Epstein Confidante Ghislaine Maxwell is Unlike Any Enabler We've Seen Before

Acting US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Audrey Strauss, announces charges against Ghislaine Maxwell during a July 2, 2020, press conference in New York City.  (JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week, 20 police officers and FBI agents raided a lavish home in Bedford, New Hampshire and emerged with Ghislaine Maxwell in handcuffs. Maxwell, a close associate, confidante and—many say—co-conspirator of Jeffrey Epstein, now faces six counts related to the sex trafficking of minors, very similar to the ones that Epstein didn't live long enough to face in court.

Epstein's accusers have long claimed that Maxwell recruited, groomed and exploited them; that he couldn't have done what he did without her assistance. Federal prosecutors charge that Maxwell even took part in some of the sexual abuse directly. But the 58-year-old Brit has been evading authorities so flagrantly and for so long that, last year, the Sun newspaper resorted to offering a £10,000 reward for information leading to her location.

Following 2017's #MeToo reckoning, the world became all too familiar with the ways that enablers can assist and protect prominent sexual predators. But of all of the enablers that have emerged in the last few years, Maxwell is arguably the most notorious. That's partly because she's a woman alleged to have facilitated the abuse of others. And it's partly because of the degree and depth of her involvement with Epstein ("She had served him for years, maintaining his homes, ranch, and private island," reports Vanity Fair).

But it's also partly because the allegations against her represent a new, monstrous degree of enabling we've not quite seen before.

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What we're accustomed to hearing about enablers is that their work is done incrementally; little by little; one blind eye at a time. And it usually takes a whole team of them. Bill Cosby had attorneys—Martin Singer brokered deals to get accusations scrubbed from the press. He had agents—Tom Illus distributed money to multiple women, without ever asking what it was for. He had writers—Mark Whitaker's in-depth biography, Cosby: His Life and Times, failed to mention any accusations against the actor, despite them being well-known at the time. He had a PR team that attempted to suppress that viral comedy routine by Hannibal Buress. And he definitely had doctors, as evidenced by his seven prescriptions for quaaludes.

Harvey Weinstein had a similar deputized army of defense. In 2017, The Guardian listed as Weinstein enablers everyone from "lowly limousine drivers," on up through the lawyers who drew up NDAs to silence accusers, and all the way to New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance—who opted not to prosecute Weinstein despite strong evidence against him. Weinstein's brother and business partner, Bob, is widely presumed to have been complicit in the abusive behavior. Then there's David Boies, the lawyer who tried to stop the New York Times from exposing Weinstein in the first place. (In a strange twist, Boies is now representing several women in the process of suing Ghislaine Maxwell.)

Like many of Weistein's assistants, enablers often claim they simply didn't realize the seriousness of what was happening at the time. Some are swept up in friendship—Louis CK's predilection for masturbating in front of unsuspecting women is said to have been an open secret in comedy circles for years. And for many of his pals, including Sarah Silverman, it just didn't seem like that big a deal.

Some enablers may assume that in celebrity circles, predatory behavior is simply the norm. Photographer Terry Richardson is said to have had assistants that laughed along and took photos while he was behaving inappropriately during shoots. Some, it's been alleged, even provided towels to clean up after on-set sex acts had taken place.

When entities enable, it's usually related to how profitable the offender is to them. Fox News assisted Bill O’Reilly in quietly settling five sexual harassment lawsuits totaling $13 million. Not only did NBC know about the button under Matt Lauer's desk, those door closing mechanisms were "a commonly available feature in executive offices in multiple NBCUniversal facilities."

For Ghislaine Maxwell, her motivations appear to be comprised of all three. She was emotionally invested in Epstein as a sometime-girlfriend. Her ability to live luxuriously was greatly facilitated by helping him. And she had grown up doting on her father, Robert Maxwell—one of the most morally bankrupt tycoons in modern British history. It's possible that she thought all wealthy people just did whatever the hell they wanted. 

One of the stranger aspects of Maxwell and Epstein's relationship is in the power dynamic. Many prominent predators get people around them to toe the line by reminding everyone how powerful they are, how much there is to lose by holding them accountable, and how much there is to gain from turning a blind eye. But Ghislaine Maxwell, a worldly socialite, was in many ways the reason Epstein was able to make so many prestigious contacts in the first place.

In the "Lady Ghislaine" episode of the Broken: Jeffrey Epstein podcast, host Ariel Levy notes that Maxwell "was the one who connected this college dropout from Brooklyn to what would otherwise have been the impenetrable echelon of American presidents, British royalty and world-famous scientists."

Epstein had the money, but Maxwell had the connections. For a while, at least, they benefited from each other. Maxwell not only facilitated Epstein's rise, but she helped to keep him there, by any means necessary. Whether it was for power, money or love, we'll probably never know.

One thing of which we can be certain is that there has never been an enabler like Ghislaine Maxwell before. The criminal charges against her reflect that. (Even Bob Weinstein still has a career.)  Perhaps bringing her to justice will be a step forward in making up for all the other ones that got away. And that includes Jeffrey Epstein.