SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — One thing is clear in the complicated, sometimes contradictory and often chaotic story of Tara Reade: Her life has not been easy.
Her earliest childhood memory was of being abused by her father, she told her former husband, a man she would later leave after saying he abused her, too.
She was also a child of big dreams, of being an Olympic skier and studying acting at Juilliard, before developing an interest in politics. She was hired in 1992 for a low-level staff job for one of the nation's highest-profile senators at the time, Joe Biden. Less than a year later, Reade said, she was again the victim of abuse, assaulted by Biden in the hallway of a Senate office building — an allegation he vehemently denies.
That accusation, which Reade made publicly for the first time in March, has revived difficult questions about how to evaluate allegations of assault in the era of #MeToo. It also has thrust Reade's life story into the 2020 presidential race and, with it, scrutiny of a woman with a winding trail of extreme debt, an unfounded claim of educational attainment and questionable business practices. Along the way, some people who dealt with her found her duplicitous and deceitful, while others found her a heroic survivor.
On Friday, her attorney, Douglas Wigdor, announced he was dropping her as a client. And officials confirmed media reports that she faced an inquiry about whether she was truthful when she testified about her credentials as an expert witness in domestic violence cases, an issue that could serve as grounds for appeal of a number of convictions she had a role in securing.
Reade's story about the alleged assault by Biden is not a straight line, either. It has changed over the past year, from accusations of uncomfortable, harassing behavior to allegations of assault. Reade came forward publicly with her most serious accusation just as Biden was securing a path to the Democratic presidential nomination.
It is often not possible to conclusively resolve an allegation like the one Reade has made, where there are no witnesses and no timely police report.
So how her claim is evaluated turns largely on her credibility.
By some accounts, Reade is a bright and engaging woman who has tried her best as a single mother to raise her daughter while constantly looking for a fresh start. In others, Reade uses her charm and flair for drama to manipulate those supporting her until their goodwill runs out.
Reade says her critics have her wrong.
"I'm not a lying, manipulative user," she said in a Wednesday interview with The Associated Press. "I've really understood what it's like to be struggling and poor. I've really tried to help people when I could."
This account of Reade's life is based on interviews with more than a dozen of her friends, relatives and personal and professional associates, as well as numerous interviews with Reade. The AP also reviewed hundreds of pages of court documents, emails and Reade's own writings.
Childhood of dreams, disappointment
Reade was born Tara Moulton in the coastal town of Monterey, California, and says she spent most of her childhood living on a farm in northern Wisconsin. Her father, Robert Reade Moulton, worked as a sportswriter for the Wausau Daily Herald in the 1960s before taking a public relations job with a defense contractor in Minnesota; Reade said her mother, Jeanette Altimus, was an artist.
Reade has written that she was an accomplished skier who qualified for the Junior Olympics team in downhill skiing at age 12 in Wisconsin and trained for three years before her parents' divorce prompted a move to Athens, Georgia.
A stepbrother said most people in Wausau skied, mainly at nearby Rib Mountain, but he does not remember Reade being a standout.
"I'm sure Tara did, but I don't really remember her getting some significant accolades for her performance," said Scott Thoma, 56, of Mound, Minnesota, who was a year ahead of Reade in middle school, when his mother married her father.
Reade and her brother Collin lived with her mother after her parents' split, eventually moving to Georgia, while Moulton and his new wife moved to the Minneapolis area.
Another of Reade's aspirations was to be an actress, performing in "school theatre, community and regional theatre, sprinkled with some radio and television commercials," according to her blog. She set out for California to pursue acting at age 17 and said she got a referral from a friend to informally train with Robert Reed, an actor best known for his role as the "Brady Bunch" father. She also said she scored an audition in New York for The Juilliard School's exclusive acting program.
Reade said she learned at the audition that no scholarships were available and returned home brokenhearted when her father said he wouldn't pay the tuition. The school declined to confirm whether Reade was selected for an audition.
She wrote in January that her father, who died in 2016, was physically and emotionally abusive throughout her childhood.
"Thwarting my college dreams was the mild bit, the rejection and the physical assaults set the stage for how I would walk into the world," she wrote.
Reade often discussed the issue with her former husband, Ted Dronen, according to Dronen's account in the couple's divorce filings.
"She referenced a long history of events dating back to her first memories in which her father would physically and emotionally, and mentally abuse her. She stated also that her mother seemed not to interfere with petitioner's father's abuse," he wrote.
Thoma described Reade's parents as alcoholics but said he never saw Moulton become angry when he drank, or emotionally or physically abuse Reade or anyone else.
