The Supreme Court hearings have prompted a national outpouring of stories of sexual assault, including from The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan.
Christine Blasey Ford’s story helped Caitlin come to the conclusion that she did, indeed, “experience a trauma” when she was assaulted in high school.
On our forums, members have been speaking up, too. Today, three survivors from the Masthead community reflect on the hearings and on their own experiences of sexual assault.
A note: Some of these stories may be difficult to read.
“I Thought It Was Something I Was So Over”
As a 16-year-old, Caitlin Flanagan was assaulted in the back seat of a car. She’d never written at length about the incident until a few weeks ago, right after Christine Blasey Ford went public with her story. “I believe her,” Caitlin wrote in our pages. “She’s telling the truth, I said to myself, in a way that was neither outraged nor political, just matter-of-fact.” Caitlin explained to me why this moment has compelled so many survivors around the country to share their stories for the first time.
Caroline Kitchener: What was it about Ford’s allegation that compelled you to come forward?
Caitlin Flanagan: When I was done writing my essay, I sat on the couch thinking, Do you really want that to go out? Do you want people to know that you were suicidal, and that you tried heavy drugs? And then I just thought: I’m 56. There is no reason when you get so old to keep these secrets. And maybe it’s helpful. Maybe it’s particularly helpful because I am seen as more conservative, in a lot of respects.
I have been getting all these emails from people about their own experiences, similar to my own. I have this visual of all these emails about past sexual assaults coming into inboxes all over the country, getting printed out. And just this stack of paper, getting taller and taller. No one has ever made a reckoning of how many assaults there were. It’s overwhelming.
Caroline: Have the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings changed the way you relate to your own experience of sexual assault?
Caitlin: Before all this, I had an intellectualized idea of what this event meant to me. It happened at a time when there was no word, no concept, for date rape. I absorbed the incident in a very traumatic way. But then I went to college, and I moved past it. When I heard about the term, date rape, I thought, Yes, that is what happened to me. I understood it, intellectually.
But then a few weeks ago, I talked about it on the New York Times show The Daily, and I almost fell apart. I thought I was just going to go on and talk in an intellectualized way about the experience. Nobody had ever once said to me, “Take me back to that part of your life, to 1978, to being 16 years old.” And in that moment, I realized it really had been a trauma. But I hadn’t done anything you’re supposed to do for a trauma. So it’s been buried deep inside me, all these years. I thought it was something I was so over.
Caroline: When Ford and Kavanaugh were in high school, the term date rape hadn’t really come into existence yet. What has that term meant to assault survivors?
Caitlin: The first time I heard that term, I couldn’t understand it. “What do you mean, ‘date rape’?” It seemed like an oxymoron. Like up/down, light/dark: What are you talking about? Then I read about it, and I was like, That’s what happened to me! That was an attempted rape. I had never put it in any context like that. That concept was revolutionary. Before there was this idea that if you went on a date with a young man, and something befell you like this, you were the fool, as a woman. You made a bad calculation. You thought you were so free and liberated … well, here is your punishment for that.
What Three Survivors of Sexual Assault Took Away From Ford’s Testimony
Over the past few weeks, a small group of Masthead members have identified themselves as survivors of sexual assault. Like Ford, these members all shared assault experiences that occurred decades ago, but have stuck with them.
Do you think about your abuse differently now than you did right after it happened?
Rachel: A man masturbated on me on a very crowded train. I still remember the sound of the skin-to-skin contact pretty vividly. I was young enough to not know how to handle it and just was kind of startled silent. I didn’t think about it as an assault when it happened. I just thought it was a thing that happened to people. Just like catcalling, I had assumed I was subjected to this because there was something wrong with me and the men could see it. But now I have the language and life experience to properly describe the experience, and even confront someone in that scenario.
