When Ghislaine Maxwell’s sex-trafficking trial neared its end, the British socialite’s lawyers had their work cut out for them. For weeks, prosecutors had painted Maxwell as a member of the elite who carried out unspeakable acts to maintain her charmed life with the late financier Jeffrey Epstein.
They presented abundant evidence that Maxwell lured girls, some just 14 years old, into Epstein’s orbit for him to sexually abuse – while carrying herself as an untouchable “lady of the house”. In the prosecution’s telling, Maxwell didn’t just do bad things: she was gleefully committed to doing them.
After the prosecution rested its case, Maxwell’s lawyers were left with few options for mounting a defense. They tried to make her look likable, and elicited fawning testimony from several of Maxwell’s former employees, as part of this effort.
The likability strategy didn’t appear to work, as Maxwell was found guilty on 29 December, but her attorneys have now launched another humanization campaign, to secure leniency when she is sentenced on 28 June. But their strategy has shifted from likability to pathos – casting her as an abused girl turned traumatized woman who was susceptible to Epstein’s influence and thus led into her crimes by him.
In sentencing paperwork, they describe Maxwell’s upbringing in terms that rival the dark depiction of privilege in Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca. Maxwell’s lawyers claim that her life was primed for emotional neglect shortly after her birth on Christmas 1961.
Two days after Maxwell was born, her eldest sibling, Michael, was seriously and permanently injured in an auto accident. Her mother, Elisabeth Maxwell, went on a lengthy sojourn through India and Australia “on doctor’s orders” one year later, “leaving Ghislaine and her siblings not already in boarding school at home in the care of a nanny”.
“Ghislaine was hardly given a glance and became anorexic while still a toddler,” the attorneys claimed in sentencing paperwork. “At age three, she stood in front of her mother and said simply, ‘Mummy, I exist.’”
As a child, Maxwell saw her father, the publishing titan Robert Maxwell, rise in business and political endeavors. Their home was filled with “prominent” figures, and the children were “instructed by their parents to be attentive to the needs of the guests”.
While Robert Maxwell claimed to love the children, the relationship evolved after he became a member of parliament. “He stopped living at home regularly, essentially seeing the children only on Sunday, leaving little normal daily contact between father and child to counterbalance the peaks of crisis and drama he created in the family,” the lawyers said.
Sundays provided no respite for the Maxwell children. The house was filled with high-profile guests and Robert Maxwell would put the children “on trial” in what her attorneys describe as the “Maxwellian Drama”.
He would grill one of them to answer questions about a topic “in accordance with the rules of life he has encapsulated into mnemonics and drilled into them”. When one of the children didn’t deliver as expected, Robert Maxwell allegedly turned on them.
“The dressing down was always painful in the extreme with everyone around the table feeling uncomfortable. Mr Maxwell, a man of large physical stature with a booming voice, would explode, threaten and rant at the children until they were reduced to pulp,” the attorneys claimed. “Mr Maxwell was relentless, with children ending up in tears, punishments being doled out, and the whole family in utter distress.”
Maxwell’s team said that her father’s time in parliament created a danger, saying that “UK authorities found a ‘hitlist’ of potential kidnapping/assassination targets in a safe house used by the Irish Republican Army.” The young girl’s name “was first on the list”, they said.
With emotional pain came physical blows, Maxwell’s team alleged, saying her father “employed corporal punishment on his children”. One instance unfolded when Maxwell was age 13, after she “tacked a poster of a pony on the newly painted wall of her bedroom”.
“Rather than mar the paint with tape, she carefully hammered a thin tack to mount the poster,” Maxwell’s lawyers said. “This outraged her father, who took the hammer and banged on Ghislaine’s dominant hand, leaving it severely bruised and painful for weeks to come.”
She was shipped to boarding school around age eight, about when her father’s professional life started to unravel. “The 1970s were difficult and demanding years for the family, marred by Mr Maxwell’s endless battle of lawsuits and financial ruin,” the attorneys claimed. Despite his pressures, she succeeded in school and later, at university.
But Maxwell remained under her father’s power into adulthood, including her love life. “She began her first romance, only to have the relationship quashed by her father’s disapproval of her engagement,” Maxwell’s team said.
“A family reconciliation coinciding with Ghislaine’s 20th birthday devolved into a miserable Christmas. Mr Maxwell was at his absolute worst, making Ghislaine the scapegoat du jour,” her attorneys claimed. “The holiday ended with an announcement that her parents were separating.”
After Maxwell graduated college and started a “corporate gifts” company, the enterprise was brought into the father’s business concerns “at her father’s insistence”. She moved to New York around 1991 to launch an international magazine that was also part of his publishing empire.
He died in a boating accident shortly thereafter, and the family’s reputation once again spiraled: news had emerged that £460m from his companies’ pensions funds was missing.
“Her relationship with Epstein began at a moment of extreme vulnerability [in] Ghislaine’s life after the tragic death of our father. He (our father) was a powerful and dominant figure,” several of her siblings said in sentencing paperwork. “And as elder siblings we witnessed our father taking Ghislaine under his wing whereby she became over-dependent on his approval and vulnerable to his frequent rapid mood swings, huge rages and rejections. This led her to becoming very vulnerable to abusive and powerful men who would be able to take advantage of her innate good nature.
“It is striking that Ghislaine did not show any perverse behavior before she met Epstein. Nor did she show any after leaving him, which she eventually managed to do,” they said. “The effect of our father’s psychologically abusive treatment of her, foreshadowed Epstein’s own ability to exploit, manipulate and control her.”
One family friend claimed, “[T]heir father was narcissistic, demanding and highly controlling. He let them know early that he was going to leave his large fortune to charity. So, all the kids knew they had to ‘make it on their own’ despite the wealth and privilege in which they were growing up.”
As Maxwell’s lawyers concluded their argument – urging that she should be sentenced to “well below” the 20 years recommended by probation authorities – they once again leaned on her father’s alleged misdeeds.
“She had a difficult, traumatic childhood with an overbearing, narcissistic and demanding father. It made her vulnerable to Epstein, whom she met right after her father’s death,” they said. “It is the biggest mistake she made in her life and one that she has not and never will repeat.”