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Moment of Truth: Spiders

Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the thirst that is the drink.

Spiders are spinning their webs in the grass: pretty, tiny, black jumping spiders, with turquoise rings around their abdomens. Spiders have spinneret glands to poop out their web strands. That’s one way to do it, I guess!

Kids with excellent eyesight can watch the spiders spin. So can old people who once had good eyesight but now have excellent reading glasses. From the vantage point of the kids, it all looks like an arachnid multi-scene diorama. The spiders appear to be weaving rustic booths in the grass, tiny bamboo booths with roofs of foliage, like tiny sukkahs for Sukkot, the harvest festival. These are Jewish spiders. Their turquoise comes from their retired Uncle Nate in Arizona.

One spider, I don’t know if he’s Jewish or not, spins his webs out of gold. His name is Epstein. I heard this story about Epstein on “The Daily,” the New York Times podcast, hosted by Michael Barbaro. It was one of many gruesome tales I’ve read or heard about this gold-spinning spider. Like all the stories about him, it’s appalling. I don’t even like thinking about them, any of them, but this one especially sickens me. Nevertheless, it should be known, so that you can understand only the smallest fraction of the way Epstein wielded his wealth. It’s illustrative of the weaponization of power through, not only wealth inequality, but gender inequality and age inequality, and a slew of other inequalities that come together to make up status inequality.

This is the story of an artist in her mid-twenties, so she wasn’t under the age of majority, as many of Epstein’s victims were. We’ll leave behind the spider metaphor for a bit, though we’ll come back to it.

Maria was an artist, not a spider. The only reason I couple spiders and the story of Maria is that what Epstein did to Maria was a violation. And the thing I think of when I think of good things being violated is industrious, busy spiders of the variety I’ve described above, weaving their tiny sukkot in their tiny diorama world in the grass, and that impulse of pure endeavor being invaded by conquistadors. It’s a world like that one, being violated. A world of effort and beauty, of individual and communal spirit, and of ritual, being violated by a creature weaving webs of gold and injecting his prey with venom that liquifies their insides for him to drink.

Maria did paintings depicting often subtly disturbing narrative scenes, slices of narratives frozen in time, in which she employed nude studies, sometimes of girls in their early teens. And she was gaining notoriety in the New York art scene at the time in question. She’s originally from Kentucky, and studied art in various schools across the country and in France, and at the New York Academy of Art.

I have a friend, we’ll call him BG for privacy purposes, and about the same time as, or a few years earlier than, Maria, BG was becoming known in the art world. His paintings, too, when he first burst on the scene, were narrative. His were monochromatic, large-format pencil paintings of surreal scenes, often involving nudity, teenage alcohol and drug use, sex, and sundry details both banal and fantastic that, somehow, brought across a sad past, looked back on in anxious, immature, haunted memories.

I want to describe one of BG’s early pieces I saw at a New York gallery show, a piece illustrating a comical, embarrassing, fraught memory. He told me the story behind it: in his early teens, he’d invited a girl over, and was fairly certain they were going to have sex. But he was a little shy about having no pubic hair at his age. So, he glued some of his head hair right above his penis. And that’s the painting: all in shades of green-gray pencil on butcher paper, just the section of his body between his bellybutton and his thighs, no explanation, his hands brushing rubber cement and about to place a tiny, thready moustache on his lower abdomen above his genitals.

I don’t know if Maria was working through similar memories in her art, or similar emotional transformations from childhood to adulthood, but she was living in her visual sense of mind and experience, building little scenes, like dioramas, some of which seem charged with the threat of sexual violence. One, in particular, she says, was inspired by Degas, and it’s been referred to as“kind of rapey.” And that was the one Epstein’s henchwoman, Ghislaine Maxwell, spotted. I believe her name is pronounced with a Greek fast food G. Like the one at the beginning of “gyro.” When Maxell saw the rapey painting, Maria says, Maxwell told Maria she had just the buyer for it, and that was who Maria was going to sell it to, and to no one else. And Epstein the spider bought it. Epstein the spider, who had already woven his big web of gold and influence in the New York art scene.

Maria was first employed as Epstein’s art procurer, and then as his door person, sending up teenage girls and old lascivious men to Epstein and Maxwell. Maria was always told that the girls were being sent up for auditions or meetings of one type or another. Maria says her unwitting role in this charade pains her to this day.

It’s not easy to make your living by making art, especially if your art is personal. It’s an incredible gift to be able to work out your demons and angels, your memories, or even just your interests and imaginings, and be recognized and paid for it. It’s a dream come true. Unless it’s a gift used as bait in a spider’s web, a false promise in an Epstein’s web.

Eventually, according to Maria’s affidavit, Epstein and Maxwell manipulated both her and her 15-year-old sister into situations of extreme discomfort. Maria says she was sexually assaulted by Maxwell and Epstein, and that Maxwell threatened to destroy her art and her career after her father came up from Kentucky and drove her away from the awful situation she was in.

There’s a quotation I return to from time to time. It’s on the opening pages of suicidal author Juan Butler’s truly unhinged book, The Garbageman. I do not advise reading this book. I abridge the quotation below for comprehensibility:

Tell me, in the anarchist society that you envisage, where all men will be free, where no one will ever be in a position to impose his will upon his fellow man, where "doing your own thing" will be the norm rather than the exception [,] who will pick up the garbage?

The garbageman.

The garbage collector, in the nomenclature of today. The garbage collector will pick up the garbage when it’s their turn. Not because society threatens them with starvation, homelessness, and the myriad ravages of poverty. In our world, those are the incentives. It’s how otherwise good-hearted, industrious people get swindled, coerced, raped, and destroyed. The threat hangs over everything. Even the very wealthy feel it. That’s why they fear so viscerally losing their status. That’s why they have a compulsion to accrue more and more, like a child of the Great Depression at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

It’s Epstein the spider’s predatory opportunism, with which he exploited Maria’s good faith and dreams, that makes me sick. Of course, his using the same strategy in order to rape girls also makes me sick. It’s the force. Have you felt it? The coercive force of obligation to your benefactor?

Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. It feeds you, after all, so it must be a kind hand, even if it sometimes places itself between your legs and expects you to comply with every whim. How dare you refuse? Have you no gratitude? And eventually: Do you not know that we can destroy you?

It may never be possible, or even desirable, to remove status inequality from all societies. It’s a positive thing, for example, when a patient’s organs are failing, that a doctor who has accumulated immense knowledge and skill in curing diseased organs should be deferred to over, say, a careening golf cart full of drunk currency speculators, regardless of their collective self- confidence. Just as it would be desirable to allow Superman to address the opening of canned goods when a group of otherwise helpless Earthlings are stranded on an island without a can opener. Let him open the cans, what do you think you have to prove? And of course, the abuse of status inequality is possible in almost any situation wherein such inequality exists. And it often is abused. And I think there are two ways to remedy this undesirable situation: 1) identify and then inhibit, neutralize, or destroy, sets of criteria that raise the status of people vis-à-vis others unjustifiably – and here, wealth inequality, the artificial merit of having more money than others, seems a perfect example; and, 2) try your hardest to be responsible with whatever power you have over others, for whatever reason, be they people, plants, animals, buildings, celestial bodies, or other.

Defuse opportunities for abuse of power. Where inequality is unavoidable, be a spider in good faith. It sounds so simple, but nothing is ever simple. Every strand is tangled. Only patience and diligence will ever sort them out.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day.

Moment of Truth


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