Cindy: At the time of my assault, I felt much more shame around how I ended up in that position. I mostly wanted to hide what happened and what almost happened. I was physically overpowered and pinned down by the wrists. I was not strong enough to break free, tried to kick and wrestle free, but couldn’t. At one point I gave up, and then I tried again. Ultimately, someone came by and helped me get free, just in time.
I don’t feel blameless, even now. And perhaps that’s why the whole thing is still somewhat traumatic.
Barbara: I have two situations which I used to think were separate but now believe are related—something that the national focus on women and abuse over the past two years has helped clarify for me. The first was being sexually abused by my best friend’s father when I was in second and third grade. The second was spending nearly 20 years in an abusive marriage. The child sexual abuse led to problems with self-worth and some conflicting feelings about sexuality. It was probably one factor that led me to marry an abusive man.
How have the Kavanaugh hearings affected you?
Barbara: I’m angry in a strident way I wasn’t before. Watching the rage unfold during Kavanaugh’s section of the hearings terrified me and angered me in equal proportion. I’m normally pretty even-keeled. Seeing these men—and they were all men—hammering their chests like Tarzan, I felt a visceral anger, and aimed it squarely at my Republican senator this morning.
Rachel: For the past week I’ve thought about this every day. The sound of my attacker’s hand on his penis resonates constantly in my brain right now. The look on his face is as clear as it was in 2000.
Cindy: Christine Blasey Ford and I were both made to feel responsible for what happened to us—as if anything we did that put us in a position of vulnerability meant we had given up our right to our own bodies. I feel a little bit stronger, less personally responsible, for my own attack, thinking through it after hearing Ford’s testimony.
Ford gave her testimony in an adversarial setting, where many of the people listening had been primed not to believe her. How would you, as a survivor, approach not only bringing your story to light, but making it “hearable” to someone who might discount your experience?
Barbara: If I were to write it as a story, I’d paint the picture of how a spirited 4-year-old became an anxious preteen and teenager, painfully self-conscious, lacking in self-esteem, prone to being a people pleaser, way too eager to jump in and help. I’d then show how that led to marrying a damaged man who took out his rage on me.
I’d end on an uplifting note: I spent a great deal of time after my divorce in my early 40s healing my pain and becoming an emotionally healthy person. I became confident and able for the first time to appropriately express anger rather than turn it inward. I can still remember the moment I realized that loving yourself is a prerequisite for being able to love others. And once I absorbed that, I no longer spent time with users and abusers. I expected respect, and I got it. And if I didn’t, I said something.
It doesn’t own me anymore, but occasionally that little girl who lost her spirit pokes her head out and needs to be comforted. I know how to do that now. I think there’s power in showing people who can’t hear us just how deep-seated these feelings are and how long-lasting the consequences. That was part of the power of Ford’s testimony.
Rachel: The thing that depresses me most is that survivors have to constantly rip off their Band-Aids, share their stories, and hope someone thinks they are human enough to relate to it. Like Ford, I too would do my best to talk personally, openly, and from expertise. Cynically, it’s clearly not enough for certain people. And honestly, to those people who remain unconvinced: I don’t ever want to be alone in a room with you. I don’t trust you.
Cindy: Talking about my assault, I doubt I could do nearly as well as Ford. It was clear she struggled in an incredibly daunting situation. She was open, avoided turning defensive (which I think is amazing—I doubt I could do that), and kept trying to be as clear and honest as possible with each response. She truly amazed and inspired me. Anyone who could not hear her truth would not have heard it if she had presented it any other way.
Today’s Wrap Up
Today’s question: Two-thirds of sexual-assault survivors never report their assaults to authorities. If you’re a survivor of sexual abuse, we’d like to know what went into your decision to either report your abuse, or to keep it to yourself. All responses will be considered off-the-record.
What’s coming: The Atlantic producer Jeremy Raff spent most of the past few months in south Texas, reporting on family separation. In a forthcoming Masthead issue, he reflects on why it was so difficult to get this story right.
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