NEW YORK — For two weeks, jurors inside Manhattan Supreme Court heard similar stories from the women who testified in Harvey Weinstein’s rape trial. While no story of alleged sexual assault can be identical or inflict comparable degrees of harm, the pattern for each woman appeared to be the same.
Then Jessica Mann took the stand.
Mann, who testified in graphic detail on Friday about the alleged abuse and manipulation she faced for months, shocked the room and shifted the course of the trial from being about workplace harassment and assault to even more complicated territory — how relationships can be built on abuse.
A former aspiring actor, Mann testified last week that Weinstein forced oral sex on her, raped her, and then manipulated her into a sexually humiliating relationship, which she said included him wanting to film her having sex, urinating on her, and asking if she liked his “big Jewish dick.” On Monday, as she attempted to answer Weinstein’s lawyers' questions on why she continued to stay in touch with the wealthy producer long after the alleged assaults, Mann, sobbing uncontrollably, said she felt like she was having a panic attack and court was adjourned for the day.
Weinstein’s attorney Donna Rotunno suggested that it was Mann who had manipulated Weinstein, using him to further her professional success.
“What attracted you to a friendship, relationship, sexual or professional, with him was the fact that he was successful and powerful, isn’t that right?” she asked. “You enjoyed the power and the parties, isn’t that right?”
“You’re interpreting things in this particular way now, but it’s possible that Harvey just genuinely liked you, right?” Rotunno asked.
None of Mann’s responses appeared to satisfy Rotunno. Mann testified that she craved the validation that Weinstein had provided — but fundamentally, Mann appeared to be trying to salvage a career and personhood out of the wreckage of her relationship with Weinstein. Rotunno cast this as her being manipulative and disingenuous — but the transaction between Mann, a young woman who grew up in a trailer park on a dairy farm, and Weinstein, a powerful film producer, had never been a fair one to begin with.
Assistant District Attorney Meghan Hast once described Mann as Weinstein’s “rag doll,” and from the beginning of the trial, it was always clear that Mann would be central to the prosecution’s case. Some of this was technical: Of the six women testifying against him, the charges of sexual assault depend on the testimonies of two women — Mimi Haleyi and Mann. Annabella Sciorra’s account will be used to establish a predatory pattern, and the accounts of three other women — Dawn Dunning, Tarale Wulff, and Lauren Young — will be used to prove that Weinstein has a history of “prior bad acts.”
Sciorra, Dunning, and Wulff’s testimonies, while differing in degrees of assault, have so far followed a pattern: At the time of their alleged assaults, the women were young, relatively new to the entertainment industry — several of them working odd jobs to make ends meet — and lacking power of the kind Weinstein wielded. After they were allegedly assaulted, sometimes more than once, they occasionally ran into Weinstein at industry events or sent him emails looking for work. Ultimately, the women all broke off contact with him.
In contrast, Mann, the youngest of the women to testify thus far, has talked about something far more complicated — a long, drawn-out relationship with her alleged rapist. Through the course of her testimony, Mann has transformed the trial and possibly the public perception of Weinstein forever. The contours of the case have moved beyond a conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace to the difficulty of proving abuse in otherwise consensual relationships (the conviction rates for which in the US are still abysmally low). The perception of Weinstein — thanks to the grotesque details in Mann’s testimony — have led much of the news around the case to become fixated on the sheer physical horror of her alleged encounters.
Some of the more sensational coverage of Mann’s testimony focused on her description of his “deformed” body. The risk is that he is seen as even more monstrous — that he can no longer be taken as symptomatic of the problem with men in power, because he is no longer just a man, but something other.
The other danger of reducing Mann’s testimony to its goriest details is that it becomes easier for Weinstein’s lawyers to ask the question that hangs over every survivor of abuse in a relationship: Why didn’t she just leave? Who would stay with a man so vile? With a man who treated her so badly?
Mann’s cross-examination in court Monday made apparent the gap in understanding the answer to this question when it is posed to the survivor of an abusive relationship. To someone on the outside, who can see the contours and imbalance of power with clear eyes, the choice between self-preservation and self-destruction is obvious. But to the person locked inside that stranglehold of abuse, survival — emotional, physical, and financial — often appears to be inextricably linked to appeasing their abuser.
In 2014, the activist Beverly Gooden, who started the hashtag #WhyIStayed on Twitter, wrote: “Leaving was a process, not an event. And sometimes it takes a while to navigate through the process.”
According to Mann’s testimony, this process of leaving appeared to be endless — and if Weinstein’s attorneys were to be believed, it was utterly unconvincing.
“Why did you continue to have a relationship with him?” prosecutor Joan Illuzzi-Orbon asked Mann last week, hoping to prepare her for the inevitable onslaught of similar questions from the defense.
“There are a lot of layers to that question,” Mann said, repeating through her testimony that while she was never sexually or physically attracted to Weinstein, she had complicated feelings for him. Mann said that she’d “given up a lot to be in LA” and that she saw Weinstein’s interest in her as a sign that God was “blessing” her “for committing to myself, committing to my dreams.”
After the first time he assaulted her, she said she attempted to have a relationship with him to work through her confusion.
“When I would feel hurt or anger, I would just stifle it and look for the good … he could be the most charming, informative person,” she said. "He could lift you up to anyone he introduced you to and then behind closed doors it would be dependent upon if I gave him what he wanted.”
This thin line between compliance and consent, a sexual negotiation that took place between two people with vastly different amounts of power in the world — a young woman raised on a dairy farm and a Hollywood mogul — is something prosecutors have tried hard to prove Weinstein was aware of, and relied on to manipulate Mann.
As their relationship grew, Mann said, so did her confusion. “I felt panicked because I had this dynamic with Harvey where I always had to jump and obey. The abuse was unpredictable.” Describing the multiple instances of alleged sexual assault, which Weinstein’s lawyers attempted to characterize as consensual, Mann said: “After a long negotiation, I would put on a face and engage in what I thought of role-play. I didn’t think he could have actual sex, so we would create a fantasy in which he would get to feel like he was having actual sex,” Mann said. “Oftentimes before something sexual happened, he would negotiate. We would get in this back-and-forth about it, I would try to make excuses, and at a certain point I would give in, like he would agree to just masturbate while holding me.”
No person reading this should imagine this is a description of what consensual sexual encounters look like — and yet that is precisely the defense that Weinstein’s lawyers are trying to mount. “Can we envision a situation where somebody like Harvey Weinstein who does have power, people want things from him?” Damon Cheronis, one of Weinstein's lawyers, asked in his opening arguments. “It does not sit well with us, but that is the reality.”
The fundamentally unequal terms of this reality is at the heart of Weinstein’s trial — in which a Hollywood megaproducer, who was once described as “God” at the Golden Globes, can claim that it was he who was manipulated, by women who hoped someday, maybe, to land a role that could help pay their rent.