Remembering Brett Kavanaugh

Posted in: Book Reviews

I recently read Ruth Marcus’s 2019 book, Supreme Ambition, about Brett Kavanaugh’s rise to power and the events that took place after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford accused him of sexual assault. Marcus does an excellent job of telling the remarkable story, of excavating new information that should have been public at the time of Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, and of carefully and fairly critiquing the process through which he came to occupy a seat on the High Court. The book is riveting even for someone who closely followed the process when it happened just a few years ago. I did not anticipate when I picked it up, moreover, how traumatic it would be to relive that extraordinarily disillusioning period in our nation’s recent history.

Several Credible Allegations

My sense is that most Republicans and many Democrats regarded the Senate’s vote to confirm Kavanaugh after multiple sexual misconduct allegations as vindicating him. He was either innocent or what he did was unimportant. Marcus’s book serves as a (sometimes-too) temperate and measured reminder that his confirmation was neither an acquittal nor a moral pass for his behavior.

From the beginning, virtually every Republican senator reacted to Dr. Ford’s allegation with annoyance because of the delay that its consideration would cause in confirming their nominee. It was like they were headed on a trip to Six Flags and ran into unanticipated traffic. The would-be fact finders were more like spoiled children in the mold of Dudley Dursley than like the deliberative jurors in 12 Angry Men. They were promised bread pudding and by golly they would have it!

If anything, some of Kavanaugh’s supporters doubled down in response to the allegations. You think you can prevent my candidate from joining the Court and reversing Roe v. Wade with a silly little attempted rape allegation? Just try me!

Dr. Ford described how the young Brett, someone she had known and considered a friend, joined with another friend, Mike Judge, to push Christine into a bedroom, lock the door, and play loud music. She at first thought they were joking around. Then Kavanaugh was on top of her, and he and Judge both laughed as Kavanaugh tried to disrobe her. In her own words, “[w]ith Kavanaugh’s hand over my mouth, I feared he may inadvertently kill me.”

If you are lucky enough to have never experienced this sort of trauma, just think about what it must have been like for Christine Blasey Ford. And consider too the premeditation involved: first shoving her into a bedroom, then locking the door to make it harder for her to escape, then turning on loud music to drown out any cries for help, and then—as Kavanaugh began the process of attempting to rape his terrified victim—covering her mouth. Why would a man who is assaulting a woman cover her mouth? I have it on good authority that it is to keep the woman from screaming.

Dr. Ford, in response to a question from Senator Leahy about what the most memorable part of the evening in question was, said the following: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter [of Kavanaugh and Judge], the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.” It was the laughter of people victimizing someone whose feelings and terror do nothing but contribute to the fun of the attack.

I have always thought of rape and sexual assault more generally as similar to rituals of cruelty to animals. In these two contexts, we have violence that is often accompanied by joy and delight on the part of the perpetrators. People whoop and holler their pleasure as they aim a rifle at an innocent deer or bird in flight and hit their target. As the animal bleeds to death and suffers his mortal injuries, he must listen to the sounds of his killers’ jubilation.

In rape and sexual assault as well, the perpetrator expresses audible pleasure that the victim must hear as she suffers pain, degradation, and the fear of annihilation. There is sadism in other crimes too, of course, but it seems almost unavoidable in these two contexts. And the absolute power of perpetrator over victim is especially salient here as well.

Dr. Ford remembered what happened to her, who was involved, and what it felt like. She did not, however, remember everything. Is that discrediting? No, it is the opposite. Trauma affects memory and results in gaps. If she told a perfect story, then we would have to worry that it might not be true. And her extremely compelling testimony before the Senate was not the first time she spoke of it.

Several other people interviewed corroborated her accounts, including her husband, who spoke of her need to have an escape door in their bedroom, a result of what happened to her. That is Brett Kavanaugh’s legacy in Dr. Ford’s life. She came forward despite how humiliating, intimidating, and costly the whole experience would be. She did it because she believed that his behavior was relevant to his fitness to serve as a Justice on the Supreme Court. Many of us not only believed her but agreed that what he did disqualified him, notwithstanding the confirmation vote.

Another credible allegation came from Deborah Ramirez, a classmate of Kavanaugh’s at Yale College. Ramirez reported that she remembered Kavanaugh “[exposing] himself at a drunken dormitory party, thrust[ing] his penis in her face, and caus[ing] her to touch it without her consent as she pushed him away.” Ramirez recalled another male student shouting about what happened. “Somebody yelled down the hall, ‘Brett Kavanaugh just put his penis in Debbie’s face,’ ” she said. “It was his full name. I don’t think it was just ‘Brett.’ And I remember hearing and being mortified that this was out there.”

Then a man came forward, Max Stier, who reporter a similar incident. Stier was a classmate of Kavanaugh’s at Yale and then went on to Stanford Law School. Stier clerked for Justice David Souter, practiced law at the firm of Williams & Connolly, and in 2001 started a nonprofit organization called “Partnership for Public Service,” the aim of which was to improve the effectiveness of the federal government. According to Michael Lewis, author of The Fifth Risk, “if you could somehow organize the entire population into a single line, all 350 million people, ordered not by height or weight or age but by each citizen’s interest in the federal government, and Donald Trump loitered somewhere near one end of it, Max Stier would occupy the other.” Stier, in other words, is a serious and credible individual.

As Marcus reported it, Stier said “he was passing by a suite in Lawrance Hall [a Yale dormitory] freshman year when he saw Kavanaugh with his pants pulled down and his penis exposed. Kavanaugh was leaning up against a wall, and Tracy Harmon, [another classmate and a close friend Deborah Ramirez’s,] seemingly drunk, was being led over to him by two classmates, her hand placed on his penis.” Tracy Harmon Joyce (her married name) has said she does not remember this event. Given her state of inebriation, she and Max Stier could both be telling the truth if she was blackout drunk, a state in which two classmates would easily be able to lead her to Kavanaugh’s penis.

This second DITF (dick in the face) narrative corroborates the first because it marks Kavanaugh as someone who—unlike most people with penises in the population—was inclined, at least when drunk—to expose his to inebriated women. If he did it to Tracy Harmon, it is that much more likely that he did it to Deborah Ramirez.

Brett Kavanaugh’s Testimony

While the Kavanaugh drama was unfolding, Justice Stevens added his voice to those opposing confirmation. He said that putting aside everything else, Kavanaugh’s testimony disqualified him from the office he sought. I recall Kavanaugh sounding like a toddler having a temper tantrum and a nakedly partisan temper tantrum at that. Bizarrely, he seemed to be claiming that revenge for his little role as a prudish law clerk for Kenneth Starr during the Clinton impeachment investigation was somehow motivating Dr. Ford’s and other women’s accusations of sexual assault.

Nothing that Kavanaugh did or said during his self-presentation gave the impression of a man who was actually innocent. Indeed, he seemed by his conduct to be saying “Who gives a s— whether I lay on top of some girl in high school? I have been working toward this job my whole life, busting my ass, and it is mine, g—dd—mmit! I will growl at anyone who tries to take it from me.” Several senators asked him completely reasonable questions about his drinking habits, and he seemed to have trouble answering the questions with sincerity and accuracy.

One question concerned references in his yearbook to “ralphing.” He honestly said that ralphing meant throwing up. But then he explained that he has a very sensitive stomach and that he gets sick when he eats spicy food or drinks alcohol. Yes, I am sure that the yearbook references were to vomiting in response to spicy foods.

Not content with sharing his tendency to regurgitate spicy food, he similarly explained yearbook references to “boofing.” He claimed that the word, which appears by his yearbook picture, refers to flatulence. The Georgetown Prep yearbook appears to be a virtual Gray’s Anatomy of Kavanaugh’s gastrointestinal distress.

Yet the word “boofing”—which I never had the pleasure of encountering before the hearings on whether to confirm a new Supreme Court Justice—appears to have a different usage altogether outside of the Senate hearing room. Here is what Urban Dictionary says to define the word: “Inserting drugs or having someone insert drugs into your body through your anus. Better experience is allowing someone to blow the substance inside you with a straw.” Urban Dictionary then offers up a sentence to illustrate use of the word: “I had Stover blow cocaine in my ass last night to achieve the best high. Hit her up…she’s boofing everyone!”

Though I assume he was sober during his testimony, Kavanaugh came across as a belligerent drunk yelling at the other bar patrons. Asked whether he was ever so drunk that he later could not remember what had happened, he insisted on turning the question on the questioner, Senator Amy Klobuchar, saying “I don’t know, have you?” When she once again tried to clarify that he was denying having been blackout drunk, he replied, “Yeah, and I’m curious if you have.”

The phenomenon of blackout drunk is one way to make sense of how credible Dr. Ford was even as her assailant seemed unaware of having assaulted her. Kavanaugh might well have had so much to drink, as references in his yearbook implied, that he was left with no memory of what he did to someone who considered him a friend. Sadly for Dr. Ford, victims may have a more difficult time forgetting a sexual assault than their assailants do.

After a break from testimony during which various backers strongly encouraged Kavanaugh to apologize for his obnoxious treatment of Senator Klobuchar, he did apologize and toned it down a bit. But I, for one, will not easily forget what Kavanaugh looks like when he is angry, combative, and self-righteous. I recently read a book about Narcissistic Personality Disorder the title of which is Don’t You Know Who I Am? After watching both Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh testify in response to credible allegations of sexual misconduct, the title of this book leaps to mind.


Despite everything, I am glad that Dr. Ford testified about being sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh so many years ago. She was dignified and sincere while Kavanaugh’s responses lacked both dignity and sincerity. His testimony about how hard he worked at Yale was very moving, I am sure, to the many people who did not enjoy the opportunities he did and whose fathers did not retire, as his did, with a $13 million compensation package.

Women who suffered sexual assault identified with Dr. Ford and understood that many people believed her and continue to believe her, no matter what 50 senators did. Times change slowly, but Dr. Ford made a difference. Because of her, we can all dream of a day when the Senate, in a bipartisan vote, decides to scrap a nominee with a history of sexual assault.

Until then, we can take lessons from what we saw during the hearings. Some people uttered that tired phrase “he said/she said.” Let us once and for all recognize that when victims accuse someone of nearly any crime, jurors understandably find the victim-witnesses more credible than defendants, even though frequently, the only evidence is the defendant’s and the victim’s testimony.

It is virtually only in sexual assault cases that, to reference Professor Deborah Tuerkheimer in her terrific book, Credible: Why We Doubt Accusers and Protect Abusers, we discount the victim-witness’s credibility and inflate the defendant’s credibility to suggest that we have equally valuable evidence on both sides (“swearing contest” is another unhelpful phrase). Yet there is no reason to assume that rape victim-witnesses—out of all alleged victims—have a systematic incentive to lie, while there is every reason to assume that a person accused of a crime will say “I am innocent” no matter what the truth is. Absent evidence to the contrary, “she” is far more credible than “he.”

Dr. Ford had no reason to lie that anyone can even identify. The whole experience of providing testimony was plainly traumatic and horrible for her, and the hate mail she subsequently received made it necessary for her to move out of her home for months. Kavanaugh, by contrast, had everything to gain by saying he was innocent, even if it was a lie: a seat on the Supreme Court, the prestige of victory, his young daughters’ respect.

Anita Hill once quipped that she was not getting a seat on the Supreme Court no matter what the senators decided. It is worth remembering that victims come forward because they want to change the world for the better by holding a wrongdoer accountable for a crime that can still stigmatize its victims more than its perpetrators. And while people sometimes lie, there is no systematic reason to suspect a rape complainant of distorting the truth.

What is true in general is also true of Kavanaugh’s case. On top of his motive to say he is innocent, shared with all rape defendants, there was evidence suggesting that when he sexually assaulted the various women who have come forward, he was too drunk to record what he was doing in memory. Dr. Ford’s testimony thus informed him of his violent attack against her; let us hope (against all evidence) that that information inspires just a touch of humility and remorse in her assailant and in the many other assailants who have never been held to account.

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