She is illiterate, she is African, she is a stranger in our strange American land, living on the rough edges of our society. She is, like many an African woman, a survivor who knows that men have power, but women can endure. And all that Nafissatou Diallo had to sustain her on that afternoon of May 14, 2011, was her pride in her job as a chambermaid, her love for her teenage daughter in an American high school, and her innate sense of her own dignity.
Since that day, much of the attention of the press and public has focused on Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the man Diallo accused that afternoon, almost a year ago, of forcing her to perform oral sex and of attempting to rape her in suite 2806 of the Manhattan Sofitel. In the days and weeks that followed, Strauss-Kahn was arrested, thrown in jail, forced to resign from his position as the powerful head of the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C., and had to give up his expectation that he’d be the next French president. Then, suddenly, the Manhattan district attorney dropped all criminal charges against him.
Now, whatever Strauss-Kahn’s humiliations, he continues to have rich and influential friends and to live with his very wealthy celebrity wife, the heiress and journalist Anne Sinclair, in a luxurious apartment on the Place des Vosges in Paris.
Nafissatou Diallo, on the other hand, has spent most of the last year in seclusion, moving from one temporary apartment to another with her daughter and no other companions. She was branded a liar by many press accounts and by the Manhattan prosecutors who once championed her case. According to people who’ve talked with her, she has suffered bouts of depression and a sense of hopelessness. But a ruling by Judge Douglas E. McKeon in the Bronx on Tuesday morning means that she will have at least a chance, now, to fight back.
In sharp and sometimes ironic language, McKeon rejected a motion by Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers to dismiss the civil case Diallo has brought against DSK. His attorneys argued that he enjoyed diplomatic immunity as head of the IMF. But McKeon noted that Strauss-Kahn did not invoke that immunity claim when he was up against criminal charges, because his lawyers claimed he wanted to clear his name in court.
In fact, DSK’s core defense, which succeeded with the prosecutors, was based on efforts to discredit Diallo. His private investigators dredged up lies Diallo had told to win political asylum in the United States and bring her daughter to join her, including an account of a rape in Guinea that she later admitted was fiction. She had several unsavory friends, one of whom was funneling money through her bank account. But her story of the alleged assault in the Sofitel, backed by ample DNA evidence, has never been refuted. DSK has admitted there was an encounter, but insists it was consensual.
“Mr. Strauss-Kahn cannot eschew immunity in an effort to clear his name only to embrace it now in an effort to deny Ms. Diallo the opportunity to clear hers,” McKeon concluded. At the beginning of his opinion, setting the tone, the judge cited a Japanese proverb that appeared in an IMF annual report: “The reputation of a thousand years may be determined by the conduct of one hour.”
While the court in the Bronx was considering the defense motion, Diallo’s lawyers were prevented from pursuing the discovery process that could give them reams and reams of material about Strauss-Kahn’s personal and professional conduct. But the public record of his alleged misbehavior has continued to accumulate in any case.
DSK is facing criminal charges in France for his alleged involvement with prostitutes. He has denied any wrongdoing in legal terms. He admits to being a libertine, which is no crime to the French. But such is the sorry state of his reputation at this point that his mere presence at a private party for fellow Socialist politicians last Saturday sent many of them scurrying away like cats fleeing a skunk. François Hollande, the man who got the nomination that Strauss-Kahn had expected to get, now looks set to win the race against President Nicolas Sarkozy in Sunday’s election. He was not at the party and has made it clear he wants nothing to do with DSK, whose allegations of conspiracy and efforts to reconnect with the world of French politics are very unwelcome distraction. DSK “no longer has a role in political life,” said Hollande.
Sarkozy, for his part, relishes reciting the published menu of the bar where the fete was held: The specialty of the house is a dish called “orgasm,” Sarkozy told a television interviewer on Tuesday. “I ask myself if these people thought about what they were doing.”
It’s hard to overstate how different these antics and morals are from the world in which Diallo now lives. Since last summer, apart from her lawyers, Kenneth Thompson and Douglas Wigdor, her closest contacts have been with the influential the Rev. A.R. Bernard and a handful of people from his Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn. In a recent interview with the French magazine Paris Match, Bernard said that he first met Diallo in July, when she gave a press conference at his center, and they had prayed together. Although she is Muslim, she had asked to attend a service at his church, he said. In the end, there were too many security problems for her to do that last summer, but Bernard told the French journalist he was sure that she will come when things calm down.
In the meantime, some of those who have tried to defend DSK’s behavior have clung to conspiracy theories in which Diallo may or may not have been an unwitting participant. But this has gotten to be a tricky business.Edward Jay Epstein said he interviewed Strauss-Kahn in Paris, just off the Place des Vosges, for two hours last month to discuss what sort of conspiracy might have targeted him, and what sort of things might have happened had he not run into Diallo as he stepped out of the shower in the Sofitel last May. The purpose was to round out Epstein’s new e-book, Three Days in May. But after a version of that interview was published in the British newspaper The Guardian last week, members of Strauss-Kahn’s entourage claimed the story was a “montage,” implying that it had never happened at all. Epstein tells me flatly in an e-mail that it did, “My interview in The Guardian is an accurate description of my conversation with him.”
At the center of all discussions suggesting that Strauss-Kahn was the victim of some sort of conspiracy are the closed-circuit videotapes from the Sofitel in Manhattan that day in May last year. And these silent movies do reveal a great deal through body language, but maybe not what the conspiracy theorists believe.
Diallo sits quietly, almost demurely on a bench in the hall near the service entrance of the hotel. When she is asked by burly security men to explain what happened, she acts out the scene of confrontation and pushing, first by herself, and then with a woman supervisor. Not all of the tape was leaked for public viewing, but we know from Diallo’s exclusive interview with Newsweek last year that when she would describe the scene where she was forced to her knees and made to perform oral sex, she would try to explain the vehemence and violence with which DSK allegedly grabbed her head and forced himself into her mouth.
In the video, after she tells her story, we see Diallo sitting down again on the bench, composed, even resigned, as dignified as she could be as she waited for these men on the hotel staff to decide what to do.
Another CCTV camera then catches two of the men who’ve been talking to her ducking into a back room, where they engage in what Epstein has described as a kind of victory dance. It lasted less than 13 seconds and has never been explained satisfactorily by the Sofitel management. But people close to Diallo say they know what was going on: one of the men puts his own hand to the back of his head, as if to force it down. The other cracks up laughing. They are in stitches. They look like they may be making fun of Diallo.
Out on the bench in the hallway, then as now, she continued to fight for her dignity.