Letters: ‘Forgive and Forget, Why Don’t You?’

Readers share their stories of sexual misconduct, and discuss what redemption might look like.

An activist wears a button in support of Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault at a high-school party more than 35 years ago.
Alex Wong / Getty

I Believe Her

When Caitlin Flanagan was in high school, she faced her own Brett Kavanaugh. If Christine Blasey Ford’s story is true, Flanagan wrote last week, “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.”

Caitlin Flanagan’s story resonates so strongly with my own high-school experience that I feel I must write to you.

My four years in high school and the preceding two in grammar school were the most miserable of my life. In my small, Catholic grammar school, there was a group of boys who routinely trapped me in the back coat closet and tried to grope me. The experience was terrifying and humiliating; what made it worse was that the girls in my class laid the blame for the boys’ behavior at my door. I insisted to my parents that I would not go on to attend the Catholic high school, although they never knew the reason I was so adamant. I wanted a fresh start at the public high school.

Once in high school, a new group of boys would harass me in the halls and in the lunch room. After witnessing a boy trying to untie my halter top and expose my breasts, the lunch monitor (a dean of the school) called me aside and suggested that I not dress so provocatively. She did not speak to the boy. (This, by the way, was in the ’70s, and a halter top was not provocative dress.)

There were other, even more harrowing experiences. Collectively, they made me feel that I had a gigantic neon Victim sign on my forehead.

Perhaps as a teenager I made poor choices. Perhaps I should have looked for better friends. But I certainly never deserved the treatment I received from those boys, or the condemnation I received from my classmates and the adults charged to look after us.

Does something that happened 40 years ago still matter? In Ms. Flanagan’s interview for The Daily, she remarks, “The girls are still sitting with what [the boys] did to them.” And that is why it matters.

Thank you, Caitlin, for writing this piece. I believe Christine Blasey Ford because I have been where she has.

And, finally, thank God for the wonderful men there are in the world, especially my husband of almost 40 years.

Kathy Bolster
New Milford, Conn.

As a male reader, I find Mr. Kavanaugh’s response and that of the GOP senators shocking but not surprising. Growing up in high school as a quiet and shy lad, I, too, often heard the locker-room jocks and party boys laugh and high-five one another over their “exploits”—they never seemed to consider their actions or the feelings of the women involved.

After seeing these “dudes” at reunions years later, I realized that most did not really change and always came across as little generals too entitled to find error in their ways and too proud to admit they were wrong, let alone have the ability to apologize. It is my experience that these “dudes” don’t change—they don’t take others into consideration. Instead, they become even bigger bullies, enabling one another with a wink and a nod at their deeds. This seems to be the only way they know how to act in the world, as they continue to be rewarded in our current society.

I also believe her! I hope your article enables women across this country and around the world to stand up and shout, Enough! You have abused our mothers, our sisters, and our friends. We will not reward bullies—this has to end here, now.

Thank you, Ms. Flanagan and Ms. Ford, for your courage and for telling us what we know is true. Please know there are so many that understand, support, and will defend you to our last full measure.

Pierre Caston
Livermore, Calif.

I read Caitlin Flanagan’s moving article “I Believe Her.” I love it and relate completely because that happened to me in 2008 when I was 25 years old. I was in medical school. Now, an unaccounted 10 years later, I’m not a doctor, but a recovering victim.

Name Withheld by Request

This piece brings to the forefront a subject that has been almost entirely neglected in the discourse about #MeToo: Women are expected to be prima facie forgiving of men, and we’ve silently met those expectations for a long time.

So long, in fact, that men and society at large have come to expect it from us. As #MeToo first took flight, the collective shock stemmed less from the idea that men behave badly than from the idea that women have had enough. The hardest-hitting blow was the notion that we’ve decided that things which have always been privately unforgivable are now also publicly so. The continued shock that we’re still not “letting it go” is the true reason we continue to be pilloried, called unreasonable, and accused of ruining men’s lives, even as the movement proves to be a valuable touchstone for the lived experiences of women.

