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7 July 2022updated 19 Jul 2022 10:25am

Why we will never understand Ghislaine Maxwell

Channel 4’s documentary is the latest in a long line of TV shows attempting to explain why she did what she did. But we can never know.

By Rachel Cooke

If you believe in monsters, then how do you suppose they are made? In Channel 4’s new documentary series about Ghislaine Maxwell, various people are trotted out to be wise after the fact: the journalist Michael Crick, who tutored Maxwell for her A-levels; the writer and environmentalist, George Monbiot, who briefly hung out with her at Oxford University; the presenter, Mariella Frostrup, who once attended some of the same London dinner parties. In one particularly bizarre scene, two other Oxford “friends”, Anne McElvoy, now of the Economist, and someone called Patrick Newman, whose profession I do not know, sit on a sofa together, talking loudly of her fondness for sex, and nodding their heads gravely, as if this is an important matter of church or state. All these people seem to me to be making themselves quite ridiculous: they barely knew her, and it shows.

For a clearer idea of what she was like as younger woman we must rely on the non-journalist classes. Nicola Glucksmann, a former friend, describes a party at Headington Hill Hall, Robert Maxwell’s strange Oxford pile, at which Maxwell devised an after dinner game in which all the men, having been blindfolded, would have to identify the women by feeling their bare breasts (Glucksmann made her excuses, and scarpered). Christina Oxenberg – OK, a sort-of journalist, but also, er, the daughter of a Serbian princess – recalls a tea party at which Maxwell appeared dressed only in her bra and knickers. But alas, no member of Maxwell’s family ever appears, and this is an obvious lack. As the series itself attempts to suggest – it begins with black and white footage of a tiny Ghislaine, dressed as an elf at Christmas time, eagerly talking of her “daddy” – the key to Maxwell, should one exist, must lie in her childhood; in the fact that she was the youngest and favourite child of the tyrannical and fraudulent newspaper tycoon, Robert Maxwell. 

Channel 4’s series feels relatively long in the making; those behind it have had to wait for Maxwell to be convicted and sentenced for sex trafficking before it could be broadcast (the girls she procured were abused by her friend and sometime boyfriend, the financier Jeffrey Epstein, who took his own life in prison in 2019). But it suffers from following hard on the heels of the BBC’s better and more fascinating documentary series about her father (and comes after multiple podcasts). It also makes for much grimmer watching, and not only thanks to the nature of her crimes. Its talking heads radiate glee and amour propre, their stories rehearsed and embarrassingly cliched. I’ve no idea why Jesse Kornbluth, the former Vanity Fair journalist, and Ira Rosen, the distinguished American producer and writer, felt the need to describe for the cameras both how Maxwell sexually propositioned them, and how they turned her down (I’m being disingenuous; I think I do know why). 

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But stick with it, and there’s value here, too. It is uncomfortable to watch the middle-aged couple who used to manage Epstein’s Caribbean estate – the idyllic island on which his and Maxwell’s friend, Prince Andrew, holidayed – talking of what they both did, and didn’t, see; the anxious glances they give each other, when one of them begins, perhaps, to be just a little too open. They strike me as a perfect study in a certain kind of willed blindness. 

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Eventually, too, we hear from several of Epstein and Maxwell’s victims, one of whom has never spoken of her experiences before, and their testimonies are both so straightforwardly appalling and so obviously credible, something shifts inside the viewer. There are those – I have heard them – who say that Maxwell is Epstein’s proxy, serving the long prison sentence he managed to avoid with his death; that she is a victim, too; that justice is sexist. But listen to Maria Farmer, who worked for Epstein in New York, or to Gretchen Rose, who was employed as a masseur on Little St James island, and such a position becomes, in an instant, untenable. Maxwell was, as one lawyer puts it, running a kind of pyramid scheme: once a girl had been “trained”, it was then her job to recruit other girls. All of the victims say that they were reassured, on first taking up their jobs, both by the calm demeanours of the other women, and by the fact of Maxwell’s presence. As someone who feels relieved by the sight of a woman in a lonely street at a night, I would have been just the same, I think. 

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In the end, though, Ghislaine Maxwell: the Making of a Monster, cannot disguise its tawdrier instincts; in the fact that half of its interest in this case has to do with the glamour that surrounded the young Maxwell, the parties and the penthouses and the pictures in Tatler. Nor does it answer any of the questions that will always hover over this horrible saga. We do not know – we will never know – what went on in Maxwell’s mind during the years she spent with Epstein. All we can really say is that on some level she thought herself invincible. 

As these films make clear, she could have done a deal with prosecutors as long ago as 2015, when Virginia Giuffre, another of her victims, sued her for defamation. She could also have fled the US for, say, France, which does not extradite its nationals (she has French citizenship). But she sailed on, reinventing herself, for a time, as an environmentalist, a protector of the oceans (she founded a non-profit, now closed). Such indefatigability, if nothing else, undoubtedly came from her father. She must, once, have thought it a gift. But in the end – coastal shelves, and all that – it was a curse: for her, and for all those women she abused, hurt and traumatised.

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