E. Jean Carroll: An Unreliable Narrator of Her Own Life


E. Jean Carroll in 1996 and inow

E. Jean Carroll in 1996 and inow

This past week I have been reading and listening to whatever I could find about E. Jean Carroll’s nightmare encounter with Donald Trump in 1996. An excerpt from her memoir, What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal, was published in last week’s New York Magazine. I searched myself for why I was obsessed. One reason: I’m dumbfounded a serious, credible allegation of rape committed by the President of the United States has not received as much coverage as it deserves. Barack Obama wearing a tan suit received more time on the news. Another reason: Trump’s only real skill is to make each week he’s President worse than the last. It defies imagination, and I have an overactive imagination. 

But the third reason is my uncomfortably complicated feelings about E. Jean Carrol herself. Not because I don’t believe her—I am absolutely certain she is telling the truth—but because of her unwillingness to classify what Trump did to her as rape.

I have always liked E. Jean Carroll. She is a wonderfully enjoyable writer. Unsentimental, brisk, funny, unsparing and honest. I found her advice column to be solid and perceptive. I admired her compassion, her interest in people and her desire to help them. The pictures I’ve seen (up until this past week) are of her smiling with infectious joie de vivre. She’s strong and smart and full of moxie. She seems like an ambitious, feisty former cheerleader who fled the Midwest for New York City in order to seek out adventure and to become a big fish in a big pond. It seems that way, because it’s true.

In case you’re not familiar with Carroll’s story, here is a synopsis: in 1996, sometime between 6:30 and 7pm, she is leaving Bergdorf Goodman, a tony department store in New York City, and runs into Donald Trump coming in. He recognizes her as “that advice lady.” They banter. He says hi to the sales manager on the floor. They treat him like he’s a regular, and royalty. He says he’s buying a present for a girl (he is married to Marla Maples at this time), and asks “the advice lady” for advice. E. Jean suggests a bag or a hat for the mystery woman. He says “lingerie,” or “underwear.” The lingerie section is on an upper floor of the department store.

The lobby of Bergdorf Goodman, where E. Jean Carroll ran into Donald Trump

The lobby of Bergdorf Goodman, where E. Jean Carroll ran into Donald Trump

E. Jean said she saw no salespeople or managers in that department. It was deserted. I looked up Bergdorf Goodman’s hours. They close at 8pm. Maybe back in 1996 they closed earlier. My theory—which might sound like conspiracy if we weren’t talking about Donald Trump—is that his MO was stalking Bergdorf Goodman at a time when employees were busy with closing. Perhaps they even had a deal with Trump (a/k/a a payoff) to make sure their salesforce was mysteriously absent from the lingerie department when he needed advice from female customers he happened to meet on the first floor.

The lingerie department at Bergdorf’s

The lingerie department at Bergdorf’s

Trump tells her to try on a flimsy, see-through, lavender bodysuit. They banter flirtatiously again and E. Jean says that he should try on the bodysuit because it matches his eyes. Understandably, she thinks it’s hilarious and is looking forward to recounting this experience at her next dinner party. She has no idea that Trump is a sexual predator. She knows him only as a New York City fixture. The rouè on Page Six.

what I imagine the bodysuit looked like

what I imagine the bodysuit looked like

She has no plan to try on the lingerie herself. The fun is turning the tables on him. They go into a dressing room. That’s when he tries to kiss her. She rebuffs him but is still laughing. Then he pushes her up against a wall. She starts to feel pain. She’s tall and strong, but Trump is taller and stronger. He holds her arms in one hand and undoes his belt buckle and fly with the other. He takes out his penis and shoves it inside her. His black coat is still on. 

Trump in 1996. Married to Marla Maples holding their daughter, Tiffany, but his hand on teenage Ivanka’s waist

Trump in 1996. Married to Marla Maples holding their daughter, Tiffany, but his hand on teenage Ivanka’s waist

He always wears that coat, even now. Maybe it’s to hide how paunchy he’s grown. But to add to my conspiracy theory, maybe it’s to literally hide what he’s doing by covering himself so passers by can’t see as he assaults the many women he’s come in contact with over many years. The thrill, to Trump, is always conquest and what he can get away with.

