Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow

guest post by Lexie R

I am only slightly embarrassed to admit that when I need a break from the serious news of the day, I turn to celebrity gossip. I love reading about the secret inner-workings of the entertainment industry, the behind-the-scenes machinations that make the celebrity machine look so effortless, and the blind items about who is misbehaving. So when journalists like Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, and Ronan Farrow broke the news about accusations of producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades of abusing women, I thought to myself, “I’ve read about this on blind items sites a hundred times, how is it that none of these people knew about this?” Well, as is made clear in Ronan Farrow’s gripping new book Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, it sure seems like a whole lot of people did, in fact, know.

Catch and Kill takes the reader through the process of how Farrow investigated what was previously only whispered about: claims that mega-producer Harvey Weinstein routinely harassed and abused women for decades. If you were a “Friend of Harvey”, you made it in the entertainment industry; if you weren’t, you didn’t. For a non-fiction work that everyone knows the ending to, I found Farrow’s account to be breathless, fast-pasted, and engaging. Though I had read Farrow’s reporting of the accusations against Weinstein, there was a lot I didn’t know about how the story was investigated and all the hurdles Farrow faced in trying to report it. What was most startling was Farrow’s account of NBC executives who, after months of reporting and collecting firsthand accounts and even an audio recording of Weinstein admitting to an assault, suddenly wanted him to stop talking to sources and drop the story. This part of the story is still ongoing, with NBC disputing Farrow’s claims and alleging that he had no story until he went to The New Yorker and published it a month later.

One of the more thriller-esque parts of the book was the way he weaved in details about Weinstein apparently hiring an Israeli intelligence agency to follow Farrow and gather information on him in an effort to smear his reputation. Every few chapters or so we get a glimpse of two men sitting outside Farrow’s home in a silver Nissan or just so happening to be at the same restaurant as him, and later the precautions Farrow had to take when it because clear that he was in fact being followed and his phone was being targeted. But even in such serious parts of the book Farrow managed to include some levity; my favorite of these such moments was the revelation that the private investigators assigned to tail Farrow’s boyfriend Jon Lovett (of podcasts Pod Save America and Lovett or Leave It) gave up because Lovett’s routine was too boring (to which Jon replied “I’m interesting!…I went to an escape room!”)

All throughout the book, Farrow makes it clear that though he received many acclaims for bringing this information to light, the real heroes of story are the women who risked everything to come forward and speak up about what had been done to them. Many of these women held onto their stories for years because they had seen others lose their careers after trying to speak up; for them to do so at this time was courageous and Farrow is quick to point that out at every turn.

This is a great read if you’re interested in the incredibly thorough process of reporting, real-life espionage, and demolishing institutions that empower and encourage abusers. Highly recommended.

Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center

Cassie Hanwell is a firefighter and EMT in Austin,Texas. She’s very good at her job, respected and well-liked by her crew. She has a unique ability to remain calm under the most stressful circumstances and is fearless in dangerous situations.

Her well-ordered, tightly scheduled life begins to collapse when she is confronted by the past and when her semi-estranged Mother calls, begging her to move across the country to help her, Cassie reluctantly agrees. She can no longer stay at her current job so she packs up her life and moves to the Boston area.

Life at the small town fire station Cassie transfers to is very different from her job at the progressive and brand new Austin station. The all-male crew resent her and consider her a newbie. Funds are short and much of the equipment is old or lacking. Cassie is forced to prove herself over and over, enduring the pranks and hazing along with the rookie that joins the same day as she does. Cassie takes it all in stride except for one thing – that rookie. She has shut herself off from emotions for so long, the attraction she feels toward him is confusing and upsetting. She believes that emotions, especially love, make you weak. To top it off, her Mother is a constant source of anxiety and frustration.

Things You Save in a Fire is fast moving, exciting and complex. The descriptions of the life of a firefighter (at work and at play) are very interesting and help you appreciate what a difficult but rewarding career it must be. There are funny parts – most of the hazing is done in good spirits and Cassie has a dry sense of humor. Cassie is a wonderful character, fiercely committed to her job, strong yet vulnerable. and the crew grow to respect her. There is a serious side to the book as well, how the past can shape you and overshadow your life.  It gradually becomes apparent why Cassie has shut down her emotions and built nearly impregnable walls to protect herself; breaking down these walls is difficult and plagued with setbacks. You’ll find yourself rooting for Cassie every step of the way. Highly recommended.

Brave by Rose McGowan

Brave  by Rose McGowan, is not a “tell-all” but instead a “tell-it-like-it-is” memoir of growing up in a cult in Italy, moving to the United States, living life as a runaway, eventually becoming a Hollywood starlet, and then leaving it all behind to pursue art and activism. At times, I felt like an eavesdropper who was listening to things she probably shouldn’t be listening to; but I definitely confirmed my suspicion: that sexual assault victims will often be shamed for coming forward with accusations, especially about powerful or influential people. I think I’ve always known that victims risk public shaming and humiliation for choosing to speak out; but if you read the comment section on any of the videos or press releases that discuss Brave, you’ll see how cruel and dismissive people are behind the veil of the internet. McGowan discusses the cruelty of humanity and makes a special point to discuss how hurt she was to read such corrosive comments about herself online. Breaking the culture of silence and speaking openly and honestly about society’s elephants in the room (addiction, abuse, and mental illness come to mind) is truly heroic.

