The Abandoned World of 1982

The year Brett Kavanaugh allegedly assaulted Christine Blasey Ford at a party saw the first stirrings of a revolution in how American girls were raised, and how they would regard themselves.

The campus of Yale University
The campus of Yale University (Michelle McLoughlin / Reuters)

We are invited now to consider the late adolescence and early young manhood of Judge Brett Kavanaugh. It seems to be a trajectory that follows a classic pattern, familiar to us from literature as well as from its pale reflection, life. Call it a very modified version of the Prince Hal–to–Henry V flight plan: from wastrel youth with low companions to hero capable of leading men into battle. Call it something older than that: When I was a child I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things.

It is the judge who has claimed this narrative for himself, choosing august occasions to tell esteemed audiences about his glamorous, rebellious youth. During a 2015 speech at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law, he reflected that three of its graduates had been classmates of his in high school. “Fortunately,” he said, “we’ve had a good saying that we’ve held firm to to this day, as the dean was reminding me before the talk, which is, ‘What happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep.’ That’s been a good thing for all of us, I think.” In a 2014 speech to the students of Yale Law School, he fondly remembered “falling out of [a] bus onto the front steps of the Yale Law School at about 4:45 a.m.” It seems almost that he doesn’t even want us to regard his youthful self as Prince Hal, but as Falstaff.

Begin at the beginning, or close enough: the 93 acres of Georgetown Prep, a Beltway school where Kavanaugh’s education was in the hand of the Jesuits, and where academics were rigorous, sports were king, fealty to school and fellows was absolute, and a culture of heavy drinking fit right in with that of the other private academies. In his 12th-grade yearbook, Kavanaugh described himself as the treasurer of the “Keg City Club—100 Kegs or Bust.” These schools were known, then and now, for a parent-sponsored, seven-day bender called “Beach Week” that has made more than one six-figure head of school bash his or her head against the wall. Kavanaugh seems to have reveled in it: According to his yearbook, he also belonged to “Beach Week Ralph Club” and “Rehoboth Police Fan Club.” (What kindness did the officers extend to club members? And were they as generous with town visitors who were not the white sons and daughters of wealthy men? Unspecified.)

There was also—as there always is in top Catholic schools that wish to be considered on the same intellectual and social plane as the great Protestant schools—a constant, grinding, and not misplaced sense of inferiority among many of the students. I emailed a friend—close to my age and to Kavanaugh’s—who grew up in a posh D.C. family and attended the unremittingly soigné National Cathedral School, and asked her to tell me about the reputation of the Georgetown Prep of her youth. In seconds, she fired back the words: “always bad—frat boys, catholic, republican golf Bethesda.” The judgment, so immolating that even the commas had burned up by the end of it, is the chip on the shoulder of the Georgetown Prep boy. A friend who was a teacher at a top D.C. prep school at the time offered a more forensically crushing assessment of the institution: “St. Albans Lite. Upper-Classy Catholic kids, but most of the Kennedys and Shrivers and such preferred St. Albans.” These slight humiliations make the boys fiercer on the playing field, more eager to succeed, and—let my Catholic-school girlhood and memories of my own “brother school” inform this sentiment—determined to cultivate a certain toughness in the face of it. A Catholic-school prep boy might not be a menacing character in the mean corridors of a D.C. public school, but put him against a St. Alban’s boy, and my money’s on the Catholic.

Let the committee now be introduced to the person and character of Mark Judge, a close pal of the high-school Kavanaugh, who grew up to be a successful conservative writer and filmmaker, who has struggled mightily with alcoholism and other addictions, and who was, to young Brett Kavanaugh, a Rabelaisian figure, the soul of all merriment and the devotee of vomitous excess. On his 12th-grade yearbook page, Judge included a quotation: “Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.”* If you want to get a sense of the tenor of a boys’ school in the mid-1980s, look no further than the fact that no one—no Jesuit priest or yearbook adviser or teacher—thought this was an inappropriate thing to have printed in a book published by the school. This may be an example of the freedom of expression that made the pre-PC days so halcyon, but it is definitely an example of the fact that in a boys’ school in the ’80s, sexual frustration was combined with a casual misogyny—if not of deed then of word—that the authorities were in no way concerned about. Judge grew up to write a roman à clef about his wild days at Georgetown Prep, in which he revealed himself to be a stone-cold partier and a horrible creator of pseudonyms: We encounter one “Bart O’Kavanaugh” who has puked and passed out in a car, the victim of heavy drinking.

