Several details in testimony given Thursday by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh before the Senate Judiciary Committee won’t get much attention, yet speak volumes.
One was a word Ford used during her description of being sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh at a house party circa 1982 when she would have been 15. Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge, a fellow Georgetown Preparatory student, followed her up the stairs, she testified, pushed her in a room, locked the door and turned up the music. Kavanaugh, whom she knew socially, though she knew his younger brother better, was on top of her “running his hands over me and grinding into me,” she said. He “groped me and tried to take off my clothes,” she said. “I believed he was going to rape me.“ He didn’t: “he was very inebriated and I was wearing a one-piece bathing suit under my clothes.” Kavanaugh put his hand over her mouth when she called for help, Ford testified, tearful and breathless at the memory. “That terrified me the most, and has had the most lasting impact on my life. It was hard for me to breathe, and I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me.”
She escaped to a bathroom where she locked the door and heard the prep school boys laughing as they went down the stairway “pinballing off the wall on the way down.” “Pin-balling” is a word that would be hardwired in a teenager’s mind in 1982. Atari’s Black Widow and Nintendo’s Donkey Kong Junior had just launched; the word’s use now reveals the way a 36-year-old traumatic memory remains frozen, etched into the psyche.
When asked for her “strongest memory” of the incident, Ford marshalled her adult expertise as a psychology professor at Palo Alto University and a research psychologist at Stanford University School of Medicine: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two and them having fun at my expense,” she said. When asked by Democratic Senator Richard Durbin “With what degree of certainty to you believe Judge Kavanaugh assaulted you?,” she answered: “100 percent.” Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein asked how she could be sure: “The same way I’m sure I’m talking to you right now: basic memory functions,” she said. That was also revealed in Ford’s casual use of “Brett.” She knew who he was.
The “pin-balling” male bonding at Ford’s expense could serve as a metaphor for the eight-hour, often gonzo-style hearing itself. What took place in that hearing room was not the “he said, she said” that underlines sexual assault trials. Kavanaugh categorically denied being at a party Ford recalled in vivid detail. He would “swear to God” it didn’t happen. Yet the set-up mimicked a trial with career sex crimes prosecutor Rachel Mitchell brought in by the GOP to act as a proxy questioner to Ford for the 11 male Republican senators.
More correctly, the proceeding was a job interview for a lifetime appointment to the highest U.S. court, one in which character, credibility, and suitability are paramount, and being accused of sexual assault should be problematic, if not a deal-breaker. Beyond Ford, two other named women have accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct in high school and university. Deborah Ramirez, a classmate at Yale, told the New Yorker Kavanaugh shoved his penis in her face at a drunken dorm party. Julie Swetnick made a sworn declaration that “I witnessed Brett Kavanaugh consistently engage in excessive drinking and inappropriate contact of a sexual nature with women during the early 1980s.” She was gang raped at a party where Kavanaugh was present: “I witnessed efforts by Mark Judge, Brett Kavanaugh and others to “target” particular girls so they could be taken advantage of; it was usually a girl who was especially vulnerable because she was alone at the party or shy.”
Watching Ford and Kavanaugh during the hearing, however, it was difficult to keep track of the fact it was he and not she who was the candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court—and that she and not he was the alleged victim.
The scene also doubled as a master-class in 21st-century gendered behaviour. Ford was careful, respectful and measured throughout. She took pains to be helpful and accommodating: “I try to be collegial,” she said at one point. She recalled seeing Mark Judge, who inexplicably was not subpoenaed by the committee but who has denied any misconduct, working at a nearby supermarket shortly after the night she recalls the attack taking place. Knowing when he worked there could nail the date down, she suggested.
Kavanaugh was angry, aggressive, combative and loud; his face often contorted into enraged or petulant masks. He criticized the committee for taking 10 days to get to the hearing. Frequently he interrupted and spoke over senators questioning him. When Democrat Senator Amy Klobuchar, who said her father suffered from alcohol addiction, asked the judge if he ever blacked out from drinking, he countered by asking if she ever did, a question he later apologized for. It was a display of temperament that should disqualify someone from judging livestock at a state fair.
Where Ford held back tears, Kavanaugh let them flow. In her, they’d be seen as weakness, even instability; in him, they telegraphed pain and sincerity. He watered up telling the story of how his ten-year-old daughter, Eliza, told his wife, Ashley, ‘We should pray for the woman,” referring to Ford. He believed Ford had been assaulted, he said, only not by him. She went to a high school that was not part of his social set, he said, a remark that bristles with concern for pecking order. “I do not know her,” he insisted.
