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No Win Situation For Victim's Testimony On Supreme Court Nominee

Days before Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh was expected to receive a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, Christine Blassey Ford came forward with sexual assault allegations from decades ago. Irwin Zalkin shared some thoughts on the matter that has sparked recent discussion amongst the public:

I have been following the discourse between believers and doubters over the credibility of Christine Blassey Ford, who authored a letter accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexual assault decades ago. Detractors argue that this letter is politically motivated relying principally on the timing of the accusations some 30 years after the fact. Supporters point out that she disclosed the sexual assault to her therapist years ago before Kavanaugh’s nomination, and identified Kavanaugh as the assailant to her therapist and husband at that time.

Dr. Ford apparently has not responded to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s invitation to testify this coming Monday. As an attorney who has represented at least 500 or more survivors of child sexual abuse, sexual violence, and sexual harassment I can appreciate Dr. Ford’s concerns. First and foremost, the members of the committee have little information to prepare a meaningful examination of either Judge Kavanaugh or Dr. Ford. None of these Senators are trained in how to conduct a “trauma informed” investigation, as are certain law enforcement experts in the field of sexual assault and sexual violence. If they were, they would understand that compelling the testimony of either witness before a professional investigation has been performed would be nothing more than political theater at the expense of both of these parties.

For those whose visceral reaction is to disbelieve Dr. Ford based on the passage of time, and lack of a recollection of details I would offer the following. Most victims of sexual violence never report what happened to them. The reasons are many. Some are psychological. Many children dissociate from the experience and the abuser. It’s a psychological defense mechanism that essentially suppresses the memory of the experience or emotions related to the experience. A similar and related reaction is referred to as de-realization where the mind detaches from the experience. At some later time, usually well into adulthood, the childhood experience is triggered by some current adult experience, such as having children the same age as the parent was when he or she was abused which causes memories of the past to come into focus.  

Other reasons for not disclosing, include intense shame, feelings that the person will not be believed, fear of being stigmatized as “damaged goods,” concern that the abuser may be punished which could affect the family’s ability to survive (typical in the case of domestic violence or incest) and more. The mere lapse of time in making a disclosure is not enough to discredit a later report of sexual violence.

With respect to the lack of recollection of details, this is typical of trauma victims. The effect of the trauma itself impacts memory. By dissociating, the person will, by definition, not have a sequential or chronological memory of the abuse and events surrounding the abuse. They will only have snapshots of memory. That is why it is important that a “trauma informed” investigation be conducted. People unfamiliar with the effects of trauma on memory will naturally mistake a lack of detailed memory with a lack of truthfulness or full disclosure.

Rather than compelling Dr. Ford to testify, in public, before a panel of untrained and politically motivated examiners, the matter should be referred to the FBI. One of the functions of the FBI is to conduct a thorough background check on nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court. The agency undoubtedly has properly trained investigators and knows how to obtain corroboration or to determine that the allegations are likely not credible. The President and Republican members of the committee for some reason are opposed to following this longstanding protocol. 

Dr. Ford stands to lose no matter what her decision. If she doesn’t come forward to testify, many will say that she is lying and too afraid to subject herself to being confronted by the accused or his proxies. If she does come forward, unskilled examiners will unfairly accuse her of delaying her disclosure for political purposes and attempt to discredit her accusations based largely on lack of memory or inconsistencies in her recollection of what, if true, was a very traumatic experience.

Unfortunately, we live in a time in our country where political gain and maneuvering have preempted our sense of decency or moral correctness. I don’t really expect the Committee to do the right thing with this issue.