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“Traumatizing from the Get-Go”: Weinstein Trial Exposes Flawed Approach to Sexual Assault Cases

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We continue our conversation about the trial of alleged sexual predator Harvey Weinstein, ahead of the scheduled start of opening arguments today. Weinstein is facing five felony charges, based on accusations brought forth by two women in the case, and, if convicted, could face up to life in prison. Last week, one of his accusers, Jessica Mann, broke down and went into an apparent panic attack during questioning from Weinstein’s lawyers, forcing the judge to adjourn proceedings for the day. Mann was made to read past emails to a boyfriend, in which she disclosed she had been sexually assaulted before meeting Weinstein. She accuses Weinstein of raping her in New York and Los Angeles and said she had an “extremely degrading” relationship with him.

We speak with Louise Godbold, the executive director of Echo, which provides training to trauma survivors and those who support them. The organization is hosting a conference for trauma survivors, including Weinstein survivors, next month called “And Still We Rise,” a reference to the Maya Angelou poem.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Louise Godbold, who’s executive director of Echo, which provides training to trauma survivors and those who support them. The organization is hosting a conference for trauma survivors, including survivors of Weinstein, next month called “And Still We Rise.” Godbold wrote a blog post titled “My Encounter with Harvey Weinstein and What It Tells Us About Trauma.”

Louise Godbold, it’s great to have you back. The first time we had you on talking about your experience and also focusing on trauma, and today that’s what we want to focus on, this issue of trauma and how trauma victims respond. We just talked to Clara Chan about Jessica Mann’s testimony and how she broke down as she was being questioned by the Weinstein attorneys, having a kind of anxiety attack, and the judge had to end the case at that point, you know, just to give her space and then move on. Talk about that response.

LOUISE GODBOLD: Well, it’s hardly surprising, is it? Because, unfortunately, the way that sexual assault cases are prosecuted in the criminal justice system, it’s traumatizing from the get-go, having to tell your story multiple times. The neurons in your brain, they fire when you’re remembering something, in the same way as if you’re actually experiencing it. And, of course, we know the difference. We know the difference between reality and remembering. But the body is going to react as if you were still under that same threat. You’re still going to have that release of stress hormones. And over a long period of time, that is really detrimental to your health. And so, if you think about it, your most frazzled moment, that’s what’s being repeated again and again and again.

And the abuse that Jessica suffered at the hands of Harvey — the poor girl, my heart really went out to her. So, what you saw in the witness box was really a culmination of a series of retraumatizing experiences. I know a couple of the people who have testified in the trial. And of course they didn’t sleep the night before. And the, on top of all that, you have a hostile defense team who are throwing at you all of the worst possible motivations for your behavior and all of the names that some horrible voice in your own head has actually condemned you with.

AMY GOODMAN: You do not like the term “accusers,” Louise. Explain why.

LOUISE GODBOLD: Well, it just makes us sound like a bunch of harridans, you know, standing around pointing bony fingers. The truth is that if we were reporting something like having our purse snatched, we wouldn’t be called the “purse snatch accusers.” It seems to be a different standard when we’re talking about sexual assault, and especially when we’re talking about rich and famous men who everyone is scared of.

AMY GOODMAN: And if you can talk about the approach of the Weinstein lawyers and the fact that Harvey Weinstein will not be testifying?

LOUISE GODBOLD: I am not a legal specialist, so I can’t really say what that means and ascribe any significance to that one way or the other.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask you a question more specifically. The Weinstein defense is pointing to the fact that these women kept in touch with Harvey Weinstein after their alleged attacks, in an effort to discredit them. Talk about that — certainly, in the case of Jessica Mann and others.

LOUISE GODBOLD: I think it’s really egregious, the multiple motivations that people are ascribing to victims’ behaviors. But here’s what makes sense. And this is not speculation; this is from talking to survivors, Harvey survivors. When the worst has happened, you try and mitigate the damage. And Harvey held the key to the kingdom. And you do not want to have suffered sexual assault and then not be able to succeed in your chosen career. So it makes sense that — there’s nothing you can do, the worst has happened — you will try and make nice just to make sure that you don’t lose everything.

