“So, Whatever”: Why I Believe Christine Blasey Ford, Pt. 1
The 2018 election's over. Kavanaugh's been confirmed. He's earning a salary and writing opinions. So I know what I'm not doing: trying to get someone a job, trying to keep someone from a job. Yet something nags. So I'm trying to figure out why Brett Kavanaugh's explanations only convinced me that Christine Blasey Ford's story deserved a greater share of my belief.
When Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, on September 27, 2018, I listened to her story. I listened for her story, a narrative beneath her answers. I listened for details that might be serving an end other than answering the question asked. I listened for signs of someone avoiding an uncomfortable truth. I listened for places in the narrative where she presented a version of events that didn’t jibe with my understanding of reality or of human memory. I listened for the assembly of straw men.
The story she told was unified. It was compelling. It was credible.
Her story: a civic-minded professional, not a political plant or pawn, who, as a teenager, was attacked by another teenager at a get-together in the summer of 1982.
Her story seemed carefully told; she gave her listeners fair warning about the details she couldn’t summon. My assessment of her narrative as compelling, unified, and credible was likely based on reasons similar to those enumerated by Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut during the hearing:
Let me tell you why I believe you: not only because of the prior consistent statements and the polygraph tests and your request for an FBI investigation and your urging that this committee hear from other witnesses who could corroborate or dispute your story, but also you have been very honest about what you cannot remember. And someone composing a story can make it all come together in a seamless way, but someone who is honest—I speak from my experience as a prosecutor, as well—is also candid about what she or he cannot remember.
Even the accused, Brett Kavanaugh, seemed to admit the credibility of Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation. “I’m not questioning,” he said in his opening statement, “that Dr. Ford may have been sexually assaulted by some person in some place at some time.” Perhaps Kavanaugh was trying to walk a political balance beam, to avoid explicit “victim shaming,” to not publicly call her a liar. Or maybe her credibility was so thoroughly infused in her narrative, even when that story was bottlenecked into five-minute increments of questioning by Rachel Mitchell, a prosecutor from Arizona who stood in for the Republicans, that Kavanaugh had to admit her narrative was coherent and sounded more likely than not. (Just not the part where he was named as the perpetrator.)
Ms. Mitchell said during the hearing that best practice wouldn’t have been a lopsided congressional hearing but rather a “cognitive interview,” wherein a questioner would first, simply, “just let you do a narrative.”
Nevertheless, despite the structural deficits of the congressional-hearing format, there emerged from Dr. Ford a single coherent narrative. She provided details that are “indelible in the hippocampus”—the laughter of Kavanaugh and his accomplice—and was transparent about those facts she couldn’t know with absolutely certainty. She went out of her way to correct her own statements—about an attendee not qualifying as a “bystander” or her lack of surety in whether Brett Kavanaugh alone pushed her into the bedroom.
She wanted to get the details right. Her story hung together, felt true, seemed cogent; her narrative felt more likely than not.
She’d been assaulted. She remembers the bathing suit she was wearing under her clothes. She remembers it was Brett Kavanaugh who’d assaulted her. She remembers, during the attack, the ambivalence of Kavanaugh’s accomplice. She remembers Kavanaugh’s hand over her mouth. She remembers their laughter. She remembers the accomplice twice jumping on the bed. She remembers the layout of the house, the furnishings of the living room. She remembers what it felt like to be a teenager who didn’t want to admit to her parents that she’d been drinking with boys, or much else. She remembers what it felt like to want to use a different store entrance when, at age 15, grocery shopping with her mother. She remembers the ways in which she assumed personal culpability for the attack and, at various times over the years, wanted to look away from it. She remembers talking about the assault, years later, in therapy. She remembers talking about it with her husband when asked to explain why she wanted to make an odd choice in remodeling their house.
Brett Kavanaugh told some stories, too. His most compelling one was about character, that this attack would have seemed out of character for him. That he had a lot of female friends and co-workers who could attest to his character, that he’d never been accused of something like this until now.
Yet none of his stories precluded the possibility that he could have—maybe only just this once—made a drunken, out-of-character mistake that he couldn’t now recall. And, in sum, his reason-giving strategies throughout the hearing raised more questions than provided definitive or exculpatory answers.
Maybe I started thinking about Charles Tilly again because of all the protestations on cable news and in op-eds that what Brett Kavanaugh was enduring was a job interview, not a trial.
It’s been more than a decade since I first read the sociologist Charles Tilly’s book Why? (Princeton University Press, 2006). And roughly ten years ago I used Tilly’s breakdown of the ways we explain ourselves, give reasons, in my job interview. I was trying to get hired as an assistant professor of creative writing, and in my “job talk” I explored why creative writing, especially the study and practice of prose storytelling, might be essential for the general good.
But quickly Tilly’s explanation of explanations seemed relevant to how I was arriving at an assessment of Kavanaugh’s and Ford’s credibility. Tilly’s Why? categorizes how we explain ourselves, the ways we respond when called to account, as conventions, stories, codes, and technical accounts. Each of these reason-giving strategies does different relational work. Each has its own capacities to repair or undo, establish or undermine social relationships.
Conventions, according to Tilly, “draw on widely available formulas” and “they follow rules of appropriateness rather than of causal adequacy.” They’re often clichés. Here’s a moment in Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee where he relies on two or three conventions:
RACHEL MITCHELL: Did anyone ever tell you about something that happened in your presence that you didn’t remember during a time that you had been drinking?
