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Heartbreaking Takeaways From Netflix's New Jeffrey Epstein Docuseries

Trigger Warning and Author’s Note: This documentary describes in detail various sexual acts including nude massage, masturbation, touching, pornography and intercourse in detail from the perspectives of the victims as teenagers. Their stories may be too graphic for some viewers to listen to without causing distress. It also details ways in which they felt emotionally and physically violated and the resulting mental health challenges they have endured. If you are struggling with PTSD or any other resulting mental health diagnosis related to sexual abuse, I don’t recommend you view this series alone and perhaps consult with a counselor or therapist to assess your readiness to absorb graphic material. 

This week, a docuseries entitled “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich” premiered on Netflix. In it, the billionaire’s rise to power and criminal activities are exposed in detail, including the intricate “sexual pyramid scheme” he and his associate, Ghislaine Maxwell, conducted for decades, leaving behind it a proverbial graveyard of victims whose innocence and lives were irreparably damaged.

The choice of title is appropriate. What is depicted throughout the four-part docuseries is a rich pedophile who through manipulation, deceit and weaving a complicated web of high profile connections, manages to exploit children for decades. His filth goes beyond his obsession with child pornography and sexual attraction to children. His filth filters down to lying about his education, cheating business partners out of money, hiding funds abroad to avoid taxes, and ultimately leveraging the copious information he gathered about the indiscretions of a multitude of high ranking individuals who he bribed to keep himself out of trouble. It’s infuriating and disturbing for anyone to watch, but for a survivor of sexual abuse, it’s almost intolerable.

Full disclosure, I’ve done a lot of work on my abuse in therapy. I’m no longer triggered in ways I used to be and can generally watch other survivors tell their stories without feeling overwhelmed. However, the level of depravity and the scope and scale of the abuses suffered by the dozens of women interviewed for this series was even difficult for me to stomach. As such, I’m going to break my comments down into more digestible segments focusing on key points and takeaways as a survivor.

Anger: I am angered by a lot of things about this story, but first and foremost by the sheer number of individuals involved in the perpetuation of this cycle of abuse. Employees of Epstein, attorney’s, celebrities and his own romantic partners, who not only witnessed what was happening, but on many occasions took part in the actual assaults, never said a word about what was happening. Whether they were afraid of repercussions or morally corrupt, not one of them contacted authorities to alert them as to what was happening at Epstein’s homes and as far as I am concerned every single one of those individuals are culpable and deserves to pay for their negligence and inhumanity.

I am also appalled at the media referring to the girls being abused by Epstein as “prostitutes.” Yes, these girls were being paid, but many of them came from very difficult circumstances and were looking for a way out. None of them were told that what they were getting themselves into was going to involve sexual intercourse or watching a grown man masturbate in front of them. Those that returned did so out of fear. Those he essentially used as pimps to find new girls did so to avoid having to be abused. Every one of those girls was a victim and too young to consent to any kind of sexual activity. Period. End of story. 

Grooming: Epstein was a master manipulator and was extremely adept at identifying girls who were vulnerable. Sexual predators do this all the time. They find an easy target. One who isn’t surrounded by a loving family, whose caretakers are absent, who may be struggling with substance abuse or who may have issues with bullying or insecurity in school. These girls desperately crave the positive attention of someone who seems powerful and who pretends to care for them, showering them with gifts and words of endearment. That’s how they get hooked and that’s why they then cannot escape. They feel indebted to their abuser for what they were given and it feels like betrayal to deny the abuser whatever they want even if it feels disgusting and shameful. 

Trauma Response: We often discuss the ways in which the human brain reacts to perceived threat, citing the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response. Almost every woman interviewed talked about feeling shocked, removed from their bodies and incapable of moving. This dissociative freeze response is especially common amongst sexual assault survivors because it is adaptive in protecting them from even more harm. What I found poignant and extremely relatable was how in those moments where these girls were enduring horrific violations of their bodies, they were acutely observant of everything else around them. They noted smells, textures like the feeling of sweat on their skin, tastes, photos and art on the wall, layout of the rooms in the house, outfits people wore — such distinct details that they almost could draw them or make a movie of them in hyper-reality. This is something I personally relate to and it’s the thing that haunts survivors in the form of flashbacks. You relive with every ounce of your being what happened to you and it’s a constant reminder of the helplessness, shame and disgust you felt when the abuse happened. In my experience, it’s one of the most difficult parts of abuse to heal from.

Lack of Resolution: Many survivors of sexual abuse never get any kind of resolution. Either the perpetrator has long since passed away or the statute of limitations to prosecute have come and gone. Thanks to a persistent FBI and NYPD, charges were finally made against Epstein in July of 2019 on the grounds of sex trafficking, a crime which carries with it a maximum sentence of 45 years if convicted. His New York apartment was searched and hundreds of photos and images of child pornography were retrieved. This finally gave his victims some hope that they might just get their day in court and that this vile man would finally get what he was due. As we all know, he was denied bail, placed in jail and then found dead in his jail cell of an apparent suicide by hanging on August 10, 2019. Blackmail schemes circulated and an autopsy was performed casting doubt on whether it was in fact a suicide. Once again his victims were left in anguish. To make matters worse, two days prior to his death, Epstein placed his funds in a trust which was transferred to the Virgin Islands, insuring that it was unlikely that any of his victims would ever receive a penny of restitution. 

What an unimaginable gut punch to these victims. They had already endured hell. They survived the disgusting abuse. They survived the resulting self-harm, addictions, eating disorders and other mental health struggles caused by the abuse. Now, their one chance at gaining any kind of closure was taken away from them. As one of the survivors said, “All I ever wanted was for someone in power to listen and to hear me.”

In truth, that’s all most of us who have been abused really want. We cannot rewrite the past and undo the damage of being sexually abused. But what we can do is reclaim our power by telling our stories and being believed. For too long these brave women have been muzzled by a society that reveres power and money over the sanctity of human life. This docuseries has finally given them their voice back and will hopefully help them reclaim what was rightfully theirs… themselves.

Screenshot via Netflix