When I was the victim of an attempted rape in college, my crime was not only telling anyone about it in the first place—it was refusing to “just drop it.” It was refusing to forgive, even after he left me pleading voicemails, even after his friends pleaded with me on his behalf, even after I was slut-shamed and revictimized on social media.

Why couldn’t I just let it go? He was a good guy, wasn’t he? If it even happened the way I said it did, he just made a mistake one time. “It’s not like he actually raped you”—a person actually said this to me, with a straight face. Forgive and forget, why don’t you?

Here’s the thing: Forgiveness happens on the terms of the forgiver, not the forgivee. It’s up to us—to women— to decide when we feel like it’s time to forgive the men who perpetrated these crimes against us, if ever. We are tired of the entitlement of men to our bodies, our emotional labor, our turning of the other cheek. We wield the power now, and we don’t care if that makes you uncomfortable. We won’t be forced into forgiveness. We don’t owe it to anyone.

Kristin Ellis
Brooklyn, N.Y.

As a 63-year-old man who also happens to be a lifelong Democrat, I, too, have been inclined to believe Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations against Brett Kavanaugh.

Any rock-ribbed Republican would naturally conclude that in this case my politics inevitably color my beliefs—and quite possibly they do. But as someone who, during my teen years way back in the ’70s, would never have dreamed of coercing a girl into having sex with me—and who knew no one else who would have, either—I find Blasey Ford’s version of events all too plausible.

Yet what has been gnawing at me since Kavanaugh’s confirmation erupted into this “he-said, she-said” drama is the unshakable feeling that the nominee realizes he has only one choice in this matter: to deny Ford’s allegations categorically. To do otherwise would deny him what I’d imagine is his lifelong ambition to sit on the Supreme Court.

Which brings me back to Flanagan’s essay. Though she doesn’t use the word, redemption is its evident theme. On impulse, a teenage boy did something ugly to a teenage girl and, on reflection, deeply regretted it. Indeed, the act weighed so heavily on his conscience he felt compelled to apologize—twice. And in Flanagan’s view this young man redeemed himself by acknowledging and seeking forgiveness for his appalling behavior.

Contrast Flanagan’s views with those of the former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer on Fox News:

But high school behavior—how much in society should any of us be held liable today when we lived a good life, an upstanding life by all accounts, and then something that maybe is an arguable issue took place in high school? Should that deny us chances later in life?

As far as I can tell, in his defense of Kavanaugh, Fleischer avoids wondering whether any “upstanding” man who may have committed a severe indiscretion in his youth need take the trouble of seeking redemption or forgiveness for it. Fleischer seems to imply that it’s natural for a 17-year-old boy to engage in underage drinking and force himself on a girl. That it’s so natural, in fact, it’s unnecessary to apologize for it—to the girl or to anyone else.

Of course, this chasm between men’s and women’s views of the underlying rules of sexual engagement lies at the heart of the #MeToo movement. And as long as we cannot bridge this chasm we’ll be condemned to litigate these encounters decades after they occur—in congressional confirmation hearings, in the workplace, on the campaign trail, and everywhere else.

Dick Hartzell
New York, N.Y.

Thank you! I discussed the controversy surrounding Kavanaugh’s nomination with my 17-year-old daughter and her view was that it should not matter what he did when he was 17, because “people change.” Caitlin’s article says “No,” and I agree. It does matter.

Perhaps it’s generational, perhaps because my daughter has a strong character and takes her independence and feminism for granted. Her closest friends are male and I would like to think my daughter stands up for herself and demands respect. But what my daughter does not know is that, like Caitlin and many others, I was sexually assaulted (in my 30s) and have never forgotten that experience. My attacker’s excuse was that I “looked so good in that black dress.” I firmly believe that your choices matter. If Brett Kavanaugh admitted and apologized for his alleged behavior that caused life-changing trauma to another person, then he would have my respect. Contrary to that, I stand with Dr. Ford and Caitlin Flanagan and countless others and say: No.

Nancy T.
New York, N.Y.

