Christine Blasey Ford's Memory Shouldn't Be On Trial
In the two weeks between the initial report that a woman had alleged Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both high schoolers, and Thursday's Senate hearings on the matter with Christine Blasey Ford, it feels like nearly every myth about sexual assault survivors has had its moment in the spotlight.
Most viciously, we’ve seen the myth that "real" survivors immediately report their attack, with President Trump’s Sept. 21 tweet claiming, "I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents." We’ve also seen various commentators trot out the idea that women who wait a long time to talk about their assaults have ulterior motives; that women lie about rape for attention; and that it is normal for teen boys to engage in a certain level of sexual harassment and assault with teen girls.
But one of the biggest, and most pernicious, myths is that Ford is simply "mixed up," and confused about what happened to her that night — and that "real" sexual assault survivors can remember every detail of their attack.
The idea that Ford was simply confused has been a ongoing theme in press coverage and Senate reactions since the moment she came forward. Sen. Orrin Hatch stated on Sept. 17 that he believed Ford was “mixed up” about what happened with Kavanaugh at the party where she was allegedly assaulted. On Sept. 20, conservative commentator and president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center Ed Whelan implied that Ford might be confused, and that another man may have attacked her at the party. Even Kavanaugh himself took the stance that Ford was a victim, but a confused one — Kavanaugh’s opening statement included the comment, "I am not questioning that Dr. Ford may have been sexually assaulted by some person in some place at some time. But I have never done this to her or to anyone."
The myth that sexual assault survivors should remember every single detail of the attack then took center stage in prosecutor Rachel Mitchell’s questioning of Ford, which focused in on the minute details of the night of the alleged attack. Mitchell, who was chosen by Republicans to question Ford, spent long stretches of time questioning Ford about whether a stereo was playing downstairs at the party where the alleged assault happened, or who gave Ford a ride to or from the party.
"They're not remembering if they're driving a red car ... they're trying not to die."
Some viewers might have been perplexed about why Mitchell was spending so much of her short time with Ford grilling her about how she had described the assault as occurring in the “mid-'80s,” “early '80s” or “1982” in various communications, but anyone who has spent a lot of time watching how our society treats sexual assault survivors — or has been grilled in this way about their own trauma — probably felt a sick, familiar feeling. Mitchell’s tactics were similar to countless others who look to prove that sexual assault survivors who don't have a crystal-clear recollection of every moment of the attack should not be believed. After all, if she can’t remember every moment of that day in laser-detail, how traumatized could she really be?
According to research about how trauma impacts memory, confused recollections of details are a common part of living with PTSD. Dr. Catherine Burnette, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Tulane University who specializes in mental health and intimate partner violence, tells Bustle that when we are in danger, our brain's normal memory functions are disrupted, because "your brain is wired for survival, to pay attention to the details that are the most threatening." This might mean focusing in on attacker's face, but not noticing some music playing, the color of the walls, or other details that would normally jump out at you. When someone is in the midst of a traumatic event, Burnette says, "they're trying just to survive. They're not remembering if they're driving a red car ... they're trying not to die."
Max Ehrenfreund and Elahe Izadi echo that in a report on the topic for the Washington Post in 2014, writing, “People who endure these traumatic experiences often are unable to remember what happened to them accurately.” They go on to quote a major 1996 study of assault survivors, which found that when memories of rape were compared to non-violent memories, the rape memories "were rated as less clear and vivid, less visually detailed, less likely to occur in a meaningful order, less well-remembered, less talked about, and less frequently recalled either voluntarily or involuntarily; with less sensory components including sound, smell, touch, and taste."
In fact, Dr. Phillip Resnick, director of the forensic psychiatry program at UH Case Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio, told ABC News in 2014 that struggling to remember some details of your traumatic experience is actually so common among trauma victims, it’s part of the diagnostic criteria for PTSD.
The fact that Mark Judge, a friend of Kavanaugh who Ford said was also present at her alleged assault, is not testifying, as well as the fact that an FBI investigation has not been set into motion, turns the Ford-Kavanaugh situation not into an investigation of a potential Supreme Court justice, but into a trial about Ford’s memory. On Sept. 25, Anita Hill told NPR’s All Things Considered that the hearing would only be a “he said-she said” situation if it was designed that way by Senate members.
“In a real hearing and a real investigation, other witnesses would be called, including witnesses who could corroborate, witnesses who could explain the context of the experiences of Dr. Blasey Ford and Judge Kavanaugh during that period in their lives, as well as experts on sexual harassment and sexual assault,” Hill said.
The fact that this didn’t happen turned what should have been a complex, thorough investigation into something all too many of us can relate to: an examination not of an alleged abuser, but of a woman's memory. An examination that Ford was set up to fail.
I’ve heard so many women say, "I can’t imagine what Dr. Ford is going through right now." But actually, many sexual assault survivors can — that’s why it’s so painful. Anyone who has ever been asked how it could have happened the way they said it did, or why they got certain details wrong if they're being truthful. Anyone who asked themselves if they could be misremembering the whole thing, or talked themselves out of reporting because the details seemed slippery. Anyone who have ever tried to speak out about what happened to them, and instead found themselves on trial.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.
This perspective is reflective of the author's opinion, and is part of a larger, feminist discourse.