[Content warning: assault]
Much ink has been spilled over the concept of “gaslighting” to the point of nearly rendering the term meaningless. Mitch McConnell is gaslighting the Democrats on the stimulus bill; Donald Trump is gaslighting America. We are all gaslit now, all the time. Last year, Lauren Theisen wrote an excellent piece in Deadspin (RIP beloved Deadspin) explaining why most usages of the term “gaslight” in political discourse don’t make sense (the word “lie,” Theisen points out, is usually more accurate). To overuse “gaslight” is to cheapen its meaning, and its hideous, long-lasting effects.
Gaslighting, in psychological terms, is when someone tries to convince you that your experience of reality is incorrect. You are told that an event which occurred, which you know occurred, which you remember vividly and horribly occurring…didn’t actually happen at all. The fragmented details that you remember—some sharp as broken glass, some blurry as a bad photograph—are wrong. Your memory is wrong. You are wrong. Acts of gaslighting can seem, on their own, relatively minor, but the cumulative psychological damage is often horrific. After all, if you’re wrong about this event that you know occurred, then maybe you’re wrong about a lot, maybe everything. What else do you misremember? Who else have you falsely accused? Can you even trust your perceptions at all? Maybe the horrible event in your memory is sort of real, but exaggerated. Maybe it did happen, but it was really your fault. Maybe you made it all up, you stupid bitch.
Very often, gaslighting follows after incidents of assault and harassment like an infection in a wound. Sometimes, it can arguably be worse than the event itself; it helps keep the injury open, unable to heal. This is the point in the essay where I am supposed to tell you all about my own experiences of harassment, abuse, and gaslighting. As a woman writer, I am required to spill my guts so you can do haruspicy on them and discover if I’ve had the appropriately titillating experiences, and the acceptably tragic credentials. But I don’t feel like talking about myself today. And in none of the situations can I prove what happened, for any of the discrete events I have endured. I can offer no witnesses except myself.
Tara Reade has witnesses—multiple people she told, contemporaneously, about her experiences of being sexually harassed and assaulted by Joe Biden in 1993. As many people have pointed out ad nauseam, Reade has more corroboration than Christine Blasey Ford ever did, when she accused federal appellate judge Brett Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her when they were both teenagers in 1982. (In her testimony before Congress, Blasey Ford said, “I had never told the details to anyone, the specific details, until May 2012 during a Couple’s Counseling session.”)
But frankly, it doesn’t fucking matter. It didn’t matter for Blasey Ford; people didn’t believe her, and Kavanaugh was nominated to the highest court in the land. There could be live video evidence of Joe Biden assaulting Tara Reade, taken by some 1990s CCTV camera, and many critics would simply peruse it like the Zapruder film. What was she wearing? What was her body language? Heels, but no stockings? Uh-huh, you know what THAT means. Meeting him alone like that, a powerful man? I mean, what did she think would happen?
What’s at issue here isn’t Truth, or Facts. It’s the old feminist question of whether women are people. My colleague Nathan J. Robinson has done a heroic job of trying to support Tara Reade and make sure her story gets heard. Nathan’s a nice man, but he’s still a man, and he’s naively convinced that if people just hear the truth they will understand that Joe Biden may in fact be a rapist, and then justice will somehow be done. (In 2016, Nathan also thought the release of the “pussy tape” would be enough to sink Trump’s campaign. Oh well.) I have told Nathan on multiple occasions that while his efforts to help Tara Reade are certainly chivalrous, they’re ultimately going to be useless, because too few people fucking give a shit.
Everybody already knows that Joe Biden is a notorious creep. It’s a punchline. The Daily Show joked about his gropery in 2015. Former Nevada Assemblywoman Lucy Flores has written that Biden planted a “long slow kiss” on her against her will. Female Secret Service agents complained that he swam naked in front of them even though it made them uncomfortable. Many people have known about Biden’s behavior for years, and they don’t care, because this country doesn’t care about women. It pretends to, sometimes, for political convenience, or for the occasional photo op. In photo ops, on multiple occasions, Joe Biden has sniffed the hair of women and little girls. There’s plenty of photographic and video evidence of this. At least seven women beside Tara Reade have accused Biden of inappropriate behavior. The problem isn’t that people aren’t AWARE. Most people are well aware. It’s just not important to them.
Most of the time, there’s no reward for telling the truth. It’s much safer to lie. It’s much easier to equivocate, and tease apart actions until they are entirely free of context, and say “well-why-didn’t-she-just”—as if we all do, at all times, everything that we just should. Incidentally, this is a common thread you may find both in news articles and in arts criticism; a certain distaste for people acting like people, rather than how they should. Many of us do not want people to be people. And in particular, we do not want women to be people. Men in both art and life can be “flawed”—and their flaws are admirable, they make men “complex.” Women do not get to be complex, although our bodies, lives, happiness, careers, and psychological integrity are considered reasonable sacrifices for the maintenance of this supposed masculine “complexity,” which as far as I can tell is something like a machine that turns men into a sheet of behavioral quirks that can be stamped “forgiven.” Biden’s family died. He likes ice cream. He’s Obama’s friend! He’s forgiven.
