The Strange Spy Story at the Heart of #MeToo
In Helen Schulman’s novel “Lucky Dogs,” no woman can win a game orchestrated by men
It’s not a spoiler to say that one woman whips out a switchblade, or that another’s boozy airplane ride leads to a warrant for her arrest. Though this is a spy novel, it’s not even a spoiler to say that one woman is stalking the other—and then their roles reverse.
While novelist Helen Schulman’s new book, Lucky Dogs, has the intrigue and pace of a thriller, the novel is also a scorching meditation on sexual assault—and a retelling of a bizarre true story at the heart of the #MeToo Movement. As Schulman explained to me in a Zoom conversation, Lucky Dogs is less focused on the moment of violence than its fallout: how the stories of sexual assault survivors are repressed, and how two women can find themselves pitted against each other.
Schulman is the New York Times bestselling author of six novels and serves as the fiction chair of the Creative Writing program at The New School. From her New York City office, she chatted with me about the intertwined themes of sexism and civil war in Lucky Dogs and the toxic ideal of the “good victim.”
Evangeline Riddiford Graham: In your Author’s Note, you describe how Lucky Dogs was inspired by a news story that seemed to have “fallen out of the sky.” I’d love to hear more about that aha moment.
Helen Schulman: I grew up in the 1970s, and I drank the Kool-Aid on second-wave feminism. As I get older, I’m increasingly sad and angry that things have not changed the way I thought they would in my lifetime. So I read about #MeToo and Rose McGowan with a lot of interest.
Rose McGowan was a young actress on her own when [Hollywood producer] Harvey Weinstein raped her. She was in her early forties when she started her campaign against him in 2017. Now she has followers she calls “Rose’s army,” but back then she had no army: she was just a woman with a mouth and unfettered anger. She was brave and crazily wild in a world where, aside from the industry gossip network, nobody was talking about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assaults.
Harvey Weinstein hired the lawyer David Boies—who went to Ehud Barak, the former prime minister of Israel—to find the right spies to ruin her. The effort of all these men to silence this one woman was astounding to me. Then I learned that [through the Israeli private intelligence agency Black Cube] Weinstein had hired a young Israeli woman to pose as a women’s rights activist and befriend McGowan and to ultimately discredit her and stop her from writing her book. I was like, Oh, wow. How could one woman do this to another? How could a woman betray another woman this way?
That was it. The story fell into my lap.
ERG: Lucky Dogs centers on the specific conflict of one woman being hired to spy on another, with the aim of discrediting her sexual assault testimony. But the scope of the novel goes way beyond these two people.
HS: I think it’s really about how women can be so tormented and abused that they turn on each other and destroy themselves, their sisterhood. A civil war between women that’s orchestrated by very powerful men.
In my book and in real life, the young woman hired to spy on Rose McGowan was originally from Bosnia and was a child during the siege of Sarajevo. Her grandparents had rescued Jewish families during the Second World War, and her grandfather had lost his life for it. So during the Bosnian War in the 1990s, this young woman and her surviving family were saved by the Israelis and brought to Israel as “Righteous Gentiles,” where she grew up to become a Black Cube agent.
While I was researching this book, I felt like our country was on the brink of a civil war. We’re locked and loaded, in terms of our lack of gun control. So I was thinking a lot about the Bosnian War and about the state of Israel. I’m Jewish; my grandmother’s brother was part of the founding movement in Israel. I have very complicated feelings about Israel: I’m against endless war, and I’m against people being subjugated, and I’m against people being so scared.
ERG: In Bosnia and Israel, two of the main settings of the book, civil war is a constant pressure on the characters and their relationships.
HS: And the book ends in Florida—if there’s any place in this country that’s at the point of civil war, it’s Florida. I was born 15 years after the Holocaust; I lived through the 1960s, ’70s. I think this is the worst time of my lifetime in the U.S., because we’re eating each other. But to the rest of the world, we’re just crazy because we have everything that they want, and all we’re doing is messing it up. I don’t want to ever judge one person’s pain against another, but I think for people who live in war-torn countries, when they hear Americans complain about our problems, or watch us make our own problems, they’re like, You’re fucking crazy.
ERG: It seems radical to me that the stories of your two protagonists—Merry, the famous actress, and Nina, the spy—can exist alongside each other without judgment. Both women have suffered in different ways, and you feel that, as a reader. But they’re both also at times repugnant and both certainly fail to live up to what Matt, the novel’s Ronan Farrow-like journalist, refers to as a “squeaky clean” requirement we demand in witnesses of sexual assault. They also fail a perceived “likability” requirement that comes up for protagonists in fiction.
HS: This is something I’ve always run up against, because I present my characters warts and all. Both Nina and Merry do really unsavory things, but I have compassion for them. I’m not asking you to love them. I’m asking you to understand what happens to women growing up and how hard it can be.