Carroll slams her foot onto his and manages to escape, thank god. She doesn’t remember how she fled Bergdorf Goodman, but she did. No one in the store saw her leave. All the surveillance video from that evening is no longer available. Maybe Trump paid off the department store and they destroyed the tapes. Who knows?

Bergdorf Goodman

Bergdorf Goodman

I listened to Michael Barbaro and Megan Twohey on Barbaro’s podcast, “The Daily,” discuss her interview with E. Jean Carroll and her friends, Lisa Birnbach and Carol Martin. E. Jean told them about her confrontation with Trump right after it happened. Birnbach begged her to go straight to the police to report her rape. An argument ensued because Carroll refused to call her experience rape. Martin, conversely, advised her not to say anything to the police because Trump was (is) a powerful man, and she was worried her friend would be dragged through the mud and blamed instead of Trump because that’s the way the world worked (works). I think you can guess whose advice I value more. And I think you can also guess whose advice Carroll valued more. One hint: Carroll’s opinion and mine vastly differ.

These were Carroll’s arguments against not naming what Trump did to her as “rape’ and not reporting it at the time: “ I don’t think [his penis went in] all the way, and it was not long.” “It was horrible. I fought it. But it was fifteen minutes of my life. It’s over.” “Shocking as it sounds, I thought [reporting it sand going public with her assault] would help him.” In response to Lisa Birnbach saying, “You thought you encouraged it,” Carroll responds, “Oh I did. I know I did...one hundred percent.”

And the statement that is most upsetting to me:

“Every woman gets to choose how she describes it. This is my way of saying it. This is my word. My word is ‘fight.’ My word is not ‘the victim word.’ I have not been raped. Something has not been done to me. I fought. That’s the thing.”

On the surface, E. Jean Carroll’s version of events sounds like “I am Woman! Hear me roar!” It’s bold. It’s grabbing agency over her own body and feelings. It makes her the self-deprecating, funny heroine of her story and life.

The only thing is it’s a lie. To us, and to her. She sees this story as if it just relates to herself personally and not as how much she could help others if she reframed it accurately and pressed charges against Trump

I am quite aware that reporting a rape right after it happens is a terrifying prospect. The public generally blames the victim and presumes the woman (or whomever) guilty right off the bat. The assaulted isn’t believed until multiple accounts of other victims come forward, and quite often not even then. How many accusers did it take for retribution to come to Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein (payouts, at this point)?

But the statute of limitations for rape in New York State now has no expiration date. If she went to trial now Trump might possibly be prosecuted and—granted I am not a lawyer—she would have a chance of prevailing.* She has two corroborating witnesses. She still has the dress hanging in her closet. Trump’s claim that he had never seen Carroll in his life is belied by a photo of she, Trump and their spouses at the time (Ivana and John Johnson) in 1987. Both Johnson and Carroll were New York celebrities, as were the Trumps. In the photo Trump’s back is to the camera, but he is obviously telling a joke and E. Jean Carroll, Johnson and Ivana are all smiling.

*(correction, from my friend, Hella Winston, who is an authority on the law as it pertains to child sexual abuse:

“In 2006, New York State passed a law abolishing the statute of limitations on rape. Until then, unless charges of rape were brought within five years, there couldn’t be a prosecution. Now charges can be brought at any time. However, any cases that were time barred before the law changed cannot be prosecuted now.”

Trump, Carroll, her husband, John Johnson and Ivana Trump at a party in 1987

Trump, Carroll, her husband, John Johnson and Ivana Trump at a party in 1987

The definition of rape, according to the Department of Justice: 

“The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without consent of the victim.” 

The other word about which E. Jean Carroll is confused is  “victim.” Carroll refuses to see herself as a victim because she thinks the word “victim” sounds weak. This strikes me as strange. It’s akin to when people who aren’t in therapy—you know, the ones who actually need therapy most of all— say going to therapy is an admission that you’re crazy. It’s an antiquated notion. And unhealthy. And millions of woman do fight back, like Carroll did, and still get raped. Is that their fault too? The other woman Donald Trump raped was his ex-wife, Ivana Trump, but after being threatened and then after accepting an enormous divorce settlement, she recanted and said what happened to her wasn’t rape either. 

