Last week, I finally looked him up. It’s not as if I’d blocked it out all these years, but this time around, the memory was hitting me differently. I guess even given the resonance of the allegations, I wasn’t prepared for the triggering familiarity of Kavanaugh’s tone. It didn’t take long to locate him on a social networking site: the guy who, 20 years ago, took me out, plied me with drinks, and had sex with me against my will.
Like most memories, this one is imperfect: clear in some spots, blurry in others. We went out for a drink; I can picture the bar, though I couldn’t tell you its name. I remember how he encouraged me to keep drinking, to keep going, to have another one. I don’t remember walking home together. I remember him inviting himself back to my room, cajoling me into letting him stay.
I remember saying no.
I remember I didn’t want that kind of night, that I actually wanted to go to bed early. I had an exam the next morning.
I know I didn’t want him to stay, and that he stayed.
I know I didn’t want to have sex with him.
I know I said no, and that he put his penis in me anyway.
I don’t remember whether he used a condom. I don’t remember his leaving afterwards. I remember thinking I should have tried harder to stop him.
We knew the futility of reporting incidents like this one — knew because another friend had looked into it after a similar night. The process detailed to her was so daunting that we all shook our heads and clucked our tongues and said, “That sucks. It isn’t right,” and agreed that it wasn’t worth it. And so, I said nothing.
Over the years, even my rough outline has become even hazier; the only reason I trust my own memory is because I confided in one friend at the time.
In his current social media profile, he still looks like a nice guy. And you know what? He probably is a nice guy, in a lot of ways. He has the same friendly smile. He makes some lighthearted, self-deprecating jokes. He volunteers in his community. Given his chosen career path, we aren’t in immediate danger of his Supreme Court nomination, but I felt compelled to finish the thought experiment anyway.
We have just witnessed a painful public confirmation of the fears around reporting. People who don’t understand trauma might ask some half-hearted questions, shrug about how there’s nothing to be done, offer assurances that it isn’t a big deal (it was a long time ago, after all).
Survivors will likely fall short of being able to “prove” their allegations; they will be doubted, mocked, and threatened. We have experienced a large-scale and resounding dismissal of the weight of violation. After what we’ve just seen, I would understand the impulse to retreat, never to say anything.
But I’m surprised to find myself having the opposite reaction. If he rose to a public position of power, I would want to say something, to someone, even now. Somehow, in fact, I feel more ready to do that now than before. I don’t know if this thing that happened 20 years ago says anything about his character now. But it would feel like someone should bother to find out.
I don’t know what is left to do but to talk openly and vigorously and continuously about these experiences until it becomes clear that we are not going away, not hiding anymore, and that we number far greater than powerful forces would like to acknowledge.
So I’ve told more people my story in the past two weeks than in the 20 years preceding. Theoretically, I knew I was not alone, but now I can actually feel it. I am oddly grateful to the hearings for this catharsis. I have dug through the pile of dirt and ash that covered over this place in my heart, and I am ready for a new day. On this day, I understand that we will be told these stories don’t matter; now, I will refuse to accept that as the truth.
The reflections of Ryan White, director of the Netflix docuseries “The Keepers,” strike me as relevant here. On the movement to publicize abuse in the Catholic Church, White says, “In many cases, they’ve buried that truth. So what this grassroots movement has done is to allow some sense of justice — not literal justice or our typical definition of what justice means — but has allowed a kind of community justice for these people who know this has happened to them.”
For survivors, this kind of “community justice” is our best hope – and it is a powerful one. I envision a great fear coming true: that every time a victimizer rises to a position of power, someone will come forward. I don’t mean false accusations — no, there are more than enough real ones to go around. And every time one of us speaks up – even as those in power doubt and mock and threaten – we will be strengthening and empowering that next group of survivors, those who had thought to themselves, “I’ll just try and forget about it,” and then realized that wasn’t the only option. And then, I hope, they will be able to speak out sooner.
We will rally around each other, and then, knowing the power in our numbers–the strength of community justice–we will gum up the machinery of their precious procedures, frustrate their timelines, annoy the hell out of them with paperwork. And we will keep doing it until they realize that actually, it is kind of a big deal.
Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) said of the Ford-Kavanaugh proceedings, “If this is the new normal, God help us all.” Amen, Senator.