It’s very possible that Brett Kavanaugh doesn’t remember assaulting Christine Blasey Ford. It seems like Kavanaugh has been a heavy drinker, and if he suffered from blackouts while drinking he will never recall the incident. A blackout isn’t the same as passing out; a drinker in a blackout state may seem perfectly normal, but a switch has been thrown in their brain and they are no longer making memories. There are no memories for the drinker to recover. I’ve seen it compared to the old-fashioned VCR technology – you could set your VCR to record a TV show, but it wouldn’t record anything if you forgot to put a VHS tape in there. A person in a blackout has had their VHS tape ejected.
Or perhaps Brett Kavanaugh doesn’t remember assaulting Christine Blasey Ford because it was just not a big deal to him. He was raised in a culture, and lived in a community, where this kind of behavior might have been seen as fairly par for the course. That’s a pretty stinging indictment of our society, but it seems quite plausible. Kavanaugh came of age in a time very different from today, in a decade in which two of the most vaunted underdog movies – Revenge of the Nerds and Sixteen Candles – feature triumphant moments that we would now recognize as rape.
Neither of these options let Brett Kavanaugh off the hook. It’s just worth noting that he might very well have no memory of assaulting Ford. It’s worth noting that drinkers in blackouts also have a part of their brain turned off that regulates their behavior. It’s worth noting that he was raised in a culture where his values at that age may not have been positive. To judge his character today based on his actions in 1982 might be unfair. A lot of growth and change can happen in 30 years.
So let’s judge him on his actions in 2018. And in 2018 he has shown himself to be a moral coward, a man without decency, and a person willing to throw his own humanity away to score a win.
This is a situation where I have a little experience. In 2016 I was accused of sexually assaulting someone. The assault occurred in 2003 and I have no memory of it. I had been a blackout drinker, so it’s quite possible that my drinking stopped any memory of that night being formed in the first place. More dispiritingly, it’s possible that I don’t remember that night because my values were poor and I did not think what I did was a big deal. There’s a lot I don’t remember from that period of my life, a period that was very dark, was spent largely drunk and on drugs, was spent with people who were what we might call ‘low companions.’ It was a period where I was angry, bitter, cruel and just a plain crummy person to be around.
The accusation via Twitter in 2016, at the time when the Donald Trump pussy-grabbing tape was making headlines, hit me like a speeding car. I was flattened. I didn’t remember the night, but I knew that the person who was accusing me was someone who had been in my social circle. This wasn’t a random stranger. And while I, in 2016, didn’t feel like the kind of person who would do such a thing, I couldn’t say with authority that the same was true of 2003 me. Plus, I knew I was a blackout drinker. I knew that I sometimes behaved abominably while drinking.
In that moment, knowing what I knew about myself, I saw no other choice but to accept responsibility, apologize and, soon after, leave my job. There was a crisis management firm brought in to handle the whole thing in the immediate aftermath, and I was told that they wished I had not acknowledged and apologized on Twitter. I should have kept my mouth shut. That didn’t seem like an option to me. It still doesn’t.
(I need to say here that I do not believe this makes me a better person than anyone else, or that this is something for which I should be praised. It was the bare minimum.)
But blowing it off had been an option in 2006. The woman I assaulted confronted me in 2006 on a message board we both frequented. I told her I didn’t remember it. I didn’t take her seriously and looked at the accusation as a personal attack. I revictimized her. That was a moment of supreme moral cowardice, a moment of self-centered delusional thinking where the harm I had caused was compounded. This is what Brett Kavanaugh is doing today. It’s what he’s doing to not only Christine Blasey Ford, but also to millions of survivors – mostly women but also men – who are hearing from Kavanaugh and the GOP establishment that their experiences and pain don’t matter.
Here’s what it boils down to: if someone tells you that you harmed them, believe it. It’s as simple as that. This wasn’t clear to me in 2006, but it became clearer in the years that followed, as I grew and changed as a person. By 2016 it was not just clear, it was obvious.
We don’t get to tell other people they weren’t harmed by us. It’s possible that we didn’t mean to harm them. It’s possible that we don’t recall harming them. It’s possible that we have a hard time understanding why what we did/said would be harmful. But that doesn’t matter. Harm – especially emotional harm – is in the eyes of the harmed.
We know this because we’ve all experienced it. Someone makes an off-hand comment and it really screws us up. They didn’t mean to hurt our feelings, but they did. We all recognize that it feels better when the person apologizes for accidentally hurting our feelings, that it feels better when we are heard and our experience validated.
This is a small scale version of the Kavanaugh situation, but no matter how you scale it, the moral principles remain the same: if someone tells you that you harmed them, you believe them, you hear them and you try to make it right. If you’re a person with an alcohol use disorder, as I am and as Kavanaugh seems to be, you REALLY take it seriously and really try to make it right, especially when the harm caused is as monumental as this.
This isn’t just of interest to me and Brett Kavanaugh. If you’re a man of a certain age, it’s quite possible that you have a woman in your past that you have harmed with sexual assault or sexual harassment. There are behaviors that were more acceptable 15 or 20 or 30 years ago that are, thankfully, unacceptable today. Things that you thought were consensual may, in fact, not have actually been so. The ways that you were socialized to show certain kinds of aggression are also the ways women were socialized to accept that aggression, and it’s only now, with further growth and education, that it may be clear to them that they were violated. They may have spent decades convincing themselves that what happened was no big deal, but the #MeToo movement has opened their eyes to what a big deal it actually was.
As I’ve learned this it’s become clear to me that there are more women that I’ve harmed, some I remember, some I don’t. Some of my past actions have been recontextualized for me, and things I thought were okay back then are now clearly not. Some of my behaviors fit into the litany of standard unskillful ways we hurt each other in relationships – manipulation, ghosting, running emotionally hot and cold, being selfish – but I take these no less seriously than I do my 2003 actions. I have begun making amends to other people, and if I hear from more women I have harmed but do not remember, I will work to make amends to them.
If someone from your past tells you that you harmed them, you need to hear them. You need to believe them. You need to apologize. You need to make amends.
Sometimes this works out well. This recent Atlantic article is by a woman who, inspired by the Kavanaugh horrors, reached out to the man who raped her decades before. There was healing. But there’s no promise that it will work out that way every time.
I don’t know that there’s been any miraculous healing for my survivor just because I accepted responsibility and apologized. Doing those things didn’t spare me the consequences of my actions, and they shouldn’t have. Accepting responsibility and apologizing doesn’t give you a mulligan.
It’s just the correct thing to do. That’s it. It may or may not start the healing, but at the very least it allows you to stop causing new harm. Brett Kavanaugh cannot change what happened in 1982. I cannot take back the pain and trauma I caused in 2003, or the pain and trauma that resonated in the years afterwards. But I can try to reduce the harm I cause going forward. I can try to not revictimize people from my past. Brett Kavanaugh can do the morally correct thing and listen to Christine Blasey Ford, truly hear her, and figure out how he can begin to make right what he has done wrong. Forget the Supreme Court – in the end this is the only choice available to him if he wants to maintain any of his humanity at all.