Not Nothing

shame
“My biggest fear was, do I look like someone just attacked me?” she said. She said she recalled thinking: “I’m not ever telling anyone this. This is nothing, it didn’t happen, and he didn’t rape me.”

 

These aren’t my words. As reported by the Washington Post, they’re the words of Christine Blasey Ford, whose allegations of attempted rape against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, are rocking Washington.

 

As the #MeToo movement has made horrifyingly clear, sexual abuse and harassment have raged unchecked for too long. Many of us recall the confirmation hearings of now-Justice Clarence Thomas when Anita Hill, an African-American law professor, testified before the all-white, all-male Judiciary Committee about the sexual harassment she’d experienced when working for him. The parallels between then and now cannot be ignored.

 

What caught my attention today was Professor Ford’s own response to her attack: he didn’t actually rape her, and so it was “nothing.”

 

I know how she feels.

 

The year was 1974. I was fourteen years old. On a Sunday evening, I was babysitting for the Platts, two doors down from our house. The doorbell rang. I opened the door to find the nice-looking blond boy from across the street. He was probably two or three years older than I was. We’d never actually spoken; I just knew who he was because he lived nearby.

 

He pretended that he thought I was Mrs. Platt, and I was naïve enough to be flattered that he thought I looked so mature. When you’re not one of the pretty girls, one the boys flirt with and ask out, a compliment from an older boy is a big deal even when it doesn’t quite make sense. I don’t remember why I let him in – did he ask? Must have, because I doubt I’d have invited him in. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to. But he came in. The Platts’ German shepherd didn’t like him. I should have remembered the old adage, “You can’t fool dogs or kids.” Instead, I told the dog to settle down, and we went into the living room.

 

He sat on the sofa, right next to the right arm. There was a framed poster of a sunset on the wall across from him. He said, “You should see this.” I stood near him and looked at the poster. I remember seeing the glare of light on the glass. I told him I didn’t see anything special. He said, “Get down here.” I didn’t know what to think. I was woefully inexperienced with boys, and I knew who he was, so it didn’t occur to me that he might “try anything,” but the whole thing seemed odd. I bent down, and he patted the sofa arm and said, “No, sit here and you’ll see it.”

 

I sat. He immediately reached around my waist and pulled me onto his lap. With a grace I didn’t know I possessed, I rolled right across his lap, stood up, and told him to get out. I don’t know what I’d have done if he hadn’t left, but he did, and I locked the door behind him.

 

I went upstairs to the Platts’ bedroom and tried to find something on television to distract me. I ended up with “Kojak,” which I didn’t care about, but I needed something to keep me from thinking about how stupid I’d been to let him in. Because in my mind, the whole thing was my fault. If I hadn’t let him in, nothing would have happened. I didn’t think about the boy who clearly knew his adult neighbors were away and had come over to prey on the babysitter. I didn’t think then about how he’d seemed taken aback by the German shepherd who clearly disliked him and how possible it was that he’d only left out of concern that I might sic the dog on him if he didn’t. All I could think about was how it was my fault because I let him in.

 

He and I never exchanged another word. Ours wasn’t a street with sidewalks, so it wasn’t as though we’d encounter each other while out strolling on a summer evening. I occasionally saw him at school, but if he recognized me, he gave no sign.

 

I never told the Platts what took place in their living room. I didn’t tell my parents, because I was convinced they’d tell me that I shouldn’t have let him in, making it somehow my fault. The only person I told was my friend Wendy, and I don’t even remember that; I only know because later, she said something about not babysitting “because of what happened to you.” I didn’t even think of it as anything that had “happened.”

 

Professor Ford is quoted as saying that “[s]he was terrified . . . that she would be in trouble if her parents realized she had been at a party where teenagers were drinking, and she worried they might figure it out even if she did not tell them.” How easily we shift the blame to ourselves.

 

Like Professor Ford, I told myself that nothing had happened because I hadn’t been raped. He’d tried, I’d avoided, and he’d left. I told myself it was a non-incident, and for years, I never thought of it at all. Remarkably, as I write this now, I am not even certain of his name. All I know is how he looked standing on the Platts’ front step, straight blond hair and guileless face, flattering his way into the house.

