School

Yearbooks Are Character Witnesses

Like social media posts, they reveal the qualities people value when writing their own myths. Brett Kavanaugh’s yearbook is no different.

Side by side: a yearbook cover with "Cupola" on top and Brett Kavanaugh's yearbook page.
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This week, the author Curtis Sittenfeld tweeted that it feels like we are now living in her 2005 novel Prep—and she did not mean it in a good way. The book is set at a fictional elite New England boarding school, a place not altogether unlike Georgetown Prep, the Maryland high school that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh attended. One of the book’s major themes is its main character and narrator’s difficulty adjusting to the school’s rarified culture, and in a subsequent tweet, Sittenfeld highlighted a passage in which Prep’s narrator talked about turning to old yearbooks as a way to decipher the school’s exotic-seeming ways: “[T]hey were like an atlas for the school. … You could figure out, if you had the inclination and the time, who in a given year was friends with whom and who had dated whom, and who had been popular, or athletic, or weird and fringy.” Sittenfeld articulated something that almost anyone who’s ever paged through a yearbook can attest to, which is that there’s something transfixing about these keepsakes. I know I spent hours poring over the yearbook of a friend’s older sibling in my early teens, before I started high school and became a yearbook editor myself. For people on the outside, a yearbook can feel like a decoder ring.

Now a yearbook is performing a similar act of conjuring up the past. As allegations of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh that date back to his high school and college years have emerged, Kavanaugh’s 1983 Georgetown Prep yearbook page has become an item of public interest thanks to its references to drinking and a New York Times report that it contained veiled demeaning boasts about a purported sexual conquest.

It is strange, for this former yearbook editor, to see these hardbound mementos rocket into the news cycle, and yet I am also not surprised that they would turn out to be such powerful, incriminating artifacts. The elite prep school culture that shaped Kavanaugh makes his yearbook especially relevant, but yearbooks have also figured into some other recent political narratives in less likely ways. Last fall, during Roy Moore’s campaign for an Alabama Senate seat, his yearbook inscription to a woman who accused him of sexual misconduct became a key piece of evidence for both sides. Earlier this month, Caitlin Flanagan wrote a piece for the Atlantic about an experience she had in high school that was similar to the sexual assault Christine Blasey Ford alleged that Kavanaugh perpetrated, and how Flanagan forgave her attacker after he apologized to her—via a note in her yearbook.

What is it about yearbooks? In the same way we assume social media trails will inevitably follow younger generations, we expect that older ones wouldn’t be so burdened, their analog ephemera lost to time. But part of why yearbooks are resurfacing is that people have dutifully held onto them, since that’s what they were designed for. Entries in them were the social media profiles of their day: We can’t scroll all the way to the beginning of Kavanaugh’s Instagram account, but we can look through his yearbook in an attempt to glean insights into what he was like as a teenager. And just as the story of a public figure’s old social media posts causing controversy has become a familiar modern narrative, the re-emergence and decoding of Kavanaugh’s yearbook page is the 20th-century version of outing a famous person’s old ill-advised tweets.

Though their job is to memorialize, yearbooks are similar to social media posts in that we often end up reading them in very different contexts than they were originally created. When Kavanaugh listed himself on his yearbook page as treasurer of the “Keg City Club” (“100 Kegs or Bust”), did he ever think that the phrase would be included in the documents that would surface as he was up for a Supreme Court confirmation in the U.S. Senate? Probably not—though, as Michelle Goldberg has pointed out, it’s possible that absent the worse allegations, mere allusions to drinking heavily would have had little impact on his candidacy, not in a society where men “reap social capital for misbehaving.”

But what about designating himself as a “Renate Alumnius,” another snippet from Kavanaugh’s yearbook entry? Per the Times, the “Renate” in question was not some kind of Latinate honor but a person, a girl who attended a nearby school, and Kavanaugh and his friends mentioned her to intimate that they had all been involved with her, presumably sexually. Until recently, she didn’t know about these references, which she has called “horrible, hurtful, and simply untrue.” Kavanaugh has denied that his Renate affiliation meant anything untoward, but it’s not a denial that holds much water: If it’s so harmless and uncontroversial, why was it worth putting in the yearbook in the first place? Are we to accept a feeble attempt to explain it away 30 years later, or should we read into the words we see, printed in black and white, among a bunch of other jokes about beer and drinking to excess? It’s odd to consider a school-sponsored book more trustworthy than the statements of a federal judge, but that’s where we are.

Yearbooks aren’t fact-checked with the precision of the New Yorker; of course there are things in them that don’t hold up to scrutiny. They’re really exercises in self-mythologizing—how people want to be remembered, not how they were. But that doesn’t mean they don’t also contain essential truths. In Caitlin Flanagan’s case, she seems to hold up her yearbook and the note it contained as an important symbol of proof. That Flanagan started her Atlantic piece about her attempted rape quoting the apology the fellow student who attacked her wrote in her yearbook shows how meaningful it was to her. This man later apologized to Flanagan in person, and that was important too, she adds, but for her the yearbook inscription and the in-person apology both seemed like direct and verifiable evidence that this man was ultimately truly sorry. She never considers not taking him at his word—why would he write it in her yearbook if it weren’t true? And so he is fully absolved.

This display of contrition stands in contrast to the smoking gun from Roy Moore’s Senate campaign, the note he wrote in the yearbook of a teenage girl who accused him of sexual misconduct, Beverly Young Nelson. Moore could deny any association with his accuser all he wanted, but she had the yearbook, and it contained a note from a man in his 30s to a then-teenage girl, and there’s really nothing anyone could say that would make that OK. Kavanaugh’s yearbook, too, can’t help but shine a light onto his privilege and his desire for male approval at the expense of women.

Yearbooks weren’t intended to be read this way, for all their inside jokes to be checked out and judged against modern standards, for newspaper reporters to go through them with a fine-toothed comb. And that’s what makes them so fascinating and revealing. Plenty of Kavanaugh’s classmates have come out of the woodwork to speak to what he was like as a high school and college student, but it’s worth remembering that where memory and testimony can be unreliable, in the humble yearbook we can occasionally find a perfect character witness.