"He got frustrated at her," said Thoma, adding that Reade started more things than she finished. "He would have to put the kibosh on whatever she wanted. But no, I never saw Bob lay a hand on any of us kids, or Collin and Tara."
Dronen, in the court documents, described Reade as also having a sometimes tumultuous relationship with her mother, who he said kicked her out of her house during a fall 1994 argument while Reade was in the late stages of a pregnancy.
Reade has said her mother, who also died in 2016, was one of the few people she confided in about Biden's alleged assault.
Early abuse can inform a victim's relationships for the rest of his or her life, according to Barbara Ziv, a forensic psychologist and sexual assault expert.
"If you grow up in an abusive household, where your needs, your basic needs aren't met and you aren't taught to appropriately identify boundaries or emotions, then that's going to impact the way that you develop as an adult," Ziv said.
An eye toward politics
There's little public accounting of the next few years of Reade's life, after she says her Juilliard dreams were dashed.
She eventually attended Pasadena City College, where she says her strong performance in a political science class helped her land an internship in Washington with then-California Rep. Leon Panetta.
Reade said in the 2019 interview that she then worked as a field manager for Santa Barbara County Supervisor Gloria Ochoa in her campaign against Rep. Michael Huffington, the former husband of Arianna Huffington. A few days after Ochoa's loss, Reade said, she got a call to interview for a job with Biden — which she described as a dream job. It was unclear how that interview came about.
"I just always wanted to work for Biden. Because at the time, he was the champion of women's legislation, women's rights legislation," she told the AP.
Reade said she traveled to Washington and was interviewed by Biden's executive assistant, Marianne Baker. During their conversation, she said, Biden walked in and was introduced to the young job prospect.
"He kind of smiled and said, 'Hire her,'" Reade said. "That was it."
Working for Biden
Once she was in Washington, multiple friends described Reade as a young woman coming into her own.
Stacey Lentz, a friend at the time who worked in North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad's office, said the two would get together for lunch on Capitol Hill, and on days off, they'd peruse antique shops or enjoy a ballgame.
Another close friend of Reade's, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her family's privacy, described her as a laid-back Californian in contrast to her own East Coast conservative upbringing. All three lived in Thompson Markward Hall, a women's dormitory across the street from the Hart Senate Office Building.
Over the years, Reade spoke favorably about working for Biden.
Margie Estberg, of Aptos, California, said she got to know Reade after hiring her in late 2017 to pet sit. Over a pizza dinner and cocktails in 2018, Estberg said she asked Reade what Biden was like — and whether Biden was one of the "bad guys."
"I said, 'Is he a nice guy?' And she said, 'Yeah, he is,'" Estberg recently recalled. "I said, 'Oh, good. Because I hate to see somebody who you think is a decent person and somebody shuts them down and says, 'No, they aren't.'"
Reade said she didn't share details of the alleged assault with Estberg because she wasn't ready to discuss it.
But Reade's friend, the one who spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity, said Reade told her a much different story about Biden in 1993. That's when Reade says she was asked to deliver a gym bag to Biden in a Senate office building; when she met him, she says, he kissed her and digitally penetrated her.
The friend said Reade called her a few nights after the assault allegedly occurred, and the friend described in vivid detail feeling "so physically sick" at the disclosure that she ran to the bathroom and threw up in the middle of their conversation.
Reade recommended that the AP interview the friend, and reporters spoke to her multiple times, beginning in 2019. Initially, the friend confirmed Reade's original, limited account of harassment by Biden. When Reade added assault to her allegation in March of this year, this friend also added those details to her own recollection.
This friend says she counseled Reade not to file a police report, and now expresses deep regret for what she characterized as leading Reade astray in dealing with the situation.
Reade left Washington shortly after the alleged assault. She says she tried to complain about harassment by Biden — but not assault — to a Senate personnel office and the senator's top advisers, but felt retaliated against and ultimately said she was encouraged to find another job and quit.
The AP spoke with numerous current and former Biden staffers in the course of reporting on Reade's claims, and none recalled such an incident or a report. Some of Biden's top aides said they didn't recall Reade at all.
Marriage, divorce, abuse
During her time in Washington, Reade met Ted Dronen, whom she describes in a 2009 essay as "a smiling 6'4" blonde Nordic-looking man" who playfully shot her with a water gun at a party one spring night in 1993.
Facing financial difficulties after leaving Biden's office, Reade moved in with Dronen and ultimately asked to follow him to North Dakota, where he was working on a campaign that winter, according to his account in court records.
