When The Past Becomes Your Present
Trigger warning: sexual assault discussed in frank detail.
It was 18 years ago today, as I write this. I was a 21 year old college senior and it was a pretty Saturday at West Virginia University, a home game day for the football team. The Maryland Terrapins were in town. I didn’t go, though. I don’t remember why, other than I didn’t feel like it.
I don’t remember my street address or the name of my downstairs neighbor.
But I remember what I was wearing- jeans and a Pink Floyd t-shirt. And I remember Joey.
He was not a friend so much as an acquaintance, at best perhaps a fleeting dating interest that did not really manifest. He had invited me to a tailgate earlier that day, but I declined. Still, I was not too taken aback when he knocked on my door mid-afternoon, quite obviously drunk from his time at the football game. We talked on the porch for a few minutes, as he tried unsuccessfully to get me to go “party” with him. When he finally gave up, he asked to use my phone to call for a ride. I went inside to get it for him.
As I went into my apartment, I had a brief gut instinct of closing the door behind me and locking it, but by then he had followed me inside and it was too late. I crossed the room and picked up the cordless phone when Joey attacked me from the back, his arm around my neck in a headlock, one hand over my mouth to muffle my scream.
I have a good life. I have a respectable career as a lawyer. I have a beautiful family. The bad things that I’ve endured flit through my mind from time to time but I don’t often dwell. This day comes once a year, though, when I reflect more extensively, more vividly on the trauma of my past.
As I prepared to plow through the memories today, to honor my history while celebrating my present, the news broke that SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh has been accused of a sexual attack when he was a teenager. The accuser was anonymous at first, the accusation vague, the response of the public largely dubious.
The story developed and details emerged. The woman said she was a teenager as well when a very drunk Brett Kavanaugh held her down and groped her and tried to remove her clothing, covering her mouth to silence her when she tried to scream.
Some opinions shifted uncomfortably with these details. Other people remained unmoved.
“Why would she remain anonymous?”
“Until an accuser comes forward, I don’t believe it.”
So then she did. The accuser stepped into the light. She was Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a college professor in California who went to an all-girls school in Maryland, near the all-boys school Kavanaugh attended. She confirmed the previously released details in a statement.
Some people came off the fence, over to the side of believing her. But just as many remained decidedly unconvinced, and more remained certain it was nothing but a framejob. The refrain:
“Where’s she been for 35 years?”
“Why didn’t she tell anyone?”
“It is awfully convenient of her to come forward NOW, don’t ya think?”
Others conceded it MAY have happened, but chalked it up to youthful “antics.”
“Just kids playing around.”
“Drunk teenage horseplay.”
“It wasn’t rape, it was teenagers playing 7 minutes in heaven.” (Yes, this is a real quote.)
Ford’s story became the latest battleground between warring political factions. At best, the pro-Kavanaugh contingency views the allegations as political gamesmanship by the left and, at worst, as an evil smear campaign against a good man. The left find the accusations themselves categorically disqualifying of a seat on the Supreme Court, with the evil right willing to ignore it for the sake of partisanship.
In the meantime, Ford’s home address and phone number started making the rounds on Twitter.
I did not call the police. After it was over, after he let me go back to the living room and put my clothes on, after he made me leave with him and walk a block or two before he finally let me go, I just went home and sat there, shaking, holding a kitchen knife. I must have called my mom, who was 14 hours away. And she must have called my dad and he must have called the police because they eventually showed up at my door.
I told them what happened. I showed them my torn clothing. They asked if I wanted to go to the hospital and I said no. They didn’t ask twice. They didn’t take the evidence with them; they told me to put it in a brown paper bag in my closet, in case I changed my mind (a detail that would infuriate me later when I learned what “chain of custody” meant). They told me a detective would be in touch. I was given a rape crisis hotline number and they left.
I called the number. The woman who answered told me about the time she was attacked in the middle of the night, and how she fought him off and he ran away. I felt so weak and pathetic for having not been able to do so myself.
A detective called me the following day, or maybe the Monday after. I don’t remember. But I do remember how half-heartedly he told me I could have Joey charged if I wanted to. He said it, but he made clear that he did not encourage it.
And that was that.
Christine Blasey Ford says she was afraid Kavanaugh might “inadvertently” kill her during the attack. I felt similarly; Joey had been in the Army, and said he had been special forces. That was a lie, the special forces part, but I didn’t know that then. When he had me pinned to the thin, beige student housing carpet, when he told me not to make him have to hurt me, I thought he might just snap my neck. And now Ford is mocked for that particular detail of her story.
“Oh, so now he is an attempted murderer too, I guess.” Eye-roll implied.
Ford says the attack damaged her for several years after. The Kavanaugh supporters dismiss this as further proof she is lying.
“She went to Stanford and had a successful career and a family afterward. Doesn’t sound to me like someone who went through an attempted sexual assault.”
I have personal friends who cited to me all of these things as reasons Ford is not to be believed. Her timing in coming forward. Her reluctance to give her name. Her not having gone to the police or pressed charges at the time. The fact that she has had a successful life.
I reminded one such person that all of those things applied to me, too. I told him that while I don’t go around telling everyone I meet about my rape and the identity of the rapist, if I found out he had been nominated for a high office, I may be motivated to do so.
“That’s different,” he said.
It is not different. Not at all.
There may be reasons to doubt Ford’s story. For instance, she says there were witnesses, but one of those witnesses denies any such thing having occurred. Beyond that, it is a matter of he said, she said (as rape quite often is). Reasonable, good people can be skeptical of her claims for those reasons. I’m not, but I don’t fault others who take that position based on lack of evidence.
But if Ford is lying, the fact that she didn’t report it is not evidence of that. Her not wanting to publicly identify herself is not evidence of that. Her waiting until now to disclose it is not evidence of that. Her good life is not evidence of that.
Treatises are written on why victims do not always come forward. And that was before they had to worry that their personal information would be spread across social media by awful people in the name of a political battle. The police didn’t care when I was actually raped in 2000; what are the chances they would have cared about an attempted rape in the 1980s?
I am fine. Christine Blasey Ford was probably mostly fine, too, which makes her decision to publicly relive the worst moments of her life all the more remarkable. I really only deal with my trauma in any real depth one day a year. Ford though? She is going to relive it daily, at least for a while.