Is E. Jean Carroll credible or is she playing the Trump card?
After a new allegation against US President Donald Trump was recently published, two Post Millennial authors, Barbara Kay and Diana Davison, engaged in a discussion about whether or not E. Jean Carroll’s first person account was credible. The article in question was an excerpt from Carroll’s forthcoming book, inspired by the #MeToo movement. The exchange that follows is published as an example of how these types of allegations should be debated in rational conversation.
Diana Davison: I found the article to be compelling, honest (in parts) and engaging. But at the same time it was very offensive. When Carroll said that men were at the root of all women’s problems it struck me as crazy. There is no way she could be a knowledgeable advice columnist for that long and make such an absurd statement about men if she was thinking straight. Or was never a good advice columnist in the first place.
Barbara Kay: I am not so sure it is an absurd statement for an advice columnist writing in the age of feminism. To recap: “For 26 years, I have been writing the ‘Ask E. Jean’ column in Elle, and for 26 years, no matter what problems are driving women crazy—their careers, wardrobes, love affairs, children, orgasms, finances—there comes a line in almost every letter when the cause of the correspondent’s quagmire is revealed. And that cause is men.”
(Note the “almost,” which shows she knows she is exaggerating a bit to make a case.)
I don’t read advice columnists any more, and if I did, it wouldn’t be a columnist in a woman’s magazine like Elle (no snobbery intended; that sort of mag is just not my thing). But your out-of-the-gate jab at her – that it is “crazy” to assume all her petitioners had men at the root of their problems struck me as unfair. Think about it. The women who write to her have all grown up under the strong influence of feminism. Think about what they have been trained to believe: that all their troubles, shortcomings, failures, obstacles to happiness, everything, in short, that makes life a less than radiant pathway to fulfillment is the fault of men.
It made me think back to the most famous advice columnist of my youth, Ann Landers, whose daily column I never missed. She was wise to human nature, and I credit her for guiding me in the paths of conservative thought before I was ripe enough to consider such abstract notions as ideology. It was mostly women who wrote to Ann as well.
But the big difference was that they had grown up not only in a pre-feminist era, but had also, many of them, experienced the Depression, or seen their sons and boyfriends off to war, or were themselves war brides. Their problems were fairly humble ones by today’s standards. They were mostly housewives and mothers, who wrote to Ann, quite often, about their problems with other women: treacherous friends, cold, rejecting mothers, horrible mothers-in-law. They complained about men, too, of course, but the overall impression was that women’s problems were bilaterally sourced. Frequently, as any reader could see, the women writing for advice were contributing to or causing the problem, and Ann Landers used to say so to them.
But that is a sidebar. I agree with you that the piece was wonderfully well-written, riveting and, from my uncritical first reading, extremely persuasive.
DD: A friend of mine used to stop her child from crying if he tripped over a chair by hitting the chair and saying “bad chair!” Her son would then feel good that a punishment was meted out for his injury, but it didn’t stop him from continuing to run into chairs. But perhaps I’m expecting too much from an advice columnist. After all she’s only working with one side of the story.
You mentioned the title being inflammatory but also, because Carroll is writing in first person, she’s not using the word “alleged” when she says a crime took place. Unlike her column, which doesn’t identify the person being complained of, this piece is designed to destroy reputations. Twenty-one reputations to be precise. I’m unclear on why she didn’t name them all. How does one pick and choose on that issue? She’s playing the Hokey Pokey, putting one foot in then taking it back out again.
Her first two sentences need a bit of explaining too. “My first rich boy” and “my last rich boy.” Is she trying to say that, in her experience, wealthy males are more likely to rape? It makes for clever bookends, and she is writing a book, but I find she’s keen on giving herself excessive complexity, while simultaneously reducing her villains to stereotypes. Even more clever, she gives her first villain a sympathetic background so we think she’s being fair to the rest of them as well. Her artfulness is admirable but not when it’s real people who are being publicly shamed for her benefit. And she is benefitting from this.
