Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Susie Banikarim (00:00):

Hey everyone. Before we start, just a note that we discuss sexual assault and abuse in this episode.

Amy Fisher (00:06):

Your Honor, the truth is I did something that was so awful, and I wish I could take it back. It’s also the truth, I had an affair with a married man. And it’s also the truth that Joey knew of my intentions towards his wife, and he encouraged me.

Susie Banikarim (00:23):

That voice you just heard is Amy Fisher, a teen girl from Long Island who in 1992 became a tabloid sensation almost overnight when she shot Mary Jo Buttafuoco, the wife of a much older man with whom she’d been having sex. Amy would go on to claim that that man, Joey Buttafuoco, put her up to it.

Amy Fisher (00:41):

Sometimes I think this is a nightmare and it didn’t happen, and then I realize that it did.

Susie Banikarim (00:45):

Within days, the New York Daily News would splash a picture of 16-year-old Amy across its front page. She was wearing jean cutoffs, a white T-shirt, and handcuffs. The headline: The Long Island Lolita. And that label, it would follow Amy Fisher forever.


I’m Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (01:08):

And I’m Jessica Bennett.

Susie Banikarim (01:10):

And this is In Retrospect, where each week we revisit a cultural moment from the past that shaped us.

Jessica Bennett (01:16):

And that we just can’t stop thinking about.

Amy Fisher (01:18):

This week we’re talking about Amy Fisher, and how she came to be known as the Long Island Lolita. But we’re also talking about the way that word, Lolita, and that trope is used to paint young girls as precocious and seductive. This is part one.

Jessica Bennett (01:35):

Susie, remind me what actually happened in this case.

Susie Banikarim (01:38):

So I’m going to get into all the details, and it’s a very twisty story with lots of ins and outs. But the essentials of the case are that a 17-year-old Amy Fisher, who is a senior in high school, shows up at the home of Mary Jo Buttafuoco in Long Island and shoots her in the face.


And it comes out, and unravels over the course of many months in the tabloid press, that she’s been having an affair with Mary Jo’s husband, and that she has shot her in what’s described often as a jealous rage. It’s often compared to Fatal Attraction, which is a movie that had come out a couple of years before this. And it becomes this really salacious national obsession with this story, but particularly around Amy, who is seen as this seductress.

Jessica Bennett (02:31):

So what made you pick this moment?

Susie Banikarim (02:32):

So this was just a huge story at the time. It’s one of the first really big tabloid stories that I remember being very aware of. I was in high school when this happened, and there were three TV movies made about it at the time. I remember watching the TV movies when they aired. And I wasn’t living in New York at that time, but it was just a really national phenomenon, this story.


And I came across it again recently, and I thought I knew so much about this story. And what really struck me, and made me want to go deeper, is that actually there were so many things I did not know. Not just that I didn’t remember, because obviously there are things you forget. But that I never knew, even though I thought I read and saw everything there was to know about this story.

Jessica Bennett (03:23):

And you were about the same age as Amy Fisher when this was happening, right?

Susie Banikarim (03:27):

Yeah, I was around the same age. And one thing that is really interesting about it is that I never really thought of Amy Fisher as a child at the time, right? Because I didn’t think of myself as a child.


So when she was kind of presented to the world as this seductress, this woman who had all this agency, a seductress, a vixen, and then eventually the label that would follow her for the rest of her life and continues to follow her now, the Long Island Lolita. That never occurred to me as odd, but looking back on it now, I mean she very much was a child.

Jessica Bennett (04:03):

Right? This was a girl.

Susie Banikarim (04:04):

It was a girl. And not to say that she didn’t make a lot of bad decisions, or shouldn’t have been held accountable for some of those decisions. But it’s really remarkable how high a price she paid versus Joey Buttafuoco, who was in his late thirties and really was the villain of the story.

Jessica Bennett (04:22):

Let’s talk a little bit more about the details of the story itself. Can you take me back to the beginning?

Susie Banikarim (04:26):

Yeah. So I’m going to take you back to the shooting, and then I’m going to wind my way back.


The shooting takes place on Tuesday, May 19th, in 1992, as we’ve said. At around 11:30 AM. A teenage girl knocks on the door of Mary Jo Buttafuoco’s house in Massapequa, New York, which is a Long Island enclave, a kind of typical suburban neighborhood. And Mary Jo is the wife of Joey Buttafuoco, a 38-year-old local car mechanic. Mary Jo and Joey wore high school sweethearts. So at this point, they’ve been together for 20 some years.


And the girl who is knocking on the door is Amy Fisher, but Mary Jo doesn’t know that. Amy is a 17-year-old senior at the local high school in a nearby town. And Amy says her name is Annmarie, and claims that she has a 16-year-old sister who doesn’t exist because Amy is an only child. And tells Mary Jo that her husband, Joey, is having an affair with her.


And as proof, she brings this T-shirt from his autobody shop that’s called Complete Autobody. And Mary Jo’s pretty unconvinced by that. She’s like, he gives these T-shirts out to everyone, and she’s a little annoyed by this whole thing.

Jessica Bennett (05:48):

She’s like, who is this child at my door?

Susie Banikarim (05:50):

Yeah, and what is she saying about my husband? Then at some point, Amy ultimately pulls out a gun, a 25 caliber semi-automatic pistol, and shoots Mary Jo in the face. And then runs to a waiting car and speeds away.

Jessica Bennett (06:05):

So I purposely didn’t remind myself of the details of this story when you were researching, and I have so many questions.

Susie Banikarim (06:12):

That makes sense.

Jessica Bennett (06:12):

Were they really having enough affair? How does 38-year-old car mechanic meet a 17-year-old? Who was driving the car? But I know you’re going to get to all of those. So first, is Mary Jo critically injured? She’s shot in the face, does she die?

Susie Banikarim (06:26):

Yes. No, she doesn’t die. She is very critically injured. It’s essentially considered by her doctor’s a miracle that she survives. She undergoes eight hours of neurosurgery.

Jessica Bennett (06:36):

Oh, wow.

Susie Banikarim (06:37):

But when she wakes up the next morning, she does remember the incident. She now has a bullet lodged in her brain, which by the way is still there, I think, to this day. Her face is partially paralyzed. She has double vision in one eye. She’s deaf in one ear.


But despite all that, she provides the police with a very detailed description of the teenager from the incident. And Joey, who is standing by her hospital bed obviously, immediately recognizes the description. And tells the police that it’s Amy.

Jessica Bennett (07:08):


Susie Banikarim (07:09):

So in answer to your question about whether or not they were really having an affair, I mean obviously Amy didn’t have a sister, so Joey wasn’t having an affair with her 16-year-old sister. He was having an affair with her, which started when she was 16, even though she’s 17 at the time of the shooting.


And the Police end up arresting Amy within 72 hours. And what they say is that Joey confesses, at the hospital, that he was in fact having an affair with her. But then he will go on to deny it for months, and months, and months.


For a full year he will deny that they had a relationship, even though he has told the police that once already. He will just say that she had an obsessive crush on him, and was essentially like a stalker.

Jessica Bennett (07:50):

I have to ask, I know you’re probably going to get to it later. But where are Amy’s parents?

Susie Banikarim (07:54):

So, Amy’s parents are around. She’s an only child that’s very much doted on by her parents. And an interesting detail is actually when she’s picked up by the police, and then she’s questioned all night and she eventually ends up giving them a 10-page handwritten confession, she’s really worried about what her parents are going to think.


I mean, it really highlights that she’s like a teenage kid. She doesn’t really understand the seriousness of what she’s done. So she’s mostly worried when the police pick her up about what is going to happen when her parents find out. Right?

Jessica Bennett (08:22):

Okay. So what is said in this 10 page written confession?

Susie Banikarim (08:25):

I’ve tried to find the confession. Because obviously, I would love to read all 10 pages of it. But I haven’t been able to find it. So what I do know is that sometime in the months that follow, she actually will say that Joey knew about her plans to shoot Mary Jo. That for months all he did was talk about how much he hated her, and how much he wanted her to die. And so that’s where Amy has gotten this idea.


And eventually she suggests to Joey that she will get a gun and do it, and that he agrees. He vehemently denies that. He has never admitted to having any involvement in the shooting.

Jessica Bennett (08:57):

Okay. So we’ve established she’s 16 when she meets him.

Susie Banikarim (09:02):


Jessica Bennett (09:02):

They begin this, I guess it’s an affair. I don’t even exactly know what to call it, because she’s 16 and he’s a 38-year-old man. I guess they’re sleeping together, but I don’t know. This keeps coming up for us.

Susie Banikarim (09:14):

Yeah, I mean, that is something, yeah, that keeps coming up for us. It’s like something we’re really struggling with. Which is, in all of these kinds of abusive relationships, it’s really hard to know what the right language is to use.


Because at the time, all the coverage refers to it as an affair. So it’s hard not to use that language. But it’s also hard to use that language. Because, is he her boyfriend? He’s much older than her. He’s more than 20 years older than her. She’s underage. It is statutory rape, there’s no question about that.


So it is just a struggle that we are going to keep having through these episodes. So it’s worth calling that out.

Jessica Bennett (09:47):

And how on earth does a 30-year-old grown-ass man meet a 16-year-old that he’s about to begin a relationship with?

Susie Banikarim (09:55):

Yeah, great question. So how they meet is that he’s a mechanic, and one day she goes to his auto body shop with her dad. Her dad has a red Cadillac, and he takes it into Joey’s shop for some repairs. And she is, by all accounts, kind of immediately enamored of him. And she subsequently goes back herself. Her dad is like, just go back and they’ll put it on my bill or whatever.


And she goes back and gets some cosmetic work done. And then she starts to make excuses.

Jessica Bennett (10:24):

To the car.

Susie Banikarim (10:25):

Yeah, to the car. And then she starts making or finding excuses to go back. There’s some sense that she gets into little fender-benders or crates issues with her car so that she can continue to see him. And they start having sex not long after, and apparently a lot of it.


So she says the first time happens at her home one day when she drops off her car and he drives her home. And then there are a lot of visits to motels, which there are receipts for. And they have sex in the shop. And here’s an amazing detail, they also have sex on his boat, which is called Double Trouble.

Jessica Bennett (11:03):

I feel like all these guys always have boats with absurd names.

Susie Banikarim (11:06):

Yes, always. Always boats with names that you’re just like, that’s really too on the nose for me.


And let’s talk a little bit about who Amy Fisher encounters when she innocently goes with her dad to the mechanic. I mean, he’s a man who would have a boat called Double Trouble. He is a former weightlifting and arm wrestling champion. I don’t know what it means to be an arm wrestling champion. I mean, it seems self-explanatory, but just a funny detail.

Jessica Bennett (11:32):

Something you do on Long Island.

Susie Banikarim (11:33):

Yeah, exactly. He’s married with a couple kids, nine and 12 at the time of the shooting.

Jessica Bennett (11:39):

Oh, Okay.

Susie Banikarim (11:40):

And he’s known in their little community in Long Island that consists of all these little towns as the life of the party, this fun guy who’s always wheeling and dealing. He’s got a reputation as a bit of a cut up. He loves attention, and he’s about to get a lot of it.

Jessica Bennett (12:05):

Okay. So before the shooting, Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher are having this relationship. And he’s taking her to all of these motels. So wouldn’t that mean there was evidence to prove that this affair was happening?

