Identity

Indelible in Our Hippocampus

It may be too soon to tell how history will judge Thursday's Senate Judiciary hearings—but the women who watched Christine Blasey Ford's testimony have already made up their minds.

by Marie Solis
Sep 28 2018, 7:51pm

Photos of Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford via Getty Images. 

Watching Thursday's Senate Judiciary hearings gave one the uncanny sense that history—something we would read and think about decades from now—was happening in real time.

When Christine Blasey Ford rose to swear to tell the truth about her encounters with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh more than three decades ago, Will McNamee, a Getty Images photographer, captured what everyone seemed to immediately agree would be the hearing's iconic image: Ford, holding up her right hand, head back, eyes closed.

This is the Ford people will remember: poised, calm, and in control. Though she gave an emotional opening statement, choking back tears and telling the committee that she'd been "terrified" to appear before its members, Ford delivered a testimony that most agreed was composed and measured. She admitted when she couldn't recall certain details from the night, more than 30 years ago, when she says Kavanaugh held her down on a bed, covered her mouth, and attempted to force himself on her. And, being a psychology professor, Ford approached questions about what she could remember with scientific exactness. She explained to outside counsel Rachel Mitchell that the "etiology of anxiety and PTSD is multifactorial," and to California Senator Dianne Feinstein that she could remember Kavanaugh being her assailant because the neurotransmitter epinephrine "codes memories into the hippocampus."

When she was asked about her most vivid memory from the alleged assault, Ford told the committee: "Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two"—Kavanaugh and his friend, Mark Judge—"and their having fun at my expense.”

Ford couldn't find a better foil than Kavanaugh, who alternatively shouted and cried his way through his own opening remarks, which lasted 45 minutes. (Ford's took about 18.) At times, Kavanaugh stumbled over straightforward questions from Mitchell and, some said, disrespected senators like Amy Klobuchar when he turned their questions back on them.

“So you’re saying there’s never been a case where you drank so much that you didn’t remember what happened the night before or part of what happened?" the Minnesota senator asked Kavanaugh.

“You’re talking about blackout," Kavanaugh responded. "I don’t know—have you?"

Thursday, many say, will be a lesson in what we ask of survivors of sexual violence—composure, a spotless record, unimpeachable credibility—and what we tolerate from those accused of it. And, despite the cultural shifts in society's attitudes toward sexual abuse, those who watched Anita Hill testify against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas 27 years ago argue Ford's hearings didn't look much different.

"I really wish I could say that we did better yesterday than we did by Anita Hill but I still saw so many disturbing parallels," New York Representative Carolyn Maloney, who was photographed in the hearing room on Thursday with tears streaming down her face, told Broadly in an email. "Dr. Ford has nothing to gain by coming forward and she, like Anita Hill, was attacked—her motivations questioned, her life threatened.

"In this #MeToo era," she continued. "I really had hoped we would do better."

There was one crucial difference between Hill's and Ford's hearings, though most were loath to call it an improvement. Whereas Hill was interrogated by an all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee, whose members asked her for graphic details about her sex life and suggested she suffered from "erotomania," on Thursday, Republican senators yielded their questioning to Mitchell, a female prosecutor.

"I really had hoped we would do better."

"The Republican majority have learned nothing from the Anita Hill hearings," Eleanor Smeal, the president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, who was in the hearing room to see Hill testify in 1991, said. "The only thing they learned was to try to control the optics so it wouldn't look like they were attacking the woman."

Smeal argued Republican senators made a show out of being polite and even deferential to Ford, calling her "Dr. Ford," and thanking her for testifying—only to reveal their true intentions when it was Kavanaugh's turn to testify, casting Mitchell to the side so they could use their allotted time to bolster Kavanaugh's testimony and discredit Ford's.

"Republicans' treatment of Ford will be judged even more harshly," Smeal said, pointing out that Hill, unlike Ford, was allowed an FBI hearing and witnesses. "This was a sham proceeding."

Friday morning, as Senate Judiciary Committee members approached a vote on Kavanaugh, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake—among those occasional swing voters who'd been undecided—came out in support of confirming the nominee to the bench. Later, in an 11-10 vote to advance Kavanaugh's nomination to the Senate floor, Flake asked for an FBI investigation. But some say history will remember names like Flake's with spite long after they leave office.

"Senators like Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, who have at times shown some measure of independence from their party, will leave their offices in shame," said Nan Aron, the president of the Alliance for Justice, the left-leaning group that led opposition to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' nomination in 1991.

"People won't for forget," she added. "People will be reminded of these senators, and the Republican Party's cowardice, for years and decades to come."

Ford's account of being assaulted resonated with many women, particularly her vivid memory of being laughed at and humiliated. During Ford's testimony, assault survivors flooded C-SPAN with calls about their own experiences with sexual abuse, and the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network reported a 147 percent spike in calls to its sexual assault hotline. Survivors on social media continued to coalesce around the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport to discuss why they didn't bring allegations against their own abusers to authorities, and protesters who crowded the Senate building where Ford's hearing took place gathered around their phones to watch her testimony, weeping.

Women were overwhelmingly the ones paying closest attention to Thursday's hearings, hanging on Ford's every word, and watching Kavanaugh and Republicans defend themselves against it. It's difficult to say how women will digest what they saw on Thursday, but looking back on the impact of Hill's hearings provides a clue.

Hill's testimony is thought to have contributed to 1992's "Year of the Woman," the results of an election that doubled the number of women in Congress. Among them was Feinstein, the ranking Democrat of the Senate Judiciary, to whom Ford sent her letter detailing the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh. Another female senator elected that year was Washington Senator Patty Murray, who said she was inspired to run after watching Hill's brave testimony with her daughter by her side.

“I ran for the Senate because of how an all-male panel treated Anita Hill in 1991, so I’m deeply concerned—and extremely frustrated—that 27 years later, this Congress will do no better, and may even do worse," Murray told Broadly on Friday, in advance of the committee's vote to advance Kavanaugh's nomination. "If Republicans do in fact jam this through, they should absolutely know that women are watching, and they are not going to forget.”

“I ran for the Senate because of how an all-male panel treated Anita Hill in 1991, so I’m deeply concerned—and extremely frustrated—that 27 years later, this Congress will do no better, and may even do worse."

Aron says women's anger at Kavanaugh—who, in addition to being accused of sexual assault would also tip the balance on the court toward overturning Roe v. Wade—and awe of Ford will drive them to the polls in just 38 days to send a message with their votes. With a record number of women having already won their party's nomination for November's elections, some say Ford's hearings could help power a second "Year of the Woman."

"If Kavanaugh gets confirmed, there will be two justices on the Supreme Court with big asterisks by their names—Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas," Aron said. "And women, together with their male supporters, will go to the polls in a few weeks and their votes will be a clear expression of their anger.

"Young women who watched these hearings will not forget," she continued. "And equally important, will not forgive."