Life at the top is a constant series of zero-sum games, and Kavanaugh handily won the next one, getting admitted to the Yale University class of 1987. He was clubbable enough, pledging the college’s newly reconstituted chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon, and thereby participating in the great 1980s return to fraternity life. In Joan Didion’s 1970 essay “On the Morning After the Sixties,” she recalls spending a day in 1953 lying on the leather couch in a fraternity house, listening to a man playing the piano. She had been invited to an alumni lunch at the house, and her date had gone off to the football game, but she had decided to stay behind, reading. The point of the anecdote is to suggest to the reader the recently abandoned world from which she had emerged: “That such an afternoon would now seem implausible in every detail—the very notion of having had a ‘date’ for a football luncheon now seems to me so exotic as to be almost czarist—suggests the extent to which that abstract called ‘the revolution’ has already taken place, the degree to which the world in which so many of us grew up no longer exists.”

In the 1980s, however—thank Ron and Nancy, thank the stock market, thank the thousand flowers blooming in the investment banks that were luring so many male Ivy Leaguers to build their fortunes—that world reasserted itself. As A Century and a Half of DKE describes the period: “In the early eighties, the pendulum of American ideals began to sway to the right once again. College students developed a new sense of values and appreciation for tradition as the country finally recovered from the chaos of the sixties. Fraternities in general began to thrive once more.”

In fact, as I’ve written before, fraternities took the chaos of the ’60s—drugs, sexual liberation, communal living that allowed for a high degree of squalor—and combined it with the chaos of the fraternity, including brutal hazing, the sexual conquest of women that often crossed into illegality, and a self-conscious embrace of collegiate machismo of the sophomoric kind. The system soon racked up so many ruinously expensive lawsuits that it eventually created a complex and inflexible risk-management protocol, which at least indemnified the national organizations. But until then, the 1980s were a time of essentially unsupervised, extreme, and often violent behavior.

Yale’s DKE chapter in Kavanaugh’s college years did not have a house, the necessary element for most crimes of fraternity life. Its public face was the public face of all fraternities—the self-consciously upper-class events, and the silly spectacles meant to goose campus pieties. A photograph published by the Yale Daily News in 1985, when Kavanaugh was a sophomore—he is not in the photograph—depicts a moment from a DKE initiation, in which pledges carry a flag made of bras and panties. To one Yale woman, a junior, who wrote a letter to the campus newspaper, the flag looked like “scalps that warriors attach to their belts, relics that advertise their conquest and ward off the enemy as they swing in the breeze.” Then, as now, fraternities provided a big white ass pressed against the glass windows of campus feminism, and in a sense the two are dependent on each other for their ongoing vitality.

The next big test for Kavanaugh? Application and admission to Yale Law School, and the opportunity to distinguish himself as an excellent student of the law. It seems that at some point soon after graduation, he started to become the kind of man he wanted to be—certainly, his proudly told tales of youthful insouciance end there. He earned two prestigious clerkships. (One of them was with former Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski, who recently retired after nine female law clerks made allegations of sexual harassment against him. He was accused, among other things, of showing them internet pornography in his chambers; Kozinski explained to the press that he “had a broad sense of humor and a candid way of speaking to both male and female law clerks alike.”)

Kavanaugh soon combined his developing gravitas with his frat-boy inclinations by helping to draft America’s only publicly funded work of extended pornography, the Starr report. (“At one point, the President inserted a cigar into Ms. Lewinsky’s vagina, then put the cigar in his mouth and said: “It tastes good.”). He became a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, made bank, married, and began what he would like us to understand as his life’s great work, the intensive coaching of his daughter’s Catholic-school basketball team, where he is beloved by the players. Perhaps he is salving the primal wound of not making the Yale basketball team as a freshman and having to spend his collegiate years—another humiliation—playing JV and writing about the Bulldogs for the Yale Daily News. Or maybe he’s decided to make an 11th-hour investment in girl power, getting the little girls of Blessed Sacrament to crash the boards like they mean it.

