Good Friends Are the Keepers of Our Secrets
Why E. Jean Carroll entrusted her secret to her friends and not the police.
This week, a nine-person jury in New York unanimously determined that Donald Trump accosted journalist E. Jean Carroll in the dressing room of a luxury department store in 1996.
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center estimates that 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police.
So it shouldn’t be all that surprising that two decades ago, when victim-blaming surrounding sexual violence was even more prevalent than it is today, Carroll didn’t report being sexually assaulted when it first happened.
Yet, she felt a need to tell someone. Instead of going to the police, she told her two closest friends.
According to Carroll, when she bumped into Trump at the store, he asked her to help him pick out lingerie for a female friend. She had once been a comedy writer for Saturday Night Live and often had a humorous take on things. As they entered the dressing room together, she conjured up an image of Trump trying on the lingerie over his pants, thinking it would make a “great story” to recount to her fellow writers.
But playful banter ceased to be funny when it turned into sexual assault.
After the assault, Carroll quickly exited the store and phoned her friend and fellow journalist, Lisa Birnbach. According to a May 11 podcast, The Daily, Birnbach said Carroll was “laughing” as she recounted her story.
But Birnbach didn’t find the incident the least bit funny. Instead, she alerted her friend to the reality of the situation, urging her to report it to the police.
“You’ve been raped!” she insisted. She even offered to accompany Carroll to the police precinct.
The other friend she confided in, journalist Carol Martin, had a different—but also honest—assessment of the situation. She cautioned Carroll against going to the police. She warned her friend that Trump had too much power and told her, “He will bury you.”
For many years after, the women say they never spoke about the secret again.
We all can conjecture about what we might do if we were in the same shoes:
Some of us might have immediately called 911 to report the assault; others might have waited, taking the time to calm down and come to our senses before deciding.
Why women tell friends things they can’t tell anyone else
Why would a woman turn to a friend rather than law enforcement?
A woman who is sexually assaulted might worry about feeling judged or blamed by the police.
Or, she might remain silent, blaming herself.
Was there something I did to provoke him?
Was it something I said? Or the outfit I wore?
Perhaps I gave off the wrong signals.
The bonds of female friendship
Good friends are the trusted keepers of our secrets. Some secrets are tiny ones, but others are so horrific that we aren’t comfortable sharing them with anyone else.
Here are some reasons why female friendship is so powerful:
Friends don’t judge
Friends provide comfort, support and empathy. We’re able to confide in our friends without worrying that what we say will be misconstrued, mishandled or used against us.
Friends listen and understand
There is an ease of communication and understanding between female friends. Not only are friends willing to listen, but because friends have a shared history, they respect and care for us and can empathize with our pain.
Friends offer an honest reality check
Sometimes we need another person to validate or interpret our experiences. Friends can do just that, even if it runs counter to the way we see things.
Friends are stress-busters
When we bottle up feelings, it can create stress, angst and can even lead to a host of physical problems.
Feeling comfortable spilling our secrets to a friend relieves some of the burdens and can make us feel better able to cope, even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Friends are trustworthy
With a good friend, we know a secret won’t be passed on to others. It will remain a secret. Women often tell their friends things they would be reluctant to share with their partners, parents, or therapists.
It’s easy to understand Carroll’s hesitancy and confusion after the assault, her wish to move forward and put it behind her.
Only she couldn’t.
When a 2022 New York law, the Adult Survivors Act, opened a one-year window for people to sue their assailants despite an expired statute of limitations, Carroll summoned up the courage to stand up against her powerful assailant and speak out.
As we all now know, Carroll won the case.
Some thirty years later, justice was finally served—again with the help of Carrolls’ friends—who served as contemporaneous witnesses in the civil case.
Trump was found guilty of sexual assault and ordered to pay Carroll $5 million for battery and defamation.
We can trust good friends with our secrets.
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Note: Survivors of sexual assault can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or visit hotline.rainn.org/online for confidential support.
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E. Jean: Our heartfelt congratulations!!