Women are not only uncomplex and unforgiven; we are in fact automatically presumed guilty. We are permanent potential sites of other people’s guilt, and the ruination of their (but not our) lives. Working women, from hotel maids to factory workers to nannies to actresses to Senate staffers, are expected to conduct themselves as if they might, at any moment, be harassed and assaulted. If they fail in their sacred duty to protect their honor from harassment and assault, then they might have to flay themselves open and display their wounds for an audience (whether a manager or HR or the public) who will examine every detail with a microscope for imperfections, greeting every painful peeling back of tissue with the “well-why-didn’t-you-justs” of the comfortably righteous.
The reluctance to report that so many women experience tells you a lot about the horror of reporting. Assault and harassment generally happen in private, or in a closed environment where any eyewitnesses that might exist would be complicit or afraid to come forward. This is not an accident. Harassers and abusers generally do what they can get away with. According to Reade, Biden escalated his behavior from “basically put[ting] his hands on me, put[ting] his hands on my shoulder, run[ning] his fingers on my neck” to full-on digital penetration. This is a common behavior known as “grooming.” It’s a way of pushing boundaries, seeing what can be allowed, what the victim—this nonperson without agency—can be forced to accept. In some ways, the escalation from touching to penetration resembles a seduction. This too is deliberate, and is done for the sake of plausible deniability. She didn’t stop me when I did x, or y; that means she wanted it, or rather that means she’ll never be able to prove she DIDN’T want it.
Tara Reade is a human being, not a perfect victim, or a perfect person. Her typing style is classic boomer cringe. She kept a silly blog in which she praised Putin. Sometimes, she gets into Twitter arguments with disingenuous people whom she’d be better off ignoring. She wants to be believed, despite all the people who have a lot of money and potential career advancement riding on her not being believed. She’s received death threats, as Blasey Ford did, as women who accuse powerful men almost invariably do. Tara Reade is a hell of a lot braver than most of us.
The people who are not brave, who are cowardly gaslighting assholes, are people like former prosecutor Michael J. Stern. In a widely circulated op-ed for USA Today (I know, they have content besides ads and easy crosswords, I was shocked too), Stern insists he was reluctant to write the column, claiming “I do not want it to be used as a guidebook to dismantling legitimate allegations of sexual assault.” It’s really a shame that USA Today put a gun to Stern’s head and forced him to write this column, because many of his arguments—written in the kind of dispassionate “I’m just doing Upholding The Law” prose that has ruined countless lives—make it essentially impossible for other sexual assault and harassment survivors to be taken seriously.
Ah, but Stern casts himself as a heroic defender of #MeToo. The subhead of his op-ed reads, “If we must blindly accept every allegation of sexual assault, the #MeToo movement is just a hit squad. And it’s too important to be no more than that.” Interestingly enough, just last year Stern produced a different column in defense of Biden called “Living with other people means accepting some unwanted touching—and Joe Biden.” In the column, he suggested that the #MeToo movement was going too far (he’s for it, he insists, just not too much) when assault allegations “demand we assess the propriety of every physical contact by the feelings of the person touched.” I’m not saying that if you saw Michael J. Stern on the street that you should flick him on the back of the head, and then tell him that his feelings about the propriety of the action are invalid; I’m just saying it would be an interesting experiment, in theory. As a defender of #MeToo who really believes in the importance of the movement, but also believes that living with other people requires some unwanted touching, I’m sure he’d understand you testing the boundaries.
Without further ado, let’s run through Stern’s terrible, gaslighting arguments one by one, and if there’s anything left of him and his career by the end of it, we’ll launch it into the sun.
1. Reade “delayed reporting…twice.”
Stern cites the fact that “Reade waited 27 years to publicly report her allegation that Biden sexually assaulted her.” Others have also criticized the “timing,” wondering why Reade is coming out “now.”
The most concise way to answer this would be in the form of an Onion headline: “People Who Consistently Tear Women Apart When They Report Sexual Assault Surprised That Women Delay Reporting Sexual Assault.”
Extensive delays in publicly reporting serious cases of abuse are very common, especially when the abuser is a prominent person. Blasey Ford waited 36 years to accuse Kavanaugh. Leigh Corfman, who accused former judge and politician Roy Moore of assaulting her when she was 14 years old, waited 38 years to come forward. According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, “it is important to remember why victims of sexual assault, especially when victimized by celebrities, wait to report, if they choose to report at all… Victims often struggle with fears that other people will judge, blame and disbelieve them.”