In her divorce filing, Reade described early warning signs that Dronen was explosive and unstable and says she fled North Dakota for California after Dronen became upset that she was pregnant. She soon came back to him, however, and they married in July 1994 and had a daughter that November.
In a domestic violence case filed 15 months later, Dronen admits that he attacked Reade but alleges that Reade got violent with him as well.
"I admit that on February 21, 1996 my wife and I were involved in a heated argument and during that argument that I may have acted out in an inappropriate manner. During our marriage my wife and I had arguments. She has on past occasions struck me; specifically, in the face. That fact, however, does not excuse my conduct on the date in question," he states.
Dronen did not respond to several requests for comment.
In court documents, he suggested that Reade conflated childhood traumas with her recollections of abuse by him.
"I believe these incidences, in addition to the abuse, harassment and other truamatic (sic) events in Petitioner's life, color Petitioner's perception and judgment in the instant case and I believe them to be the underlying psychological reasons that Petitioner is making me out to be some sort of monster," he said.
During their divorce proceedings, Dronen also told the court that Reade said she was harassed while working in Biden's office, but made no mention of assault, a detail that was first reported by the San Luis Obispo Tribune.
"On several occasions petitioner related a problem that she was having at work regarding sexual harassment in U.S. Senator Joe Biden's office," he wrote. Reade "eventually struck a deal" with Biden's chief of staff and left the office, and Dronen supported her financially as she looked for work.
Biden's former chief of staff, Ted Kaufman, has consistently said no such deal was made.
The past two decades of Reade's life have been tumultuous. In her own telling, she had to flee Dronen's abuse, took shelter in domestic violence safe houses and moved to Washington state, where she changed her name to Alexandra Tara McCabe. She also said she received a new Social Security number to protect her safety, putting her in a "really vulnerable economic situation."
She said the focus on her financial difficulties since coming forward with her allegation against Biden was "classist" and should have no bearing on the credibility of her accusation.
"How high does your credit score have to be to be believed as a victim of sexual assault?" Reade asked.
Reade's resume states that she graduated from Antioch University with a bachelor's degree in political science and later worked at the school's Seattle campus as an "Ongoing Online Visiting Professor for degree completion." But school officials said she did not graduate and was never a faculty member, though she was paid to do several hours of administrative work as an independent contractor, a detail first reported by CNN.
Reade disputed this, but could not produce evidence that she graduated. She says the number of school credits that could be applied to her graduation was complicated by her name and social security number change, and that the school's president at the time stepped in to personally confer a degree.
The school said that no such arrangement was made.
"University officials confirmed with former president Toni Murdock that no special arrangements existed," university spokeswoman Karen Hamilton said in a statement.
She was accepted to Seattle University Law School through an alternative admissions program and obtained a law degree in 2004, but struggled to keep a job. She was helped by sympathetic strangers drawn to her story of escaping abuse, but often failed to meet financial obligations and was perpetually in debt and frequently entangled in legal battles.
By May 2006, she was back in California, working as a victims' advocate for the Monterey County YWCA.
There, Reade lodged a series of complaints with the chapter's board within months of taking the job, alleging that she and others were harassed and discriminated against by managers, which formed the basis of a 2007 lawsuit.
Reade and three co-workers alleged that two managers, who were both black, potentially misspent funds and favored African American employees who were members of their church. One supervisor, the lawsuit alleged, made racist comments. Meanwhile, Reade and her three co-workers, all of whom were white, said they were denied benefits and promotions.
"I find your response to my recent complaint unacceptable. Therefore, I am taking the next step to get some resolution," Reade wrote in a Nov. 9, 2006, memo to her boss.
She was also upset because someone called her "whitebread," according to the memo, which was circulated to the board.
Bridgette Allen, the former YWCA chapter president, was among those sued. She said she viewed Reade's persistent emails as an effort to build a court case.
"I was the first black board president in the history here. You have to look at the dynamics: It was four white women that accused three black women," Allen said.
But to some of Reade's co-workers, she was a hero empowered by a difficult past.
"She was such a great example of what I wanted to be as a mom and a woman and an advocate," said Diane Wegner, a former YWCA employee who was part of the lawsuit, which was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
Reade soon found a new job as executive director at the Animal Friends Rescue Project in Pacific Grove.
She also needed a new place to live and, in 2008, turned to Austin Chung, an inexperienced property manager, and inquired about a cottage he was renting out that offered a glimpse of the waves at nearby Monterey Bay.
She told him she was fleeing abuse and had no credit history, explaining her change of name and Social Security number. But she did have a law degree and a job, she told him.
"My heart went out to her right away," Chung said.
Chung said he had the interior painted and installed new flooring to make the home welcoming.
