In 1996 Donald Trump asked E. Jean Carroll to try on an outfit in a dressing room. He said he wanted to see what it looked like because he was considering buying it for another woman. When they were in the dressing room, as her testimony makes clear to me if not the jury, he raped her.
In 2019 she made her story public, and today, in 2023, in a civil trial, Donald Trump was found guilty of sexually abusing and defaming her.
In 1993, E. Jean Carroll bought me a dress.
I was twenty-three years old, and employed, in my first year out of college, at Elle Magazine. E. Jean was the new agony aunt, and her column needed letters from young women with real problems. One day she came down the line of cubicles and peeked in at me where I sat looking like something the cat dragged in, utterly failing to make sense of my life. “I think you can help me, Bethany,” she said.
The job at Elle was an astounding windfall for any newly minted English major. For the right person, it would have been the first step in a fabulous career in a profession that rewards professional women. But I was not the right person. In short, I wasn’t raised to it. My family dressed from the Goodwill. Plenty of people who shop second hand learn, because of that practice, to have incredible style. Not me. My mother spent most of my childhood thinking earrings and makeup were signs of moral depravity, and by the time she had freed herself of those godly doctrines it was too late for me. The moment for learning how to look like a girl had passed me by, not that it ever would have worked for me. I was beginning to suspect that I was queer, which meant, in 1993, that I had very little hair. The hair I did have was cut for me by my roommate and there were definite bald patches here and there.
I was not comfortable at Elle and although I adored my boss, the great features editor Pat Towers, my year in magazines was spent in a deep funk of not-fitting-in. Worse even than seventh grade, when I had eye surgery and I had to wear a patch for months, and my best friend dumped me for the popular crowd, and I was suspended for lying about not being able to swim in order to avoid being naked in front of other girls.
At Elle, my coworkers were actually very nice. No one behaved like they were in seventh grade. But friendship was impossible. Towering models wafted through the halls, but the other young women employed in the various departments were equally unreal in their beauty and poise. They were all paid as wretchedly as I was. But they would go out for sushi lunches, spend hundreds at Prada sales, take taxis everywhere, go on fabulous weekend trips with one another and their handsome boyfriends, and each one seemed to live in her own Manhattan apartment. The solution was quickly agreed upon by everyone including myself. I was the “quiet one.”For months I spoke to no one (though eventually Deb, butch voice of reason in fact checking, took pity on me, so I did leave Elle with a friend). I spent lunch hours sneaking Taco Bell into the bathroom because I didn’t want anyone to see my lonely desk-side lunch of fast food.
When E. Jean peeked around the cubicle wall and told me she needed my help finding young people my age with problems, I nearly threw myself on her bosom to cry out my own woes. I didn’t, but I am sure she knew exactly what they were. She pulled up a chair and explained that she needed letters from “women like you.” Without underlining the obvious fact that I was a duckling among swans, E. Jean assured me that my life was interesting. That I had friends whose problems would be more than just “boyfriend and clothing stuff.”
Did I ever.
For a few months as E. Jean’s column got going, I got my equally freaked-out friends, scattered after college to cities and towns around the country, to write to her about their lives. Soon enough the “real” letters picked up (my friends’ problems were real too, of course), and E. Jean didn’t need me anymore.
Then one day she peeked around my cubicle again, holding a dark blue Gap box. “I brought you something as a thank you,” she said.
The fact that the dress was from The Gap was perfectly pitched – I could accept it and understand it. That it was a shirtwaister, dark blue, was perfect for a nascent soft butch. I ran to the bathroom and tried it on. When I came out, she told me to unbutton one more button. “That looks more comfortable,” she said. “Your clothes shouldn’t wear you.”
“How did you know what size I am?” I asked, amazed. I myself didn’t know my size.
She smiled at the bald-patched scrawny child who must have looked like a Victorian orphan and said nothing. The answer, of course, was all around us, on the 44th Floor, in the offices of Elle Magazine. Actual women are trained in the wheelhouse of patriarchy to know each other’s sizes.
What actual women do with that knowledge is up to them.
What E. Jean used that knowledge for was to look at me, see me, see what I needed, and give it to me. She did it tenderly and couched as a thank-you. She made my miserable year briefly joyous and reminded me that I am someone who exists in the world, who has interesting friends, and who has something to offer. She went into a Gap, saw the dress, imagined me. She could read my body, but also my class, my nascent boy-ness, my buttoned-up-ness. She knew my being and set about doing what she could for it, which was clothe it. She purchased the dress, and had it put in a box like a fancy present from a fancy store. She gave it to me. In giving it to me, she gave me a helping of her confidence, and her beauty, and her huge, joyous generosity of spirit.
Over the next five years, long after I left that good job that was bad for me, I wore the dress to a shred.
Donald Trump lured E. Jean into a changing room by inviting her to help another woman by trying on clothes. It is a sickening lure – and part of the turn-on must have been his belief that women are the same; women are, like dresses, interchangeable. “That’s Marla,” Trump said, when shown a picture of himself meeting E. Jean.
E. Jean, I want you to know. That dress, that sartorial help given from one woman to another, was a profound gift, given at just the right moment. I haven’t worn a dress in over twenty years. I still have no idea what size I am. But I do look best in dark blue, which is something you taught me, and more importantly, of course, I am not “the quiet one.” I am sorry beyond words that, a few years after I met you and rustled up some letters – letters about how to survive as a young woman in a brutally sexist world – you were raped by that disgusting person. I am angry that Elle, where you had such a wonderful career, was so wretched to you, firing you almost immediately after you came forward with your story. Most of all, now simply as a citizen, I am profoundly grateful for your courage.
Bethany Schneider is Associate Professor of Literatures in English at Bryn Mawr College