Reade has come forward, and people don’t believe her. She has, as I mentioned above, received death threats. The same thing happens to most women who accuse powerful men of sexual assault. In his op-ed, Stern himself admits that survivors often keep their stories secret for years. “I understand that victims of sexual assault often do not come forward immediately because recounting the most violent and degrading experience of their lives, to a bunch of strangers, is the proverbial insult to injury,” he writes.
But Reade did not keep it “secret” for 27 years. She didn’t tell strangers, because telling strangers can be awful, as Stern says. Instead, she told multiple friends and family members.
Reade told the full story to her mother, who called the Larry King show in 1993 to ask for advice (more on this in a bit.) She told part of the story to her younger brother, Colin. He confirms that their mother knew the whole thing, and that he’d simply been told about the “incident with the gym bag.” Colin said,
“First my mom told me about it. She was up in arms. And I was like I don’t know what happened. I think my sister was trying to spare me…. I remember my sister being specifically asked to handle a gym bag… And there was a moment he had her up against the wall and made a hand move under her clothes.”*
Colin says he discouraged Tara from going to the police at the time (in part, he now says, because he didn’t understand how serious it was). It’s difficult for a victim to talk about this kind of assault with anyone, and very common to not tell the full story even to family, and especially not to male family members.
Reade also told a friend, a woman who has asked for her name not to be disclosed because she doesn’t want to have her career ruined (but why don’t women report assault, it’s just like, so weird!) This friend—a fellow Senate staffer at the time, working in Ted Kennedy’s office—says that Reade called her immediately after the assault happened in 1993 and told her about it exactly as she’s telling it today. On The Katie Halper Show, you can listen to a full interview with Reade’s anonymous friend. Current Affairs has interviewed the friend as well. She claims she remembers what happened very clearly, and that she and Reade have talked about it over the years. She even says that she discouraged Reade from coming forward, because she was worried about Reade’s safety, and given the death threats she was clearly right. (But why don’t women report assault???) The friend told Current Affairs:
“I have not enjoyed knowing this about someone [Biden] who for eight years was in the news as VP. Even in this campaign… every time I see him… I can’t… I mean I wasn’t in the hallway, but I still can’t look at him without thinking of that… She should have been safe. She should never have had anything close to this even happen.”
But wait, there’s more. Reade also told her neighbor, Lynda LaCasse, in either 1995 or 1996. LaCasse, who happens to be a Biden supporter despite this, told Business Insider that the claims Reade is making now are totally consistent with what she has been saying for 25 years. LaCasse described the conversation to Democracy Now:
“I was having a moment—I was outside, and I had just received some papers, and I was upset about them. And she came over. And we were talking about violence, because I had experienced violence myself. And she started telling me about Joe Biden and what he had done. And basically, she told me that he put his—he put her up against a wall, and he put his hand up her skirt, and he put his fingers inside her. And she was very distraught, and she was very upset, and she was crying. And that’s how that conversation happened. We were just sitting on my front stoop in front of my apartment.”
Asked whether Reade should be believed, LaCasse replied, “Absolutely. I believe her 100%.”
There’s more corroboration: Lorraine Sanchez, who worked with Reade in the office of a California state senator in the 1990s, “recalls Reade complaining at the time that her former boss in Washington, DC, had sexually harassed her, and that she had been fired after raising concerns.” Yet another friend “confirmed that Reade had a conversation with them in 2007 or 2008 about allegedly experiencing sexual harassment from Biden while working in his Senate office.” And the New York Times spoke to two interns who worked under Tara and confirmed that her supervisory duties were abruptly stopped. Tara alleges that when she complained about harassment she was retaliated against, stripped of her duties, and pushed out of the job. Biden and his surrogates have not offered an alternate explanation for why these interns would remember Tara being removed.
So Reade told multiple people at the time, and another person a few years later, and former coworkers who didn’t know her that well confirm other details…but there’s one person Reade clearly didn’t tell, and that’s USA Today op-ed columnist Michael J. Stern.
Ah, well. Why-didn’t-she-just…
Okay fine, but why come forward publicly now? Reade says she didn’t speak up in 2008 because she liked Obama and didn’t want to hurt him. According to her friend, Reade said “vice presidents never get to do anything anyway,” and Reade herself said she’s okay coming forward now that her “daughter’s grown.” In April 2019, she spoke to a local California newspaper in order to corroborate Lucy Flores’ allegation of inappropriate touching (Flores was of course also attacked as a liar.) For that April 2019 interview, Reade only said that Biden harassed her, not that he had harassed AND assaulted her. She claims that the reporter made her feel “shut down” and she didn’t want to tell him the full story. (But why don’t women report assault???? I ask because I am an android from Mars, and this is my first contact with human behavior.)
