Medical Examiner

Ford’s Dual Roles in Her Kavanaugh Testimony: Witness as a Victim, and Expert Witness in Psychology

“Multifactorial aetoiologies,” the “sequelae of sexual assault,” and “indelible in the hippocampus” were phrases that showed how Ford has made sense of her trauma.

Christine Blasey Ford.
Christine Blasey Ford at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday. Melina Mara/AFP/Getty Images

“Let’s go back to the incident,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy to Christine Blasey Ford on Thursday morning as she testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “What is the strongest memory you have, the strongest memory of the incident, something you cannot forget? Take whatever time you need.”

Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” Ford testified, “the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.”

For me, and perhaps for other viewers, this exchange about the comedy of cruelty will be the very hardest to forget from Thursday’s hearings. As Slate’s Lili Loofbourow pointed out on Tuesday, several allegations of abuse against Brett Kavanaugh have called to mind that spectacle of men joining men and humiliating women, just to crack each other up.

But that Leahy-Ford snippet sticks out for me in the way it taps into another running theme. At several points while answering questions on Thursday morning, Ford appeared to toggle between two modes of describing her experience. In one, she told her story as a victim of assault, her voice cracking as she wended through the ugly details. In the other mode, she became an expert witness—a clinical psychologist who had analyzed and meta-analyzed her own experiences, finding their locus in her brain. Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, Ford said to Leahy, as if she’d run herself through an fMRI machine and discovered that the central feature of her trauma—the laughter of these awful boys at her expense—was lighting up a patch of tissue in her medial temporal lobe.

There were several other times when Ford stepped back from her raw account of the events of summer 1982, and offered up instead a processed version fit for academic publishing. She made remarks about “multifactorial aetoiologies” and the “sequelae of sexual assault,” and brought up the hippocampus another time as well. Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked how Ford was so certain—“100-percent,” even—that Kavanaugh had been the one to climb on top of her? “Just basic memory functions,” Ford replied, and then added the corroborating science: “and also just the level of norepinephrine and the epinephrine in the brain … that encodes memories in the hippocampus.”

In another context—testimony from an actual expert witness, for example—this sort of neuro-talk might be used to bolster simple statements so they sounded more like scientific facts. But when Ford played that expert’s role on her own behalf, it served a different purpose. It was somewhat queer to watch such bloodless footnotes being added to a harrowing first-person account. If this proceeding has a point at all, it is perhaps to give Ford a chance to enact her own credibility—to tell her story to the Senate, face-to-face and under oath, in such a way that her experience cannot be dismissed. As an eyewitness, she did exactly that, with poise and dignity and power. And then, in responding to the questions after, she added on a second layer of discourse, full of scientific jargon, which seemed to distance her from both her trauma and her audience.

Yet Ford’s appeals to science served as counterweights against the public narrative in which she’s been forced to play the victim. As a scholar, Ford has studied different ways that people respond to trauma and abuse: Some survivors exhibit what’s been called resilience and shake off the ill effects; others demonstrate post-traumatic growth and end up sturdier than when they began; and the rest—like Ford—remain afflicted with sequelae, suffering from depression, phobias, PTSD, or other lasting wounds. I suspect that mastering this science can’t make one’s suffering any less severe—but it might provide a patch of solid ground from which one might survey and understand a psychologically seismic event. Perhaps it was important for Ford to find that footing, and share that expertise, even as she shared the details of her attempted rape.

Ford is, besides a clinical psychologist, a biostatistician and research methodologist. That means she studies how one might best assemble messy facts about a question and then draw believable conclusions. This topic couldn’t be more relevant to Thursday’s proceedings. Indeed, Ford’s 2016 book begins with a discussion of how researchers must strike a balance between the potential costs and benefits of any given line of inquiry, especially when those inquiries are carried out on human subjects. In this hearing, Ford made it very clear that this same idea has been on her mind in recent months: “I was calculating the risk-benefit for me of coming forward,” she told Feinstein, “and wondering whether I would just be jumping in front of a train that was heading to where it was heading anyway, and that I would just be personally annihilated.”

Another telling reference to her work in science came when the GOP’s proxy questioner, Rachel Mitchell, asked Ford if something other than a sexual assault might have contributed to her anxiety and post-traumatic stress. “I think that’s a great question. I think the aetiology of anxiety and PTSD is multifactorial,” Ford answered, again lapsing into jargon. “We consider it a risk factor, so that could be attributable to the symptoms that I now have.” In a way, the most telling word in this response is we, as in we psychologists, and we, the experts on the topic of this hearing. Even as she testified for Congress, Ford was both a scientist and an eyewitness.

As a scientist, Ford had weighed the risks and benefits of going public, and tried to find a balanced path. As a scientist, she’d evaluated both the process of the hearing—its methodology and scope—and the nature of the evidence that she herself might provide. The rest of us have tended to assume that what went on Thursday is all about appearances: How does Ford come off? What about Kavanaugh? Who’s asking the questions, and what tone is being taken? Yet Ford has indicated that she believes several other fields of research might be more germane than optics. She knows that she has volunteered to be a subject in this study, but that doesn’t mean that she won’t try to be an author of it, too.