I Believe Her

When I was in high school, I faced my own Brett Kavanaugh.

fantom_rd / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

“Dear Caitlin,” an inscription in my 12th-grade yearbook begins. “I’m really very sorry that our friendship plummeted straight downhill after the first few months of school. Really, the blame rests totally on my shoulders. To tell you the truth, I’ve wanted to say this all year. I know you’ll succeed because you’re very smart and I regard you with the utmost respect … Take care—love always.”

He was headed to a prestigious college. I was headed to a small, obscure liberal-arts college, which was a tremendous achievement, not just because I was a terrible student, but also because I had nearly killed myself as a response to what he apologized for in my yearbook. He had tried to rape me during a date that I was very excited to have been asked on, and his attempt was so serious—and he was so powerful—that for a few minutes, I was truly fighting him off.

I had grown up in Berkeley, but just before my senior year of high school, my father took a job on Long Island. Berkeley, California, in 1978 was about as much like Suffolk County, New York, in 1978 as the moon is like the black sky around it. I didn’t know a single person. I desperately missed my friends—although I only found out years later, my father was confiscating all of their letters to me. He thought they were a bad influence, and that I should make a clean break. I felt completely alone.

I had already been depressed; severe depression was the only healthy response to growing up in my family. But the move was terrible. I couldn’t figure out how to make friends; the high school was a John Hughes movie before there were John Hughes movies. But then a good-looking senior offered to drive me home one day. I was excited—I’d had my eye on him, and in the promise of this ride home I saw the solution to all of my problems: my sadness, my loneliness, my inability to figure out how to go to the parties the other kids were always talking about in the hallways and before class started.

He drove me home, looked around my empty house for a bit, and then suggested we drive to the beach. It was in his car, in the deserted parking lot of that beach, that he tried to rape me, although neither of us would have used that word for it. It was only in college that I heard the term date rape. The way dates between high-school students in the 1970s were understood was the way that dates had been understood since the 1920s. The idea was that anything bad that happened was the girl’s fault. She had agreed to go off in a car with a boy alone; she was taking her chances. Boys would be boys, and it was up to girls to manage their coercive, importuning sexuality. But this was not coercive: This was a very strong kid, an athlete, trying to pin down a girl who weighed 116 pounds and was part of the pre–Title IX generation. We struggled against each other, and then—suddenly—he stopped. He started the car and drove me home in silence.

I told no one. In my mind, it was not an example of male aggression used against a girl to extract sex from her. In my mind, it was an example of how undesirable I was. It was proof that I was not the kind of girl you took to parties, or the kind of girl you wanted to get to know. I was the kind of girl you took to a deserted parking lot and tried to make give you sex. Telling someone would not be revealing what he had done; it would be revealing how deserving I was of that kind of treatment.

My depression quickly escalated to a point where, if I’d been evaluated by a psychiatrist, I would probably have been institutionalized as a danger to myself. I had plans for how I was going to kill myself. I managed to make a few friends, who introduced me to acid, which was no help with the depression. I sat in classes in a blank state, except for English. (“To the girl about whom I will someday say, ‘I knew her when,’” my English teacher wrote in that yearbook, words that stunned me when I first read them, and that I’ve never forgotten.)

But then, at the beginning of the second semester, my fortunes turned, and another boy asked me out. Another drive home, another trip to a beach parking lot—you’d think I would have learned, but from the minute we got in the car, I knew this was different. We bought a bottle of wine and sat in his car drinking it and talking, and by the time he drove me back home, I felt rescued.

I have been entirely agnostic about Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. Republican presidents nominate conservative judges, and Democratic presidents nominate liberal judges. This guy sounded like he was entirely qualified for the job. When Dianne Feinstein made her announcement about the super-secret mystery letter by the anonymous woman that she had sent to the FBI, I thought it was a Hail Mary pass aimed at scotching the nomination, the kind of distasteful tactic that makes people hate politics.

But on Sunday morning, sitting in the Santa Monica Elks Lodge, watching a friend get inducted into the Santa Monica High School Hall of Fame, I took advantage of a lull in the program to scroll through my news feed, and quickly found the Washington Post report that broke the news about Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who wrote the letter. I read about two different psychologists noting that Ford had told them about her distress over the incident long before Kavanaugh was nominated. I read about the polygraph test. She’s telling the truth, I said to myself, in a way that was neither outraged nor political, just matter-of-fact. The event she described is completely believable, but the psychologists’ notes sealed the deal. Maybe some new piece of evidence will come to light to change my mind, but with the facts on the ground as we now have them, I believe her.

When I came home from Santa Monica, a friend dropped by the house. I asked him whether he’d heard the news about Kavanaugh, and he said, “Yeah—but are we really going to hold something he did when he was 17 against him?”

Teenagers make mistakes, some of them serious. One measure of a kid’s character is what he or she does afterward. Take another look at the note at the top of this essay. I can’t remember why I would have asked him to sign my yearbook. He was in my new boyfriend’s circle of friends, so maybe he was at the same parties and events I went to. Reading the note now, as a 56-year-old woman, I think it’s an astonishing thing for an 18-year-old kid to have written; it took courage and self-reflection. But that was not his only apology.

Two years after the yearbook was signed, when I was a far more confident person, and when I was in the midst of transferring from the obscure college to a great university, I had a summer job at a department store. One morning, while ringing up a sale, I saw in my peripheral vision that someone was approaching the register. When I finished the sale, he was gone. A few minutes later, I saw him coming back; it was the boy who’d tried to rape me. He had tears in his eyes, and he seemed almost overwrought. And right there—in the A&S department store in the Smith Haven Mall—he apologized profusely.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I kept saying to him. “I forgive you, don’t worry.” It was a weird ambush of intense guilt and apology, and it was the wrong place and time—but the thing was, I really did forgive him. My life had moved on, and things were better. It felt good to get the apology and—as it always does—even better to forgive him. He’d done a terrible thing, but he’d done what he could to make it right. I held nothing against him, and I still don’t.

But if Ford’s story is true, Brett Kavanaugh never apologized. He never tried to make amends, never took responsibility for what he did. In my case, the near-rape—as awful as it was at the time and in its immediate aftermath—didn’t cause any lasting damage. But by Ford’s account, Kavanaugh’s acts did cause lasting damage, and he has done nothing at all to try to make that right. And that is why the mistake of a 17-year-old kid still matters. The least we should do is put this confirmation on hold until we can learn more about what happened. If it’s not true, Kavanaugh should be confirmed without a cloud of suspicion. If it is true, we’ll have to decide whether you get to attack a girl, show no remorse, and eventually become a Supreme Court justice. My own inclination is: No.