If the presidency of Donald Trump were a fictional drama, the last-minute emergence of sexual assault charges that may derail the Supreme Court confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh would be a perfect twist.
Many religious conservatives have thrown in their lot with Trump, despite numerous allegations of sexual misconduct against him, in large part because they count on him to give them a solid majority on the high court. Now, the battle for the Supreme Court could become the site of Trump’s most humiliating failure.
But, of course, this isn’t fiction. It’s a real-life conflict that involves two actual people and life-altering accusations whose veracity is extremely difficult to establish.
When the substance of the accusation first became known late last week, one could argue that both the anonymity of the accuser and the lack of specific detail made it impossible to investigate. But now, research psychologist Christine Blasey Ford has come forward to tell her troubling story.
According to Ford, when she was 15, 17-year-old Kavanaugh and a classmate (since identified as writer Mark Judge) attacked her at a party in a suburban Maryland home. Ford says that when was on her way to an upstairs bathroom, the highly inebriated boys pushed her into a bedroom, locked the door and played loud music to stop her from calling for help. She says that Kavanaugh pinned her down and tried to undress her, and that she believes he would have raped her if Judge had not jumped on the bed, allowing her to escape in the melee.
Ford did not tell anyone at the time. But her husband, whom she married in 2002, confirms that she told him early on she had been a victim of assault. In 2012, she discussed the incident in couples therapy; while the therapist’s notes do not contain names, her husband says she mentioned Kavanaugh as one of her attackers.
Both Kavanaugh and Judge have categorically denied the allegation. So far, no other women have accused Kavanaugh of impropriety.
What to make of the story so far? It is important to note that what Ford alleges is not a gray-area encounter where the lines between consent and coercion are blurred, but a violent attack. Dismissing it as “loutish behavior,” as some conservatives have done, is wrong — and I say this as someone who has criticized feminist attempts to conflate loutish behavior with rape.
But there is also much we don’t know. Ford has told The Washington Post that she came to terms with the trauma caused by the attack after going through psychotherapy. Were there elements of “recovered memory” in this process? It’s possible that the real-life incident was more ambiguous than Ford now recalls, and that the therapy influenced her memories.
It is also entirely possible that the incident happened, and that Kavanaugh is telling the truth when he says he doesn’t remember it; intoxication will do that.
If true, the accusation should be disqualifying. One can argue that even a terrible act by a drunk 17-year-old, whether it’s a sexual assault or a car accident that causes severe injury, should not destroy his life. But it’s appropriate to have a very high standard for a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court.
Yet even a thorough investigation may never establish the truth. There may be poetic justice in the fact that a key political battle of the Trump era comes down to an accusation of sexual assault. And yet this story also illustrates the difficulty of doing justice to all when handling such accusations.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.