My husband, Bruce, worked at Esquire for a while as an editor, and inherited a story about Bryan Singer, a director who has been accused many times of raping or abusing young men. This time, the writers, Alex French and Max Potter, had the goods on him—they had testimony. Bruce edited the story, and Bruce’s editor wanted to run it. Then the powers that be at Hearst killed the story, in part, they said, because these characters are too unsympathetic, they’re too unreliable. One was a sex worker, the other is a drug addict. This one grew up to do porno films. They don’t make good witnesses.
It absolutely enraged me that they killed the story. Bruce went on editing it till the writers found a new home at the Atlantic. Then there was a whole shake up at Esquire. Bruce ended up quitting, and his other two bosses were pushed out.
What stuck with me was the fact that these men weren’t “good enough” victims. Rose McGowan was considered not a “good victim.” And Merry is so not a good victim. Her lawyer says to her: You had sex with other people. You had sex with women, you had sex in movies. You take off your clothes, you walk around half naked; at this point, it’s your word against his, since you didn’t show up immediately at the police station. Merry says, You mean if I ran out of that room with his semen running down my legs and my torn panties, I could have pressed charges? And her lawyer says, Yes.
Why don’t women do that? Because they’re so scared, and they want so badly for it not to have happened. In Weinstein’s trial, the defense would say, Well, this accuser wrote Harvey all these notes later, so she must have had sex with him consensually. Some of these women had affairs with him consensually after they’d been raped by him. That’s part of the psychology of abuse that I don’t think the public understands. If those women then got into some crazy, weird affair with Weinstein—a repetition, compulsion, or trying to control the narrative, or just wanting a job—it doesn’t mean he didn’t rape them.
So yes, Merry wears short skirts and she’s vulgar and she takes drugs and she drinks and she acts out. But what for me is essential about her and what makes me love her is she’s a raging bull. No matter what you do to her, she’s going to fight back. She’s not going to lie down and die. And if fighting back damages her more, that’s because she has no impulse control. But I admire that. I admire that even if it means she does terrible things. She just can’t accept letting people step all over her and hurt her that way.
ERG: She’ll use whatever tools she has to hand—
HS: Which are very few. She’s unsupported. She has one person on her side, and that’s her manager.
ERG: As a mode of witnessing war and witnessing sexual assault, why fiction?
HS: Both my grandmothers were refugees. I grew up in a bedroom with my mother’s mother. She had four siblings killed in the Holocaust, and lost everything when she came to this country. She was an educated person; she ended up being a laundry woman. My father’s mother, on the other hand, left Russia penniless, almost barefoot: they had one pair of shoes that all nine children shared. And she couldn’t read or write, but she could tell stories. Both my grandmothers told so many stories. I learned to look at the history of the world through the lens of story from them.
ERG: You mentioned the lengths that “the powers that be”—in your book and in life—will go to in order to silence a story about sexual assault. Can we talk a bit more about that?
HS: The levels of corruption are unreal. Think of all the people in Hollywood who knew what Weinstein was up to. He had a bevy of young women who would lead women to his hotel room and then disappear. These women were acting as decoys for the women he raped. Did they know? Some did, some didn’t. A very brave woman named Zelda Perkins was in her early twenties and working for Weinstein when she heard from her colleague that Weinstein had attempted to rape her. Perkins reported it and fought and fought for her friend. The women were told they didn’t have a case and ended up signing an NDA they were terrified about for more than 20 years.
At NBC in New York, they were protecting Matt Lauer. Matt Lauer had a rape button under his desk. He could press the button under his desk so that the door would lock when someone was in his office.
Rape and sexual assault happens in every walk of life. But in these cases—the Matt Lauers, the Harvey Weinsteins, the Bill Cosbys—these are mass rapists who were protected by other people because of their money and their power. Whole organizations were built around hiding their crimes.
There were plenty of rumors about Harvey Weinstein, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the truth truly came out. And I think Rose McGowan was absolutely a hero in that. The journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey at the New York Times broke the story first. They were incredible. They were such heroes at such personal cost to their lives and their families. So there are good guys, but there were so many powers working against them. Ken Auletta spent 20 years trying to break the story, and he couldn’t. It was only when Ronan Farrow was close, then Auletta gave him his files and introduced him to David Remnick, who then published Farrow in the New Yorker.
ERG: As a feminist, what was your approach to depicting rape and sexual violence in Lucky Dogs?
HS: I don’t want to ever be gratuitous about something that important, and I also don’t want it to be in any way titillating. So I wrote about it matter-of-factly, I think.
In the book, Nina’s mother is raped in front of her husband and child, in her own home, by her husband’s best friend, who is taking over their apartment. There were many similar crimes in the Bosnian war. The neighbor invades the house with a group. He’s always had a crush on his friend’s wife; besides, he likes this apartment better. Nina’s mother screams at her husband to look away. There’s nothing prurient about the scene. It’s not a sex. It’s rape: it’s violence against this woman, and it’s violence against her husband.
Then Nina’s family is forced out of their apartment. She’s just been raped. He’s just watched this. The child has just seen this. And they have to find a place to go while there’s gunfire in the streets. But that’s what happens. They had to get up, go, take what they could. You’re raped and then what? What do you do next?
That’s the question I’m interested in: How do you survive your own life?