Since the time she first came forward, Reade has indicated several times that there was more than she told in her initial interview. In October 2019, she tweeted that the harassment was “not even the full story. In January, she wrote:
“I have not told the whole story of what occurred between Joe Biden and myself. After the threats last time, I will not tell it here either. I was told back then that if I continued to speak out, I would be “fucking destroyed.”
(BUT WHY DON’T WOMEN REPORT ASSAULT????) Stern brings up the “timing” issue again later in his piece, and I will have more to say on it then.
2. “Implausible explanation for changing story.”
Reade has been accused by Stern—and journalist Amanda Marcotte, and others—of “changing her story.” This is because, as I mentioned above, when Reade first went public she told the press only that she was harassed, not that she was harassed AND assaulted. Again, she claims that the (male) reporter she originally talked to made her feel uncomfortable and “shut down.” Stern, however, finds it “hard to believe a reporter would discourage this kind of scoop.”
He’s got a point: I mean, can you imagine that a man spoke to a woman and made her feel dismissed and uncomfortable? Can you believe that a woman then held back because she was worried she wouldn’t be believed, when women in her particular situation are rarely believed?? Has ANY man EVER spoken to a woman this way??? Has it maybe happened literally every other goddamn day in the life of every woman in the entire goddamn United States of America???????
But this wasn’t just any man. This was a reporter. Why would a reporter turn down a scoop? This makes sense, if you think reporters are like, hardboiled gumshoes who smoke cigars and type on typewriters. But reporters are not movie characters; they’re human beings like everybody else. A woman told this reporter a story; he probably thought she was nuts, and making it up, and made her feel that way. I cannot emphasize just how often this sort of thing happens to women, in approximately every context. To name just one example, there’s a long, documented history of women going to doctors with reports of significant pain and being ignored, because women are held to be inaccurate reporters of their own experiences. “But doctors are professionals,” Stern would probably insist. “They would NEVER discourage a patient from describing their symptoms. They would WANT to make an accurate diagnosis.” Well okay my dude, tell that to anyone who’s ever had endometriosis. Or try talking to a woman who’s had to go to a car mechanic. “Getting taken seriously by professionals” is not a luxury that women are often afforded.
Interviewing people about sexual assault isn’t easy. It takes a sensitive inquisitor to get a survivor to tell their story. So it doesn’t seem at all implausible that someone with a difficult, upsetting story wouldn’t open up immediately, especially to a reporter who came across as dismissive. As abuse expert Professor Anthony Zenkus of the Columbia School of Social Work wrote in an op-ed about the case, this is a very common pattern: Victims disclose what happened to them slowly, not all at once. One would think that Stern, as a former prosecutor, would know this.
As for why Stern’s disbelief that Reade struggled for a year afterward to find a journalist who would take her seriously—I don’t know man, it’s like, people always take women so seriously when they report assault, especially when it’s politically inconvenient???? I can’t believe more news outlets and victims’ rights organizations, especially those with ties to the Democratic party and/or major donors to the Democratic party, wouldn’t take a claim against Joe Biden seriously. Again, I am an android from Mars, and this is my first time dealing with human beings.
3. “People who contradict Reade’s claim.”
Reade claims that at the time, she reported the harassment to several of Biden’s top lieutenants including “Marianne Baker, Biden’s executive assistant, as well as to top aides Dennis Toner and Ted Kaufman. All three Biden staffers recently,” says Stern, “told The New York Times that she made no complaint to them.” They deny it “firmly,” which Stern insists is significant.
Now of course, if Reade is telling the truth, then these three former managers would be implicated in the situation. After all, they would have failed to take her claims seriously at the time, and are therefore complicit in covering up sexual harassment. Gee whiz, I wonder if they might have some incentive to say that Reade is lying! This doesn’t prove on its own, of course, that Reade is telling the truth; it just means we can hardly take Biden’s old lieutenants’ claims seriously, given that confirming her story would mean significant reputational damage to themselves.
Now, I managed to figure this all out, even though I don’t have a law degree. Stern used to be a prosecutor. I have some concerns about his cases. Actually, I have concerns about many prosecutors’ cases. The fact that Stern would take the word of Biden’s managerial staff, without the slightest hint of skepticism, is unfortunately on par with the standard in his former profession. It’s well documented that criminal prosecutors are notoriously bad at keeping track of which police officers are chronic liars, and to the extent prosecutors become aware that officers are lying to them, this information is often purposely ignored or even buried to the detriment of the innocent. While there may be such a thing as a “good” prosecutor—the jury remains out on this one—the truth is that a worrying number of them seem unable to imagine, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, that the “good guys” might make statements in service of covering either their own asses or that of their bosses. It turns out that cops—and prosecutors—are human beings too, not heroes in an allegorical movie about good and evil.
