On Wednesday morning, Matt Lauer, a man accused of assault by multiple women, released an open letter directed at one woman in particular: Brooke Nevils, whose encounters with Lauer are reportedly detailed in Ronan Farrow’s forthcoming book, Catch and Kill. Because Lauer’s job was one that virtually put him in the homes of millions of Americans every morning, it’s impossible not to read the letter in his voice.
Other than that, there’s nothing really interesting within it. The defenses he lobs are lazy and familiar, like he’s copying and pasting from some pamphlet powerful men get when they’re accused of sexual violence. Which sort of makes Lauer’s letter a cultural artifact; when aliens land on the planet in some distant future, they’ll be able to look at what he’s written and see exactly how it looks when a guy is trying to cover his own ass.
In response to the letter, Nevils reiterated that her story was believed by both executives at NBC, who fired Lauer in 2017, and by Farrow. She correctly referred to Lauer’s words as “a case study in victim blaming.” Nicole Bedera, a sociology PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, whose Twitter thread about her dissertation analyzing the behavior of college men accused of assault went viral earlier this year, told VICE that Lauer’s letter—this case study—contains many of the common arguments sexual assailants use to try and control a narrative they don’t like.
“Saying that what happened between two people is consensual is probably the strongest defense that assailants have, because no one can prove otherwise,” Bedera told VICE, adding that, in this case, an important detail is how wildly different Nevils’ account is from Lauer’s. Lauer also insinuates that the past two years have been hell, though the only people in his world who seem to have experienced any harm are his ex-wife and children. Sure, saying, “I cheated” probably sucked (and may/may not be what led to his divorce), but that’s a much easier confession than, “I cheated by sexually assaulting a younger woman in my field.”
Despite the vague air of self-pity that permeates his letter, Lauer never spells out what, exactly, has been so bad. As justification for his screed, he writes that these “false stories” have brought him “harm,” but that’s about it. “Like a lot of sexual assailants who use this language of their lives being ruined, [Lauer] doesn’t actually talk about how it’s been so hard for him; he doesn’t get into specifics,” Bedera said. “If it’s anything like the experience of assailants I’ve interviewed, it’s likely because he would have a hard time articulating it. He didn’t lose anything, save for his high-power job.”
Throughout the letter, Lauer makes it sound as though he’s been doing his victims a favor by staying out of the spotlight (not totally true, since he released a statement addressing the allegations in November 2017). He refers to this as “the shelter of my silence,” like he’s kindly holding a big umbrella over all the women he’s hurt. But as Bedera pointed out, by Lauer’s own admission in this letter, he’s not actually been silent. From the letter:
“There are people who fully understand the actual dynamic that existed between Brooke and me. They have reluctantly and quietly reached out in the past two years and shared what they know. They have accurately described Brooke and her role in this affair. I hope those people will understand that these allegations cross a serious line, and what they can share is a vital truth, even if it may seem unpopular.”
Unless these people were leaving Lauer voicemails, or sending him texts/emails/letters to which he never responded, Bedera said this doesn’t sound like silence. This sounds like a guy who’s been talking about things with people in relative private. Who are these people? Lauer joined NBC in 1992, it’s reasonably safe to say his friends—like all our friends are—are similar to him, in terms of career trajectory and power. They sound like the same people Nevils would likely be trying to work for or with, and the last people she’d want gossiping about her. Lauer didn’t invent this tactic, though—in Bederas’ yet-to-be-published research, she documents a similar phenomenon among young men accused of assault in college: They talk about it way more than one might expect.
“Justin, from the Twitter thread, he said the same thing—he talked about how his life had been ruined, but he was the one who told everyone,” Bedera said. “He was the one who went around and spread rumors about it; people supported him when he was the one to say it first, this was his way of staying ahead of the story. It’s a way to gather empathy.”
It’s notable that this is the first time most people are hearing Nevils’ name. She was anonymous when she made the allegations, and in the immediate aftermath that resulted in Lauer getting fired. By Lauer’s own account in a letter he very much wants people to read, people close to him know details about his encounter with Nevils. What is it that they know, and how, exactly, do they know it?
The crucial difference between a Matt Lauer and a Justin is that Lauer’s version of “silence” is simply not talking to the press for a couple years. The damage still exists just the same. Per Bedera’s research, Justin told people in his social circle, plus women he wanted to date, about his assault in order to paint his victims as unreliable, or crazy. If Lauer has been doing the same thing—a theory Bedera’s research would support—that’s a ring of very powerful people who feel empathetic for the man who was once the highest paid anchor at NBC.
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