You know something’s up when you’re crying on a commuter train. And not a discreet, elegant, lone tear dragging its way down a smoothly made-up cheek but a blocked throat, heady, hot-eyed, gulping bawl.
The US Politics section of the paper isn’t an obvious lightning rod for blindsiding emotion. Neither is the arcane process of the Supreme Court nominations, which has no jurisdiction over us in the UK.
But what I’m reading is a description of a teenage party, the pugnaciously assertive, humourless laughter of adolescent boys playing to the crowd. Witnesses with eyes open at the time who remember nothing afterwards. The clear female voice admitting she can’t quite remember how she got home, but the precision with which she remembers the details of the room.
Christine Blasey Ford’s powerful testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week detailed allegations that Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee sexually assaulted her 36 years ago.
I didn’t realise but her words have become mine, and the degrading inflection point of my first term at university, the undertow of my thoughts and dreams and fears for 21 years, has sharpened into immediate memory – on a commuter train.
Through more than 20 years of determined nonchalance, interrupted by occasional bursting-out shouts of anger, I thought I had diminished it to a proportionately-sized place in my mental landscape.
It lasted a few minutes. I didn’t really know the people whose party it was. I stepped away from that group of people and did other things elsewhere. It’s a long time ago. I grew up. Got married. Had babies. Boy babies, no less.
But incidents of derailing awfulness defy proportionate memory, and blasé bravado will only get you so far. It is painfully clear that a few minutes on Halloween 1997 (you see, some of the details are high-definition clear) will not recede.
They’re there in the abdicated romantic and sexual choices I made immediately afterwards and, worse, in those I let others make to me, again and again, and again and again, throughout university and beyond. They’re there in the lethargic neglect with which I treated my maligned, wrong, bitten body throughout my twenties. I see them in the fearful fascination with which I pushed into rowdy pubs, the compromised admission that I don’t think I like my university city, famously one of the most beautiful in Europe, all that much. They were there when I worried how I’d stop an infant son growing into a teenager who’d terrified me, and in the tormenting physical invasiveness of the bite of breastfeeding.
I wonder if I used up all the bravery I had reporting what happened, and then pushing my college to do something about it, threatening to go to the police if they looked away, whistling in the wind, after their clubbable evidence-gathering produced the astonishingly inconclusive result that, in an overwhelmingly male institution, no one could quite remember the detail. Did that use up all my clarity of thinking, certainty of morality, I wonder? How was I so naively brave, so diligent about telling on the naughty boys, that I spent three years sliding into the college bar, That Girl, You Know The One Who, and worrying at how hard it was to make friends? (There’s that barked male laughter again). What were - are - the consequences of three years living in a closed community in which everyone knew the worst thing that had happened to me and thought mine was a straight-laced over-reaction to drunken hijinks?
How did the compromise deal, and deal it was, they offered me – “this has to stop now”– to make me stop talking, shape the constantly adjusting appraisal an eighteen year old makes of their voice, their words? Is it why I ultimately pulled back, leaving the fronting of the arguments to others while I build a career elsewhere, role-modelling for my boys what hard-working, low profile, women look like?
Suddenly, on a commuter train on that bright September day, I’m exposed to another clever, thoughtful, tormented woman. Ford was surviving her assault while I was a precocious child with a nose in a book and a daydream of some dreaming, indolent, spires. She is successful, insightful, considered; graceful. Her glasses are like mine. She recognises her civil responsibilities and is brave when they call her. Her voice, her laser-clear memory, her determination to convince those who will not see, is un-doing her silencing, the minutes when there was a hand over her mouth. She speaks and will not be silenced. Her resilience is glorious. And devastating – how many are there of us? And glorious – how many are there of us? And what will we do now? Can we recognise the layers of shame that have shaped how we know to behave? Do we know how to be brave again?