Their most frightening experience

christine-blasey-ford-pool-sipa.jpgChristine Blasey Ford during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

In testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee about her alleged attack by Brett Kavanaugh, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford has given us all a vivid lesson, both in emotional and scientific terms, about what it means to be the victim of a violent sexual assault.

Her compelling story is similar to those I've heard many times before.

For the past 20 years, I've taught a UCLA Extension course in opinion and advocacy writing, and it's been my practice to ease my students into the form with milder ice-breaker assignments--personal bio, response to a reading, standard op-ed--before I push them up to the next level, which is writing a signed personal column in their own highly individualistic voices.

Because my students tend to be relatively mature post-grads who are already working, often in journalism or a related communications field, a showcase personal column demands a correspondingly challenging topic. I ask them to relate their most frightening experience, conjuring up all the raw rhetorical power they can so that readers can share those feelings.

Over the years, a disturbing pattern has emerged. My male students tend to write about their insecurities around a loss of power or agency: fear of failure at work, a perilous outdoor adventure, inability to cope with a family crisis like a dying relative or failing marriage. Women, on the other hand, most often recount the terror of a sexual assault or domestic violence, often a rape, childhood molestation, or a beating, invariably at the hands of a partner, a relative or trusted family friend.

Many times my women students will write, or confide in me privately, that they've never revealed or discussed the attack with anyone before, and that even the experience of chronicling it, which demands revisiting and reliving it, was deeply traumatic. Sometimes they would cry as they wrote it, or in talking with me after class. And even though my course is ultimately intended to instill the confidence to write for publication, it's quite clear that few of my students are even comfortable sharing their private anguish in this assignment among their classmates, much less among a broader readership for which they may someday aspire to write.

I am always supportive, commending their courage in stepping forward, acknowledging their trust in me as they shared such intimate and painful memories.

But until now, I never mustered the comparable courage or trust to reveal an experience of my own.

In 1975, when I had just turned 20, I took a quarter off from my college studies to join my family in the UK, where my father, a university professor, had a one-year teaching appointment. It was my first trip out of the country; in fact, it was my first trip anywhere on an airliner. It was liberating. It was thrilling. My confidence and independence grew as I rambled all over the island, traveling on my BritRail Pass from Portsmouth to Inverness, from Land's End to Brighton, London to Liverpool.

On my first night in Oxford, I got a sharp reminder how vulnerable and inexperienced I really was.

I had just left my suitcase at a bed-and-breakfast and wandered out to find someplace for dinner. It was getting dark and I had no map, so I intended to stick to the neighborhood close by my lodgings. As I peered into a nearby restaurant window to read the menu, I heard a voice over my shoulder. "Are you an American? New in town?" I turned around to find a kindly looking older gent extending a hand. "Looking for someplace to eat? I'd be glad to give you some recommendations. But first, let me buy you a drink at my local pub. You'll like it. Popular with the students."

Before I could hesitate, he'd chummily taken my arm and was steering me through a warren of little back streets so typical of English cities. I soon found myself being ushered through a crowd of loud, boozed-up British university students in a hot, packed, smoky pub. My host seemed to be a familiar presence there, greeting and being greeted by other regulars, and introducing me around as his "young friend." It was somewhat reassuring, but behind their smiles had I also caught a hint of bemused, even knowing contempt?

The barman pulled us a couple of pints of Guinness, an Irish stout, and we made our way to a table in a back corner. He downed his quickly, so naturally I felt obliged to do the same. But almost immediately, I felt lightheaded, and realized I'd made a serious mistake. In the UK, they pour Imperial pints, 25% larger than our American pints, equivalent to nearly two of the watery American beers I was used to back home. And I was drinking on an empty stomach. At my weight, I'd already hit a .06 blood-alcohol level from only a single drink.

Suddenly, his friendliness began to take on a distinctly creepy quality, and I was increasingly uncomfortable. It dawned on me that I was in completely unfamiliar surroundings among total strangers, in a foreign country, and rapidly becoming drunk. I felt myself losing control of the situation, and with rising panic, realized that I better get out, fast, before he ordered another round that would put me well into the "impaired" zone. I stood up, mumbled something about finding the loo, and practically bolted out through the crowd into the street. The adrenaline and cool night air began to revive me, and before long I found myself back on a main street and managed to make my way back to my room, where I collapsed and fell asleep.

There was no inappropriate touching. No assault. No crime. As to details, I remember the year and the city, and nothing else. Not the month, day, or time, nor any of the locations. I probably couldn't have picked the guy out of a lineup the following month, much less 43 years later.

As it fortunately turned out, I was a victim of nothing more than my own naïveté. Yet more than four decades later, what I do remember from that brief encounter I remember with perfect, mortifying clarity. In Senate testimony about her own attack, Dr. Ford, a research psychologist, explained why: in stressful situations, the brain releases norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that codes memories in the hippocampus, and the more stressful the situation, the more vividly and indelibly those memories are stamped in our consciousness.

Over the decades, more than once, I've run and re-run through my mind how various imaginary scenarios might have played themselves out. At best, an escape after successfully fending off an unwanted sexual advance. At worst, a range of nightmare possibilities from rape to some other sexual or violent assault, injuries or worse, and criminal charges against one or both of us.

I'm a six-foot straight man, but even that minor, solitary incident offered more than a hint of the terror, humiliation, and vulnerability experienced so much more powerfully by the numerous female sexual assault victims who have bravely stepped up to speak their truth.

Dr. Ford's compelling and persuasive testimony, despite the furious categorical denials by Judge Kavanaugh, and a White House and Senate majority bent on fast-tracking his confirmation, has at least temporarily hit the pause button in the proceedings while the FBI undertakes further background investigation into her allegations. Yet it fills me with shame that from the highest ranks of our national leadership on down, the personal courage of so many other less high-profile survivors is still so often met by the male establishment with disrespect, disbelief and dismissal.

Whatever the fate of the Kavanaugh nomination, perhaps after November 6 that will finally begin to change.


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