If either women were honest with themselves, they would see what Donald Trump did to them was rape. Going to trial would have been a future a beacon of light not only to Trump’s victims, but to everyone suffering under his administration now. 

Although she tries to frame it with great humor, her idea of feminism is deeply flawed. She was prepped for this horrendous experience by her history with other “horrible men.” Other than posing in the dress she wore that evening in Bergdorf for New York magazine, it has stayed untouched in her closet since 1996. She couldn’t bear to look at it. God I hope the stylists didn’t dry clean it. If Clinton can be impeached over an untouched blue dress, Trump could be impeached over a black one.

The black dress she wore that evening she was raped by Trump in 1996

The black dress she wore that evening she was raped by Trump in 1996

In interview after interview I’ve listened to, E. Jean Carroll insists what Trump did to her wasn’t rape because she a fighter. Yesterday, I listened to her on KCRW’s “Press Play,” say to Madeleine Brand that her ex-husband, John Johnson roughed her up and tried strangling her, but she wrote it off as “a passionate marriage.” She said women should get rid of all the men in the world, take them to Montana for ten years, and teach them to be better human beings and partners. She also said, “If I had to think about all of the things men have done to me over my lifetime for more than thirty minutes, I’d lock myself in my house and never leave.” 

Listening in my car, I felt Madeleine Brand becoming as irritated as I was. In order to write a book about her life with men, of course she has to think about all the men in her life for far longer than thirty minutes.

And she has locked locked herself in her house except to promote her memoir. In Jessica Bennett, Megan Twohey and Alexandra Alter’s New York Times piece on E. Jean Carroll, they describe her house in upstate New York, “on what she calls ‘an island’ of secluded forest near the Appalachian Trail. Her home…she shares with a cat named Vagina T. Fireball.” Lisa Chase, her longtime editor calls her house, “part refuge, part fortress, part headquarters,” At one point in the article, the writers note that Carroll wears jumpsuits as a sort of uniform. Carroll says, “Try to get this unzipped...Go ahead! Good luck.” 

She fears rape is something that happens to a passive person, and she keeps saying that she’s “a fighter.” But in her own words in New York Magazine, she says she hadn’t come forward with her encounter with Trump before now because, “I am a coward.” 

As often happens when one is bright and chatty and funny and highly verbal, E. Jean Carroll tricks herself into thinking she’s got it all figured out. She keeps her chin up, doesn’t dwell on the past and gets on with her life. But since that violation in Bergdorf Goodman twenty-three years ago, she tells Madeleine Brand, “The desire for desire is over.” The last sentence in her New York Magazine piece is, “I have never had sex with anybody ever again.”

This is the way people who have been raped often feel, especially if they go untreated. How can someone who built her career on giving women advice about men expect people to heed her advice when she won’t accept her own reality? Her good friend, Lisa Birnbach gave her great advice to report her rape and Carroll fought with her. And How can she possibly start a matchmaking company—Tawkify—in good faith if she truly believes men aren’t necessary, and yet has let them rule her life? 

Perhaps E. Jean Carroll should reframe the word “victim,” and call herself a “survivor.” She thinks she is partially to blame because she showed bad judgement going into that dressing room alone with Donald Trump. I’ve heard the “Men just do these things and it’s naïve for women to think they won’t” excuse before. But he raped her. Can she possibly be saying that she deserved it because she didn’t think things through before telling him to try on lingerie? I can’t believe such a smart woman can be so casual and simplistic about her trauma. No. Men should never assault a woman, in any situation. Ever. And saying that she herself is partly to blame for Trump attacking her, is doing what she dreads the most: making herself a victim, not a heroine. 

Sadly, the more I hear E. Jean Carroll talk, the pluckiness I once admired now sounds immeasurably sad. There is a difference between cheer and false cheer. The tone she tries mimic is a bright, clear chime, but to me it sounds more like church bells tolling mournfully as a funeral procession passes by. E. Jean Carroll thinks she is refusing to disappear under her covers, but she is sticking her head in the sand instead.


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