Who to believe: Ford or Kavanaugh?

Yesterday’s riveting testimony pitted Christine Blasey Ford’s “100%” certainty that it was Judge Brett Kavanaugh who sexually assaulted her 36 years ago versus his persistent denials. Who to believe in a hearing where no other testimony got scheduled? Ford said she felt “terrified” and was testifying only because she believed it was her “civic duty” to do so. Given her shaky voice and the frequency with which her raised eyebrows created wrinkles across her forehead, it’s easy to say, yes, she felt fear. Death threats and the memory of Anita Hill’s experience in testifying against Justice Clarence Thomas could be cause enough for ford to have felt fear yesterday. But in the moment, recounting the trauma of the attack was fully cause enough to show fear that came across as genuine and unrehearsed.

It’s harder to give credence to Kavanaugh’s “100” certainty, however. There is no lying muscle or facial expression that reveals dishonesty. Caught in a lie, Richard Nixon showed fear, Dwight Eisenhower sadness, Bernie Madoff contempt, and Lance Armstrong as well as Bill Clinton anger. Indignation is a frequent recourse for a liar, as in: how dare you question my character and veracity! Clarence Thomas raged against a “high-tech lynching” and Democratic senators were cowed. Yesterday, Kavanaugh (and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham) raged and again the Democratic senators on the judiciary committee didn’t meet fury with fury. For Kavanaugh, yesterday’s hearing constituted a “national disgrace” and Ford’s accusations and those of Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick were important only as part of a process that has destroyed “my good name.”

Kavanaugh choked back tears in recalling his daughter’s advice to pray on behalf of professor Ford. Was he momentarily sharing his daughter’s empathetic compassion for Ford? Or focused mostly on his own and his family’s pain because of public embarrassment?  Who knows for sure. But a nose wrinkled in disgust and a mouth taut with fury were far more common displays for Kavanaugh during the hearing than dwelling on an alleged incident that Ford says “drastically altered my life.”

Were the judge’s displays of disgust and anger genuine? Absolutely, but they were also a diversion. The key here emotionally might actually be happiness in Kavanaugh’s case. Ford recalled Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge both laughing uproariously as the future judge groped her and stifled her calls for help in a locked room at a suburban high school party. They were “having fun at my expense.” That account squares with Ramirez’s memory of a drunken Kavanaugh waving his penis in front of her face at Yale University as if a funny prank.

Memories are tricky and far from reliable but certain patterns are known. Intense experiences can create hyper attention to crucial details while other details blur. That fits Ford’s specificity in recounting the assault. Other truths regarding how memory work, in contrast, against Kavanaugh. Novelty and meaningfulness are central to what we recall.  Were sexual “pranks” a repeated and therefore not novel experience for Kavanaugh? Quite possibly. Did a drunken, laughing Kavanaugh see the assault as meaningful? Even now, it doesn’t seem so. Add Kavanaugh’s ambition to the mix and his unwillingness to answer specific questions squarely and his angry, disgusted denials look much self-serving than does Ford’s plaintive fear.