Jill Filipovic is a Nairobi-based journalist and the author of the forthcoming “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.”
Since Donald Trump won the presidential election, a few women have been weighing particularly heavy on my mind: the dozen or so who accused him of sexual assault. How, I’ve been wondering, must they feel, knowing that millions of Americans either think they’re liars, or simply don’t care whether they’re telling the truth and whether our new president is a physically aggressive misogynist?
This question — if and when we believe women who speak out about their experiences of sexism, harassment and violence — is at the heart of Leigh Gilmore’s new book, “Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives.” In it, she interrogates when, why and how we listen to women’s testimonies about their experiences, and how we undercut and discredit them. At the core of her argument is her observation that while we accept and embrace women’s stories of hardship, resilience and eventual transformation, we are far less comfortable with women who use their stories to demand accountability — especially from powerful men, and especially if the women are of color. We love tales but discredit testimony. When it comes to distinguishing the two, she writes, “the former privileges ‘story’; the latter seeks justice.”
To make this case, she looks at a handful of women discredited by the media or the legal system: Anita Hill, who testified about the sexual harassment she endured from now-Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas; Rigoberta Menchú, who used her best-selling biography to tell the story of human rights abuses in Guatemala; and Nafissatou Diallo, who reported being sexually assaulted by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then chief of the International Monetary Fund. Gilmore looks, too, at literature, via Jamaica Kincaid’s “Autobiography of My Mother,” and compares the experiences of her primary subjects with the treatment of male writers who had less-than-filial relationships with the truth (“A Million Little Pieces” author James Frey, “Three Cups of Tea” writer Greg Mortenson), as well as with the female adventure-and-redemption narratives particularly popular with the Oprah’s Book Club set (Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat Pray Love,” Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild”) and men like journalist Nicholas Kristof who use generalized stories of suffering women and girls to promote human rights philanthropy.
“Even as readers’ investments in the redemption narrative expose them to a range of traumatic materials, the preference for stories that can be unmoored from specific historical conditions to become ‘everybody’s’ story is currently edging out narratives that take readers into the anxious realm of nonnormativity and the lack of clear moral guidelines they associate with culturally protected privacies,” Gilmore writes.
“Tainted Witness” arrives at the right time, at the front end of a rapidly building anti-feminist backlash. The ease with which so many Americans disregard or disbelieve women’s testimony was on clear display in November, when millions voted for Trump despite the accusations against him and his own claim, caught on video, that he had sexually assaulted women. This book provides a crucial feminist critique of the impossible and ever-shifting standards to which women who offer life testimony are held, along with guidance on how to navigate a path forward.
But it doesn’t make that case for a particularly wide audience. Given that Gilmore is a visiting professor of women’s studies at Wellesley College (Hillary Clinton’s alma mater) and that the book was published by a university press, it comes as little surprise that the text is heavily academic and often unwieldy. (“While a jurisdiction may contain an intimate public, it also includes agents opposed to the development of collectivity and for this reason better resembles an assemblage, which depends on conflictual energies in order to form.”) There is much in this book that students of gender studies will learn from, and it will surely be a valuable addition to many course syllabi. But its contents would also benefit those who don’t take women’s studies classes or seek out works by feminist academics; many of those would-be readers, though, will find the style of “Tainted Witness” too large a barrier.
Gilmore is also perhaps too hard on women who tell their stories for aims that aren’t explicitly political, particularly memoirists like Strayed and Gilbert. She is correct, and thought-provoking, when she points out that women writing about their own lives was in its earliest stages a controversial and justice-seeking act, and that the revival of memoir as a genre has promoted apolitical redemption tales that have pushed aside narratives that are messier, less sympathetic or more obviously demanding of action (other than “look inward” or “live your best life”). But men have long been allowed space to write about their experiences, and particularly about their life-changing journeys and exploits. When female adventure memoirists do the same, they are often cast as navel-gazing or insufficiently political — as they are in this book. Gilmore fairly criticizes the cultural thirst for these individual-focused stories of adventure-fueled triumph over pain, but in framing these women’s stories as “neoliberal” redemption tales, she does a disservice to the authors and the many women for whom tenacity and the individual pursuit of purpose can be transformative.
Gilmore is at her best when she criticizes the defenses wielded by courts of public opinion in support of men accused of sexual violence or harassment. When rape accusations are discussed as “he said/she said,” Gilmore incisively points out, “ ‘he said/she said’ simply identifies how witnesses in an adversarial legal structure are positioned. How ‘he said/she said’ has come to be seen as something other than the prompt from which due process begins suggests that women lie outside of the frame of justice from the beginning.” Likewise, she writes, the oft-repeated “ ‘nobody knows what really happened’ is the starting point of a trial. Like the presumption of innocence, it names a suspension of judgment rather than the imposition of doubt. Only in cases of sexual violence do people feel virtuous, objective, and fair when they claim that the conditions that typically initiate and guide a legal proceeding moot it from the outset.” Gilmore doesn’t challenge the norms upon which our criminal justice system is based so much as point to where they are perverted to undermine women who seek justice.
These are crucial observations and excellent rebuttals to the faux legalism that so often dominates the public discourse around high-profile sexual assault cases. We are entering an era when malevolent sexism and entrenched mistrust in women are not only tacitly approved but actively modeled by the man in the Oval Office, and when many of our most valued institutions and even the very concept of truth are under fire. Not in recent memory have the ideas Gilmore elucidates been so necessary, which is why I wish her work was more accessible to a wider audience. Still, this is a sharp work of feminist scholarship, unflinching in its insistence that women’s testimony about our own lives is a potent and often threatening force undercut by those who accurately assess its power. In a country soon to be led by a very loud man who ran a campaign of aggrieved masculinity, “Tainted Witness” is a timely and necessary defense of the women whose voices are so often drowned out or shouted down.
By Leigh Gilmore
Columbia. 240 pp. $30