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The Lasting Harm: Witnessing the Trial of Ghislaine Maxwell by Lucia Osborne-Crowley review – a voice for the powerless

The Lasting Harm: Witnessing the Trial of Ghislaine Maxwell by Lucia Osborne-Crowley review – a voice for the powerless

At the heart of Lucia Osborne-Crowley’s account of the Ghislaine Maxwell trial, The Lasting Harm, is a question about who is permitted to speak on the subject of sexual, particularly childhood, abuse. Osborne-Crowley is the author of two previous books, I Choose Elena and My Body Keeps Your Secrets, both of which examine the ongoing trauma of her childhood grooming by a sports coach, and a violent rape by a stranger at 15. This, then, is the indelible experience she brings to her court reporting on this most sensitive of issues, and she takes pains to clarify what that means at the outset:

“I have been accused many times of being a biased journalist because of my history of abuse. To that I say: yes, I am biased. Everybody is, whether we own it or not.” She goes on to say, “the journalists I met at the Maxwell trial – mostly men in their 40s – who did not have any experience of sexual trauma are also biased. These issues have never affected their lives and so they subscribe to a patriarchal, societal and defensive narrative”; one that does not, she argues, take into account the pervasive effects of trauma and shame on victims, particularly when it comes to speaking up about the crimes.

Later, once the guilty verdict is in, this question rears up again, after Osborne-Crowley secures an interview with one of the jurors, who tells her of his own childhood abuse – an experience he did not disclose in advance but which he shared in the jury room, and which, for several weeks, threatens to derail the outcome as the defence files a motion for a retrial.

Osborne-Crowley devotes a chapter to interviews with a selection of legal and psychological experts to determine whether there is any basis for believing that survivors of abuse are less likely to be fair or impartial jurors in similar cases. If one study suggests that survivors show greater empathy with victims, the converse must also be true: that those without that experience are less likely to be sympathetic, proving the author’s point about bias. Another expert tells her: “The truth is that we apply a separate set of rules and standards to victims of sexual violence throughout the whole criminal justice process.”

The Maxwell trial took place at the end of 2021 in New York, with just four seats available to journalists in the press gallery. For the duration, Osborne-Crowley got up at 1.30am to stand in line until the courthouse opened, to be sure that one of those seats would be hers; for almost five weeks she sat “a foot away” from Maxwell while her victims were questioned. Despite this proximity, Maxwell exists as a shadowy figure in the courtroom sections, a constant presence who is also a notable absence. She doesn’t speak until the verdict, and speech attributed to her at the time of the abuse is taken from the testimony of the women.

Osborne-Crowley walks a fine line with this approach. She intercuts the 2021 narrative, her eyewitness account, with chapters set in the 90s and 00s in which she partially dramatises the stories told by the four women, Jane, Annie, Kate and Carolyn. You can understand the reason for this as an authorial choice: she wants the reader to see the scared and vulnerable teenagers pressured into situations they did not have the resources to escape. But the very act of reconstructing scenes that the author did not witness has the effect of making these episodes feel one step removed from reportage and closer to true-crime drama.

The reliability of memory is central to the trial, and in an impassioned section later in the book, Osborne-Crowley argues persuasively that every case of this nature should feature impartial evidence from experts on the neuroscientific advances in understanding of PTSD and trauma memory, so that a victim’s failure to recall exact detail could be better understood as proof of trauma rather than proof of lying. She also makes the case for removing the statute of limitations on childhood abuse, and for changing the rules around defamation suits, which are increasingly used to intimidate victims and reporters into silence.

The Lasting Harm makes for painful reading, and the author is frank about what the process cost her personally – two stints in a trauma clinic as her immersion in the details of Jeffrey Epstein and Maxwell’s crimes triggers her own memories. She is unequivocal about the purpose of her work – she quotes the investigative journalist Julie K Brown, who says “journalism is about giving a voice to the powerless”, and in this, Osborne-Crowley has succeeded admirably. The fact that none of Epstein’s male associates has yet been held to account suggests that there is a long way to go.

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Source: theguardian.com