The verdict in the Harvey Weinstein sex crimes case was described as both a disappointment and a victory. Some court watchers felt the shamed movie mogul should have been found guilty on all counts. Others said the decision ushered in a new era for survivors of sexual assault and tamped down, once and for all, defense attorney’s tactic of blaming the victim.
For Denise Conroy of Chicago none of those things was the point.
“Watching that trial,” she told me, “I just kept getting madder. Why didn’t [those women] report it when it happened? I thought, ‘What the hell took you so long?’”
Denise was 23 years old in 1982 when she was dragged between two houses while walking home from her waitressing job early one morning. Her voice still cracks when she speaks about what happened when two Hispanic men put a gun in her mouth and took turns violently beating and raping her.
“They kicked me and stabbed me. I was sodomized. And that gun. I’ll never forget that gun. I said, ‘Oh, God, please stop and he said, God is not here.’” At the hospital doctors nicknamed her “the murder victim who refused to die.” The crime was reported to police immediately.
Watching coverage of the Weinstein trial triggered Denise’s panic memory. She admits to yelling at the screen as Court TV recounted the women’s testimony against Weinstein. Each witness conceded that they had delayed reporting Weinstein’s sexual attack. In the case of actress Annabella Sciorra it took more than two decades before she told authorities Weinstein had forcibly raped her.
Since the first revelations about Weinstein’s criminal behavior surfaced more than 90 women have come forward to say the once high-powered Hollywood mogul sexually victimized them as well. (Weinstein still faces similar sex assault charges in California.) It does beg the question how so many women stayed silent for so long about such an obvious predator. Their fear of being erased from Hollywood outweighed their desire to report Weinstein’s criminal behavior.
“What’s the price of your soul?” Denise asked as she recounted the agony of feeling like the guilty party, post-rape, when detectives first questions were about what she had been wearing and why she was out so late. She earnestly wonders why the Weinstein women weren’t able to stand up for themselves at the time of the attacks, as she did so many years ago. Just facing her attackers and pointing them out in court was a torture, she said. But it was also empowering.
“I don’t want to victim bash,” she said to me in an urgent tone. “But if it happened, then report it! We won’t get anywhere if people don’t report. I know it’s a double-edged sword,” she said. “I know how hard it is. It’s embarrassing and humiliating but it must be done.”
Today, Denise, now 60, volunteers as an advocate for women at risk. She worries that the star-studded #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have lost focus on the countless non-celebrity women who are victims of sexual assaults and domestic violence. And the media, she says, seems transfixed on only the super sensational sex crime cases like Bill Cosby, Jeffrey Epstein and, yes, Harvey Weinstein.
Denise is also troubled by two other things: those who seem to equate all sexual harassment and assault with the same outrage and gravitas. Complaining about a co-worker who makes suggestive comments or has wandering eyes is nowhere near as serious as a forcible sex act and she believes more public support needs to be aimed toward actual crime victims. And second, while the Weinstein verdict gave her some hope, “What about the co-conspirators at Miramax,” she asked referring to top executives at Weinstein’s now defunct company, including his brother, Bob. “They had Harvey sign contracts agreeing to stay away from women. They need to be held responsible. This didn’t happen in a vacuum.”
Denise sounded a bit bitter when she spoke about the pedestal on which Weinstein’s victims have been placed. “They’re glorifying these women who didn’t come forward for years. Calling them heroes. What about people like me, women who have lived through unspeakable things? It sort of feels like a slap in the face.”
While taking nothing away from the Weinstein victims, Denise has a point.