And from a trauma perspective, there’s two other factors I’d like to talk about. One is the fourth survival response, which is rarely mentioned. We have fight and flight and freeze, but there’s also appease. And in women, we produce oxytocin, which is the tend and befriend or love hormone, under toxic stress. In fact, they did a study with abused teenage girls and found that they had a much higher level of oxytocin, which was counterintuitive to what we had always known about trauma and toxic stress. So, the effect of that oxytocin in your body, which is the same thing that gets released when a woman gives birth or during orgasm, is to bond you. And we call that trauma bonding, or you may know it as the Stockholm syndrome. So you’ve also got a biological imperative that’s going on there, and then a psychological imperative called re-enactment. You try and create the same situation and get a better ending, which makes a lot of sense to me. For example, Jessica, I know, came from a very religious background, and it must have made sense to her to try and put what happened in the context of a relationship. But clearly, as Harvey was so abusive, she couldn’t even sustain that fiction in her head.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the cover of New York magazine, this very dramatic cover. The headline was “100 Women vs. Harvey Weinstein.” And it’s women all dressed in black — you are one of these women — arm in arm. Can you talk about the making of this and the message that this sends, Louise Godbold?

LOUISE GODBOLD: It was an incredibly powerful experience. And thank God for that, because we are powerful, resilient women. We have bonded together and formed a sisterhood. And that’s what I would really like to see celebrated. I resist the handwringing victim that we’re often portrayed as. I think this was a brilliant depiction of our strength, of our unity and of our defiance in the face of so many people who would shut us up.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the suggestion of false memories, Louise?

LOUISE GODBOLD: Oh, that one’s hysterical. Everybody in the trauma field is killing themselves laughing, because it was such a misrepresentation of the research that’s been done. First of all, trauma memory is stored in a different part of your brain than where you usually store memories. It’s stored in the amygdala, the fear center of the brain. So, it’s a very fragmented memory, because this part of the brain is not designed to store memory. So that’s why you have vivid flashbacks, for example. But what is lacking is that kind of chronological, coherent narrative, we call it, that you would have in normal memory. And so people remember different bits and pieces at different times. That’s quite normal. But nobody ever creates an entire, entire false memory. And the research that was being discussed is really within a laboratory setting, where, yes, somebody can be convinced that they remember a word that was on a list that they just read, but we’re not talking about entire memories.

AMY GOODMAN: Louise, you’re holding a conference of Harvey Weinstein survivors and others. Talk about what you hope to accomplish in March in Los Angeles, where the next trial, by the way, is going to be taking place, the next rape trial against Harvey Weinstein after this one.

LOUISE GODBOLD: It is a celebration. It’s not just Weinstein survivors. Obviously I know a lot of Weinstein survivors. But we have Cosby survivors, R. Kelly survivors, Trump survivors, you name it. We have a survivor of #AidToo, someone who is suing the NYPD and Lyft right now, after gang rape. We have a lot of very high-profile trauma survivors, who have all benefited from learning about trauma and resilience, and they want to give back. Our audience is usually 80% women of color, often people with very limited resources. So we’re putting on this conference to share knowledge and skills that we have gained as trauma survivors and experts within our various fields. And the idea is to inspire other trauma survivors to step into their power and voice.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Louise Godbold, executive director of Echo, which provides training to trauma survivors and those who support them. Louise Godbold wrote a blog post titled “My Encounter with Harvey Weinstein and What It Tells Us About Trauma.” And thank you so much to J. Clara Chan, a media and politics reporter at The Wrap, where she’s been covering the Weinstein trial extensively. Thanks so much for stopping by before you head down for closing arguments in the Manhattan courtroom today.

When we come back, we go to Canada, where major anti-pipeline protests have broken out across the country in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en land defenders fighting TransCanada’s 400-mile Coastal GasLink pipeline. Stay with us.

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