‘Surviving Jeffrey Epstein’: Centering Survivors in a Respectful but Definitive Series

Lifetime's four-part docuseries is told almost entirely from the survivors' point of view, and the filmmakers took pains to address their concerns.
"Surviving Jeffrey Epstein"
Marijke Chartouni in "Surviving Jeffrey Epstein"

Like many powerful men revealed to be predators in the years since #MeToo, it’s impossible to fathom that such an evil abuser like Jeffrey Epstein could have eluded justice for so many years. Stories about the late financier and serial sex offender had been circulating for years before he was finally charged in 2008; even more shocking was the sweetheart deal he struck, brokered by then-Florida State’s Attorney Alex Acosta to evade any real consequences for those charges.

The deeply disturbing and long-running Epstein saga reaches into the highest echelons of society — logs from Epstein’s private jet include multiple trips from President Donald J. Trump and Prince Andrew. Naturally, the story has attracted much attention and not all of it entirely respectful or even focused on the people most affected: The survivors of Epstein’s abuse.

Surviving Jeffrey Epstein,” a four-part docuseries that recently premiered on Lifetime, centers the survivors’ voices, telling the story in their own words. That is undoubtedly the right tack to take, and stands in stark contrast to the half-baked Netflix series “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich.” (The two titles alone are a good indicator of each show’s priorities.)

The series also offers a comprehensive survey of Epstein’s rise from working class Brooklyn college dropout to billionaire in the upper echelons of society, while delving into the strange parasitic relationship between Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, who is currently being charged as a co-conspirator in the years of abuse. A former close friend of Maxwell’s, Christopher Mason, is a particularly compelling character and voice in the series, offering new insight into her upbringing and psyche. These elements together present a fuller picture than what has previously been reported, which in turn humanizes the survivors by providing more context.

“When we approached our subjects, we said: ‘This is gonna be different than a news piece, we really want to spend time with you and have your story portrayed in your own words,'” said co-director Ricky Stern during a CTAM virtual panel last week. “To understand where they come from and where they are today is so powerful.”

Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine MaxwellLifetime

Two of the women profiled in the series, Rachel Benavidez and Kiki Doe, were also on the virtual panel. Both women emphasized how comfortable Stern and her co-director Annie Sundberg made them feel in an admittedly difficult situation.

“I felt like you guys didn’t pressure me, and you came from a real place of wanting to tell the story,” Benavidez said. “You were very respectful about our boundaries and the process and where we were in our own lives and meeting us there and I really appreciated that.”

It was particularly crucial that the survivors be treated with respect, because talking about intense trauma can very often be re-traumatizing — not to mention the challenges of doing so on a film set with tons of people around. “The actual filming, the actual prep, the actual aftermath, the emotional roller coasters that I went through pre- and post-filming, was a bit brutal,” Benavidez added. “But you guys made it easy and you were very respectful about the process and I appreciate that. But it’s a hard thing to do to go on television and be vulnerable and really tell your story and to try to eloquently do that is really hard.”

“Imagine having to re-invite this trauma, this experience into your life,” Doe added. “Every time you retell the story, you’re kind of reliving it. So it’s very re-traumatizing, and on top of that you’re going into a strange place you’ve never been with people you’ve never met and you’re sharing some of the most intimate trauma experiences of your life that continue to affect you, so it’s very difficult.”

Both women emphasized that Stern, Sundberg, and the entire crew were wonderful to work with and they had a fantastic experience. The series ends on a high note — with Maxwell in federal custody, the women are now able to hope for some kind of justice. Through sharing their stories, many of the survivors have become friends. One woman calls them her “survivor sisters.”

“Once I decided to share my story publicly, it’s always a little bit more empowering every time you do it,” Doe said.

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