Ford was the patriot, speaking of sacrifice in the name of civic responsibility: “I am here today not because I want to be,” she said in her opening statement. “I am terrified. I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school.”
Kavanaugh dismissed the three women reporting serious assaults as a “calculated and orchestrated political hit,” even “revenge on the part of the Clintons” without providing proof. Paranoia about the Clintons served as a reminder Kavanaugh is Trump’s man, a jurist who has said that a sitting president can’t be indicted and who is expected to vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.
On Thursday Kavanaugh was Trump-like in his bombastic boasting—his top of class academic record, of going to Yale, his sports skills, his good works at a soup kitchen, even his repeated references to liking beer. “If every American who drinks beer or every American who drank beer in high school is suddenly presumed guilty of sexual assault it would be an ugly new place in this country,” he said. His superannuated frat-boy defence of beer-drinking was seconded by his championing of women, be it coaching girls basketball or stating that all of his clerks on the Supreme Court will be women. One of his closest female friends is a sexual assault victim, he offered before reading a text he received from a woman friend described as “a feminist”: “Deep breaths. You’re a good man, a good man, a good man.” His mother was one of the first female prosecutors in Maryland, he told the hearing. She used to practice her closing arguments at the dining room table on him and his father.” She’d say “What rings true? What rings false?”
It’s a test Kavanaugh didn’t seem to use. A lot didn’t add up or rang false, including how Ford fits in any vast left-wing conspiracy. She reported the attack in a 2012 therapy session, brought her allegation forward on condition of anonymity only after she learned Kavanaugh was on the short-list for the Supreme Court job, and later passed a polygraph. “I am an independent person and I am no one’s pawn,” she said in her opening statement. Mitchell’s attempts to poke holes in her testimony failed.
The judge indicated a disregard for legal evidence-gathering. He doesn’t want an FBI investigation into Ford’s charge. He relied on a 1982 calendar that showed entries like one for July 1 that he went “to Timmy for skis w/ Judge, Tom, PJ, Bernie Squi” as proof he couldn’t be at the party Ford described, even though Ford referred to Judge and PJ being there. He sanitized the sexism and evidence of drinking in his high school yearbook.
The judge also misrepresented what three people that Ford said were at the party recalled. He said they “refuted” her account; what they said is that they didn’t remember any such party; one, Ford’s friend Leland Keyser, has said she believes her. Kavanaugh used the fact he’d never been accused of assault as a defence: “I have been in the public arena for 26 years, without a hint of a whiff of an allegation of this.” It’s a boast that fails to recognize the difficulty of reporting sexual violence, particularly against a privileged or powerful person. It also doesn’t hold water post-Bill Cosby, who was in the public arena 40 years before anyone reported his behaviour. In the space of weeks, three women have come forward about Kavanaugh. On Thursday, he actively brushed one off: “The Swetnick thing is a joke, it’s a farce,” the judge said, referring to a woman who worked in government with “public trust” clearances who said in a sworn declaration that she was gang raped.
The spectre of eleven white Republican senators at the hearing Thursday summoned a flashback to the similar all-white panel that grilled Anita Hill in 1991 over her allegations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas at his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Prosecutor Miller went mute shortly after Kavanaugh appeared and discussion turned to politics, process and the vilification of Senator Dianne Feinstein for not coming forward earlier with the letter Ford wanted kept confidential.
Watching Ford sip from a bottle of Coke also brought to mind Professor Hill’s testimony that Thomas, her former employer, creepily asked her who “put a pubic hair on my Coke can?” Like Thomas, who referred to a “high tech lynching” at his confirmation hearing, Kavanaugh also waxed histrionic: “My family and my name have been totally and permanently destroyed by vicious and false accusations.”
Democratic senator Patrick Leahy referenced the past: “We were here 27 years ago,” told the hearing. “The senate failed Anita Hill. We’re doing a lot less for these three women today.” The FBI investigated Hill’s claims, though other women with accusations against Thomas were not allowed to testify.
In 2018, women’s reports of assault and harassment are more readily believed if not easier to deliver: “I have had to relive my trauma in front of the entire world, and have seen my life picked apart by people in television, in the media, and in this body who have never met me or spoken with me,” Ford said.
Kavanaugh too has suffered, he said of the past few weeks. “I have been through hell, and then some.” But he’s not the one with two front doors because of lifelong anxiety and claustrophobia. That’s Ford, who like Anita Hill, bravely told her story and will be celebrated and memorialized for it. Democrat Senator Cory Booker called her “heroic” on Thursday. And like Hill, she’ll probably watch the man she accused elevated to the highest court in the land, leaving her to live in a country forced to absorb the message that sends.