Harvey Weinstein’s Secret Shame

Harvey Weinstein sits in a car, the lower half of his face obscured by a tinted window.
Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In the winter of 1999, Harvey Weinstein was medevaced from the island of St. Barthélemy to New York City with a mysterious life-threatening bacterial infection. Whatever it was embarrassed him so much that he checked into an undisclosed hospital under a fake name, shunned visitors, and expended the majority of his limited energy to keep the press from learning he was hospitalized at all. For decades, he would claim the near-death experience, which left him with scars from a stomach operation and a tracheotomy, was the result of food poisoning.

But during his rape trial in 2020, a picture of what might really have happened to Weinstein began to emerge. One of his victims, Jessica Mann, explained that when she first saw him naked, she “thought he was deformed and intersex.” Mann went on to explain that in addition to Weinstein’s poor hygiene, blackheads, and predilection for golden showers, “he does not have testicles, and it appears like he has a vagina.” Her description is consistent with that of Fournier’s gangrene, a rare infection that burns and shrivels skin in the genital area and often requires surgical removal of the testicles. Jurors were later shown full-frontal photographs of Weinstein naked to corroborate testimony from Mann and other women who described his body. Those photographs have remained sealed, but jurors seemed repelled by what they saw, wincing and passing the images along quickly, as if they could not bear to look at or hold them.

New Yorker film critic Ken Auletta’s new biography of Weinstein — Hollywood Ending: Harvey Weinstein and the Culture of Silence — is rife with such visceral details. The book is the first exploration of the disgraced producer’s life and is about much more than his body; it’s also a story about enablers and familial melodrama, corporate malfeasance and apoplectic rage. But reading Auletta’s near-500 pages of meticulous reporting, one finds it impossible not to wonder why Weinstein is the way he is. What explains his volcanic temper, his voracious appetites, his seeming addiction to assault? Auletta offers no easy answers and devotes only a few paragraphs to criminologists’ failure to deduce, or even study, the root causes of sexual violence. But in the book’s endless catalogue of ruined female bodies, details about Weinstein’s own body emerge as a nexus and a potential driving force behind all his harm.

One thing criminologists agree on is that the seeds of sexual deviance are often planted in early childhood. Parents with sadistic streaks are more likely to raise sadists. According to Auletta, Weinstein’s mother, Mariam, was a legendary screamer who shamed her son in front of his friends. “Do you really need to eat that bagel?” she would yell. “You’re fat. Don’t eat that!” She was critical of many people, as a rule, but her criticism of Harvey often focused on his body.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his mother, Weinstein began to really pile on weight in the early 1980s, habitually inhaling enormous quantities of food before demanding refills. As Auletta details, he would unleash tirades on waiters if the jumbo-shrimp order wasn’t jumbo enough. People angled to sit anywhere but across from him during meals, since he ate fast enough while speaking to send food projectiles across the table. His appetite for grease and sauce was legendary: When his first defense lawyer had lunch with him, Weinstein ordered an entire bowl of ketchup while double-fisting burgers and fries, retrieving one fry that dropped down his shirt in order to eat it. He was also an inveterate smoker, lighting up in the hallways at Disney long after “No Smoking” signs went up and blazing through cartons of Marlboros in a week.

A pathological appetite can be an attempt to fill a void. Weinstein — who once nicknamed himself “the Gru,” for Gruesome — told close friends he felt that he had been born ugly and that his life was an attempt to compensate for that fact. “To medicate, I comfort myself with bad food,” he wrote in one unreleased statement that surfaced during his trial. “My mind sees despair. My body has trauma. Vets tell me I have PTSD.” Even his brother, Bob, seemed to agree, calling Weinstein “an empty soul acting out in any way he can to fill up that space and hurt that will not go away.”

How might shame over his body have caused Weinstein to act the way he did? Zoë Brock was a young model when Weinstein attempted to assault her, and she said that when she managed to evade his advances, he came out of the bathroom crying and apologizing. “He said something in between his tears I have never forgotten, and I never will for the rest of my days,” she told a Frontline documentary crew. “‘You do not like me because I am fat.’” At his trial, assistants and victims alike described his body as repulsive. Weinstein “smelled like poop and was just dirty,” Mann testified. One of Weinstein’s assistants said that while he frequently walked around naked in front of her, even before the St. Barths incident, she never saw an erection. She believed him to be impotent, which would explain the erectile-dysfunction injections many women said he used before assaulting them.

Despite all the true power he amassed, Weinstein was a sexual fraud. He would call himself a sex addict, but his history with women bears more in common with incel culture. Like incels, he claimed women were withholding sex that was rightly his. After his crimes were exposed, Weinstein became desperate to propagate an image of himself as a hedonist and a cad, but these were flattering smoke screens he preferred to the truth. Weinstein was addicted not to sex as much as he was addicted to anything — like food, cigarettes, or rape — that could make him forget who he is. And along with release and oblivion, he hunted an elusive assurance that women would come to him of their own volition. He “liked the belief he was a Don Juan,” one of his victims told Auletta. “He wanted to feel like he wasn’t a rapist.” Weinstein held fast to his innocence throughout his trial with a tenor that felt pathological rather than performative. He told his victims he hoped their “friendships” could be rekindled, and upon being convicted, he sat back, stunned. “But I’m innocent,” he kept repeating. “I’m innocent.” It seems impossible that he could have believed this. But what if his deepest pathology was that he needed to believe the sex was consensual precisely because he knew deep down it never was?

Since Weinstein catalyzed Me Too into a global phenomenon almost five years ago, the movement has brought some powerful men to account, shifted norms, and allowed millions of people to verbalize long-suppressed truths. What it has not done is reduce sexual violence: According to RAINN, out of every 1,000 instances of rape, only 13 cases get referred to a prosecutor, and only seven of those lead to a felony conviction. And within these small fractions, cases remain most wrenching for the victims, who are still forced to endure questioning about their outfits, blood-alcohol content, and memories. Rapes are not aberrations, but they are currently prosecuted as such; for that to change, victims need a reasonable expectation that they will be believed. This requires dispensing with the narrative that rape is the dominion of a small set of sociopaths with missing chips and accepting the more difficult reality that it is perpetrated far more often than that and by people we know — maybe even people we love.

Weinstein’s shame matters because shame is a universal emotion felt by humans rather than malignant automatons. I do not mean to excuse him. I was the victim of an assault in my early 20s, and the idea of my assailant having a why is repulsive to me. What I mean is that calling him a monster, an aberration, an other — divorced from the world in singular sociopathy — allows sexual assault to flourish. When we categorize rape as the act of a monster rather than a person, we perpetuate the fiction that it is the act of an aberrant minority instead of a crushingly routine violation committed by our brothers and fathers and sons and husbands. Refusing to see perpetrators as people allows us to think of far fewer people as predators, which in turn subtly casts doubt on the one in six American women who will experience rape in their lifetime.

I want more for victims than this, more than catharsis, visibility, and the slow shifting of norms. I want us to feel as entitled as Weinstein did to compensation for his bodily trauma and for him to be as afraid of us as we were of him. Weinstein’s body may be unique, but he is not unique at all. The purpose of holding his shame under the light is to show that he is a person. They all are.

Harvey Weinstein’s Secret Shame