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Breaking two decades of silence, Palo Alto woman says Harvey Weinstein tried to rape her when she was his 24-year-old assistant

Rowena Chiu: 'There's a public duty, a civic good in speaking out'

Palo Alto resident Rowena Chiu said Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein attempted to rape her when she was his 24-year-old assistant in 1998. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

On Oct. 5, 2017, the world was gripped by a New York Times investigation that pulled the curtains back on decades of sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Many applauded the two female journalists for convincing several women, including actresses Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashley Judd, to speak on the record for the first time about Weinstein's alleged mistreatment.

Rowena Chiu was watching closely from her home in Palo Alto. She was terrified.

A native of Britain and mother of four who works as a part-time economic consultant for the World Bank, Chiu had her own #MeToo story about Weinstein. But she had no interest in sharing it publicly. She had kept her story a secret — from her husband, her parents, her sister, her friends — for 21 years.

Over the last two years, however, Chiu started to change her mind. She eventually agreed to talk on the record with the two New York Times journalists, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, for their new book, "She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement." Two years to the day of the publication of The New York Times' first Weinstein story, Chiu published an op-ed describing how Weinstein had allegedly attempted to rape her while she was working as his assistant in 1998.

"I thought very long and hard about, do I want this to be my legacy?" Chiu said in an interview with the Voice's sister paper, the Palo Alto Weekly. "I'm not a famous actress. I'm not Gwyneth Paltrow. I'm not Ashley Judd. Do I want for the rest of my life when I put my name into Google to have my name synonymous with that of my attempted rapist? That's a big burden to carry."

But, she eventually realized, "there's a public duty, a civic good in speaking out."

Chiu has lived in Palo Alto with her husband since 2009. She has four children, who are 10, 8, 5 and 2 years old. She was born just outside London to two Chinese immigrants. She grew up in a conservative, Christian household, where topics like sexual violence were not broached.

As a teenager and college student, she dreamed of becoming a film producer. She threw herself into theater productions as a student at the University of Oxford, becoming vice president of the Oxford University Film Foundation and president of the school's drama society.

After she graduated, the opportunity to become Weinstein's assistant at the London office for his production company, Miramax, presented itself. She jumped.

"In those days, if anyone wanted to be anyone in film, getting to work for Miramax and the Harvey Weinstein office was a really big deal," said Chiu, who was 24 at the time. "Everyone wanted to work with Harvey."

His outsized temper preceded him, and the woman who hired Chiu, Zelda Perkins, warned her to "'handle him robustly,' which can mean when he is in a rage and decides to throw his phone at you, make sure that you stand your ground," she said. She recalled hearing some rumors about him "being difficult with women," but stories about his rageful demands of employees were more common.

Perkins was the first person Chiu told that Weinstein had attempted to rape her during a late-night meeting at a hotel during the Venice Film Festival.

"I had expected to discuss potential film productions and scripts, and we did," Chiu wrote in her New York Times opinion piece. "But after hours of fending off his chitchat, flattery, requests for massages and a bath, ultimately I found myself pushed back against the bed. I'd worn two pairs of tights for protection, and tried to appease him by taking one of them off and letting him massage me, but it hadn't worked. He'd taken off the other pair and I was terrified my underwear would be next. Harvey moved in: Please, he told me, just one thrust, and it will all be over."

Weinstein has denied her allegations. His lawyer told The Associated Press in September that Weinstein and Chiu had a six-month consensual physical relationship and that Weinstein was "now studying taking legal action" against Chiu for breaking a nondisclosure agreement.

Chiu and Perkins tried to report what had happened to higher-ups at Miramax. They were advised to hire lawyers, which they did. They ultimately signed a settlement with Weinstein, including a strict nondisclosure agreement that prevented them from speaking about what had happened with anyone. Chiu said they were required to list the names of anyone they had spoken to, even tangentially, about the alleged attempted assault. They each received £125,000 (about $213,000 then and just over $150,000 by today's exchange rate) and negotiated clauses they hoped would help protect future female Miramax employees from Weinstein, including that he would go to therapy.

They weren't allowed to keep a copy of the 30-page agreement, "but the memory of it will be etched in our brains forever," Chiu said.

"We were very strictly warned at the time that if we were to sign the agreement and if we accepted the sum of money for our silence, we were basically to treat that period in our lives as a black hole" — including by not talking to one another about it, Chiu said. Chiu and Perkins wouldn't speak again until October 2017, when The New York Times story broke.

If they violated the settlement, consequences spelled out in the document include a potential legal injunction and an end to any future payments and recouping of previous ones.