BK: You say that she is “clever” for giving details of her first villain’s background that make him sympathetic—the fact that he was sexually abused himself, repeatedly by family members—but that is to suggest she is disingenuous from the get-go. Why do you assume so much calculation on her part? I mean, beyond the kind of positive, writerly calculation that is value added to the reader; the “rich boy” bookends as well giving the piece a sparky beginning, promising a satisfying end, and then the promise fulfilled. I don’t think she meant to imply that sexual assault and “rich” have epidemiological significance.
I did not come to the article with preconceptions, and so I noted with admiration what aroused your suspicions. From my readings in the genre, it would never occur to the typical #MeToo complainant to wonder why the guy is acting so badly, or whether he was sexually aggressive because he had been preyed upon himself. Most #MeToo women are not interested in men as individuals at all, nor are they curious about why they turned out so badly. Their bad experience turns one man into “men.” They take their story as emblematic of the “patriarchy” or “toxic masculinity” or whatever.
Since we don’t know Carroll’s motivation, why assume purposeful manipulation? Why not assume she is sending a message to readers, something like “hey, you know this whole man-woman-sex thing is messy and complicated. I had a bad experience with that guy, but compared to the experiences he had, I got off lightly, so I’m not going to make a sweeping judgment on men from that incident.”
In fact, one of the things I like about her style is that she has chosen witty detachment over emotiveness. She isn’t bitter—she hasn’t given up on men in general. A lot of women do some pretty deep dives into their feelings and the trauma of it all after they describe the incident(s) of sexual assault. (I’m not saying there is no trauma, just commenting on approaches to dealing with it as a writer.) They elaborate on the anguished days and nights that follow; the depression, the self-loathing, the inability to function, etc. They emphasize their total innocence and the guy’s total guilt.
But #MeToo is rarely so black and white. Carroll has had some pretty bad things happen to her as a young girl, but she doesn’t seem to be in any way defined by them. (I’m assuming they did happen, because I have not been given any reason to think they didn’t. If she were some kind of flaming ideologue like Suzanna Danuta Waters, the radical feminist who wrote that screed against men in the Washington Post, then I would probably bring skepticism to her account. But those childhood incidents especially ring very true to me.)
Are you perhaps skeptical because you deal so regularly with false allegations that you automatically assume anyone who publicizes her experiences is acting in bad faith? That doesn’t seem fair to this author.
DD: On my first read through I thought she was being fair at that point. It was after I finished and reviewed how she constructed it that the cleverness struck me. If she hadn’t named any of the men she was accusing the need for careful review wouldn’t have kicked in. All of the accusations ring true in the core elements of how many of these incidents happen, and sharing such stories serves the purpose of letting other people know they are not alone and that they can survive the events and go on to be happy, successful people. That is a noble goal.
In terms of the delayed timing of telling her story, she explains that she started making a list after the Weinstein story broke. She laboured over the list, and it could have been longer, but she set the target number at 21, so some people got cut. She throws those recognizable names in anyway, kind of like a “runners up” list or “dishonorable mentions.” She didn’t just write an article, she wrote a whole book, so it took her awhile.
I started to get a little bit wary reading the attempted rape from 1961. She knows how to “drive a stick” better than the boy. She knows more about pocket knives than the boy. She’s dressed like a tomboy, but brags about how she had so many boys calling her that her roommate had to vet the suitor list for her.
In fact, she’s such a tomboy she won thirty rounds of “mumblety-peg” throwing a jack-knife at her bare feet as a kid. I had to look that up. The game is a masculinity test featured in the Tom Sawyer books. She was voted Best Girl Athlete. She was top cheerleader. (Usually those two things don’t go together.) She also won beauty contests. She wished she could have carried the car seat around with her like Emma Sulkowicz’s mattress and won best artist.
Maybe it’s when she mentioned admiring Sulkowicz that I lost my faith in Carroll’s veracity.
BB: You did your homework—as usual—and have brought up very interesting points as a result.
So I will stipulate that this writer is indeed more “clever” than most other narrators. She knows how to tell her story, and she also knows that some women, especially those of her generation, may narrow their eyes a bit as they read. Some of them will be asking themselves if she is leaving out something about her own behaviour that played a part in some of these incidents.