Let me start by saying that I am sorry that this happened to you and that it is even an issue saddens me. However, you are projecting your experience on someone else’s nightmare and I take issue with that.

If there were any witnesses, I would offer to dig the hole under the jail into which Kavanaugh should go; however, there aren’t.

Next, I would like to tell you why I question not Ford’s veracity, but her memory.

When I was a teenager in the late ’70s, I was at a party where we were drinking and smoking. The next day I was accused of something similar—except it had culminated in a full-fledged rape—by a girl at the party who was bombed.

I had been at the party with my girlfriend of the time. And yes, we were both partaking.

Luckily, my girlfriend and I had left the party just before this transpired, and I had gone to get gas and was seen by others. That didn’t affect the feeling of having been accused. I believe that this may have been what happened in Ford’s case.

Joe Garcia

The article is a much needed response to the Christine Blasey Ford situation. I think there are few women who haven’t experienced what she did. Whether it’s unwanted touching/fumbling or rape or something in between, our responses are conditioned by our perception of who we are. A girl/woman may find the experience traumatic and unforgettable, while the guy/man thinks it’s no big deal. I’m sure Brett Kavanaugh doesn’t remember her, because he was drunk and it didn’t mean anything to him, anyway. He was only doing what teenage boys are supposed to do when they have the chance.

That’s why the men don’t get it. It’s never occurred to most of them to think about what it’s like from the woman’s viewpoint. Being physically overcome, frightened, and trying to make sense of what’s happening leaves a scar. Let’s hope the senators on the Judiciary Committee take a big step back and rethink their response.

Gretchen Flynn
Minneapolis, Minn.

Ms. Flanagan is a terrific writer—both articulate and engaging. I’d like to thank her for being so brave as to share such a damaging event in her life, and to say that it was not okay, as generous as she was to sincerely accept a heartfelt apology and to alleviate the young man’s potent feelings of self-hatred through her forgiveness.

Ms. Ford is due at the least a respectful audience. And if Mr. Kavanaugh is “guilty” of a very serious, life-damaging act, he should—for starters—sincerely apologize to her for the damage he has caused.

Cliff Hauser
Makawao, Hawaii

Caitlin Flanagan’s piece was riveting and illuminating on both the behavior of teenage boys and on the Kavanaugh allegations. However, she can’t forgive her assailant, who only apologized due to a chance meeting at the mall, and castigate Kavanaugh for having “done nothing at all to try to make that right.” She has no idea how the incident affected him. If the allegations are true, the key question is not if he directly apologized, but whether he learned powerful lessons from his 17-year-old behavior and felt remorse.

My own transgressions as a teenage boy didn’t have anything to do with the opposite sex, but I broke laws then. Like all teenagers, I learned from testing the boundaries what they are, and have successfully transformed into the rule follower and productive father I am today. Kavanaugh may have showed remorse through unrelated actions, like having his opinions on cases he adjudicated be affected to the benefit of victims by his acquired perspective on sexual aggression. Because we can’t know that, Flanagan owes him as much deference as she owes the man who apologized to her.

Peter J. Smith
Los Angeles, Calif.

Flanagan’s story and her reflections upon it serve as rejoinder to anybody concerned that any boy’s high-school sexual assault or abuse or extreme inconsideration will forever mean, either to his victim or the world, that he cannot be esteemed or placed in high office.

Heidi Li Feldman
Washington, D.C.

I was 16 years old when I went to a party at the home of one of my high-school classmates. I had never been to a party with any of these people before. There were no adults home and there was alcohol available. I drank along with the rest of the youngsters there and got quite drunk. I remember being taken to the shower and, with all my clothes on, dunked under a cold stream of water. Then I was dried outside in the warmth of the evening and taken home. This is what happened in a normal situation with someone who had drunk too much and made an idiot of themselves. This happened more than 50 years ago, and I still remember with gratitude the young man who kindly dunked me in the shower and took me home. I think it is the perverted, mean, and conceited young person who would do otherwise. Most young people are kind, and they grow up to be kind and considerate adults. Let’s appoint someone like that to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Saima Scott
Olympia, Wash.