Christine Blasey Ford Testifies Again

“I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified,” Christine Blasey Ford said in the fall of 2018, introducing herself to the Senate Judiciary Committee and a television audience of millions. Early in One Way Back, the memoir Ford has written about her testimony, its origin, and its aftermath, she repeats the line. She feels that terror again, she writes. She is afraid of having her words taken out of context, of being a public figure, of being misunderstood. “Stepping back into the spotlight comes with an infinite number of things to worry about,” Ford notes, before returning to the story at hand. The moment is brief, but remarkable all the same: Rare is the writer who will confess to fearing her own book.

Memoirs like One Way Back are sometimes treated as justice by another means: books that step in where accountability has proved elusive—­correcting the record, filling in the blanks, and restoring a narrative to its rightful owner. One Way Back, more than five years in the making, is partly that kind of reclamation. Ford’s story, for many Americans, began and ended on the day of her testimony: the day when she shared details of an attack at a house party in 1982—an assault committed, she alleged, by Brett Kava­naugh, then a Supreme Court nominee. The memoir corrects the story by expanding it, placing the testimony in the broader context of Ford’s life and detailing what came later. And it rescues its author, in the process, from the confines of iconography. Ford the narrator is quirky and insightful and prone to interrupting herself with long digressions (into psychological theories, the radness of Metallica, the mechanics of surfing, the ecosystemic importance of kelp forests). She lets her idiosyncrasy loose on the page. But Ford knows better than most the toll that telling one’s story can take.

Kavanaugh, who denied Ford’s allegations, was confirmed to the Supreme Court by a two-vote margin on October 6, 2018—a year and a day after The New York Times published the investigation about Harvey Weinstein that helped inspire #MeToo’s growth into a mass movement. This was a resonant coincidence. Over the course of that year, countless people had put their wounds into words, trusting that the stories they told could be tools of justice. They wanted to be heard. They asked to be believed. They practiced a civic form of faith. What they did not anticipate—what they should not have needed to anticipate—was the caveat that has revealed itself in the long years since: Stories may be believed, and still ignored.

Ford’s own story, in many ways, was an exception to #MeToo’s rule. She was listened to. She was, to a lesser extent, heard. Half a decade later, though, her claim rests in the same in-between space where the claims of many others do: It lingers, alleged but never litigated—its airing cut short when Kavanaugh was confirmed. One Way Back channels the frustrations of that abridgment. But the book also details Ford’s life after the confirmation: the death threats, the upheaval, the backlash. As her story goes on, its testimony comes to read as an indictment—not of one person, but of a form of politics that sees stories as weapons in an endless war. For her, the personal unexpectedly became political, and then the political proved to be inescapable. Ford, who has a Ph.D. in psychology, is used to making sense of her experience by naming it. The intervening years, though, have resisted that kind of therapeutic clarity. So does, to its credit, the memoir itself. Closure, in Ford’s story as in so many others, is a relief that never comes.

Ford grew up near Washington, D.C., among gated houses and country clubs and people who treated politics as their business and their birthright. She left as soon as she could (college in North Carolina, grad school in Southern California, then family and home and work in Northern California). She taught at Stanford. She spent her free time surfing. She followed politics in the generalized way that most Americans do. In the summer of 2018, though, Justice Anthony Kennedy retired, and Kavanaugh’s name was in the news, and the night lodged somewhere in her memory—receding and recurring and receding again over the years—returned. Ford realized, to her surprise, that her childhood field trips to marbled monuments had stayed with her: She had retained a sense of civic duty.

“Let me be clear: This is not a political book,” Ford writes early in the memoir, and you could read the disclaimer in many ways—as an attempt to distinguish between partisan politics and a broader form of civic engagement; as a defense against long-standing charges that she is a pawn of the Democratic Party; as an effort to set One Way Back apart from other Trump-era memoirs. But that disclaimer, its phrasing right out of the career politician’s playbook, also distills one of the book’s core tensions: Politics, in the memoir, encroaches on everything else. Ford does not want it to encroach on her story. Ford came forward in the first place, she suggests, not as an activist, or even necessarily as a feminist. She came forward as a scientist. She had a piece of evidence to share, and believed that those assessing Kava­naugh’s fitness for office would be glad to have it. “I thought that if the people on the committee had taken this very esteemed job in public service, they wanted to do the right thing,” Ford writes. “I thought I could save Trump the embarrassment of choosing an unviable candidate.”

“Hold for laughs,” she writes, referring to the woman who believed politics to be public service and Donald Trump to be capable of embarrassment. But Ford also conveys pride in the woman she was—an idealist who, in her idealism, was both mistaken and correct.

Ford decided to relay her claim in July 2018, and spent the dizzying weeks until late September trying, and failing, to be heard. She reached out to politicians and journalists, telling them what she could remember of the party that night 36 years earlier: the scene in the house; the boy on top of her, groping, laughing, so drunk that she feared he might kill her by accident; the bathing suit she wore under her clothes. She was not raped, she repeatedly clarified, but assaulted. Ford describes the politicians she confided in, on the whole, as sympathetic but hesitant. They listened, and their aides took very good notes, and Ford wasn’t quite sure what they did after that.

She was not fully aware of the politics of the matter: Her story was a grenade that nobody wanted to be holding when it exploded. She simply knew that her story was not turning into action, and she was slightly baffled by the delay. And the politicians, she implies, didn’t know what to do with her. They wanted to know why she was coming forward—why now, why at all. “Civic duty,” in partisan politics, is an explanation that raises doubts.

