As the rolling saga of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination progresses ― with more allegations emerging and staunch defenders of the nominee making proclamations on the Senate floor and cable news ― I, like many sexual assault survivors, have begun living in a kind of bifurcated time. I am in the present, in which the news continues to relentlessly unfurl. And I am in the past, where the pain lives, and it keeps pulling me back to the worst moments of my life.
On the one hand, I am living my life, here in September of 2018. I am doing my work; I am drinking my coffee. I am typing with hands still brown from the summer sun; the cold rain of autumn cools my cheeks.
And on the other hand, I am suspended in a series of awful moments, recalling themselves to me from puberty onward. I am recalling each grope, each unwanted incursion into my body, each mortification of my female flesh, and I am trapped in visceral sense-memories of rank sweat and alcohol and a flood of stress-borne cortisol.
I am living in two spaces at once: in the world of accumulated trauma, and the contemporary news cycle that evokes it. And I’m not alone. Over the past week, sexual assault survivors of every gender have poured out their experiences on hashtags like #WhyIDidntReport and #BelieveSurvivors. On Monday, social media was flooded by photos from a national walkout by black-clad, solemn-faced survivors and allies, a rebuttal to the casual dismissal offered in the Senate and on Fox News and ― perhaps worst of all ― from the president, who has casually and cruelly rebutted many credible assault allegations against himself.
I am living in two spaces at once: in the world of accumulated trauma, and the contemporary news cycle that evokes it.
Living in bifurcated time means reeling from Trump’s casual dismissal of Deborah Ramirez’s claim, reported in The New Yorker, that a college-aged Kavanaugh took out his penis and put it in her face against her will. “She admits that she was drunk,” the president of the United States said. And inside me, an inner Rolodex of humiliations unfurls, and I feel cramped with shame and rage, feel marked, inside, with red blazons of indignity.
For all of last week and this one, I have lived between these two worlds: the perpetually moving present moment and the one that doesn’t move, the harsh-toned film clips of past assaults, that click into place and play under my drooping eyelids. Sleep has come reluctantly; it has memories to fight.
All the while, the vote to confirm Kavanaugh is proceeding apace, though it has descended into a kind of brittle, hideous black comedy, like a John Hughes movie with its ugly underbelly exposed.
At issue is not only the judge’s errant penis, or his alleged attempted rape of Christine Blasey Ford, but also his virginity: He told Fox News host Martha MacCallum that he remained a virgin throughout high school and “for many years after.” An immaculately conceived defense: the Virgin Brett. A man who was a fellow student at Yale alleges that Kavanaugh had contradicted this statement back in their freshman year.
Renate Schroeder Dolphin, a woman who had signed a letter of support for Kavanaugh, discovered, to her chagrin, that she had been the subject of a seemingly sexualized proto-meme in the Georgetown Prep yearbook. Kavanaugh and others, including eight other members of the football team, listed themselves as “Renate Alumni,” which some former classmates said meant the boys had in some sense “graduated” her.
“I can’t begin to comprehend what goes through the minds of 17-year-old boys who write such things,” she told The New York Times, “but the insinuation is horrible, hurtful and simply untrue. I pray their daughters are never treated this way.”
Kavanaugh was asked on Fox News about allegedly participating in a gang rape, pursuant to questions raised by the publicity-inclined lawyer Michael Avenatti. Needless to say, most of us have not faced a gang-rape questionnaire in any job interview. Most of us have not had to.
And yet even this has not sufficed to derail his nomination ― or slow the stream of defenders rushing to declare any woman coming forward about Kavanaugh’s past as participants in a “smear job.” Christine Blasey Ford will testify on Thursday with no corroborating witness; the one man she named as a direct witness to the events she described, Mark Judge, has not been subpoenaed by the Senate. Nothing has deterred the assemblage of distinguished lawmakers prepared to elevate this man to the nation’s highest court, with its absolute control over the legislative fate of women’s bodies. In the president’s words, the women coming forward are part of “a con game.”
Needless to say, most of us have not faced a gang-rape questionnaire in any job interview. Most of us have not had to.
But it has begun to feel as if the real con game is the broad expectation that women will go along peaceably.
The real con game, the big lie, was women ever hoping to be considered equal.
In this con game, survivors work to square our poisoned memories, the frozen time of trauma, with the present, in which powerful men defend other powerful men against anything and through anything, heedless of their own descent into indignity.
In the real con game, we are asked not to take it personally when people in the highest levels of our government attack survivors of sexual assault.
Over the past two weeks, a mewling chorus of fear has swelled on the right. The idea, as put by Trumpist social media provocateurs Diamond and Silk, that “today it’s Kavanaugh, tomorrow it could be your brother, your father your husband or your son.”
The assumption, of course, is that having committed or committing sexual assault is not what men should fear; rather, they ought to fear the retribution of victims. Another implication is that allegations of sexual abuse are random-function, un-anchored in truth. That they are a catching plague dispersed on an ill wind, which, if uncontained, will infect the innocent.
As Slate columnist Lili Loofbourow put it: “Is it any surprise that men would panic at the realization that the system that they could depend on to look the other way is fast eroding?”
I Googled my rapist this week. I looked through his Instagram photos. There he is, sharing a margarita with a woman I don’t know. There he is, sharing photos of a cat, making jokes about bagels. I never reported him, and he’s served no time. By all appearances, he’s doing fine.
I do not want him to be doing fine. I would like him to be afraid.
If I must live with my pain, I would like him to live with the fear, just under the surface, that what my body remembers so vividly can come disrupt his life, as it disrupts mine daily. I would like him to live with a little of the fear I’ve lived with my entire life, the same fear every woman I know lives with: the quiet safety protocols that I put in place for each date and each walk alone and each time I get drunk in public. Perhaps if he fears me, he cannot ignore me; perhaps if he fears me, I will be his equal at last.
I would like to think ― I do think ― that the pain we are pouring out to each other and to the world cannot be put back. That the women who walked out will become the women who take to the streets for Saturday’s March For Survivors. That the women arrayed in anti-Kavanaugh protests at the Capitol represent a small proportion of those of us who are willing to be galvanized by our pain. That, tired of being led by rape apologists and alleged rapists, we will become an army, with one hand covering our wounds and one hand pulling the lever for change. That our pain means something, and our pain means we are awake to what cannot be borne.
We, who are tired of living in the nightmares of the past and the Kabuki theater of the present, are ready to demand our answers, now. We have heard your fear, and we like it.
Talia Lavin is a writer and researcher based in Brooklyn, New York.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.