This past weekend, I was at an event in Louisville, Kentucky with alumni of Yale University. This was before there was a demonstration at the Yale Law School by faculty, staff, and students protesting Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court and allegations about out of control drinking at Yale. I was talking with an alumnus whom I consider politically astute in general, and who I assumed would be sympathetic about Dr. Ford’s allegations about being sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh. He is an intelligent man and has a sister who is a famous journalist.
He said he didn’t believe Ford or rather, he thought her claim might be plausible, but that she had gone too far. When I asked him what he meant by going too far he said, “Boys that age are passionate. Kavanaugh might have groped her but that’s what teenage boys do.” When I said, “You might think groping is okay and even normal for teenage boys, but she says he covered her mouth so she couldn’t scream. She thought she was going to die. Do you think that was okay?” “Well, there’s that,” he said, “that must have been scary.”
But he basically dismissed the fact that the boy on top of her was dry humping her, trying to take her clothes off, preventing her from breathing, and drunk out of his mind! When I added that another boy who was allegedly in the room at the time piled on top of them, his response was, “I can’t even conceive of that.” I wasn’t sure whether he meant that an act like that was beyond his imagination or it was his way of saying “I don’t believe it.” In other words, if he couldn’t imagine it, it didn’t happen.
I was stunned by his response. Was it denial or was his response reflective of the attitude many elite white men have about the expendability of women?
Is behavior attributed to Kavanaugh acceptable because he went to an elite Jesuit all-boys prep school and then to Yale University? Does this indicate that upper class white men (as well as working class men) who support Donald Trump perceive such a threat to their privileged position in society that they are willing to categorically deny and mock the accusations of a brave woman? The fact that white men like Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh are repeatedly exempt from accountability is what has enraged so many women who are coming forward with their own stories.
#WhyIDidn’tReport highlights the difficulties, fear, anger and shame that so often surround sexual harassment and assault. It took me 37 years to even remember the sexual assault I experienced from my uncle, a priest, because even though it terrified me at the time, I convinced myself that he was only roughhousing with me, his 11- year-old “favorite” niece. I knew something was wrong when my grandmother Dunn found us rolling around on her living room floor, and red-faced, she shouted in no uncertain terms, “Get off her, Joe. Immediately.”
I didn’t remember this incident until age 48 and when I told my father and mother, my father said, “I can’t believe it, he must have just been playing. Joe would never harm you.” My mother was more emphatic. “Not my brother,” she said, “that could never have happened.” My father went further saying, “What’s the good of bringing this up now? Let sleeping dogs lie.” In other words, “keep your mouth shut.”
So I completely believe Professor Christine Blasey Ford and all of the other women who have tweeted their experiences about how they were afraid no one would believe them about being sexually assaulted. It is very common for survivors to blame themselves particularly when people doubt them. Common responses to trauma are often viewed as evidence of unreliability. People say, why didn’t you come forward right away? Why did you wait 35 years? There is the fear—justified by evidence–that no one will believe you. In addition, when the perpetrator is someone the individual trusted, it can take years for the survivor to identify what happened to her as a violation. When my father said, “Joe was only roughhousing,” part of me wanted to believe that was what had happened because I loved him. My feelings were confused. He was my favorite uncle.
People don’t believe victims of sexual abuse because many are good at hiding how they really feel. A trauma survivor can as easily appear calm or distraught or overtly angry. Later, she may react by self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, engage in high-risk sexual behavior or withdraw from those around her to try to regain control.
Abusers work to gain trust and appear benevolent even after an abusive episode. Women are conditioned to smooth things over, to “let sleeping dogs lie,” as my father cautioned. Victims may have little choice but to stay in contact if the abuser is a boss, teacher, coach or relative. Abusers camouflage sexual assault as horseplay or humor, or act as though nothing ever happened. They encourage confusion and shame and exploit an individual’s reluctance to identify herself as a victim.
Survivors are criticized for not fighting back, for drinking, for wearing sexy clothes, for not remembering details. But the reality is that our brains work differently during trauma. When frightened or upset, an individual can go into fight, flight or freeze mode. In the freeze mode an individual dissociates from the situation. Severe emotional trauma causes lasting changes in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which regulates emotional responses triggered by the amygdala, affecting what information is recorded in memory.
So a survivor might remember a wallpaper pattern or a heightened sensation, but not the order of events. She might remember bits of information but the details may be chaotic and incomplete. I remember the rough feeling of my grandmother’s rug on my bare back and the terror of being suffocated by the weight of my uncle on my chest. But I can’t remember what month it happened or what time of day or what happened next. I do remember, however, the sound of my grandmother’s voice and my feeling of gratitude that she had come to save me. We never talked about it but I knew she was there for me. If my parents were still alive they still would not believe me. As President Trump says of Kavanaugh, “He’s a good man.”