Susie Banikarim (12:16):

Yeah, it’s pretty amazing that after Amy’s arrested, he continues to deny the affair for so long, because there is just so much evidence.

Jessica Bennett (12:25):

And he’s denying it publicly, in the press, to his wife? Who is he denying it to?

Susie Banikarim (12:29):

Very much to his wife, who stands by him and believes him. He’s doing a ton of press.

Jessica Bennett (12:34):

And I guess the police can’t be like JK, he confessed to us. Or can they? Has it not been reported that he has confessed?

Susie Banikarim (12:42):

They do. They do say that.

Jessica Bennett (12:43):

So there’s two narratives and he’s just…

Susie Banikarim (12:47):

Yeah, the police are like, yeah, he’s told us.

Jessica Bennett (12:47):

He’s doing a Trump.

Susie Banikarim (12:48):

Yeah, he just denies it. He’s like, I didn’t tell them that. I don’t know why they’re saying that.


And then he just goes on this sort of offensive, and he’s supported by Mary Jo. And Mary Jo’s an interesting part of this story because she is the only true victim. She’s just living her life. And one day this girl shows up and shoots her, and she really suffers. She has this bullet in her brain. She’s always going to have the effects of this in her life.


But I think the thing that really strikes everyone about this is that it’s pretty obvious he’s lying, but she stands by him with such vehemence that it seems to give him cover. And so of course there are receipts. And in fact, one of his coworkers at the body shop says to the police that Buttafuoco bragged about giving Amy her first orgasm. They were having an affair. There’s just no question about it.

Jessica Bennett (13:38):

Okay. Initially, the shooting doesn’t really get a ton of coverage. It’s a local story, but when does it start to blow up?

Susie Banikarim (13:45):

It takes a couple days. She’s arrested a couple days after the shooting. And a couple days after that, there is the infamous Daily News, Long Island Lolita cover. And that’s the first kind of inkling that this is going to be a big story.


But what ultimately really blows the story up in kind of an epic way is that on June 1st, which is less than a month after the shooting, A Current Affair, this tabloid TV program that’s very popular at the time, airs a grainy video which allegedly shows that Amy Fisher is an escort.

Jessica Bennett (14:16):

Wait, was she an escort?

Susie Banikarim (14:19):

Yeah. I mean, there are so many complexities to the story. It does appear that she was working as a sex worker before the shooting. And I’ll get into that later, because Joey was involved in that. But let’s just stay in this moment a little longer.

Jessica Bennett (14:33):


Susie Banikarim (14:34):

So what happens is, one of her alleged former customers has recorded a video without her knowledge.

Jessica Bennett (14:40):

And this was when she’s 16, right?

Susie Banikarim (14:43):

Yeah. I mean, it’s crazy that he did this. And it was filmed before she was in the news, so I guess he just did this for himself. And then he sells the tape to A Current Affair for around $8,000.


You don’t actually see the sexual encounter on the tape, but you see her ask him for money, and he pays her. And then she asks him to turn the lights off. So for a long period, it’s dark.


And then the lights come back on and he asks her if she wants to go with him to a bachelor party, and she responds, “Anything, I’m wild. I don’t care. I like sex.” And you can just imagine how this played out in the tabloids.

Jessica Bennett (15:21):

So this is like a camcorder?

Susie Banikarim (15:23):


Jessica Bennett (15:23):

That he has propped up somewhere?

Susie Banikarim (15:25):


Jessica Bennett (15:25):

I’m like, is this a selfie video? I need to…

Susie Banikarim (15:28):

It’s like a hidden camcorder, right? It’s before iPhones or anything. I think it’s in his basement.


And without her knowledge, he has made a sex tape of this underage girl that is now, I want to reiterate, being aired on national television. Can you imagine now a sex tape being aired on national television?

Jessica Bennett (15:46):

So is this kind of a turning point in the story? They show this tape?

Susie Banikarim (15:49):

Yeah, and I think an interesting thing to note is obviously that he was paid for this, right?

Jessica Bennett (15:55):

Yeah. This kind of pay for play, that’s what it’s called when you pay for stories, was so common back then. And this is sort of how the tabloids dealt with stories. This was the ecosystem.

Susie Banikarim (16:06):

And I think that is just not something real journalists do, right? You and I would never pay for a story. But there are still some ways in which that happens. The Daily Mail is probably the only kind of digital publication that’ll occasionally pay for a story.


But an interesting detail that most people don’t know is that the way network journalism actually does pay for stories, even though it claims it never does, is that when you do a big interview with someone that’s in the headlines, you aren’t allowed, ethically, to pay them to appear on the show. But you can pay them for other things.


If they give you videotapes, you can license them. If they give you pictures. So there is a way that some network television still does pay, in a way for stories. But back then it was just super blatant. It was just like, we’ll pay you. Come on.

Jessica Bennett (16:59):

They weren’t even trying to hide it.

Susie Banikarim (16:59):

There was no ethical standards around this.

Jessica Bennett (17:02):

Okay, so this is a total feeding frenzy. Everyone is reporting on this. What kinds of headlines are we actually getting in these tabloids?

Susie Banikarim (17:09):

So in addition to The Long Island Lolita, the Daily News does a follow-up, The Lolita tapes. And the New York Post does call Girl by Night, and I think the prize for most salacious goes to the New York Newsday headline, which is Oh Amy, Oh Amy, Oh Amy.

Jessica Bennett (17:28):


Susie Banikarim (17:29):


Jessica Bennett (17:30):

And isn’t she also on the cover of People? I mean, I guess this is everywhere.

Susie Banikarim (17:33):

It’s everywhere.

Jessica Bennett (17:34):

It’s now extended beyond the New York tabloids.

Susie Banikarim (17:36):

So now the story is extending beyond the New York tabloids, and she’s also on the cover of People as the Lethal Lolita. So this name is really starting to stick, and she’s going to be known as the Long Island Lolita now, forever.

Jessica Bennett (17:55):

There’s so many complexities to this story, but was she really an escort? Is that part true? She was working as a prostitute?

Susie Banikarim (18:02):

Yeah. I mean, that part is true. She was a sex worker. But I think like everything else in this story, it’s not quite that simple, or as it seems.

Jessica Bennett (18:11):


Susie Banikarim (18:11):

After A Current Affair airs this tape of her, she has a bail hearing. And her lawyer says that actually it’s Joey who recruited Amy to work at the escort service, and he calls Joey her pimp. Which I’m not sure is technically true, because I don’t think he was taking a cut.


But he is the one, it appears, who recruited her to be part of this agency after their affair started, or their relationship, or whatever we’re calling it.


And her lawyer actually says in this public hearing, “Amy Fisher was used and abused by Mr. Buttafuoco. He did a number of things that were reprehensible, including putting a young girl into prostitution, and using a young girl for his own purposes. I believe the wrong person stands before the docket at this time.”


But that’s not really the narrative that plays out, right? It’s like she’s no longer this innocent girl who’s been taken advantage of by this man. She is this sex worker seductress-

Jessica Bennett (19:09):


Susie Banikarim (19:10):

Who’s shot his wife, who’s an unhinged, Fatal Attraction type character. And that characterization of her really doesn’t go away.

Jessica Bennett (19:18):

It’s interesting, because I feel like this still plays out today, where you can have these two competing narratives. One in the actual courtroom, and that’s what the lawyer is arguing. That is completely different from the one that has taken hold in the popular culture.


And so while New Yorkers are going around referring to the Long Island Lolita, her lawyer can talk about how she’s a victim, and an underage girl, and being forced, or whatever you want to call it, to be a sex worker in a court of law.

Susie Banikarim (19:46):

It is pretty wild that this story only kind of plays out in this salacious way. Very few people are like, wait a second, if she’s a prostitute, what’s his role in that?


And he never admits that he was involved with this escort agency, but there does appear to be evidence that he was. And the escort agency is called Abba, and the Daily News looks into it, and I’ll read you a little bit from that article.


“The Daily News interviewed owners of two escort services who said, but Buttafuoco recruited young women to work for Abba, and was known by the nickname Joey Cocoa Pops, because he supplied cocaine to hookers and their clients. Buttafuoco denies both charges, but he does admit to being treated for an unspecified substance abuse problem three years ago. His attorney says he is free of that problem now.”

Jessica Bennett (20:36):

Joey Cocoa Pops.

Susie Banikarim (20:38):

Yeah. I mean, look. Joey Cocoa Pops is actually a great tabloid headline name. But we do not see Joey Cocoa pops go viral the way we see the Long Island Lolita go viral, right?


There’s evidence that he is working for an escort agency, and giving cocaine to other sex workers, but that doesn’t really take hold in the national obsession with this story. I didn’t even know this detail until I did this research.

Jessica Bennett (21:04):

And so what’s happening in court? Does the judge buy this idea that he is her pimp?

Susie Banikarim (21:09):

No, he’s completely unswayed by it. And so he actually sets the highest bail in the history of the county at that time. It’s a $2 million bail.

Jessica Bennett (21:19):

And I don’t have a good sense of Amy’s family at this point. Is that something they can afford?

Susie Banikarim (21:24):

Not really. I mean, they’re a very middle class family. They work six days a week in an upholstery shop that they own. They’re not super rich, high-flying people. They’re just like a seemingly normal, middle-class family from the nineties.

Jessica Bennett (21:38):

So they can’t pay it. So what do they do? Do they appeal that? Can you appeal that?

Susie Banikarim (21:42):

Yeah, so you can appeal, and her attorney does try and appeal. But after he’s rejected a couple times, he decides to get creative.


Her attorney is a former vibrating bed salesman, whatever that means. And a frustrated actor.

Jessica Bennett (21:59):

Wait, wait.

Susie Banikarim (22:01):

I don’t know.

Jessica Bennett (22:01):


Susie Banikarim (22:02):

You’re going to ask me what that means, and I’m going to tell you I do not know what a vibrating bed salesman is.

Jessica Bennett (22:05):

I think it has something to do with waterbeds, right? Waterbeds were popular at this time. And then you can make them vibrate?

Susie Banikarim (22:11):

That’s kind of immediately what I assume, that it was like a vibrating waterbed. But honestly, I don’t know. It’s just one of the…

Jessica Bennett (22:17):

I’m going to Google it while you’re talking.

Susie Banikarim (22:18):

It’s just one of those details that you’re like, I have to include this so specific and weird.

Jessica Bennett (22:24):

Oh my God. Yeah, look, wait. I’m looking at a picture from an article of something called the Magic Fingers Relaxation Service. This is a hotel room, and there’s a woman standing by showing this sign.


And yes, you put in 25 cents for 15 minutes, and it says it quickly carries you into the land of tingling, relaxation, and ease. Try it, you’ll never sleep so good.

Susie Banikarim (22:48):

Well, I guess the business wasn’t that successful, because he’s gone on from his vibrating bed salesman days to become a lawyer. But because he is this kind of showman, this failed actor, he really takes on the role of being her lawyer in this very public way.


And he announces that what he’s going to do to raise money for her to make bail is, he’s going to sell her life story to a publisher or a movie company. And he essentially just puts it up for auction and is like, if anyone wants her life story, they can bid.


And he does get a ton of bids for her life story, and eventually he does sell it. And she does make bail, and she’s released in late July over the strenuous objections of Mary Jo Buttafuoco. Who is just like, I do not feel safe with this woman not being behind bars.


