The #MeToo movement has hit its book stage, igniting intense rounds of discussion showing just how combustible the public conversation over sexual assault and harassment still is. The day before the “She Said” talk, a smaller group gathered at a Washington bookstore to hear Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly discuss their tome “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh” — two weeks after their New York Times essay adapted from the book courted controversy and a clarifying “editor’s note” was added. Ronan Farrow has spent the past couple weeks battling with NBC over claims in his new book, “Catch and Kill,” that executives at the network covered up his reporting on Weinstein before he eventually took the story to the New Yorker.
Together, the new books out this fall are a semester’s worth of reading. The only way I could make sense of this fascinating but dizzying collection was to read as many of them as I could and talk to those who were showing up to discuss them. What stand out are all the reasons the #MeToo movement was not at all inevitable — the obstacles and intimidation that survivors and reporters faced while telling these stories. And even though they helped spark mass social change, a sense of closure remains elusive.
To some extent, these books show how momentum toward #MeToo had been building before Weinstein. In 2014, women who accused Bill Cosby of assault started coming forward, leading to his conviction last year. Kantor and Twohey write about how the Cosby revelations made Weinstein’s co-workers more willing to expose him — including Weinstein’s accountant, Irwin Reiter, and former Miramax executive Amy Israel. (The producer has denied allegations of nonconsensual sex.)
But generally, in the mid-2010s, attitudes on sexual assault were behind where they are today; much of the media conversation focused on how rampant it was on college campuses and, often, how slow these institutions were to respond. One case that captured attention: Brock Turner, a star Stanford athlete, got a mere six-month sentence for sexually assaulting a 23-year-old woman, sparking national outrage. In 2016, BuzzFeed News published a statement that the woman read to Turner at his sentencing. It reached more than 15 million people and inspired other survivors to come forward.
As #MeToo unfolded, the woman, Chanel Miller, felt emboldened to make her name public with a searing memoir that came out last month and quickly became a bestseller. “Know My Name” is remarkable for how Miller, who had blacked out from drinking, refuses to blame herself for what Turner had done to her. In a recent podcast conversation, Oprah Winfrey told Miller that this mind-set was a big change from how Winfrey and other survivors of her generation frequently blamed themselves for being assaulted, perhaps because of how they dressed or how much they had to drink. Miller responded that shame was “festering inside me, unmonitored, but as soon as I released the statement, then it was able to breathe, and as soon as you open it up and let it out a little, it loses so much power.”
Maureen Korentayer, a 34-year-old Washingtonian who attended the “She Said” book talk, has noticed another schism: She’s tried to broach the topic of sexual misconduct with her mother and grandmother — by bringing up the allegations against Fox News’s Roger Ailes, for example — and “they won’t talk about it,” Korentayer said. “They’ll walk away or change the subject.”
“It feels like there’s this generational divide, that my opinions and values aren’t as accepted,” Korentayer added, noting that she hopes millennials are paving the way for others. “We’re able to show them: If you have a thought, say it. If you see something that’s not right, speak up.”
The authors and survivors struggle not only with internal emotions but also with what effect their stories will actually have. Every one of these books mentions the 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape that came out shortly before the 2016 election, in which Donald Trump brags to Billy Bush about groping and kissing women — and the fact that Trump was still elected president. Twohey, who had written pre-election stories about women who accused Trump of assault, wondered whether her and Kantor’s Weinstein reporting would make much of a difference.
The reporters working on these stories were also cognizant that their sources’ trauma made them feel a loss of control. Kantor and Twohey write that they were careful not to pressure people into speaking up; they would give an opening but it had to be the survivor’s decision. Twohey shared with Kantor a line that had worked for her when asking Trump accusers to go public: “I can’t change what happened to you in the past, but together we may be able to use your experience to help protect other people.”
Farrow consulted his sister Dylan, who’s alleged that their father Woody Allen assaulted her (Allen has denied it), for advice on speaking to Weinstein’s accusers. She pushed Farrow to keep pursuing the story, even as he was trailed by spies. “If you get this,” Dylan told her brother, “don’t let it go, okay?”