 

When the Access Hollywood tape came out during the 2016 election, it brought everything back. Hearing the women who talked about being harassed and manhandled by the man some people later elected president. His attack on them for not speaking up sooner was based on one gigantic fallacy: that if they’d spoken up, they wouldn’t have been blamed. That nobody would have told them it was their fault for opening the door or allowing themselves to be flattered by a patently ridiculous compliment. That someone would have said, “You did nothing wrong.” That they wouldn’t have been made to feel stupid, as if they’d somehow invited him to do what he did. That nobody would have minimized it, laughing it off as a young guy making a pass, because after all, isn’t that what guys do?

 

Maybe, but with the hindsight of decades, I’m not so sure. What happened to me that night reeks of cold planning. That boy knew the Platts weren’t home. He knew a babysitter was there. He had a lie prepared to get himself in the door. He didn’t flirt or treat me like someone he was attracted to, somebody he liked and might want to ask out. Instead, with barely a few minutes of conversation, he manipulated me into a position where he could grab me. If it hadn’t been for the German shepherd that he apparently thought I could control, I truly don’t know what would have happened.

 

I was one of the lucky ones. Believe me, I know that. But decades later, it still chills me to think of what could have happened and how I never told anyone because he was barely out the door before I’d convinced myself the whole thing was my fault for letting him in in the first place. If a fourteen-year-old girl came to me now and told me this story, I’d be the first to tell her it wasn’t her fault, not one bit, but even as I write this, there’s a part of me that says “Well, you know, I could have prevented it, so it’s kind of my fault.” We tell women to be careful, not to walk alone in certain areas, to lock doors and windows and carry pepper spray and alarm buttons, as if a failure to abide by these rules would mean that if they were attacked, they were somehow complicit or contributorily negligent because they failed to take the necessary steps to prevent the crime. Really? It’s the woman’s fault? Since when? Since when, goddamit? Are men really so weak that if we don’t keep them from attacking, they’ll have no choice but to pounce? Are they really that pitiful?

 

If you’re like me, nobody taught you how to respond to this kind of behavior. We didn’t learn how to be the German shepherd, and for a lot of us – especially those of us raised in the 1960s and 1970s by parents who were products of the 1940s and 1950s – that’s something we needed to learn. Most of us were raised to be nice and polite and accommodating and considerate. We weren’t taught to tell an obnoxious handsy guy to get the fuck away from us because nice girls don’t use that kind of language.

 

So far, the details that have leaked about the attack on Professor Ford reveal that she tried to escape, tried to scream. Her drunken assailant’s inability to remove her bathing suit saved her from further assault. Only her assailant’s drunken friend jumping on top of both of them, sending all three tumbling to the floor, enabled her to escape.

 

In other words, on that night, all that stood between a girl and her rapist were booze and a piece of spandex.

The lawyer in me says, “Slow down. These are just allegations. Nothing has been proven.” But if I were defending the accused, I’d be very, very concerned. Even assuming my client credibly stated that he did not recall the incident, so what? Professor Ford says he was “stumbling drunk” that night; assuming this to be so, his claimed lack of memory isn’t determinative of anything. More troubling would be such facts as the victim telling her then-fiancé about the assault in 2002 and the discussion in therapy in 2012—an important chronology, because she made these statements long before the accused was a nominee for the highest court in the land. As defense counsel, I would also have to address her initial reluctance to speak publicly, the fact that she has already passed a polygraph test, and her willingness to testify now.

 

Professor Ford is intelligent and credible. She knows that going before the world to recount what happened will be grueling. She knows that every effort will be made to paint her as a liar, a tool of desperate Democrats seeking to smear the nominee. She knows the world will be watching and judging. I expect that she also knows that, like Anita Hill, her life will never be the same; notwithstanding her professional accomplishments, her name will now forever be synonymous with this moment in history. And still, she is not backing down. 

 

If I were advising Judge Kavanaugh, this would be the moment where I would recommend that he withdraw his name from consideration for the Court.

 

Because what happened to her was not nothing.

 

 

Photo credit: Volkan Omez on Unsplash