It’s a group none of them would have ever wanted to be a part of. But joining it gave them a measure of comfort and a new sense of purpose.
The women found each other on Twitter in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. They posted about how the Weinstein allegations dredged up memories of James Toback, a writer and director they accused of preying on women.
They liked each other’s tweets, replied to them, and reached out in direct messages. Soon, they formed a private group message to share their stories.
Many of their accounts bore striking similarities: He approached them in public places and coaxed them into one-on-one meetings that quickly turned crude and offensive, according to seven women who spoke to CNN.
CNN was unable to independently verify their accounts.
“I found a support system that I didn’t think I could have,” said Echo Danon, one of the first seven women to form the Twitter group.
Also among those seven was actress Selma Blair. Weeks after the group was formed, Blair, along with actress Rachel McAdams, would describe Toback’s alleged harassment in a Vanity Fair article. CNN contacted representatives for McAdams and Blair for comment on that story.
As more women came forward with allegations against Toback, they were added to the group. By October 20, the group grew to 38 members and the women had a bigger plan in mind, one set on taking down Toback.
Some of them spoke to the Los Angeles Times for an article detailing allegations against him as far back as the 1980s. Some brought their stories to law enforcement. “We’ll investigate every claim to see if there was a crime committed,” said Lt. John Grimpel, a spokesman for the New York Police Department.
The 72-year-old director denied the allegations to the Times and Rolling Stone. He has not returned CNN’s requests for comment.
On October 22, the day the article was to publish, some of the women got together in homes in New York and Los Angeles and braced for the fallout. Amid the roller coaster of emotions, a sisterhood formed.
Then, things really took off.
A community forms
The claims from Toback’s accusers come amid a flood of sexual harassment allegations against high-profile men in recent months. Earlier this month, allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein opened the floodgates, and inspired #MeToo, a movement highlighting sexual harassment in the entertainment industry and beyond.
The Weinstein scandal dredged up Terri Conn’s long-suppressed memories of an encounter she says she had with Toback. She was 23 and acting on the soap opera “As the World Turns” when, she says, Toback approached her in New York and asked her to meet him in Central Park. In a secluded area of the park, he knelt before her and rubbed his groin against her leg, she told CNN.
The memories brought a flood of emotion and tears with them. It was around then that she told her husband the story for the first time, she said. Then she Googled Toback and found a Gawker article containing similar allegations against him. She said she was shocked by the parallels.
“I saw my story — being approached at 72nd and Broadway by a guy talking about the part he has for her — coming out of someone else’s mouth,” she told CNN.
There must be more of us, she thought to herself.
After the first set of allegations surfaced in The New York Times, The New Yorker published an article about Weinstein on October 10. The same week, Conn searched Twitter for women tweeting with the hashtags #MeToo and #JamesToback. Already, some of the women were talking to each other. She reached out to them and they formed a private group message on Twitter.
They bared their souls to each other, forming an instant bond. Some of them said they had not spoken about the alleged incidents since they happened decades earlier. Some had never told their spouses.
But they didn’t want their victimhood to define them. They began to form a plan.
“I thought, ‘we need to get together and tell our stories,'” Conn said. “Toback isn’t as big as Weinstein and we are not as big as Rose McGowan, but our stories needed to be told.”
One of the people she reached was Danon, who says she followed Toback into a trailer hoping for a job. Danon was inspired by the women speaking out against Weinstein.
“I felt sick and traumatized, but I also felt hope and strength emanating from all the women who had stood up against him,” she said in an email to CNN.
“We wanted to speak out. We knew we needed the strength that comes from numbers,” she said. “I was confident that there were many other women out there suffering from memories of this predator, and that this was only the beginning.”
Members of the group searched for more people talking about Toback on social media. They came across Sari Kamin, who commented on Facebook posts about Toback and wrote a post on Medium on October 17 accusing him of harassment. She, too, was emboldened by the Weinstein accusers.
“I started to think that maybe if I went public, I could finally release my own shame and possibly help other women,” Kamin said.
The group took notice and invited her to join, forming the original seven, which included Blair.
In the wake of Weinstein and #MeToo, Blair “thought the moment was right to share her story,” said LA Times reporter Glenn Whipp, who wrote the newspaper article and spoke to Blair.
The women reached Whipp through director Scott Derrickson, Danon said. As more women joined the group, they sent them to Whipp to share their stories.
Though Blair ultimately decided to remain anonymous in the LA Times story, many more consented to be named before publication: 31 of 38 people who initially spoke to Whipp — an unusually high number for such a sensitive story.
“It’s really remarkable that so many of these women came forward with the courage to use their names, recalling a really traumatic experience,” Whipp said. “That was a really profoundly moving experience, to talk to those people.”
Transforming a moment into a movement
After the article published, the Twitter group reached its limit of 60 people in less than 24 hours. A new one was started that quickly reached capacity by the next day. Women would drop out to make space for others.
Christine Hudman’s husband read the LA Times article and told her the stories sounded just like her alleged encounter with Toback. She decided to look up the women named in the article. They connected and she also joined the group.
“It’s an odd group to be a part of. You can’t say you’re happy to be a part of this group, but there is this feeling of solidarity, just this feeling you’re not alone,” Hudman said.
“It’s less about what (he) did and more about us now. What are we going to do so our children, boys and girls, don’t grow up in a culture where they think it’s OK to do this?”
As their numbers grew, they organized around the goal of seeking accountability for Toback. Members took on specific tasks. Some deal with media, others with law enforcement, said Starr Rinaldi, one of the original seven. Licensed therapists in the group counsel people offline.
Wednesday, they created a new group on another platform to accommodate their expanding scope and numbers. The new group offers support and solidarity just like the old one, Rinaldi said. They also hope it’s the launching point for a movement.
They hope to keep gathering stories to find one that could lead to a viable prosecution, Rinaldi said. Many accusers say the incidents took place years or decades ago, well beyond the statutory time limit for assault charges. To that end, they hope to lobby for changes to statutes of limitations, Rinaldi said.
“The seven of us kicked the hornet’s nest,” she said. “We knew there were going to be a lot of women, but I don’t think we expected it would flow as fast as it did.”