We sat, maybe 20 of us journalists, on the 9th floor of the Manhattan Federal courthouse in a room set up for overflow, eyes fixed on the television screen, watching the live feed of a criminal proceeding for a ghost happening eight floors below us.
The sun streamed in through the tall windows to our left as one by one, over a dozen women stood behind a podium in a courtroom filled to capacity, leaned into a microphone, and told their stories of being sexually abused by Jeffrey Epstein. Many had been waiting more than a decade to be heard. As one survivor explained that she still lived in fear, now for her daughters, who would grow up in a world where powerful men routinely got away with exploiting girls, with — let's be clear about this — raping girls, my breast milk began to let down, leaking through my bra and spreading across my T-shirt.
I'd run over to the courthouse from the office during the time when I’d normally be pumping for my 4-month-old daughter. Alone in the privacy room at work, the membranes of the Spectra pump thumping and sucking like an iron lung, are the times I’ve felt most like a mother, fulfilling my daughter’s most basic need while she’s nowhere in sight.
And that need was still there in the courtroom. It didn’t stop in the face of Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes, just as the need of those survivors to be heard didn’t stop when Epstein reportedly killed himself in jail two weeks ago. It was clear to me then that this hearing was not a favour we were doing for the survivors. It was clear to me that as a woman, as a mother, as a human being, I needed to hear what they had to say. That need to listen was as real and pressing to me as any biological function.
In the courtroom, they’d left a chair at the prosecution’s table empty, invoking his presence, but that presence would have been felt everywhere regardless. In holding the hearing, the judge noted “I believe it is the court’s responsibility, and manifestly within its purview, to ensure the victims in this case are treated fairly and with dignity,” and it felt like, maybe, for the first time, that dignity was being observed.
The survivors spoke of the details of their abuse: the massages, the vibrator, the physical pain of being penetrated for the first time. But they also spoke of their psychic pain. Many alleged that to them, Epstein was not just a rapist, he was also a murderer; he’d murdered their childhoods, he’d killed the girls they’d once been.
The details of the abuse were terrible to hear, but just as striking were the details of the grooming. Sitting there, taking notes and leaking breast milk, I was reminded that Epstein and his associates allegedly preyed on the innocence of girlhood, on the essential goodness of children and their desire to please.
One survivor said she was recruited when an assistant saw her with a violin case and said she should play for the billionaire. The cruelty of this, of weaponising a girl’s talent and the pride she might have for it, struck me again as it has often since reading Julie K. Brown’s piece on Epstein in the Miami Herald. For years, I’d known vaguely that the man was a creep but figured it couldn’t be that bad, that if it were, I’d know or somebody would know, and they would do something.
I was wrong. We all were. On Tuesday, these women reminded us that somebody (here is where I have to say “allegedly” again) did know and that these somebodies were judges, and lawyers, and scientists, and presidents and princes, and they did nothing.
One woman, identifying herself as Jane Doe, stood behind the podium and spoke in a quiet voice about the abuse she said she endured on a visit to Epstein’s ranch as a teenager. She alleged how Epstein positioned her facing framed photos of him and his many rich and powerful friends during an assault to intimidate her into silence. She was a girl — what could her voice do in the face of this kind of extreme wealth?
Later, riding ATV’s across the mesa with another girl who'd allegedly been trafficked to the ranch, she broke a part on her machine and fretted that she'd get in trouble. “Don't worry,” the other girl told her. “Nobody gets in trouble for anything here.”
When I was back at the office, after I’d walked down the courthouse steps in front of what seemed like hundreds of cameras and microphones ready to capture, finally, the testimony of these women who had once been girls, I looked at my notes. Breast milk, incongruous, I’d scrawled at some point.
How wrong, I thought. Nothing about motherhood or nurturing was in any way at odds with listening to the survivors tell their stories. I had been clocking hours in the privacy room providing basic nourishment for my baby daughter so that she can grow up and be a woman in the world. It will be my duty to listen to her, to believe her, to foster her talents and dreams. It will also be my duty to pass on the terrible wisdom of these survivors, as well as their bravery and resilience.
The inner lives of girls are so complicated and tender, so easily unknowable unless you make the decision to try. To listen. To believe. To take the time from our lives to notice. These women have drawn us a map we need to follow.