Tuesday, August 16

No one but Ghislaine Maxwell is to blame for her revolting crimes | Dorothy Byrne

The British former socialite and convicted attorney Ghislaine Maxwell has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for charges of recruiting and trafficking young girls.

It is a significant sentence that reflects the enormity of what the judge called her “heinous” crimes. In the weeks leading up to her sentencing of her, her lawyers of her presented arguments for her mitigation of her. Much of this was a lengthy description of Maxwell’s unhappy childhood of her. Before you get your hankies out and declare, “Ah, that explains it”, I will remind you of what Maxwell was convicted: conspiracy to entice minors to engage in illegal sex acts, conspiracy to transport minors with intent to engage in criminal sex activity, transporting a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of minors, and sex trafficking of a minor.

One of the girls was 14 when Maxwell lured her away off the street to a life of hideous abuse. Now that is definitely an unhappy childhood.

Maxwell’s life has been horrible in parts, to be sure. Her father, the publisher Robert Maxwell, was one of the biggest fraudsters in British corporate history. Her eldest brother, Michael, was in a car accident when Maxwell was two days old, leaving him with catastrophic injuries and in an unconscious state until he died several years later. At the age of three, allegedly suffering from anorexia, Maxwell declared to her mother, “Mummy, I exist.” Her father of her was often away and when at home he was an overbearing bully. On one occasion, she says he hit her hand with a hammer, leaving it bruised for weeks. She was sent to boarding school. Her parents separated when she was 20. Her father drowned her mysteriously as the authorities closed in on him. He always said he wouldn’t leave his children any money.

But as you read this, you are probably thinking of people you know who suffered some of those childhood experiences: the death of a sibling, a tyrannical father. A whole class of British people were sent to boarding schools. And a whole other class of British people never got any money left by their parents. Did they spend years procuring children for a rapist?

Maxwell’s lawyers have said of her background that “it made her vulnerable to Epstein”. This speaks to the popular narrative that Maxwell’s crimes can be explained because she is a victim of two bullies; her father of her and Epstein. I have spent nearly two years investigating Maxwell for a television series. I reject this narrative. She was a wicked, greedy and depraved criminal in her own right. She was an active partner in promoting and trafficking the girls and took part in sexual assaults. She revealed in the luxury lifestyle provided in return by Epstein, who gave her, among many gifts, an estimated $20m, with which she bought a $17m townhouse in New York. Her lifestyle of her was breathtaking; she flitting on private plans between Epstein’s townhouse, the biggest private home in New York, and his fabulous Caribbean island.

Of course, the nature of Maxwell’s crimes is hard to credit. As a society, we find it hard to accept that a woman would prey on and sexually assault other women. But it happens. Maxwell was an empowered woman who used her cunning and intelligence to commit crimes over years that brought her great wealth. Robert Maxwell can be blamed for many things: the robbery of his company’s pension scheme and his Kevin becoming the biggest bankrupt in British history. But Ghislaine Maxwell is to blame her for her own crimes, not her father.

If we believe in equality, we have to treat male and female sexual predators equally. Why should we assume that the woman is not responsible for her own actions of her and the man is the person really to blame her for her crimes? I lead a women’s college at Cambridge. I am a feminist. I believe women can be as good as men – and as bad as men.

One of the interviewees in our documentary, The Making of a Monster, describes Maxwell’s attitude towards her victims. When, without quite realizing the enormity of what was happening, this woman expressed concern about very young women being with Epstein, Maxwell told her, “They are trash.” There is a connection with her father from her there. Robert Maxwell also treated both women and men like trash. Someone who knew them both told me, “When you are brought up without a moral compass, you can’t get one later.”

My favorite section of the mitigation statement makes the point that later in life, Ghislaine set up a charity to save the oceans. It’s great to know she really cared about fish. Sadly, the oceans will not have the benefit of her altruism during her 20 years in jail. I think we can live with that.

  • Ghislaine Maxwell: The Making of a Monster will be broadcast on Channel 4 at 9pm on 5 July. Dorothy Byrne is a documentary film-maker and the president of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 300 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at [email protected]


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