The Lasting Harm by Lucia Osborne-Crowley review – legacy of abuse

It’s not often a book reverberates around my head for days. But there is something brilliantly unsettling about this account of the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, the British socialite jailed for procuring young girls for the billionaire paedophile Jeffrey Epstein. Having watched from the press box as the case descended into a media circus, Lucia Osborne-Crowley begins by promising to put the victims back at the heart of the story, tracing the impact of the abuse they suffered as children through to their middle-aged lives. But it soon emerges that this book isn’t just about the vulnerable teenagers Maxwell and Epstein groomed for sexual entertainment, exploiting their desperation for affection or for money. It’s also about the author and, less comfortably, the reader too.

A paralegal turned freelance journalist, Osborne-Crowley was abused herself from the age of nine by a non-family member, then violently raped at 15 by a stranger (something she has written about extensively in two previous books). She makes no pretence at journalistic distance from her subject, but instead a virtue out of being almost too close to it: less objective narrator than increasingly traumatised participant. At first, I find her habit of constantly inserting herself into a story supposedly centring other victims faintly irritating. By the end, I’m converted. By interweaving her own insights with those of the Maxwell victims she interviews, she forms the bigger picture.

“Yes, I am biased,” she writes. “Everybody is, whether we own it or not.” Sexual violence is so common that, statistically speaking, there’s a reasonable chance in any court trying sex offences that someone – juror, lawyer, reporter or even judge – will have at least a private inkling of what the officially acknowledged victim is describing from the witness stand. (In the Maxwell case, there were at least three such hidden victims in the room: Osborne-Crowley herself, a juror who told her after the trial that he’d been abused as a child and had talked about that to other jurors, plus more unexpectedly an expert witness on false memories called in Maxwell’s defence.)

But if experience skews her view, she writes, what about the male reporters sitting alongside her, questioning perceived inconsistencies in the women’s testimony? Aren’t they biased by what they haven’t experienced, too easily swayed by myths about how a “real” victim supposedly behaves? If experience equals bias, then we all have it. The only remedy is to keep consciously questioning our own gut instincts and prejudices, a process through which she gently leads the reader.

Why are victims’ recollections of what happened to them often suspiciously patchy? The holes in a story, Osborne-Crowley argues, can be “the truest part”; memories of something traumatic are often fragmented by shock.

Why do they sometimes do perplexing things, such as repeatedly going back to the perpetrator? Even I feel my scepticism mounting as Osborne-Crowley tells the story of Liz, a young woman who claims that even after being sexually assaulted by Maxwell and Epstein, she was repeatedly persuaded to come to parties where Maxwell promised her she would meet rich and important men, only to be attacked again and again. But Liz, the author eventually discloses, was previously abused as a young child. This is the cycle she knows: someone who pretends to care, then hurts you. “We keep going back to perpetrators even after the abuse starts, because we want a different ending; we’ve been shown the good parts and we want them back.”

Osborne-Crowley makes some thoughtful recommendations for reforming the court process, although I worry that in parts they could impinge on a fair trial for defendants. Journalistically too, there are some threads left hanging: things she hints at being unable to publish for legal reasons, claims of a cover-up to protect Epstein’s powerful friends, seemingly crucial witnesses she can’t track down. But perhaps that’s unsurprising, given that while writing the book she had a breakdown, triggered by hearing so many brutal stories and inevitably reliving her own.

Where the book excels however is in its empathy, insight and ability to gently expose the reader to themselves, with all their unthinking assumptions. Osborne-Crowley wasn’t, it turns out, just watching the trial. She has been watching us, watching it, through a lens that most don’t even realise is there.

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The Lasting Harm: Witnessing the Trial of Ghislaine Maxwell by Lucia Osborne-Crowley is published by Fourth Estate (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

The Guardian