4. “Missing formal complaint”
Stern is suspicious that Reade doesn’t have a copy of the written complaint she made against Biden. On The Katie Halper show, Reade described filing the complaint:
“it was this little tiny office and you go up and there was literally a clipboard and I filled out a form and someone kind of was just out[side] the window, but it was weird and it wasn’t very confidential and it was just odd. So I filled out the form and I know it existed. They took it and then I don’t know what happened to it. I’ve tried to track that form down and I was told it was probably returned to Biden’s office. So it’s an archival material.”
Yes, Reade doesn’t have a copy because she didn’t make a copy. (Why-didn’t-she-just…) The Associated Press has made a great deal of hay about the missing complaint, saying that it’s a “key part” of the accusation, and Biden was questioned about it extensively on Morning Joe. Biden has refused to let his papers be searched for the complaint, and has said it should be searched for in the National Archives. On May 1, the National Archives actually came out and said this record would not be with them. But the next day, Politico reported that “Senate rules governing the preservation of documents suggested they’re held by the General Services Administration … which said the documents are located at the National Archives.” On the other hand, Donald Ritchie, a respected former official Senate historian who worked in the Senate in the 1990s, said the documents would likely have been returned to Biden’s Senate office, in which case—if the complaint still exists and hasn’t been destroyed—it’s in the Delaware papers. For what it’s worth, this game of archives seems to be a lose-lose for Biden. If the records are at the University of Delaware, then Biden may have intentionally directed people to search a place he knew the file couldn’t be found, which sure suggests that he has something to hide. But if the records are at the National Archives, and he simply wasn’t aware, then he has given the media permission to dig into the records to corroborate Reade’s allegations. Incidentally, if the document is found, it’s proof that Kaufman was lying when he told the New York Times, “I did not know [Reade]. She did not come to me. If she had, I would have remembered her.” Or, maybe, he really just doesn’t remember. Human memory is fungible, after all!
A number of people have made further hay over the fact that Reade has said the complaint only details the harassment, not the assault. This is not remotely surprising to anyone who read or listened to Reade’s interview on the Katie Halper Show, because Reade said the complaint was specifically and ONLY about the sexual harassment, not the assault.
“I did not complain formally about the other piece of what happened…But I talked about what was witnessed, and the general atmosphere of the office, the way I was treated. Because I would see him at meetings and he would basically put his hands on me, put his hands on my shoulder, run his fingers on my neck… He was very handsy with a lot of people. But like I have said in the press before, it made me feel like an inanimate object. I didn’t feel like a person. He didn’t make conversation with me or talk with me or ask me anything relevant. It was just definitely that kind of vibe. So it was uncomfortable.”
Incidentally, I don’t quite know how to explain to people that sexual harassment is also bad and unacceptable and should be disqualifying. I think I might start by saying that sexual harassment is also bad and unacceptable and should be disqualifying.
5. “Memory lapse”
Stern faults Reade for not being able to remember the exact date and location of the assault. You might recall that Christine Blasey Ford couldn’t remember the exact date and location of her alleged attempted rape either. You might also recall that, while defending Kavanaugh at a campaign rally, Donald Trump similarly blamed Blasey Ford for not remembering every detail of her traumatic experience. He mimicked her: “I don’t know. I don’t know… What neighborhood was it? I don’t know. Where’s the house? I don’t know. Upstairs? Downstairs? Where was it—I don’t know. But I had one beer, that’s the only thing I remember.”
But contrary to what Stern and Trump imply, it’s typical for victims of traumatic situations to forget certain kinds of details. As Richard McNally, a Harvard psychologist and author of the book Remembering Trauma, told NPR in September 2018, the part of the brain that encodes memories goes in heightened mode in moments of high stress—creating vivid memories of the event. At the same time, “attention is focused on the most central features of the experience.” This explains why Blasey Ford could not pinpoint the exact date or location of the assault. McNally goes on to explain, “[The details] were forgotten because they were never encoded … When somebody has an experience such as this, they’re not necessarily saying, ‘I better get down the address.’ They’re preoccupied with trying to escape this terrifying experience.”
When you listen to Reade’s interview with Katie Halper, one of the things that makes the accusation plausible is that Reade forgets the kinds of things people often forget in these situations and remembers the things people often remember. Human memory is not perfect; human beings, I may have mentioned earlier, are not perfect. It absolutely tracks that Reade would remember details like the gym bag but not the date.
The fact that Stern used to be a prosecutor, yet seems unaware that it’s super common for victims to forget specific dates like this, even (and especially) the dates of horrific assaults, is really kind of disturbing!
