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Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say about Their Lives

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In 1991, Anita Hill brought testimony and scandal into America's living rooms during televised Senate confirmation hearings in which she detailed the sexual harassment she had suffered at the hands of Clarence Thomas. The male Senate Judiciary Committee refused to take Hill seriously and the veracity of Hill's claims were sullied in the mainstream media. Hill was defamed a In 1991, Anita Hill brought testimony and scandal into America's living rooms during televised Senate confirmation hearings in which she detailed the sexual harassment she had suffered at the hands of Clarence Thomas. The male Senate Judiciary Committee refused to take Hill seriously and the veracity of Hill's claims were sullied in the mainstream media. Hill was defamed as "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty," and Thomas went on to be confirmed. The tainting of Hill and her testimony are part of a larger social history in which women find themselves caught up in a system that refuses to believe what they say. The Anita Hill case shows how a tainted witness is not who someone is, but what someone can become. Why are women so often considered unreliable witnesses to their own experience? How are women discredited in legal courts and in courts of public opinion? Why is women's testimony so often mired in controversies fueled by histories of slavery and colonialism? Tainted Witness takes up these questions within a rich archive, including Anita Hill's testimony as well as Rigoberta Mench's account of genocide in Guatemala; Jamaica Kincaid's literary witnessing in Autobiography of My Mother; and news coverage of such stories as Nafissatou Diallo's claim that Dominique Strauss-Kahn raped her. Bringing together legal, literary, and feminist frameworks, Leigh Gilmore provides provocative readings of what happens when women's testimony is discredited. Throughout, Gilmore demonstrates how testimony crosses jurisdictions, publics, and the unsteady line between truth and fiction in search of justice.


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In 1991, Anita Hill brought testimony and scandal into America's living rooms during televised Senate confirmation hearings in which she detailed the sexual harassment she had suffered at the hands of Clarence Thomas. The male Senate Judiciary Committee refused to take Hill seriously and the veracity of Hill's claims were sullied in the mainstream media. Hill was defamed a In 1991, Anita Hill brought testimony and scandal into America's living rooms during televised Senate confirmation hearings in which she detailed the sexual harassment she had suffered at the hands of Clarence Thomas. The male Senate Judiciary Committee refused to take Hill seriously and the veracity of Hill's claims were sullied in the mainstream media. Hill was defamed as "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty," and Thomas went on to be confirmed. The tainting of Hill and her testimony are part of a larger social history in which women find themselves caught up in a system that refuses to believe what they say. The Anita Hill case shows how a tainted witness is not who someone is, but what someone can become. Why are women so often considered unreliable witnesses to their own experience? How are women discredited in legal courts and in courts of public opinion? Why is women's testimony so often mired in controversies fueled by histories of slavery and colonialism? Tainted Witness takes up these questions within a rich archive, including Anita Hill's testimony as well as Rigoberta Mench's account of genocide in Guatemala; Jamaica Kincaid's literary witnessing in Autobiography of My Mother; and news coverage of such stories as Nafissatou Diallo's claim that Dominique Strauss-Kahn raped her. Bringing together legal, literary, and feminist frameworks, Leigh Gilmore provides provocative readings of what happens when women's testimony is discredited. Throughout, Gilmore demonstrates how testimony crosses jurisdictions, publics, and the unsteady line between truth and fiction in search of justice.

30 review for Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say about Their Lives

