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Good Letters

It wasn’t until I read about the school uniforms that I thought the Jeffrey Epstein case had anything to do with me.

The story broke right before we went on our too-short summer vacation to the borrowed house overlooking the blue Atlantic. There, I sat on the deck with my laptop and read all the stories about Epstein that suddenly flooded across the Internet: the cryptic billionaire, the plane rides with Bill Clinton, the Egyptian-looking gym/temple/torture chamber whose doors locked from the outside.  And the teenage girls with wrecked lives whose numbers now seem only to grow and grow and grow.

Up there on the deck, lousy with middle-aged leisure, my glasses down on my nose, it was easy to think of the whole story in an abstracted, car-wreck-spectator sort of way.

Then I read that some of the girls who had showed up in Epstein’s Manhattan townhouse had shown up in school uniforms, unwittingly waiting for deployment—allegedly—as happy-endings masseuses. I never wore a school uniform, but suddenly, the remembrance of being an adolescent girl—one wandering, tentatively, at the nexus of the urbane and amoral, desperate to be both desired and sophisticated—plunged me into my own abyss of reflection.

I remembered, for instance, being in a too-hot room on a too-cold day somewhere in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as the veined hands of the decades-older man I was there with ran down my backside, and down the tight wool skirt of the vintage dress I was wearing. It was something that was both awful and exciting, something that was not entirely unwanted. This person had been kind to me. By the standards of the day, “nothing” had actually “happened.” I was fifteen years old.

I still don’t call it abuse; I still have fond feelings in the middle of the regret and shame. To be touched this way was the price for attention, and the feeling, for a moment, that one was loved.

Plus, the way things were back then, if you had a problem with it, then you had brought it on yourself. With me, particularly—I was a Christian, a fatherless girl who was determined to stay chaste (and I did, definitionally), but still I wanted someone to take care of me and this was the price. Anything “bad” that might or might not happen was automatically my fault, either way, because I had been a hypocrite.

In a July 15 article for The Cut, “How a Predator Operated in Plain Sight”, Lisa Miller wrote about the strange absence of boundaries that emerged in the wake of the Sexual Revolution, in which adults eager to avoid having “hang-ups” shared sexual knowledge with what were essentially children:

“The world in which I sexually came of age was one where high-school teachers had sex with students and camp counselors molested campers, and all this was known, but not openly discussed, and few kids even told their parents because the parents were part of the problem.”

There’s a trope that Miller notes at various points in her account: “There was something wrong here, but identifying the source of the grinding feeling in my gut was beyond me . . .” Having no framework to object to whatever might be wrong, the formless feeling merely lingers, and often recurs.

It is the same emotion that emerges in one of the subplots of Jennifer Egan’s kaleidoscopic 2010 novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, which anticipates this moment, and I’ve thought about it so much that I finally got it out last night and reread the whole thing:

Jocelyn and Rhea are high school students in the Bay Area at the dawn of the 1980s, participants in the local punk scene. Then one day, Jocelyn meets Lou, a music producer: “She was hitchhiking home from downtown and he pulled up in a red Mercedes and drove her to an apartment he uses in San Francisco.” Lou is a prize, because he “knows Bill Graham personally. There were gold and silver record albums on his walls and a thousand electric guitars.”

Despite his six children and ex-wives down in Los Angeles, and the fact that Jocelyn is only supposed to wait for his calls, never to call him, she commences an affair with him that has a sheen of glamour—as related in a section narrated by Rhea—but in which the varieties of sexual humiliation are covered over, because there is no language available for expressing them.

Decades later, Jocelyn and Rhea are summoned to the mansion where Lou lies dying, immobilized by a stroke. (Spoilers ahead, but they won’t hurt your enjoyment of this fine novel.) In this section, back at the house with the “pool with its blue and yellow tiles from Portugal” where “Lou’s big bed with the crushed purple spread is gone—thank God,” Jocelyn narrates:

So this is it—what cost me all that time. A man who turned out to be old, a house that turned out to be empty.

“ ‘I should kill you,’ [Jocelyn says], looking at him straight. ‘You deserve to die.’”

And here, after a beat, is the response that keeps echoing for me, over and over, and that still answers nothing:

“He looks scared, but he smiles. The old smile, back again. ‘Too late,’ he says.”

Featured image: Jeffrey Epstein’s mugshot, public domain

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