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Opinion | The Audacity of E. Jean Carroll

Ms. Carroll got her break in journalism in the 1980s, at a time when few women were doing the kinds of first-person stunts for magazines like Rolling Stone and Esquire that she was. Her assignments often put her in precarious situations: trekking through the mountains of Papua New Guinea for a Playboy article, “In Search of Primitive Man,” or in a hot tub with Hunter S. Thompson, who sliced off her clothes with a knife. (She has said they were “semi-intimately involved” and did acid together.)

Part of what made her so good at the work was her thick skin, her unflappable nature — character traits that would come back to haunt her — and part of it was her willingness to be outrageous, to do anything for the story. But as every good advice columnist knows, people contain multitudes; they can push boundaries in some ways and bend to the standards of the day in others.

During the first trial, Mr. Trump’s lawyers zeroed in on these contradictions. Why, his lawyers asked, peppering her with questions to the point of tears, didn’t she scream when Mr. Trump attacked her? Why didn’t she file a police report or see a therapist? How could she possibly have laughed on the phone with her friend Lisa Birnbach, whom Ms. Carroll called that day to tell what happened, and who didn’t tell another soul about it for more than 20 years?

“I was born in 1943. I am a member of the silent generation,” Ms. Carroll testified. “Women like me were taught and trained to keep our chins up and to not complain.” She didn’t scream in that department store dressing room, she said, because she “didn’t want to make a scene.” She laughed when Mr. Trump attacked her because “laughing is a very good — I use the word ‘weapon’ — to calm a man down if he has any erotic intention.” She went back to Bergdorf Goodman, repeatedly, in order to prove a point: It was her favorite store, and she was not going to let him take that from her — something I witnessed when I first met her, on a street corner three days after the accusation, and she grabbed my hand and led me to where it happened. As Ms. Birnbach put it when she testified in the first trial, Ms. Carroll is the kind of person who “puts on lipstick, dusts herself off and moves on.”

Which is exactly what she did, for more than two decades. Even after she came forward in 2019, Ms. Carroll was hesitant to call herself a victim or her rape a rape. The first time I interviewed her, she couldn’t say the word out loud; she whispered it to me from across the table. “I like the word ‘fight,’” she told me. “That’s how I like to say it. Not a rape. To me, it’s a fight, because I didn’t just stand there.” She was not part of a generation of women who shouted about their abortions or talked about their assaults out loud.

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