  1. 4 out of 5

    Richard Derus

    Real Rating: 4.5* of five, rounded up because the author's case is tight THE PUBLISHER SENT ME A REVIEW COPY OF THE BOOK AT MY REQUEST. THANK YOU. This is an academic work of depth and authority on the ever-vexing topic of what leads Society (my capital) to treat a woman's word as suspect, especially about her own experiences and her own life. Essentially, women are treated with contempt and rage by men in general. Their words, therefore, when spoken about men and to other men, must be considered i Real Rating: 4.5* of five, rounded up because the author's case is tight THE PUBLISHER SENT ME A REVIEW COPY OF THE BOOK AT MY REQUEST. THANK YOU. This is an academic work of depth and authority on the ever-vexing topic of what leads Society (my capital) to treat a woman's word as suspect, especially about her own experiences and her own life. Essentially, women are treated with contempt and rage by men in general. Their words, therefore, when spoken about men and to other men, must be considered in that context...why would she lie, versus when she speaks, she lies. I am *grossly* oversimplifying the latter, and the author does not present her facts about the former, but this is a formulation that gets to the heart of my take-away from the book. The additional "defect" of Blackness mars a woman's credibility within the white patriarchal systems of "justice" and "fact-finding" because "you know how they are," the loudly quiet evocation of all the slurs, lies, and oppressions used to discredit Black people. Anita Hill's accusations against Clarence Thomas are delved into with some depth. Thirty years later, I still boil when I think of Dr. Hill's vile treatment by the conservative Old Boys' Club in the Senate. (I assert most, if not quite all, Senators are conservative, or were in 1991 anyway.) Perhaps the most cogent argument Author Gilmore presents in service of her case against social attitudes towards women's bearing witness is the case that neoliberal culture has privileged stories of Overcoming, of Beating the Odds, the System, as opposed to the more realistic way of viewing the System as flawed, broken, unfair, all by design. That design is put in place to keep the powerful protected, and the powerful are white and male. Narratives examining the system's failures are downplayed where they can't be dismissed or vilified. It's that women/the disadvantaged aren't trying hard enough! Look at {insert neoliberal here, eg JD Vance or James Frey}! They overcame their obstacles! Try harder, Jamaica Kincaid, Rigoberta Menchú! This is balderdash, of course, and the author briskly defangs the "arguments" for it. A pair of examples of this, as well as the author's academic writing style: A tainted witness is not who someone is but who someone can become in the process of bringing an account into the public sphere. –and– Tying the evolution of #BlackLivesMatter primarily to its responses to a series of killings of African-American men and boys by police officers, as some articles have, obscures the feminist focus on {B}lack lives broadly. By refusing a presentist framing of the event, #BlackLivesMatter is not, as its founders make clear, only about what happened but about how to frame it, how to bear witness to histories of the present, and how to look at images of death, grief, and protest as a form of ethical engagement. These are not unclear or grammatically flawed statements; neither are they elegant, nor rhetorically exciting. They are true, unsparingly honest, and effective in making their cases. I longed for more than that. It wasn't an easy read, it was in many ways an unpleasant book to read due to its trenchant indictment of privileged peoples and people's cynical, lazy, and cruel means of disempowering and devaluing The Others to maintain their privilege. I'm seeking a rousing call to arms, though, and while I wasn't promised this when I chose this book to read and review, I had set my hopes on it.

  2. 4 out of 5

    musa b-n

    "The fragility of connection places the haunting presence of the past at the center of questions of citizenship." I really enjoyed reading this book! It's very academically grounded, but engages with very little abstract 'theory,' instead focusing on more concrete-feeling examples of testimony and witnessing. Gilmore follows three main examples of women's testimony in the public sphere and the way that society engineers doubt around them, but the text also engages with countless more examples on "The fragility of connection places the haunting presence of the past at the center of questions of citizenship." I really enjoyed reading this book! It's very academically grounded, but engages with very little abstract 'theory,' instead focusing on more concrete-feeling examples of testimony and witnessing. Gilmore follows three main examples of women's testimony in the public sphere and the way that society engineers doubt around them, but the text also engages with countless more examples on a smaller scale. I gave four out of five stars only because some of the engagements with racial issues felt a little off, but I couldn't really put my finger on why right now. This was a useful book for my BA, but I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in the topic of trauma and feminism.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Devin

    This book from 2017 is unbearably academic. It’s extremely annoying that she uses terms and references ideas that are unfamiliar to everyone outside of the small feminist high castle of academia. The author may have something interesting to say, but she says it in a way that makes it impossible to understand or sympathize with. From what I can tell, she is arguing that all personal testimony (not a made up story but not entirely factual either ?) must be considered within the context of historic This book from 2017 is unbearably academic. It’s extremely annoying that she uses terms and references ideas that are unfamiliar to everyone outside of the small feminist high castle of academia. The author may have something interesting to say, but she says it in a way that makes it impossible to understand or sympathize with. From what I can tell, she is arguing that all personal testimony (not a made up story but not entirely factual either ?) must be considered within the context of historical abuse and trauma. She talks about the importance of suspending judgement with “unsympathetic” witnesses. She points out how witness tainting (making a witness less credible) distracts from the actual crime, the accused criminal, and any available evidence. That’s all well and good, but I had to struggle to piece together these ideas from page after page of convoluted prose. For those less familiar with these topics, I doubt they got the message, or stuck around long enough to figure it out. Furthermore, the author doesn’t go into the historical abuses that must be understood as context for testimony, which is a glaring omission. She assumes we already know what she’s taking about, yet can anyone read her mind? I got the disquieting feeling she doesn’t actually know the history of oppressions she claims must be considered, particularly when she was critiquing the horrible book Half the Sky. Yes, that book is terrible, but she takes issue with it not portraying a wide variety of witnesses, instead of with the main argument of the book - which is that poor women are resources to be exploited. The message of the book is more important than how the authors said it. So, what does this amount to? A disappointing showing from the academic feminist community. They appear to be more concerned with words than with the people they are talking about.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Juli Rahel