Looking back, Chiu describes the settlement as "immoral and unethical." She feels the legal system failed her and Perkins, two young, unresourced women just starting their careers pitted against one of the film industry's most powerful figures.

"We really had no power," she said.

The nondisclosure agreement derailed Chiu personally and professionally. Plenty of London film companies wanted to interview her, curious about the circumstances of an unexplained departure from Weinstein's office, but none hired her, she believed for that very reason. Unable to find work and under financial strain, she eventually returned to Miramax for a job in Hong Kong, far from her family and friends in London. She grappled with feelings of isolation and guilt. Her mental health started to erode. She attempted suicide twice.

"I feel like you can't underestimate, which I did at the time, the pressure of keeping something secret. You think you're just going to park it and forget about it and move on. But the mind doesn't really work like that," she said.

In her recent op-ed Chiu describes how four power imbalances — gender, race, seniority and wealth — fed into what happened with Weinstein. These dynamics, particularly her background as an Asian woman, also played a role in her reluctance to disclose her allegation for two decades.

"Sexual assault was never discussed in my culture and in my family, ever. I think there is a sense still within Asian cultures that the woman is at fault," she said. "I think that is a big barrier to speaking up. It's hard to come from a culture that is utterly silent about these matters."

Last fall, Chiu watched a fellow Palo Alto resident, Christine Blasey Ford, accuse now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her decades ago, while they were both in high school. Chiu's worst fears about public disclosure were confirmed: Ford had to leave her home and her job, hire private security and fend off media requests, death threats and attacks on her credibility.

But Chiu also witnessed an outpouring of community support. She was among the hundreds of people who attended a candlelight vigil in support of Ford outside Town & Country Village last September. She watched threads on NextDoor grow long with neighbors volunteering to cook meals for the Ford family.

Earlier this year, Chiu met Ford at a gathering arranged by Kantor and Twohey at Paltrow's home in Los Angeles, which makes up the final chapter of their book. They brought together sources from the Weinstein story with other women affected by sexual misconduct, including one woman who alleged President Donald Trump had forcibly kissed her in an elevator and a McDonald's worker who had become an advocate for sexual-harassment reform at the fast-food giant. Chiu came on the condition that her identity remained confidential.

But hearing those women share their stories, particularly Ford, sparked a "seismic shift" in Chiu. A few months later, she finally agreed to go on the record with The New York Times. She felt it was "important to me now that I speak up, that I allow my voice, an Asian voice, an assistant's voice, to join the array of voices in the #MeToo movement," she wrote in her op-ed.

She said the response to her disclosure has been overwhelmingly positive, from friends from her children's schools to Asian American organizations that are eager to have her speak about her experience.

By sheer coincidence, Chiu is one of three women with connections to Palo Alto whose stories have become pivotal in the national #MeToo movement. In addition to Ford, there's Chanel Miller, the Palo Alto native and Gunn High School graduate who was sexually assaulted by Brock Turner at Stanford University in 2017. Miller revealed her identity publicly this fall in a new memoir about the assault and its aftermath.

Miller, who is half-Chinese, has pointed to her racial background as a barrier to coming forward.

"There is no figurehead" for Asian women who have been sexually assaulted, Chiu said. "There's no blueprint. There's no playbook for speaking out. In many ways Chanel Miller and I, we're the first. We're breaking new ground."

Weinstein is awaiting a January criminal trial on charges of rape and a forcible sex act. Chiu is hopeful he will be brought to justice but even if he's not, believes stories like hers have had an impact. Rome wasn't built in a day, she said.

"There will still be a sea change in culture," Chiu said. "Even if Harvey doesn't go to jail, there's still going to be a feeling that you can't quite get away with things in the way that you used to in the old days."

Resources for victims of sexual violence: For immediate in-person crisis assistance and counseling services, contact the YWCA of Silicon Valley's 24-hour support line in English and Spanish at 800-572-2782. For more information and services, go to ywca-sv.org.

The national Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) also offers a 24/7 hotline via phone at 800-656-HOPE (4673) and online chat at hotline.rainn.org.

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Comments

10 people like this
Posted by David B. Karpf, MD
a resident of North Whisman
on Oct 15, 2019 at 4:37 pm

David B. Karpf, MD is a registered user.

OK, so half of my brain says that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. But the other half of my brain says throw his ass in jail.....

It takes tremendous courage to speak truth to power, so huge respect for ms.Chiu and her "sisters" who are going public.


3 people like this
Posted by A Father
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Oct 15, 2019 at 5:11 pm

I just read the story about what they did to that 5 y.o. girl and I'm aching.


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