Opinion | E. Jean Carroll Must Be Going Through Hell

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By Michelle Goldberg

Opinion Columnist

“Prima Facie,” a searing new play on Broadway, is about a high-flying woman whose vitality and confidence is taken from her twice, first when she’s raped by a colleague, Julian, and then when she tries to seek justice. Jodie Comer — Villanelle on the cult TV show “Killing Eve” — plays Tessa, a swaggering self-made British barrister who often defends men accused of sexual assault, before she’s assaulted herself and ends up on the other side of the legal process. The story is schematic and the script, by the end, turns didactic, but Comer’s blazing, magnificent performance elevates the show into greatness. She makes you feel viscerally both Tessa’s extraordinary life force, and the leeching of it.

I kept thinking about “Prima Facie” as I sat in the Manhattan courtroom where E. Jean Carroll is suing Donald Trump for battery and defamation stemming from a rape that she alleges occurred in the mid-1990s. The barrister defending Tessa’s rapist accuses her of making up the attack because of a professional vendetta. He suggests she could have screamed, and uses her fragmented memories to make her seem dishonest or unreliable. “The lived experience of sexual assault is not remembered in a neat, consistent, scientific parcel,” Tessa says. “And because of that, the law often finds the evidence ‘unbelievable.’”

We don’t yet know what the law will find in Carroll’s case. Both sides rested on Thursday — the Trump camp declined to call a single witness — and closing arguments are scheduled for Monday. I am, frankly, a little worried, not because I doubt Carroll and those testifying on her behalf, but because I have no idea what the jury, which consists of six men and three women, will make of the witnesses and their decades-old memories. Whatever happens, the few days I’ve been in court have underlined to me what an ordeal this must be for Carroll and some of the other witnesses, their lives splayed open for public consumption, every seeming inconsistency in their recollections or behavior exploited. No matter how much you hate Trump, this isn’t fun for anyone.

Hatred of Trump is a major theme for Trump’s pit bull attorney, Joe Tacopina. Two of Carroll’s friends, Lisa Birnbach and Carol Martin, testified that Carroll told them that Trump had assaulted her shortly after it happened. Both have the same feelings about Trump as almost every New York City woman I know, which is to say they loathe him; Birnbach once compared him to an “infection like herpes.” Tacopina, who has access to years of their emails and text messages, has tried to use their resistance politics against them, implying that they cooked up a plot to frame the ex-president.

He took a similar tack with Jessica Leeds, one of the two supporting witnesses who also allege Trump assaulted them. Leeds testified that Trump groped her on a plane in the late 1970s, saying, “It’s like he had 40 zillion hands, and it was a tussling match between the two of us.” She said Trump called her the C-word when they ran into each other years later, a degrading little coda. In court, Tacopina questioned Leeds about her politics — “You just testified you are a registered Democrat?” — and her long silence about what she says Trump did to her. “You held it in for those 40 years until he was running for president?” he asked, his tone thick with incredulity.

In the story Tacopina is constructing, all these women are acting out of spite. But the miserable process they’re enduring belies this narrative; it’s hard to imagine any of them, let alone all of them, agreeing to submit to public humiliation, and the attendant threats from Trump’s acolytes, just so they can perjure themselves in the vain hope of tarnishing the ex-president’s political career.

Carroll has had to testify to the end of her romantic life: “I’m aware that I have lost out on one of the glorious experiences of any human being.” A glamorous woman who always presents a fabulous front, she had to sit and listen while a therapist testified about how Carroll’s trauma manifested itself, and how she avoids introspection.

She had to hear texts in which Martin vents about Carroll read into the record. Seemingly resentful of being dragged into a lawsuit, Martin called Carroll a “narcissist” and said she was acting “scary” and “loving the adulation.” Never mind that this cuts against the idea of Martin as an eager conspirator. No one wants to hear cruel things their friends have said about them privately made public.

And, of course, Carroll, like several of the women who testified for her, had to abide insinuations that she’s a mendacious fantasist. She had to explain why she didn’t scream or go to the police, and even why she kept returning to Bergdorf Goodman if she’d had such a horrifying experience there. At one point one of her attorneys asked if she ever regretted going public. “About five times a day,” she said, and I can believe it.

Ultimately, Carroll has more to lose here than Trump does. He is immune to shame and can afford to pay whatever damages might be levied. He’s succeeded in deforming American politics to the point that even if a civil jury finds that in Carroll’s favor, it probably won’t hurt him in the Republican primary. For Carroll, the potential fallout of failing to persuade a jury — one in liberal New York City, no less — is more grave. If she claims her reputation was damaged by Trump calling her a liar, it will be damaged much more by a jury verdict to that effect.

“I feel a wave of sadness. Not despair just pure sadness,” Tessa says in “Prima Facie” after testifying against her assailant. “I know the jury won’t find Julian guilty.” She is right; they don’t. “All of this and, and — they didn’t believe me,” she said.

I can scarcely imagine what it would be mean for Carroll, who testified that being raped by Trump disfigured her enviable life, to end up in the same place as Tessa. If I were her, I doubt I’d have the courage to risk it.

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