Now he hovers on the edge of having all of this, every bit of it, paid off in a spectacular way by being confirmed to the Supreme Court, or—his defenders insist—of becoming another Robert Bork, the victim of an angry feminism that will casually take a man down on the basis of nothing but its own fantasies. For reasons having to do with my long history reporting on fraternities, I am on an email chain with several members of DKE—none from Yale—who are a couple of decades older than Kavanaugh. Here’s a representative sample of how they’re taking the confirmation process: “As I told one of my correspondents, Φ of ΔKE Brother Brett Michael Kavanaugh, Yale ’87, LAW ’90, appears to be in a #MeToo fem-jam down Wah-hee-tawn way.”

If Christine Blasey Ford—at this writing, the most well known of the women accusing Kavanaugh of assault—is to be believed, she experienced a violent sex crime and then told absolutely no one about it for decades, a prospect that many people find incredible and that President Donald Trump weaponized against her, tweeting: “I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents. I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place.”

Why wouldn’t a 15-year-old girl tell anyone, not even her “loving parents”? Because Ford did not grow up in today’s girl culture. Christie Blasey was a 15-year-old girl in 1982.

As it happens, 1982 was a seminal year in the history of the way American girls would come to be raised and educated, and in how millions of them would come to regard their life. It was the year Carol Gilligan published her book In a Different Voice and Ms. magazine published an article called “Date Rape: A Campus Epidemic?” A decade later, the ideas expressed in these two works exploded into the mass consciousness, the former in Mary Pipher’s problematic, blockbuster 1994 book, Reviving Ophelia, and the latter in a 1991 Time magazine cover story called “Date Rape.”

Setting aside all arguments—and they are legion—about the manifold and grave problems with Gilligan’s research, and also about the deep injustices that have taken place on American college campuses as a response to the theory of date rape, the fact is that both her research and the theory changed everything for girls in this country. Today, a girl who experienced what Ford says happened to her would find countless resources on the internet to help her, would have been explicitly told by teachers and administrators that there were people she could (and should) talk to if anyone tried to force sex on her, would be immersed in all the elements of popular culture—songs, movies, teen fiction, blogs—explaining to her that what happened was a profound wrong, and that it was not her fault.

But Christine Blasey Ford was not a 15-year-old girl in the present; she was a 15-year-old girl in the past. Unless she was an extremely precocious, niche reader who was tearing her way through the arcane works of the radical feminist Susan Brownmiller, she would literally never have heard the term date rape—neither would her friends, parents, teachers, or school administrators. Cheerful teen movies aimed at the high-school audience—John Hughes films among them—accurately reflected commonly held American attitudes about the male need for sex and the comic nature of the extremes a normal, suburban male would go to extract it from girls, often against their clearly stated wishes.

None of these facts, of course, locates Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford in a bedroom in 1982. None of it is enough to disqualify him from the confirmation that now hangs in the balance. But, for what it’s worth—probably nothing—more and more outside observers are starting to believe Ford. And more and more of Kavanaugh’s supporters are starting to move to the quiet position that he might have attacked her, but that he should not pay a price for it: Banish Falstaff, and banish all the world.

In the midst of it all (the Georgetown Prep way, the frat-boy tradition, the Irish problem—who knows) seems to lie an ocean of alcohol. If there is one common assessment of the D.C. private schools in the 1980s, it is that they were centers of titanic amounts of drinking.

A friend of mine, a recovering alcoholic with several decades of sobriety, said of Kavanaugh, “I can’t tell if he’s a blackout drinker or a convenient forgetter.”

And maybe Christine Blasey Ford is an inconvenient rememberer.

* This article originally misquoted the line by British playwright Noël Coward that appeared on Judge's senior yearbook page. We regret the error.