What Happens When Your Trauma Is Someone Else’s Entertainment?

What Happens When Your Trauma Is Someone Else’s Entertainment?

I remember once, when I was a little girl, my mom pulling me aside before I left for school, to remind me of something she’d been saying since I was old enough to understand.No one ever has permission to touch you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, she told me. If that ever happened, I must get away, then tell the nearest adult. Also, and I can still hear her voice speaking this part: I had permission to scream.

I was thinking about those instructions yesterday while watching Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against the man she wholly believes sexually assaulted her when they were both teenagers. By this point, you likely know the broad strokes of the story that has captivated America. Dr. Blasey, a research psychologist who is now 51, alleges that she was at a house party with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in 1982. In an interview withThe Washington Postreleased on Sept. 16 (less than two weeks ago, though it feels much, much longer) she alleged that Kavanaugh and his friend, Mike Judge, pulled her into a room, where she says they attempted to assault her before she managed to escape.

On Thursday morning, after much back and forth about whether or not Dr. Blasey would testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, the broad strokes became chillingly specific. Trembling and wide-eyed behind her glasses, the woman who has beendubbed by many a herostood before the Senate Judiciary Committee and shared new details from her memory of the incident. It’s testimony that won’t soon disappear from our minds.

“I remember when it became starkly apparent that my sense of autonomy was a pretense that could be snatched away.”

In the room and across the country, viewers watched Dr. Blasey describe how the incident impacted her grades, her social life, her relationships with men, her marriage—herlife—ever since that night. It even had bearing on a home renovation decision that ultimately led her, along with her husband, to therapy: For reasons that now seem obvious, she was determined toadd a second front door to their house. Dr. Blasey reiterated that she never intended to come forward publicly, but did so when it seemed inevitable that her private letter to the Senator Dianne Feinstein would be traced to its source.

But while she admitted that she was “terrified” to be standing in that room, Dr. Blasey also made clear that emotions were not the driving force behind her testimony: She was there on behalf of “civic duty.” By stating that up front, she laid a foundation to be taken seriously and continued to cement it throughout those four hours. She conducted herself with professional expertise, but was careful not to wander into condescension; she kept her emotions largely in check, though not to the extent that she might be perceived as unfeeling.

To borrow the words of Republican Senator Orrin Hatch: Dr. Blasey was an “attractive and nice person,” as well as “pleasing.” That she is a white, well-educated, married mother are also forces in her favor: We’remore inclined to believe awoman who fits the mold of a “perfect victim,” anda case can (and has) been madefor a way in which yesterday’s hearing doubled down on that damaging stereotype. Still, the point is that Dr. Blasey embodies the qualities of person most likely to be believed. And yet here we still remain in the muck of “he said, she said,” where it seems, depressingly, as though he is the one who will get the last word.

The day of the assault, Dr. Blasey believes she had been swimming and diving at the Columbia Country Club, and afterwards a spur-of-the-moment gathering formed at someone’s house. She recalls leaving the living room, where people were drinking, and climbing the stairs to the second floor to use the bathroom, but instead being pushed into a bedroom by Kavanaugh and Judge. She remembers that the boys locked the door, turned up the music, and that Kavanaugh, drunk, climbed on top of her, “running his hands all over my body and grinding his hips into me.” In her recollection, he struggled to remove her one-piece swimsuit, and that he clapped a hand over her mouth when she tried to yell for help.

When asked for the detail that stands out most clearly in her mind, Dr. Blasey gave an answer at once professorial and heartbreaking. “Indelible in the hippocampus”—a crucial area of the brain where memories are formed—”is the laughter,” she explained, “the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.” It was the only moment in the four-hour hearing where I thought she might crack under the pressure. She wavered slightly and recovered. But that was the moment I began to fall apart—crying and crying at my computer screen letting my hot tears streak across my keyboard.

I was not alone. “A genuine question: were men out there brought to tears or shaking visceral response by that?” the gender and political writer Rebecca Traistertweetedon Thursday morning, adding that both in her inbox and her own apartment, women were weeping. Since Dr. Blasey began speaking, my phone had been lit up with text messages from female friends and family members who were at once proud of the strength and courage on display from one of our own, and deeply afraid of what would come next.

There is a specific kind of shocking pain to realizing that your pain is someone else’s entertainment—that your powerlessness is someone else’s pleasure. These are the times when you say “stop” and someone keeps going; when you try to get away and realize you’re trapped. My own memories contain moments like these, when it became starkly apparent that my sense of autonomy was a pretense that could be snatched away.

“Permission to scream doesn’t matter if no one is listening.”

As the day progressed and Kavanaugh came before the committee, he took a Trumpian tack: deny, deny, deny. He refuted every detail of Dr. Blasey’s version of events, down to the fact that they ever crossed paths in the first place. Oscillating between petulance, tears, and fury, Kavanaugh called the hearings process a “circus” and a “disgrace” that has “destroyed my family and my good name.” He also blamed the sexual assault allegations against him on a “fueled apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election,” a statement which seemed to abandon all pretense of his political neutrality.

But perhaps most tellingly, throughout it all, was that it was his own memory that might be compromised or flawed never seemed to occur to Kavanaugh. That she might be telling the truth has, from the start, never been something he was willing to consider.

Watching her, then him, I thought about my mother:You have permission to scream.What she couldn’t bear to tell me, but what so many women know, is that the permission doesn’t matter if no one is listening.