We Gotta Talk About Jeffrey

Content warning: this essay contains descriptions of child abuse. I mean, it's Epstein. This is part of what we have to talk about.

The email was titled "Jeff Epstein money."

The body:

Jeffrey money, needs to be anonymous. Thanks.

In six damning words, the leadership of MIT and the MIT Media Lab implicated themselves, and many of their collaborators, in a web of relationships founded on sex trafficking and eugenics.

It's an astonishingly revealing email. By writing "Jeffrey money, needs to be anonymous," the leadership, including MIT president L. Rafael Reif and Media Lab director Joi Ito, revealed that they knew that Jeffrey Epstein was a convicted child molester and still chose to take his money to fund the lab. They did so in a cloak-and-dagger fashion, without the knowledge or consent of their students. Further, the title of their email ("Jeff Epstein money") suggested that select members of the Media Lab, and by extension the elite American techno-counterculture that it represents, enjoyed an easy familiarity with Epstein. Yep. It's now public knowledge that such luminaries as John Brockman, Jaron Lanier, and many more (including, possibly, Stewart Brand) also rubbed shoulders with Epstein, even as he confided in them about his dream to mass-inseminate women with his sperm, letting him launder his reputation through theirs.

During the news cycle from July through October 2019, story after story broke about who had taken Epstein's money. This spreading radioactive cloud was the subject of many whispered conversations in my circles of American tech/art/media producers. Friends of friends, collaborators, even mentors were all touched by the fallout. As we processed each new shock together, we reacted with collective grief and anger. Now that we have a respite from the breaking news, I'd like to help start a broader conversation about what Epstein represents. Part of the work of talking about Jeffrey—and I don't use his first name lightly—is to situate him in a broader American cultural milieu.

One way to situate Epstein is to understand what Ronan Farrow would have witnessed growing up. American icon and filmmaker Woody Allen was a close friend of Epstein's, and Allen's son Ronan Farrow was the one to break the Media Lab story when the New York Times would not. A miasma of misery swirls about Allen's person. News articles document how Allen would take his seven-year-old adopted daughter into his bed under the sheets to "play," that Allen was found forcing the child's head into his crotch, that the family had to institute a rule that Allen was never to be left alone with the child. Later, when his wife at the time, Mia Farrow, adopted the young Soon-Yi Previn, Farrow found Polaroids of Previn that Allen had taken—full-body naked, she said, and each managed to contain both Previn's face and genitals. When Farrow saw Allen, she felt she was "looking straight into the face of pure evil." Allen later married Previn, effectively marrying his adopted daughter. In one of her first statements to the media about their relationship, Previn said: “I’m not a retarded little underage flower who was raped, molested, and spoiled by some evil stepfather—not by a long shot.” According to people close to the family, it's obvious that Allen had put his language into her mouth. One can only wonder about Ronan Farrow's motives for breaking the story.

Another way to situate Epstein is to understand that Nabokov, a Russian émigré who composed the canonical American text Lolita as a "love letter to the English language," has now become much more American than he could have hoped. The narrative of Lolita orbits two charismatic cultural-producers-cum-pedophiles, Humbert (a washed-up European intellectual) and Quilty (a debauched American playwright). Humbert takes as hostage a young American girl, Dolores Haze, whom he calls "Lolita." Then the two producers, Humbert and Quilty, jerk her body across the sprawling country, her experience mediated by Humbert's hungry eyes and hands as he clutches his pen to spill out opalescent language all over the sheets. The excuse that Humbert hands to the doctor is "Old Europe debauching young America." More than sixty years later, another chapter of Lolita was composed. Epstein's associates dubbed his private jet, which one writer described as a "large-cabin Boeing 727 now associated with both high glamour and incomprehensible suffering," the "Lolita Express." One confidante recounted how Epstein would lose patience with scientific conversations at highbrow salons and blurt out, "What does that got to do with pussy?!" Nabokov would have killed for that line. He would have wrapped Quilty's bathrobe over Epstein's shoulders for that.

As Adam Rogers wrote in Wired, "The idea that should run freon through your cortex is that Jeffrey Epstein likely helped plant some thoughts there." If that thought unnerves you, consider yourself included in the "we" of this essay. Even as the waves of breaking news subside, we have to keep talking about Jeffrey. Heir to an American high culture bent on exploiting young women, Epstein nurtured an elite American techno-counterculture that produced the culture and tools that shape the lives of millions of "consumers" and "users." How can we repair the damage he's done to relationships we trusted? How can we prevent another Epstein from doing the same? I'd like to support an intervention that folks at MIT have initiated: divest from Epstein. Much as climate activists pressure universities to stop investing in fossil fuel companies, we can create and support the institutional structures and countercultures that prevent people like Epstein from gaining influence.

—kye (Dec. 9, 2019)