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E. Jean Carroll lawyers reject Team Trump's 'perfect' rape victim trope

The truth, Carroll's lawyer argued, is weird; only fiction, he implied, is as tidy as Joe Tacopina’s trope about victims.


UPDATE (May 9, 2023, 3:31 p.m. ET): A jury on Tuesday found Donald Trump liable for sexually abusing and defaming E. Jean Carroll. The jury awarded her $5 million in damages.

Monday marked the end of E. Jean Carroll’s civil rape and defamation case against former President Donald Trump, and despite Trump’s vow last week to “confront” Carroll, that promised showdown never happened. And as is their right in a civil case, Carroll’s team made much of the elephant who ghosted the room. 

As Carroll’s lawyer Michael Ferrara asserted just before ending his rebuttal argument, “This was never going to be a ‘he said, she said’ case; we had too many witnesses for that. But now, at the end of this trial, we see there wasn’t even ‘he said,’ because Donald Trump never looked you in the eye and denied it.”

So in the absence of any live Trump testimony, much less any witnesses of their own, how did Team Trump attempt to win over the jury? By collecting up and dishing out a litany of reasons to disbelieve Carroll’s narrative that Trump raped her in a department store dressing room in Manhattan in the mid-1990s. 

Trump’s lawyers noted the fact that no one else was on the sixth floor of Bergdorf Goodman, New York’s premiere luxury department store, when Trump allegedly raped Carroll. They also pointed out that Carroll said most people think of rape as “sexy” during a 2019 interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. And that she never screamed or filed a police report or even talked about the alleged assault for 20-plus years, causing even the first friend to whom she allegedly confided in about the incident, Lisa Birnbach, to forget it even happened until election night in 2016.

They also noted that Carroll’s other friend in whom she confided the alleged assault within days, Carol Martin, wrote her an email in September 2017 attaching a New Yorker piece mocking “Orange Crush” and imploring Carroll to “scheme” with her and “do [their] patriotic duty again.” And that Martin, four-plus years later, texted a friend to vent that Carroll was turning the “transaction” into a “lifestyle” and was celebrating something that hadn’t even really happened yet, which Tacopina interpreted as an admission that the assault was itself manufactured by Carroll and her Trump-hating sidekicks, Birnbach and Martin.

But on rebuttal, Ferrara countered these supposed reasons to dismiss Carroll’s story: Trump not only lacked the respect for our justice system to show up in person, look the jury in the eye, and deny the alleged assault, but more fundamentally, Ferrara said, Trump’s team is asking the jury to accept the outdated, out-of-touch archetype of a “perfect” rape victim.

Ferrara elaborated: To Trump’s team, the perfect rape victim — and by implication, the only believable rape victim — never flirts, always screams, dutifully reports her rape to police, and then suffers quietly, never again finding personal happiness or professional success.

The truth, Ferrara maintained, is weird; only fiction, he implied, is as tidy as Tacopina’s trope about victims.

But we don’t, as a society, assume that someone who loses a loved one and moves on never loved the person who passed. And neither, Ferrara argued, should we believe that a rape victim who enjoys parties, celebrates with friends, or regains professional footing is malingering.

Therefore, the jury shouldn’t conclude Carroll was not credible because her own behavior failed to adhere to Tacopina’s all-or-nothing fallacy, Ferrara pressed. Carroll, who their psychological expert called “resilient,” simultaneously experienced joy in the years after her alleged assault and endured trauma, through intrusive, involuntary memories of the incident and her inability to form, much less sustain, intimate relationships with men, Carrol’s team argued. That doesn’t make her any less a real victim, Ferrara urged the jury.

That she shopped again at Bergdorf doesn’t mean she wasn’t raped there. That she allegedly laughed, as opposed to screaming, after Trump allegedly kissed and shoved her against the dressing room wall doesn’t disqualify her story. It doesn’t even matter that, as Carroll testified, she was a “fan” of “The Apprentice,” the reality TV show in which contestants competed to work for Trump. The truth, Ferrara maintained, is weird; only fiction, he implied, is as tidy as Tacopina’s trope about victims.

In part, this should be unsurprising. After all, the reporting that unleashed #MeToo and the stories that tumbled out in its wake exposed America to a more nuanced understanding of survivors — as opposed to the retro, simplistic victim paradigm Tacopina offered. But whether the jury of six men and three women accepts this more complicated account of how women process sexual assault is the essence of Carroll’s legal fight.

Even in New York City and its suburbs, do we as a society really get it? We’re about to find out.