In relating all of this, Ford is asking readers to accept what the politicians, in her description, could not: that she would do something simply because she considered it the right thing. Authorship may have an authoritarian edge—the writer includes and excludes, edits and spins, creating a story that is an act of will—but it brings vulnerability, too. Every testimony, whether delivered to the Senate or to readers, will confront audiences that double as judges. And American audiences tend to treat earnestness itself as cause for suspicion.

Ford the memoirist faces the same challenges that Ford the witness did. To tell her story—to have that story believed—she has to sell herself as the storyteller. She has to deliver a testimony that serves, inevitably, as self-defense too. No wonder Ford regards her book with fear. Even before she testified, One Way Back suggests, Ford lost hold of her story. She had planned to stay anonymous; instead, in September, her name became public. (Five years later, she remains unsure of who leaked her identity and changed her life.) Then the smear campaign started, and the death threats began. She did not realize that her testimony would be televised, she writes, half-acknowledging her naivete, until she was making her way to the Senate chamber.

And she did not realize that, in the testimony itself, she had brought data to a gunfight. The professor had prepared for the occasion as if it was a lecture, marshaling details and context, aiming for clarity. Kava­naugh spoke after Ford, and the gulf between the two testimonies was, in retrospect, an omen. She offered evidence. He offered grievance. She spoke science. He spoke politics. She was piecing together fragments of a story, parts of which she had forgotten. He was controlling the narrative.

With Kava­naugh’s confirmation, Ford expected to move on as the news cycle did. But although coverage tapered off, the smears continued. In mid-­September, after her name had become widely known, Ford—along with her husband, Russell, and their two adolescent sons—had moved out of their house. “Hotel arrest,” as Ford calls it, was a safety precaution made necessary by the threats, and made possible, in part, by a GoFundMe campaign that an anonymous donor started. It was a surreal blend of luxury and fear: extreme isolation, ongoing uncertainty, days’ worth of room-service cheeseburgers.

And the strangeness extended beyond the Senate vote. Ford could not return home. She could not return to work. She could not go out in public without protection. The media attention trained on her friends and family in the lead-up to the testimony—and the partisan cast of the event—had strained some of her relationships, and cost her some others. The fear that had been acute became chronic. She entered another phase, “hibernation.”

By this point, the reader has learned enough about Ford to understand why the precautions would have seemed like punishments. She is rebellious by nature. She is curious by profession. She is prone to overthinking. And there she was, surviving but not fully living, in a confinement made more confusing because it was punctuated with kindness—and made more frustrating because it refused to end. Earlier in the memoir, Ford describes the relief she felt when she assumed that the whistleblower chapter of her life was behind her. “I did it,” she thought to herself, after her testimony’s opening statement. “Hardest part is over.” The book is full of lines like that—false endings, further evidence of Ford’s naivete—and they do not merely foreshadow the hardship to come. They turn a memoir, at junctures, into a horror story. Just when the heroine thinks she has escaped, she hears the thudding footsteps once more.

As Ford’s story goes on, those moments of revoked catharsis condition the reader to do what Ford started to do: treat the promise of resolution with suspicion. Soon the scientist was struggling to diagnose her own situation. She spent a stretch in a fog that she calls her “gray blanket era.” She talks about life in the “abyss.” She considered moving (to a small town where she could “teach at a community college, and listen to grunge music all day”). She flailed for a time, and her book flails with her.

Ford is aware, she notes, that people would prefer a tidier story, a more hopeful one. Audiences are happy to consume accounts of other people’s pain; they tend to expect, though, that the storytellers will consider it their role to guide them to an end. But Ford cannot. One Way Back is a title derived from surfing—a sport that begins in freedom and ends in a foreclosure of options. Once you’ve paddled out past the break—­once you’ve fought to reach the calm of the open ocean—­you have only one way to get back to land: through the waves, either riding them or caught within them. We watch as Ford, for a period, gets pummeled so regularly that she seems to lose her bearings. She is getting sadder. She is, perhaps worse, becoming cynical. Whether she can even believe in a way back isn’t clear.

Ford the former idealist finds respite, briefly, in the formulaic, accusatory stories of partisan discourse. The scientist explains the other side as “evil.” She toggles between anger and despair, wanting to hope that things will get better, but suspecting all the while that hope might be a delusion. She talks the endemic talk of memoir as a way to control the narrative. The woman who always looked for the biggest waves—and who once dared to briefly try piloting a small plane (despite a deep fear of flying)—seems, in those moments, to be unmoored. Many people she encountered earlier in the memoir saw idealism as a form of weakness. Now she seems at risk of believing them.

One Way Back is proof that Ford has emerged from the abyss, but what makes her account unusual and valuable is the way it refuses the comfort of firm ground. The psychologist, by the end of the book, might offer closure. The scientist might offer conclusions. The author might offer catharsis. But Ford can offer none of those. Instead, she offers a model of resilience.

Her predicament is singular, but has become a familiar one. Readers, too, might have struggled against cynicism. Readers, too, might have believed that their optimism was a virtue—only to be left wondering whether they had been foolish or betrayed. The waves keep coming. They have their own small currents. They can force you forward; they can pull you back. They can propel and impede you at the same time. The only thing to do in the tumult, Ford suggests, is keep aiming for the shore.

This article appears in the May 2024 print edition with the headline “Christine Blasey Ford Testifies Again.”


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