What happens when a woman’s words are believed? And what doesn’t happen? Two years have passed since the viral hashtag #MeToo carried the intersectional movement to end sexual violence to a global audience. With the first wave of #MeToo movement books being published—what we might call MeTooLit1—we are now in a position to ask what the movement has achieved, which of its goals have been blocked, and where it must go next.
Just how terrifically difficult it is to tell these stories is revealed in Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey’s She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement. The book details the obstacles faced by survivors, as well as journalists, in getting the truth out. As Chanel Miller’s Know My Name reveals, platforms for stories about sexual violence—whether in the media or in court—are tilted toward protecting abusers. Survivors face systemic barriers to having their stories understood and believed.
And so, one way to combat the tendency to dismiss survivors as merely one side of a “he said, she said” disagreement is to aggregate their stories. Just as #MeToo forced the realization that many, many women had stories to tell, so Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the Me Too Movement reveals, in its collection of personal stories and testimonies, just how broad, diverse, and dangerous are the threats facing survivors of all genders.
The #MeToo movement reveals the systemic problem that doubt poses for women’s testimony. Doubt is a form of epistemic violence. It protects hearers from having to engage with the reality of sexual violence, shames those who suffer rather than those who do harm, and lets individuals, organizations, and the culture off the collective hook. As an artifact of the Enlightenment’s promotion of skepticism in place of compulsory belief, doubt makes hearers of all genders feel virtuous when they dismiss women’s claims.
As I show in my book Tainted Witness, the default to doubt is characterized by two ready-made judgments applied to cases of sexual assault. “Nobody really knows what really happened” is a commonplace, which seems as reasonable as it is inaccurate. Often, quite a lot is known about what happened, but the facts are managed into the seemingly undecidable dilemma of “he said, she said.”
Women do not have to overcome facts in cases of sexual harassment and abuse as frequently as they have to overcome doubt, and the smearing that comes with it. The standard of proof in a criminal proceeding is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Yet women bear the burden of doubt as a condition of giving testimony. Moreover, women of color, poor women, trans and nonbinary survivors, and youth are doubted more. The exposure to doubt that a survivor faces when making a claim redoubles the trauma of sexual abuse.
What can we say about MeTooLit’s ability to engage these complexities, as it is emerging? These three books assert that centering survivor experience transforms the analysis of sexual violence. She Said and Indelible credit Tarana Burke’s founding of the #MeToo movement and her insight that empathy between survivors breaks down shame, an insight that Know My Name carries to readers in memoir form.
Clear, too, is the inadequacy of the legal system to deal with sexual abusers and the ways in which it victimizes those who have been abused. More trauma-centered therapy and advocacy is important. Carceral solutions are hardly one size fits all and survivors often advocate for restorative justice, accountability for perpetrators, education about sexual violence, and workplace reform.
An important takeaway at the two-year mark is how little warranted were the pearl-clutching cries for due process and the “What about the men?!” dire warnings. While some powerful men have lost high-level jobs, the comebacks of those unaccustomed to checks on their behavior continue. Harvey Weinstein walked into a New York comedy club in October 2019 and was chummily embraced by many of the men in the room. Only one comedian—a woman and a survivor—confronted him. She was booed by some and cheered by others. I hope she, too, writes a memoir.
In She Said, Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey recount how they broke the Harvey Weinstein story in the New York Times. Along with Ronan Farrow, who reported on Weinstein in the New Yorker, Kantor and Twohey won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2018 for their work.2
Kantor and Twohey focus on the process of reporting a volatile story in a paper of record. They bring readers into the painstaking investigative labor that challenged their skills, ingenuity, and nerve. Kantor and Twohey are all about the reporting.
The result is a taut page-turner. One potential lead after another threatens to become a dead end, but ultimately pays off, as the dogged team stays on track and the evidence accumulates. And even as the book documents this reporting process, it also weaves in another timeline—that of the longer history of Weinstein’s abuse.
