It’s proving difficult to stop thinking about the testimonies last week. Four hours of questions to a citizen named Christine Blasey Ford. Four hours of questions, of a sort, to Judge Brett Kavanaugh of the second highest court in the United States. The woman lives quietly as a professor of psychology and surfer in Northern California. The man has never left Washington, DC, and helps decide the law of the land. The miserable anticipation before last Thursday depended on the “impression” Ford would make in repeating, before the country, the assertion that this judge—nominated to the Supreme Court—had once confined and sexually assaulted her when she was 15 and he was 17. The abyss we’ve dwelt in since is the result of the impression from his testimony. I still don’t know how to assimilate it all. The mirrored sessions reversed the conventional meanings and assignment of shame and pity, then of impartiality and knowledge.
The one thing certain following both testimonies was that Christine Blasey Ford had shown herself qualified by temperament and character to ascend to the open seat on the Supreme Court. Alas this was not the arrangement being considered. Hard as it was for Professor Ford to testify before so many eyes, so many cameras, the ring of senatorial mountebanks, the nattering preambles of a donkeyish chairman, she simply did it. There was no sense of shame in her words; and this was right, for an adult to have no need of shame, because there was no cause for it: “I did not want to tell my parents that I, at age 15, was in a house without any parents present, drinking beer with boys.” That was a child’s logic. She is now adult; she had gone through a life’s work of reconstructing her experience with an adult’s ability to see, compare, and judge.
It was Judge Kavanaugh who plunged us unexpectedly into shame: an overwhelming shame of him, shame at his self-pity and at the desperation of his rage, shame of oneself as a man, listening to this man-child. It seemed a kind of contagion of shame, which certainly infected Senator Lindsey Graham in his hysterical breakdown and his vision of “hell.” That is hell: to have never grown up, and not to know it. Shame not for sex, but at something deficient in Kavanaugh’s being—a shame with him—I felt it, certainly—that provoked guffaws, first, but then induced a flesh-crawling abyss of terror at the possibility that any grown man could be as blind or as stunted, as fumbling in a darkness of self, as this.
I, too, would not want my child to see this. I would not want her to know that a grown man, a pillar of the state, could yell, scream, sweat, cry, spit, and tremble for what his child self deserved, what his childhood still entitled him to, with his beer, his team, his fibs, his purity, his school, his friends, his Yale, his Law School. A man begging to be relieved of adult responsibility, adult knowledge, by our pity. How did we fail to educate him? How did we ever elevate him? Appellate Judge, a Pillar of the State! A pillar of salt, rather—collapsing with the fillip of a finger, to poison the earth where he subsides. And now the Republican Senate prepares to put him on the Court.
Christine Ford narrated behaviors and beliefs quite differently. “Brett groped me and tried to take off my clothes. He had a hard time, because he was very inebriated, and because I was wearing a one-piece bathing suit underneath my clothing. I believed he was going to rape me.” “Brett put his hand over my mouth to stop me from yelling. . . . It was hard for me to breathe, and I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me.” She distinguished her understanding, her belief, as her own. Perspective of that kind, in narration, requires retrospective separation of oneself and others, the ability to see oneself as a limited creature, not as the whole of reality. She did not anticipate others’ minds or hearts except by what was done and shown. “Mark seemed ambivalent, at times urging Brett on and at times telling him to stop. A couple of times, I made eye contact with Mark and thought he might try to help me, but he did not.”
Certainly it was a performance, as Kavanaugh’s appearance was a performance. But hers was a performance of self-knowledge, and of the credibility necessary to establish reliability in a witness. Yes, you could hear the 15-year-old in her testimony, as shortly thereafter we heard the 17-year-old within Kavanaugh, crying and bleating. But Professor Ford’s account was nested within the judgments of a person who had become adult through dedication. Years of individual therapy, of couples therapy. Advanced degrees in psychology, expertise in research design, in statistics, in validity of interpretations from data. Someone who had submitted to being the analysand and supplicant, the student and seeker unknown to herself.
Other people are constantly not seeing us. We are rarely at the center of anyone’s universe but our own. This is what brings conflicts about—the conflicts that come before courts, in cases civil, criminal, or appellate. Interesting how hard it was at times for even the sympathetic senators to hear Ford say that even she is not at the center of her own story.
SENATOR LEAHY: What is the strongest memory you have, the strongest memory of the incident, something that you cannot forget? Take whatever time you need.
FORD: Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the laugh—the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.
LEAHY: You’ve never forgotten that laughter. You’ve never forgotten them laughing at you.
No, she corrected the senator:
FORD: They were laughing with each other.
LEAHY: And you were the object of the laughter?
Again she had to correct him:
FORD: I was, you know, underneath one of them while the two laughed, two friends—two friends having a really good time with one another.
But then why was this man weeping for himself? The former laughing boy, bully or bystander, whom so many classmates have described to the press in recollections. To those of us not cynical enough to believe his performance was altogether calculated, a Trumpian performance for an audience of one, the judge on the platform seemed somehow possessed. Either he must have been drinking in the limo to the hearing, very unlikely under the circumstances, or he was in a fugue state, captivated by past emotion. Certainly his did not seem like an honest or innocent person’s reaction to the outrage of false accusation. It was too unhinged and histrionic, and likewise too excuse-making and oily. But I was willing to believe that Kavanaugh had been directly possessed by the emotions of his 17-year-old self, by the thinking and logic of 17.
