Epstein did not deserve to keep his ‘allegedlys’
The most powerful moment in Larry Nassar's 2017 court proceedings came in the form of his victims' blistering confrontation of the man who had gotten away with so much for so long. Woman after woman rose in a Michigan courtroom to excoriate the disgraced physician. And in doing so, they wrested power back from Nassar.
They guided the public's attention to where it belonged: not on the snivelling mess of a man who sat silently before the judge's bench, but on the promising young athletes who were failed by the system designed to protect them.
Jeffrey Epstein's death by suicide this weekend has an element of finality to it, but not in a redeeming way. Rather, his passing feels like his final escape. From the legal ramifications barrelling towards him, yes, but also from the searing visuals he deserved and which American needed.
As his case has unfolded, the photographs accompanying stories about Epstein have been smug and carefree, wealth and privilege personified: there he was, posing at an event with Donald and Melania Trump, long before the former was elected president. There he was, relaxing in a Harvard sweatshirt while chatting with celebrity attorney Alan Dershowitz.
Even his mug shots depicted a man secure in the protection that his wealth provided. Captured in harsh jailhouse lighting, he wore polo shirts and pressed button-downs; the right side of his mouth tugging upward in a smirk.
These society-page photographs served a purpose. They reminded us of the factors that allowed Epstein, for years, to allegedly order up high school-aged girls like room service, forcing them into nude massages and oral sex. When you are wealthy, your jail sentence is more like a jail punctuation mark: in 2008, his brief punishment for procuring underage girls for prostitution allowed him to waltz out of prison for 12 hours a day on “work release”.
But what we needed were the images that told the rest of the story: Jeffrey Epstein brought low, by a judicial system that finally held him accountable. Epstein, hollowed out and haggard in a New York courthouse. Epstein, haunted and trapped in his seat as a procession of women talked about the things he had forced them to do as girls.
We needed the images that expressed, fully and undeniably, that this was not a case of lying opportunists trying to ruin a wealthy man, as his attorneys have previously implied, but a case of children who were told they could receive legitimate training to become massage therapists and, instead, encountered a man who demanded sex three times a day.
Allegedly, that is — some of this information comes from court records that were unsealed the day before Epstein's death, and because of his death, we must for ever tack on “allegedlys” to every alleged horror he allegedly committed, from passing girls around to his rich acquaintances to exploring the possibility of impregnating vast numbers of women on his New Mexico ranch to genetically improve the human race.
And so he needed to sit in court. He needed to hear woman after woman explain that they were not having fun; they were traumatised. He was not an eccentric playboy; he was a predator. No one wanted his sperm.
At a certain point, this argument becomes too easy. The man is dead. The man was bad. There is only so much railing to be done against a bad, dead man, especially when his jailhouse death was entirely preventable, when he had been on suicide watch only days before.
But already, less than 48 hours after his death, we are moving away from what the story should be about. We are already moving into a land of conspiracy theories, where the President of the United States retweets a baseless, bizarre hypothesis that Bill and Hillary Clinton were responsible for Epstein's death.
Jeffrey Epstein should not be remembered as a man who once lent his private plane to Bill Clinton. He should not be remembered as a man who socialised with Donald Trump. The glittery trappings of his fame should be the footnote of his Wikipedia entry. The bulk of it should be the names of every victim — Jennifer Araoz, Virginia Roberts Giuffre, Johanna Sjoberg — detailing all the things he did behind closed doors and with the help of enablers. Allegedly.
He does not deserve to be a conspiracy theory. When you do what he allegedly did, you do not deserve to be anything but paralysed in your courtroom seat, as the world watches you go from powerful to pathetic, as your victims make it clear that your money and connections are incidental, that the girls you hurt were the heroes all along.
• Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post's Style section and author of American Fire