The “She Said” news cycle is even sparking new revelations. Kantor tweeted that a woman broke her nondisclosure agreement at a “She Said” book talk in Los Angeles. Rowena Chiu, one of Weinstein’s former assistants who had been silenced by a nondisclosure agreement for 21 years, broke that contract a few weeks after “She Said” was published, with a New York Times essay. She wrote that meeting other Weinstein victims and Christine Blasey Ford, who lives near Chiu in Palo Alto, Calif., “created a seismic shift within me.”
In fact, these books show how Palo Alto became a nexus of #MeToo revelations. During a 2016 conversation about the Stanford assault, Ford told a friend that, as a teenager, she had been assaulted by someone who was now a federal judge. After Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court in 2018, and word of Ford’s recollections spread, local activists pushed her to come forward. Though she mostly ignored these women’s outreach, Kantor and Twohey write, and tried to convey her allegations to Congress anonymously, she eventually felt forced to reveal her name.
Just as Ford paid attention to Miller’s case, Miller was following Ford’s. When she drove by a Palo Alto candlelight vigil shortly before Ford’s testimony in Washington, Miller writes, she sat in her car, weeping, feeling fortified by that outpouring from neighbors and strangers. “I listened to the night air full of honking, incessant, blaring horns, the beautiful rage, the support of my hometown, people packing the sidewalks I grew up on,” Miller writes, later continuing: “A younger version of myself had been hungry to see this for a long time.”
Miller said in an interview that each #MeToo revelation was a “nudge forward” toward revealing her name — but seeing Ford testify was that final push.
“She did it at such a high cost. I just felt like we were at this tipping point, where we were just so sick of being muted and stomped on. Even knowing that we would be torn apart, we were still going to come forward,” Miller said. “I thought maybe I will accept the cost, that I’ll finally be able to speak freely.”
However empowering, telling one’s story does not guarantee it will feel resolved. Pogrebin and Kelly show how the 2018 FBI investigation into Kavanaugh was rushed and limited. Though they fill in many of the blanks, the country remains divided over his confirmation, and Ford is still receiving death threats.
At their book talk, Pogrebin wondered whether an apology from Kavanaugh would have given Ford closure. Perhaps something along the lines of: I’m sorry I did that to you. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I can see how damaging that might have been. Of course, Kavanaugh consistently denied that he’d done anything resembling what Ford recalled.
Even with the finality of a guilty verdict, sincere apologies are hard to come by. Miller writes about how disappointed she was that Turner never showed remorse. He’d said, “I’m sorry,” but she thought the words rung hollow. He requested an appeal, but his conviction was upheld.
Though many of the questions raised in these books are unresolved, Shelly Oria, editor of “Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings From the Me Too Movement,” which came out last month, says it’s a “tiny miracle” we’re still hashing them out. “Writing has a way of helping trauma not get stuck, or at least to shift form in some way.”
Since that contentious “She Said” book talk, I’ve kept thinking about the attendees arguing that Woodward was the wrong choice to moderate, that it should have been a woman up there. I also have an exchange between Kantor and an audience member ringing in my ear. She’d been asked: Who do you hope will read your book? Her answer: “I hope men read it.”
It was a version of the notion that’s been repeated often in the past two years: that sexual assault, rape and harassment — in the workplace, on campus, in bars and restaurants — won’t be curbed until more men call out such behavior and do more to prevent it.
The exposures and guilty verdicts in these books weren’t made possible by women alone. Men in Weinstein’s orbit were key sources for Kantor, Twohey and Farrow. Male editors supported their work. The first person Ford told about her Kavanaugh recollections, beyond her husband and therapist, was a male friend who listened intently and didn’t push her to discuss more than she wanted to share. Republican Sen. Jeff Flake worked with Democrats to push for an FBI investigation of Kavanaugh.
Miller points to two bystanders as key to her survival and to Turner’s conviction: Carl-Fredrik Arndt and Peter Jonsson, two Swedes on bicycles who saw Turner assaulting her while she was unconscious. They tackled Turner and made sure she was okay, staying until authorities arrived.
In the months after the assault, Miller often felt unsafe and struggled to sleep. She drew two bicycles on a piece of paper and stuck it above her bed as a reminder of the kindness of strangers who protected her when she was vulnerable and helped hold Turner accountable. As she writes in her book’s acknowledgments, “We do not have to wait for something wrong to happen to be a Swede.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Rowena Chiu’s last name and misstated the date when she broke her nondisclosure agreement.