    Tainted Witness is a great read for anyone interested in rape culture, women's voices and women as narrators and witnesses. Gilmore focuses on a number of different cases and books, many of which I wasn't familiar with before or only knew very little about, and shows how the woman went from witness to 'tainted witness', someone who's reliability was innately questionable. It's a fascinating read and although it can be very dense, especially for those not used to academic books, I'd highly recomm Tainted Witness is a great read for anyone interested in rape culture, women's voices and women as narrators and witnesses. Gilmore focuses on a number of different cases and books, many of which I wasn't familiar with before or only knew very little about, and shows how the woman went from witness to 'tainted witness', someone who's reliability was innately questionable. It's a fascinating read and although it can be very dense, especially for those not used to academic books, I'd highly recommend it. Gilmore also shines an interesting light on #BlackLivesMatters in her conclusion, which I found very enlightening! Full review to come closer to the publication date.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Corrie

    This book project was a fantastic idea. My only criticism is that the writing style felt redundant at points, but perhaps that was also my outside knowledge creeping in. If you have any interest in WOC, memoir/autobiography/life writing, and the 20 + 21st century, I recommend this book to you. As someone who has studied a lot of 18th + 19th century women's life writing, it was interesting to see how certain trends have been continued (oh, patriarchy, why won't you die already?). I could easily s This book project was a fantastic idea. My only criticism is that the writing style felt redundant at points, but perhaps that was also my outside knowledge creeping in. If you have any interest in WOC, memoir/autobiography/life writing, and the 20 + 21st century, I recommend this book to you. As someone who has studied a lot of 18th + 19th century women's life writing, it was interesting to see how certain trends have been continued (oh, patriarchy, why won't you die already?). I could easily see this being assigned as a jumping off point to start a grad seminar about, well, just about any topic I've already mentioned above. Cheers to NetGalley for giving me a free copy of this book :)

