That’s the most indelible memory Christine Blasey Ford said she had kept bottled inside of her since a horrific summer evening in 1982 — the wild cackling of then-teenagers Mark Judge and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, chillingly described by the 51-year-old research psychologist as “the boy who sexually assaulted me.”
Today it’s a safe bet that millions of Americans who spent an early autumn day riveted to the screen never will forget the moment she released the burden of that memory — under the blazing glare of TV lights and a Senate hearing room that Ford had so desperately wanted to avoid.
“Indelible in the hippocampus” — the brain’s center for both memory and emotion “is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense,” Ford said. That’s how she described the worst moment of the incident in which she alleges that Kavanaugh threw his full weight on her, tried drunkenly to remove her clothes and covered her mouth when she tried to scream.
The emotional retelling of that moment by Ford — delivered with a remarkable, crisp clarity, even as her voice sometimes cracked and tears welled in her eyes as she brushed away a stray hair — was just one unforgettable moment in a day of drama now inked indelibly in the pages of American history.
The unflinching directness of Ford’s account — her “100 percent” certainty that it was Kavanaugh, along with his best friend, Judge, who pulled her into a suburban Maryland bedroom and locked the door, her vivid description of the weight of Kavanaugh atop her body and how she struggled for air and thought she might die as the then 17-year-old covered her mouth — seemed to throw into doubt the once near-certainty of Kavanaugh’s confirmation the longer she spoke.
Indeed, that looming reversal of fortune surely sparked Thursday’s other hard-to-believe-this-is-really happening moment, Kavanaugh’s loud, forceful — some might say belligerent — burn-it-all-down afternoon rebuttal, in which the 53-year-old jurist called both the confirmation process and the mounting allegations against him “a national disgrace.”
It was a day of emotional ping-pong and high-stakes political poker. Hanging in the balance were the biggest dream of the conservative movement — a decidedly right-wing Supreme Court for the next generation — but also the fate of a predicted “blue wave” for the Democrats in November that could become a blue tsunami if white women continue to desert the Republican Party in droves.
The sexual divide is why Ford’s recollection of the hysterical laughter by Kavanaugh and Judge cut so deeply. To laugh in the throes of such an act of violence and domination is the power play that undergirds the terrorism of such an act. Sexual assault isn’t so much about sex as about power, and this is what many find so disturbing about the accusations against Kavanaugh; his second accuser, Yale classmate Deborah Ramirez, also said one of her most vivid recollections of the night she claims the future judge shoved his penis in her face was her assailant’s laughter.
The laughter — a powerful thing that cuts many ways. No one knows that better than President Trump, who frequently voices his concern, or fear, that people are laughing at America or its leaders. Laughter, in these circumstances, is all about respect. Even President Trump, in his own Trumpian way, gets that.
And so do America’s women. It’s the reason Thursday’s emotional but morally direct testimony by Ford was such a cultural touchstone. Come November, America’s angry women may have the last laugh.
Will Bunch writes for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Tribune Content Service distributes his columns.