Kantor and Twohey were not the first to report on the allegations against Weinstein. Reporters in Hollywood and elsewhere had been tracking the story for years; it was hardly a secret. Miramax and Weinstein Company boards of directors were aware of numerous complaints against Weinstein, because they authorized settlements. The attorneys who pressed nondisclosure agreements, as well as the network of enablers who facilitated and covered up the abuse, were well compensated for pressuring Weinstein’s victims to stay quiet.
When Kantor and Twohey began reporting, they had to be discreet about reaching out to women who had been silenced. The two reporters, who lacked Hollywood connections, could not call agents or go through other direct channels. Not only was the topic sensitive, but they also needed to preserve a separation among victims, to ensure that Weinstein’s lawyers could not accuse the victims of conspiring or violating their nondisclosure agreements.
Weinstein’s abuses had raged unchecked for decades. He was well-defended, predatory, and nothing had stopped him yet. Kantor and Twohey’s tactic to persuade women to go on the record was to promise to tell the story honestly and to expose Weinstein to the world. To do this, they needed several women to go on the record. So, they asked these women to break their silence—and their NDAs—for the sake of preventing future assaults.
Speaking out on someone else’s timetable, even when it is for a just cause, may not serve all survivors.
The reporters’ tactic, it should be noted, walks a fine line between an appeal to moral virtue and gendered notions of sacrifice. Women are often instructed to think about others and act on their behalf, and they often do. But in the absence of any assurances that their claims will be treated fairly, how ethical is such a demand? After all, testimony exposes not only abusive behavior but also the cultures that support, and even reward, it.3 The lack of a robust and fair process for hearing survivor testimony represents a structural disadvantage and, for some, a risk too reminiscent of the abuse itself.
Moreover, this is another example—one of many I have seen in my research—of how survivors are urged to keep others from harm, even when they are actively prevented from protecting or gaining justice for themselves. Some women who are asked to fight in this way are effectively expected to sacrifice whatever stability they have managed to create. Speaking out on someone else’s timetable, even when it is for a just cause, may not serve all survivors.
Kantor and Twohey describe the Weinstein story as a “solvent for secrecy, pushing women all over the world to speak up about similar experiences.” They examine the aftermath of their reporting in the last section of the book, which discusses the Kavanaugh hearings and Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony. The #MeToo movement’s heightened awareness of sexual harassment created a new expectation that the shameful treatment Anita Hill had received when testifying about her sexual harassment at the hands of Clarence Thomas would not be repeated.
As in their reporting on the Weinstein case, Kantor and Twohey draw back the curtain on the untold story of how one survivor chose to speak out. Ford was an ambivalent participant in the hearings: she asked for anonymity, like Anita Hill before her, and, like Hill, had her name leaked to the public anyway.4
Bearing witness to sexual violence from a position of structural vulnerability raises questions about the ethics of both silencing and eliciting survivor testimony. Raising a cautionary note on behalf of survivors, mindful of the cost of exposure, Hill called the Kavanaugh hearings a “tragedy” and noted that the “deception of a pretext of fairness is almost as damning as the outright silencing of victims.” Ford came forward out of a sense of civic duty, and she voiced and embodied her dual positioning as a researcher and sufferer of trauma.
During her testimony about being sexually assaulted by a drunken, teenage Brett Kavanaugh, Ford was asked by Sen. Patrick Leahy (who also served on the Senate Judiciary Committee during Anita Hill’s testimony) what stayed with her from the attack. Ford’s reply? “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter.” This memorable line provides the title for a collection, edited by Shelly Oria, of #MeToo poetry, essays, and fiction.
Indelible in the Hippocampus provides an archive of material that, unlike Kantor and Twohey’s book or Ford’s testimony, has not been filtered through reporting or shaped by legal proceedings.5 Instead, the work collected here documents—and also immerses readers in—the temporal stickiness that victims of sexual assault experience in the aftermath of trauma, the sense of being unable to rejoin time as it moves forward, regulated by friendships, work, and the rhythms of daily life.
First-person accounts provide an important counterweight to the fast-paced journalism of breaking stories. #MeToo is a breaking story, to be sure, but it is also about the post-traumatic temporality of sexual violence. There are many ways to tell these stories, as the poetry, creative nonfiction, essays, and fiction in Indelible demonstrate.
