A Credible Witness and the Power of Cognitive Dissonance

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford
Photo credit: Win McNamee

Competing Truths Exist in Every Sexual Assault Allegation

“She has wanted to call you for a long time, but her experience was very painful and she didn’t want to relive it,” this unknown woman said to me over the phone.

A few things you should know. This memory is 21 years old. Outside my ex-husband, I don’t remember the names of the people in this story so I can’t tell them to you. I won’t tell you my ex-husband’s name because I fear retaliation by him even though I never saw or spoke to him again after we separated. So let’s call him David and call his alleged victim, Marie.

David told me his version of this story, preemptively I now assume, pretty early in our relationship. He and Marie had met during their first year of medical school and dated casually. Eventually, he lost interest and ended their relationship. One night shortly thereafter at a party, a man unknown to David, showed up and rammed David’s head into a brick wall so hard he had to spend several days in the hospital. His assailant was Marie’s brother and his provocation was simply that David no longer wanted to date his sister.

I was a very naïve 25-year-old woman when David told me this story.

I was in awe of David. He wasn’t particularly handsome in any traditional way, but certainly not unattractive. The source of my awe was his intellect. He went to Cornell and Yale, and was now a medical student at Vanderbilt. His parents put him in a prestigious private high school where he became friends with other boys of privilege and connections. He was from Connecticut and only the second person I had ever met that had attended an Ivy League school. I attended public schools where I got average grades. I was raised in Tennessee, a state that doesn’t tend to engender a great deal of respect from New Englanders. As a joke, he used to give me pop quizzes and have me recite the names of the eight Ivy League schools by memory, something I had never known before I met him, and an exercise likely intended to infantilize me rather than educate me though I didn’t realize it at the time.

We separated after one year of marriage when I discovered he had spent $98 on porn videos to send his friends back home for a bachelor party he couldn’t attend because of his demanding medical school schedule. No doubt, I was prudish about those things anyway, but the real reason it upset me so much was because he wrote this check the day before my birthday; the day before he explained he didn’t have enough money for a simple gift or card for me as he sat down to a country club dinner my parents treated us to for the occasion. By the end of our second year of marriage, we were filing for divorce. I assume the drama of our brief marriage and impending divorce made for good rumor among the medical school students because that was when Marie’s friend called me out of the blue.

“She has wanted to call you for a long time, but her experience was very painful and she did not want to relive it,” she said. She gave me Marie’s number and I called her.

The story Marie told me was chilling.

She and David had dated for a short time. Then, in the context of a date, he raped her. The past 21 years have muted my memory of her retelling to some extent. I can’t remember if she even told me how the rape occurred. Whether she had broken up with him, rebuffed his sexual advances, or it was unprovoked, perhaps out of dominance or sport. She had confided in her brother, who did go to that party and beat David’s face into a bloody pulp. David pressed charges against him. But when the officers learned about what motivated her brother’s assault of David, they told David he may end up being the only person going to jail by the time it was over, so David dropped the charges. David’s pre-emptive retelling of it to me had left this detail out. When I heard it from Marie, it all made much more sense. I remembered after hearing David’s version, I didn’t understand why a brother would become so unhinged by the break-up of a casual love affair and then not be punished for it. But David acted just as confused as I was and we joined each other in thinking that life can just be unfair sometimes.

Before Marie hung up the phone she said, “I heard what has been happening to you and as much as I never want to talk about this, I told myself I would if it kept him from ever getting over on another woman again.”

I have been toiling about what to write about the Kavanaugh allegations for weeks now. I’ve felt a sense of responsibility to write something, but just have not known where to start or how to confine my thoughts. My book about federal Judge Sam Kent outlines the playbook of manipulations plain sight sexual predators use to scapegoat the victim like cries of memory fallibility, straight-faced denial, intimidation, credibility contests, martyrdom, mistaken identity, addiction problems, entitlement, political conspiracy, indignancy, and how to leave just enough people thinking you are wonderful so have people to vouch for you.

This last tactic struck me in perspective piece written by Beth Jacob for Sunday morning’s Washington Post.

Beth had been raped by her friend’s boyfriend, but by the time Beth had enough courage to tell her friend, the boyfriend, now her friend’s husband, had already pre-empted the narrative by confessing to a consensual sexual encounter with Beth. I hadn’t realized it until Beth’s piece, but this is part of a two part strategy: get there first to frame the narrative and surround yourself with people who are blind to your secrets. It was true of Judge Kent, it was true of David, and I believe it is true of Judge Kavanaugh as well. Using my own example, being a rapist (allegedly, I must technically say) doesn’t mean David was no longer one of the smartest people I have ever known. It doesn’t mean that from time to time he didn’t do extraordinary things for other people. In his case, he was a medical doctor. He literally saved people’s lives. I have no doubt there are people in Kavanaugh’s life who only know his most positive traits as well. As Laura Cox Kaplan, Suzanne Matan, Zina Bash, and Kavanaugh’s parents sat behind him in unwavering support of his impassioned defense, I have no doubt that their impressions of him are also as true and accurate as Dr. Ford’s. What people fail to consider is both can be true: someone can be a rapist and also be a good father, caring husband, intelligent jurist, and a whole host of positive attributes. It just easier for us to think of people as all good or all bad.

Art Markman does an excellent job explaining the theory of cognitive dissonance and why it is so difficult for people to hold competing thoughts in their heads. As he notes in an article adapted from he and Bob Duke’s book, Brain Briefs, people walk around with competing thoughts in their heads all the time.

It isn’t until we are confronted by the inconsistency, forcing us to pick one, that we feel stress and a compelling motivation to choose and rationalize which one we need to believe in order to reduce this inner conflict.

Had Marie called me at the beginning of my relationship with David, I may not have believed her because of this limitation of the mind.

I highlight this process to encourage people not to fall into the trap that cable news would have you fall: there is good and there is evil and you need to pick one. Notice that you can have competing ideas and it is essential to practice being comfortable in ambiguity and in the unknown. I believe Dr. Ford and frankly my belief in her story has nothing to do with Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony, but what I know about sexual assault survivors and my personal experiences growing up with privileged teenaged boys in the 1980s. But I can also believe that there are people in Judge Kavanaugh’s life who could never imagine he would do such a thing. As the nation collectively grapples with the cognitive dissonance of these two realities, it will take some drilling down to get past the political bullshit and answer some fundamental questions about human rights, the entitlement inherent in privilege, and whether lifetime political judicial appointments are even a good idea in the first place. It is not a question of whether or not Judge Kavanaugh would be convicted by a jury of this allegation. It’s about whether we think that being a Supreme Court Justice is such a prestigious honor that whoever is appointed should be above reproach. That a credible allegation of such despicable disregard for another human being, regardless of how alcohol or affluenza driven it might have been, is not okay for this particular job at this particular moment in history.