Within five months, she was behind on rent. Pretty soon, she was out of a job, too, after her management style grated on some employees and supporters of the animal shelter, according to former board members.
"There wasn't any one big thing that happened. It was just, over time, her not really being competent," said Carie Broecker, a longtime former board member. Broecker said she remained friends with Reade until Reade recently threatened to sue her because she publicly discussed her tenure at the agency.
Reade said she was proud of her work for the animal shelter.
Chung moved to evict Reade after she fell $3,600 behind on rent; Reade accused him of harassment in an email.
She eventually left behind a house in need of $8,000 in repairs that included carpets so stained by animal waste that they needed to be replaced, according to Chung, who provided emails and video footage of the home's interior.
In 2011, Reade was again in a relationship that turned violent. Neighbors called Santa Cruz police to her home, and her live-in boyfriend, Edward Walker, was charged with corporal injury and battery against Reade and her daughter.
"Male subject battered live-in girlfriend, causing visible injury. During the altercation, the suspect also battered the victims daughter," police said in an April 3, 2011 report.
Reade, who had spent years testifying in court as an advocate for domestic violence victims, acknowledged that Walker slapped her daughter at one point. She paid his bail and continued to live with Walker, caring for him after he suffered a stroke in 2012, court records show.
Walker, who could not be reached for comment, pleaded guilty and was given probation. A judge dismissed the charges in 2016.
Financial and legal turmoil followed her as she continued to move around California's central coast, living in some of the most scenic and affluent parts of the state:
- She sought a restraining order in 2012 against a neighbor whom she accused of harassment and making racist threats against Walker. A judge dismissed the petition, and Reade dropped the matter.
- Months later, Reade was evicted again over $12,750 in unpaid rent. She filed for bankruptcy and listed $406,407 in debts, including nearly $300,000 in unpaid school loans, $1,715 owed to a bail bondsman and $2,100 due to a locally owned grocery store.
- Reade enrolled in an advanced legal degree program through Southwestern Law School. The school sued Reade in 2016 over $22,000 in loans, which remain unpaid, according to an attorney working on the case.
- She launched a charity that aimed to provide pet food to impoverished animal owners. The group's nonprofit status was revoked in 2017 after Reade failed to submit three years of mandatory tax filings, though she continued to solicit donations. In 2016, Reade tweeted that she was raising money for a nonprofit called Boudicca Rising Legal Assistance, which included a link to a GoFundMe page she created. There is no record of a nonprofit by that name in the IRS database. Reade raised $210 but said she eventually abandoned the effort because it was too difficult to sort out the logistics.
In 2014, Reade started volunteering at a Watsonville, California, nonprofit horse farm called the Pregnant Mare Rescue. She proved to be a dedicated volunteer who excelled at caring for abused horses, but "always had drama and craziness going on in her life," according to Lynn Hummer, the organization's founder.
"She was always broke and in a crisis," Hummer said.
The two had a falling out in 2016 after Reade charged $1,400 in veterinary care for her horse to the Pregnant Mare Rescue, billing records show.
In a June 8, 2016, email to Hummer, Reade acknowledged that she charged the bill to the organization but said that she was poor, that her mother's health was failing and that she was "disgusted and appalled" that Hummer would "villainize" her poverty.
Reade said that she planned on paying back the money but decided against it after Hummer "started trashing me" on social media.
At the time, Reade had been asking for money to finance a cross-country move to take care of her mother. She also told acquaintances that Dronen, her ex-husband, had reappeared and was harassing her.
According to a letter from a domestic violence advocacy group that Reade shared, Dronen sent her and her daughter "friend requests" via Facebook after 15 years without contact, and the two were scared for their safety. She also inquired about changing her legal name back to Tara Reade, which she goes by now.
Eventually, a man in Seattle raised $3,500 for her through GoFundMe.
Reade says her decision to go public with her claims against Biden has brought her more hardship. She describes facing death threats online and feeling abused and abandoned by the Democratic Party, which she says she's supported her whole life. Numerous prominent Democrats have said they believe Biden's denials.
Inconsistencies in her accounts have also complicated matters. Defense attorneys are now reviewing whether she may have testified falsely about her education credentials in multiple domestic violence cases, the Monterey County Weekly and The New York Times first reported.
Still, Reade, a woman who's spent her life trying to regain her footing in the face of myriad setbacks, said her decision to come forward has been empowering.
"It's made my life so difficult in so many ways, but I'm doing this for more of an existential reason, and also for my own justice," she said. When she first spoke out about the sexual assault allegation, Reade said, "I felt this release, of this burden, this secret that I've kept."