Unlike neoliberal life narratives that tout resilient and upbeat narrators, whose personal grit enables them to overcome obstacles, survivor accounts are testimonial: they leverage the authority of the witness to make truth claims about sexual violence.6 They offer fractured timelines, document disruptions in relationships and work, record the toll on physical and mental health that trauma exacts, and also, often, point to the importance of survivors being able to tell their stories on their own terms.
For example, Paisley Rekdal weaves together the myth of Philomela and Lavinia—taken from Titus Andronicus, the story tells of two women who were raped and then have their tongues cut out—to reflect on her own silencing, the time of trauma, and lyric time.
“Traumatic time,” explains Rekdal, “works like lyric time: the now of terror repeatedly breaking back through the crust of one’s consciousness.” Meanwhile, Caitlin Donohue steps back into the river of time to pen “Letter to Myself upon Entering College,” offering a warning while also promising resilience. And in “Linger,” Gabrielle Bellot navigates how the #MeToo movement falls short in failing to include her as a trans woman.
Anthologies have the built-in benefit of supplying context through aggregation. Many readers are accustomed to following individual cases of sexual violence in the news, as with the Weinstein story, or of reading an essay or two by survivors. But Indelible in the Hippocampus—just like the viral trending of #MeToo on social media—provides evidence of the scale of the problem.
Editor Shelly Oria offers a trauma-informed introduction to the volume that affirms the power of telling your story in community. The community part is important, because no one is entitled to any survivor’s story. Learning how, whether, and when to tell happens for every survivor on their own timeline.
Until she made her identity public by publishing her memoir, Chanel Miller was known as “Brock Turner’s victim” and by the pseudonym “Emily Doe,” the author of the searing victim impact statement published with her permission on Buzzfeed. Now, in Know My Name, Miller steps forward, sharing her story of her sexual assault, the trial, and her recovery.
“You don’t know me,” Miller’s statement began, “but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we are here.” Addressed directly to Turner, who was convicted of three counts of felony sexual assault for violating her—behind a dumpster—outside a Stanford fraternity house, Miller’s statement was raw.
She recounted waking up in the hospital with no memory of the attack. She learned about the extent of her violation during her medical exam—as she and two nurses removed pine needles from her hair, her skin, and her genitals—and later, when she read about it online. She suffered anxiety, depression, and the forced derailment of her health and life.
Miller’s statement was also bold, sarcastic, super smart, and savvy about voice and performance. It was clear she was a writer. Her first book now confirms that.
Few rapists are charged, fewer are tried in court, fewer still are convicted.
Stories about sexual violence emerge in different venues and according to different conventions: some are constrained by legal procedures, checked by journalistic rules of confirmability, or distorted by NDAs. Some are told many times, to many people, before they are shared in published form. Chanel Miller shows how her story was shaped by what she could not remember and what the police failed to tell her.
Her sexual assault was rewritten by her rapist, Brock Turner, because Miller was unconscious during the assault. Before she told her own story, she saw it distorted online, in the media, and in court. Know My Name documents the victimization of sexual assault survivors by the legal processes that give defense teams full sway to lie, bully, and demean survivors. Few rapists are charged, fewer are tried in court, fewer still are convicted.
Turner’s light sentence epitomized the bias that favors youthful, white, privileged defendants in rape and sexual assault cases. Judge Aaron Persky opined from the bench about the harm Turner’s conviction meant for his future and expressed concern about the “severe impact” Turner might suffer during incarceration. The maximum sentence was 14 years; Persky gave Turner six months. He served three. Persky’s sentence meant Turner received a summer’s worth of punishment for what Turner’s father called “20 minutes of action.”
Miller writes about the racism in the criminal justice system—how it links punishment to privilege, protecting white men, in particular, from accountability for felony convictions for sexual violence, while men of color have high rates of incarceration for minor offenses. Miller is Chinese American and she believes racism played into the judge’s sympathy for Turner and his lack of concern for herself.
