“Well, how are you feeling when you watch it?”
My editor asked me this, when he called to see if I would write this column. I started to answer and realized my voice was shaking and my throat felt tight. My eyes were hot and I realized I was about to cry. I did not want to cry on the phone with my editor. I thought about how Dr. Christine Blasey Ford probably did not want to cry in front of a committee of senators, on national television and livestreamed in front of the entire world.
It was very hard not to cry, thinking about that.
I’m not good at writing emotional things quickly, without time to process my feelings. It takes me a long time working things over in my head, and sometimes out loud, to understand — even when the thing I’m trying to understand is myself.
I’m not surprised Dr. Ford didn’t talk about her assault for decades. No woman who has undergone anything remotely traumatic would be surprised by that.
But it is stunning to imagine being her, sitting there, forced to participate in this national drama when the thing that really matters is a very personal, awful thing that she’s had to carry around with her for all these years. If I need time to be able to write about my feelings observing someone else’s experience, what must it be like for Dr. Ford still testifying as I began to write this, who had less than 10 days to try to emotionally prepare for this experience?
Dr. Ford is close in age to my mother. That’s what I was saying to my editor when I started to choke up. Something filial in me thrummed when I heard her voice shake. I felt angry and protective and upset. Upset in a childish way, too — shaken. Anxious.
How could I not be? Watching this accomplished woman be so clearly still affected by a horrible thing she experienced as a teen. Knowing that so many of us hold these experiences inside of us, and probably always will.
But while I got angrier and more frustrated by the hearing, it is Dr. Ford who is saving me from utter despair. The bravery to keep talking while her voice shakes. The way she is clear, polite, restrained.
Part of me hates that. Watching her smile and be pleasant to people who have utter disregard for her personhood, the way we women so often are. When asked to confirm if she wanted to take a break, she did and quickly asked, “Does that work for you as well?”
Shaken, Chuck Grassley — who has interrupted his female colleagues and Ford to fume angrily about politics and brag about how correct he is — tried to pull focus back to himself and his team’s good behavior. He repeated his worn-out mantra that they all just want to do what makes her comfortable. Ford smiled a little sheepishly and almost apologetically said, “I’m used to being collegial.”
And then there are the moments when I was reminded that, though she drifted and struggled for a few years, Ford ultimately found a way to thrive despite her trauma by doing one of the bravest things I can imagine — becoming an expert in trauma. The psychology professor explained that the release of hormones like norepenephrine during a traumatic experience imprints the memory on the hippocampus, making it so “the trauma-related experience is kind of locked there, whereas other details drift.”
When Patrick Leahy asked what her strongest memory is, she responded, “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two… having fun at my expense.”
And here it is. The pattern we are always looking for. Not of sexual assault; of something deeper, more fundamental, more insidious. Recall Debbie Ramirez’s account of Brett Kavanaugh humiliating her at a party, and her classmates saying that he and his friends often sought to have fun with each other at her expense. Recall Renate Dolphin, who signed a letter saying what a great guy Kavanaugh is, discovering all these many years later that he and his pals referred to themselves as “Renate alumni” in their yearbooks, an inside joke about who’d been intimate with her, or at least claimed to have been. She said the discovery was “horrible, hurtful.”
Of course it was. It’s horrible to discover that someone, let alone a group of people, did not see you as a human being, but a prop for their enjoyment in what Lili Loofbourow at Slate termed “a toxic homosociality... that involves males wooing other males over the comedy of being cruel to women.”
There’s something particularly galling about this kind of cruelty, though. Something especially damaging about someone, let alone a group of people, telegraphing that you are not valuable, that you do not have worth, that you are not a person. That you are less than they are, fundamentally.
This is an experience far too many of us recognize. Women, yes, but also men who have been victimized.
Grassley and Orrin Hatch behaved like petulant children. They retraumatized half the nation, and then wasted Dr. Ford’s time by interrupting her and their female colleagues. They hand-picked a conservative prosecutor to badger Dr. Ford about having the bravery to confront her fear of flying, and then still didn’t keep their mouths shut. They are a shame to their profession and to this country. They did nothing at this hearing besides prove how acutely unfit they are to serve the public, let alone on a committee dedicated to the notion of justice.
Dr. Ford was this hearing’s redemption. Her courage, her grace, her ability to explain in scientific terms how trauma tattoos itself on us all, while also showing us that doesn’t mean we’re broken. The scars we bear show not humiliation or defeat, but strength and survival.
For that, I will be forever grateful to her.