Tara Reade, Class, and Credibility

Tara Reade, Class, and Credibility
Tara Reade in Washington in the early 1990s, during the time she worked for Joe Biden.

Photo:AP/Tara Reade

For months, journalists have worked to corroborate Tara Reade’s allegation that she was sexually assaulted by Joe Biden in 1993. Much of that reporting has focused on the particulars of the allegation: journalists have interviewed 74 former Biden staffers and dug up tape appearing to show Reade’s mother calling into a long-ago Larry King Live episode to discuss her daughter’s “problems” with a “prominent senator,” all in an effort to confirm details of the alleged assault.

Some of these stories, though, have focused on establishing Reade’s “credibility” as an accuser, by relying on sweeping interviews with friends, relatives, co-workers, and landlords going back decades. A narrative has emerged from this reporting that ties questions of Reade’s trustworthiness to her financial background. Economic class is brought in as character evidence.

In May, the New York Times published a lengthy report that forwards this framing. It spins Reade’s economic background, financial struggles, and history of intimate partner violence into a tale of a “messy life,” a “tumultuous journey,” a “shambolic life.” As the article puts it, “If the national stage is new for Ms. Reade, the sturm and drang is anything but.” Much of that “sturm and drang” relates to abuse and poverty, yet the piece includes no discussion of how these two things are cyclical and interconnected. Instead, in the Times piece and others like it, a case is made for the way that trouble has followed Reade around—the implication being that she creates it.

Reade’s class permeates the Times’ discussion of Reade’s time working in Biden’s office in the 1990s. “The Biden Senate world was populated by striving Type A’s, and had a small-c conservative culture in which Ms. Reade didn’t quite fit,” the piece reads. “Former aides remember her as prone to storytelling and oversharing personal information.” It continues to note that she “rarely socialized with colleagues after work” and chafed “at the Ivy League tilt of the staff” while :arguing for more interns from state schools.” These facts set the stage for interpreting Reade through the lens of an outsider, that she didn’t gel with the staff is seen as a telling detail of her character.

Additionally, the Times reports that Biden’s office manager “admonished [Reade] to dress more modestly,” which not only has potential class insinuations but also recalls the long history of sexual assault victims being assessed by their clothing. This is not the first time reporters have clung to the subject of Reade’s attire in Biden’s office. Previously, in late May, Buzzfeed interviewed former Biden staffers and “two people brought up the clothes [Reade] wore to work—specifically recalling that she wore capes and dressed in a ‘hippie’ style.” Cara Ameer, then a legislative correspondent, said, “You were in a professional environment, so you wanted to be professional in every way—to look and act that way.” Ameer added, “She definitely seemed to me to march to her own drum. Maybe she didn’t like us. Maybe she thought we were a bunch of preppy Capitol Hill staffer types. If there was a mold of a Capitol Hill staffer, I would kinda say we probably fit it. We were well dressed.”

The assessment of her dress is not merely aesthetic but rather mired in class-based assumptions. This evaluation recalls Paula Jones, who in 1994 alleged that Bill Clinton exposed himself to her. (Note that Jones’ allegation came a year after Reade alleges that she was assaulted by Biden. ) In return, she was relentlessly mocked as low class: James Carville famously responded to her allegation by saying, “If you drag a $100 bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find.” A journalist from Newsweek referenced her reputation as “just some sleazy woman with big hair coming out of the trailer parks.” Four years later, Jones got a makeover and the Washington Post’s Robin Givhan wrote: “Her braces are gone. She has smoothed the frizzy mane of curls that once reached to such dazzling heights. Her makeup is now subtle and based on natural, not neon, hues. Her clothing is inspired by the boardroom instead of the secretarial pool.” By modeling herself on the aesthetics of DC’s professional set, Givhan wrote that Jones had “embraced the markers of dignity, refinement and power.” Most relevantly: the markers of class. “She is not white trash. She is not a big-haired floozy,” her spokesperson said of the image overhaul.

The Times continues its focus on Reade as an outsider in discussing a later job as an aide for State Senator Jack O’Connell, reporting that “two people familiar with her tenure said she regularly failed to appear at constituent meetings.” Then, “as the complaints about her work continued, Ms. Reade confessed that she was having a hard time at home, these people recalled.” Those hard times are unspecified, but the Times notes that Reade had feared for her safety after her then-husband, Ted Dronen, responded to news of her pregnancy by “slamming things around the house.” The Times continues, “She was given a lighter schedule, but when the behavior repeated itself, she and the office agreed to part ways.” The “behavior repeated itself” is an awfully blameful way to refer to a woman who is, it is implied, struggling at work alongside fear of her own husband. The Times fails to note research showing, as a Purdue University report puts it, that the impacts of domestic violence can “lead to tardiness, absenteeism and lack of productivity.” Reade’s fears only increased:

On the night of Feb. 21, 1996, Ms. Reade said in a court document, Mr. Dronen “slammed me up against the wall with such force that my neck, arms, shoulder and back are bruised. He punched my stomach and upper chest with a closed fist.” Public divorce records show that Mr. Dronen admitted to spousal abuse, and that Ms. Reade got a temporary restraining order. During an ensuing custody battle, Ms. Reade said she feared Mr. Dronen would beat their daughter if left alone with her for too long.

