Victim or villain: how guilty are the female accomplices of predatory men? | Lucinda Rosenfeld


It was in her second year of college that a not-quite-20-year-old Sarah Lawrence student, Isabella Pollok, fell under the influence of Lawrence Ray, a cult leader who, for a decade, turned her into his trusted lieutenant in his campaign of terror.

Pollok was sentenced to 54 months in prison last week for her role in helping Ray abuse a group of vulnerable classmates. While in Ray’s thrall, Pollok, who was also his lover, even played prop master at his late-night torture sessions, allegedly fetching the plastic bag that Ray placed over one coercively prostituted cult member’s head.

In a shocking new documentary on Hulu, Stolen Youth, the film-makers discover a now 30-ish Pollok still defending Ray, who is twice her age, alongside her de facto sister-wife, even after Ray has been arrested and carted off to jail. “When I think about Lawrence, it’s like my heart’s breaking because he’s in prison – innocently,” she says as she sits atop a floral bedspread in the New Jersey ranch house where the three set up a home, complete with padlocked refrigerator to prevent being poisoned by imagined adversaries. « It feels like a twilight zone. » (Indeed.)

Bonnie Parker holds a shotgun to boyfriend Clyde Barrow in this early 1930’s file photograph.
Bonnie Parker holds a shotgun to Clyde Barrow in this early 1930s photograph. Photograph: PN2

Bonnie Parker was also 19 when, in 1930, she first met seasoned criminal Clyde Barrow in West Dallas. Following Barrow’s release from prison in 1932, legend has it that the photogenic duo spent the next and final two years of their lives co-conspiring in a fugitive crime spree that left 13 dead. Parker, however, never fired a shot. When the couple was finally ambushed by law enforcement in Louisiana, the poetry-writing Parker had already resigned herself to an early death. She expired in a fusillade of bullets in the front seat of her and Barrow’s get-away car; the coroner later counted a gruesome 26 holes on her corpse.

To what extent were all these women, really just girls at the time they fell under the influence of homicidal figures, independent actors who should have known better? Could they also be understood as brainwashed victims who were acting on the orders of more powerful and threatening men?

Just as Bonnie Parker became tabloid-famous in her time on account of a series of clowning photos (in one, she aims a rifle at her outlaw lover; in another, she packs a shotgun while chomping on a cigar), the young newspaper heiress and Berkeley sophomore Patty Hearst is remembered for the indelible 1974 image of her cooly wielding a semi-automatic weapon in front of the ragtag Symbionese Liberation Army’s cobra flag, a beret angled over her shoulder-length hair.

Yet as the adage goes, appearances can be deceiving. Hearst, who was initially given 35 years for bank robbery (the sentence was later commuted by Jimmy Carter), testified to having been threatened with death, kept locked in a closet for 57 days by the SLA leader, Donald DeFreeze, and repeatedly raped both by him and an SLA member, William “Cujo” Wolfe. But the jury didn’t buy the coercion argument, the harshness of their verdict essentially forcing Hearst into the role of co-conspirator.

hearst holds gun and wears beret
Patty Hearst in 1974. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

The Stolen Youth documentary makes it clear by its title alone that Pollok was a victim, too. While the prosecution accused Pollok of “collecting money from her abused and trafficked college friends [while] spending luxurious nights at the Pierre Hotel on the Upper East Side … buying expensive clothing, beauty products and high-end lingerie”, unlike some of her classmates who found the wherewithal to flee while still in their early 20s, Pollok was the very last one to escape Ray’s clutches – if she ever escaped at all.

Recent research on the brain suggests that the prefrontal cortex – which controls everything from making predictions to delaying gratification, organizing one’s thoughts to foreseeing the possible consequences of one’s actions – does not fully mature until the mid 20s. When problem-solving or decision-making, young adults instead rely on the amygdala, which is associated with impulses and emotions.

As such, and while I admit it taxes my powers of empathy to do so, one could even argue that Eve Braun, just 17 when she first crossed paths with the worst man of the 20th century, the 23-years-older Adolf Hitler, was among his many million victims. At the very least, Braun – who spent most of the war hiding in the Alps reading magazines – sacrificed her life on his behalf; hours after marrying, the two died by suicide together in Hitler’s Berlin bunker as the Red army approached and the Third Reich collapsed.

But if it is easier to forgive the antisocial behavior of barely adult female accomplices, it becomes more difficult to conjure sympathy for mature women like Alison Mack, who recruited women into the NXIVM cult, or Ghislaine Maxwell, who spent two decades grooming underaged girls under Jeffrey Epstein’s watch.

Allison Mack outside court, looking down
Allison Mack was sentenced to three years in prison for her role in manipulating women into sexual relationships with Keith Raniere, the leader of the cult-like group NXIVM. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Both did the bidding of capital-B bad men. The scandals that erupted around their respective participations in a sexual slavery cult-slash-pyramid scheme (Mack) and international sex trafficking ring (Maxwell) more or less bookended the #MeToo movement.

At first, the take-away seemed to be that, given a little power, women could be just as monstrous and entitled as men. (The controversial Oscar contender Tár appears to make the same argument.) Yet it bears noting that both Mack and Maxwell were recruiting and delivering girls not primarily for their own sexual or sadistic pleasure, but on behalf of men they idolized, rendering their own actions not simply evil but, from a certain angle, pathetic as well.

The 2022 documentary Ghislaine Maxwell: Filthy Rich argues that her involvement with Epstein may have been an unconscious re-enactment of her desperate-to-please early relationship with her father, the tyrannical media baron Robert Maxwell. Court papers filed by the defense in advance of Ghislaine’s sentencing further this narrative, recounting how Pere Maxwell once battered his daughter’s hand with a hammer for the “crime” of trying to hang a poster in her bedroom. Yet her appalling lack of remorse in the courtroom during her trial suggest a personality ever bit as machiavellian as Epstein himself.

Complicating the question of whether women such as Maxwell deserve any of our pity or only our wrath is the age-old philosophical debate about whether there is such a thing as free will. Or are we all, at our core, the product of our genetic inheritance (not our fault), our early childhood experiences and upbringing (also not our fault), and our brain chemistry (biologically determined and therefore beyond our control)?

As far back as 1886, Frederich Nietzsche spoke of “the crass stupidity of the celebrated conception of free will” in his book Beyond Good and Evil. Precisely a century later, British philosopher Galen Strawson wrote in his influential book Freedom and Belief: “Surely we cannot be free agents, in the ordinary, strong, true-responsibility-entailing sense, if … our actions are ultimately wholly determined by ‘causes anterior to [our] personal existence’. And surely we can no more be free if … it is, ultimately, either wholly or partly a matter of chance or random outcome that we and our actions are as they are?”

But if Strawson is correct, the very concept of criminal justice becomes suspect. If none of us bear moral responsibility for our actions, how can society justify punishing those who harm others?

Which brings us back to the question of Pollok’s sentencing. Since the documentary was shot, the one-time scholarship student has finally assumed at least nominal responsibility for her wrongdoing. “I am truly ashamed of my conduct and the pain I caused others,” she wrote the presiding judge. But whether you regard Pollok as victim or villain, you don’t have to be an anti-incarceration activist to wonder if society might be better served by her spending the next half-decade not in the slammer but in some way “giving back”.

Besides, at least for those in possession of a conscience, lingering guilt has a way of being its own lifetime sentence.

#Victim #villain #guilty #female #accomplices #predatory #men #Lucinda #Rosenfeld

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