Maybe it’s not a totally shock that the Hollywood entertainment industry is exploitative at its core, but the kind of depravity and darkness that live there is probably unfathomable for outsiders. As consumers,  we need to be especially aware that what we consume – and what often appears glamorous, seductive, or exciting oftentimes conceals a dark underbelly of  disillusionment. For example, if you’ve ever seen Quentin Tarantino’s “Planet Terror”, you might not be aware that some of the movie plot bears an uncanny resemblance to some of McGowan’s personal life, and that she was made to perform feats of athleticism that would be unattainable for most women in tip-top physical condition. A more disturbing insight is that the cinema that we pay for and consume employs rape in order to tell a story, which is part and parcel of how violence, largely against women, becomes normalized. Oh, it’s just a tv show, or a movie, we say: but the unspoken truth is that it reflects social and cultural attitudes about the roles of men and women, largely that some men take what they want from women through “power” and domination. One of McGowan’s most incisive and profound questions: why are we still using rape as a method of storytelling in cinema at all?

As many people know, McGowan was one of the first women to come forward among more than 90 other women and accuse Harvey Weinstein of  rape. When she recounts her experience, she describes “depersonalization”, which occurs when you feel like you’re a stranger in your own body, viewing your life as though from the sidelines as an observer.  McGowan refers to the notoriously fallen movie “mogul” as “The Monster,” and her refusal to write or say his name, all the while spelling out other contextual details of her story, was her deliberate attempt at dethroning him. It is apparent from the tone of her voice and her unease when being interviewed on this subject that having to recall that day makes her physically ill.

McGowan has of course also been accused of being an “attention seeker” which is, in my opinion, a nasty and trite way of trying to shame her. Critics of McGowan fault her on the one hand for “telling it like it is” but in the same sentence shame for taking “hush money” and not calling Weinstein out immediately.  “Why did you wait until now to speak out?” they’ll taunt her. “You took the money,” they’ll say, without regard to any nuance or respect for her unique situation, as though the harrowing and psychologically damaging act of rape could possibly be boiled down into a black and white scenario that critics of McGowan would themselves navigate perfectly. McGowan poignantly makes her point when she says: “The only perfect rape victim is a dead rape victim and that’s a fact and it’s sad.” The simple act of speaking  is apparently so risky that it can earn you a scarlet letter; but McGowan won’t be deterred. As she says, she’s been called every awful name in the book, and worse. And still, she has the nerve and the conviction to keep her head up . I also try to keep in  mind that celebrity thrusts individuals into the line of fire and under the scope of public scrutiny.

I personally found McGowan’s candid commentary refreshing because she offers a no-holds-barred approach to honesty. In my estimation, it clearly sounds that she has spent many years thinking through these issues and can articulate herself masterfully. Brave is written by a woman who has accepted the past and wants to use her platform of celebrity to  help others, especially women, to recognize their value and to speak out when a predator is approaching.

The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith

the-way-i-used-to-beThe Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith is a deeply moving, traumatic examination of one young woman’s struggle to overcome the aftermath of a rape. Eden, a 14-year old teenage girl, is raped by Kevin, her older brother’s best friend and college roommate. Her family is asleep down the hall while he crawls into her bed. Eden is the typical band geek, good girl who lives in fear of Kevin as he tells her that he will kill her and that no one will believe her if she talks. She is paralyzed with fear and doesn’t know what to do except try to live her life like normal, an idea that quickly fails as she becomes a new person overnight.

This book follows Eden through all four years of high school, highlighting her relationships with friends and family as she keeps this dark secret under wraps. School becomes increasingly more difficult for Eden as she turns to lies, booze, sex, and parties to smother her emotions. Kevin’s younger sister, Amanda, who Eden used to be friends with, turns against her and begins spreading vicious rumors about her around school. Eden’s best friend, Mara, knows nothing about what happened to her and the two move through high school experiencing some typical high school activities: dying their hair, first crushes, getting piercings, drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes for the first time, going to parties, doing drugs, and getting their drivers’ licenses. All the while, distance begins to grow between the two. Eden also finds herself separated from her other friends and her family. She has buried who she used to be, buried her emotions, and buried her secret deep inside.

As Eden grows older, readers are able to dissect the way her rape has affected her personality and her relationships. The way Eden treats herself changes drastically from her freshman year to her senior year of high school, as evidenced through her inner monologue throughout the book. How she believes others to see her changes throughout the book as well. The long-term view of the effect this trauma has on Eden allows readers to gain a better understanding of the guilt, hatred, and complex emotions survivors face in the aftermath of rape and sexual assault. The Way I Used to Be is not an easy book to read as watching Eden disintegrate is painful, but the truth and emotions revealed are so vivid and true-to-life that this book becomes a necessary read to understand the emotions survivors experience on a day-to-day basis.  Eden carries a double burden – the weight of carrying her secret and the violation of rape. She shows strength, power, survival, disappointment, pain, heartbreak, and massive loss throughout this book, leaving readers to grow attached to her well-being and her journey through a troubled adolescent made even more difficult by rape. The Way I Used to Be takes readers on an emotional rollercoaster as Eden struggles to find her way back to herself in the aftermath of her rape.