As the sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh mount, BONNIE GREER explains why victims do not always come forward.
We humans are built to survive. When the brain realises that extinction may be near, it changes pace.
Once, my brother had a gun put to his head. He told me later that he saw his entire life flash before his eyes in a millisecond. It was as if his brain was replaying its greatest hits for its own sake. This inner spectacle was of no benefit to my brother, except for the discovery of a great gift of the gab that allowed him to literally talk himself out of having his head blown off. He could also mimic perfectly the insults hurled at him in Polish. He had wandered into the wrong neighbourhood.
And the brain can do the opposite of speeding up. It can slow things down; blow up moments and make them look like huge stills floating in some strange, inner picture gallery that only belongs to the owner of that brain. That picture gallery is filled with images and sounds built for only one admission. Until something happens. And the gallery is open again.
Then sometimes, it becomes necessary to admit others to the gallery. Everyone, by definition, is a stranger because they are not you. When the strangers come, a language must be developed, a way has to be found to explain the pictures and sounds that you want to – have to – share with your visitors. Sometimes your very life depends on making this picture gallery coherent. Sometimes your sanity does too.
One night, four decades ago, when I realised that my date – a ‘nice boy’ – may be about to kill me, all that I could think of was my parents. While everything was going on without my consent, there were moments I could see their wedding picture, both of them so young, married because they wanted to make me ‘legitimate’. I thought how carefully they had raised me and my brothers and sisters.
They were working class, minimally educated, black and living in a segregated city. We were everything to them. I wondered what would it be like if the police found my body behind some rubbish bin in an alley on the other side of town? Police who would have considered the murder of a young black girl in a party dress as nothing. Nothing. It would be over for me, but not for my parents. So I decided to survive.
The feminist part of me – which was, and is, all of me – realised that what was happening was not about lust, or drink, or opportunity. It was about power. The non-consenting sex was simply its conduit.
In those days, before laws and the public discussion of what has come to be known as ‘date rape’, it was simply impossible to go to the police. They would ask you what you wore, why you went home with him, and on and on.
And sometimes, at the strangest moments, the images and sounds can return. It can be brought back through the timbre of a stranger’s voice or a random look.
But because you have to, you keep going. Worse things have happened to people, you tell yourself. He let you go in the morning. You walked out into the sunlight and went home. Not like your best friend who went out to a nightclub one night and never came back, leaving behind a two-year-old son.
You grow up and discover that most men are fine, nice guys. That what happened to you and the tragedy of your best friend is rare in comparison with the numbers in the entire population.
Yet that slowed down, close-up cinema of the brain is always present. Tucked away. You become the curator of your own near-destruction. You come to know, from instinct, when someone, too, is a curator. You know.
This is why I understand the high political and moral drama taking place now in the United States, following the accusations of teenage sexual assault made by psychologist and professor of statistics Dr Christine Blasey Ford against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, nominated by Donald Trump to the Supreme Court. The issue has split the country into two camps: those who believe her account, and those who don’t.
Only two people know exactly what unfolded back in 1982, but I want to believe her account – because I know why it might have taken her so long to come forward, why she may have been in marriage counselling, why she may have even become a psychologist. I think it was to show that teenage girl that she once was – that girl who, she says, was pinned down on a bed against her will – that she had survived and grown up. She is bearing witness to that past fear and humiliation and just plain rage.
I have no idea what the outcome ofher testimony before the Judiciary Committee will be. But I will be rooting for her because she will be helping to heal me.
#MeToo and ‘I Believe Christine’ are movements and much, much more than that. They are testaments of reclaiming and taking back; of healing and vigilance. They keep alive in the world the very real fact that although some human advancement may have been made through war and rapine, human refinement is a conscious quest. Maybe one against our very nature.
Judge Brett Kavanaugh – who has ‘categorically and unequivocally’ denied the allegations – will most likely be confirmed as a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. He is a relatively youngish man – aged 53 – which means that he may sit in judgement on others for the best part of 30 years or more. So it is right to look back at an alleged serious crime that his drunken teenaged self may have committed.
The state of Maryland, where the alleged crime is said to have taken place, still sends teenage boys to prison. American jails are full of teenage boys, the guilty and the innocent. Very, very few of them attended an elite public school like Brett Kavanaugh did.
It may turn out to be a survivor of sexual assault who can help the world see and understand the crime’s trauma, its often numbing affect, its delayed reaction time and the buried fear that never really leaves. I want to believe Christine. I think that many women-and male victims of sexual assault/rape do, too. We know our own.