And she gives a press conference and she says, “I just know what this girl did to me in cold blood. She’s a sick girl.” Which I mean, fair for Mary Jo.

Jessica Bennett (23:59):

So Susie, I want to talk a bit about what’s happening in the culture at the time. But one thing that stuck out to me as you’re describing this, is this is 1992, which is the so-called Year of the Woman. This was the year after Anita Hill testified before Congress about sexual harassment suffered at the hands of Clarence Thomas.


And following that, there was this woman’s wave in Congress, where 24 women were elected to the House of Representatives. I think there were four to the Senate. And all of the headlines were talking about this progressive time that we were in. It was the Year of the Woman. And yet this is happening amidst that. So what else is happening at the time? Yeah,

Susie Banikarim (24:38):

Yeah, I’m going to sort of set the scene for you of what was going on in America in 1992. So this is also the year that Bill Clinton is elected president.

Bill Clinton (24:46):

This election is a clarion call for our country to face the challenges, of the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the next century.

Susie Banikarim (24:55):

It’s his first term. So this is well before the Monica Lewinsky stuff comes to light. It’s also the year of the LA riots.

Clip (25:03):

Black smoke pouring into the sky all over town. That’s what Los Angeles looks like this morning.

Susie Banikarim (25:10):

It is the year Mike Tyson goes on trial for sexual assault.

Clip (25:14):

Tyson was indicted by a special grand jury on charges that he allegedly raped an 18-year-old beauty pageant contestant.

Susie Banikarim (25:21):

So that’s kind of the era that Amy’s story enters into.

Jessica Bennett (25:26):

And this is playing out prominently in the tabloids, right? The tabloids are a huge part of this.

Susie Banikarim (25:32):

Yeah. A huge part of this, and also extremely powerful in this era. Really, throughout the eighties and nineties in New York, this was the heyday of the tabloid era. It’s three papers, the New York Post, the Daily News, and Newsday. And they just set the tone and agenda for coverage in the city.


And there’s also something that we don’t really have now, which is tabloid television shows, like Hard Copy and A Current Affair. These were hugely popular shows, and really the only modern corollary is probably TMZ, but TMZ doesn’t have kind of a stranglehold on the culture the way Hard Copy and A Current Affair did. Those shows, tabloid, papers, they were everywhere.

Jessica Bennett (26:14):

Do you think everybody knows what a tabloid is?

Susie Banikarim (26:16):

Oh, that’s a good question. I’m not sure I know exactly what makes something a tabloid, other than just that it’s salacious.

Jessica Bennett (26:23):

It’s basically, can you read it on the subway without folding it?

Susie Banikarim (26:26):


Jessica Bennett (26:27):

So a broad-sheet paper.

Susie Banikarim (26:28):

Like The New York Times.

Jessica Bennett (26:29):

The New York Times.

Susie Banikarim (26:30):

I didn’t know that.

Jessica Bennett (26:30):

Where you have to open the pages, and if you’re sitting close to other people on the subway, you fold it over so that you’re not elbowing them and you read it. But tabloids are the smaller size and you can page through it. I don’t know, it’s a little bit larger than a magazine.


But this was a time in New York where these papers set the agenda and the tone, and they had these iconic covers. They still do to some extent, where everyone would rush to the newsstand and they would see the New York Post and the Daily News side-by-side, and sometimes Newsday, which was the Long Island-based paper.


And you would look at what the headline of the day was, and you would compare how they had framed it.

Susie Banikarim (27:08):

And the headline writers competed for who would have the best headline of the day.

Jessica Bennett (27:14):

Brilliant, brilliant, yes.


To get back to Amy. So you were saying that she just managed to make bail thanks to the lawyer who is the ex vibrating mattress salesman. He’s sold the rights to her story. Now she’s out of waiting sentencing. But I want to get back to her parents for a second. Because where are they in all of this? Are they defending her? Are they going with her to court? What is their relationship?

Susie Banikarim (27:36):

Amy’s relationship with her parents is pretty complicated. They do stand by her, and she’s often portrayed as the spoiled child. But the truth is, she had a pretty fucked up childhood, and there was definitely some sexual abuse early on. But all of that comes out much later in her books, she has two, and interviews she did.

Jessica Bennett (27:55):

Okay, got it. So it’s a complicated relationship, and we know it was definitely not an easy childhood.

Susie Banikarim (28:00):

Yeah, that’s not known so much at the time, but it is pretty clear now that she had a very traumatic childhood. And she does eventually alleged that also she was abused by her father.

Jessica Bennett (28:14):


Susie Banikarim (28:15):

The exact nature of that abuse is not entirely known. It’s pretty clear that it was physical, but not clear if there was a sexual component to it. But all the press is reporting at that time, because they don’t know any of that information, is that she has these parents who really spoil her.


Her father, Elliot Fisher, is 56 years old at this time, and her mother is 39. So her father’s a lot older than her mother, and maybe that’s why she doesn’t automatically think this age gap between her and Joey is so weird. Because they’re almost 20 years apart as well.


She’s described in the press as this very spoiled child. In one article in People, the evidence they give to support that is that she has her own room with matching furniture, and her own phone, and an endless supply of stuffed animals. And that really struck me.


Because I was like a room full of stuffed animals for a 16-year-old girl isn’t something I associate with some spoiled vixen. It really just evokes this image of a girl, a little girl who’s gotten wrapped up in something that’s just much beyond her comprehension.

Jessica Bennett (29:28):

That’s so interesting. Because it kind of plays into this virginal temptress thing. I don’t know if you remember, there was a famous cover of Britney Spears in Rolling Stone when she was young, and it was sort of the first big cover.

Susie Banikarim (29:43):


Jessica Bennett (29:43):

And in the spread in there, I was researching this at one point, there is an image of her lying on her bed in sort of a sexy manner, surrounded by stuffed animals. And it just reminds me of that because part of the thing that was so titillating about Britney Spears at that time was that, is she a girl? Is she a woman? And I think there’s something about that we’re tapping in here with Amy too.


A magazine knows how that will play out, all of these little details. Or you have an idea of how they’re going to play when you’re putting them into a story. And the idea of this sexy young vixen who was maybe a sex worker, maybe not, but had this affair, and has a room full of stuffed animals…

Susie Banikarim (30:21):

Yeah. In a weird way it contributes to her sexualization, even though it’s not a sexy thing to have.


And the other details, also, that they use to be like, she’s so spoiled, are kind of silly. It’s like, she has her own phone line. And I mean, I had my own phone line. I was a little spoiled, but I wasn’t like Paris Hilton or anything. And she has her own car.


And this detail is kind of relevant, because it’s something that her and Joey use in their relationship. She has a beeper, which apparently is considered a very fancy thing to have among her high school friends. Do the kids know what a beeper is? I think we need to explain that.

Jessica Bennett (30:59):

It’s a pager. It’s a pager. I had one in high school. Did you have one?

Susie Banikarim (31:02):

No, I never had one. Because I honestly associated with them…

Jessica Bennett (31:04):

Okay, I had one in high school.

Susie Banikarim (31:05):

I mean, I know this is terrible, and probably somewhat…

Jessica Bennett (31:07):

With drug dealers.

Susie Banikarim (31:08):

Fucked up. But yeah, I associated them with drug dealers.

Jessica Bennett (31:10):

Well, no. I mean, that’s not fucked up. Drug dealers had pagers. That was how you got your drug dealer to call you back. But it became popular at a certain point. It was not until years later in the late nineties, when I had a pager. But yeah, I saved my money up. I saved my allowance.


Anyway, the point is a pager was a little button thing that you could put on your belt or in your purse or whatever, and you would call it from a phone, and you could type in a code. And so you would get a code in the pager.


And so my pager code was 11. So when I would page my friends, I’d be like 411-11, and it would be like, what’s up from Jess?

Susie Banikarim (31:49):

I love that it had this whole secret language. Which I did not know about.

Jessica Bennett (31:53):

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. And then they would know to call me on my home phone. I don’t know how common that was in 1992, maybe that was a slightly spoiled thing to have. But by the time I was in high school in 1998, we kind of all had pagers.

Susie Banikarim (32:06):

Well, the code thing is really relevant. Because another one of those little details in the story, that I feel like if you wrote into a fictional story, people would be like, come on. Is that Joey Buttafuoco’s code for Amy was 007.

Jessica Bennett (32:23):

Oh, so that was like, it’s 007 calling you.

Susie Banikarim (32:25):

Yeah. Which sort of gets to this idea that he’s this really self-important man.

Jessica Bennett (32:30):

He’s corny.

Susie Banikarim (32:31):

Who thinks he’s James Bond, when he’s really just this creep mechanic who’s creeping on little girls.

Jessica Bennett (32:36):

It’s perfect that he’s a car mechanic.

Susie Banikarim (32:39):


Jessica Bennett (32:39):

Also, now that I’ve said that, I have remembered that my code was actually 17, and my friend Anna’s code was 11. So I just want to clarify that for the record so Anna isn’t mad.

Susie Banikarim (32:48):

Okay, fair, fair.

Jessica Bennett (32:50):

Okay. So Susie, let’s get back to the case itself.


Okay. So there’s this period after she’s posted bail, she’s out, but before she’s pled guilty when the circus continues.

Susie Banikarim (33:01):

Yeah. There are these frequent press conferences from lawyers on both sides. The Buttafuocos themselves do a lot of talk show appearances and press conferences. Everyone involved is really leaning into this circus atmosphere.

Jessica Bennett (33:15):

Okay. Yeah, sounds intense.

Susie Banikarim (33:17):

And watching it all back, I became really curious about what it must have been like to cover the story as it was happening. And there’s this one reporter who really stands out, this woman, Amy Pagnozzi, who was a columnist for the New York Post, and she was literally the only person who was not buying into the prevailing narrative. So I did a little digging and I found her.

Amy Pagnozzi (33:37):

You’re the first person that I’ve talked to about this for years and years, because I basically have always turned this subject down.

Susie Banikarim (33:44):

And here she is describing what it was like to be part of the Amy Fisher scrum.

Amy Pagnozzi (33:48):

Well, every single one of those scenes was like the Princess Diana Chase. You had people walking up and saying heinous things just to get reactions. Photographers could make money back in the day anyway, probably still today if they got a celebrity to punch them. So there was a lot of provocation of people in the media trying to get them to talk.

Susie Banikarim (34:07):

The tabloid TV shows at the time really did play a big role in the story, right? Because they were paying so many people for Amy’s stories.

Amy Pagnozzi (34:13):

Well, paycheck journalism was a new thing, I think. I was not familiar with it. I was really shocked in the beginning when I would go to a story and find out that the story had been purchased by Inside Edition or A Current Affair. They had these huge checkbooks.


It was like an echo chamber, where you’d appear here and then it would amplify there. And the money was being thrown around. And I don’t think people today, because there’s so much inflation, realized what $50,000 was back then. I mean, it was huge money. People were selling out everybody else.


I mean, honestly, the people who did things to Amy were horrible for doing them. But basically, these were gym rats with tiny minds shaped like dumpsters.

Susie Banikarim (34:55):

Was it just the media who played that role? It seems like all the players were also really encouraging this media circus atmosphere.

Amy Pagnozzi (35:02):

I mean, initially Mary Jo was not feeding into this. She was fighting for her life. And I pretty much blame him for everything.


