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Uma Thurman is telling her #MeToo story. Was Maureen Dowd the right messenger?

A New York Times column on Thurman’s experiences with Harvey Weinstein and others raises questions about how journalists cover sexual misconduct.

Uma Thurman during curtain call for the play “The Parisian Woman” on November 30, 2017
Uma Thurman during curtain call for the play The Parisian Woman on November 30, 2017.
Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

“I’ve learned that when I’ve spoken in anger I usually regret the way I express myself,” Uma Thurman said in October 2017, when asked about reports of harassment and assault by men in Hollywood.

“So I’ve been waiting to feel less angry,” she went on. “And when I’m ready, I’ll say what I have to say.”

Thurman has now told her story — some of it, at any rate — to op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd at the New York Times. But while it sheds some light on Thurman’s experiences with Weinstein and director Quentin Tarantino, Dowd’s treatment of the story has inspired both confusion and criticism.

Though Thurman describes disturbing encounters with Weinstein and a harrowing car crash on the set of the film Kill Bill, it’s not entirely clear how she sees the two as connected or even exactly what happened. The result has invited questions about whether Dowd was the right person to report on Thurman’s story, questions that are part of a larger conversation about how journalists can do their subjects justice in the #MeToo era.

Dowd aims to tell the story of Thurman’s experiences with Weinstein and Tarantino — but the connections aren’t entirely clear

In Dowd’s column, which ran online in the New York Times opinion section (disclosure: I used to work there) on Saturday and in print on Sunday, Thurman offers some moving, and at times heartbreaking, insights on her position in the Hollywood system that has proved so toxic for so many.

“The complicated feeling I have about Harvey is how bad I feel about all the women that were attacked after I was,” Thurman tells Dowd. “I am one of the reasons that a young girl would walk into his room alone, the way I did.”

“I used the word ‘anger’ but I was more worried about crying, to tell you the truth,” she explains of the October interview. “I was not a groundbreaker on a story I knew to be true. So what you really saw was a person buying time.”

These are revealing glimpses into the mind of someone who feels both victimized by Weinstein and, in some way, complicit in his behavior. “I stand as both a person who was subjected to it and a person who was then also part of the cloud cover, so that’s a super weird split to have,” Thurman says. A deeper examination of that split would have been fascinating and illuminating reading, but that’s not the story Dowd tells.

Instead, what follows is a description of Thurman’s experiences with Tarantino, who directed her in Pulp Fiction and two Kill Bill movies, and with Weinstein, who produced them, that obscures more than it reveals.

Thurman tells Dowd that Weinstein attacked her in a London hotel room, pushing her down and trying to expose himself to her. In a second encounter, Dowd writes, Weinstein’s assistants pressured Thurman to go up to his hotel room, where she told the producer, “If you do what you did to me to other people you will lose your career, your reputation and your family, I promise you.” But, Dowd writes, “her memory of the incident abruptly stops there.” A friend of Thurman’s tells Dowd that Thurman came down from the hotel room shaking, and that “when the actress was able to talk again, she revealed that Weinstein had threatened to derail her career.”

An account of an incident with Tarantino is even murkier. On the set of Kill Bill in Mexico, Thurman was supposed to drive a blue convertible. She had been warned that the car was unsafe, Dowd reports, but Tarantino insisted she drive it herself. The car crashed, and Thurman sustained injuries to her knees and neck, the effects of which linger to this day. Afterward, she sought footage of the crash, but Tarantino refused.

“Now, so many years after the accident,” Dowd writes, “inspired by the reckoning on violence against women, reliving her own ‘dehumanization to the point of death’ in Mexico, and furious that there have not been more legal repercussions against Weinstein, Thurman says she handed over the result of her own excavations to the police and ramped up the pressure to cajole the crash footage out of Tarantino.”

She succeeded — Tarantino apparently handed over footage of the crash recently, and it is embedded in Dowd’s column.

The column left many readers confused — and some fear it left Thurman vulnerable

Thurman’s recollections are harrowing and the gaps in her memory entirely understandable. But Dowd’s telling of her story has left many with more questions than answers.

BuzzFeed writer Anne Helen Petersen broke down some of these questions in her newsletter. Of Thurman’s second traumatic encounter with Weinstein, Petersen writes, “we have no idea what ‘her memory of the incident stops here’ means — and how, by extension, the reader is meant to interpret what happened. Has she blocked it out? Does she not want to talk about it publicly? Did her lawyers prevent her from naming it?”

“The lack of clarity leaves what happened in that room up to the reader and their subjective inclinations, which may or may not be correct,” Petersen goes on. “The statement from Herman suggests that something aggressive happened, but leaves it wide open for speculation, counter-argument, disbelief.” By telling Thurman’s story the way she has, in other words, Dowd leaves Thurman vulnerable to those who might doubt her.

This isn’t Thurman’s fault. We don’t know what happened in that hotel room, but research has shown that trauma can affect memory, and that memories of sexual assault can be less clear than other memories. And as Petersen notes, there are many entirely valid reasons Thurman might be unwilling or unable to relay her experience in full to Dowd. But by presenting the incomplete memory along with a suggestive but unclear anecdote from a friend, Dowd gives a version of Thurman’s experience that is more confusing than illuminating.

The car crash presents even more problems. It seems that Thurman draws a connection between her experiences with Tarantino and with Weinstein: “Quentin used Harvey as the executive producer of ‘Kill Bill,’ a movie that symbolizes female empowerment,” she tells Dowd. “And all these lambs walked into slaughter because they were convinced nobody rises to such a position who would do something illegal to you, but they do.”

