Until the moment this morning when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford finally surfaced in the flesh, steeling herself for the onerous task of exposing her pain to 11 Republican men, she often seemed less than real, less a person than a symbol, a face concealed by sunglasses in an undated photo. Her searing memories about Brett Kavanaugh, mere words on a computer screen, were shared in the press and parsed on social media—hardly the ideal forums for assessing credibility.
That crucial test came Thursday, before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and her acing of that test was perhaps best confirmed, if not inadvertently, by the GOP’s hired female counsel, Rachel Mitchell. With respect to the core of Ford’s allegations—that the teenage Kavanaugh locked her in a bedroom, pushed her onto a bed, got on top of her, pressed his body against hers, groped her, tore at her clothes, “put his hand over my mouth to stop me from yelling”—Mitchell didn’t touch it. She didn’t even try to question it. She simply told Ford: “I don’t feel like it’s necessary to go over those things again.”
If Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination hinges on whether Ford is personally credible, it would appear to be hanging by a thread. Even one of Kavanaugh’s most stalwart sponsors, Senator John Cornyn of Texas, said, after Ford was finished, that “I find no reason to find her not credible.”
Republicans, in their determination to “plow right through” (to quote Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell), had carefully circumscribed today’s hearing for the sole purpose of moving on. Kavanaugh’s two other named accusers were not invited to testify. Kavanaugh friend Mark Judge, who was allegedly in the bedroom (“Mark was urging Brett on,” Ford said in her sworn statement), was not subpoenaed as a witness. The FBI was never called upon to conduct an investigation (“If they had,” Ford testified, “I could be more helpful to everyone”). In essence, Republicans had sought to craft a she said/he said stalemate that would give their 51 senators sufficient grounds to elevate Kavanaugh to the high court.
But even before Ford appeared, it was fair to wonder: Why would a private citizen willingly expose herself to vicious public abuse, expose her family to death threats, and expose herself to a perjury charge, unless she was telling the truth? What could possibly be the upside of lying under oath—unless it’s because, in the words of President Donald Trump yesterday, “people want fame, they want money, they want whatever”?
Ford did not appear motivated by fame or money; television optics are important, as Trump knows arguably better than anyone, and what most Americans surely saw—because, according to the polls, a plurality of Americans already oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination—was a human being struggling to cope with her emotions in the midst of articulating the worst moment of her life. She was, simultaneously, a 15-year-old girl who stayed mum after the attack because “I did not want to tell my parents that I … was in a house without any parents present,” and a 51-year-old professional who could deftly explain her memory lapses with the patois of clinical psychology.
Republicans, and their supportive trolls on social media, have spent several weeks mocking her lapses—she willingly acknowledged today that she can’t remember the date, nor how she traveled to and from the party house—but serious studies have long pointed out that trauma victims typically remember the trauma but not the ancillary details. Ford told the panel: “I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t remember as much as I would like to. But the details about that night that bring me here today are ones I will never forget.”
Those details include “the stairway, the living room, the bathroom [where she later hid], the bedroom with the bed on the right,” and, referring to Kavanaugh and Judge, “the laughter, the uproarious laughter, and the multiple attempts to escape … the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense … I was underneath one of them while the two laughed.”
Her vivid memories of that male-comrade laughter bring to mind what Jia Tolentino of The New Yorker wrote on Wednesday. The Ford-Kavanaugh story “illuminates the centrality of sexual assault in the matrix of male power in America. In high schools, in colleges, at law schools, and in the halls of Washington, men perform for one another and ascend to positions of power. Watching it happen is a deadening reminder, for victims of sexual assault and harassment, that, in many cases, you were about as meaningful as a chess piece, one of a long procession of objects in the lifelong game that men play with other men.”
The committee’s Republicans—fronted by Mitchell, the female prosecutor flown in from Arizona because the all-male majority declined to confront Ford—were reduced to poking at Ford around the margins. Never mind the core story of what happened in that locked room, which they did not contest. Did someone drive you to that party? Has anyone come forward to say they drove you to that party? Did you share your therapy notes with The Washington Post, or did you just summarize them? Did anyone write your statement for you? Who advised you which lawyer to hire? It’s been said in the press that you’re afraid of flying, but didn’t you fly here?
Some of those ancillary details will be enough to keep most (if not all) of the Senate Republicans in line. Lindsey Graham, who had pledged earlier this week “to listen to the lady,” declared after Ford’s departure, “She can’t talk about how she got there, how she got home … That’s what I’m left with,” and was clearly content to complain anew about process issues—the timing of her appearance and the Democrats’ handling of the allegation. And most Senate Republicans still pledge fealty to Trump, who said yesterday, during his news conference, that his long experience with “fake” charges leveled against him by women have influenced his opinion of the charges leveled against Kavanaugh.
Kavanaugh may yet sit on the Supreme Court—most notably, if swing-voting Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski deem him fit for promotion—but what happened today cannot be erased. It was, in its way, a historic culture clash. In the person of Christine Blasey Ford, women long victimized and marginalized, their rage long suppressed, eloquently confronted the guardians of the traditional patriarchy.