One of the things that you have to take into consideration was that she needed a lot of home care after she had those surgeries. And Joey was nursing her, and he was by her side 24-7. She’d just been shot. She was emotionally devastated.


And I honestly think that when she did things, she did it for the money to actually be able to support her kids.

Jessica Bennett (35:34):

Okay, I love hearing this through the actual reporter’s perspective who covered it at the time, but also that’s such a good point about Mary Jo. Of course everyone who’s watching this is thinking, why is she doing all these interviews defending him? How pathetic is that? But she’s in this incredibly vulnerable position, and he’s literally her caretaker.

Susie Banikarim (35:55):

Totally. And she’s really going after Amy because, understandably, she’s in a lot of pain and she’s very angry at the person who put her in that pain.


So she goes on the offensive, and that gets a ton of attention.

Jessica Bennett (36:07):

And so I’m sure Joey was also on the offensive. He’s still denying the whole thing, right?

Susie Banikarim (36:12):

Yes. And then there’s this weird incident where Joey calls the Howard Stern Show…

Jessica Bennett (36:16):

Oh my god.

Susie Banikarim (36:17):

While he’s home tending to marry Joe. He dials in to say that he was never involved with Amy. It’s, again, reiterating that the affair is a lie. And he announces how much he loved his wife, and was innocent, and not involved in the shooting. And that she was hallucinating these allegations against him.


And then there’s also another weird detail that I found. Apparently at some point, a recovering Mary Jo says to Howard Stern that her sex life with Joey is better than ever.

Jessica Bennett (36:50):

I don’t know how to react to that. I don’t know how to react.

Susie Banikarim (36:52):

I mean, that’s a fair reaction.

Jessica Bennett (36:53):

It’s so sad. It’s just sad.

Susie Banikarim (36:54):

It’s sad.

Jessica Bennett (36:55):

Howard Stern is disgusting, Joey Buttafuoco is disgusting. Mary Jo is clearly a victim. Poor Mary Jo.

Susie Banikarim (37:01):

Poor Mary Jo.

Jessica Bennett (37:02):

Also Amy, as we will learn, is a victim in many ways too.

Susie Banikarim (37:07):

I think there is kind of this publicity war that’s going on. That they’re each kind of trying to get their narrative or their version, each side is kind of trying to play the press to their advantage in some ways.


And in addition to her having sold her story for bail money, the Buttafuocos also have a lot of bills to pay. I mean, she did just go through this real terrible medical situation. So they also sell their story.


So everyone’s kind of contributing to this wild atmosphere. And I think the fact that Mary Jo is so defensive of Joey, that she’s like, I would castrate him if he had really done this. She is becoming her own character in the story.

Jessica Bennett (37:43):

Oh, wow.

Susie Banikarim (37:44):

Then there are these other stories about Amy that come out. There’s another ex-boyfriend that comes forward and claims that she asked him for a gun. There’s another man…

Jessica Bennett (37:54):

An ex-boyfriend of Amy?

Susie Banikarim (37:55):

Ex-boyfriend of Amy’s. There’s another man that says Amy paid him with cash and blow jobs to watch the Buttafuoco house. And they do eventually track down the guy who drove her to the Buttafuoco house the day she shot Mary Jo, and he says she paid him 800 bucks to get her the gun and to drive her there.

Jessica Bennett (38:13):

And probably all of these people are independently selling their stories to the press at the same time. Right?

Susie Banikarim (38:18):

I think there’s a lot of that going on. I think a phenomenon we’re very familiar with now is that when a story becomes big, lots of people want to attach themselves to it, and be interviewed in the press about it, right?


It’s like when there’s a big tragedy, everyone wants to suddenly be like, I was involved. I knew that person. I’m sure there’s a lot of that going on.

Jessica Bennett (38:37):

So this is all playing out in the summer of 1992. It’s before Amy will ultimately plead guilty in September. But at this point, what is the prevailing narrative?

Susie Banikarim (38:47):

So because all these stories have come out about her, there’s all these other men that have come forward, other men who claim that they were clients of hers when she was a sex worker. There is just this torrential downpour of information that just makes her look bad and makes it clear that there’s no way that a trial is going to go in her favor.


And she did shoot someone. So, fair. She pleads guilty to one count of reckless assault, and that carries a sentence of five to 15 years. But the prosecutor also promises, as part of this deal, to convene a grand jury to consider statutory rape charges against Joey Buttafuoco.


And also under consideration is a possible murder conspiracy charge, because Amy continues to tell investigators that Joey Buttafuoco put her up to this shooting. I don’t know why I feel like I need to say his whole name every time in this story. It’s like Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco.

Jessica Bennett (39:41):

Buttafuoco. It’s fun to say.

Susie Banikarim (39:41):

Yeah. I mean, that is why it got so much attention, also. His name really did become the punchline of a lot of jokes.

Jessica Bennett (39:46):

Buttafuoco, Buttafuoco, Buttafuoco. Yeah.

Susie Banikarim (39:50):

But by all accounts, this plea deal leaves Amy distraught. It really finally dawns on her that she’s going to go to jail. That she’s actually done something horrible, and she’s about to pay a very steep price for it.


And she allocutes in a public hearing, and she continues to insist that it was an accident. And the prosecutors are essentially satisfied, and they announce they’re going to go after Joey Buttafuoco next, which Mary Jo is livid about. She’s just absolutely furious that part of the plea deal involves anything that might punish Joey Buttafuoco. She’s like, we’ve suffered enough.


And then, this is where we would play ominous music. Another video of her, which was recorded without her knowledge, drops.


Before the break we were talking about how a new video of Amy Fisher, recorded without her knowledge, has just come out. And this time it’s her latest boyfriend, a guy named Paul Makely. He’s 30, unsurprisingly much older than her, and the co-owner of a gym where she works out. And he sells a videotape he made of her to Hard Copy.


So the night before she pleads guilty in court, she’s really upset. And her lawyers give her permission to go see this guy, Makely. And she visits him at his gym, and he’s obviously setting her up so he can sell it.

Jessica Bennett (41:24):

Oh, wow.

Susie Banikarim (41:25):

It’s not a sex tape, or whatever we would call the previous tape. Which I guess is revenge porn in today’s parlance.


In this case, she’s just talking to him. She’s just being flirtatious with him. This is obviously a girl who really needs male attention to feel better, and she’s not feeling good. So she’s come to see him, and she’s not expressing any remorse, which obviously is kind of all anybody wants to see from her at this point.


And it just appears to me like teenage bravado, right? She’s just clearly trying to get his attention. And at one point she asks him to marry her so that they can have conjugal visits once she’s in prison. And she says something that will really haunt her because it gets played by the media over and over again.


Which is she says, “I figure if I have to go through all this pain and suffering, I’m getting a Ferrari.” Meaning, she’s going to make all this money from this and get a Ferrari. But I mean, this is a girl who’s about to go to jail for five to 15 years. She’s not getting a Ferrari. And I don’t think she thinks she’s getting a Ferrari. She’s just gone to blow off some steam during this horrible situation in her life.


I mean, admittedly brought on by her, but it’s just really sad. Now, at the time, it’s seen as evidence that she is a monster. And just this absolute…

Jessica Bennett (42:44):

Right, has no remorse.

Susie Banikarim (42:45):

Brat with no remorse, exactly. And when the tape comes out, it devastates her. She cannot believe that she’s been betrayed by yet another man that she trusted. One of the lawyers who watched the show with her says that she was destroyed by it, that she just kept saying over and over again, “And I loved him. I loved him. I loved him.”


Which is also just a really sad detail. Because just a year earlier, she loved Joey Buttafuoco so much that she went and shot his wife. So it’s like she’s just so easy to give away her love, or whatever this is, this obsession with men and her need for them to validate her.

Jessica Bennett (43:28):

I mean, it is easy to forget that this is a child. She’s saying these things and they sound disturbing, but she’s hardly a grown adult.

Susie Banikarim (43:38):

Yeah. And obviously she doesn’t have good coping mechanisms. I mean, that’s very clear from everything I’ve told you so far. And that becomes even more clear.


That night she makes a first suicide attempt. And she’s not successful, her mother finds her. But in the afternoon of the next day she makes another attempt, and at that point, her parents realize that she needs to be taken to the hospital.


So they take her to the hospital. And her investigator at the time, because I think she has this whole arsenal, this team of lawyers and investigators that are working on her case, says she’s been betrayed by every man she’s ever met.


And I think that really gets to the heart of the Amy Fisher story. Every single man in this story who comes forward betrays her in some way.

Jessica Bennett (44:24):

And we will soon learn that includes her father.

Susie Banikarim (44:26):

Yeah. So it’s around this suicide attempt that the first allegation she makes about her father becomes public. Because in addition to selling this tape of her, Paul also sells this audio recording he received from her. It’s kind of like an audio letter, I guess.


And in it, she says in this really soft, wounded voice, “I just don’t understand why my mom ever had me. I mean, she let my father do such terrible things to me, and I feel like she just looked the other way. She didn’t do anything to stop it.”

Jessica Bennett (44:59):

What’s the response to that?

Susie Banikarim (45:00):

So the response is interesting. Because she immediately backtracks when it becomes public. She never thought this was going to be made public. When it is…

Jessica Bennett (45:08):

Oh wait, of course.

Susie Banikarim (45:09):

She denies it. She says it’s just because he’s a strict father. It’s pretty clear that there’s more to it than that. But that is what she says at the time. And for the most part, she’s never really addressed it, or gone into any details.


But she’s in such bad shape after the release of this videotape and this audiotape that when she’s released from the hospital, she voluntarily asks to be returned to prison so she can wait in prison for her sentencing. So that she can avoid the media circus.

Jessica Bennett (45:42):

So she asks to return to prison?

Susie Banikarim (45:44):

Yes. She goes to prison months before her actual sentencing is supposed to happen, because…

Jessica Bennett (45:49):

To get away. Oh, wow.

Susie Banikarim (45:51):

Literally to get away from the media. Literally to get away from this thing that just become so much bigger than her, that she clearly cannot manage for herself.

Jessica Bennett (45:58):

That’s crazy.

Susie Banikarim (45:59):

Isn’t that crazy?

Jessica Bennett (46:01):

I mean, that honestly is the most surprising or telling detail to me so far, is that she has determined that being in jail is actually a better place for her, voluntarily, than being in the outside world.


I mean it’s like in a matter of four months, from June to, I think this is now September, she’s gone from being a high school student, clearly there was sordid stuff happening behind that, to voluntarily going to prison so she doesn’t have to face the outside world.

Susie Banikarim (46:29):

Yeah, it really does tell you a lot about how difficult her mental-

Jessica Bennett (46:34):

Well, not just even her mental health, but the spectacle of the media. The media was that bad that she thought she had to go into jail to escape them.


But on top of that, as you have said throughout, everyone in her life is coming forward to sell a story in one way or another.

Susie Banikarim (46:51):

And the contrast is what happens to Joey, which is not much. I mean, he eventually…

Jessica Bennett (46:58):

Yeah. What does happen to Joey?

Susie Banikarim (46:59):

The official final chapter of the story is that Joey is eventually brought up on charges. He’s indicted on 19 counts of statutory rape, sodomy, and endangering the welfare of a child, which sounds bad, right?

Jessica Bennett (47:11):

Oh okay.

