as a childhood playmate who shoved items such as rocks, sticks and a piece of fabric inside her until she bled. Carroll was five at the time.

The moment when media had to pause and decide how to metabolize all of this remains the moment in the story that interests me the most.

Published on July 2, What Do We Need Men For? is many things at once: A tell-all (or at least tell some) about the New York media luminaries of the late 20th century, an ironic-not-ironic humblebrag about the author’s career as a beauty queen, a road trip in a hand-painted Prius across the American Midwest and South, and a feminist cri de coeur — a candy-colored, highly diluted SCUM Manifesto for the Pilates and gelato set.

Written in the late 1960s by radical feminist Valerie Solanas, who would attempt to murder Andy Warhol the following year, SCUM (supposedly an acronym for Society for Cutting Up Men) called for “civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex.” Carroll bears no resemblance to Solanas, of course. With her Vivienne Westwood jackets and Scottish tweed, she’s a post-sexual revolution Holly Golightly rather than a counterculture revolutionary. But she is certainly something of a thrill seeker who claims to have an interest in eliminating men.

“The whole female sex seems to agree that men are becoming a nuisance with their lying, cheating, robbing, perjuring, assaulting, murdering, voting debauchers into the Supreme Court, threatening one another with intercontinental ballistic nuclear warheads and so on,” she writes in her prologue. “My scheme does away with the lads entirely.” As such, her plan is to visit towns with female names — Anita, Indiana; Ina, Illinois; Tallulah, Louisiana, and so on — and pose a titular question to women she meets along the way: What do we need men for?

Their answers are rarely as punchy as the question. A gas station clerk in Elnora, Indiana figures, “We need ’em for a lot of things!” A woman at a gun show in Pearl, Mississippi, holds up a stun gun, and replies, “If we’ve got these, pretty much nuthin’.” Two 18-year-olds in Bonnie, Illinois, after being cajoled into sharing their “boy problems,” receive advice lady’s counsel: “You’re only on this earth for one reason… to enjoy as many chaps as you can.” (The girls look confused. “As many guys as you like!” Carroll cries.)

Carroll’s persona has always been that of the saucy, sassy gal about town who regards her feminine wiles as tools for both attracting men and knowing how to live without them. But to read her book is to wonder if she’d gotten some better advice herself. Despite enduring physical violence from one husband, “a glamorous TV anchorman,” she seems to have viewed the relationship as a sort of wacky comedy routine. “My god, we were fabulous!” Carroll writes. “One time when [he] was being particularly blustery, I picked up a suitcase and bashed him over the head with it.” She also gets into a fistfight with Hunter S. Thompson, is swindled by her financial advisor boyfriend, and is propositioned by a mobster who wants to keep her on a retainer as his mistress.

Carroll’s tone is gimlet-eyed and gonzo (she clearly adored Thompson and makes a point of saying he’s not on the Hideous Men List), but it’s hard not to read her book as a kind of war journal. For all the Caribbean vacations and dinners at Elaine’s, the atrocities pile up. From there, they instill a cognitive dissonance that resembles a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. If Carroll is a foot soldier in the battle for women’s sexual freedom and emancipation from male control — “You’ll have more fun getting rich than marrying rich,” she has famously said — then she’s in the awkward bind of craving the enemy’s attention even as she’s fighting him.

Recalling her freshman year in college, she describes herself as “the most boy-crazy 17-year-old in the nation.” Her school, Indiana University, would bestow a number of honors on her, from “Miss Cheerleader” (which had her on billboards across the state that year, “skirt aswirl, legs split like the atom”) to Miss Indiana University, an achievement she mentions with almost compulsive repetition throughout the book.

“I’ve been looking through my 1961 datebook,” Carroll writes, “and each day is so chock-full of the names of boys who called me, the names of boys who I expected to call me and didn’t, the names of boys who did call me but I didn’t care if they called me, the names of boys who if they didn’t call me I was never going to speak to again, the names of boys who if they called me I would not pick up the phone, the names of boys who called me and left messages saying they were other boys calling me . . .”

You get the idea. You may also get the idea that this book is about much more than just hideous men. It’s about all the ways that one hideous incident can beget the next, thereby setting off a chain reaction that even the most resilient and self-possessed person can have trouble putting a stop to. No reader should attempt to psychoanalyze an author, especially based on a single book. Nor is it exactly fair game to criticize an author for not psychoanalyzing herself as deeply as you might like. But as wackily entertaining as some of Carroll’s antics are, it’s difficult not to wonder what drove her to them. Insofar as we are all products of some mysterious goulash of natural temperament, social conditioning, and life circumstances, it would be interesting to know what combination resulted in Carroll becoming the brazen, sometimes shrewd, sometimes ridiculous, wonderfully and maddeningly complicated and self-contradictory person that she was and is.

