Now the world knows what Ghislaine Maxwell did, Channel 4’s three-part documentary Ghislaine Maxwell: The Making of a Monster has a decent stab at answering a follow-up question that can never fully be answered: what made her do it?
In its hunt for an explanation, the programme identifies phases of Maxwell’s early life where conditions that are recognisable as incubators of bad humans had a twist in them, injecting an extra drop of acid. Growing up under an abusive, controlling, multimillionaire patriarch is dangerous enough, but Ghislaine was newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell’s favourite, the youngest of nine, who regularly witnessed her father attacking and humiliating one sibling or another at dinner, while not being subjected to that treatment herself. Even worse than suffering through a toxic environment, young Ghislaine flourished in one, experiencing it as a place in which she was loved.
Then, in the latter part of her youth, she was part of an Oxford University clique full of people with rich families behind them and personal fortunes soon to follow. That’s always likely to create a selfish, entitled individual, but as the daughter of a refugee immigrant – and a boorish, vulgar one at that – Maxwell was always overcompensating for never quite being one of the establishment gang. Her brand of pampered arrogance had an undercurrent of desperation, we hear.
In her giddy 20s, Maxwell combined nepotistically awarded jobs in journalism with her main occupation, being a “socialite” – that is, someone who throws parties without having anything to celebrate but the party itself. Overbearing confidence and aggressive attention-seeking are core qualities of anyone fulfilling that role, and some of the stories related here about Maxwell’s time as a queen bee in yuppie late-80s London are eccentric or awful, while still being relatively unremarkable – rudely dismissing a woman at a party before marching off with her husband, for instance, or hosting an event wearing just a bra and pants, teamed with full jewellery and makeup.
If there is a wider lesson to be learned, it’s about how the empty, untethered lives of the very rich create a breeding ground for sociopaths, but other anecdotes about Maxwell’s behaviour offer a direct foreshadowing of her future as a handmaiden for extreme misogyny. One appalled witness recalls a party game in which male guests were blindfolded, presented with a series of topless female guests, and challenged to match the breasts they were groping to their owners: “If a man suggested it, I don’t think the women would have done it.”
There are some nuggets of gossip that don’t help with the specific task at hand, but which only a supremely restrained documentarist would leave out, such as Maxwell apparently claiming she maintained the svelte physique deemed essential for a host on the social circuit by following “the Nazi diet” – that is, aping the very low-calorie intake of concentration-camp inmates. The joke would be transgressive in any circumstances but, coming from someone with a father who lost his parents, four siblings and scores of extended family members in the Holocaust, it acquires a different flavour.
Whatever your take on that, there is a long leap to be made from Maxwell’s life as a doyenne of high society, albeit an obnoxious and occasionally disturbing one, to her becoming the monster of the title, a procurer of girls for a paedophile rapist. The programme doesn’t quite explain it, but what is clear is that Maxwell’s life pivots around the night in November 1991 when her father fell off the side of his superyacht – the Lady Ghislaine – and drowned. At this point she based herself in New York and quickly became Jeffrey Epstein’s lover, partner, best pal, consigliere or some combination of all four, replacing the malign patronage of her father with another wealthy, powerful, poisonous man.
Later instalments will bring the primary revelations, doing the important work of giving the victims a voice. In the meantime, it is hard to know how much weight to put on episode one’s testimonies. There is no shortage of articulate contributors or familiar faces – as luck would have it, many of Maxwell’s contemporaries at Oxford turned out to have the raw talent necessary to forge prominent media careers – but they are usually at a remove from the woman herself. We hear from observers and acquaintances who saw, often up close, how she operated, but can only speculate about her thoughts and feelings. The friends and loved ones who might do that more authoritatively are absent, perhaps nonexistent.
This is not necessarily a weakness, because it stops The Making of a Monster falling into the trap of eliciting pity for its subject. Instead, we have a disgusted curiosity: Ghislaine Maxwell may not have been untouchable, but she moved in circles that made her unknowable. She’s better left that way.