Susie Banikarim (47:11):

Yeah. But he pleads out, and he goes away for one count of statutory rape. He admits to knowing her age, but only admits to having sex with her one time. And has his lawyer say publicly that he basically only admitted this because he was trying to save his family. So he’s still kind of denying it in some weird way.

Jessica Bennett (47:31):


Susie Banikarim (47:32):

He goes to prison for four months, compared to Amy’s five to 15 years sentence.

Jessica Bennett (47:38):

I know we’ll get to this later, but she is not able to live a normal life.

Susie Banikarim (47:42):

No, not at all. And we’re definitely going to get into all of that in part two, but I think let’s leave it here for now. And there’s still so much more to the story. So to hear the rest of the Amy Fisher saga, and all its twists and turns, join us for part two. It’s already in your feed.


This is In Retrospect. Thanks for listening. Is there a cultural moment you can’t stop thinking about and want us to explore in a future episode? Email us at [email protected] or find us on Instagram @inretropod.

Jessica Bennett (48:17):

If you love this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen. If you hate it, you can post nasty comments on our Instagram which we may or may not delete.

Susie Banikarim (48:27):

You can also find us on Instagram @jessicabennett and @susiebnyc. Also check out Jessica’s books, Feminist Fight Club and This is 18.

Jessica Bennett (48:36):

In Retrospect is a production of iHeart podcast and The Meteor. Lauren Hansen is our supervising producer. Derrick Clements is our engineer and sound designer. Sharon Attia is our researcher and associate producer.

Susie Banikarim (48:48):

Our executive producer from The Meteor is Cindi Leive. Our executive producers from iHeart are Anna Stumpf and Katrina Norvell. Our artwork is from Pentagram. Additional editing help from Mary Dooe and Mike Coscarelli. Sound correction and mastering by Amanda Rose Smith. We are your hosts, Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (49:06):

And Jessica Bennett. We’re also executive producers. For even more, check out inretropod.com. See you next week.

Susie Banikarim: It may have been fictional, but this wedding, a two-day television event, was celebrated by fans as the wedding of the decade. More people watched it than the real wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, which happened that same year. But what is often forgotten about this iconic soap opera couple, is that just a few years before this, Luke sexually assaulted Laura. [00:01:00] I’m Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett: And I’m Jessica Bennett.

Susie Banikarim: This is In Retrospect, where each week we revisit a cultural moment from the past that shaped us.

Jessica Bennett: And that we just can’t stop thinking about.

Susie Banikarim: Today we’re talking about how one of TV’s most famous and beloved relationships started with a rape. But we’re also talking about the incredible powers soap operas once had in shaping public perception. For better and for worse.

Jessica Bennett: So Susie, I know nothing about soap operas except that there is one starring a woman named Jessica Bennett, who shares my name.

Susie Banikarim: Is that true?

Jessica Bennett: Uh, it’s called Passion. Yeah.

Susie Banikarim: Oh, Passion. That was a short-lived, but very wild soap opera.

Jessica Bennett: She remains on Wikipedia. Anyway, were you a huge General Hospital fan, like, how- what led you to this moment?

Susie Banikarim: So I wasn’t a General Hospital fan, specifically. I did occasionally watch it, but I was a huge soap opera fan. I would come home in middle [00:02:00] school and watch soap operas every afternoon.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: I was a Days of Our Life-

Jessica Bennett: Girl.

Susie Banikarim: One Life to Live girl, which was kind of unusual, because it was split. Days of Our Lives was-

Jessica Bennett: Oh, right.

Susie Banikarim: … on NBC. Do you remember the tagline for Days of Our Lives?

Jessica Bennett: No.

Susie Banikarim: Like sands through the hourglass…

CLIP: Like sands through the hourglass…

Jessica Bennett: Oh, yeah, I do remember. Okay.

Susie Banikarim: … so are the days of our lives.

CLIP: … so are the days of our lives.

Susie Banikarim: I would come home from school and I would watch with a snack every afternoon and then eventually I went to boarding school for high school, but when I came home, it was, like, something I looked forward to. Like a summer or winter break indulgence. And I think that’s kind of why I wanted to focus on this subject, this relationship, because soap operas were just so influential for generations of American girls and women. I mean, also some boys, obviously, but they really were geared towards women and this particular plot line really came at the peak of their popularity. And so it seems worth exploring this [00:03:00] relationship that was seen as so romantic, but started with an assault.

Jessica Bennett: As you say that, I’m remembering that I mentioned this to my mother-in-law recently and she revealed that actually my husband, like, the first three years of his life, she would constantly have this show on in the background while they were just, I don’t know, hanging out doing baby stuff or whatever.

Susie Banikarim: [laughs]

Jessica Bennett: And, you know, guess what? She remembers this relationship between Luke and Laura as completely romantic.

Susie Banikarim: I think that’s what most people thought.

Jessica Bennett: Yeah, and they go on to have this decades long relationship, so that makes a lot of sense. I mean, Laura is still actually a character on the show, but for those who didn’t grow up on General Hospital, can you give us a little primer on what the show was?

Susie Banikarim: Yeah. It was a soap opera that started in 1963.

CLIP: General Hospital.

Susie Banikarim: And had its heyday in the 1980s. It was just hugely popular. It was about two families living in the fictional town of Port Charles, New York, and their various trials and tribulations and not surprisingly, it was centered in a hospital. You might [00:04:00] say it was the original Grey’s Anatomy and what went on there, sometimes it would go off in weird adventures, but that’s really been the core of the show for the last 60 years.

Jessica Bennett: Okay, so Luke and Laura are characters who do not work in that hospital?

Susie Banikarim: Yeah. No, they don’t work in the hospital. Not literally everyone on the show works in the hospital.

Jessica Bennett: Got it.

Susie Banikarim: They just live in Port Charles.

Jessica Bennett: Okay. And where should we begin in terms of their, can we call it a relationship?

Susie Banikarim: Yeah, I mean, it’s not a relationship in the beginning, right? Because of the way it starts, but I actually want to begin with the wedding, because I think that that’s the moment that becomes such a cultural phenomenon.

Jessica Bennett: Right, right.

Susie Banikarim: It was a two-day event, so it’s two hours long.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, wow.

Susie Banikarim: There’s, like, really long stretches of them just, like, driving up in cars.

Jessica Bennett: Uh-huh, uh-huh.

Susie Banikarim: Like, the bridesmaids, the groomsmen.

Jessica Bennett: Yup.

Susie Banikarim: And then there’s this really long stretch of them just, like, literally greeting the guests.

Jessica Bennett: It’s like an actual wedding.

Susie Banikarim: Which is why it’s fascinating that it was the most watched soap opera episode of all time.

Jessica Bennett: [00:05:00] Wow.

Susie Banikarim: Like, people loved it. They wanted to feel like they were there at this wedding, because they were obsessed with this couple.

Jessica Bennett: Wow. Why were people so obsessed with this couple? Like, what was the appeal?

Susie Banikarim: So, I mean, it’s hard to say. You- to some degree you don’t ever know why people become really attached to certain characters on television or certain storylines, but Laura’s actually kind of an interesting character-

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: … because she’s already become a pretty central character to General Hospital when Luke is introduced.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: And that’s because they’re trying to push towards younger audiences.

Jessica Bennett: Ah, okay.

Susie Banikarim: So she’s a teenager.

Jessica Bennett: Interesting.

Susie Banikarim: And I think one of the quotes I read from a fan was, like, we love her because she’s 16 like us, but she lives the life of a 28-year-old.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: That’s partially why I wanted to start with the wedding, because you kind of need to understand that this wasn’t just, like, a popular episode of television. It was literally the closest thing Americans had to a royal wedding. A- and just to prove that I’m not exaggerating-

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: … more people tuned in to watch this fake wedding than tuned in when Meghan Markle and Prince [00:06:00] Harry had their actual wedding in 2018.

Jessica Bennett: Whoa. What, that is wild.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah. And, like, local news sent correspondents to viewing parties, like, all across Manhattan. From an office in Madison Avenue to a dorm at NYU.

Jessica Bennett: [laughs]

NEWS CLIP: Fans all across the country watched for the big moment. To them it was their wedding.

NEWS CLIP: Of course we’re excited.

NEWS CLIP: Not a dry eye in the house.

NEWS CLIP: By the way, three years for them to get married, I feel like [inaudible 00:06:22].

NEWS CLIP: You like Luke?

NEWS CLIP: I love Luke.


NEWS CLIP: Uh, he’s sexy. It’s time for them to get together.

NEWS CLIP: It’s been two years. It’s time for them to-

NEWS CLIP: You know, they’re very much in love and it’s really a beautiful thing.

Susie Banikarim: It was just this wildly popular thing, even among celebrities. Like, Elizabeth Taylor was such a fan of the show that she requested to be on it.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: And made a guest appearance and you can kind of see her in-

Jessica Bennett: Yes, yes.

Susie Banikarim: … the background of many shots. She’s playing a villain who is cursing them-

Jessica Bennett: Oh, okay.

Susie Banikarim: … on their wedding day. And also, this is the year where Diana and Charles got married.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: And they had a real wedding.

Jessica Bennett: Right.

Susie Banikarim: But then this is such a big [00:07:00] moment that Diana sends champagne for this fake wedding. [laughs] She sends the actors-

Jessica Bennett: Whoa.

Susie Banikarim: … champagne to congratulate them on their fake wedding.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, wow. Oh my God, okay.

Susie Banikarim: Which, like, an amazing little detail here is that Genie Francis is underage when this wedding happens.

Jessica Bennett: Genie Francis who plays Laura.

Susie Banikarim: Genie Francis who plays Laura Spencer is 20, and so they don’t-

Jessica Bennett: She can’t drink.

Susie Banikarim: … even give it to her. She doesn’t know about the champagne until years later when they’re doing an interview.

Jessica Bennett: What kind of champagne do you think it was?

Susie Banikarim: I don’t know. I don’t know what kind of champagne it was, but, um, I think Luke said he liked kept the bo- I mean, it-

Jessica Bennett: Oh, wow.

Susie Banikarim: … imagine getting a bottle of champagne from who- what was, like, the most famous woman in the world at that time.

Jessica Bennett: So wha- okay, so the culture or the world is kind of treating this fake wedding like a real wedding.

Susie Banikarim: People took the day off work. And there’s, like, a note in the research that someone was, like, hey, I told my boss I was going to a wedding, because I was.

Jessica Bennett: Oh my God. [laughs]

Susie Banikarim: You know, like, bars played it. Like, people gathered around in bars at lunchtime in droves-

Jessica Bennett: Yeah.

Susie Banikarim: … to watch this wedding and, I mean, a thing that I think people sort of forget, [00:08:00] it’s hard now to remember what a stranglehold soap operas had on the culture-

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: … in the 80s.

Jessica Bennett: Or even television.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah, and television. I mean, they also made the most money.

Jessica Bennett: Yeah.

Susie Banikarim: And like, I think part of the thing is, yes, a lot of people watch them, but more than that, for the networks, uh, ABC, for example, they made up 50% of revenue.

Jessica Bennett: Oh wow.

Susie Banikarim: So had an enormous amount of power.

Jessica Bennett: Yes.

Susie Banikarim: And that’s why suddenly you see all these actors, these famous actors who got their start on soap operas, it’s because soap operas have money to pay actors and prime time, you know, it had money, but not the way soap operas did. And that wasn’t always the case, right? Soap operas initially were kind of seen as this thing for women, made by women.

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: This sort of silly ridiculous thing. And, you know, it could be silly and ridiculous and we can talk about that, but daytime was an enormously powerful arena at this point.

Jessica Bennett: I don’t think I fully appreciated that. That soap operas had huge power to shape culture and also that it was women both making and watching them.

Susie Banikarim: [00:09:00] Yeah. Initially soap operas were really watched by stay-at-home moms and that’s kind of why initially they’re dismissed.

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: But then this thing happens at the end of the 70s where a lot of women enter the workforce and there’s a dip in viewership.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: But then the women who are staying at home start to allow their children to watch TV with them.

Jessica Bennett: Okay, okay.

Susie Banikarim: That’s kind of like a shift. And so a lot of girls and boys who are home with their moms become addicted to these shows.

Jessica Bennett: I see.

Susie Banikarim: And then it becomes common to be a college student who gathers around-

Jessica Bennett: Right, this is why there’s viewing parties in these dorm rooms.

Susie Banikarim: Yes. You know, a common thing that was talked about amongst soap fans, is that they would schedule their classes around their soap operas.

Jessica Bennett: Wow. It’s such a different time.

Susie Banikarim: It’s, like, worth noting that even though soap operas aren’t that popular now, General Hospital is still on the air.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, right.

Susie Banikarim: I mean, people forget that.

Jessica Bennett: Yes.

Susie Banikarim: But it is the longest running scripted drama and the longest running American soap opera. I- I-

Jessica Bennett: How do you watch that now?

Susie Banikarim: It started airing in 1963. You can watch it on television. What do you mean? You watch it on ABC.

Jessica Bennett: Like, watch it, [00:10:00] you do?

Susie Banikarim: Yeah. You could watch it in the afternoon on ABC. And by the way, two million people still do.

Jessica Bennett: Okay, okay.

Susie Banikarim: And I think the thing that’s different is there’s, like, a lot of options now.

Jessica Bennett: Yeah.

Susie Banikarim: So it doesn’t seem as popular.

Jessica Bennett: Right.

Susie Banikarim: But two million people is not a paltry number. That’s way more than most cable shows get.

Jessica Bennett: Right.

Susie Banikarim: But we don’t think about it as a cultural phenomenon because it seems so low in comparison to the fact that in their heyday-

Jessica Bennett: Right.

Susie Banikarim: … one in fifteen Americans watched General Hospital.

Jessica Bennett: So we’re talking about a storyline on General Hospital involving the two most popular characters, Luke and Laura. These are characters America obsessed over in the 1980s. 30 million people tuned in to watch their wedding. But when you say out loud how that relationship [00:11:00] began, which is with Luke assaulting Laura, it almost feels like it can’t be true.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah. It is hard to believe. And we’re about to walk you through the assault scene, which will make it feel unfortunately very real. But first I want to give you some background on how we get to that scene.

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: And I’m going to actually blow your mind-

Jessica Bennett: [laughs]

Susie Banikarim: … with so many things here, because to begin with, Luke is Laura’s boss.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, okay. Where did they work?

Susie Banikarim: Um, at a disco.

Jessica Bennett: They work at a disco.

Susie Banikarim: Laura is 17. Luckily for Laura she’s already married. She’s 17 and married.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, okay. Only a crime.

Susie Banikarim: So Laura and Scotty were actually, like, a pretty popular soap opera couple in their own right, but, you know, the whole thing on soap operas is if there’s a happy couple, they must face, like, an-

Jessica Bennett: Right.

Susie Banikarim: … extraordinary number of obstacles. Like they must get kidnapped, they must get cloned, so the obstacle that’s thrown in Laura’s and Scotty’s relationship is Luke. There is a nurse at the hospital that’s [00:12:00] obsessed with Scotty. So she asks her brother, Luke, to come to town and try and seduce Laura.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: And Luke wasn’t even really supposed to be a major character on the show. He was just brought in as a temporary character who was going to be a bad boy, an obstacle in Laura’s relationship with her husband, Scotty. But the writers had planned from the beginning that he was going to rape her, because they wanted that storyline for ratings.

Jessica Bennett: Wild.

Susie Banikarim: Wild. The- the- the ratings have started to wane. You know, they’re making an effort to bring in younger viewers. It’s working a little bit with Laura, but this is the last rated TV show.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, so it’s not doing good at this time.

Susie Banikarim: At this time it’s not doing good. It’s the lowest rated soap opera on TV. It’s, like, number 12 or something.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: And there’s so many soap operas on TV-

Jessica Bennett: Right.

Susie Banikarim: … at this time. And that’s actually what makes it so remarkable that within three years, it’s literally the number one show.

Jessica Bennett: Can you imagine being, like, ah, our show’s doing really bad. What can we do to- to get better ratings? I know-

Susie Banikarim: Right.

Jessica Bennett: … let’s stage a rape.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah. [00:13:00] I mean, it is wild. But it does work.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: And I think one of the things that’s interesting is the executive producer that was brought in at that time came from TV movies where rape was a much more common topic.

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: But it was presented more from, like, the crime aspect. And so I think that’s why-

Jessica Bennett: Not a love story?

Susie Banikarim: Not a love story. And I think that’s why she has this idea to introduce this rape-

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: … and knows that that is, like, popular with viewers. That must be kind of what she’s thinking when she introduces this character.

Jessica Bennett: Okay. So this new 32-year-old character, Luke, ends up hiring 17-year-old Laura at his nightclub.

Susie Banikarim: Yes. So Laura has gone to Luke who runs the big disco in town to ask for a job and he hires her and meanwhile, he has some shady backdoor dealings with the mob. That’s why he’s, like, such a bad boy.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: And that’s his back story. So the context of this scene is that Luke has gotten mixed up with these mobsters who are forcing him to [00:14:00] kill a local politician-

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: … and he feels like if he kills this other person, he will also be killed.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: And so this scene picks up where she has seen him crying, because he is like, “I’m a dead man walking.”

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

CLIP Laura: How come you’re crying?

CLIP Luke: I wasn’t crying.

CLIP Laura: Yes, you were. And you didn’t know that I was here.

Jessica Bennett: At first I was, like, oh, that’s kind of progressive of them. Like, you’re showing tears.

Susie Banikarim: It’s not going to be so progressive.

CLIP Laura: Luke, I’m sure that whatever it is, it can be worked out in time.

CLIP Luke: Time is what I don’t have.

Jessica Bennett: They’re sort of setting it up that, like, if you don’t have time, then you must have the woman you love.

Susie Banikarim: And that’s definitely how the story plays, that he knows he’s running out of time, he’s so in love with her-

Jessica Bennett: Right.

Susie Banikarim: That he must have her this one time.

Jessica Bennett: He ra- he has to act on this love lust.

CLIP Luke: I said I was going to be dead, killed, little lady. Can’t you get that through your head? Now get out of here.

Susie Banikarim: So [00:15:00] he’s pushing her away, because essentially the message is he can’t control himself. And then he professes his love.

CLIP Luke: Dammit, Laura. I’m in love with you.

CLIP Laura: No, I d- I don’t think it’s really love, Luke. I-

CLIP Luke: Oh, yes. It’s just what it is.

Susie Banikarim: And then randomly in the middle of all of this, Luke walks over dramatically to the record player, flips it on and a song comes on and he turns to her and says, “I can’t die without holding you in my arms just one time.”

CLIP Luke: Dance with me, Laura.

CLIP Laura: No.

Jessica Bennett: You really feel that the tension is building and then things clearly unravel.

CLIP Laura: Luke, let me call a taxi, please.

Jessica Bennett: And so you don’t see the rape itself.

CLIP Laura: No. Don’t, Luke, let me go.

Susie Banikarim: But it’s unambiguous.

CLIP Laura: No. No.

Jessica Bennett: Yes.

Susie Banikarim: You definitely hear a rape.

Jessica Bennett: So clothes are ripped. She’s looking upset. She’s crying.

Susie Banikarim: She’s cowering.

Jessica Bennett: She’s clearly said no ahead of time.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah, she’s screaming no when it-

Jessica Bennett: Yes.

Susie Banikarim: … starts and grows. It’s a kind of jarring moment because it happens pretty suddenly. Like, you go [00:16:00] from being, like-

Jessica Bennett: I actually do get goosebumps watching it.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah. Because you’re sort of, like, oh, it’s going to be a seduction and then suddenly it’s a rape.

Jessica Bennett: Yes.

Susie Banikarim: And cut to disco lights. There’s a commercial break. We come back. We’re back on the disco lights. It’s, like, very-

Jessica Bennett: Yes, yes.

Susie Banikarim: … surreal kind of vibe. And then the thing that really drives home that this is a rape is she’s now lying on the ground. She is cowering.

Jessica Bennett: Her clothes are torn.

Susie Banikarim: She’s crying. Her clothes are torn. He is standing above her. He seems like he’s in a bit of a daze. And the phone rings and you sort of get the sense that that’s supposed to, like, break his reverie.

Jessica Bennett: Yes, yes.

Susie Banikarim: And she sneaks away.

Jessica Bennett: And it’s her husband, Scotty.

Susie Banikarim: And it’s her husband on the phone and he’s like, “Have you seen Laura?” And Luke lies about it. So that’s kind of the acknowledgement that he knows he’s done something wrong.

Jessica Bennett: Yes.

Susie Banikarim: Because he’s lying about whether or not she’s been there. And that’s the scene.

Jessica Bennett: Okay, that was a lot. But one other strange detail I have to mention is, [00:17:00] so that song that’s playing in the background when the assault occurs. This is the song that Luke kind of dramatically goes up to the record player and turns on and it’s this jazz funk instrumental hit. This is a real song. It’s called, Rise. And that song then goes on to become number one on the Billboard charts.

Susie Banikarim: I know, it’s crazy.

Jessica Bennett: And, like, for a jazz funk instrumental, that was as rare then as it is today.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah.

Jessica Bennett: And it’s funny, actually. I don’t know if you remember this, you called me and I was in Palm Springs with a friend.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah.

Jessica Bennett: And, uh, you know, we had shopped, naturally-

Susie Banikarim: [laughs]

Jessica Bennett: … um, and… Yeah, exactly.

Susie Banikarim: That’s where either of us would be at any given moment.

Jessica Bennett: And we had just gotten out of the car where that song was playing. And this friend of mine who happens to have written her, like, college thesis on rape in soap operas-

Susie Banikarim: Amazing.

Jessica Bennett: … I know, maybe we should call her, is like, “Oh, do you know what this song is?” And she explains this to me and I’m like, “What?” And then you called me and you’re like, “Remember that moment in General Hospital?” Which of course I didn’t really remember, but this song goes on to be at the top of all of the charts [00:18:00] and actually, our younger listeners, uh, might recognize it because 20 years later, Puff Daddy actually puts a clip of it into Biggie’s song, Hypnotize.

Susie Banikarim: Oh yeah, excellent song, by the way.

Jessica Bennett: Which, like, I can hear that in the back of my mind as we’re listening to this. So it’s sampled in Hypnotize in 1997, because Puffy later says in an interview, like, this was the song of the summer when he was, like, 10 years old in New York. Like, all the kids-

Susie Banikarim: Everyone was listening to it.