Almost immediately after the outpouring of long-silenced stories on social media resulted in some prominent men losing their jobs, many commentators began to forecast the demise of the #MeToo movement, accusing it of both going too far and not far enough.
Two years later, the worst-case scenario predicted by #MeToo pessimists—that innocent men would suffer from zealous prosecution—has not materialized. Although some powerful men have lost their positions for now, for every Matt Lauer there is a Brett Kavanaugh.
In contrast, anti-racist feminists raised concerns that justice would only be sought for white women celebrities, with the work and experiences of Black feminists erased in the process.
Nevertheless, although famous women’s allegations against white men dominated mainstream news, women of color have led a first-ever strike at McDonald’s; the Time’s Up legal fund offers resources to women who cannot afford them, including referrals to lawyers who will handle cases pro bono, or at reduced rates; and women around the globe now leverage #MeToo to bring attention to sexual violence. The front-page story is not the only or biggest part of the story.
As multiple cases in numerous jurisdictions show, survivor speech disrupts “he said, she said” rhetoric. It exposes the scale and scope of sexually abusive behavior and the networks that cover it up. And it obliterates the myths that sustain rape culture: that sexual assault is rare, victims are to blame rather than abusers, and, most damningly, “if we had known” what was happening, we would have surely done something to stop it.
The #MeToo movement is now an established point of reference, seen as heralding a necessary and overdue change in discussions of sexual violence. Yet, victims do not find justice in court, rape kits sit untested, and a lack of fair and predictable processes for reporting sexual harassment and assault is the norm rather than the exception. Moreover, the media’s focus on Weinstein and the brave and credible actresses he victimized has, unfortunately, excluded women of color, trans and nonbinary survivors, and poor survivors of all genders.
This glaring absence distorts the roots and future of the #MeToo movement. The coming years will test whether the market for #MeToo books will reflect the range of stories to be told.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.
- A number of feminist books about women’s anger published in the past two years prefigured a market for #MeToo books. Among these are Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, by Rebecca Traister (2018); Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, by Soraya Chemaly (2018); Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, by Brittney Cooper (2018); and The Witches Are Coming, by Lindy West (2019). There have been memoirs and essay collections that credit the #MeToo movement with creating the condition for survivors to speak and address sexual violence and its aftermath, or that are part of this wave of publishing without specifically addressing the #MeToo movement. These include Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (2017), and her edited collection Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture (2018), as well as Lilly Dancyger’s edited collection Burn It Down: Women Writing about Anger (2019) and Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir, In the Dream House (2019). The number of recent and forthcoming books demonstrates that a robust literary market is emerging. It should be noted, too, that dynamic literary markets amplify survivor discourse by scaling it. ↩
- As a companion to She Said, Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators fills in the investigative picture by exposing how victims are silenced through threats of retaliation and nondisclosure agreements. ↩
- Kantor and Twohey not only helped to reveal Weinstein’s sexually predatory behavior, they also uncovered a decades-long cover-up that enabled Weinstein to sexually abuse women. Lawyer David Boies, for example, is presented as a diehard Weinstein defender bent on destroying the women who accuse his client. Famously feminist mother-daughter legal icons Lisa Bloom and Gloria Allred are exposed as exploiting their knowledge of sexual assault victims’ vulnerabilities to pressure them into signing NDAs; Bloom netted for herself a hefty percentage of the money generated by agreements struck with Weinstein’s victims. Kantor and Twohey include in the book Bloom’s letter to Weinstein outlining how she would help him destroy Rose McGowan, who accused Weinstein of rape, and rehab his image. ↩
- Several books about Brett Kavanaugh have recently been published or are forthcoming. Robin Pogrebin’s The Education of Brett Kavanaugh (2019), for example, digs into his teenage and college past and finds plenty to confirm Blasey Ford’s description of his behavior. ↩
- Indelible joins Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture (2018), edited by Roxane Gay, in contextualizing the testimony of white celebrities and Christine Blasey Ford within a broad group of survivors and foregrounding extralegal forms of self-representation. ↩
- See my book Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say about Their Lives (2017), pp. 85–117, for analysis of how neoliberal life narratives displace and diminish the testimonial power of survivor life writing. ↩