  6. 4 out of 5

    Emily Hunt

    Tainted Witness is about testimonies: how witnesses share them and how the public, the powerful, and the media hear and respond to them. Gilmore focuses on women’s testimonies and argues that gender and race weigh down testimony until it drowns in doubt. The public smears women and denounces their testimony because they are women and because they testify to inconvenient truths. Gilmore writes how “attacks on her [the witness’] credibility will draw from a deep reservoir of bias that connects gen Tainted Witness is about testimonies: how witnesses share them and how the public, the powerful, and the media hear and respond to them. Gilmore focuses on women’s testimonies and argues that gender and race weigh down testimony until it drowns in doubt. The public smears women and denounces their testimony because they are women and because they testify to inconvenient truths. Gilmore writes how “attacks on her [the witness’] credibility will draw from a deep reservoir of bias that connects gender and race to status,” (5). She successfully highlights how testimony invariably functions within our racist, sexist, colonial, and nativist context, especially in her first chapter on Anita Hill’s testimony at the 1991 confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Gilmore argues that Hill signified a new era of testimony, or more accurately, a new era of discrediting women’s testimony. Anita Hill, a black woman, symbolically testified before a panel of all-white, all-male senators and calmly recounted the sexual harassment which Thomas perpetrated. Gilmore emphasizes the opposing dynamics of race and gender in the confirmation hearing, memorialized with Hill’s statement: “I had a gender, he had a race” (37). Thomas curated a rags-to-riches success narrative, despite his black identity, which garnered Republican’s favor. And yet, while under pressure, Thomas insisted that the hearings were a “high tech lynching for uppity blacks,” (47) equating Hill’s accusations to historical, racialized violence. While Thomas emphasized his race, Hill grappled with gender. Senators questioned Hill’s responsibility in the harassment by asking about her pornographic fantasies, her decision to continue working under Thomas, and her maintenance of a professional relationship with him. Gilmore reminds the reader of the historical context: Thomas sexually harassed Hill before workplace protections against sexual harassment were in place, so victimized women were vulnerable to retaliation. The Senators’ questions also symbolized “he said/she said” ideology wherein the testimony of both the accusers and the accused carry equal weight and so the truth is indiscernible. Gilmore returns to the “he said/she said” narrative and analyzes how it contributes to a culture of discrediting women. In her second chapter, Gilmore examines the case of Rigoberta Menchu’s testimonio, I, Rigoberta Menchú about the Guatemalan government’s genocide of the Mayan people, published in 1983 and widely criticized in 1991 (the year Hill testified). Gilmore follows Menchú’s testimony as it travels around the world seeking a fair hearing. She recounts how critics, like David Stoll, vilified and discredited Menchú for a few inconsistencies in her testimony without accounting for cultural differences in storytelling and the impacts of trauma on memory. But by the time the criticism was lobbed at Menchú, it didn’t matter that her testimony was proven largely accurate, she was tainted. Gilmore states that “A tainted witness is not who someone is but who someone can become in the process of bringing an account into the public sphere” (44). Stoll’s tainting led to dismissal and disbelief of Menchú which served U.S. imperial interests and oppressed not just Menchú, but the indigenous peoples she represented. After the chapter on Menchú’s testimonio, Gilmore’s case studies become increasingly disconnected from the conversation she began. She deviates from women’s testimony and introduces vaguely related themes like Oprah’s influential book club, redemption narratives, witnessing by proxy, and humanitarian work. She spends a chapter on the popular transition from memoir into self-help genre, using Kathryn Harrison’s book The Kiss about incest and Jason Frey’s A Million Little Pieces about drug and alcohol abuse as examples. Gilmore discusses how neoliberal narratives conveniently focus on personal obstacles rather than systemic injustice. She then explores how humanitarian organizations tell women’s stories for them and filter testimonies to appear as pure and young as possible to effectively raise money. These chapters contribute little to Gilmore’s broader argument. In the last chapter, Gilmore returns to women’s testimony with the rape case brought by West African immigrant, Nafissatou Diallo, against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the IMF, but confusingly compares it to Jamaica Kincaid’s literature. Allegations circulated about Diallo’s affiliations to a conspiracy and deception on her immigration documents. These crafted falsehoods tainted the case. Gilmore argues that “in inexorable slow motion, the case fell apart: not because Strauss-Kahn seemed innocent but because his accuser did not seem innocent enough…” (138). While Gilmore’s return to women’s testimony was refreshing in the last chapter, her analysis of Kincaid was incongruous. The book concludes with a similar veer into modern antiracism organizing with an analysis of the #blacklivesmatter movement, its founders, and the emerging role of social media in cataloging testimony. After finishing the book, I still wanted for a better understanding of why we doubt what women say about their lives. She uncovered testimony as a genre of storytelling, a location for conversation, and a force which can combat unjust systems. Gilmore talks more about the methods through which witnesses testify, testimonies’ search a fair hearing, and the systems through which testimony, women’s especially, is discredited, rather than the reasons we don’t believe women. Gilmore does argue that women’s testimonies often criticize systems of oppression which motivates slander, but generally, she skimps on the why. Leigh Gilmore has a PhD and is a distinguished visiting professor at Wellesley College. She is a scholar and clearly wrote Tainted Witness for an audience of scholars. Her prose is very dense and verges on convoluted. I struggled from beginning to end to untangle her sentences, and I’m a college student who regularly reads academic texts. While Gilmore’s style is her own, I don’t think her ideas actually require the embellished language she used. Nevertheless, if you are up for a challenging read, Gilmore has a breadth of knowledge to offer. I would easily recommend the first two chapters. The rest is disconnected from the book’s overall themes, but interesting nonetheless.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jacqueline

    I want to sing from the rooftops my praises for this book. I LOVED IT. If you're interested in how women's stories are told, why women's experiences are so often discredited in court, in daily life, and in writing, read this absolutely brilliant book. As Gilmore explains,"TAINTED WITNESS brings a feminist perspective to bear on how women's witness is discredited by a host of means meant to taint it: to contaminate by doubt, stigmatize through association with gender and race, and dishonor throug I want to sing from the rooftops my praises for this book. I LOVED IT. If you're interested in how women's stories are told, why women's experiences are so often discredited in court, in daily life, and in writing, read this absolutely brilliant book. As Gilmore explains,"TAINTED WITNESS brings a feminist perspective to bear on how women's witness is discredited by a host of means meant to taint it: to contaminate by doubt, stigmatize through association with gender and race, and dishonor through shame, such that not only the testimony, but the person herself is smeared." If you have any interest in feminism, life writing, and testimony, read it. If you are a woman who has experienced your narrative being stolen, erased, tainted, shamed, bent, or otherwise skewed, read this book.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Ryan Mishap

