Women made time Thursday to gather around television sets and laptops to watch Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to the U.S. Senate judiciary committee. Judging by the outpouring on social media, some of them were in tears. Some were enraged. Far too many of them understood, in the heart and the brain and the gut, what Prof. Blasey Ford meant when she said, “Brett’s assault on me drastically altered my life.”
Brett is of course Brett Kavanaugh, U.S. President Donald Trump’s choice for Supreme Court justice, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by two other women in addition to Prof. Blasey Ford. (Justice Kavanaugh denies the allegations.) The consequences of that day, at a drunken impromptu party in suburban Washington more than three decades ago, were evident in Prof. Blasey Ford’s shaking voice. She remembered that Mr. Kavanaugh pushed her into a room and locked the door and got on top of her and tried to remove her clothes and covered her mouth with his hand to stifle her screams. She remembered that he and his friend, also in the room, laughed uproariously. It was her most indelible memory, she told the committee: They were “having fun at my expense.”
Prof. Blasey Ford was too ashamed and afraid to tell anyone initially what had happened. Her schoolwork suffered, she testified. She had trouble making friends. The legacy of that day followed her into adulthood: When she renovated her house a few years ago, she insisted that two front doors be installed, a suggestion that at first mystified her husband, but is abundantly clear from the point of view of someone who is always looking for a way of escape.
Prof. Blasey Ford’s testimony felt like a turning point, even in an era of reckoning that seems to be made entirely of turning points. She was terrified to speak publicly, but felt it was her civic duty to do so. The consequences have already been worse than she could have imagined – death threats, insults to her and family – but then she’s been living with the consequences for 35 years. All survivors do, male and female. This is something we have barely begun to understand, because so much of the pain occurs in silence.
It now feels as if a dam has burst. As if women who have been holding in all this rage and humiliation for decades are so exhausted with the effort that it can no longer be contained. They’ve been sharing the stories with one another and filling Twitter under the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport.
Prof. Blasey Ford was speaking before a committee that contained three senators who were also members 27 years ago, when Anita Hill was shredded for her testimony about Clarence Thomas sexually harassing her (Justice Thomas is still on the Supreme Court, you will recall.) As Prof. Blasey Ford testified, women were phoning call-in shows with their own stories. A 76-year-old woman identified only as Brenda phoned C-SPAN in tears to tell her story of being molested in the second grade: “This brings back so much pain. I thought I was over it, but I’m not … I have not brought this up for years until I heard this testimony, and it’s just breaking my heart.”
I wish I could say Brenda’s story surprised me, or Prof. Blasey Ford’s, but they did not. The pain that lasted decades did not. In the past year, I’ve been to more gatherings than I can count where the talk turns to our various experiences of violence, which were often kept completely secret but continue to live on in our bodies and minds. One woman told me she tries not to think about a decades-old assault, but it plays on a loop in her mind. These are invisible wounds, usually – invisible even to the people who care most about us. So we go to therapy, or self-medicate, or bury it far down and hope it doesn’t blossom into a garden of toxic weeds.
And if you wonder why that silence is maintained, for decades or forever, consider what happened to Andrea Constand, the Toronto woman who reported to police that Bill Cosby had drugged and sexually assaulted her. As Ms. Constand wrote in her victim-impact statement at Mr. Cosby’s sentencing, “The psychological, emotional and financial bullying included a slander campaign in the media that left my entire family reeling in shock and disbelief. Instead of being praised as a straight-shooter, I was called a gold-digger, a con artist, and a pathological liar.”
Although more than 60 women had complaints against Mr. Cosby, Ms. Constand was the sole witness in his two criminal trials, an unimaginable pressure. He was declared a violent sexual predator this week and sentenced to three to 10 years in prison. Ms. Constand’s sentence began long ago: “I’m a middle-aged woman who’s been stuck in a holding pattern for most of her adult life, unable to heal fully or to move forward,” she wrote. “Bill Cosby took my beautiful, healthy young spirit and crushed it. He robbed me of my health and vitality, my open nature, and my trust in myself and others.”
These are the high-profile cases, the women in the spotlight. Their trauma becomes some horrible form of public sport, but at least there is also an element of hope as other survivors draw strength to tell their own stories. More and more, I worry about the Brendas of the world, silently nursing their wounded pasts and doubly penalized – first by the men who harmed them and then by the ones who deny the consequences of that harm.
Ms. Constand helped bring Mr. Cosby to justice, at great cost to herself. Prof. Blasey Ford, in spite of well-founded fears about how she’d be treated when she came forward, still chose to testify, even as various fossilized senators attempted to undermine her credibility. These women did not have to speak out, but they did. They’ll be remembered as heroes and I hope that counts for something when they look at their scars.