During my freshman year of college, a sophomore boy called me around 2am to ask me to come downstairs and let him into our co-ed dorm—he had forgotten his keys. I didn’t think twice, rolled myself out of bed, and sleepily let him in. He walked one way and I went back to my room and climbed back into bed. Some unknown amount of time later, this highly intoxicated boy let himself into my room and climbed on top of me. I woke up and tried to push him away. I remember him looking directly into my eyes with a cold and disconnected look. He tried to kiss me first on the lips, then on the neck. I think I may have mustered a “no.” I remember him saying something about how if I let him in to the building, I must have wanted him. I remember wondering if that was true even though I knew it wasn’t. I know I resisted. I know I was weaker than he was. I know I was terrified. I know that my phone was just a little too far away to call for help. I know I was one of the lucky ones. After just a few minutes, he gave up, got up, and left. Almost exactly three years later, in an eerily similar situation, my sister was not as lucky and was raped by a friend in her dorm room. I only have recently made the connection.
After the incident, I told nobody. I thought about telling my best friend but was sure that he would go out of his way to kill the guy if he knew. I never considered reporting it to anyone else. I wasn’t hurt and fortunately wasn’t traumatized. I was able to move on and mostly forget it. We actively avoided each other on campus and never made eye contact again. But to be sure, I remember those eyes. I know I was one of the lucky ones.
Over the last several weeks, I have been thinking about this situation a lot. For the first time ever, I googled this boy’s name. He has been successful and has a lucrative career with a Big Five company. His LinkedIn profile picture shows a handsome man who is now able to grow a beard. He has dozens of seemingly heartfelt recommendations from seemingly big and important people. None of this minimizes or negates his actions. None of this makes him perfect or invulnerable to consequences. Yet, I find myself wondering what I would do if I found out he was running for office, or worse, if I saw that he had been arrested for sexual assault of another woman. I want to be honest that I do not know the answer. I truly do not know what the right thing would be in either of those circumstances. I would like to believe I was the only person he tried to hurt. I would like to believe that he has grown up and changed. I would like to believe that he was and is sorry for how he behaved. I have spent my career advocating for children who have sometimes made terrible mistakes and who still deserve full and wonderful lives. But I still don’t know what would be right.
As I have thought all of this through, three truths have been rising for me that may seem to be in tension, but I think can coexist in a complicated reality.
First, I believe and empathize with Dr. Ford. Thinking about my own situation, I cannot tell you the year, month, day, or even the room number of where the incident took place. I cannot tell you what I was doing that night or what I did the next day. I cannot remember any of the specific details except the color and intensity of his eyes and the pure fear the bubbled inside of me. I have no proof or evidence that any of it happened. I told nobody, did not write about it in any journal, and honestly haven’t thought about it in years. Part of me feels like that makes my story less real and less credible. I believe strongly in evidence and that verbal testimony is insufficient to convict a person of any crime. This is a huge part of my advocacy philosophy around criminal justice reform. Evidence is important. Impartial and untarnished evidence is even more important. But there’s another part of me that is angry that without evidence, I could not and would not be believed if I were to come forward. I admire Dr. Ford’s courage and I believe her. I have no reason not to. For Dr. Ford personally, the political gain here does not outweigh the personal loss. There is no reason for her to lie. I would want her to believe me.
Second, I believe and empathize with Judge Kavanaugh. I do not want to be friends with him and I do not endorse or condone much of his alleged behavior in terms of treatment of women, alcohol use, and overall temperament. But I feel that if I am to believe Dr. Ford without evidence, then logic dictates that I must also believe him. In this country, we tout, “innocent until proven guilty.” What I have seen is a man who is guilty of pride, rage, partisanship, and being flawed as we all are. In my mind, these characteristics should absolutely preclude him from serving on the Supreme Court, but this misses the point. Judge Kavanaugh has not been proven guilty of sexual assault and his response as I see it, is a deeply human response to being accused of something he did and thought he got away with OR something he really didn’t do. I have no reason, based on the court of public and media opinion, to believe that either of these options is truer than the other. My political leaning has no and should have no bearing on why I think he’s angry. And yet, everything I am hearing from my friends and family, at work, on social media, and even on the subway is profoundly partisan. I do not think that he should be a Supreme Court Justice but Kavanaugh deserves the same benefit of the doubt that we are giving to Dr. Ford unless we are able to prove that he is anything more than an angry, impetuous, and beer-loving man. My “abuser” would deserve that too. I am praying for both of them.
