The final straw for Rose McGowan was the Rolling Stone cover. In 2007, at the height of her career, the former actress was pushed to pose butt naked – save for two belts of ammunition – with her co-star Rosario Dawson to promote the violently misogynistic double bill Grindhouse.
"The alarm bell started ringing in my head. Wake up, Rose, wake up, Rose," McGowan writes in her much-anticipated new memoir Brave, a battle cry against the woman-hating culture of Hollywood.
They were the same words that rang through McGowan's head the morning she was allegedly sexually assaulted by producer Harvey Weinstein. In a chapter titled "Death of Self," McGowan details a disturbing encounter with the man she refers to only as "the Monster."
Weinstein, then studio head at Miramax, had sat directly behind McGowan during the premiere of her film Going All the Way at the Sundance Film Festival in 1997. The following day, she was summoned to a breakfast meeting with Weinstein at a hotel restaurant, ostensibly to "plot out the grand arc of [her] career."
Morning came and the meeting was promptly moved to Weinstein's enormous hotel suite. McGowan writes that two male assistants ushered themselves out of the room, avoiding eye contact. Her first impressions of the Hollywood mogul were not flattering: "I was repulsed immediately."
After an uninspiring half-hour meeting, Weinstein offered to walk her out, but not before taking a detour to the suite's Jacuzzi room. Here, McGowan alleges, Weinstein cornered her, rapidly removed her clothes and forcefully performed non-consensual oral sex while masturbating in the pool.
"I curl into myself. I did what so many who experience trauma do, I disassociated and left my body. I went up above myself," McGowan writes. "My life has been rerouted."
Afterward, McGowan said Weinstein called her repeatedly and left messages, telling her she was his "special friend." She spoke out quickly, confiding in a co-star widely reported to be Ben Affleck and informing her agency. Everyone knew about the producer's reputation but failed to warn her, she says. McGowan alleged that her manager proposed the encounter could buoy her artistic career – even as McGowan was reportedly blacklisted by Weinstein in later years. (McGowan's former manager had said she acted responsibly, flagging the incident for her superiors.)
The producer would eventually settle with McGowan for $100,000 to "avoid litigation and buy peace," according to the New York Times. "It was the only way I could put the pig on notice that I was not okay at all with what he did," McGowan writes about the money. She says she used some for therapy and donated the rest to a rape crisis centre. (Weinstein has denied all the allegations.)
McGowan has since become an outspoken voice for survivors in the #MeToo movement, the far-reaching online protest against sexual violence spawned by the Weinstein allegations last fall. "The thing with trauma and rape and sexual assault is that it freezes in your mind as if it happened yesterday," she writes. "Sexual assault takes away our ability to be who we were and steals who we were meant to be."
That lasting trauma has fuelled McGowan's rage. Using her own hashtag #RoseArmy, the former actress has relentlessly called out the inaction of Hollywood's high-profile players, as well as their sudden, suspect support of #MeToo. Through the megaphone of Twitter, McGowan has strafed celebrities who donned black at the Golden Globes in support of sexual assault victims, suggesting they were playing dress-up for the cause but doing little else. She also took aim at A-list favourites of Weinstein's such as Meryl Streep, who claimed ignorance of the alleged attacks. In a truly modern touch, McGowan includes screen grabs of some of her ferocious tweets in her book. "I don't always get it right," she says of these missives, "but my intentions are pure."
The memoir follows McGowan through a deeply damaging life. First, a bizarre childhood spent on the outskirts of Florence in a cult called Children of God. Next, teenage years spent running away, plus a sexual assault in the dressing room of a clothing store. After that, a fair chunk of adulthood spent subjected to the whims of aggressive employers in Hollywood, including an abusive relationship with Robert Rodriguez, who directed her in the spoof zombie flick Planet Terror.
The film featured her most memorable turn as Cherry Darling, a zany go-go dancer with a machine gun leg. While McGowan enjoyed the strong female role, which was based largely on her own persona, filming was a horror show. The movie included a rape scene that left her deeply disturbed by the propensity of male directors to use sexual assault as a plot device to strengthen their female characters. "Hollywood is very comfortable with sanctioning the abuse of women and calling it art," argues McGowan. "The poison carries through the audience."
The former actress writes with manic urgency, comparing the diarizing process to picking dirt out from under her fingernails. McGowan, who suffers from a disorder called cyclothymia that leaves her prone to depression, begins the memoir by invoking the Old Hollywood actress Frances Farmer, who was involuntarily committed to a mental hospital and subjected to shock therapy. McGowan's own behaviour – her blistering tweets and open letters – has seen her dismissed as "crazy" and as a "loose cannon." She has another term for it: "Justifiable anger."
Her memoir calls time on the misogyny still rampant in Hollywood. McGowan castigates male film writers for their unwillingness to tell stories that accurately depict the reality of women's lives, even as it is women who drive movie ticket sales. She agitates for more female directors, arguing that male directors have run out of antiquated ideas to peddle on screen. And she turns the lens on the Screen Actors Guild, the American labour union, for failing to protect its vulnerable members on set.
McGowan's message to actresses is equally direct.
"Say no to being a show pony on the red carpet. Say no to rape scenes. Demand respect and equal pay," she writes. "Occupy space."