Memory, Trauma and Truth: How Testifying Is Wired into Our Brains and How Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s Testimony Inspired Our Hearts by Shayna S. Israel
While it contestable as to whether or not judge Kavanaugh should be nominated to the privilege of Supreme Court Justice—what is undeniable is that: The testimonies of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh are about power. The power of a nominee over an accuser. The power of a politician and the power of a professor. The power of a high school junior over a high school sophomore. The power of a man over a woman.
The long trail that Dr. Blasey Ford has traversed from the new found power of a newly minted 15-year with a driver’s license—to powerlessness, in her violent assault, to empowerment—finding the will to testify—happened, for her, in the sexual realm. Yet, her empowerment story as a survivor has tethers extending out to larger social implications, both for her and the nation.
As the multitude of protestors descending on the Capitol are showing, who are part of the #CancelKavanaugh movement, Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony has ignited survivors across the country to make their voices and their stories heard. Dr. Blasey Ford in recounting her story, offered the nation a moment for us to examine how sexual violence permeates across the far reaches of our society and culture.
Sexual assault is about power—not sex. Sex is often, sadly, a tool for the dissemination of unreconciled, malcontented and distorted power.
Although, painfully matter-of-fact, Ms. Rachel Mitchell, the prosecutor hired by the Senate Republicans to question Dr. Blasey Ford, did an immense service by handing Kavanaugh a list of actions enumerating the spectrum of what is considered sexual violence. While Kavanaugh is still presumed innocent, it is important to make sure the accused is well informed about the range of offenses considered when an accuser of sexual assault comes forth.
Our notion of sexual violation too often has been informed by Hollywood dramatizations of it. Non-consensual sex, forcible or not, does not always happen as dramatic ruptures—although far too many of them do occur in that way. The majority of women sexually assaulted are assaulted by someone they know, either an intimate partner or family member. That means there is a gradation of possible misconduct ranging from the more egregious to the ostensibly benign.
In the Handmaid’s Tale, June Osbourne, the Handmaid of the Gileadan Commander Fred Waterford, is repeatedly raped by the Waterfords who attempt to sanitize her with religious scriptures. Many viewers cited being immensely bothered by such scenes as reasons for why they stopped watching. Ariana Romero for Refinery29.com writes on June 20th of this year, “After Wednesday’s latest episode, ‘The Last Ceremony,’ I am thankful those women, who were already deeply upset by the constant ritualized rape, which Gilead attempts to sanitize with Bible passages and protocol, left the Handmaid’s world when they did” .
Romero in her piece, “The Waterfords Can Never Come Back From That Handmaid’s Tale Assault Scene,” is aghast by the long penetrating scenes portraying the ritualized rape of June, noting that the directors went too far. “The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t just go for tight shots of the scene, which would minimize viewing the actual assault. Instead, we’re forced to look at long shots of Fred penetrating June, whose huge pregnancy stomach leaves her looking even more vulnerable, from above, behind, and from the side. Director Jeremy Podeswa gives us a relentless 360-degree view of the violence,” Romero states .
Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays June, sits at a roundtable of women, the likes of who include Oprah Winfrey and Nicole Kidman answering this question for HollywoodReporter.com: "If you were being sexually assaulted on a regular basis, and you knew there was nothing you could do about it, what would you do?" . Moss’ reply—“I would probably not be there.”
The dynamics between the maid and her masters are such that “not being there,” class-wise is less of an option for her. Hence—that is why there is an emphasis on the importance of talking about power when discussing sexual assault. There is a graduation of the abuse of power both in the sexual realm and the legal realm, in the upperclasses and the lower rungs of society.
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) provides a list of behaviors that fall under the umbrella of sexual assault. As the research, development and evaluation arm of the U.S. Justice Department, the NIJ is “dedicated to improving knowledge and understanding of crime and justice issues through science” . Their listing is objective and probably as illuminating as the list Kavanaugh received from the prosecutor, Mitchell. The NIJ’s list includes,
I include such a lengthy list because what one person calls attempted rape, another person might call roughhousing.