    An amazing book on how patriarchal notions and traditions in a rape culture undermine women's credibility and how race intersects. Gilmore gives us a framework with which to look at real life events and see how this undermining plays out. She also explores the meaning of testimony and how it travels through the media, society, and historically, as well as in the courts. Interestingly, Gilmore argues against telling stories to gain empathy--which is the opposite of how I think of stories. Specific An amazing book on how patriarchal notions and traditions in a rape culture undermine women's credibility and how race intersects. Gilmore gives us a framework with which to look at real life events and see how this undermining plays out. She also explores the meaning of testimony and how it travels through the media, society, and historically, as well as in the courts. Interestingly, Gilmore argues against telling stories to gain empathy--which is the opposite of how I think of stories. Specifically, she argues that stories and testimony are different and the empathy prompted by stories is malleable and can shift based on power dynamics, hierarchy, and history. So, I had to look up a few words when I read this--meaning it is academic. Brilliant, though, so check it out.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Anna

    Review forthcoming in Library Journal. This is a dense yet powerful text exploring the way that women's testimony travels through cultural and legal channels in search of "adequate witness" -- a person who will believe their story. The author argues that we persist in doubting women's stories, particularly women's stories about trauma, and illustrates her argument with persuasive examples such as Anita Hill's testimony at Clarence Thomas's confirmation hearings. Highly recommended to anyone inte Review forthcoming in Library Journal. This is a dense yet powerful text exploring the way that women's testimony travels through cultural and legal channels in search of "adequate witness" -- a person who will believe their story. The author argues that we persist in doubting women's stories, particularly women's stories about trauma, and illustrates her argument with persuasive examples such as Anita Hill's testimony at Clarence Thomas's confirmation hearings. Highly recommended to anyone interested in rape culture and feminist politics.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Bridget Hogan

    This book read like a women's study textbook. The sentence structure and language were so formal that the book was incredibly tedious to read, which was unfortunate because the women's stories clearly highlighted the points the author was trying to convey. I think the particular jargon utilized by the author was unintentionally isolating. This book read like a women's study textbook. The sentence structure and language were so formal that the book was incredibly tedious to read, which was unfortunate because the women's stories clearly highlighted the points the author was trying to convey. I think the particular jargon utilized by the author was unintentionally isolating.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jenny

    Incredibly important reading about institutional and societal bias, and how this plays out in the most critical of circumstances.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Nick Steele

    We are living through a momentous period in our history, when many women have chosen to step forward and pull back the curtain on the predatory behavior of men in power, across many industries and government agencies. Gilmore’s book is essential reading for this moment, as it explores how women have historically been discredited and treated as tainted witnesses—ultimately finding themselves caught up in a system that refuses to believe what they say—when they have previously come forward.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Sally Kenney

    I thought I knew everything there was to know about the Anita Hill hearings but I learned so much from that chapter, as I did from the others. I was a donor to Mortenson and went to Oxford with Nick Krislov and taught Rigoberta Menchu in Women’s Studies at the University of Iowa. I kept having to read ahead because I couldn’t wait to get to the next section. Just ordered her most recent book. I think this may be one of the best things I have read about rape.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Leigh

    This book isn't what I had thought it would be--rather than a social science-y look at women's credibility, it's a lit crit examination of credibility through a series of texts. I'm always up for a challenging read, and I'm sympathetic to the author's point of view, but the book is very, very dense and not terribly accessible. And I hope not to see the word neoliberal again for quite a while. This book isn't what I had thought it would be--rather than a social science-y look at women's credibility, it's a lit crit examination of credibility through a series of texts. I'm always up for a challenging read, and I'm sympathetic to the author's point of view, but the book is very, very dense and not terribly accessible. And I hope not to see the word neoliberal again for quite a while.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Ana Fernandes

    I really liked the book, however I felt like the conclusion wasn’t much of a conclusion rather another analysis chapter. I missed another theorizing chapter that connected all of the points of the previous chapter together.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Nadine

    I tried to finish it; I really did. But do much was going on: while holding a central theme, the chapters didn't hang together; the conclusion was all over - maybe it would have stayed individually published papers. I tried to finish it; I really did. But do much was going on: while holding a central theme, the chapters didn't hang together; the conclusion was all over - maybe it would have stayed individually published papers.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Judy

    It started out making the case of her stated argument in the subtitle. From there she meandered off the path and it was impossible to see what her examples had to do with not believing women.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Kazen

    More academic than I have brains for right now, with a 10,000 foot view of events I'm not well versed in myself. More academic than I have brains for right now, with a 10,000 foot view of events I'm not well versed in myself.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Leigh

  20. 4 out of 5

    Sandi Worthen

  21. 4 out of 5

    Shannon

  22. 4 out of 5

    Victoria

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jeremiah Brockman

  24. 5 out of 5

    Tom Pounds

  25. 5 out of 5

    Joanna

  26. 4 out of 5

    Alison Bergblom Johnson

  27. 5 out of 5

    Starchie

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kidada

  29. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

  30. 5 out of 5

    Zuleyha Ozturk Lasky

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