Illustration for article titled The Familiar Despair of E. Jean Carrolls Testimony
Image: New York Magazine

The essay that writer E. Jean Carroll published in New York last week was designed, with every muster of magazine bona fides, to mark an event. From the cover—a picture of Carroll in the coat she says she was wearing when Donald Trump, then real estate tycoon now president, allegedly raped her in the dressing room at Bergdorf; a design that harkens purposefully to another tale of political power run amok—to the near constant churn of follow-ups, press releases, and analysis the magazine has been spitting onto the site since the piece published.


Yet the most powerful trick is a rhetorical one: the very construction of Carroll’s essay, an excerpt from her forthcoming book What Do We Need Men For, uses her copious writing gifts and a powerful narrative structure to ensure that both subject and story made a case for their own accuracy. The setup buries its lead only to resurrect it as a punchline; Carroll writes of the alleged assault with specific, rigorous detail only after anticipating the arguments against her and meeting them with a defense. (She refers to these arguments, crushingly, as her “great handicaps.”) Carroll joins a group of least 15 women who have accused the president of sexual assault, a roster whose names she lists.

The evidence is laid out gingerly; it is, after all, a 6000-word essay that uses the word “rape” only four times, just twice in reference to Trump, passively spoken by a friend whose words, the magazine is quick to disclose, have been fact-checked. (The line: “‘He raped you,’” she kept repeating when I called her. “‘He raped you.’”)

Where were the sales clerks? Why is there no video recording? Why didn’t she report? Carroll foresees these critiques and prostrates herself to them. That such incidents rarely manifest themselves in perfect terms, that perhaps if there had been witnesses an attacker might have behaved differently, that a video can be a flawed way of capturing sexual violence, that the 50-some years of such violence chronicled in the bulk of Carroll’s essay might ingrain in a person a sense of futility, a lesson in powerlessness. Such arguments are both reasonable and obvious; that she knows she must make them is wrenching.


It’s a presentation that evokes another woman asked to give indisputable testimony against a powerful political man: Christine Blasey Ford. Though the tool at Ford’s disposal was science, not language, as she too framed her story to counter its flaws. That she failed to remember the specifics surrounding a 30-year-old incident, but could nonetheless recount the alleged assault with exacting precision, was explained using Ford’s knowledge of the brain. This technical language—“norepinephrine” and “epinephrine” and “neurotransmitters”—reinforced her value as a narrator, providing a perfectly constructed testimony to defend with chemical basis why, as Ford said, the memories of the alleged assault are “locked there, whereas other details kind of drift.”

Both narratives are constructed using the same terrible playbook—an airtight defense disguised as testimony, created with the presupposition that its author will not be believed. It’s a playbook that’s becoming common, because the presupposition is correct.


Already, the absence of effect has become the story of Carroll’s allegation—not concrete impacts (impeachment! felony charges!) but attention and outrage, as glimpsed through the proxy of media. The basic oversights have been recounted: that the New York Times published their story in the books section, an article that according to one reporter’s watch failed to rise into the roughly 164 headlines featured on the paper’s homepage; that those scanning the news found the story omitted from the lead news items of most papers of record; that, as a bluntly phrased Columbia Journalism Review headline put it, “E Jean Carroll’s Trump Rape Claim Did Not Get Enough Coverage.”


“We were overly cautious,” Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet said on Monday, an explanation that did little to diffuse the fact that the paper’s quick coverage had, nonetheless, taken the time to re-corroborate Carroll’s story with the two friends she spoke to after the alleged assault—a detail that New York had already explicitly, prominently fact-checked—and that Trump’s un-corroborated denial ran in the National section.

Most telling is what was published. While the details of Carroll’s accusation have largely been the purview of opinion writers, Trump’s bombastic statement, and increasingly agitated denials have been written about with excruciating specificity. “She’s not my type,” quickly spawned a phalanx of news stories playing off the idiotic quip, to join headlines that emphasize Trump’s strength and agency. He “vehemently denies,” he “rejected an allegation,” he “emphatically denies.” (That last one is the Times again.) By Monday evening CNN, one of the many sites that brushed past Carroll’s story over the weekend, was reporting allegations that New York Post had removed their story at the behest of a Trump-supporting executive, a next beat that only highlighted this disparate emphasis.


Already arguments are surfacing to brush off this gap: that the feeble coverage of Carroll’s story is a result of a Friday news drop, a competitive newspaper culture, a press that’s uncomfortable with first-person reports, and fatigue at the additional allegation against an already sullied president, who has been gifted a base that appears fortified by reports of assault. “We know Donald Trump’s character, and it’s revealed every single day,” Elizabeth Warren told a reporter shortly after the story published. “There aren’t any real surprises—just the details.”

But the classification of these details is striking, and studied en masse they portray the kind of world that Carroll’s story was preparing to enter. Because the words and actions of the president—regardless of how petty, how baseless—will always remain the domain of news, while the words and recounting of the woman he allegedly assaulted—no matter how exactingly constructed her story, how righteous her message, how broad her platform—will remain fodder for analysis.

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