Jessica Bennett: … were, like, jamming and rollerskating to this song. Which, of course, was popular because of this rape scene. How do we get from this clearly very traumatic scene between Luke and Laura, which happens in 1979, to then this star-studded royal level wedding two years later?

Susie Banikarim: That’s the crazy part, right? As I mentioned, Luke was supposed to be a temporary character. He was supposed to come on, you know, have this violent scene with [00:19:00] Laura and then he was supposed to be killed.

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: And what happens is, audiences respond so well to him and, again, let me acknowledge how wild that is, he was so immediately popular that producers decided they wanted to find a way to keep him on the show.

Jessica Bennett: Wait, and how did they know he’s so popular?

Susie Banikarim: Well, partially because the way soaps worked is, since they were being produced so quickly-

Jessica Bennett: Uh-huh.

Susie Banikarim: … and because they’re on every day-

Jessica Bennett: Yeah.

Susie Banikarim: … the network is able to gauge almost immediately audience sentiment.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: So they’re using actual data that’s showing them that Luke is quite popular.

Jessica Bennett: Okay. So, like, we’ve got to keep Luke.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah. This gets some coverage at the time. The ratings weren’t good before this. The ratings started to creep up, so they do not kill him off.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: But that leaves them-

Jessica Bennett: With a problem.

Susie Banikarim: … with a bit of a conundrum, which is, if audiences are falling in love with Luke and really feel drawn to this romance between him and Laura-

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: … and want Laura to end up with Luke, not Scotty, [00:20:00] how do they reconcile that with the violent rape-

Jessica Bennett: That has occurred.

Susie Banikarim: … has occurred, and also that they have acknowledged as such. And just to really put a fine point on the fact that the show never really tried to make the rape ambiguous. Initially, she goes to crisis counseling after this, on the show.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: Like, they do not initially shy away from the fact that it’s a rape. They will eventually and we’ll get into all of that, but when it happens, it is really clear what’s happened. Tony Geary, the actor who played Luke-

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: … actually says in an interview at some point, we never expected the audience to be, like, on Luke’s side. And so, we did a rape and then the audience fell in love with Luke and that wasn’t our fault, so what were we supposed to do? And, like, maybe the thing you were supposed to do, was be, like, hey guys, rape is bad.

Jessica Bennett: Right.

Susie Banikarim: But instead, they are moving the needle over and over again.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: Until they literally re-shoot [00:21:00] the scenes. They literally go back-

Jessica Bennett: So that they can appear in flashbacks?

Susie Banikarim: So that the scenes they’re showing for flashbacks aren’t as disturbing.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, wow.

Susie Banikarim: They’re literally softening the thing over and over and over again. And the characters being gaslit in real time, the audience is being gaslit in real time.

CLIP Luke: Maybe you should name me as the rapist.

CLIP Laura: They’ll put you in jail.

CLIP Luke: Maybe that’s where I belong.

CLIP Laura: No, don’t say that. You’re not a criminal.

Susie Banikarim: Then, by the time the wedding happens, the thing that’s kind of interesting is that by the time 30 million people are watching the wedding, a lot of those people have never seen the rape. They don’t even know-

Jessica Bennett: They don’t even know how the relationship began.

Susie Banikarim: Right, and they have only seen these sanitized, softened, more romantic flashbacks. And actually they even removed the song. They stopped playing the song, because the song is, like, so associated-

Jessica Bennett: Oh. Evokes…

Susie Banikarim: … with the rape.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, that’s so interesting.

Susie Banikarim: And when they’re, [00:22:00] like, re-shooting these scenes and softening them up, there’s a thing that happens that’s actually quite controversial for the people at the time who remember that it’s a rape. I mean, there is an audience that remembers.

Jessica Bennett: Yeah.

Susie Banikarim: And at one point Laura is narrating the scene and she describes it as the first time Luke and I made love.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, wow.

Susie Banikarim: And there is a reaction. It’s not, like, a huge national reaction or anything, but there are people at that time who were, like, what is happening?

Jessica Bennett: And actually we know one of those people. One of our executive producers, Cindy Leive.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah, Cindy is a journalist, the former editor of Glamour magazine and the co-founder of The Meteor. But most relevant to this conversation, she was a General Hospital super fan.

Cindy Leive: I started watching it probably in 1979 and watched it with varying levels of religious devotion until around 1984 or ’85. I was part of that generation X, so called latchkey kid generation [00:23:00] and so I used to come home and General Hospital was kind of my babysitter. Like, my parents were divorced and my mom worked and I would race home from school so that I could turn on ABC, Channel 7, and watch it at three o’clock. Usually with a humongous bowl of coffee ice cream. It was, like, a comfort hour for me.

Susie Banikarim: Why did you love it so much?

Cindy Leive: [laughs] Um, it was just fascinating. I just had never seen anything like it before. I remember these super adult plots. Prostitution, there was Bobby Spencer who used to be a quote, unquote, hooker and there were a lot of plots around infidelity. And then there was Luke and Laura. Laura was supposed to be sort of in her late teens, even though she seemed incredibly glamorous and grown up to me at the time.

Susie Banikarim: Do you remember what you initially thought when Luke showed up?

Cindy Leive: I have a vague memory that Luke Spencer was supposed to be a kind of bad boy character. He [00:24:00] ran a disco. Mostly I remember his kind of open neck shirts and his permed hair, although I didn’t know it was permed at the time. But he had kind of an allure.

Susie Banikarim: You’ve told me in the past that you were watching the episode when Luke raped Laura. Can you describe that experience?

Cindy Leive: So there’s this one Friday. I couldn’t tell you what time of year it was. I couldn’t tell you the month, but I know it was a Friday afternoon, which is when they always did the big happenings or cliffhangers. And I came home from school, I was watching by myself. And Luke was at his club, Luke’s place and Laura, she was there. And Luke is clearly in love with Laura and telling her how much he wants her. And then all of a sudden it clearly becomes a rape scene. And I don’t know if I even knew the word, rape, then. But I knew it was [00:25:00] violent. And it was really an unsettling scene, because they weren’t shying away from how violent it was.

He’s, like, pushing her down on the ground. She’s saying no. And the next scene, as I remember it, she’s walking around outside and she’s dazed. And she’s clearly been through a violent act. And yet, was it violent? Because the messed up thing is it’s also portrayed as romantic. Like, he wants her so much, he can’t stop himself. And he doesn’t stop himself. And he keeps going. That scene definitely led me to think that it had something to do with desire. It was a bad thing and it hurt her and that was clear. But it hurt her because he loved her so much, he couldn’t help but hurt her.

There’s also this sub-scene that she kind of pities him. [00:26:00] Because poor guy, you know, he can’t help it. And I think now seen in the cold light of day and a bunch of decades more experienced, like, that’s a very classic way that women are taught to think about bad men or violent men. That they can’t help it and are you really going to hold them accountable for their actions? Poor guys. They’ve suffered enough. But I didn’t see any of that at the time. I just sort of witnessed that they continued to fall in love. And that it was, like, heller romantic.

Susie Banikarim: Were you rooting for them?

Cindy Leive: I was totally rooting for them. I mean, not them that day of the rape, but as time went on and- and everybody was rooting for them. And, you know, it culminated in this wedding, which I was probably too young to really care about, but man, that wedding was a really big deal.

Susie Banikarim: Do you remember talking to your friends about it? Talking of- to them about the rape?

Cindy Leive: N- I don’t remember talking to any friends about it at the time. [00:27:00] But a couple of years after that scene aired on General Hospital, and it was still kind of the only reference point I had for rape, I was walking home from school and I was on this sort of, like, backwoods road and this guy pulled up next to me in a TransAm. I was probably 13 at the time and he had his pants down around his knees and, you know, was flashing me. Said something to me. I screamed, ran away, ran home, called my friend, and I said, “You’re not going to believe what just happened to me on the way home from school.” I was, like, shaking. I’m sure my voice was trembling. And she said, “Did you get raped?” And it was, like, we didn’t know enough to know how awful that would have been. Like, to her it was this dangerous, alarming, but still kind of hot thing that could have happened.

Susie Banikarim: Looking back on it now, how do you think about it?

Cindy Leive: [00:28:00] My friends and I talk about this all the time. Like, my friends who I grew up with. Like, can you believe that Luke raped Laura? Nope, still can’t believe that Luke raped Laura and that that’s what led to this relationship. And particularly over time, like, I stopped watching soap operas probably when I was in high school, but when I look back on it, it’s such a fundamental messing with how a whole generation of girls who weren’t really getting any kind of education around consent. All the things we talk about now with varying degrees of success, we weren’t talking about at all then. And it’s such a devastating message about what a guy will do if he loves you enough. Like, he’s going to hurt you. And, you know, you should forgive him for that because, poor guy.

Susie Banikarim: This storyline between Luke and Laura was obviously a [00:29:00] very serious subject matter, but one of the things that occurred to me when we started to work on this episode, is that now we’re sort of looking back on it and talking about it in a serious way, but the reason soap operas were often dismissed, is that they did have, and I just want to make sure we don’t lose sight of this, but man, have absolutely wild storylines, like demonic possession-

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: … and, you know, clones, like, you would get in an accident. Someone would clone you. You’d have a baby, it would turn out to be the devil. There was, like, a storyline on One Life to Live where they time traveled. I mean, there were these just, like, insane storylines. And Luke and Laura weren’t an exception. They would go on these Raiders of the Ark type adventures. But then there is this period in the late 80s and 90s where it becomes quite fantastical.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: That is partially why soap operas get this rap as a silly, sort of cheesy thing.

Jessica Bennett: Right.

Susie Banikarim: But at the same time, there were a lot of social issues are introduced.

Jessica Bennett: [00:30:00] Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: Partially because women are not being hired to make prestige television. They’re not being hired on prime time shows. They are making these soap operas. They are hiring other women to be the writers. And so a lot of topics that those women are interested in gets discussed here.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, that’s really interesting. So this is the place that a woman show runner or a woman writer could actually thrive.

Susie Banikarim: And yeah, thrive and actually explore real issues that women were facing. Domestic violence, addiction. So you sort of have this idea, oh, it would have been handled more sensitively, but I think this just reflects how people genuinely think about rape.

Jessica Bennett: Right. And that’s- yeah, that’s interesting too. It’s, like, actually maybe this is more accurate to what we really did think of it at the time.

Susie Banikarim: Well, and also, maybe this was a sensitive handling for the time.

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: Like, maybe the way this would have been handled in previous iterations is she wouldn’t have been believed or-

Jessica Bennett: Yeah.

Susie Banikarim: … she would have been dismissed. Like, there is an attempt made here to handle this with sensitivity. They have [00:31:00] Genie Francis and Tony Geary, the actors, meet with a social worker before they taped the scene. I mean, there is an acknowledgement-

Jessica Bennett: Prior to.

Susie Banikarim: … that this is a difficult-

Jessica Bennett: Yeah.

Susie Banikarim: … subject to tackle.

Jessica Bennett: Yeah.

Susie Banikarim: It’s just interesting that even their version of sensitivity-

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: … is so baked in to the era that it represents-

Jessica Bennett: Yep.

Susie Banikarim: … that it still reveals these really outdated notions about rape.

Danielle Thompson: I can give you my perspective here.

Susie Banikarim: So, we did end up calling your friend, Danielle Thompson, who you mentioned at the top of the show.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, good. I’m so glad.

Danielle Thompson: The history of soaps is so vast and expansive that it’s like saying, let me tell you the history of the world in, like, five minutes.