But it’s not entirely clear what that connection is, because Dowd doesn’t fully explain to the reader how Thurman feels about Tarantino or the car crash. Does she believe the director put her at risk on purpose, or was callous about her safety? Does she think his behavior reveals something larger about his attitude toward her as an actress or as a woman? What did it mean for her, exactly, that he withheld footage of the crash from her?

Dowd says Thurman felt disempowered by the crash, and that comes through clearly, as does the trauma of the crash itself, which left Thurman with ongoing injuries. But without really understanding how Thurman sees Tarantino’s role, we can’t understand the larger significance of the event or how it fits in with what Thurman experienced from Weinstein.

Dowd’s column is titled “This Is Why Uma Thurman Is Angry,” but ultimately, it doesn’t explain why at all.

The conversation around the column is part of a larger question: How should journalists cover sexual misconduct today?

Some have questioned whether Dowd should have been chosen to report on Thurman’s story at all, given her history of writing about women and sexual harassment. In 1998 and 1999, Dowd devoted extensive coverage to Monica Lewinsky and her relationship with President Clinton. Initially, Amanda Hess wrote at Slate in 2014, Dowd was “sympathetic to Lewinsky and damning of an administration that rushed to smear her in a bid to cover its own ass.” But soon, Hess writes, “she was calling Lewinsky ‘a ditsy, predatory White House intern who might have lied under oath for a job at Revlon’ and ‘the girl who was too tubby to be in the high school ‘in’ crowd.’”

“At first, Dowd attempted to pass this nastiness off as a sly, satirical commentary on the caricature of Lewinsky that the Clinton administration had painted in the press,” Hess continues. “But soon, the artifice disappeared, and Dowd devoted her column to arguing that, come to think of it, Lewinsky was both nutty and slutty.” Last year, Erin Gloria Ryan at the Daily Beast contrasted Dowd’s current support for #MeToo with her treatment of Lewinsky in the ’90s, asking, “Why were women who had endured sexual misconduct afraid of being slandered for coming forward? Because Maureen Dowd showed them what it would look like.”

Others have criticized Dowd’s tone in the piece, arguing that it sounds more like a celebrity puff piece than a story about sexual assault and harassment. Dowd “treats Thurman’s story like she’s writing a hackneyed Vanity Fair profile,” Petersen writes. “She describes Thurman ‘stretching out her lanky frame on a brown velvet couch in front of the fire.’ She contrasts Thurman’s ‘anguish’ with her ‘elegant apartment’ as she ‘vaped tobacco, sipped white wine, and fed empty pizza boxes into the fireplace.’”

Ultimately, Thurman appears to have been comfortable talking to Dowd, and like any survivor, she has the right to choose the circumstances under which she tells her story. We don’t yet know how she feels about the finished product. What we do know is that just like the conversation around #MeToo and sexual harassment as a whole, the conversation around journalistic coverage of sexual misconduct is evolving rapidly. Journalists are still developing their practices for covering the groundswell of new reports, and readers are thinking through their own opinions about how sexual assault and harassment should or should not be covered.

Before Dowd’s Thurman column, much debate around journalism and sexual misconduct centered on writer Katie Way of Babe.net, and her coverage of a claim of misconduct against Aziz Ansari. As Vox’s Caroline Framke wrote, “In the context of the dozens of reports that have poured out of Hollywood and beyond in the wake of the Weinstein allegations, Babe’s account of Ansari’s alleged misconduct is a startling outlier. It includes many details that a more judicious editor would have struck out of the final draft, leaning on confessional writing sensibilities that tag Grace’s recollections of the night with Way’s own opinions (‘She settled on ‘a tank-top dress and jeans.’ She showed me a picture, it was a good outfit’).”

“Because of the amateurish way the Babe report was handled,” Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote at Jezebel, “it left the subject open to further attacks, the kind that are entirely, exhaustingly predictable.”

How to report on a survivor’s story fairly and accurately, without exposing that survivor to more vitriol than necessary from those inclined to doubt — these are questions nearly every journalist who covers sexual misconduct is wrestling with right now. Petersen offers some helpful reflections, enumerating what Dowd and her editors should have asked themselves when confronted with the gaps in Thurman’s memory about Weinstein.

“This is a place when the journalist and her editors make a call,” Petersen writes. “What does this narrative do? Does the inability to report it with accuracy actually call the subject’s authority — on her own experience — into question? Does it transform a piece that’s intended [to allow] a victim of sexual harassment and abuse to tell her story into one that invites readers to doubt her?”

These are worthwhile questions for any journalist to ask when a story about sexual misconduct gets thorny. Writers — like readers, like everyone — are still learning how to operate in the new moment of public reckoning around sexual misconduct and assault, and the conversation around Dowd’s story and others can help us improve.

What that conversation should not do is detract from survivors’ stories. We don’t get a full picture of Thurman’s anger or its roots from Dowd’s column, but we get a lot, from her memory of a sexual assault by another actor at the age of 16 to her conflicted yet clear-eyed statements on her role in Weinstein’s life to her reflections on her treatment by Tarantino and others.

“It has taken me 47 years to stop calling people who are mean to you ‘in love’ with you,” Thurman tells Dowd. “It took a long time because I think that as little girls we are conditioned to believe that cruelty and love somehow have a connection.”

Dowd’s telling of Thurman’s story may be unsatisfying, but it does offer a portrait of a woman who has learned, after great pain, to stop excusing men who harm her. And that, especially in this moment, is worth remembering.