Effects of Sexual Assault Detailed by E. Jean Carroll in Court

From a Washington Post column by Monica Hesse headlined “Enduring effects of sexual assault detailed on stand”:

In the most visceral moment of E. Jean Carroll’s testimony in a New York courtroom this week, the advice columnist described exactly what Donald Trump allegedly did to her when they entered a Bergdorf’s dressing room together nearly 30 years ago. She testified that while she struggled against him, Trump pulled down her tights and then inserted his fingers inside her. It was “extremely painful,” she said, because he “curved” his fingers. “As I sit here today I can still feel it,” she said. Trump has denied the assault ever happened.

Curved. Who knows whether the jury made anything of that detail. But any woman who heard or read that testimony could have imagined the sharp pang of such an act, the way it would have pulled at her insides. And she might have noted what I did: As Carroll described it, Trump’s opening move as he commenced an alleged sexual assault (which, again, he denies) was to literally grab her by the p—y.

But it was that last line that packed the biggest wallop: She “could still feel it.” According to Carroll, the entire alleged encounter was very brief. She ran into the real estate mogul at a department store and he asked her to help him choose a gift for another woman, she said. They goofed around in the lingerie section, and Carroll got the idea that it would be hilarious if Trump tried on a teddy himself over his clothes. As soon as they got into the dressing room he allegedly pinned her, raping her with his fingers and then his penis.

And, she said, as she sat on the witness stand, she could still feel it.

Carroll’s battery and defamation suit against the former president is remarkable for many reasons. It’s the first sexual misconduct allegation, out of the dozen-plus that have been levied against Trump, to be weighed in a courtroom. The trial was only made possible by a new law in New York permitting victims of sexual assault to sue their alleged assailants even after the statute of limitations has expired. It is a civil suit, not a criminal suit: The jury is not tasked with deciding whether Trump raped Carroll and should go to prison, but whether Carroll experienced pain and suffering because of Trump’s actions and so he should compensate her.

Because of this, the trial is not concerned only with what did or didn’t happen over the course of a few minutes in the spring of 1996. The trial is concerned with what has happened in the 27 years since. It is an extraordinary and meticulous weighing, not of one man’s guilt or innocence, but of the long-tail effects of one woman’s alleged sexual assault. What Carroll allegedly lost in that dressing room. What she never got back.

In the hours after the alleged assault, E. Jean testified, her head hurt. Her vagina hurt. She took off the dress she’d been wearing and hung it in the closet, because it was expensive and she thought she still might wear it again. She decided to call her friend Lisa Birnbach, she said, hoping Lisa would think the story was funny. Why on earth would Lisa think it was funny? her lawyer asked, and Carroll explained: Lisa had a great sense of humor. If Lisa laughed, then it could mean that maybe Carroll hadn’t been assaulted, maybe she’d just had a zany only-in-New-York experience. “If Lisa thought it was funny, it was not a bad thing.”

Again, Trump says the assault never happened; he has said Carroll is “not my type.”

After her conversation with Lisa and one other friend, she stopped telling people about the alleged assault. Lisa hadn’t thought it was funny, she said. Lisa thought it was rape. “I was frightened of Donald Trump,” Carroll testified. “I was ashamed. I thought it was my fault.”

She tried, instead, to push the incident down, out of mind. Her public persona as an advice columnist required her to project confidence and strength. She tried her best to do that, and to ignore the “suffering” she was experiencing in her private life. She had seen what happened to other women who came forward about assaults, how they were viewed as “soiled” or having invited their attacks.

The months after the alleged assault became years. Carroll, who had been married twice before, now found herself unable to even engage in mild flirting. Her rationale was that she’d been behaving flirtatiously with Trump at Bergdorf, she said, and “I got in serious trouble.”

She couldn’t push the alleged attack down far enough. “Not only did it happen in Bergdorf,” she testified, “but it happened over and over and over in my mind.” She would be cooking pasta or driving her car, she said, and suddenly she would feel “his fingers jammed up inside of me.”

Again, Trump has denied the assault; he has said he “never met this person.” (At the trial a photograph was introduced into evidence of the two talking at a party in the 1980s.)

The years after the alleged assault became decades. In 2015, Trump declared he was running for president. “It was a constant,” Carroll testified, being hit with images of him.

But the barrage forced her to get strong, she said. “I had to get strong or, you know, go live in a locked room.” Harvey Weinstein happened, and she watched as seemingly thousands of women got strong together. She had been commissioned to write a book about women’s relationships with men, and she decided that if others were brave enough to share their stories with her, she should be brave enough to include her own.

Again, Trump has denied the assault; he has said Carroll invented it to make money off her book.

Yes, she had been paid to write the 2019 book in which she initially leveled the rape accusation against Trump, Carroll testified on the stand. But the amount was $70,000. Not nothing, but not big money, either, and certainly not the kind of money to make up for a derailed career. Her contract with Elle magazine was terminated shortly after she went public with the rape allegations, she said. She now wrote her own newsletter, which she had to publish three times a week to gain the same income she’d once received from a monthly column.

Online, her biggest fears about going public with the allegations came to pass. “I lost my reputation,” Carroll testified. “Nobody looked at me the same. It was gone. … The force of hatred coming at me was staggering.”

She would open her email only to find threats against her life. She already owned a gun; now she bought bullets for it.

Again, Trump says the assault never happened. As recently as this week, shortly before Carroll’s testimony began, Trump posted on social media that her accusations were a “scam.”

The decades after the alleged assault somehow added up to become the back-end of Carroll’s entire life. She was 52 when the alleged incident happened. She is nearly 80 now.

More than a third of her existence, shaped and molded by an alleged event that lasted, by her own account, “a very few minutes.”

She still occasionally goes to Bergdorf, she testified, because the store sells “some of the loveliest things the world has ever created.”

She never did end up wearing her dress again, she wrote in “New York” magazine. It hung in her closet, “unworn and unlaundered.”

She did begin seeing a therapist. But she never had sexual relations with anyone again. Nor a romantic relationship. She couldn’t bear to.

“I have lost out on one of the glorious experiences of any human being,” she testified this week. “Being in love with somebody else, making dinner with them, walking the dog together. I don’t have that. I am — and just cuddling on the sofa, watching TV, and eating popcorn. I am aware of how much I have lost.”

Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section, who frequently writes about gender and its impact on society. She’s the author of several novels, most recently, “They Went Left.”

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