How Women Banded Together to Take on James Toback
They formed a secret group to share allegations of sexual harassment against the filmmaker. They have a plan, and they're not going away unless he goes to prison.
Ambika Leigh moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career in 2007, and almost immediately, her idealized vision of Hollywood didn't match up to its seedy reality. Some of her earliest memories of the business include being asked to perform a sex scene with a casting director, and to give a blow-job to a talent manager inside a big booth at a deli. But maybe the worst part was when a director who'd been mentoring her for months humped her leg until he came in his pants.
Today, Leigh is a successful filmmaker in her own right. But she's never forgotten those early episodes, and after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke early this month, she decided to share them with the world. In a Facebook post published on October 8—days before the #MeToo campaign gained national attention—Leigh named James Toback as the director who abused her. And while the message was bolstered by a cascade of shares and comments from women with similar experiences, the solidarity didn't last long: Facebook took down the post three days later, citing anti-harassment guidelines.
"That was actually more triggering for me than writing out the initial post," Leigh told me. "Posting was empowering, but getting censored from Facebook made me cry." (Facebook apologized and restored Leigh's post after being asked for comment. A spokesperson clarified that no anti-harassment policies were violated.)
But in recent days, a growing group of Toback's accusers—the LA Times puts the latest count at over 300—have realized they don't need to rely on one-off social media posts to draw attention to their alleged tormentor. Instead, they've started a private online forum with scores of core members in which individuals have been deputized to liaise with media and the police. If these women succeed in getting Toback charged with some kind of sex crime, as is their ultimate goal, their story might offer a roadmap for victims who want to take down powerful men in entertainment and other industries across America. (For his part, Toback has so far denied or declined to comment on all allegations of sexual misconduct, and could not be reached for this story.)
LA Times reporter Glenn Whipp started poking around on the Toback story around the same time Leigh and others were posting stories on social media and platforms like Medium. He reached out to a few victims, and was very quickly inundated with calls. "The impression I got from these women was that rather than go to separate outlets, they wanted to tell a story that had a collective weight to it," Whipp told me. His massive story about 38 of Toback's accusers eventually went to print on October 22.
In interviews, Toback accusers involved in the organizing confirmed Whipp's hunch. The hope was that telling remarkably similar stories to a single reporter might spur prosecutors in either New York or LA to act, especially in light of the simmering outrage over Weinstein, who is himself being investigated by cops in at least three cities.
Although there's an argument to be made that going to the press before the cops can reduce a person's credibility in front of a jury, Jane Anderson, an attorney advisor at AEQuitas—a group that helps prosecutors build sexual assault cases—said stories with large numbers of sources help shift public opinion about how victims behave. The idea is that if regular people learn through exposure in the press and pop culture that victims are frequently too intimidated to speak with police right after an incident, they might ultimately serve as jurors who are sympathetic to the idea that victims came forward years or decades later.
Anderson added that by speaking out in significant numbers, victims can also make others who have blocked out their abuse realize that they aren't crazy—and come forward with their own secrets.
"Trauma tricks your brain into thinking the trauma wasn't as serious as it was or that an assault didn't happen," Anderson told me. "If someone else says it happened to them, it validates what they experienced. The [efficacy] of crowdsourcing makes sense to me."
It makes sense to Becka Thompson, too. She's been telling friends about her "Toback story" for decades, though she always left a few details out, so as to make it darkly funny rather than terrifying. As she recalled, Thompson was just a few weeks into her first year at Julliard in 1998 when Toback ran up to her during a break between classes. He asked if she was an actress and said that he wanted to get her his next script, Thompson said. She didn't believe it could possibly be true—especially because she was wearing sweats at the time—but fellow Julliard student Wes Bentley had recently been cast in American Beauty, so she figured sometimes these things just happened.
Flash forward a few days and a couple of meetings, Thompson said, and Toback had invited her to his apartment to dine with him and his wife. Of course, when the 23-year-old got there, the place was dimly lit—and Toback was the only one home.
According to Thompson, he started asking questions about how much she masturbated and how much pubic hair she had, mirroring at least in part the account actress Rachel McAdams gave Vanity Fair this past week. When he asked if she was a virgin, Thompson said, she thought she was going to get raped. She ran out the door as Toback told her she was making the biggest mistake of her life, she recalled.
Thompson remembers turning around at the front of the building to see he hadn't chased her, and thinking, You're just a scaredy-cat little Minnesota girl. Later, she watched Toback collaborator Robert Downey, Jr. go on to become Iron Man, and spent much of her adult life wondering if she'd missed her big break by failing some sort of test.
Now that she's part of the support group for Toback accusers, the 42-year-old can't help suspecting she might have saved herself by being the kind of no-fuss person who didn't carry a purse and could escape a room quickly.
Right now, the Toback accuser group—the platform for which members asked me to keep secret—is trying to establish rules and guidelines about how to proceed. That's no simple matter when so many people are determined to finally have their say. Some are desperate for immediate justice, while others are preaching patience. Because no woman has publicly accused Toback of an obvious felony like rape, the women are trying to figure out the most promising jurisdiction in which to bring a possible case.
Most recently, they've been working with the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) to set up a hotline specifically for Toback victims.
In the long-term, they'd also like to go after some of the people and institutions they see as Toback's enablers, like powerful friends and industry-related organizations he's been a part of over the years. In her Facebook post, Leigh wrote that she was at mega-producer Brett Ratner's house when Toback abused her. (Although he was not home at the time of that incident, Gal Gadot pulled out of a dinner celebrating Ratner on Friday.)
No matter where they go from here, these women are grateful they finally have a venue to achieve some measure of community and healing.
"Rather than closure, it's catharsis," explained Leigh, who managed to find the group after Facebook took down her post. "It's keeping a lot of women up at night wondering how this is going to turn out. I think so much of the silence around this has been shame. He's clearly a creep. He looks creepy as hell. What woman in her right mind would look at him and think, 'Yes I would like to go back to your hotel with you'? What an unsavory character he really appears to be right off the bat. There's so much relief that—holy shit—there are literally hundreds of women who believed this master manipulator."
That support group has even gone on to spawn an IRL meeting, which I attended in Manhattan on Tuesday evening. A handful of women gathered in an alcove of a Midtown bar, swapping stories and fantasizing about what might happen next to the man whose alleged abuse—in some cases—consumed what felt like their whole lives. It was jovial, but tense: When a random man came up to offer free drink tickets, one attendee said the hair on the back of her neck stood up. But ultimately, as with their online group, numbers brought some semblance of safety.
Several women took the tickets to the bar and ordered glasses of red wine. Then they continued to celebrate finding each other, and looking ahead to what they hope amounts to a lot more more than the end of this man's career.
"We called ourselves the Magnificent 7, then we were the Original 38, and now we're an army of 200 plus," said Starr Rinaldi, a fashion designer and event planner. "We are Spartans. How do you like us now, James Toback?"
Update 10/30: The post was updated to reflect Facebook's response.
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