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Ghislaine Maxwell had a choice Fate does not make monsters

She didn't have to be here. (Photo by Joe Schildhorn/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

She didn't have to be here. (Photo by Joe Schildhorn/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)


July 12, 2022   6 mins

If I were Ghislaine Maxwell’s lawyer, a job only slightly more desirable than being Prince Andrew’s valet, I would have spent most of my time at her trial painting a picture of her father. It’s true that the sheer Dorian Gray-like loathsomeness of such a portrait might have caused a stir. Some jurors might have fainted, while a few hardened police officers might have rushed out of court in order to throw up. Even so, I would have ploughed doggedly on, convinced that this was the most effective way to get my client off. Could the child of such a monster ever stand a chance?

Ghislaine was born with every disadvantage: extraordinary privilege, limitless resources, endless leisure, posh friends, inborn entitlement, and a repulsive beast of a father who seems to have bullied and indulged her by turns. Other people were born to do her bidding, while she herself was immune to accountability. She referred to the young women she exploited as trash. You don’t need to be a card-carrying Freudian to see that the man she pimped for, Jeffrey Epstein, was a surrogate father whose affection she could probably never depend on.

It wasn’t women of her age who attracted him. One unreliable father had already died on her, and another might metaphorically speaking do the same. In several of the photos of the pair, Maxwell is looking adoringly at Epstein, or even kissing him, while he is looking away or at the camera, apparently tolerating her devotion rather than reciprocating it. Desperate to continue as his partner in love, so I would argue in court, she was willing to become his partner in crime. People can do appalling things for the sake of love, but doing them for love is better than doing them out of cruelty or malevolence.

Was Maxwell fated to end up behind bars as a kid with a sexually abusive father and an alcoholic mother? Obviously not. Plenty of people with her upper-class handicaps turn out to be decent human beings. Maxwell didn’t have to inveigle young women into her lover’s massage room. That we amount to more than our circumstances is what we know as freedom. You can always act against the grain of your upbringing. It’s just that it can be fearfully hard to do so. Hangers and floggers aren’t wrong to think we have freedom of choice, simply blind to how arduous this can be. We are all free not to smoke, but a nicotine addict is less free in this respect than the Queen. If you want an image of freedom, don’t look at those who regard health and safety laws as fatal to human liberty; look at a man with a revolver who refrains from shooting the rapist of his small daughter.

It is only in the modern period that we start thinking of the will as a heroic force, one which overcomes our baser inclinations. It is thus that the idea of will power comes into existence. It is a matter of tensed sinews and gritted teeth. By contrast, for traditional thinkers such as St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, the will is more a form of desire than a kind of power. On this view, to will to do something is to feel drawn to it — even, in the end, to love it. Far from struggling against what we want, the will has to plug into your deepest wishes if it is to work. Instead of a deep desire for heroin, you begin to feel an even deeper desire to be well. You embrace well-being because it’s enjoyable, not just because you’re likely to die if you don’t. Most addicts are aware of this possibility, but it rarely stops them from drinking or shooting up, just as nobody stops being a radical Islamist because somebody tells them they should.

The United States, true to its Puritan heritage, is a deep believer in voluntarism, regarding the will as supreme. That you’re responsible for absolutely everything you do is part of American folklore. It is this belief which puts so many of its citizens on death row. To point out that a lot of criminals were deprived and unloved as children is to sell out to determinism. The fact that there are degrees of responsibility goes unacknowledged. Freedom is as absolute in the judicial system as it is in the market place, and appeals to social conditions can be left to fancy-pants sociologists. Yet we wouldn’t have the concept of freedom in the first place, or know how to practise it, if we didn’t live in society. When Margaret Thatcher announced that society didn’t exist, she did so in the English language, which belongs to an individual only because it belongs in the first place to a particular civilisation.

None of this is to deny that Ghislaine Maxwell is a despicable predator who richly deserves her prison sentence. She treated the young woman she hired as a sub-human species fashioned to serve her own interests, much as her father treated his employees. Like the rest of us, however, she was also a victim of original sin, which is a more everyday affair than snakes in gardens or forbidden apples. St. Augustine was right to see that original sin is transmitted down the generations, though he was wrong to think that this was a genetic affair. His view of it is broadly at one with that of the poet Philip Larkin:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

Larkin knew what he was talking about: his father was a fascist who supported Hitler, and Larkin himself was a racist and trade union-basher. The fact is that being born severely restricts your freedom. Nobody chooses to enter the world, or gets to select their parents. When a character in Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame protests to another character “But you’re my father!”, the latter replies “Yes, but I didn’t know it was going to be you”. Nobody chooses their body, their social status at birth or much of their temperament, a discomforting thought for a society obsessed with options.

All of this is set for us by our ancestors, hordes of whom lurk within our most casual gestures. It is impossible to say how many people there are in a relationship, but the parents of both partners are certainly at work there, and probably their grandparents and great-grandparents as well. The dead can kill us or drive us insane. The past is what we are mostly made of, and it lives on to stymie the present and future. So much for the excited chatter of brave new worlds and technological wonders.

Like Sophocles’s Oedipus, we are all guilty innocents, tainted by our origins. It’s notable that Oedipus, confronted with the fact that he has killed his father and married his mother, never once tries to defend himself by pointing out that he did all this unknowingly. For the ancient Greeks, guilt is an objective affair like disease or pollution, not in the first place a question of your intentions. And this is also true of the debt and guilt involved in our tangled inheritance. It infiltrates your bones and your blood whether you are conscious of it or not.

Characters in ancient Greek tragedy must move warily, as though picking their way through a minefield. Half-blind that we are, we can never know what damage our deeds will cause in the lives of others. Acts freely performed spin out of control and come to confront ourselves and others like some implacable destiny. It is this which the Greeks called Fate. Oedipus becomes a stranger to himself, while those who should be sexual strangers (one’s parents, for example) become intimate. In fact, there are no strangers, just friends you haven’t alienated yet. It would take a whole army of researchers to trace the consequences of any one of our actions, and some of them are very likely to inflict pain on someone somewhere. If we can’t move without hurting others, then simply to be alive is a question of guilt. There is a residue of harm built into social existence.

Original sin has to do with injuries of which we are innocent but are still in some sense responsible. Let’s say I sit on a bus and see the image of a desert island on a hoarding. The image begins to obsess me to the point where I abandon my family and spend the rest of my days lounging under a palm tree. Aghast at being deserted, my partner finds it impossible to carry on as a psychotherapist, with the result that one of her patients drowns himself in despair. Meanwhile, my daughter packs in ballet school and goes off to run a protection racket in Huddersfield. The culprit for all this is me; but the Malaysian workers who make spiral cuts on the bark of Para rubber trees to collect their milky latex also had a hand in it. Without them, there would have been no rubber to manufacture the tyres of the bus on which I was sitting. They are guilty innocents, bound up like the rest of us with those of whom they know nothing. All this is because Fate is a myth, and what we have instead is contingency: random collisions, collateral damage, unforeseeable effects.

The Larkin poem continues:

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

“They” refers to one’s parents; and if it is true that the fuckers-up are also the fucked-up, forgiveness becomes possible. The misery your mum and dad handed on to you was a crippling legacy bequeathed to them as well. By recognising this, as the drug-addicted Patrick Melrose does at the end of Edward St Aubyn’s magnificent sequence of novels, you can break this deathly lineage, at least in your head and with any luck in your guts as well. It is a tragic process, however, precisely because the price of achieving sanity and fulfilment in these conditions is so fearfully steep. But if Melrose can do it, so can Ghislaine Maxwell in the quiet of her prison cell. In fact, it is all that is now left to her. We should remember that people who act abominably are usually under the influence of forces they can’t fully understand. But we shouldn’t allow them to get away with it either.


Terry Eagleton is a critic, literary theorist, and UnHerd columnist.


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Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago

He managed to work “Thatcher” in, so extra Guardian points for that.
Always a good time to revisit the original “society” quote.

