On Monday night, friends of E. Jean Carroll gathered at a small party for her at a Brooklyn brownstone. Someone had baked a heart-shaped pink cake with the word “BRAVE” spelled out on it in red sugar. Carroll, the advice columnist and author — and Trump’s latest sexual assault accuser — had just come off a day spinning through the media cycle. She sipped Chartreuse on ice, and maintained a cool, calm and wry demeanor, a little distracted by hugs and well-wishers’ tears. She told everyone she was doing fine, that she was uplifted by “a wave” of messages of support from across the country, and studiously avoiding social media, where the more printable critiques included right-wing misogynist Mike Cernovich tweeting that she reminded him of his institutionalized mother.
Carroll has just published a book, What Do We Need Men For?, about the horrible men she’s encountered in her 75 years. One of the many — and not even the most — harrowing encounters she describes involves Donald Trump. In an excerpt published in New York magazine last week, Carroll claims that Trump penetrated her against her will in a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman 24 years ago. Trump denies the accusations, tossing in one of his trademark look-shaming insults — “She’s not my type” — even though Carroll in 1995 was a lithe blonde who resembled second wife, Marla Maples.
On CNN’s New Day over the weekend, Carroll described the alleged Trump encounter as a kind of Sex and the City lark, a subversive joke on one of New York’s Mr. Bigs that turned violent. Running into Trump in the upscale department store, she agreed to go with him to the lingerie department to pick out a present for an unnamed female. When he asked her to try on a sheer bodysuit, she tried to turn the fetish on him, telling him it “matched his eyes.”
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“I said no, you put it on!” said Carroll, who was briefly a writer for Saturday Night Live. “I’m spinning a comedy scene in my head.”
“Sure banter, I get it,” interviewer Alisyn Camerota replied. “You could not have known what violence would unfold. … I understand that in retrospect you blame yourself, many women do.”
Carroll continued: “He tried to kiss me… it was, ugh. My reaction was to laugh, to knock off the erotic — whatever he had going on.”
Then, she said, he backed her against the wall and forced his penis inside her.
“Legally he raped you,” Camerota said.
“It was a fight,” Carroll insisted. “I want women to know that I did not stand there, I did not freeze. I was not paralyzed. Which is a reaction I could have had. No. I fought. It was against my will. And then I ran away.” When Camerota opined that “you don’t want to be seen as a victim,” Carroll explained. “I don’t want to be seen as a victim because it quickly went past. It was a very, very brief episode in my life. I was over it very quickly.”
By most tallies, Carroll is the President’s 16th sexual misconduct accuser. Her story synchs up in style if not specifics with many of the other accusers’ descriptions of encounters with the Donald, and even Trump’s own “grab ‘em by the pussy” explanation of his seduction style, but goes a step past that, into felony rape. Unlike the women who accused Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and myriad prominent men since 2017, none of Trump’s accusers have yet to see formal inquiries or legal relief.
Carroll is unlike most #metoo accusers in another way. She is among Trump’s older accusers. They came of age in an America under the control of Mad Men who scoffed at their adversaries — the founders of second wave feminism, women who promoted the sharing of emotions, expressing pain, and collective action. Not all women of that era signed on to the program. In her 2017 book Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil, author Deborah Nelson explored the “unsentimental” strain in women of the mid- to late-20th Century. Writers like Joan Didion and Mary McCarthy were ambivalent or even hostile to feminism, Nelson writes, because they felt it resisted reality, promoted Utopian thinking and enfeebled women. Joan Didion even accused the women’s movement of offering a “romance” to women “about their own weakness.” Carroll has built her own career as an advice columnist deploying sass, wit and humor to process tales of female suffering, often at the hands of men.
Carroll’s refusal to use the word “rape” drew sympathy and mild criticism from other women. “It’s important that we use the word rape. That doesn’t mean we have to use the word victim,” wrote Ronald Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis, in the Washington Post. Davis last year revealed she was raped as a young woman. Madeline Fry, a conservative columnist at the Washington Examiner, wrote that Carroll was doing “disservice to rape victims”
Carroll’s story of being pressed against a wall is eerily close to an experience journalist Natasha Stoynoff’s says she had with Trump. Stoynoff has written that he shoved her against a wall in Mar a Lago in 2006, and stuck his tongue down her throat. And yet, Stoynoff tells Rolling Stone that she understands why Carroll refuses to use the word rape. “It’s a way to regain strength and control in a situation where, for a few very violent minutes, she had none. But I worry about the other reasons why she doesn’t use the word ‘rape.’ I wonder if there is a big part of her that does not want to face the truth of what happened, and admit — to others and even to herself — that she was and is more traumatized by the assault than she lets on.”
Carroll’s dry-eyed stance is confusing and out of time, but that is only one reason mainstream media soft-pedaled her sensational claim. The New York Times buried it in the books section, a decision that the public editor, Gabriel Snyder, blamed on the paper not having broken the story itself, and sexism. The decision “ultimately come down to whether the Times is willing to put its institutional imprimatur behind the credibility of women making allegations against powerful men,” Snyder wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review. “And while [Editor in Chief Dean] Baquet says he regrets not giving Carroll’s claims more prominent placement in the paper and on the Times website, he also mentions another informal rule that privileges newsroom ego over the interest of the reader: a reluctance to follow up on another outlet’s scoop.”
The New York Post went a step further. The tabloid posted her story Friday, then after Col Allan, a Post management figure close to Trump, intervened, the story was removed, according to CNN. The story’s online link now leads to an error message. (The Post did not respond to requests for comment about this activity.)
Before they cut into the BRAVE cake, the party gathered around the television to watch Carroll on Anderson Cooper. Cooper has become fairly proficient at debriefing accusers, but he squirmed through this one. The spectacle of a women in 2019 with a rape story that she wouldn’t call rape was confusing.
“I was not thrown on the ground and ravaged,” Carroll told him. “The word rape carries so many sexual connotations. This was not sexual. It just hurt.” When Cooper replied that rape is a violent assault, Carroll replied: ”I think most people think of rape as being sexy. They think of the fantasies.”
Carroll was getting her day in the court of TV, but Trump still managed to grab the bully pulpit. Almost throughout the broadcast, CNN undercut her story with a large red “Breaking News” logo on the lower quarter of the screen, above a chyron of capital letters in black: Pres. Trump on his most recent accuser: “It never happened; she’s not my type.”
Carroll was stoic for the cameras. She recounted her valiant “fight” and clung to a position of agency. But she also kept the outfit she wore at the back of her closet for 24 years, a black cloth talisman on a hanger. “Whether it’s my age, the fact that I haven’t met anyone fascinating enough over the past couple of decades to feel ‘the sap rising,’ as Tom Wolfe put it, or if it’s the blot of the real-estate tycoon, I can’t say,” she wrote. “But I have never had sex with anybody ever again.
After Carroll’s story landed online, calls to the Rape, Abuse & Incest (RAINN) hotline increased by over 53 percent from the previous week, says Erinn Robinson, a spokesperson for RAINN. “That is an example of the effect these stories have on survivors,” she says. “We recognize there is a need for our services when stories like this are in media, because it can re-traumatize survivors.”
Robinson allows that Carroll has the right to decide what to call the incident. “A fight is not a rape, but that is contingent on the survivor,” she says. “There are as many ways to deal with trauma as there are victims of trauma. Every survivor has a different way to healing. She was forced to use that word and by using that word as a survivor she felt that was making her a victim, and she did not want the perception.”
Carroll may insist that the incident didn’t leave a lasting mark, but still, says Robinson, “Absolutely, she is a survivor.”
You can contact RAINN at (800) 656-HOPE (4673).