Three events define the #MeToo era. The first was the release, in October 2016, of the #Pussygate tape, on which presidential candidate Donald Trump was recorded boasting about his seduction technique: “When you’re a star, they let you do it.” A year later, the New York Times published a story about the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual aggression against both A-list actors and junior employees. (He lost his job, but still denies many of the allegations.) In the autumn of 2018, an academic called Christine Blasey Ford testified to a Congressional committee – and the world’s media – that the Republican supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had assaulted her at a drunken college party, in front of a male friend. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” she said. Kavanaugh sobbed openly, lied about small details, and denied the accusation. His nomination was confirmed.
The #MeToo movement has a mixed record, and Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, who broke the Weinstein story, embrace that complexity in She Said. Painstakingly researched, their account is less interested in Weinstein the Monster than the structures that enabled him to flourish.
The story starts with actor Rose McGowan refusing to talk to Kantor. She had publicly alleged that she was raped by a Hollywood producer, but refused to name him. “Here’s the thing, I have been treated quite shabbily by your paper at times and I believe the root of it is sexism,” McGowan wrote in an email. The reporters persisted: the first and best section of this book is an All The President’s Men-style thriller, describing the lead-up to publication. It is a hymn to old-fashioned investigative reporting. Kantor and Twohey trawl through complex document trails, trying to find old non-disclosure agreements. They chase down tips and, more than anything, form relationships with sources, texting them dozens of times a day to coax them on to the record.
The women at the other end of the phone are nervous, and are right to be. It is discovered later that Weinstein was using a security firm, Black Cube, to try to halt the publication of the story. Two agents from Black Cube, using false identities, met McGowan to pump her for information. One of the same agents posed as a Weinstein victim to meet and spy on the reporters.
Everywhere Kantor and Twohey go, women don’t want to speak to them. Their reluctance is not just born of intimidation, but the threat of financial ruin. The journalists gradually realise that Weinstein’s harassment has been covered up through pay-offs, accompanied by gagging clauses. The terms are often absurdly strict, preventing accusers from speaking not just to the media about the allegations, but to their spouses and family. Crucially, the NDAs also prevent accusers from hearing other stories. As Kantor and Twohey finally get through to sources, they hear the same details again and again. The bathrobes. The massages. The pot plant. This unique texture is what makes the Weinstein story ring true: how could so many people invent such similar lies?
The bravest women are not the big names. Of the dozens of actors who later spoke out, only Ashley Judd went on the record in the initial story, when it was truly dangerous to go public. Gwyneth Paltrow helped the reporters behind the scenes, but held back because of her close association with Weinstein – he produced Shakespeare in Love, for which she won the best actress Oscar. She was also afraid of bad publicity because she had recently received a roasting over her wellness website, Goop, which sold $66 jade eggs to put in your vagina. (Kantor and Twohey are too professional to diss their sources, but you detect a note of frustration that the exposure of a serial predator was nearly derailed by Paltrow’s side-hustle.)
The real heroes are women such as Zelda Perkins, a former Miramax assistant who was harassed by Weinstein in 1998. When Perkins learned another woman in the company, Rowena Chiu, had suffered a similar experience, she confronted the producer. He appeared “docile” but his lawyers were ferocious. There was no physical evidence, and so both women were talked into agreeing to a £125,000 settlement. Perkins was not even allowed to keep a copy of the document: she had to see it at her lawyer’s office.
Another Miramax employee, Laura Madden, had a typical story – hotel, bathrobe, masturbation. When the reporters tracked her down, she was a single mother to four children, about to undergo a second mastectomy. She never signed an NDA. She left the film industry. She went on the record straight away.
By definition, everyone with power in modern Hollywood has succeeded within the current toxic, compromising system. No wonder so few wanted to speak out. Some of them must have taken Weinstein’s bathrobe bargain. Others said no and kept quiet about it. Others passed on a warning – don’t be alone with him – and considered their job done.
Sometimes, acquiescence shades into outright villainy. At one point, the Weinstein Company proposes a system of fines to be levied on Harvey every time he has to settle a harassment case. In effect, they are trying to bribe him out of assaulting women. His brother Bob is a key source for Kantor and Twohey, but his late repentance can’t erase his years of complicity. Ditto Irwin Reiter, his accountant – who hands over an internal memo written by a junior female employee accusing Weinstein of harassment. Special mention must be reserved for attorney Lisa Bloom, a longtime advocate for victims’ rights, who appears to have sold her soul for $895 an hour and the promise of a movie deal. In a memo printed here in full, she tells Weinstein, “I feel equipped to help you against the Roses of the world, because I have represented so many of them.” She recommends paying a company to trash McGowan’s Google results, discrediting her as a witness. (Bloom now calls her actions a “colossal mistake”.)
The second section of the book, describing the Kavanaugh hearings, is shorter and less satisfying, because the reporters were less involved. Nonetheless, it vividly depicts the shortcomings of a system that has no way to treat Blasey Ford’s accusations except as a partisan intervention. She needs lawyers, and advisers, to go up against the might of Washington. The Democrats can give them to her. Yet instantly the case becomes less about the truth and more about political point-scoring. Blasey Ford emerges, as she did at the hearings, as deeply impressive, polished and precise. But her story happened long ago, and believing it depends on taking her word over Kavanaugh’s. The saga exposes the brutal binary of such allegations: winner takes all. He wins.
Pussygate. Weinstein. The Kavanaugh hearings. All three incidents pose the same question: what does it take for victims of sexual assault and harassment to be believed? On the evidence of She Said, the answer is a bleak one. It brought back David Simon’s description of juries. “The average juror doesn’t want to spend time contemplating the inconsistencies in a defendant’s statement, or the complex web of testimony that systematically destroys an alibi,” he wrote in his account of the Baltimore criminal justice system, Homicide. “The average juror wants three upstanding citizens to say that they were eyeball witnesses to the crime and another two who can assure them of the killer’s motivation.”
The #MeToo story is about power. Early on, the writers note that by the time their investigation started, Weinstein’s career was already on the slide: he was not knocking out hits as in the early 2000s. This is the missing piece of the puzzle when we try to reconcile his downfall with Trump’s survival. Rich men accused of being sex pests are like banks: they are mostly too big to fail. But when enough investors finally get nervous, the “sell” sign suddenly flicks on. There is an unedifying stampede for the door. You now can’t find anyone in the film industry with a good word to say about Weinstein. He is the Lehman Brothers of groping.
The final section of the book is oddly dissonant. Kantor and Twohey gather a dozen of their sources to share stories and compare the effect on their lives. Paltrow volunteers her home in California, strewn with cushions. The women are bruised, but mostly relieved, to have been heard. Some are struggling financially; one, who spoke about harassment in McDonalds, had recently been made homeless. Paltrow, meanwhile, is troubled by her unwitting complicity in Weinstein’s strategy. She denies having acquiesced to his harassment, but she was the example he used when offering his squalid bargain: don’t you want what she’s got? The ambiguity of her story defines this book.
• Helen Lewis is a staff writer at the Atlantic. Her book Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights is out from Cape in February. She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.