For survivors of sexual assault or abuse, the Kavanaugh hearings provided a grim kind of flashback. The kind of hellish dream cycle where you wake up from one nightmare into another. Whether you remember all the details of those dreams – or only bits of them – today was the day where you woke up and saw all your nightmares play out in real time across CSPAN.
The past few weeks we’ve watched a boys club masquerading as the leaders of our country, quickly orchestrate an approach to manage the sudden drama consisting of three women filing statements against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, accused sexual assaulter and Supreme Court nominee. During the Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday, we watched these men formulate every imaginable cliched excuse as to why Judge Brett Kavanaugh should be entitled to this lifelong position – a position that will give him the highest of legislative powers to influence the lives of women and men across the country for generations to come.
To watch Dr. Kristen Basley Ford, a Palo Alto-based professor, have her character, memory and humanity (cordially) picked apart in front of some of the United States’s leading senators – and all of America – was for many of us survivors, to relieve our own mishandled trauma, reopen old wounds – and perhaps deepen wounds that never healed. The mishandling of Dr. Bassley Ford’s experience by the Senate ripped out the painfully and methodologically stitched wounds many of us survivors have sewn into our own lives in order to hold ourselves and our futures together. It all too quickly reminded us of what we learned when that/those instance/s of rape or sexual assault were first experienced: that as horrific as something like this might be, so much of the lasting trauma within the experience transpires in the aftermath – in how the situation was handled, or mishandled, by those in positions of power around us.
Yet the Kavanaugh hearing represents more than just a power dynamic between a survivor and authority figures, be they legal, judicial, etc. In the Kavanaugh hearing, those authority figures are some of the highest-ranking officials in the United States of America. People with historic access to the highest realms of education, opportunity, and experience. Which means that throughout these past two weeks, throughout today’s trial, and through their voting, these men (and four women’s) actions, reactions or inactions are the best of what America has to offer sexual assault survivors. The way these Senators handled this case and the way they vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation set the precedent for how sexual assault survivors are treated across the country. All of which means that the collective trauma of one in four women, and one in six men in this country, are attuned to what happens during these days.
In the era of #MeToo, one would expect a different kind of approach to handling a sexual assault accusation. In that respect, the Senate has, in its own thwarted way, delivered. In today’s #MeToo world, it was clear Republican Senators knew better than to tell a woman that her experience wasn’t real during the hearing. But the tactic Republican politicians used to drive forward their ‘humanity’ while also sticking up for their bro – I mean, Brett – proved altogether just as problematic as flatly telling the survivor I don’t believe you.
Despite the pleasantries in conversation – commanded in great part by Dr. Ford – and the fervent stance that Senate committee chair, Republican Senator Grassley, insisted the Senate had taken to afford Dr. Ford a hospitable, non-trial like atmosphere, (complete with breaks and water at her request, no less), the reality was that Dr. Ford was on trial. In front of the world. And the play had already be scripted for her by the Republicans – instead of ruining the credibility and reputation of a witness (the traditional, pre #MeToo way of tearing down the testimony of a sexual assault survivor) they chose to attempt to defame the parts of her credibility that wouldn’t reflect negatively on her – or their party – they chose to attack Dr. Ford’s memory.
The memory of a human mind, after all, is a fragile thing. Research has been done to back these claims up. The human ability to remember facts and details has been proven to be faulty at best and entirely convoluted, at worst. It was with this trail of thinking that Republicans proceeded to benevolently build a case against Dr. Ford. One in which, perhaps it happened, sure. for that, we are truly sorry. And we don’t doubt that some of the experiences you described are true. However, surely it wasn’t our boy, Brett. Your mind must be playing tricks on you for that one. Memory has a way of doing that, you know!
It was a clearly orchestrated argument we heard over and over again from Republican Senators, Republican media, and throughout our twitter feeds. Yet the problem with prescriptively believing sexual assault survivors – choosing what we want to believe, instead of what they tell us they’ve experienced – is that it builds a new but dangerous precedent for future sexual assault cases to come – a way for those in positions of power to validate survivor’s truths, without having to make assaulters be accountable for their actions. You were mistaken. Your trauma and experience are real, but the memories surrounding your attacker, we’re afraid, are not.
Of further issue, this logic is in no way, medically accurate. We can hypothesize all we want to about how the human mind works, but what we shouldn’t do is interject a hypothesis with realities. Dr. Jim Hopper, a consultant and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, was selected (and then later denied the opportunity) to give an expert testimonial on trauma at the Senate hearing. His testimony revealed that although survivors of assault may have gaps in their memory due to PTSD, PTSD actually serves to solidify the traumatic memories survivors due remember, into their mind with acute accuracy.
“Such details can be burned into our brains for the rest of our lives”, says Hopper. He goes onto explain that not only do these images last, “but memories of highly stressful and traumatic experiences, at least their most central details, don’t tend to fade over time.”
In other words, for sexual assault survivors, the vivid details they remember are actually incredibly astute details and, according to Hopper, if addressed correctly, can be key clues in helping a lawyer, psychologist, entire Senate confirmation hearings etc, help these survivors connect the dots in their experience to reveal a larger, more robust understanding about the details of the assault.
But to implicitly convey to survivors that we, a Senate committee, or a jury, or a judge, are going to pick and choose which one of your memories we are going to believe and validate, is to gaslight sexual assault survivors on near Westworld levels.
Sexual and gender-based violence is life-altering. It changes the way you think, act, and see the world. Even if you’re lucky enough to not suffer from the lingering effects of PTSD, depression, or anxiety, it still shifts your outlook on life forever, your vigilance, and often your trust and ability to connect with others.
Introducing this form of benevolent gaslighting at the Senate level – be this a trial or a political theatrical – this conveys a new kind of problematic narrative: one in which believes the truths we choose to see and prescribe those truths onto the survivors experienced. One in which we take away the truths survivors hold, knowing that so much of their lives have already been taken away from them.
Maybe one day, we will start recognizing our own limitations to the art of believing, and start caring enough to take action against sexual violence. In the meantime, let’s stay away from prescribing truths to survivors, and focus on the realities – the acutely accurate memories from survivors.