Is Senate Committee Equipped to Grasp Allegations Against Kavanaugh?

September 22, 2018 by Mary Sanchez
People protesting Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh at a rally in Lower Manhattan.

For all their well-learned politesse, the Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have scarcely been able to conceal their determination to get Christine Blasey Ford out of their hair.

Ford is the last obstacle to confirming conservative Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. And she’s a formidable one. She has alleged that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in 1982, when they both were in high school.

The senators know they are treading in dangerous territory. First there is the Anita Hill precedent. Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his 1991 confirmation process. Thomas was confirmed, but the Republicans suffered badly in the next election for Hill’s shabby treatment by the Judicial Committee.

Now there’s the #MeToo movement, which has brought the power of social media to bear on privileged men who assault and harass women.

So the senators have made a great show of inviting Ford to testify before the committee. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs the committee, tweeted that Ford was invited to testify in “any format that she’s comfortable” with — “open session/closed session/private staff interviews/public staff interviews,” because “her information is very important.”

Ford only put her name to the accusation last Sunday, which caused uproar and demands to delay the confirmation vote, which had been scheduled for Thursday, so that the allegations could be investigated further. Republicans made it clear they would only delay until Monday, giving Ford a take-it-or-leave-it offer of a hearing that day.

Ford found that offer lacking. She wisely protected herself by asking for an FBI investigation first, as did Democratic members of the committee.

No FBI investigation will happen without the say-so of the White House. And at press time, the committee Republicans had offered to hold the hearing Wednesday.

The invitation to testify raises a concern: the ability of the senators to understand how sexual trauma can affect people, both in terms of how they react in the moment and in how they recall events in the aftermath.

Ford clearly recognizes she has to step cautiously before a panel of people steeped in myths about sexual assault. That’s one reason why an FBI investigation would help.

Left to their own devices, the committee’s GOP senators would likely conduct a hearing with Ford like a TV police drama. And, given that they are all men, this would not produce good optics. So they have indicated they will use an outside lawyer — a woman — to examine the witness.

That’s for appearance, not for empathy’s sake. Ford should expect aggressive questioning.

A common assumption about victims is that they should be capable of remembering these horrific events in detail. After all, any event capable of triggering PTSD (which Ford says she has suffered from) must be memorable.

In fact, the opposite is often true. Science has learned what happens to the body under such stress. Victims find that details are not readily accessible because the brain has reacted chemically, altering how memories are stored. A hyper-focus may occur with some senses but not others. A victim might remember sounds but not the face of the attacker or what they wore. Missing details are understandable in the context of the neurobiology of the brain.

That’s one reason why questions should be open-ended, not insisting on a linear narrative with pertinent details lined up to be fact-checked, one by one.

If you are thinking the psychology of victim response should play into how police investigate, and might even explain why so many victims aren’t believed, congratulations. Forward-thinking law enforcement is increasingly training in these methods. (Kansas is a leader under efforts organized by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation). It’s a game-changer.

The #MeToo movement has taught us a lot. We’re less apt to flippantly disregard people who speak up. The power of victim blaming to silence has been exposed as a tool to undercut truth. And more of us recognize that even men who draw accolades as feminist allies can have a hidden side that degrades and abuses women.

All good. But there is so much more to be learned and assimilated by law enforcement and the courts.

So bless the senators as they go about this monumental task. They don’t know what they don’t know.

Readers can reach Mary Sanchez at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @msanchezcolumn.



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