Because she’s really complicated. And this, I fear, is the reason that even after the media snapped into action and covered her story, there’s been a lull yet again in the wake of the book’s release. The #MeToo movement certainly doesn’t require that anyone align perfectly to a particular narrative of trauma, but Carroll’s narrative asks a lot of even the most sympathetic of readers. This has nothing to do with believing her. I, for one, believe all of it. But what are we to do with her affection for one of the most hideous men of recent history, Fox News chairman, Roger Ailes?

“Egads! How I adored that man,” Carroll writes of Ailes, who would later be ousted from the company amid sexual harassment charges from six women. “I loved him from the moment I saw his fat, smiling face . . . I am talking of love for a friend here, not romantic love.” Not only did Carroll manage to avoid Ailes’ harassment, she actually harassed him. She recalls making Ailes twirl in the hallway to show his behind. She wrote his name in black letters on her white knee socks and, on live television out of the sight line of cameras, pulled up her pant legs for the reveal.

“I thought of it as friends teasing one another, as high jinks, as frolics, as jokes . . . I don’t know,” Carroll writes. “Perhaps I was picking up some dark undercurrent in Roger and was inflicting upon him what he would later inflict upon the women at Fox. But that’s a guess, and it’s probably wrong.”

How much of Carroll’s life script was really the madcap comedy she claimed to be writing for herself, and how much had been written for her since practically before she could read?

I could be wrong, too, but I found it nearly impossible to read these battle stories without seeing that initial incident, at age five with the boy named James, as the first shot fired. That the boy himself, at age seven or eight, had, according to Carroll, been beaten by his father and raped by his grandfather and his uncles until he was taken away and given to another couple, suggests no such thing as the first shot fired. There’s always one that preceded it and yet another that came even earlier. Carroll knows this, too, which is why she declines to include the boy on her Most Hideous list. “It is his uncles, his father, his grandfather who should be recorded,” she writes.

And what of the uncles and fathers and grandfathers before that? What of the damage done to them, which might have planted the seeds of the damage they wrought? What connection, if any, is there to be found between the five-year-old Carroll violated by a fellow child and the twelve-year-old Carroll violated by the camp counselor? How much of Carroll’s life script was really the madcap comedy she claimed to be writing for herself, and how much had been written for her since practically before she could read?

“Do I attract hideous men?” Carroll asked in the New York Magazine excerpt (in a passage that, curiously, does not appear in the actual book). “Possibly. But I’ve also encountered many creeps, villains, dickwads, and chumps simply because I’ve been around a long time. I was mostly single, free of encumbrances, and working in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, when a woman could scarcely walk down the street without getting hit on or take a job without being underpaid.”

Fair enough. But what lends Carroll’s story significance far beyond the framing it’s been given so far is that it’s at once a modern, post-feminist story and the oldest story in the world.

There’s no way to measure exactly how much the eccentricities of Carroll’s personality may have led to that media delay when her story broke. Nor is it possible to tell how much those eccentricities emerged like rock formations on the sediment of those early hideous men and, from there, set the stage for the ravages of the hideous men that followed. There is, however, significant psychological data supporting the idea that if you’re a victim of sexual abuse or assault once, you’re likely to experience it again.

That idea is sometimes avoided by survivors’ advocates, because simplistic interpretations can lend themselves to victim blaming. But it seems not just potentially relevant here but potentially key. That’s because among the countless forms of recognition that we owe survivors, none seems more urgent than the recognition that even a single act of abuse isn’t always a singular entity. It can often be a setup for a lifetime of more abuse — sometimes in ways barely perceptible to victims and those around them. What Carroll’s story seems to say without coming right out and saying it is that serial abusers know how to spot vulnerable people — even the kind who, like her, appear on the surface to be the furthest thing from vulnerable. Donald Trump may be a serial abuser, not to mention a sitting president who, in a rational world, would be punished for his crimes. But making this story all about him is making it far less than it is. And if it takes a few days — or even weeks or months — for the media and the rest of us to grasp the bigger picture, that’s just fine. We owe Carroll and survivors like her at least that much.

Weekly blogger for Medium. Host of @TheUnspeakPod. Author of six books, including The Problem With Everything.

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