In this the age of personal-truth, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has become the perfect focal point for America’s divisive partisanship. What better to argue over than something about which no one will ever know the truth because the truth will never be known?
This is a subject on which I never wanted to write, but I have some old notes from a story never written that offer insight into the fallability of memory. Whether they reflect on Kavanaugh’s claimed lack of memory or Christine Blasey Ford’s stated clarity of memory is left to the reader to decide.
No records, as we now know, exist to document the behaviors of Kavanaugh or Ford at a long-ago, high school party where she says he attacked. No records put him at the scene or elsewhere. All that exists are memories – hers and his, his and hers – and memories are sadly, tragically, horribly fallible, most especially the memories of youth.
As a journalist, you almost inevitably discover this human frailty. When you go back to confirm memories of what was, you often find that what you remember happening didn’t happen or didn’t happen the way you remember it or when you remember it or how you remember it.
Memories evolve over time. They shift and change. Bits and pieces rearrange themselves. Personal truths replace facts.
Consider the following two, detailed, published accounts of how news of the Exxon Valdez hitting Bligh Reef in 1989 first reached an Alaska newspaper columnist. The incompetent seasmanship and the massive oil spill that followed this shipwreck traumatized many Alaskans.
On the 20th anniversary of the oil spill, one of them wrote this personal account of wrestling with the disaster:
“On the morning of March 24th (1989), the galley of the (M/V) Westward was full of fishermen. We were docked in Sitka and picked up the local news feed on our television normally reserved for Mel Gibson videos or the Lonesome Dove series. Coffee, cigarette smoke, fishy raingear and a frantic need to know charged the wheel house.
“We had just enjoyed a herring opening that promised a money season. Panic set in and with it, paranoia. A man named Rex was convinced it was a plot to bring oil platforms into Prince William Sound. The Goddamn environmentalists were blocking the burning of the oil…how much was there? Where was it going to go? There was a storm coming from the North. Where the hell were the containment booms? Where were the emergency response teams? Why were we still sitting in the harbor? Hundreds of boats, days before racing to the herring grounds, now fueled up to do something. None of us sure what that would be, but willing to do anything to protect our livelihood. You see, being a fisherman isn’t what you do; it’s who you are.”
By the 25th anniversary of the disaster five years late, however, the story had changed considerably. Here is that account:
“That year we waited more than a week to fish. Fish and Game kept testing the herring to see if they were ripe yet. ‘Standby to standby’ became the joke. There’s something about waiting for fish to get horny enough to spawn (and you have to catch them before they do that) which makes for a loaded atmosphere.
“But did we catch them. Hundreds of thousands of tons. Prices high and spirits higher.
“The Exxon Valdez had ‘fetched up’ and was spilling oil in our next herring fishing grounds.
“The grassy knoll.
“At the time I didn’t know that the Raycus Radar hadn’t been repaired and that was part of the off coarse (sic) problem. I also didn’t know that the only emergency clean up crew had been laid off and the barge with all the clean up equipment was iced into dry dock in Valdez and had been sitting there for almost two years. None of us did.
“We all crowded in the wheelhouse and listened to the marine radio.
“They have to burn it now. They need to ignite it with a bomb — there are fighters sitting at Elmendorf. What is the hold up? Burn it already!
“Then the weather forecast.
“A North Eastern (sic) storm was blowing in.
“‘Jesus, it’s going to blow it all the way to Kodiak… that’s more than three hundred miles.”
There is no evidence to indicate the author of these differing stories meant to do anything other than to tell the truth as best remembered. There is every reason to believe each of these differing accounts is, in fact, a true memory. The problem is that memories are not facts.
And in this case – unlike in the case of Ford and Kavanaugh – there are some facts that can be checked. They only add to the above stories’ disagreements as to how the news was delivered and when, and what happened after.
Evidence versus memory
The fishery was put on a 2-hour notice of opening on March 23, 1989. The first opening, however, didn’t come until March 31, according to state records. The Exxon Valdez had then been on the rocks for a week.
Capt. Joe Hazelwood spent the next 15 minutes trying to power the ship off the reef. When that didn’t work, according to the official report, he radioed the Coast Guard in Valdez at 12:26 a.m. to say, “We’ve fetched up, ah, hard aground, north of Goose Island, off Bligh Reef and, ah, evidently leaking some oil and we’re gonna be here for a while and, ah, if you want, ah, so you’re notified.”
No one at that time knew the extent of the spill, and the communication between the ship and the Coast Guard was for hours afterward sporadic and limited.