Third, I believe in youth development. In my professional life, I travel around the country teaching educators about the adolescent brain and how weird and wonky it is. We know that the human brain does not fully develop until at least age 26. We use this fact to advocate for increasing the age that young people can be tried as adults in the criminal justice system. We use this fact to advocate for restorative justice practices for our kids. We use this fact to explain the very bad decisions at least most of us made in our teens and early twenties. This absolutely does not mean that these decisions were justified. It certainly does not mean that bad, sinful, or evil behavior is excused when you are a teenager. I believe that it is possible to raise good, non-racist, non-abusive kids (boys and girls). But YES, age does matter. YES, Judge Kavanaugh’s brain is different than it was 35 years ago. NO, we do not get to choose when to believe in and shout about science. And YES, now as an adult (albeit one who throws temper tantrums), he should be able to look back and show some level of remorse or at a minimum, thoughtful reflection. Most of us can look back and say some version of, “Well, I was young and dumb” (which from a youth development perspective has a scientific basis). I am struck by Kavanaugh’s lack of repentance, if not for sexual assault, then for the myriad other mistakes we and he know he made while in high school and/or college. It’s possible that Kavanaugh is telling the truth, that he did not do anything seriously or criminally wrong as a teenage or otherwise. It’s also possible that he is lying or that he has done far worse than what is currently alleged. In either case, I would expect and hope for Kavanaugh to speak to how he is different now than he was when he was eighteen. The absence of this perspective is glaring to me. I would hope that a Supreme Court Justice with a lifetime appointment would want to share how he’s grown, how he’s redeemed himself for his past transgressions, and what he has learned that qualifies him to be one of the people responsible for upholding, enforcing, and interpreting the law.
I am wrestling with these truths and have come to feel that all three can exist together. However, I’m not feeling particularly hopeful. In order to move forward, we have to take a hard look at our systems and cultures—the ones that favor and hinder both Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh. Certainly, we must examine the culture that discriminates and silences women, the systems that emphasize, support, and exalt male power and privilege. We must ask: How did we get to the place where women wait thirty years to come forward to tell their stories of sexual assault? How did we get to the place where women aren’t believed when they report sexual assault, and that men get the benefit of the doubt and women often don’t? How did we get to the place where anyone, in government or otherwise, liberal or conservative, outwardly justifies rape, assault, and toxic masculinity?
Still, we also must look at the political and social systems that got us to where we are. Judge Kavanaugh is a man of unimaginable privilege and in my opinion, questionable character. Whether or not it’s fair given the political circumstances, the hypocritical behavior of democrats from the very beginning of this process, and the fact that accusations were brought forth only after background checks came up clear, Judge Kavanaugh has demonstrated in the last week that he lacks the temperament, neutrality, and poise necessary to arbitrate on the types of issues that we know will be on the docket for the near and distant future. Yes, he has the right to be upset, angry, and even defensive if he is being wrongly accused. But personally, I do not feel that the man I’ve seen this last week could be fair or nonpartisan after his ravings against democrats both on and off of the committee. It is hard for me to believe that he could be impartial on deeply political and often equally emotional issues like Roe v. Wade. However, he is not to blame entirely for our current situation. The biggest challenge is that I am almost positive that he would not be a nominee in a system that works. We must ask: How did we get to the place that Supreme Court Justice picks are political or partisan? How did we get to the place where the media literally twist or make up words to tell a story that leverages a political agenda? How did we get to the place where the court of public opinion is louder than a jury of our peers? How did we get to the place where a judge with such deeply held and visible political beliefs could be appointed to the Supreme Court? Why does Dr. Ford have to be the one to try to stop him with allegations of sexual assault? Why aren’t we all trying to stop him, not because he is a conservative, but because he is truly not qualified or suited for this role? And what if he is qualified or suited for this role? How do we move beyond the tribalism of our two parties to do what is right?
How did we get here?
How can we fix it?
What the hell do we do next?