Its first form was the logic of friends and enemies. Everything affectionate was about his high school friends—affection that had no place in this hearing: “Cherish your friends, look out for your friends, lift up your friends, love your friends. . . . I thank all my friends. I love all my friends.” Why was he babbling this to the Senate Judiciary Committee and the nation? Then the enemies: the Senators, Democrats, the Media, the Clintons . . . he would get back at them all, once he put on his helmet and took the field.
We learned that Kavanaugh had been a victim of single-sex education but had begun to make female friends at 14, if only by telephone: “I remember talking almost every night it seemed, to my friends Amy, or Julie, or Kristin, or Karen, or Suzanne, or Moira, or Megan, or Nikki.” He had learned so many girls’ names. The friends he gathered to do things with, however, were boys. “My friends and I sometimes got together and had parties on weekends. . . . I drank beer with my friends. Almost everyone did. Sometimes I had too many beers. Sometimes others did. I liked beer. I still like beer.” Which led to a surreal self-exoneration: “If every American who drinks beer or every American who drank beer in high school is suddenly presumed guilty of sexual assault, [that] will be an ugly, new place in this country.”
This, too, seemed like the baffling reductio of a 17-year-old. According to the words he scrawled on his 1982 calendar, Kavanaugh was “grounded” on so many weekends by his parents, again, and again, and again. (Though we never learned for what. For drunkenness during the week? For attempting rape?) If all the guys who got wasted and attacked somebody got caught and held back, why, there’ll be no final game against Gonzaga this year! There’ll be no prom! We’ll have no Supreme Court!
Then the rhetorical structure of his fibbing: the structure of these naked deceptions was very much the structure of a child’s lie, an obvious fib, only plausible in that imagined world in which the child does not possess knowledge—as of sex or of drinking—and the parent will not question it because it would mean the end of innocence. “Devil’s Triangle”—“A drinking game.” “Boofed”—“Flatulence.” By a peculiar paradox, it would have been the only true proof against our general moral collapse if one of the Democratic senators had dared to acknowledge being an adult who had once been a teen, able to speak plain words, even dirty words, without fear: Judge Kavanaugh, I, too, once was 17, and every former 17-year-old now-adult says that “Devil’s Triangle” meant “two guys one girl” and “boofing” was either fucking or ass-fucking. So, look, you lying coward, you’ve told us you were a virgin and I’m willing to believe it. But if you were lying about this stuff in your 17-year-old yearbook, why are you still lying now?
Most dispiriting, in a way, was the strong sensation that this man who would decide our laws and fates had never asked why he lived as he did, how he became who he was. He kept calendars, he told us, because his father kept calendars. But why did his father keep calendars? Unknown. Why did he do whatever his father did? Seemingly he had never thought to wonder. The suspicion arose that he was a judge, that he’d always wanted to be a judge, because his mother was a judge. He had become a lawyer because his parents were lawyers.
And most bizarre, I think—the moment I will not be able to forget, so utterly sincere and consistent and emotional did it seem, the emotional peak of his long, rambling statement—was when Kavanaugh told us the single thing he loves doing most in the world. Not the law (though this is the job he’s interviewing for). Not parenting (though he is a sentimentalist of kids and parents, or perhaps of himself-as-a-kid-and-parent). It was coaching youth athletics. “I love coaching more than anything I’ve ever done in my whole life.” Then a pause, and the explosion: “But thanks to what some of you on this side of the committee have unleashed, I may never be able to coach again.”
I laughed! Oh, I think Kavanaugh could coach girls’ basketball again. As much as he’d want. I think that can be arranged. If he’d just give way. If he’d just cease to insist that he ought to be on the Supreme Court.
Are these dark times, or are they unconscionably stupid times? Are they both? Is it the case that the worst, when it comes, comes in a clown car? How did I live so long believing that evil might have its own dignity?
We have one new judge with an asterisk already; now it seems we’ll get two. Gorsuch* is not a man of character—so he proved to us. But he was deficient in a familiar way, one I can imagine facing, too, and the guilt of which I can easily feel. He was immoral by temptation. If I, too, lusted for power in his particular domain of the law; if I, too, wished to rule over and judge my fellow citizens without election; then how would I act, if the job I most wanted—to be Supreme Court Justice, for life, unelected—happened to be offered to me as stolen goods, by a usurping and vile Executive? It would have required genuine courage, genuine character, to be moral and to say no. Not to sit in another judge’s seat, the seat in which Merrick Garland belonged. Not to shake the hand of the racist con man and Russian accomplice. That is certainly the standard we should hold him to. But it was an evil familiar to adults.
We must never forget that Gorsuch is an ass-kisser, a soft-pedaler, and was eager to be installed illegitimately by a criminal. Some respect for law! I pity him for his cowardice, I pity the colleagues who have to work with him, I pity his family for having to be related to him. I regret how difficult it will be to remove him once Trump’s election campaign’s cheating invalidates the election and Trump’s appointments. In truth, I suspect Gorsuch will never be voided, and that he lacks the dignity or nobility to resign.
With Kavanaugh, however, we have gone from broken dignity to absent thought. If Gorsuch is the Cuckoo Justice, laying his eggs in another person’s rightful nest, Kavanaugh is a trained Pigeon. He might visit the Supreme Court, but he will return to the little coop in the GOP, as he returned to his home, his father’s calendars, his mother’s job—after invading other people’s safety. He will return looping back, and never know, consciously, why his wings have taken him on this route.