Column: The bravery of Jennifer Siebel Newsom facing Harvey Weinstein — and facing us all
Jennifer Siebel Newsom did not have to testify against Harvey Weinstein. But Monday, she did — reminding us that sexual assault carries its own kind of life sentence for victims.
Siebel Newsom took the stand in the downtown Los Angeles courtroom where Weinstein faces charges of multiple sex crimes only a few minutes before court stopped for a lunch break. But in those few minutes, her pain and humiliation seeped out of a wound still open, 17 years after it was inflicted.
Asked if she could identify Weinstein, she began to cry. Later in the day, in detail heartbreaking, explicit and profound in its ugliness, she described Weinstein raping her in a Los Angeles hotel room in 2005. It was an encounter “like an out-of-body experience,” she said, that left her frozen and “trying to process what happened.”
For those of you whipping out your phones to email me that she’s acting, that she kept in touch with her accused rapist, that she did this or that which proves her a willing participant in her own victimization — please don’t bother. I’ve heard it in literally every sexual assault case I have ever covered. In the many years I’ve done this, I’ve never come across a single instance in which someone wasn’t willing to argue, “She asked for it.”
No one asks to be raped, and honestly, I shouldn’t need to say that. But every victim who testifies in a court of law is forced to relive their trauma, and to have the rest of us pick apart their decisions and motivations like carrion on roadkill — a sickening but predictable price for justice.
That secondary assault started before Siebel Newsom raised her hand and swore to tell the truth. In the opening days of the trial, Weinstein’s lawyer Mark Werksman described her as “just another bimbo who slept with Harvey Weinstein to get ahead in Hollywood.”
Werksman went on to describe all the women testifying against Weinstein as having to “lie to themselves ... to make what they did consensually back then seem like it was forced upon them.”
Which makes Siebel Newsom’s testimony all the more brave, and all the more significant, not just for this trial, but for every woman who has been assaulted. Siebel Newsom could have dodged this, refused to enter that courthouse. The trial would have gone on without her, and she could have remained a quiet footnote in this Greek tragedy of hubris and corrupted power.
Instead, she chose not only to face Weinstein but to face us all.
As the spouse of the governor of the largest and most controversial state in the nation, everything she testifies to will become part of a very public legacy that is going to follow her and Newsom into future political campaigns, especially as he seeks an ever-larger national profile. Regardless of what else she has accomplished or will accomplish, there will be few stories about her that don’t mention this moment, whatever the final outcome may be. As a mom, she will someday likely be asked by her children to explain what all this meant, and didn’t.
She will never escape the truths she tells on that stand. And no matter how strong she is, it’s going to hurt.
I’ve seen the toll that telling a sexual assault story publicly takes on women who aren’t in the spotlight, having the details be part of every Google search of your name. Imagine that amplified by fame, and every person you meet knowing intimate details of your worst moment.
There are, of course, many brave women who spoke out against the odds to bring Weinstein to justice. And there are the journalists who doggedly went after the story — including New York Times reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, whose reporting helped spark the #MeToo movement and the film “She Said.”
But as the spouse of the governor, Siebel Newsom has an unusual burden. In 2017, she wrote an essay for the Huffington Post that alluded to the crimes that she is now testifying about. In it, she wrote that we need more people in positions of influence and prominence willing to call out sexual abuse.
“Imagine that world for our kids,” she wrote. “Where there are enough of us standing proudly and loudly for what is right that the injustices do not happen in the first place.”
Siebel Newsom’s testimony, which continues Tuesday, isn’t going to fix the world or end the patriarchy. But by using her considerable clout to speak out, she takes us one small step closer to a place where “She asked for it” isn’t somehow a universally valid response to a rape accusation.
And if my kids ask what it means to see the first partner of California testify about her rape, I’ll tell them it means no woman is safe.
But we are not helpless, and having the courage to speak truth to those who commit violence upon us is a powerful weapon — especially in the hands of a powerful woman.
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