6. “The lie about losing her job”
Stern suggests there is an inconsistency between Reade initially saying she felt “pushed out” of her job in retaliation, and later saying she was “fired.” But let’s look at what Reade is actually saying. She claims that after she made her complaint, she steadily had her duties taken away from her, and was moved to a windowless office. Her supervisors found fault with her for no good reason, and eventually she was told she should look for other jobs. This sounds a lot like being retaliated against—which is illegal—and “pushed out” in a way that isn’t very different from being fired. (Also, getting fired can be embarrassing, so using softer language early on to describe retaliation and firing is neither unreasonable nor contradictory.) Incidentally, this is the exact same controversy that erupted over Elizabeth Warren’s claim that she was fired for being pregnant, when it seems like maybe she was technically only “pushed out” and quit. Yet again, Stern is baffled by something that happens to women—and other working people—literally all the fucking time.
7. “Compliments for Biden”
In 2017, Reade “liked” tweets praising Biden’s work on women’s issues, such as the Violence Against Women Act, and even issued a few tweets of her own praising him. Stern says “It is bizarre that Reade would publicly laud Biden for combating the very thing she would later accuse him of doing to her.”
For one, nobody likes the “like” police. For another, human beings (again, I think I might have mentioned this previously) are complicated and imperfect. Reade had once admired Biden; she told Katie Halper that initially she “looked up to [Biden], he was like my father’s age. He was this champion of women’s rights in my eyes.”) When someone is violated by a person they admire their feelings and reactions can be very mixed. Reade has spoken movingly of the contradictory feelings she has about Biden: On the one hand, she admires a lot of his work, on the other, she can’t forget what he did to her. One thing Reade’s friend told Current Affairs is that the friend has been frustrated by Reade’s persistent attempts to find the good in the worst people. Reade, said the friend, is a forgiving sort of person.
My colleague Vanessa A. Bee recently made an excellent point about how complicated victims’ relationships to their abusers can be. She wrote, “as we speak, people are sheltering in place with romantic partners who physically hurt them on a daily basis!” And people often maintain contact with abusers who are not romantic partners. When Anita Hill came forward to accuse Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991, Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming said during her hearing, “Well, it just seems so incredible to me that you would not only have visited with him twice after that period and after he was no longer able to manipulate you or to destroy you, that you then not only visited with him but took him to the airport, and then 11 times contacted him.” That’s right, Anita Hill had significant contact with Clarence Thomas after he allegedly harassed her. If you think that’s abnormal, then you’re in for a rude awakening.
(By the way, it was Joe Biden, as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, who presided over Hill’s hearing in 1991. Hill has since claimed that Biden “inappropriately weighted Thomas’s presumed innocence and forced [Hill] to go into details that ‘disgusted’ her.” In early 2019, as Biden was preparing his presidential run, he called Anita Hill to “express regret.” Hill did not accept his apology. She told the New York Times, “I cannot be satisfied by simply saying ‘I’m sorry for what happened to you… I will be satisfied when I know there is real change and real accountability and real purpose.”)
Most people who experience sexual violence know the perpetrator personally, whether as a boyfriend or a boss or a friend. What this can often mean, in practical terms, is that people will continue to interact with people who have severely hurt them. But, as Stern should know, the law understands that relationships can be both intimate and violent. This is precisely why several states—including California, where Stern currently practices law—recognize spousal rape as a separate criminal offense.
Maybe, since liking those tweets in 2017, Reade suddenly developed a severe, irrational dislike of Biden, and made this wild false accusation, first of harassment and then assault. It’s plausible…but unless she has a time machine she couldn’t have gone back to 1993 to tell her mother, brother, and multiple other witnesses. Does Reade have a time machine??? Stern doesn’t say.
What’s perhaps more plausible is that Reade disliked that Biden digitally penetrated her, but “liked” that he made one non-objectionable post. And who knows, maybe she wouldn’t have clicked on the little button, had she known that ghouls like Stern would use this to discredit her.
8. “Rejecting Biden, embracing Sanders.”
Stern says that “by this January, Reade was all in for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders,” and “despite her effusive 2017 praise for Biden’s efforts on behalf of women, after pledging her support to Sanders, Reade turned on Biden and contradicted all she said before.” But it’s inaccurate to say that she turned on Biden “after” she began supporting Sanders. (So inaccurate that USA Today should issue a correction; they can squeeze it in between the crosswords for children and the ads for toe creams.) Reade initially supported Elizabeth Warren, and only switched to Sanders this winter when Warren’s candidacy was on life support. She first accused Biden publicly in April 2019—and of course, she’s been telling people about it privately since 1993. Clearly, a disgruntled Bernie Bro playing the long con—a very long con, as once again, in order to tell people about the harassment and assault back in 1993 she would need a time machine.
9. “Love of Russia and Putin.”
Yeah, I’m not playing “The Russians Are Coming”—it’s 2020, not 1980. It seems like Reade had a phase where she got really into Russian history and culture, and wrote some stupid things about Putin before she really knew much about him. It’s cool that when women come forward to report assault, every detail of their lives, including dumb blog posts, become worthy of dissection. I REMAIN VERY CONFUSED AS TO WHY WOMEN DON’T REPORT ASSAULT.
