Elevate Difference

Why Just Her

I’ll admit to having mixed emotions about reviewing a book about the notorious DC Madame, Deborah Jeane Palfrey, who committed suicide by hanging herself in early May 2008. I was vaguely familiar with the story, but hadn’t followed it closely as it was unfolding. Since reading Why Just Her, I’ve discovered that conspiracy theories abounded on the Internet in the months following Palfrey’s death suggesting that she was “suicided,” an insinuation of murder. In a footnote to the case, Montgomery Blair Sibley, Palfrey’s attorney and the author of this tome, recently released the text of an email Palfrey sent to him weeks before her death in which she wrote that there was no government conspiracy against her.

As I was reading the book, I kept thinking of Hester Prynne, the protagonist in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. I remembered reading it for a high school English class and the themes of sin, guilt, and redemption seemed appropriate to keep in mind as I was reading Why Just Her. Not being a lawyer, I had a hard time following the detailed legal proceedings that Sibley lays out in the book, but I do find some of his arguments convincing.

One of the major arguments Sibley seems to be making is that because clients of Palfrey’s escort service included the rich and powerful on both sides of the aisle, she was basically in the wrong place at the wrong time and never had a fighting chance in the government case that was brought against her. Sibley and Palfrey repeatedly asked why she, among the numerous escort services that operate in the capitol, was singled out to be prosecuted. Sibley quotes a credible source who tells him that escorts (or prostitutes) have been used by prior administrations to obtain intelligence from foreign nationals, and they are frequently used by law enforcement to obtain information. Sibley also points out that escort services are tolerated in DC and other cities, particularly the high-end ones, because that is preferable to having foreign dignitaries frequenting bars looking for "company."

Perhaps I’ve read too many John Grisham novels, but I found Sibley’s personal story almost as interesting as the behind-the scenes legal maneuverings and numerous (unprivileged) emails that he details in this rather lengthy book. Sibley describes himself as a self-styled outsider who frequently wears a Scottish kilt to court and did not try to endear himself to the clubby DC judicial system. (In one of her emails to Sibley, Palfrey ends it with “trousers please” referring to their next hearing.) He describes himself as having been born “not with a silver spoon in my mouth, but the entire silver service,” and devotes almost three pages to his background and lineage, which reads like a who’s who of American history. Sibley is a descendent of George Mason, and another ancestor was President Lincoln’s Post Master General. His mother was the first Executive Director of NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) and one of the first women to be ordained an Episcopalian priest in 1979.

Why Just Her forced me to confront some of my own assumptions about our legal system, and how we as a society have criminalized certain actions and not others. Sibley raises questions about the limits of government intrusion and overuse of power when it comes to average citizens, which I found troubling to say the least. Regardless of how one may feel about the way Palfrey made her living, the double standard that exists in our culture about women's and men's sexuality is hard to ignore after reading this book. Why is it that the women and men who provide sex services are treated as common criminals, but the purveyors of pornography and the adult sex industry make millions of dollars in what is considered a legal enterprise?

As Paltrey stated in a press release in October 2007:

. _The question begs. Why me and only me? In part, the answer may lie in the fact that I operated a high-end, erotic outcall service continuously (a bit of an anomaly) for a thirteen year period from 1993 to 2006, in a part of the world laden with politically influential men; many with high level security clearances…[T]he combination of selective prosecution, a politically sensitive clientele, and an extended surveillance period points to a matter; which has less to do with the goings-ons of an alleged prostitution ring than it does with spying activities involving a constitutionally protected, American citizen. As I have often said, my case has something to do with something, but it sure as heck has very little to do with a small-time escort business… _

Written by: Gita Tewari, June 25th 2009