Let me start by saying that this is not a defence of Ghislaine Maxwell, the part-time girlfriend, part-time sexual fixer for the paedophile Jeffrey Epstein. How could it be? The New York judge that sentenced her to 20 years in prison earlier this week said that she played a ‘pivotal’ role in supplying girls for Epstein to abuse. She was integral to one of the largest and most prodigious sex-trafficking rings in US history. Ghislaine was undoubtedly a perpetrator – but no one quite wants to admit that she might have been a victim too.
The disgraced socialite, dressed in prison overalls and ankle chains, told the court: ‘My association with Epstein will permanently stain me. It is the biggest regret of my life that I ever met him.’ What she did was awful and she has been proven guilty, but I can’t help but believe her when she shows remorse. The twisted life that Epstein built was strange and otherworldly. His private Caribbean island came with its own Ottoman-esque temple, reportedly built on top of tunnels connected to other parts of the island complex. In his New York townhouse, the one that Prince Andrew has admitted to staying in, Epstein had a chess set in which each of the figures was a member of his staff.
All of the women involved with Epstein have attested to the fact that he built a pyramid scheme of sexual abuse. Ghislaine would find him young women, showering them with gifts paid for by the financier, even covering young women’s college fees. In return, these women were expected to find yet more girls for him to sleep with. One of Epstein’s victims, Virginia Guiffre, has said as much, admitting to ‘reluctantly bringing other girls to Epstein.’ She is subject to her own legal proceedings, accused of touching another woman without her consent.
Whether or not Guiffre is found guilty – and so far she has not been – there is perhaps a strange inconsistency in the way she and Ghislaine have been treated. Maxwell never enjoyed the presumption of innocence before her trial; she was always a monster equal to that of Epstein. Guiffre, meanwhile, is a courageous victim. There is an an obvious reply: Ghislaine was at the top of this pyramid, an older, wealthier woman whom Epstein reportedly considered marrying. The others were young women, sometimes girls, who worked minimum wage jobs and came from small town America. But this explanation leaves me cold: it fails to recognise how abuse works.
There is every chance that Ghislaine was herself an Epstein victim. None of those facts – her age, her wealth – mitigate the notion that she too was psychologically abused by Epstein. Coercive control can happen even if you have a hundred million in the bank. Because it doesn’t rely on logical, clear thinking. Almost all victims of abuse could, technically, walk away. And yet they don’t, because what’s trapping them isn’t something physical. Often in cases of abuse, mental or physical, victims mimic the behaviour of their abuser. Why? Because it seems like the only strategy for survival. Ask yourself what kind of woman would be happy to find girls for her boyfriend to sleep with. Call me a prude, but I think there’s something psychologically off about it. It’s a word we prefer to use for others, but there is a case to be made that Ghislaine too was groomed.
When her relationship with Epstein began in 1991, her life had fallen apart: a capricious father who died in mysterious circumstances, a life defined by little more than money and status – both of which seemed to be slipping away. The Maxwell child had been a welcome guest in the Manhattan scene, partly thanks to her English accent, but also because she seemed to know everyone: Prince Andrew, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and somehow even Pope John Paul II.
But her star had waned in the years following her father’s death. The family’s fortunes quickly fell apart and her brothers were left to fight constant legal battles to preserve what was left. Without the guiding hand of their authoritarian father, the Maxwells seemed lost. And yet Ghislaine’s relationship with her father had been far from normal: it has been claimed that Maxwell Snr would often hit his daughter, offering her an object of her choice to be beaten with. And yet she was often seen as his favourite, treated differently from the rest of his children. When he died, falling from the side of his yacht, she was the only one who clung to the idea that he might have been murdered.
Her strange childhood shaped her, and it is clear she sought out relationships with men that mimicked the mindset of her father. She was, in other words, a perfect candidate for grooming. Again, none of this is to say that she is innocent. What she did was heinous – but human beings are complex, there is such a thing as a heinous victim. Her relationship with Epstein was not normal, it was entangled, intense, and like all his relationships, there was a power imbalance between the pair that always ruled in Epstein’s favour.
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