10. Suspect timing
Why make the whole story public NOW, when Biden is poised to become the Democratic nominee? It’s precisely because he’s about to be the nominee. As Anita Hill has since confirmed, the urgency of the nomination had everything to do with the timing of her allegation. When Senator Alan Simpson asked why she hadn’t come forward earlier, Hill answered, “That is a very good question, and I am sure that I cannot answer that to your satisfaction … I was afraid of retaliation. I was afraid of damage to my professional life.” (But why don’t women just report…sigh.)
Christine Blasey Ford also came forward when Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court. She was asked why she had waited until that moment, and many liberal publications admired her “perfect explanation.” Blasey Ford said she “had a sense of urgency to relay the information [of the assault] to the Senate and the president.” In other words, it was information they needed to know before they chose to give Kavanaugh a hell of a lot of power. (The Senate and the president of course chose to confirm Kavanaugh regardless, even though his story was full of holes and even outright lies. As I might have mentioned, this country hates women.) The time you would run the terrible risk of publicizing what a powerful man did to you is exactly and only before he is about to have life-or-death control over an entire country. It’s the only time the risk is worthwhile. Coming forward in a situation like this takes an almost unfathomable amount of courage. It’s no wonder Stern has trouble understanding it.
11. The Larry King Call
In 1993, the month Reade left Biden’s office, her mother called Larry King Live to say that her daughter had “problems” with a prominent senator that were worthy of going to the press. The call is on tape, and you can watch it. But, as Stern points out, Reade’s mother didn’t go into any details. “Given that the call was anonymous,” Stern writes, “Reade’s mother should have felt comfortable relaying the worst version of events.”
Oh really, my dude? On TV? To Larry fucking King? Because that’s something people do: call up Larry King and divulge the most intimate horrific details of a family member’s life, rather than speak euphemistically when describing an assault by a powerful politician. Obviously, if you want to be believed, you wouldn’t use words like “problems”; you would describe the attack in graphic detail until Larry’s producer cuts you off. That’s the way to be taken seriously. That’s the way for a mother to defend her daughter. Just completely normal human stuff. Again, since I’m an android, I might be a little confused here.
Stern also cites the fact that on the call, Tara’s mother says they did not go public in part out of “respect” for Biden. “I’ve never met a woman who stayed silent out of ‘respect’ for the man who sexually assaulted her,” Stern comments. I am unclear at this point whether Stern has ever met a single woman. Also, any confusion here is easily resolved by listening to Reade’s heartbreaking interview. She told Halper about how difficult it was to even admit that someone she respected this much had done something terrible to her. Real human beings (again, pretty sure I said this) are complicated.
12. “Statements from others”
Stern dismisses the various people who corroborate Reade’s story—her brother didn’t know or didn’t tell the whole story, Reade did inform several people, but maybe she made it up and told the same story consistently for decades just for funsies idk. Reade only told her neighbor in 1995 or 1996. Of the neighbor, Stern says: “But Reade alleged she was assaulted in 1993. Telling a friend two or three years later is not contemporaneous. Legal references to a contemporaneous recounting typically refer to hours or days—the point being that facts are still fresh in a person’s mind and the statement is more likely to be accurate.” Ok fine, so Reade jumped the time machine back to 1996, not 1993. How does the time machine work? Does it have a flux capacitor?
13. Lack of other sexual assault allegations
GEE WHIZ I DON’T KNOW WHY MORE WOMEN DON’T COME FORWARD. IT SEEMS LIKE A JOLLY GOOD FUCKING TIME. Biden has been accused of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior by a number of women. Stern acknowledges this, but points out that Reade’s is the only allegation of outright assault. This is fine, because women love to come forward and report powerful men who have assaulted them, because they get taken so seriously. And besides, everyone knows that a serial harasser, groper, and line-stepper can never ALSO be a rapist. We know this because [404 EVIDENCE NOT FOUND]. Relatedly, only one person, the writer E. Jean Carroll, is on the record having accused Trump of rape. (His ex-wife Ivana Trump has now retracted her allegation of spousal rape.) I suppose that by Stern’s standard, this means Trump is also presumably innocent.
And may I remind you that EVEN IF TARA READE WAS ONLY SEXUALLY HARASSED AND NOT ASSAULTED IT WOULDN’T MATTER BECAUSE SEXUAL HARASSMENT IS A DEAL-BREAKER ANYWAY.
