This Week in Books: Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say about Their Lives

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Welcome to This Week in Books, where we highlight books just released by small and independent presses. Books have always been a symbol for and means of spreading knowledge and wisdom, and they are an important part of our toolkit in fighting for social justice. If we’re going to move our national narrative away from one of hate and fear, we need books that display empathy, that help us understand different points of view, that show us we aren’t alone, that feed our spirits.

This week, we’ll look at Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say about Their Lives (Columbia University Press, January 2017) by Leigh Gilmore. The subtitle of this book resonated with me before I even read the jacket copy. I began experiencing debilitating migraines in 2007, but was not properly diagnosed until two years after I first sought medical help—not because I wasn’t in life-altering pain, but because (mostly male) doctors kept telling me it was “just stress.”

If you are a woman, you probably have a similar story of being disbelieved, discredited, or dismissed. You may, at some point, have doubted yourself. You may have believed that you were, in fact, overreacting. Tainted Witness is for you.

But it’s also for those who have done the disbelieving, discrediting, and dismissing. Gilmore’s book is a critical look at why women’s testimonies are so often ignored or pooh-poohed, and what happens when they are.

One of Gilmore’s key examples is that of Anita Hill, who testified that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her at the US Department of Education, where they both worked. At the time of Hill’s accusation, Thomas was going through Senate hearings to be confirmed as Supreme Court Justice. You know how this story ends: the largely male members of the senate turned Hill’s accusations around on her, saying she had been “spurned” and was seeking revenge. Thomas, of course, made it to the Supreme Court.

In an essay Gilmore wrote last summer about the headline-making Stanford sexual assault case in which Brock Turner was caught in the act of raping an unconscious woman, she says:

Phrases like “he said/she said” or “no one knows what really happened” are used commonly to describe rape as a matter of interpretation. Such phrases actively harm women’s credibility in general and erode our capacity to engage with the truth of specific cases. They allow savvy defense teams to substitute bias against women for the facts of actual cases and to turn sympathy towards perpetrators.

These tactics, of course, are not used only in cases of sexual assault and rape. In another essay, Gilmore examines how the narratives presented by mainstream news sources painted Hillary Clinton as “corrupt, mercenary, and even murderous,” and how these false narratives contributed to Donald Trump’s win.

Tainted Witness doesn’t just look at what’s broken about how we view women’s testimony. It also examines how women can work toward “disrupting doubt” and ultimately arrive at true justice, making this essential reading for women living under a president who publicly professed sexual assault and faced no consequences.

Pick up a copy of Tainted Witness in hardcover or e-book format directly from Columbia University Press.

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Logo art by Max Winter.


Kelly Lynn Thomas reads, writes, and sometimes sews in Pittsburgh, PA. Her creative work has appeared in Sou’wester, Thin Air Magazine, Heavy Feather Review, metazen, and others, and she received her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University. She is hopelessly obsessed with Star Wars and can always be found with a large mug of tea. She also runs the very small Wild Age Press. Read more at kellylynnthomas.com. More from this author →