Jessica Bennett: For those listening. This is Danielle Thompson. She’s a longtime television writer and- and researcher and the person that I basically go to whenever I have a really intricate question about TV of the past. So what did she say?

Susie Banikarim: Well, first she said that it wasn’t her thesis that she wrote about soaps and sexual assault. So you lied.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, whoops.

Susie Banikarim: But it [00:32:00] was a very long college essay, so you weren’t that far off.

Jessica Bennett: I mean, close enough.

Susie Banikarim: But besides being able to share what she learned about this very specific topic, she just has this crazy extensive knowledge about the topic and she was such a huge soap fan, so she really delivers.

Danielle Thompson: I think that you have to remember that soaps don’t just have love in the afternoon. In fact, that’s actually why I stopped watching soaps, because there is not enough romance. It’s kind of know for dealing with serious issues always. And sometimes they get it right and sometimes they don’t. But, like, in 1973, the first legal abortion on television showed on All My Children. The first gay teenager on TV, that was Billy Douglas, played by Ryan Phillippe on One Life to Live, 1992. You have the first gay marriage in 2009 in All My Children. The first transgender coming out storyline in 2006.

Soap operas are actually the place where serious issues are addressed. And so, just to, like, put Luke and Laura’s scene in context of the time. The [00:33:00] phrase, date rape, was not even coined until 1975 by Susan Brown Miller in her book, Against Her Will. And so for further context, it was 1982 when Ms. Magazine ran what was, like, a groundbreaking study about the subject of date rape, which was still not really known as a concept, because most people at the time thought of rape as being something that was committed by a stranger, not someone that was known.

So I think in that context, Luke and Laura is kind of radical because it’s bringing up an issue that was something people had not really understood or known that is of extreme relevance to its viewers, which are primarily women. And I think what’s interesting about Luke and Laura is that the character was never intended to be a romantic companion for her. This is definitely not the first act of sexual violence in soaps, but it is from my understanding, the first relationship where the relationship followed the act of sexual violence instead of preceded it. But I don’t necessarily think that it kind of sparked off [00:34:00] this new trope of sexual assaults in soap operas. I think if anything, it kind of broadened the conversation in a way that changed it and because awareness grew, I think that storylines about it became more pervasive.

Jessica Bennett: So one question I have is, all right, so multiple decades have past. It was actually just a couple of years ago that it was the 40th anniversary of the wedding and so there was all this sort of quote, unquote, in retrospect coverage of it and Genie Francis spoke about it. So, are those who were involved in the show at the time expressing different perspectives on it when they look back today?

Susie Banikarim: Yeah, 100%. I think they’re expressing different perspectives and also admitting that they had different perspectives even at the time.

Jessica Bennett: Okay.

Susie Banikarim: It’s also worth noting that the show itself has acknowledged and revisited the assault a few times since it originally aired. Obviously, you know, we think about these things differently now and the show is aware of that. And so there have [00:35:00] been a few times in the show’s history where they tried to confront that. And there was this scene between Luke and Laura at some point where they discuss what happened and she confronts him many years later and he apologizes.

CLIP Laura: We should talk about what happened that night then. That one bad night 20 years ago.

Susie Banikarim: Eventually Luke and Laura are going to have kids, so, you know, as the show is evolving there’s also a confrontation between Luke and his son with Laura. Strangely their kid is named, Lucky, and he confronts Luke about assaulting his mother.

CLIP Luke: You’re not going anywhere until we have this out.

CLIP Lucky: What are you going to do, Dad? Why, if I walked out the door, what would you do? Force me to stay, why, because you’re stronger than me?

CLIP Luke: What do you know?

Susie Banikarim: And Luke, of course, apologizes again here because it’s always part of a redemption arc they’re trying to give him.

CLIP Luke: You were conceived, born and raised in love. Nothing but love.

Susie Banikarim: But, what’s also [00:36:00] happened, is that I think there was a lot of questions about this rape when the wedding occurred. It’s not like journalists who were covering the wedding at the time didn’t ask about it.

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: And the onus was really put, especially on Genie Francis, who was quite young. She would sort of explain this thing.

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: She was often asked about it and she felt like she had to defend it and I think Tony Geary also felt that way and neither of them seem like they really appreciated being put in that position, to be honest.

Jessica Bennett: Right, right.

Susie Banikarim: They both left the show not long after the wedding and then returned.

Jessica Bennett: Oh, for those later storylines. Okay.

Susie Banikarim: For those later storylines. I mean, not just for those later storylines, but then they just returned to the show in the 90s. And she’s gotten to the point where she o- very openly now, even though she’s still on the show today, rejects having been put in this position. And has said, and I- I’ll read a quote from her. “As a young kid at 17, I was told to play rape and I played it. I didn’t even know what it was. But at 17 you follow the rules. You do as you are told and you aim to please. And now at 60 I don’t feel the need to defend that anymore. I [00:37:00] think that story was inappropriate. I don’t condone it. It’s been the burden that I’ve had to carry to try to justify that story. So I’m not doing that anymore.”

Jessica Bennett: That’s interesting. And, you know, to think about how these things play out differently. Today it was interesting you mentioned that at the time-

Susie Banikarim: Yeah.

Jessica Bennett: … the actors playing Luke and Laura actually saw a social worker to talk about the playing of this. But now you would have an intimacy coordinator on set.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah. It would be a totally different ballgame. Or you’d hope that it would be a totally different ballgame. I think, look, Genie Francis is in her sixties now, right. She’s had 40 years to reflect on this thing that happened to her, but she was a 17-year-old girl playing with a 30-something year old actor.

Jessica Bennett: Right, right.

Susie Banikarim: Right? I mean, just the whole thing would be handled so differently now, because in addition to the rape, there would be the statutory issues. There just is, I think, a better understanding of how power dynamics work. Like, it wasn’t even really brought up at the time that he was her boss.

Jessica Bennett: It’s also, like, were the scene to play out today, there would be a concurrent dialogue happening on Twitter and elsewhere about how it was handled. [00:38:00] Immediately, in real time. And so you would be having to preemptively prepare for the criticism that you knew you were going to face and really make sure it was handled delicately.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah. I mean, an interesting thing is, is did you The Accused when it came out?

Jessica Bennett: Yes.

Susie Banikarim: That was sort of, like, one of the first depictions I ever saw of gang rape and now the dialogue around that movie has actually even shifted.

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: Like, I think it’s kind of fascinating because I’ve seen dialogue about how it’s too violent. It’s presenting-

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: … and too drawing away. It’s not, it’s, like, triggering. And I think that’s really interesting because the reason that movie was so groundbreaking when it happened is because it was presented in so violent a way. It sort of forced you to face the reality of that violence.

Jessica Bennett: Yeah, yeah.

Susie Banikarim: But now if you played it so violently, they would say it was exploitative, right? Like, if you did that scene now, you would want to handle it with more sensitivity because we get that rape is violent. We don’t need to, like, shove it in your face that same way. But that cultural context is important. When that movie happened, people didn’t really understand how violent rape could be, so it had [00:39:00] to be so aggressive.

Jessica Bennett: I think now too, storylines are forced to grapple with the enduring trauma of something like that happening.

Susie Banikarim: Right.

Jessica Bennett: And- and that that has to be written in.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah. And I think, let’s be honest, we’ve all or most of us have watched many years of Law & Order SVU.

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: And that has in many ways changed the way that rape is handled on other shows. That’s an interesting example of a show that not only has kind of moved the needle in terms of how a lot of us understand sexual assault, but has actually changed the way other shows handle it because it has really introduced a lot of ideas into the culture that are now very commonly acknowledged as facts. And those things continue to evolve.

Jessica Bennett: Okay. So, I feel like we need to take a moment to just pause and re-acknowledge what we’re talking about. This show is about how we internalize these messages.

Susie Banikarim: Right.

Jessica Bennett: So look, like, 1981 I was not born when this hit. Like, [00:40:00] this was a little bit before our time, but when you think about the time when we were sexually coming of age, like, how the strands of this might have still impacted us in the way that we saw ourselves. And the culture, like, yes, was it okay for guys to be really aggressive when they wanted to pursue you?

Susie Banikarim: I mean, I definitely-

Jessica Bennett: Yes.

Susie Banikarim: … thought that the answer to that was yes. I think I put up with a lot of things that now I see in my niece, like, that she would never put up with. You know, we just accepted a certain level of behavior that-

Jessica Bennett: We wouldn’t now.

Susie Banikarim: No. And now it’s understood that this is completely unacceptable.

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm.

Susie Banikarim: But, you know, at that time, I think people just really didn’t understand what the boundaries were. Like, this reminds me of this crazy jarring anecdote that I read, which has really stayed with me. It’s that Tony Geary, the actor who plays Luke, told the story that when he would go to, like, soap opera conventions and events, [00:41:00] after the scene aired, women would come up to him and say, “Rape me, Luke.”

Jessica Bennett: Oh my God.

Susie Banikarim: Yeah, and that’s like a thing that he would tell because he was so disturbed by it.

Jessica Bennett: But I think it says so much about what we’ve been talking about here, which is that there’s this underlying sense that a woman should, like, want to be found irresistible.

Susie Banikarim: Right. And it just introduces this idea that men express love or this, like, need through violence and then if you experience it as violence and not love, the problem is with you and not the thing that’s happened to you.

Jessica Bennett: Mm-hmm. Right. I’d be really interested to hear from Cindy as someone who actually lived through this.

Cindy Leive: I think I learned that as a woman it’s incredibly flattering and important to be desired by a man and that even if that quote, unquote, desire is violent and hurts you or hurts other people, that, like, on some level that’s okay. I feel like in a way I’m a best case [00:42:00] scenario. I had a very feminist mom who did not truck with those kinds of stereotypes at all. I’m lucky that in those years after watching that on General Hospital I didn’t have any kind of rape experience myself, which is unusual, I think, for women.

But still on some level I think it just underlined this very present message in our culture that you’re kind of nobody unless a guy has overwhelming desire for you. I mean, when you think about it, General Hospital taught a whole generation of women like me, girls at the time, what relationships were. What family secrets were about, what infidelity was. And also what sexual violence is. And I don’t think it taught us accurately.

Susie Banikarim: This is In Retrospect. Thanks for listening. Is there a cultural moment you can’t stop [00:43:00] thinking about and want us to explore in a future episode? Email us at [email protected] or find us on Instagram @inretropod.

Jessica Bennett: If you love this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen. If you hate it, you can post nasty comments on our Instagram which we may or may not delete.

Susie Banikarim: You can also find us on Instagram @jessicabennett and @susiebnyc. Also check out Jessica’s books, Feminist Fight Club and This is 18.

Jessica Bennett: In Retrospect is a production of iHeart podcast and The Meteor. Lauren Hansen is our supervising producer. Derrick Clements is our engineer and sound designer. Sharon Attia is our researcher and associate producer.

Susie Banikarim: Our executive producer from The Meteor is Cindy Leive. Our executive producers from iHeart are Anna Stumpf and Katrina Norvell. Our artwork is from Pentagram. Additional editing help from Mary Dooe and Mike Coscarelli. Sound correction and mastering by Amanda Rose Smith. We are your hosts, Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett: And Jessica Bennett. [00:44:00] We’re also executive producers. For even more, check out inretropod.com. See you next week.