The Times follows this disturbing account of abuse by uncritically giving space to an “official evaluation” by a court evaluator that “suggested that Ms. Reade was exaggerating the threat, describing her as having ‘personality characteristics that predispose her to dramatically respond to a variety of situations.’ Ms. Reade’s fear for her daughter, the evaluator wrote, was based less on a realistic assessment of risk than on her ‘unresolved anger towards her ex-husband.’” Then space is further given to Dronen, who “declared, ‘abuse, sexual harassment and other traumatic incidents’ in Ms. Reade’s life were the ‘underlying psychological reason’ she was ‘making me out to be some sort of monster.’” That is to say, the Times allows Reade’s ex-husband, who admitted to spousal abuse, to write-off her fear as the creative imagination resulting from her prior trauma.

This court case is not used to document Reade’s alleged history of abuse, but instead serves as an unverified character assessment by suggesting that she is capable of wrongfully making men into monsters. Again, the man suggesting this is her admitted abuser, and the Times lets this go not only unchallenged but also supported by that “official evaluation.” It is not noted how sexism often enters the courtroom in cases of intimate partner violence, including in evaluations like these. It isn’t noted that abuse is cyclical and thus repeated instances are not suspicious but rather depressingly predictable.

Lately, Reade’s experience of intimate partner violence has been key in classing the narrative around her. Last month, Politico spoke with several of Reade’s former landlords, one of whom called her a “manipulative, deceitful, user.” (The only evidence for these impugning words was that the landlord had lowered Reade’s rent in response to her story of domestic abuse and yet she still struggled to pay it.) The implication throughout the Politico piece was that Reade exploited her story of abuse for financial gain, and it is much the same in the Times article, which speaks with landlords who allege that they took sympathy on Reade because of her “history of abuse” by helping her to move, ignoring her lack of credit, forgiving the lack of security deposit, and reducing the rent. “I knew it was a red flag, but I just walked right over it because she seemed so nice and I thought I could help a domestic-abuse victim and her daughter,” said Austin Chung, one of the landlords.

The Times writes that “there are the former friends who describe how she spun her way into their confidence with her story of abuse and perseverance, only to leave them feeling disappointed and duped.” It isn’t mentioned that poverty and abuse are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are deeply connected: As a recent study on intimate partner violence put it, “Though it cuts across race, socioeconomic status, age, geography and sexual orientation, those communities plagued by poverty experience disproportionate rates.” Instead of examining Reade’s story through this evidence-based lens, a conservative middle-class morality is imposed on her struggles with no consideration for the privilege that enables such a stance.

Similarly, as a law student, Reade is portrayed by the Times as “so poor she had to borrow law books and occasionally brought her daughter to class when she couldn’t find child care.” The Times continues, “She also harbored a secret. She had never obtained the undergraduate degree required for law school admission.” Of course, this is not in the service of teeing up of a discussion of how money acts as a barrier to education, but rather to drive home, again, Reade’s “shambolic life.” “But a legal career would not come together,” reports the Times. “She did not pass the bar exam… .” At her new job, the Times says, she “frequently appeared at work late and had difficulty managing money as she tried to establish an upper-middle-class veneer for her daughter.” Reade’s economic struggle and striving should be irrelevant to her accusation of sexual assault. Instead, it’s emerged as a defining narrative.

It’s hard to have a “tidy” life—as opposed to a “messy” one, in the Times’ wording—without resources.

None of this is to say that class was unimportant in Reade’s life; clearly, it defined it in many ways. It influenced how she was regarded by co-workers and superiors, which inarguably impacted her career. That she escaped domestic violence, struggled to pay rent, went into debt, and attended law school with a kid in tow all speak to the salience of economic disadvantage. It’s hard to have a “tidy” life—as opposed to a “messy” one, in the Times’ wording—without resources. But these facts take on new meaning within the frame of an investigation prompted by an accusation of sexual assault. The Times article isn’t the kind of profile meant to create intimacy with a public figure by exploring early beginnings, but rather a deeply reported evaluation of Reade as a high-profile accuser.

Here, facts are not facts, they are selected within a classed frame that implies significance around credibility. That frame reveals the enduring myth of the “perfect victim” and casts histories of abuse and poverty as incriminating evidence.

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