Harvey Weinstein leaves court after pleading not guilty during arraignment on rape and criminal sex act charges at State Supreme Court, New York, NY, on June 5, 2018. Image credit: lev radin / Shutterstock
Like a lot of local Jewish readers curious to know how a presumably nice Jewish boy from the outer boroughs turned into a convicted sex criminal, I spent part of my summer devouring Ken Auletta’s Hollywood Ending (Penguin Press, 2022), an unflinching account of the life and crimes of Harvey Weinstein.
It’s both a difficult and a compelling read, and for the same reason: it’s hard to turn one’s gaze from a person as awful as the Weinstein we discover on the pages of Auletta’s book—a complete monster.
In its etymology, “monster” is related to the French “montre,” to show, to portend. Weinstein was certainly that, a living demonstration of the threat that lies at the hearts of powerful men.
Still, why Weinstein’s monstrosity manifested itself precisely as it did—as repeated sexual aggression against women—needs to be considered, I think, in a wider context.
That the abuse of the allure of power is not strictly the province of the Weinsteins of the world is demonstrated by a poem by a man one feels safe in considering at antipodes from Harvey Weinstein, Leonard Cohen. In a poem from his 1975 collection The Energy of Slaves he wrote:
I wanted when I was 15
I have them now
it is very pleasant
it is never too late
I advise you all
to become rich and famous.
In his search for the “Rosebud” of the Weinstein story, Auletta proposes several plausible answers. Along with sociopathy, he zeroes in on Weinstein’s home life as a child and adolescent, with the constant “screaming and denigration” by his mother Miriam, for whom nothing Harvey or his brother did was ever good enough. (Ever the dutiful sons, despite the frostiness on the home front, Harvey and Bob named their company Miramax after Miriam and the Weinsteins’ father, Max).
Weinstein’s sometimes lawyer David Boies told Auletta that Miriam later was proud of her sons’ success: “But it was too late. Everything that happens after you’re eighteen is too late.”
This last sentence leads us to what I think is the real key to the mystery of how someone becomes Harvey Weinstein, an explanation that also allows us to explain the crimes of Jeffrey Epstein.
The answer lies in their times, or rather, the times in which they came of age. Auletta writes that “no evidence has surfaced of Harvey’s sexual abuse in high school or college.” It began when he gained power as a rock concert promoter in Buffalo. Weinstein later would excuse his licentiousness by saying he had been initiated into the entertainment industry by rock and roll. In a statement he issued after his guilty verdict he wrote: “I came of age in the 60s and 70’s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then. I have since learned it’s not an excuse.”
I also think the story is more complicated than simply blaming everything on sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
Harvey Weinstein—like Jeffrey Epstein—was the product not of a liberated sexuality gone haywire but of a liberated sexuality that passed them by when it mattered most. Weinstein and Epstein were roughly the same age: Weinstein born in 1952 and Epstein in 1953. Both grew up in middle-class, outer borough New York Jewish households in mortally dull neighborhoods that were bypassed by the much talked about sexual revolution of the late 60s.
Like these two men, I grew up far from the center of the city, in a neighborhood that was great for a child but death for an adolescent and young man. In 1967, 1968, 1969 sex was all a teenager heard about, but the actual act didn’t make it to Mill Basin, Brooklyn. We were good Jewish boys and though—like Philip Roth’s Portnoy—we wanted to be bad, the good Jewish girls we dated (in segregated New York, if you were a Jew you lived among, went to school with, and only knew other Jews) remained good.
So rare was it to have sex in this milieu that I can still name all of the boys in my circle—all three of them—who were having sex. I’ve asked this question of friends from similar neighborhoods and backgrounds elsewhere in the outer boroughs, and all gave the same answer as mine: free love happened to someone else somewhere else.
Flushing, Queens, where Weinstein grew up, and Sea Gate, Brooklyn, where Epstein grew up, were no different. In fact, Epstein’s neighborhood can serve as the symbol for the syndrome I’m describing: Sea Gate is a gated community at the western end of Coney Island, accessible to nothing and truly a place where there is no there there. Hormones were raging, free love was everywhere, but for those of us living in the Gotham equivalent of the boondocks, good Jewish boys all, surrounded by good Jewish girls, it might as well have been happening on another planet.
Auletta refers in his book to Portnoy’s Complaint as a literary version of Weinstein’s life, and the choice is clearly apposite, but only up to a point. Portnoy, like so many of Roth’s heroes, lives in a kind of sexual frenzy, the good Jewish boy striving to smash the constraints of his good Jewish home, with sex the way out. But that’s not the Roth book that explains the world that Weinstein and Epstein (and I) grew up in. That’s found in Roth’s great novella, Goodbye, Columbus.
In this, his first book, Roth perfectly described both lower-middle class and parvenu Jews. Though it takes place well before the sexual revolution, the two main characters, Neil and Brenda, the adored daughter of a successful plumbing supply salesman in Newark, have sex with regularity. But when Brenda’s diaphragm is discovered in her room at home while she’s away at college, the full force of her parents’ puritanical attitudes is unleashed.
Her mother writes her a scathing letter in which she wonders: “I don’t know what we ever did that you should reward us this way.” Her father is conciliatory but firm: “This late in my life believe me I am not going to start hating my flesh and blood,” and calls her having slept with Neil a “mistake.” Having sex is a major transgression, a total betrayal of the way of life that prevails. Neil and Brenda’s love comes to an end, family attitudes and morality winning out.
None of this had changed a decade later: it is the world Weinstein, Epstein, and I grew up in.
The crushing contradiction between what was said to be occurring in the world, i.e., the collapse of taboos, and the stultifying reality in middle-class Jewish ghettos, could not but permanently damage their teenage psyches (and mine). Most of us just incorporated the scars into our psyches. For Jeffrey Epstein—and even more for Harvey Weinstein, who was overweight and ugly to boot—once they had access to money and power over people’s lives, the world of free sex they hadn’t had access to in their youth was suddenly open to them.
Weinstein viewed women the way he did the M&Ms Auletta tells us he stuffed himself with, grabbing as many as he could. Epstein is almost too perfect an example of what I am claiming. Once wealthy in his fifties and sixties, he lived the life he didn’t live as a teenager. The girls he abused were all very young, some underage—precisely the age of the girls he never had when he was a teenager. Leonard Cohen’s poem could have been written about Epstein, whose pleasure boat was called . . . “Lolita II.”
The uncontrolled way that Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein approached sex is so far off the scale that it had to have addressed a deep-seated need, and the form it took spoke of their anger and resentment.
The women Weinstein raped and that Epstein abused and took advantage of were not only molested as an expression of male power—though they were that—nor were they violently assaulted because, say, Weinstein’s mother belittled him as a child.
Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein were avenging themselves on a world whose happiness and freedom mocked them at a crucial point in their emotional development. Many of us had similar experiences. But the power and wealth of Weinstein and Epstein enabled them both to wreak revenge on women in the worst possible way.
Mitchell Abidor is a Brooklyn-based writer and translator.