After all, I know her era intimately, as it was my era too. Guys didn’t like “cock-teasers” (in her essay, “prick-teasers”). What constituted cock-teasing? Well, there were codes of behaviour that were well understood by both sexes. Let’s just say that if a guy who obviously fancied me asked to drive me out to a quiet place in the country to look at leaves in 1961, I would have assumed he was looking for some action. I wouldn’t have expected to be raped, mind you. And by the way,I never came within a mile of even believing I might be, though I was also a bit of a babe in my youth and was also quite in demand as a date. Did I hang out with a different class of guys? Did I read personal cues better? Were Canadian boys more honorable? Search me, but I felt safe with every guy I ever dated—and was safe.
As an aside, I am puzzled about the stick shift. In 1961, I had a summer job at the University of Toronto inspecting rooms in people’s houses for out-of-town students looking for rentals. I was lent a VW Beetle with a stick shift, which I learned to drive in an hour. Many many people knew how to drive stick shift then. So okay, we have now caught her out in an error of memory. So I guess it is not an “aside.” LOL.
DD: The journal entry she offers is entirely believable and looks legitimate, but it makes me wonder if she is just using real experiences as the basis for fiction. What she wrote, only going out with boys she chooses in the future, goes against her narrative that she had a datebook full of boys’ names and had her roommate/secretary luring in the boys she really liked.
The story about her date with a fetish boss who was playing a game with his wife at another table is another example of what is probably true but enhanced. The bizarre couple are groping their respective dates publicly in competition with each other, then he pays the bill for them all at the end. But then she has him driving her home to a hotel room and it strays into fantasy.
She assumes he parks the car before chasing her into the hotel. Conveniently has no one present in the lobby. He magically knows what room she’s in and gets there at the same time, even though she ran up the stairs. He grabs her from behind, bites her neck, then scratches and whimpers at the door in a hotel hallway after she somehow gets inside the door without him (arms locked around her) managing to follow her inside.
If I was watching this in a movie, I’d be shaking my head at the screenwriters. We will see this acknowledgement that no employees were present against all probabilities occur again in the story about Trump. The improbability is not erased simply by acknowledging the problem.
Carroll asks if she is a magnet for bad men. It seems she should be asking why she is a repellent to employees being present in their workplace.
BK: Now you mention these things, why did she allow him to drive her home? Why didn’t she insist on taking a cab?
You are right. The chase scene afterward did seem a bit melodramatic and stagey. Okay, I am very impressed with your Holmesian attention to every detail—next to Marie Henein, I should definitely want you as my counsel if ever falsely alleged of moral turpitude—but I will be charitable and call it writerly enhancement. I am not ready to say Carroll actually made up these scenarios from whole cloth. Isn’t the main thing, the ball we need to keep our eye on here, the fact that at every stage of her life, she has met or worked for guys sleazy enough to have considered aggressive sexual pursuit a perfectly normal course of behaviour?
I therefore ask with some trepidation if you are going to pick apart the story of her girl guide leader with the same vivisectionist zeal. Because that would pain me. I felt that scene came from a very deep and sad girl’s memory, whole and unvarnished. Now I fear you will tell me that is in your opinion an “enhanced” version of something far more open to an alternate explanation in which the guy is innocent.
DD: I actually believe the camp story in full, but I don’t agree that he should be named because he’s deceased and can’t defend himself. Also, the comparison to Larry Nassar and her claim that she might have been able to stop Cam if she’d spoken earlier is outrageous. She has no evidence he did anything to another girl. Yet she names him and his book to destroy any legacy he might have and place him in a multiple offender category based only on her single claim.
These childhood memories she recounts, the first “rich boy” and the camp counsellor, are the type of things that make people more vulnerable to sexual assault. As children, the boundaries are broken and it becomes easier to find yourself in a bad situation not expecting any help. That is the value of sharing these stories: to help others avoid the same traps.
BK: It is true that her story with Cam, the waterfront director, is not backed up with evidence from other girls, but there is that allusion to him being abruptly “dismissed” from coaching at the age of 72, which is suggestive, if not conclusive. As for naming him, I do wonder about the legal jeopardy she might be risking here. Might his family not sue her for posthumous defamation? Can one do that? I agree that unless the man was accused by others, there is no real comparison to Nassar. Her story would have been just as effective if she had not named him, and she is not looking for “justice,”so it does seem rather cruel to his family.
