By Kaia Fisher ’22 and Katya Tolunsky ’22
Ghislaine Maxwell, once a prominent socialite in New York and England, has recently been accused and arrested for helping groom, recruit, and then sexually abuse girls with and for her former boyfriend, Jeffrey Epstein. Maxwell’s upbringing and story are nearly as elusive, scandalous, and horrifying as billionaire pedophile Epstein’s. In August 2019, Epstein allegedly hung himself in his cell while awaiting his pending trial on sex trafficking charges. The extent of Maxwell’s involvement, as well as her motives, are left only to speculation as of now. One can only hope that her pending trial will bring closure to her and Epstein’s survivors.
As the youngest of nine children, Maxwell was born in 1961. Her father, Robert Maxwell, was a famous British newspaper tycoon who quickly rose to power in the battered society of post-war England. Maxwell reaped the benefits of her father's wealth. Paired with his empire and her studies at the University of Oxford, she was able to establish connections among high profile patrons.
Robert’s fortune was as mysterious as the man himself. The Daily Beast reported, “Robert Maxwell was one of the darkest and most mysterious men to appear in British public life.” Similarly to Epstein, Robert was keen on using questionable business practices. Robert stole money from his other companies and employee pension funds to cover his newspaper’s debts—at the time of his death, his companies owed more than $4 billion to 43 different banks. In November 1991, he was found dead in the Atlantic Ocean after reportedly falling from his 180-foot luxury yacht. His death had been widely speculated by the public to be a suicide as it occurred during a period of financial turbulence for his company. Soon after her father's death, Maxwell moved to Manhattan’s Upper East Side and began work in real estate. According to a New York Post story from 2000, her father provided her with a trust fund with enough money to provide $100,000 a year. Not long after, Maxwell met Epstein at a party in New York City. At the time, Manhattan was a party central where connections were made at night. Maxwell was at the epicenter of it all. She befriended everyone.
These connections were pivotal to Epstein. “I always say that Ghislaine helped Jeffrey become who he became,” says one of Epstein’s survivors in Vanity Fair. “He had the money, but he didn’t know what to do with it. She showed him.” The nature of Epstein and Maxwell's relationship remains unclear to this day. Were they dating? Best friends? Partners in crime? Or maybe all three? Regardless, one can not avoid the obvious similarities between Epstein and Maxwell’s recently deceased father. Both were rich and could provide Maxwell with the glamorous lifestyle she desperately wanted. With the substantial financial transition Maxwell underwent after her father's death, it is only natural to speculate that Maxwell clung on to Epstein for financial support.
Both Robert and Epstein acquired their fortune through questionable and frequently illegal methods. Epstein used his charismatic personality to convince powerful men to trust him with his money. He managed to use his power, money, and connections to avoid all consequences. It is still unclear how Epstein made his fortune of over half a billion dollars. The similarities between Maxwell’s father and Epstein lead to the hypothesis that Maxwell used Epstein to fill the void of her dead father. “It is to this man [Epstein] that 30-year-old Ghislaine had turned to ease the heartache of her father’s shame,” Vanity Fair reported.
Maxwell became a prominent New York socialite by Epstein’s side. She established herself among some of the country’s most powerful executives like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Donald Trump. While the people involved in Epstein’s sex trafficking ring have not been confirmed, there is great speculation that Epstein and Maxwell’s circle of politicians, CEOs, and other powerful figures were also involved in sexually abusing minors. Bill Clinton, among many others, visited Epstein’s notorious private island in the Caribbean, where he held girls who he would sexually abuse. Recently, a federal indictment confirmed Maxwell facilitated and assisted Epstein in his abuse for decades. According to The Cut, “lawyers have claimed that Epstein and Maxwell acted as the leaders of an organized crime family, helping traffic girls and women to powerful figures.”
In 2009, a lawsuit was filed against Epstein and Maxwell. A woman named Virginia Giuffre reported that Maxwell had approached her to be a “sex slave” in Epstein’s ring when she was only seventeen years old. Guiffre was just one of the many brave victims that have come forward.
Around 2006, Maxwell distanced herself from Epstein, at least publicly. She started appearing on CNN, gave a speech at a TED event, and spoke nine times before the United Nations once she refocused her attention to something that she felt desperately needed saving: the ocean. In 2012, Maxwell started a non-profit organization called The TerraMar Project. The organization was an environmental charity with a focus on ocean protection. Maxwell abruptly shut down her non-profit in 2019 during Epstein’s arrest and pending trial.
Ever since Epstein was exposed as one of history’s most horrific sexual predators, people have wondered where Maxwell was hiding and what secrets she hid with her. But Maxwell’s year in hiding came to an end on July 2 when she was found and arrested by the FBI and New York Police Department in a 156-acre estate in Bradford, New Hampshire.
Prosecutors charged her with four counts in connection with the sexual abuse of minors and two counts of perjury for lying under oath. Maxwell has continually denied all allegations. The indictment portrays Maxwell as Epstein’s partner in crime, taking part in mainly the grooming of victims rather than the abuse itself. It is unknown to what extent Maxwell participated in the sexual abuse alongside Epstein.
Maxwell’s survivors revealed that she would befriend the targets and ask them personal questions about their lives and then take them shopping to become close and establish trust. Maxwell would coerce and impress working girls by her wealth and connections, establishing a power dynamic in which they were afraid to speak up in fear of seeming ungrateful for the opportunities they were being given. She was described by many of her survivors as charismatic, outgoing, and charming. Not only did Maxwell facilitate many girls for Epstein, but she also helped to cover up the abuse and deal with the girls individually, by normalizing sexual abuse. Maxwell did this by discussing sexual topics and even undressing in front of victims to normalize being naked and performing sexual acts for Epstein. There are many accounts of Maxwell giving minors unsolicited massages while naked and instructing them to do the same to Epstein.
The documentary “Filthy Rich” recently aired on Netflix, which detailed the stories from survivors of Epstein’s and Maxwell’s and how they used their wealth and power to abuse girls. For many, the most disturbing aspect of Epstein’s story was the failures of the criminal justice system. The show revealed a deeper message: our criminal justice system tends to treat those who are rich and guilty better than those who are poor and innocent. Epstein, with a team of the world’s best lawyers, only received thirteen months of jail in 2008—with time free on work release—after pleading guilty to “soliciting minors for prostituion.”
The entire premise of his accusation was absurd; children can not consent, so a “Child Prostitute” doesn’t exist. After serving his time, he went on for another decade sexually abusing underage girls before being sent to prison. Epstein’s suicide left many people feeling as if, once again, justice was subverted. In a statement to Rolling Stone, Epstein’s survivor Jennifer Araoz echoed this, saying, “I am angry Jeffrey Epstein won’t have to face the survivors of his abuse in court. We have to live with the scars of his actions for the rest of our lives, while he will never face the consequences of the crimes he committed the pain and trauma he caused so many people.” Hopefully, Maxwell’s trial, which will take place in 2021, will bring justice, validation, and closure to her and Epstein’s survivors.