Extract here: I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing. There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business …

Full interview here:
https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689

Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
1 year ago

Will I ever understand the relationship the British have with Thatcher? Most criticism sounds Like my 5-year-old’s complaints. “Mummy took our toys away” “Mummy didn’t love us enough”. Since Thatcher, Britain was run by spineless men like Blair, Boris and Cameron. Cameron is currently employed by China! And yet they get a fraction of the criticism that Margareth receives. She had to run a nearly bankrupt country due to socialist pipe dreams. As an Anglophile, I have a problem with two things regarding the British, their over-fondness of pets and their Edipian relationship with Maggie Thatcher

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 year ago
Reply to  Jorge Espinha

I’m sure it is perplexing. On the flip side, she won one landslide election and two more very comfortably. Many people rightly credit her with reversing national decline; but I accept the criticism that nothing replaced the heavy industry and manufacturing that were lost, although this had been happening since the late 60s. The useless men who followed have had 30 years to ‘level up’ as it where, but instead pursued policies of high immigration, low wage jobs and dumbed-down university courses over technical or vocational skills.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 year ago

Like many western countries the heavy industrial jobs went – and were replaced by work that is thought based, of the intellect. Most folk are better off, and their lives much enhanced because of that. The mistake was not to resist the sucking south east vortex that this created – made much worse by improving transport links so that businesses could be based in the south east. See what effect HS2 will have Birmingham in the long term.
Also of course we insist on educating people for a world that no longer exists. We need vocational education to teach modern technology and all its spin offs. Study the arts when you take early retirement!

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago

How true that quote remains.
Conversely, the existence of society is an excuse for not doing anything to support others

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
1 year ago

Please to see that you have found the full statement that Thatcher made. It cannot be quoted often enough.

Philip Clayton
Philip Clayton
1 year ago

Because all problems can be be solved privately can they? Destroy all affordable public housing, which in turn kept private rents down, allow builders free reign to build anywhere, remove all minimum space, light, area, storage, requirements as “an impediment to the market” MT and what is the reult? Paying 60% of income to rent, rather then 30%. Hooray for the ‘market’.

Maureen Finucane
MF
Maureen Finucane
1 year ago

Why have so many of the men who visited Epsteins Island never been prosecuted?

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
1 year ago

They were too important and Maxwell probably wanted to stay alive, even if in prison.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 year ago

And the point of this article is?
The law is based on the idea that we are agents, and finds us guilty (or not) of the things we did. It is one of the ways our societies hang together and don’t degenerate into vendetta.
Claiming ever more distant events added to our causes as an excuse for our illegal actions also means that we should allow for the ever more distant events that improved our behaviour. It is just handwaving, trying to sound profound, when really the immediate causes and effects are enough.

Michael Butcher
Michael Butcher
1 year ago

Too little on « But we shouldn’t allow them to get away with it either. »

mike ogrady
mike ogrady
1 year ago

Thanks TE….prompted some personal reflections and the theme itself is so ripe …just listening to some John Martyn and reading this article…https://www.heraldscotland.com/life_style/arts_ents/17373827.musical-genius-wasted-talent-search-real-john-martyn/
Fate, inheritance, choice, what does freedom mean…in the end the deepest questions possible…glad you address them and prompt reflection, which is what writing prompts and allows…
Many commentators on Unherd never get beyond point scoring politics it seems to me…(he mentioned Thatcher!) every piece is nothing more than a red rag to their ongoing rage…..surely writing is far more than this…it is for me….whether I ‘agree’ with it or not…and so poor is writing if all you can do is ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ with it or what you see in it..

JR Stoker
JS
JR Stoker
1 year ago

Grief, how many times does it have to be pointed that that is not what Margaret Thatcher said; she said that there is no such thing as the opinion of society; and there isn’t.
But more to the point, this article invents a theory, then invents the facts to fit it. Mr Maxwell’s children were no doubt a bit nervous about him in a rage, but actually they so far as can be seen loved him; they are a very close family. And Ghislaine was a friend of a monster, rich, and English. She was never going to escape that burden in a courtroom.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago

Wow. How does this guy get up in the morning?

David Evans
David Evans
1 year ago

While we may all be victims of our inheritance, Ghislaine Maxwell was also victim of Israel. Maxwell and Epstein ran an Israeli blackmail operation that helped assure perpetual US-Uk-led wars to advance Israel’s Balkanizing Oded Yinon plan of perpetual chaos.

Peter Dunn
Peter Dunn
1 year ago

Terry the stuff they sell nowadays is wayyy more damaging than the grass you used to smoke..