Photo: Tim Boxer/Getty Images
I have been having conversations about Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual harassment for more than 17 years.
The conversations started when I was a young editorial assistant at Talk, the magazine he financed, in 1999; back then it was with young people, friends — women and men — who worked for him, at Miramax, and told tales of hotel rooms, nudity, suggestion, and coercion, and then of whispered payoffs, former assistants who seemingly dropped off the face of the Earth. Reading the story published on Thursday in the New York Times about claims against Weinstein, I was pole-axed by the familiarity of the recollection of Karen Katz, a friend and colleague of one of the young Miramax employees who was propositioned by Weinstein, who said, “We were so young at the time … We did not understand how wrong it was or how Laura should deal with it.”
In my mid-20s, I became a reporter and fact checker at the New York Observer, and part of my beat was covering the film business in New York. The night before the 2000 election, I was working on a story — perhaps my first seriously reported story — about O, the violent reimagining of Othello that Miramax’s Dimension division was then sitting on, perhaps out of deference to the cringey clean-media message of the Al Gore–Joe Lieberman campaign, which Weinstein was publicly supporting; already there was talk of Weinstein’s ambitions in Democratic politics. After Weinstein failed to respond to my calls for comment, I was sent, on Election Eve 2000, to cover a book party he was hosting, along with my colleague Andrew Goldman. Weinstein didn’t like my question about O, there was an altercation; though the recording has alas been lost to time, I recall that he called me a cunt and declared that he was glad he was the “fucking sheriff of this fucking lawless piece-of-shit town.” When my colleague Andrew (who was also then my boyfriend) intervened, first calming him down and then trying to extract an apology, Weinstein went nuclear, pushing Andrew down a set of steps inside the Tribeca Grand — knocking him over with such force that his tape recorder hit a woman, who suffered long-term injury — and dragging Andrew, in a headlock, onto Sixth Avenue.
Such was the power of Harvey Weinstein in 2000 that despite the dozens of camera flashes that went off on that sidewalk that night, capturing the sight of an enormously famous film executive trying to pound in the head of a young newspaper reporter, I have never once seen a photo. Back then, Harvey could spin — or suppress — anything; there were so many journalists on his payroll, working as consultants on movie projects, or as screenwriters, or for his magazine.
After that incident, which was reported as a case of an aggressive reporter barging into a party she wasn’t invited to and asking impertinent questions, I began to hear from lots of other people, now other reporters, who were working, often for years, to nail down the story of Harvey’s sexual abuses, and thought that I, as someone who’d been a firsthand witness to his verbal and physical ones, could help.
I couldn’t, except by passing on whatever I’d heard, helping to make sense of timelines and rumored accounts. I never really thought of trying to write the story myself. Back then, I didn’t write about feminism; there wasn’t a lot of journalism about feminism. All the stories people were trying to write about Harvey were film stories: profiles, exposés of his loutish behavior perhaps, examinations of the outsize ways he exercised his considerable influence, the manner in which his reputation so closely mirrored that of his monstrous but legendary forebears — the Louis B. Mayers of old Hollywood.
His behavior toward women was obviously understood to be a bad thing—this was a decade after Anita Hill’s accusations against Clarence Thomas had helped the country to understand that sexual harassment was not just a quirk of the modern workplace, but a professional and economic crime committed against women as a class. But the story felt fuzzier, harder to tell about Harvey: the notion of the “casting couch” still had an almost romantic reverberation, and those who had encountered Weinstein often spoke of the conviction that they would never be believed.
But another reason that I never considered trying to report the story myself, even, truly, in the years after I did start writing about gender and power as my beat, was because it felt impossible. Sisyphean. I remembered what it was like to have the full force of Harvey Weinstein — back then a mountainous man — screaming vulgarities at me, his spit hitting my face. I had watched him haul my friend into the street and try to hurt him. That kind of force, that kind of power? I could not have won against that.
And indeed, no one could, for a really, really long time. The best reporters out there tried, for years, perhaps most memorably David Carr, for this magazine. But Weinstein didn’t just exert physical power. He also employed legal and professional and economic power. He supposedly had every employee sign elaborate, binding nondisclosure agreements. He gave jobs to people who might otherwise work to bring him down, and gave gobs of money to other powerful people, who knows how much, but perhaps just enough to keep them from listening to ugly rumors that might circulate among young people, among less powerful people. For decades, the reporters who tried to tell the story of Harvey Weinstein butted up against the same wall of sheer force and immovable power that was leveraged against those ambitious actors, the vulnerable assistants, the executives whose careers, salaries, and reputations were in his hands.
The accounts in the remarkable New York Times piece offer evidence of the ways in which power imbalance is so key to sexual assault, and in the case of Weinstein, to the ability to keep it from coming to light for so very long. The stories of hotel-room meetings, requests for massages, professional interactions undertaken naked — they all speak of the abusive thrill gained not from sex but from the imposition of your will on someone who has no ability to resist or defend themselves from you, an exertion of power on the powerless.
Something has changed. Sources have gone on the record. It’s worth it to wonder why. Perhaps because of shifts in how we understand these kinds of abuses. Recent years have seen scores of women, finding strength and some kind of power in numbers, come forward and tell their stories about Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Donald Trump. In all of those cases, as in this case, the history of allegations has been an almost wholly open secret, sometimes even having been reported in major outlets, and yet somehow ignored, allowed to pass, unconsidered.
But now our consciousness has been raised. And while repercussions have been mixed — Cosby is set to go to trial again in April; Ailes and O’Reilly lost powerful jobs but walked away with millions; Donald Trump was elected president — it is in part the fact that we have had a public conversation that has helped those for whom telling their stories seemed impossible for so long suddenly feel that speaking out might be within their reach.
That is surely one part of the story. But I don’t think it’s the whole story. I think there is more. I saw Harvey Weinstein earlier this year, at a Planned Parenthood celebration. I was struck by the fact that he was there — as the Times details, he has remained a donor to and supporter of liberal organizations, women’s-rights organizations, and Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, whose daughter recently worked as his intern. But I was also struck by his physical diminishment; he seemed small and frail, and, when I caught sight of him in May, he appeared to be walking with a cane. He has also lost power in the movie industry, is no longer the titan of independent film, the indie mogul who could make or break an actor’s Oscar chances.
He clearly hasn’t stopped working to protect himself. The attorney Lisa Bloom, whose business has recently been the representation of women lodging harassment and assault claims against powerful men, is a member of his legal team. I cannot imagine it coincidental that this spring he bought the rights to make her book about Trayvon Martin into a miniseries. (His legal team also includes David Boies and Charles Harder, the lawyer who successfully sued Gawker on behalf of Hulk Hogan. Anita Dunn, who worked in the Obama White House, reportedly gave Weinstein pro bono PR advice in recent weeks; Weinstein has also, supposedly, reached out to the Clintons’ crisis PR honcho Lanny Davis.) It seems important that this story was reported nonetheless, and I suspect coming weeks will include more stories about Weinstein that have been bottled up for decades.
But it’s hard not to consider the circumstances, the years, the risks, and the work put in by so many to convince so many others to be able to come forward, and the fact that perhaps only a weakening of Weinstein’s grip permitted his expensive self-crafted armor to finally be pierced.