BRETT KAVANAUGH: No, the—we drank beer, and you know, so—so did, I think, the vast majority of people our age at the time. But in any event, we drank beer, and—and still do. So, whatever, you know.
Ms. Mitchell asks a yes-or-no question, and so these conventions—“we drank beer,” “so did, I think, the vast majority . . . of people our age at the time,” and “so, whatever”—are supplemental to the answer. Superfluous might be the more accurate description. He could have ended his answer after the first word, “No,” without seeming evasive.
Kavanaugh comes across as slightly unhinged here, I think, because he’s cycling through conventions.
Tilly illuminates how conventions, depending on context, are often an efficient, socially acceptable reason-giving strategy. Kavanaugh’s conventions might be a good strategy for, say, a teenager busted by his lenient-on-underage-drinking parents. Conventions like these might be all that’s required for the social repair necessary, in some families, with someone who loves you unconditionally and is just wondering why there’s some beer-smelling vomit in your clothes hamper. Everybody’s doing it. We just had a few beers.
Of course, the conventions, as deployed here, seem closer to a politician’s “pivot,” at best. At worst, they’re a colossal failure of my aforementioned tests of “narrative details that might be serving an end other than answering the question asked” or “signs of someone attempting to avoid an uncomfortable truth.” The “so, whatever,” especially, seems highly inappropriate, a not-too-helpful convention for social repair or for establishing good faith in the context of either a busted teenager or an aspirant to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Codes, according to Tilly, are reasons that reference “categories, procedures, and rules.” Kavanaugh relies on codes in his reason-giving when asserting, for instance, that the FBI investigation would not reach conclusions; the FBI investigation would provide to the committee only 302s, transcripts of interviews. Kavanaugh’s evocation of “due process” in his opening statement relies on a code: “Due process is a foundation of the American rule of law. Due process means listening to both sides.”
Codes are most helpful, to Kavanaugh, for providing distance between himself and his explanations. When asked to define what he considered to be “too many beers,” Kavanaugh responded, “I don’t know. You know, we—whatever the chart says, a blood-alcohol chart.” His reference to the blood-alcohol levels that might qualify someone as legally intoxicated helps to keep personal responsibility at an abstract, safe distance. Reliance on a code allows him to not personally be the one who drank too much. Rather, it’s the vast population of blood-circulating human beings who has sometimes had too much to drink. No need for him to tell a story about what it feels like to be drunk. Don’t ask me. Refer to the chart. Ask a judge (other than him).
A more subtle use of codes is Kavanaugh’s evocation of standards of evidence. Rather than explicitly use the legal codes for evidentiary standards, phrases such as preponderance of the evidence or beyond a reasonable doubt, Kavanaugh asks the senators and the nation “to judge me by the standard that you would want applied to your father, your husband, your brother, or your son.” For a job interview that’s not a trial, there’s not a settled legal standard of evidence that has to be met; therefore, let the code be whichever one you’d choose for a family member. A family member who is male. A family member, perhaps, that you hope gets to continue teaching and coaching. A family member you’d like to see promoted. A family member who you really, really want to believe.
Stories, according to Tilly, “provide simplified cause-effect accounts of puzzling, unexpected, dramatic, problematic, or exemplary events.” Because of the high-stakes nature of a U.S. Supreme Court appointment, because of the nature of the accusation, stories are what, I’d argue, we were really all listening for. After listening to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford tell a unified, compelling, more-likely-than-not story, what I thought to myself was: Will he be able to tell a story that tips the scales?
First, Brett Kavanaugh tells a political story, a story of what’s been done to me. “The behavior of several of the Democratic members of this committee at my hearing a few weeks ago was an embarrassment,” Kavanaugh says in his opening statement to the Judiciary Committee, “but at least it was just a good old-fashioned attempt at Borking. Those efforts didn’t work. When I did at least okay enough at the hearings that it looked like I might actually get confirmed, a new tactic was needed.”
Kavanaugh’s political story is fairly compelling; he provides anecdotes of Democrats saying negative things about him or opposing him on political grounds. But his story frays at the edges when he neither asserts nor implies that Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony or allegations are part of this political story. The political story constitutes nearly one-fifth of Kavanaugh’s opening statement, by my count, roughly 985 out of 5,251 words.
He then tells a story about his character, a narrative of who I was and who I am. This is a story about someone for whom church on Sunday is “automatic.” Likewise automatic is respect for women: “If confirmed, I’ll be the first justice in the history of the Supreme Court to have a group of all women law clerks. That is who I am. That is who I was.”
This story is fairly compelling, too. Of course, it doesn’t prove that he didn’t get drunk one night in the summer of 1982 and do something he wouldn’t be able to later recall. But it does support this idea: He's been a decent person in his life more than he’s been an indecent one. The character story constitutes nearly one-fourth of Kavanaugh’s opening statement, by my count, roughly 1,168 out of 5,251 words.
A combination of the political and character narratives is a story of grievance, a story about restoring my good name. Many of these utterances follow a formula: political blame + reputational damage suffered: “But thanks to what some of you on this side of the committee have unleashed, I may never be able to teach again.” Or: “But thanks to what some of you on this side of the committee have unleashed, I may never be able to coach again.” The grievance story is politically ripe, if not all that coherent. (Presumably his teaching and coaching gigs might dry up for reasons other than these accusations, such as a full-time job on the U.S. Supreme Court?)
But these stories are really the undercard bouts. The main event, and the story that feels least coherent of all, is the story Brett Kavanaugh tells in attempting to directly refute Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations.