Jessica Mann cried. She sobbed. She snapped at the defense lawyer. She admitted that she could be manipulative. She digressed. She asked again and again to be heard — to explain — but then struggled to find the words.
Mann’s epic testimony, spread over three days in Manhattan Supreme Court, will go a long way toward either convicting Harvey Weinstein or setting him free. Mann alleges that Weinstein raped her at the DoubleTree Hotel on March 18, 2013, a claim that rests at the center of the prosecution’s case against the disgraced producer — and thus at the center of the #MeToo movement.
In order to convict him on the charges tied to that event — first-degree rape, third-degree rape, and predatory sexual assault — the jury will have to come to terms with Mann’s profoundly complex and tormented relationship with Weinstein. The critical question is whether she “consented” to have sex with Weinstein, and if not, whether he used “forcible compulsion” to commit the act. It will not be an easy question to resolve.
“The trial was set up to raise some complicated issues around consent and what it looks like,” said Deborah Tuerkheimer, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law. “Jessica Mann in particular has really been a complex witness.”
Mann grew up in among in rural Washington state, in what she described as a Pentecostal “cult.” She was beautiful. She said that in one of their first meetings, Weinstein told her she was prettier than Natalie Portman. She grew up acting in the drama club and doing local theater. Her parents divorced when she was young, and she recounted a series of step-parents and time spent living with her grandparents. She was poor. She worked at McDonald’s, did waitressing jobs, and at one point was living in her car.
She was unsophisticated. She seemed to have been told many times — and come to believe — that she was both naive and dumb. “My brain has been through a lot,” she said at one point. Later she said, “With my brain, I’m doing my best.”
She also came off as deeply traumatized. When she was asked, late on her second day of testimony, about a sexual assault she had suffered as a child, she cried so hard that she had to be helped off the witness stand. She said she suffered from depression, and had thought about killing herself, and had consulted a psychic for guidance. Asked by the defense if she had anger issues, she responded: “Yes, I’m angry. Are you my psychiatrist?”
She met Weinstein in late 2012 or early 2013. She was 27, trying to secure work as an actress, and had gone to a party in the Hollywood Hills. “Do you know who I am?” he asked. She said no. Later on, he pulled her aside, saying “I like the way you look,” and got her number. He invited her to meet him at Book Soup, where he set about introducing her to film history, buying her books on Hitchcock. Coming from a religious background, she thought God had intervened in her life. “I thought it was a blessing,” she said.
The relationship — the “dynamic,” as she called it — would become pathological. On the stand, she called Weinstein a “monster,” and described her disgust at his naked body, saying he looked like a burn victim. She called him a “drill sergeant” and a “pseudo father.” She remembered his anger, saying it reminded her of her dad.
She described feeling humiliated, embarrassed and “used.” She also acknowledged there were times when he could be charming, and genuinely nice to her, though it came with an undercurrent of manipulation. But she acknowledged that at times, she was manipulating him, too. She said there were benefits to knowing such a powerful man — he could help her get jobs and invite her to Oscar parties. People would try to get to Weinstein through her. She could seem nonchalant about the relationship, once writing to a friend that she was “blowing a super rich Hollywood producer.”
Though she said she was not remotely attracted to him, she did have “compassion” for him, and continued to engage in what she called sexual “role-playing” with him. “I did have confusing emotions,” she said. Asked why she continued to see him even after traumatic sexual encounters, she said, “There’s a lot of layers to that question.”
She said she was insecure, and thought it would be in her best interest to stay on good terms with him.
“I wanted to know that I was OK and something wasn’t going to happen to me,” she said.
She had already been inured to this dynamic by the time of the DoubleTree Hotel incident. She alleges that Weinstein showed up to the hotel unannounced, and persuaded her to come up to his room. She said she tried to get away. “I attempted twice to open the door,” she said. “He put his arm up both times on it.”
“I kind of shut down a bit and he told me to undress,” she said. It was the first time they had intercourse. “I was very angry inside and a little scared,” she said.
On cross-examination, defense attorney Donna Rotunno asked, “But Jessica, you made the choice to go up to the hotel with him?”
“It was a choice I thought I had to obey,” Mann said. “I tried to leave. I wanted to leave… I was trapped in that room.”
Rotunno argued that it was Mann who was manipulating Weinstein — pretending to want to have sex with him, continuing to do so even though she was revolted by him, because she wanted things from him. Mann said that was how she handled the situation in order to process it and survive. “I guess you can say manipulation,” she said.
To find him guilty of first-degree rape, the jury will have to find that Weinstein used force to have sex with Mann against her will. If he did not use force — but it was still against her will — it would be third-degree rape.
“She’s very believable,” said Julie Rendelman, a defense attorney who has been following the case closely. “She went deeper, in terms of everyone’s understanding of how incredibly manipulative he could be. The problem comes down to whether they (established) a crime.”
Jeffery Greco, another defense attorney, said he is not convinced.
“I think this is going to be an incredibly difficult maneuver for the prosecution to show non-consensual sex,” Greco said. “You got somebody who had a history with a man where there was a quid pro quo all the way… That is a leap of epic proportions to get from that point to ‘I was raped, it was non-consensual.’ At what point are you able to distinguish them?”
The defense has argued that Mann has reframed the relationship to fit the “2020 version” of Weinstein as a sexual predator. Rotunno asked Mann why she had not told her friends about the abuse back in 2013.
“It was my deepest secret, the things that were happening to me,” she said.
Rotunno argued that she hadn’t told anyone “because you liked the parties and you liked the potential.”
“That’s your version,” Mann said.
“Mr. Weinstein genuinely liked you, right?” Rotunno asked.
“I don’t know,” she said.