I have to start by laying my hands on the table and saying that if you ever want to read a book that leaves you breathless and more than a little disturbed, this is the one that will do it.
If it was a fiction book you would shake your head and say ‘that’s outrageous … that would never happen in real life’. Well think again. This is a nonfiction book and the events in it did happen. In fact, they are (sadly) probably still happening the world over.
Catch and Kill details the fight that (the then NBC reporter) Ronan Farrow undertook to put together and publish the expose on Harvey Weinstein and his crimes which included and ranged from bullying and sexual harassment to rape. It meticulously shows the difficulty that Farrow had getting very frightened women to talk and go on the record with their stories, all fearing reprisals from Weinstein, a brutal but very influential predator within not just Hollywood but a much wider community of movers and shakers (which numbered among state and federal politicians as well as those in power in the media industry). Farrow’s story was ultimately published as a written piece of journalism by The New Yorker after NBC tried to shut the story down at the behest of Weinstein (the man had his talons into everyone it seems).
We also see the terrifying lengths that Weinstein went to collect information that he would use to try and discredit his accusers, which involved hiring an intelligence organisation called Black Cube (peopled with, among other things, former Mossad security agents) to spy on people via any and all means including following them. One of the more shocking examples of their behaviour was sending an agent to infiltrate the life of Weinstein accuser Rose McGowen, acting as her friend and confidant, while all the time reporting back to Black Cube and Weinstein. This was a deep breach of trust for a woman who had been trying to get people to listen to her story of abuse at Wienstein’s hands for years and had been treated despicably and lied to by a great many people. Weinstein had her portrayed as crazy and untrustworthy.
The use of Black Cube became a story in of itself for Farrow after the Weinstein story was published but it wasn’t the only one that evolved out of the original reporting by him. The behaviour of NBC executives to ‘kill’ the story was a scandal on its own and helped expose cases of sexual misconduct at the network. Scandal beget scandal it seems.
In the wake of Farrow’s reporting (and that of New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey who themselves published a Weinstein expose which appeared a week before the New Yorker piece), the #MeToo movement was born and the seedy underbelly of Hollywood’s inner workings was exposed to the cold hard light of day. So his work has had an important and hopefully lasting impact.
Like, I suspect, much of the general public I could have guessed that the film, entertainment and media industry had its issues with the treatment of women by men in positions of power, but I never really knew how bad it was until I read this book. It’s chilling to see the deep seated inequalities and, at one end of the scale, the ingrained sense of entitlement that what was happening was permissible. But also at the other end of the scale, there was the silence from those who knew of the behaviour but didn’t say anything. While they didn’t commit any crimes themselves, the lack of them speaking up meant that many women continued to be victims over a large number of years. But let’s be clear. I’m not talking about the victims. They were vulnerable, terrified and traumatised.
That’s one of the things that the book doesn’t cover in any great detail – how many of the Hollywood celebrities that we see everyday in magazines, on news websites and movie screens were privy to at least rumors or accounts of misdeeds, if not first hand knowledge of Weinstein’s behaviour. The book seems to be saying it was an open secret so who knows. Farrow has close connections to that industry and group via his mother, actress Mia Farrow, so I think it’s interesting that this aspect is not explored in more depth. Maybe that is for another book. But I strongly suspect that we would all be shocked if the indirect complicity was brought to light.
I found this book riveting and Farrow’s voice to be clear, concise and truthful. I felt like he told it like it was and I believe him. I was amazed that he managed to keep everything together under the most intense pressure which obviously took a toll on him physically. His dedication to the women involved was, I felt, to be profound and that fueled his desire to get this out in the open. He wanted to tell the story of all the women who had been harmed by Weinstein and to make sure that, by this expose, he would be stopped and that the behaviour in general would cease. This drive on his part is linked in the book to his relationship with his sister Dylan and her experience with their father. Dylan and their mother were treated much the same as Weinstein’s accusers after Dylan accused Woody Allen of sexual abuse and you get the feeling that this whole process was something of an atonement for Farrow and the way he dealt with that situation.
Another thing that surprised me was how many reporters over the years had tried to get similar pieces to air or in print but had failed. It makes Farrow’s success all the more remarkable. Many of these journalists assisted Farrow with information (lead, tips) as well as moral and professional support when times got tough – the abandonment of NBC, trying to get scared women to commit to going on the record, worries about his own personal safety and doubts about his ability to get the story over the line.
I also found the inner workings of the news industry, of how stories and investigative journalism pieces get produced and put together, to be fascinating, not just the technicalities of fact checking and rigorous legal vetting but the ethics which dictates how journalists can work and function. Well those that follow the rules that is.
This is a must read book for many reasons. For what it says and how it says it. For uncovering and exposing misdeeds. For it’s relentless pursuit of the truth. It is a true eye opener to many aspects of many industries that for the most part remain deliberately hidden and for the way it highlights the criminal and morally derelict behaviour of people that hold positions of power and influence. It brings to light the true nature of a man that was once lauded and loved by many people, a man that used and abused women and who still denies his crimes today.
A real life thriller indeed. Highly recommended.
(Header Image: Sarah Kreig)