DD: Which brings us to her allegation about Trump, who she acknowledges does sue accusers. Since the article was published she has announced that she won’t sue him because it would be “disrespectful” to the many rape victims at the US-Mexican border. This casts the shade of a political motive on her entire allegation.
To start with, it is unacceptable to use a photo showing she met Trump to prove she’s telling the truth. All it proves is she met him in 1987 at a large party. That Trump doesn’t remember meeting her once at a party is understandable. In her own allegation she greets him by saying “Hey, you’re that real-estate tycoon!” which indicates she only remembers him because he’s famous.
Then we have to wonder why all the salespeople aren’t following them, as they would, to gain the money of a rich man. Not only is he not being waited on hand and foot upon entering, she tells us that there was nobody in the lingerie department when they arrived, and the change room door was unlocked, against all logic. And they magically entered the one room that wasn’t locked.
She also alleges she managed to hold onto her purse the entire time she was being assaulted. I’m not sure who was holding the lace bodysuit that was subject to being tried on by one of them, or in what hand, and the rest of the events happen with her pants pulled down. So at a point where her leggings are pulled low enough for him to penetrate, she manages to knee him and flee into the store (still with no sales people around) and run out the door without explaining how or when she got her pants back up. And no one noticed her running in a panic with her jacket dress hiked up.
She then seals the jacket in her closet and never wears it again. Seems like we could test that for DNA. I’m nostalgic for the good ol’ days of the stain on Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress nearly ending a presidency.
Aside from the numerous improbable, if not impossible, elements to Carroll’s Trump allegation (which she acknowledges) it turns out Carroll wrote a flippant article for Esquire about men shopping for lingerie at precisely this time period—1995.
In the end, not only are there reasons to doubt Carroll’s accusation against Trump, it seems to me that she’s just playing “the Trump card” to gain more attention for a book that mixes together real events with fictional. While most good stories have an element of truth to them, it’s not acceptable to make accusations about real people that aren’t entirely true.
BK: There are, as you point out, and as I felt as well, a curious number of implausibilities around the Trump incident, and you have identified them all. Your analysis, coupled with that flippant article, has me seriously wondering what exactly happened in Bergdorfs. I assume that she did encounter him at Bergdorfs and maybe accompanied him to the lingerie department as a lark. I don’t find it quite so larky that she should agree to model sexy underwear for him. Imagine the scene if all goes according to her plan. He does not follow her into the change room. She goes in and changes into the lingerie. Then she comes out of the change room in full view of saleswomen (I mean, how long can they all be absent?) and other customers, who may recognize her or Trump or both, and she poses for him. Is that plausible?
Then there is Carroll’s insistence that she found it all hilariously funny, right up to and including the moment he is in the room with her and assaulting her. How can this conceivably be funny to a woman with her history of near-escape from more than one intended rape? No, I cannot buy such insouciance under such circumstances. A normal woman with her history would have heard alarm bells ringing when he asked her to try the thing on. A normal woman with her history at that point would have said—if she had not already left when she saw the department was empty—“You know what, Donald? This has been fun, but I have to go now. Goodbye!”
So yes, I agree there is something decidedly “off” about this scenario, especially since the farcical anecdote she relates in that Esquire article is completely ridiculous, and I don’t believe a word of it is true, if only because the husband’s alleged line, “It looked good on the salesgirl” is the punchline to a very old joke with almost the same build-up.
To wrap up: I believe a lot of bad stuff happened to Carroll. Some of it was quite avoidable. The Trump scenario certainly was. Others not so much. As I mentioned before, I have never suffered any of these experiences. Nor have my daughter and daughter-in-law, both very attractive, in 20 years of high-echelon work with male bosses and colleagues.
As I said, I am not “blaming the victim.” I am only saying that it is perfectly possible to be pretty, high-achieving, popular and ambitious without falling prey to sexual predators every step of the way, and that sexual predation is not the norm for smart women. There are usually a number of factors in play, some of which fall under the control of the potential victim. It’s too bad this essay will make many women think otherwise.
DD: Postscript—readers can draw their own conclusions but I leave you with a 2016 tweet from E. Jean Carroll lamenting that no one has bought her lingerie since her 1995 Esquire article was published: