This past weekend, I was at an event in Louisville, Kentucky with alumni of Yale University. This was before there was a demonstration at the Yale Law School by faculty, staff, and students protesting Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court and allegations about out of control drinking at Yale. I was talking with an alumnus whom I consider politically astute in general, and who I assumed would be sympathetic about Dr. Ford’s allegations about being sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh. He is an intelligent man and has a sister who is a famous journalist.
He said he didn’t believe Ford or rather, he thought her claim might be plausible, but that she had gone too far. When I asked him what he meant by going too far he said, “Boys that age are passionate. Kavanaugh might have groped her but that’s what teenage boys do.” When I said, “You might think groping is okay and even normal for teenage boys, but she says he covered her mouth so she couldn’t scream. She thought she was going to die. Do you think that was okay?” “Well, there’s that,” he said, “that must have been scary.”
But he basically dismissed the fact that the boy on top of her was dry humping her, trying to take her clothes off, preventing her from breathing, and drunk out of his mind! When I added that another boy who was allegedly in the room at the time piled on top of them, his response was, “I can’t even conceive of that.” I wasn’t sure whether he meant that an act like that was beyond his imagination or it was his way of saying “I don’t believe it.” In other words, if he couldn’t imagine it, it didn’t happen.
I was stunned by his response. Was it denial or was his response reflective of the attitude many elite white men have about the expendability of women?
Is behavior attributed to Kavanaugh acceptable because he went to an elite Jesuit all-boys prep school and then to Yale University? Does this indicate that upper class white men (as well as working class men) who support Donald Trump perceive such a threat to their privileged position in society that they are willing to categorically deny and mock the accusations of a brave woman? The fact that white men like Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh are repeatedly exempt from accountability is what has enraged so many women who are coming forward with their own stories.
#WhyIDidn’tReport highlights the difficulties, fear, anger and shame that so often surround sexual harassment and assault. It took me 37 years to even remember the sexual assault I experienced from my uncle, a priest, because even though it terrified me at the time, I convinced myself that he was only roughhousing with me, his 11- year-old “favorite” niece. I knew something was wrong when my grandmother Dunn found us rolling around on her living room floor, and red-faced, she shouted in no uncertain terms, “Get off her, Joe. Immediately.”
I didn’t remember this incident until age 48 and when I told my father and mother, my father said, “I can’t believe it, he must have just been playing. Joe would never harm you.” My mother was more emphatic. “Not my brother,” she said, “that could never have happened.” My father went further saying, “What’s the good of bringing this up now? Let sleeping dogs lie.” In other words, “keep your mouth shut.”
So I completely believe Professor Christine Blasey Ford and all of the other women who have tweeted their experiences about how they were afraid no one would believe them about being sexually assaulted. It is very common for survivors to blame themselves particularly when people doubt them. Common responses to trauma are often viewed as evidence of unreliability. People say, why didn’t you come forward right away? Why did you wait 35 years? There is the fear—justified by evidence–that no one will believe you. In addition, when the perpetrator is someone the individual trusted, it can take years for the survivor to identify what happened to her as a violation. When my father said, “Joe was only roughhousing,” part of me wanted to believe that was what had happened because I loved him. My feelings were confused. He was my favorite uncle.
People don’t believe victims of sexual abuse because many are good at hiding how they really feel. A trauma survivor can as easily appear calm or distraught or overtly angry. Later, she may react by self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, engage in high-risk sexual behavior or withdraw from those around her to try to regain control.
Abusers work to gain trust and appear benevolent even after an abusive episode. Women are conditioned to smooth things over, to “let sleeping dogs lie,” as my father cautioned. Victims may have little choice but to stay in contact if the abuser is a boss, teacher, coach or relative. Abusers camouflage sexual assault as horseplay or humor, or act as though nothing ever happened. They encourage confusion and shame and exploit an individual’s reluctance to identify herself as a victim.
Survivors are criticized for not fighting back, for drinking, for wearing sexy clothes, for not remembering details. But the reality is that our brains work differently during trauma. When frightened or upset, an individual can go into fight, flight or freeze mode. In the freeze mode an individual dissociates from the situation. Severe emotional trauma causes lasting changes in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which regulates emotional responses triggered by the amygdala, affecting what information is recorded in memory.
So a survivor might remember a wallpaper pattern or a heightened sensation, but not the order of events. She might remember bits of information but the details may be chaotic and incomplete. I remember the rough feeling of my grandmother’s rug on my bare back and the terror of being suffocated by the weight of my uncle on my chest. But I can’t remember what month it happened or what time of day or what happened next. I do remember, however, the sound of my grandmother’s voice and my feeling of gratitude that she had come to save me. We never talked about it but I knew she was there for me. If my parents were still alive they still would not believe me. As President Trump says of Kavanaugh, “He’s a good man.”
Thank you Maureen, so important for us to have these conversations. We live in a world where we are becoming too frightened of speaking our truth, our confusion, or just to questions because we will be categorized, shunned, shamed. We are expected to understand without questioning so there are those who may secretly ask “why didn’t she speak up?” I saw a woman ask this question and get totally humiliated, yelled at and scoffed at……is this not the patriarchal way of thinking, is this not the ‘police state’ mentality where one is too scared to ask, questions, trust anybody, have an opinion, so they just agree and deny their inner thoughts It is important that we listen to one another, so we can all learn and not judge those who think differently to us. What you have written may help those who do ask why didn’t she speak up.
Which is why I am so over the term”white privileged men” It is such a shaming term, and limits an argument to “these are the people we are talking about, everybody else gets away with it” Without anybody questioning what this term actually means. i can see how my own sons suffer because of this term, not knowing what behavior is appropriate. Women quite loosely telling them how hard they have it and how easy my sons (and all men) have it just because they are while privileged men. And who, by the way are white and who are not? I grew up being called a black wog( I am Greek) but apparently ‘my journey’ no longer exists and I have been graduated up the white supremacy ladder and am now classified as white…………. so who do you term as white privilege? And so only ‘white’ men are the villains, black men are okay because more of them get abused.? I also found it offensive when you said: “Are Trump voters willing to categorically deny and mock the accusations of a brave woman? ” I am by no means a Trump supporter and in shock he is still in office but this is the pattern we are all falling into. Not all Trump supporters are elitist or misogynists. We fall into this thinking that you are either left, right, either or anything and that is indicative of who you are as a person.. How can we as a world heal together if we are always blaming, categorising and not listening because we are always defending and blaming. Thank you for listening. Love Mary from Australia. xx
Thank you, Mary, for your perspective. I really appreciate that you took the time to write and broaden the discussion.
Thank you, Maureen. I’m grateful to you for having the courage to share your story. I also wish Susan Collins had heard (and listened to) this and others’ stories about what has happened to them. While it wasn’t a sexual assault, I have experienced being held down by several people, at least one of them a large man, and being afraid I couldn’t breathe. My response was the “freeze” response. It happened at a strange kind of psychodrama situation; people were yelling at me to fight, and I was so frozen in terror that I couldn’t move. Dr. Ford’s story of being terrified that she couldn’t breathe and might die was utterly familiar to me. Why didn’t she come forward? Look how it has been received when she finally did! In my situation I did go and attempt to talk later with the person conducting the psychodrama. I can’t remember what he said, but I remember feeling that he didn’t take me seriously.
Thank you, Lesley, for sharing your experience and I’m very sorry that the person conducting the psychodrama didn’t realize how terrified you were and that he discounted you.
Thank you, Maureen.
I wish Susan Collins would read your column. You cover every aspect of the silencing of women’s voices.
I cannot add much to the comments you have already received on your powerful column, but just want to say “bless your grandma.” And I truly believe that as women give voice to the reality of their experiences, at some point the power will shift.
Thank U again for your clear and wise Courageous Voice.
Oh dear Maureen – You A heroine in the story of women. The sexual abuse you experienced at an early age from a relative and a priest is abhorant. The reality that your parents would stilll want you to be silent – abhorant! There have been lots traumas in your life. Yet, you continue going forward, helping all you can reach as you go. I am sorry that you have been the carrier of so much sorrow. Perhaps as Leonard Cohen has written and sung, the cracks …. the brokenness … is how the light gets in. The light keeps helping you find your way. No question, you are a heroine!!! Bravo for your courage. Bravo for speaking! You are an inspiration. Period!
Thanks, Mary. I think you and Leonard Cohen have it right and true: the brokenness is how the light gets in.
Thank you Maureen, from my heart. I know the walk you walk. Bless you for coming forward.
Such an important, and cogent piece, Maureen. Thank you. I am also struck by the clarity and sensitivity of all the previous commenters––thanks to them too!
Yes, it’s been a powerful conversation. I wish Susan Collins could have heard it.
Thanks Maureen. I’m sure there are few, very few women the world over, who hasn’t lived your story to one degree or another. I’ve always said, “Abuse of women comes in just a different degree.”
Thanks Goddess for women like you, the MeToo, TimesUp and Why I Didn’t Report movements. We continue to hammer away at patriarchy. Thanks again!
You’re right, Marjorie. Thanks for taking the time to comment.
Thank you for taking the time to tell your own story, and to explain, from your professional knowledge of psychology, the effects of sexual assault and trauma on our minds and bodies. I have to believe that all the women (and men) who have spoken up will lead to more and more truth, dialogue and healing. Right now, I am swinging between outrage and despair. Today is a very bad day for America. But we shall overcome.
“…the reality is that our brains work differently during trauma. When frightened or upset, an individual can go into fight, flight or freeze mode.” This is so true, whether the trauma is sexual abuse or something different.
Yes, Lynn, you’re absolutely right, the fight, flight, freeze mode is not restricted to sexual trauma.
Thank you for your clarity on this subject of violence being perpetuated against women & girls as well as other cultural events happening right now that you’ve commented on. I also want to thank you for having written your book The Heroine’s Journey, which I’ve used for some years now in women’s writing groups to help guide them in understanding woman’s sensibilities and way of perceiving & experiencing her life.
Thanks, Marjorie, for your comment and I’m glad my book has been helpful in your writing circles.
This is a powerful story.
Thank you Dr. Murdock for not only sharing details of the sexual assault upon you by a trusted family member and priest, but also thank you for delineating the fall out response and effects of sexual assault upon the individual.. The emotional, mental, and psychic devastation caused by sexual assault imprison’s the individual’s full potential from emerging at every step forward, and seeds layers of shame, doubt, vulnerability, and fear that affects generations. When Brett Kavanaugh and his cabal of supporters “whine” about Dr. Ford’s truth (clearly voiced amid enormous pain surging throughout her Being) as attempts to “destroy” Judge Kavanaugh’s reputation, they (the cabal of deniers) reactivate the effects of violence upon Dr. Ford and collectively dismiss not only Dr. Ford’s experience and person as relevant, but ignore and dismiss the multitudes of individuals who have suffered sexual assault. Sexual assault continues its damage for generations, all the while the one who delivers the assault “whines” that he is “wronged and maligned” yet continues forward within his circle of protected power.
You’re absolutely right, J, and for some absurd reason, men are allowed to whine but when women speak up, they are told by senior Senators(Hatch)to “grow up!”
Maureen, your ability to write clearly and boldly can encourage others to find their voices as well. It is especially important to articulate the components of trauma that obscure and discourage immediate reporting of these lacerating experiences, which are as frequent as they are damaging. The shattering of sensation, feeling, and self-perception is a fundamental ally of the perpetrator, as is the denial of his own capacity for destruction. I find myself shocked and appalled by the degree of denial on our public stages right now, perhaps even more than by the extent and degree of violation…perhaps because I have long accepted the extent of the crime, but only more recently awakened to the degree of its suppression. Brava, Maureen, for your brave words. Right on…and write on!
Thanks, Barbara, for your clear voice and outrage. I’m glad you’re writing too!!
Thank you, Maureen, for this excellent post, for your vulnerability in telling your own personal story and for some of the important science of memory of traumatic events. You highlight the confusion a woman/ girl is left with regarding their relationship to the perpetrator which just adds to the trauma.
I find it interesting that a man can report sexual abuse by a priest 35 years later and no one asks, “Did this really happen?”
As a victim of a number of sexual predators myself (step father, uncle, boss) and knowing that I couldn’t / didn’t tell anyone for years, I am glad this issue is coming to light. I hope we can make our culture a safer place for all women.
We do need to continue the push for awareness and action. It needs to come from families, schools (elementary through college) and work environments. We all need to set an example and be open to talking about the ways in which our speech and actions are disrespectful and/or harmful to others. We need to support setting boundaries and having consequences for those who commit acts of disrespect, harm and cruelty.
I hope this movement continues and that we all do everything we can to keep it in the light until all the darkness is illuminated.
Thanks, Marti, for being willing to tell your own story and raising the call for awareness and action. It does need to come not only from home but also from schooling and work environments.
Great article, Maureen! Thanks for your wisdom and let’s spread it far and wide.
Thank you, Maureen, for a succinct rendering of a challenging issue. When I hear, “I fear for our young men,” I think about the fact that I’ve never heard that said of our young women—and one in three will face sexual assault. At this point, I fear for us all. We can use this as an opportunity to create a meaningful dialogue—or not. It takes two sides to enter into dialogue. And it means taking responsibility both for speaking the truth and accepting it. Let’s hope enough of us are willing to do so.
Thanks, Dixie, for highlighting the fact that we have never heard “I fear for our young women”–the denigration of women is appalling!
you write with such clarity and passion. So sorry for your early trauma but so appreciate of your descriptions and insights. So many of us have experienced a range of trauma and only by raising our voices together will we begin to change the climate of cover up and shame.
Thanks, Lynn, you are absolutely right when you say that “Only by raising our voices together will we begin to change the climate of cover up and shame. I am absolutely appalled that senior Senators like Hatch treated the women trying to talk to him by telling them to “grow up!”
GRrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. I am so enraged by all this and the denigration of women who dare to remember and speak. Thanks for this Maureen…so clear.
I appreciate your story about your conversation and find it stunning that anyone who listened to Dr Ford’s testimony could downplay her credibility or her description of the events. Your description of the ways that survivors remember is also helpful. More people need to understand about the complex interaction of trauma and memory and the fact that these things do happen by otherwise “nice” people. It is so difficult for people who like or respect a person to imagine that this well liked person has committed sexual violence. I do hope the senators do the right thing in their vote this week. Women and men together are going to have to work harder to raise awareness about sexual violence. The “Me Too” and now “Why I Didn’t Report” are only the beginning.
You’re right, Debbie. It will take both men and women to continue to raise awareness about the scourge of sexual violence in our country (and around the world).
Astute and accurate. The most heart wrenching thing: your conclusion that your parents would still not believe you. Thank you for writing this.