In an article titled “She Said. Then He Said. Now What Will Senators Say?,” Peter Baker writes regarding the Kavanaugh hearings that there was “a reality gulf so wide that their conflicting accounts of what happened when they were teenagers cannot be reconciled” . One person says she was in the room with two men, one of whom forcibly pushed her into the bedroom and onto the bed. Another says he was not even there on the night in question.
Two parallel lines, even in calculus, eventually meet. In this Kavanaugh hearing, between him and Dr. Blasey Ford, we many never know for certain all of what happened that night in the summer of 1982.
Nonetheless, ascertaining the truth is about reconciling accounts, creating a balance and fair elucidation of the facts on both sides.
Reconciliation is also about making a one to one: Is this what this is? When trauma occurs, it throws things off balance, “Was this a this, and was that a that? What to do with this, and what to do with that?” The brain works based on agreement. In fact, that is how any definition works, particularly the definition of reality. For societies, let alone two people, to work, to communicate, there has to be agreement that a duck is a duck.
When two teenagers whose frontal cortices are still in development and when inebriants like alcohol are involved, there is already a potential fissure in the reality checking mechanisms that our bodies have. Meaning there’s a potential fissure in the biological checks and balances, like the one’s we are currently seeing in our own political branches of government.
Our eyes confirm for our hears what we perceive and vice versa. The brain, as well as the genitals, is a sex organ. That means, unfortunately, that our bodies can participate in a sexual act even while our brains our less-than-conscious. It is not uncommon for rape victims to report lubrication during an assault even as their minds slip in and out of consciousness. Slippage is part of the array of protective mechanisms the brain employs to mitigate the receptivity impact of the body in trauma. It’s called blacking out.
There is another kind of blacking out that much more people are familiar with—and that is the drug induced kind. Trauma causes dissociation. Beer, drunken in excess, can cause dissociation. That does not mean an attacker is in any way excused from culpability—very far from it. What it does mean is that remembering all the details, on the side of the accused and the accuser is complicated by neurobiology.
Now, I, by far, am not a neurobiologist, and Dr. Blasey Ford, by far, is an expert in her own right: She has a Bachelor’s in Experimental Psychology, a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, a Master’s in Epidemiology and a PhD in Educational Psychology . During her testimony, Dr. Blasey Ford outlined the neurochemistry of trauma and memory. When asked by Ms. Mitchell, "how she could be certain in her recollection of what happened with Judge Kavanaugh," Dr. Blasey Ford responded :
“Just basic memory functions, and also just the level of norepinephrine and the epinephrine in the brain that, you know, encodes that neurotransmitter that codes memories into the hippocampus and so the trauma-related experience is locked there, whereas other details kind of drift” . Dr. Blasey Ford noted a typical “fight or flight” reaction and relayed, about her assault, that she “was definitely experiencing the surge of cortisol and adrenaline and epinephrine” .
In this country we are innocent until proven guilty and even then we have the right to appeal. Respecting our precious constitutional standing, I write here today not to speak conclusively about whether or not Kavanaugh is a serial attempted-rapist. I am writing to say that I can believe that both Dr. Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh were speaking their truths—as they have recalled them. I do suspect that Kavanaugh may have misled the Judiciary Committee in some of the explanations of his yearbook terminology, at the very least--at the very least.
In a testimony, as many of the federal prosecutors mentioned over and over during the hearings, the most credible thing that they look for is being up front about what you don’t remember. Commenting on the night of her sexual assault, at the beginning of Dr. Blasey Ford’s written testimony, she states, :
“I do not remember all of the details of how that gathering came together, but like many that summer, it was almost surely a spur of the moment gathering. I truly wish I could provide detailed answers to all of the questions that have been and will be asked about how I got to the party, where it took place, and so forth. I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t remember as much as I would like to. But the details about that night that bring me here today are ones I will never forget. They have been seared into my memory and have haunted me episodically as an adult” .
Who—between Dr. Blasey Ford and Judge Kavanaugh, in recounting lapses in memory—was more forthright?
When we have a president, Donald J. Trump that criticizes a survivor of sexual assault for what she does not remember (See the latest Trump rant), let’s remember why victims immediately after trauma have so much difficulty in telling their stories: They don’t want to be traumatized again.
In the spirit of the many survivors telling their stories and speaking truth to power, here is a poem I have written almost 11 years after my rape. I was gang raped at the age of 12.