Jeffrey Epstein’s death by suicide this weekend has an element of finality to it, but not in a redeeming way. Rather, his passing feels like his final escape. From the legal ramifications barreling toward him, yes, but also from the searing visuals he deserved and the country needed.
As his case has unfolded, the photographs accompanying stories about Epstein have been smug and carefree, wealth and privilege personified: There he was, posing at an event with Donald and Melania Trump, long before the former was elected president. There he was, relaxing in a Harvard sweatshirt while chatting with celebrity attorney Alan Dershowitz. Even his mug shots depicted a man secure in the protection that his wealth provided. Captured in harsh jailhouse lighting, he wore polo shirts and pressed button-downs; the right side of his mouth tugging upward in a smirk.
These society-page photographs served a purpose. They reminded us of the factors that allowed Epstein, for years, to allegedly order up high school-aged girls like room service, forcing them into nude massages and oral sex. When you’re wealthy, your jail sentence is more like a jail comma: in 2008 his brief punishment for procuring underage girls for prostitution allowed him to waltz out of prison for 12 hours a day on “work release.”
But what we needed were the images that told the rest of the story: Jeffrey Epstein brought low, by a judicial system that finally held him accountable. Epstein, hollowed out and haggard in a New York courthouse. Epstein, haunted and trapped in his seat as a procession of women talked about the things he’d forced them to do as girls.
We needed the images that expressed, fully and undeniably, that this was not a case of lying opportunists trying to ruin a wealthy man, as his attorneys have previous implied, but a case of children who were told they could receive legitimate training to become massage therapists, and instead encountered a man who demanded sex three times a day.
Allegedly, that is — some of this information comes from court records that were unsealed the day before Epstein’s death, and because of his death, we must forever tack on “allegedlys” to every alleged horror he allegedly committed, from passing girls around to his rich acquaintances to exploring the possibility of impregnating vast numbers of women on his New Mexico ranch in order to genetically improve the human race.
And so he needed to sit in court. He needed to hear woman after woman explain that they weren’t having fun; they were traumatized. He wasn’t an eccentric playboy; he was a predator. Nobody wanted his sperm.
At a certain point, this argument becomes too easy. The man is dead. The man was bad. There is only so much railing to be done against a bad, dead man, especially when his jailhouse death was entirely preventable, when he’d been on suicide watch just days before.
But already, less than 48 hours after his death, we’re already moving away from what the story should be about. We’re already moving into a land of conspiracy theories, where the president of the United States retweets a baseless, bizarre hypothesis that Bill and Hillary Clinton were responsible for Epstein’s death.
Jeffrey Epstein should not be remembered as a man who once lent his private plane to President Clinton. He should not be remembered as a man who socialized with President Trump. The glittery trappings of his fame should be the footnote of his Wikipedia entry. The bulk of it should be the names of every victim — Jennifer Araoz, Virginia Roberts Giuffre, Johanna Sjoberg — detailing all the things he did behind closed doors and with the help of enablers. Allegedly.
He doesn’t deserve to be a conspiracy theory. When you do what he allegedly did, you don’t deserve to be anything but paralyzed in your courtroom seat, as the world watches you go from powerful to pathetic, as your victims make it clear that your money and connections are incidental, that the girls you hurt were the heroes all along.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.