Weinstein coerced his victims into signing nondisclosure agreements, often berating and threatening them — you’ll never work in this town again, etc. — to guarantee their silence. His was an unoriginal tactic, and in fact Kantor and Twohey got the idea to pursue their story through this paper trail after their New York Times colleague followed a line of similar NDAs back to the desk of disgraced Fox News star and alleged serial sexual predator Bill O’Reilly.
The value of women’s words in this tumultuous, emotionally violent spell can fluctuate like the currency of a country mid-coup. But apparently Weinstein sensed how powerful his alleged victims’ testimonies would be if they got out, or he would not have spent so much time and money ensuring they did not.
For all their considerable differences, Weinstein and the reporters and survivors who exposed him can surely agree on this: It matters who gets to tell the story and who does not.
“She Said” is just one in a wave of recent books that take a well-established narrative and complicate, upend, even eclipse it by amplifying the woman who was present but never centered.
If you followed the news of the sexual assault of Chanel Miller in 2015, you would think reporters were contractually obligated to preface her assailant Brock Turner’s name with the honorific “Stanford swimmer.” His athletic records, his academic promise, his beloved and benefit-of-the-doubt-deserving self was regularly given space in dispatches about his criminal trial. Not so for Miller, who was known only as Emily Doe, a faceless body discovered half-naked and unconscious behind a dumpster.
In her searing, impeccable memoir, “Know My Name,” Miller reminds us that every police blotter victim existed before we ever read about them, that they possess a complex inner life about which the world knows nothing. Miller’s book shows what results when a survivor can tell her own story, when she is not contained by rigid brackets of a courtroom cross-examination.
As she is reeling from the slap-on-the-wrist sentence Turner was given by the judge who would later be recalled in the wake of widespread public fury over his handling of this very case, Miller comes to this: “Question who your realities are being written by. Reexamine who dictates it. Who decides you are important. The judge was not God. He was one man … He was not the sole truth speaker, the final word.”
This is how Odysseus tells the Circe story: He, a mortal who was, by all accounts, a smidgen too short for the average woman’s Tinder filters, pulled up on her island. She, a witch goddess who had just transformed his shipmates into pigs, threw herself at his feet and begged him to have sex with her. Sure! Sure.
In “The Odyssey,” this tryst is a misadventure Odysseus relates to yet another host, so really it was suspect from the start: the braggadocios war hero who is incapable of taking an L, spinning the extramarital dalliance of a promiscuous hypocrite into the savvy maneuverings of a man put upon by a deity.
But in Madeline Miller’s novel, “Circe,” we hear from the goddess herself, who is “not surprised by the portrait” of her that has been making the rounds, thanks to Odysseus and the poets who adore him. “The proud witch undone before the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets.”
Miller’s book promotes Circe to protagonist status, imagining a vivid, multifaceted heroine. Her book illuminates all the shadowy places where male narrators never bothered or dared to go. Perhaps the boldest liberty Miller takes is to justify Circe’s tendency to turn men into swine by writing a scene in which Circe is raped by a captain who washed up on her shores.
Of the assault, Circe says, “I thought — what? That I was being foolish. That something else would happen. That I had drunk too much of my own wine, and this was the fear it conjured. That my father would come. My father! I did not want to be a fool, to make a fuss for nothing.” Goddesses: They are just like us.
After the assault, she stops taking chances. Her magic makes pigs of all the men who follow. Why pigs? To see the sailors’ agony at losing their hands, “those appendages men use to mitigate the world.” This is an invention of Miller’s; in the Odyssey no one cares why women do anything.
Emily Wilson, who recently won a MacArthur Genius grant for her new translation of “The Odyssey,” notes this absence in her introduction. Her translation is striking for its accessibility and clarity — she calls things what they are, a rarity both in ancient texts and modern headlines that never deploy a fact where a euphemism will do. “Maids” in Odysseus’s household were slaves, and the sex they had with suitors-turned-squatters was rape.
That truth was always there, mired in language that elided this point with soft-focus poetry. Wilson, the first woman to translate “The Odyssey,” is also the first writer to speak to this reality plainly.
When the men execute slaves who slept with suitors, “most translations introduce derogatory language (‘sluts’ or ‘whores’), suggesting that these women are being punished for a genuinely objectionable pattern of behavior, as if their sexual history actually justified their deaths,” Wilson writes. “The original Greek does not label these slaves with any derogatory language.”
Reading “Circe” made me think about another woman who spent years cast as a supporting character in a man’s heroic journey and only recently seized the opportunity to tell it the way she lived it, where she is the lead, and he is the guy who shows up about a hundred pages in to blindside her with “a toppling blast of lust, gratitude, fulfillment, wonder”: Michelle Obama.
The first stretch of “Becoming” is about Michelle’s life before Barack, her memories crisp as hospital corners, wholly her own. But when his presidential campaign intensifies, she finds herself on the periphery of her own life, pilloried in the news as insufficiently patriotic, “disgruntled and vaguely hostile, lacking some expected level of grace … I was being painted not simply as an outsider but as fully ‘other.’”
David Axelrod provides some extremely late-in-the-game counsel, which seems to have been both useful and disheartening. “I saw my expression as a stranger might perceive it,” Obama writes of watching one of her speeches on mute. Forced to consider her demeanor as others did, she saw she appeared “too serious, too severe, at least given what people were conditioned to expect from a woman … It was, of course, another stereotype, another trap. The easiest way to disregard a woman’s voice is to package her as a scold.”
Before this “intervention,” and with only six months left until the 2008 election, “no one from the campaign had bothered to travel with me or show up for my events. I’d never received media training or speech prep. No one, I realized, was going to look out for me unless I pushed for it.”
All these years, Obama kept the less readily-telegenic aspects of her experience to herself. But when she finally shared her story in as candid a fashion as a former first lady could manage, readers devoured it in record numbers: It was the fastest-selling book of 2018 (725,00 copies on day one, 1.4 million in its first week), surpassed 10 million copies sold within four months of publication and propelled its author on a worldwide stadium tour.
Obama’s experience is echoed by Chanel Miller, whose victim impact statement — her first crack at telling her story in her own words to the world — was read online by more than 11 million people, was recited in full on CNN and the House floor and inspired thousands of strangers, including Vice President Joe Biden, to send her letters of gratitude. Before that, first as an Asian American and then as an assault survivor, Miller “had grown used to being unseen, to never being fully known. It did not feel possible that I could be the protagonist.”
On one level, these books are distant from each other, separated by thousands of years and miles, or by the circumstances and social statuses of their respective tellers. But when I put them in a stack on the same shelf I see this thread binding them: I hear women revealing inner lives to the public that, before publication, they were unable to share. Because the propriety of the office they held prevented it; because they had been cast as a dalliance in someone else’s story; because they had been cornered into signing a document that, like Ursula’s bargain with Ariel, stole their voice in exchange for a shot at a theoretically normal life; because their story had long been told by men who failed to see the women in it fully, clearly, or at all.
Jessica M. Goldstein is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.