It’s been just over a year since American financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein died in his prison cell under questionable circumstances. He had been arrested on charges of child sex-trafficking just a month earlier, so it wasn’t long before conspiracy theories surrounding his apparent suicide started doing the rounds.
Lifetime’s two-part docu-series, Surviving Jeffrey Epstein, sifts through the scandals and makes way for the one thing that truly matters most: the voices of the women who claim to have fallen victim to his sexual abuse many years ago. “There’s finally a chance for justice and these women’s voices will finally be heard,” co-director Annie Sundberg explains.
We sat down with Epstein survivor Kiki Doe, her therapist Dr. Janice Stevenson, as well as the two women behind the docuseries – directors Ricki Stern and Annie.
Kiki Doe and Dr. Stevenson
What gave you the courage to share your story with the world?
Kiki: When I first contacted my attorney around 2008, she was the first person in 15 years that I had told my story to. I never told my family or even my therapist. So, from that day on, I was adamant about staying anonymous. I was scared for myself, having seen the tactics and intimidation used in previous cases. After he (Epstein) died, that gave me a little more comfort, that it wasn’t really possible for him to hurt me. That was the major stepping stone in addition to all the women who also came forward. I felt guilty for holding back, seeing all these women being courageous and brave.
Could you give us some insight into what the experience of being interviewed for the series was like?
Kiki: It was definitely bizarre. You’re already fearful, not knowing what to expect or what’s going to be asked of you. You’re going into a situation where you’ve never met these people before. But I could not have been in a better position with the crew and directors who were empathetic and supportive. They made me so comfortable and approached me with such great sensitivity. It was a wonderful experience for me. I left thinking, “Wow! That was a huge moment in my life.”
Dr. Stevenson: I’d like to add on to that. I think it’s also important to mention that, before this happened to Kiki, she was a model who comfortably travelled around the world. Her ability to feel safe with strangers was taken away from her when she was abused by Epstein. It took a long time to recover. This series has been a huge step in her recovery process.
What do you hope to see come from this docu-series?
Kiki: That question has a lot of weight… I would hope that it adds to the public discourse about how we can never let this go unheard or unseen or unspoken because it’s so prevalent. We have to keep talking about it. If there’s anything we can add, we have the responsibility to do so.
Dr. Stevenson: The conversation in the world right now is how people treat people. How we raise our children needs to change, how we raise boys. “They’re just being boys” is a lie. There are consequences, we must hold people accountable for their actions. How we interact with each other for intimacy has to grow and change because the fact that the #MeToo movement exists at all means that people like Epstein are still out there and people are still being victimised.
Some survivors, after speaking out, have called it a healing experience, others called it trauma recovery. What has telling your story meant to you, Kiki?
Kiki: This process is a form of recovery and a form of catharsis in that you feel empowered when you tell your story. Speaking publicly like this is something I never thought I would be capable of. It has been healing for me.
With the constant barrage of headlines regarding Epstein and his now-arrested alleged accomplice, Ghislaine Maxwell, how have you guarded yourself from re-experiencing the trauma?
Kiki: I see Dr. Stevenson on a regular basis and it’s a tremendous help. She probably knows me and my mind better than myself. It is definitely re-traumatising. You have to suppress those experiences to survive and go on with daily life. You just find ways to cope with it through therapy and, in my case, distractions with family, and try your best to accept it. Accept that this happened to you and you can’t turn back time.
Dr. Stevenson, how has Epstein’s death impacted on victims’ opportunity to find closure? Can they find closure?
Dr. Stevenson: When we’re raised, as children we’re taught that when we do something bad, there are consequences. When the person who did the bad thing is no longer there, they can never come to a place where they say, “I’m sorry, I will never do that again.” The survivors are left hanging. However, with Maxwell’s arrest, she’s almost an extension of Epstein. The survivors get another shot at finding closure. Her part in that was significant. Without her, they wouldn’t have been entrapped by him.
Annie Sunderberg & Ricki Stern
When did you start working on this series?
Ricki: About a year ago, last July. We immediately started talking about the potential to tell a story that gave a fresh perspective on this.
How did you approach the survivors and ensure they felt safe to tell their stories?
Ricki: We first reached out to lawyers of survivors and asked them who they felt we should be talking to, who was ready. For us, it was a very much a getting-to-know-you process. We let them get to know us in terms of our process as well. Lifetime was also very helpful and provided psychological support to help prep them for telling their story on camera.
Did you ever find yourself second-guessing yourself during production? What were you most hesitant about?
Annie: I think, if anything, we wanted to get into so many different areas. We had to reign ourselves in. There are so many aspects that are fascinating. I would say that personally, I never felt concerned about the areas we were going into. It was important to be respectful of the women to tell their stories in their own words and own time. We talked about how they wanted to talk about their assault, the language they wanted to use – “what we want to hear is your story”.
Ghislaine Maxwell’s arrest completely changed the focus of the final episode. Can you tell us more about that?
Ricki: The final episode was going to be a roundtable – an opportunity for the women to talk about what they’re doing now. But when Ghislaine was arrested, we were on our computers and emailing each other furiously. We quickly contacted a journalist, featured in the series, and he went down to New York to hear the charges being read and we had a crew and started filming. We tried to capture as much of the emotion around Ghislaine’s arrest and the reactions. Where was she? Would she be held accountable and ever be prosecuted? This was ground-breaking and emotional for many women.
What do you hope to see come from this series?
Annie: I think for women who felt responsible for their abuse, it will alleviate that guilt. There were also so many things that went wrong with this case and it highlights how transparency within the legal system can be corrupted. There are so many apologies needed here. There needs to be some form of accountability, from the legal system as well as the perpetrators.
Ricki: I hope the show de-stigmatises (talking about) sexual abuse and lessens that feeling of guilt and shame. There’s a growing group of people who want to help and hold people accountable for that kind of wrongdoing. One woman in our series says, “We talk about drug abuse and alcohol abuse but no one wants to talk about sexual abuse.”
What did you find most surprising or revealing while working on the series?
Annie: I think what was more sinister for us, as women and looking at our own society, were the people who continuously enabled Epstein and Ghislaine, how they were literally looking the other way.
What would justice look like for the women who were abused by Epstein?
Ricki: To see justice handed down in the case against Ghislaine. For these women to feel some closure that was taken from them when Epstein died. Every step of the way, these women were denied justice.
Watch Surviving Jeffrey Epstein on Mondays7 & 14 September on Lifetime (DStv 131) at 21:55