The Bravery of E. Jean Carroll

"Hideous Men" is difficult to read. You need to read it.

I’m writing this on late Sunday night, two days after the publication of “Hideous Men,” an excerpt from E. Jean Carroll’s forthcoming book What Do We Need Men For? You have almost certainly heard about this essay, in which Carroll details a sexual assault by Donald Trump which she says occurred in either 1995 or 1996. I believe she’s telling the truth about that, and I also believe she’s telling the truth about all the other men in this essay—which, in its entirety, is one of the most harrowing illustrations I’ve read in recent years of the pervasiveness of what’s often referred to as rape culture.

If you’ve read the essay, you know what I mean: Carroll describes a world in which males, from a pre-adolescent boy to a college date to a prospective employer to a rich asshole in a Manhattan department store (and I’m leaving some out), all feel free to molest her with impunity, confident they’ll never be called to account for their actions.

But the essay is more than a list of things that were done to Carroll. She also meticulously considers how she handled herself in the moment for each of those incidents, and how she’s continued to regard them over the decades—why she never spoke up, why she at times even assumed the burden not to get herself into similar situations. She knows what the consequences of speaking publicly about being a sexual assault victim are. She especially knows the consequences of speaking publicly about being the victim of a sexual assault perpetrated by Donald Trump.

Knowing all that, she came forward anyway.

Last summer, I shared a quote from the Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen, which I’m going to share again now:

Writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us. The writing itself reveals to us what is alive in us… To write is to embark on a journey whose final destination we do not know. Thus, writing requires a real act of trust. We have to say to ourselves: “I do not yet know what I carry in my heart, but I trust that it will emerge as I write.”

You can see this, I think, throughout E. Jean Carroll’s essay. She admits at the onset that, when she started writing, “I was not sure” what she would end up writing about, that it took “almost two years of drawing and redrawing my list” before she knew for sure which moments from her life she’d draw upon. She even acknowledges, in the middle of describing the assault by Trump, “I am astonished by what I’m about to write.”

Nevertheless, she presses forward. This is the truth she has to share with the world. One of the kneejerk responses to Carroll’s essay, even from people who professed sympathy for her, was: “Why did it take her so long to tell us this?” Because that’s how long it took for her to be able to tell it, that’s why. Did she not deal with her trauma in a timely enough manner for you? Oh, gee, how inconsiderate of her.

I repeat myself, but: This is an essay about being a woman who has been sexually assaulted over and over again throughout her life. An essay about living in a world where sexual assault is a persistent reality, and about recognizing how her life has been shaped by that reality. About processing her responses to those sexual assaults, and about knowing what the world would make of her if she had come forward about any of those assaults… what many people, starting with Trump, are still trying to make of her now that she has.

In some ways, it seems facile for me to say that “Hideous Men” is a brave piece of writing. And yet that’s exactly what it is. It was brave of Carroll to consider writing this. It was brave of her to spend two years grappling with it. And it was brave of her to share it with the world when it was done.

If you haven’t done so already, you can honor that bravery by reading “Hideous Men” with an open mind and an open heart. It is not an easy read. But I strongly recommend that you take the time to read it, and sit with it, and allow yourself to learn from it.