* * *
There is one good reason to disbelieve Tara Reade, and that is if you believe women’s narratives should conform to the political needs of men, and if they don’t, those offending women should be gaslit out of existence. Tara Reade is inconvenient. She was gauche enough to accuse a Democrat and not a Republican. She keeps a weird blog and forgives people too much. She didn’t report everything all at once. She liked Biden’s tweets, which is complicated; she supported Bernie Sanders for a bit, which is unforgivable. She’s a bad victim, which is to say an imperfect one, which is to say a human being. But she’s either telling the truth or has a time machine, and at this point someone’s gonna have to produce a fucking flux capacitor before I feel comfortable disbelieving her.
You know who’s not a very credible narrator? Joe Biden. His 1988 presidential campaign fell apart when it was revealed that he had plagiarized speeches by a British MP (including a line about being the first college graduate in his family “in a thousand generations” which wasn’t just plagiarism but a lie, since Biden “in fact did have relatives who attended college.”) His 1988 campaign was also damaged by the revelation that he had invented a number of fake academic accomplishments, such as graduating at the top of his class at Syracuse University College of Law (he finished 76th out of 85, and also plagiarized a law review paper when he was a student.) Since then, Biden has said on several occasions that he used to be a civil rights activist: “I was one of those guys that sat in and marched and all that stuff,” he said at a campaign event in 1987. But in the same year he also said, “I was not an activist. I worked at an all-black swimming pool in the east side of Wilmington, Delaware. I was involved in what they were thinking, what they were feeling. I was involved, but I was not out marching.” Biden has also claimed to have been arrested while protesting apartheid in South Africa, but this never, ever happened. He recently said he opposed the Iraq war from the start, a lie which CNN called him out on; he claimed in March that he opposed the bankruptcy bill, when he in fact wrote it!
Biden has told more lies than I have the time or the stomach to recount. In Counterpunch, Bruce Levine has an excellent overview of Biden’s most egregious falsehoods. The most disturbing might be the one where Biden repeatedly claimed in public that his wife had been killed by a drunk driver who “drank his lunch instead of eating his lunch.” But this isn’t true at all—the driver, Curtis Dunn, was not at fault, and wasn’t drunk. The whole thing was just a horrible accident. Levine reports: “This falsehood of course deeply hurt Dunn. His family made many attempts to get Biden to correct it, and finally in 2009, after Curtis Dunn was dead, Biden called Dunn’s daughter to apologize.” (Incidentally, Biden is running for President in 2020 on a promise to restore “decency and honesty and character” to the White House.)
So let’s look at the facts. Who’s more credible: the man with a documented, decades-long history of telling lies about his life when it comes to matters both petty and extremely critical—or the woman who once blogged about Putin in a weird way? It seems pretty obvious to me: but then again, I tend to think that men and women are equal, and deserve to be taken equally seriously.
I still don’t think it matters at all. I still don’t think people give a fuck about women. But go ahead. Prove me wrong, and Nathan right. I would love to find that this country in general and the Democratic Party in particular actually cares about women’s rights and bodily autonomy.
I’m not going to hold my breath.
Many of the people dismissing Reade’s claims are women themselves. Former Democratic Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm tweeted: “I believe @JoeBiden. Anyone who knows him knows this allegation is antithetical to his character, to the culture in his office, to his soul. He has never been that kind of guy. Ever. The story has been heard and vetted. No staffer remembers it. No complaint found. Move on.” Alyssa Milano has spoken out against Tara Reade, as has Stacey Abrams, the presidents of EMILY’s List, NARAL, and Planned Parenthood. If this seems unfathomable to you, especially when it comes to the leaders of women’s organizations—well, people are complicated, and there is a lot riding on electing a Democratic president in 2020, especially when it comes to safeguarding reproductive rights. Many people think Biden is the only choice, and there’s no alternative—although, as Elizabeth Bruenig wisely points out in the New York Times, it’s not too late to consider other options.
When a woman accuses a powerful man of sexual assault or harassment, most people will choose to defend the man. It’s easier, and it’s safer politically, especially if the man is perceived to be a member of the “team.” It’s amazing how many women are willing to be handmaidens of patriarchy, and it’s amazing how many women are even willing to do that while calling themselves feminists, and even heading ostensibly feminist organizations! But words have meanings; events are things that occurred. No truth is incontrovertible but plenty are damned likely. And if, like former prosecutor Michael J. Stern, you don’t have anything sensitive or intelligent or constructive to say about a rape inquiry, you could try just shutting the fuck up.
Sincerest thanks to Vanessa A. Bee of Current Affairs and to David Oks of the Gravel Institute who contributed reporting.
*Incidentally, some people have accused my colleague Nathan of “coaching” Colin because, during a brief phone call while Nathan was writing his story, he advised Colin to tell the “whole truth” rather than parts and not talk to people who he felt were untrustworthy. I would say that the people who have accused Nathan of tampering with a witness are garbage, but many items in the garbage can be recycled into something useful, so the comparison doesn’t hold.