According to a detailed timeline of the accident compiled by the state of Alaska, the Coast Guard didn’t actually know much about oil until 3:19 a.m. when it radioed the Exxon Valdez to ask this: “Have you had a chance to detect whether or not any noticeable amount of oil has dropped out of any tanks and, if so, which tanks are they?”
If someone in Sitka, 800 miles to the south of Valdez, had heard about the grounding after midnight and turned on the marine radio – if someone in Sitka could hear radio chatter coming from so far away – there wouldn’t have been much to hear, according to the state timeline and National Transportation Safety Board reports on the accident.
From the time the Exxon Valdez hit the rocks until almost 2 a.m., the limited reports from the ship to the Coast Guard were mainly about its trying to manuever off the reef. The Coast Guard didn’t arrive on the scene to start assessing the situation until 3:35 a.m.
Associated Press reporter Dean Fosdick was the first member of the media to be tipped to the fact the ship was aground. That happened at about 5:30 a.m., according to an AP history. The size of the oil spill was then unclear.
About an hour later, according to the state timeline, the U.S. Coast Guard made its first official report of a spill of about 150,000 barrels. The news was on the radio by drive time in Anchorage, but when then-Gov. Steve Cowper was interviewed by a Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reporter at 8 a.m., Cowper had not yet heard of or been told of the spill.
The initial belief was the spill could be cleaned up. The winds did not come up until three days after the spill.
“Various fishing and environmental groups say Exxon wasted precious cleanup time in two days of good weather over the weekend and now must wait for the winds to calm before they can make progress on the rapidly expanding spill, ” the New York Times reported on March 28.
At that time, no one had any idea the oil would be able to escape Prince William Sound and spread across the Gulf of Alaska as far as Kodiak. The oil didn’t start to move out of the Sound until March 29 – five days after the spill, according to a National Park Service history, which says the federal agency that manages Kenai Fiords National Park just north of the Sound, didn’t consider the possibility park beaches might be oiled until March 27 – three days after the spill.
A fisherman in Sitka would have to be incredibly prescient to be aware of the wind before it started blowing and know an oil slick with which no one had any experience could escape the Sound as easily as it did.
When the differing stories of differing memories above are matched to the documented evidence, about all one can conclude is that the author of the stories was in Sitka before the oil spill, and there was probably someone named Rex there as well.
The rest of it makes for anyone’s guess as to what actually happened.
The news might have come via the TV or by word of mouth. It might have been after midnight or in the morning. Everyone might have wondered where the oil was going to go, or someone might have known it was headed for Kodiak. The galley might have been full of fishermen, or the ship’s crew might have clustered around the radio in the wheelhouse.
The frailty of memory
Unfortunately, this is the way memory works.
“…What gets remembered is reconstructed from the remnants of what was originally stored; that is, what we remember is constructed from whatever remains in memory following any forgetting or interference from new experiences that may have occurred across the interval between storing and retrieving a particular experience,” Mark Howe and Lauren Knott wrote in a 2015 paper published in Memory, a peer-reviewed British journal focused on memory research.
“Because the contents of our memories for experiences involve the active manipulation (during encoding), integration with pre-existing information (during consolidation), and reconstruction (during retrieval) of that information, memory is, by definition, fallible at best and unreliable at worst.”
Ford says she is today living with a nightmarish, 35-year-old memory of an assault by Kavanaugh. You have to feel for her because no matter what happened, the memory is surely real.
Watching Ford’s testimony before the Senate on Thursday, it was impossible to believe anything other than that she was testifying honestly about her personal truth. That Ford is reported to have passed a lie-detector test only underlines that she believes what she is saying, but just because she believes it doesn’t make it true.
Were Kavanaugh strapped to a machine to repeat his claim he can’t remember an encounter anything like Ford recounts, the lie detector might well judge him to be telling the truth, too, because lie detectors don’t detect the truth.
They only detect whether the individual hooked to the machine believes she or he is telling the truth. And memories can be truer than true even when they are not.
Kavanaugh says he has no memory of any assault, and that might well be his reality.
If you have doubts about this, go read the excellent commentary by rape-survivor Deborah Copaken in The Atlantic. She contacted her attacker 30 years later and listened to his bullshit story about how he had no memory of raping her. He begged her forgiveness. She forgave him.
She’s a better person than I am; or one more easily convinced of the badly overused “I was drunk and blacked out excuse;” or both. I’ve never bought the idea booze, no matter how much you drink, leads you to rape or murder anyone. People who do these sorts of things have bigger behavioral problems than drinking too much.
Which brings us back to Kavanaugh, who may or may not have groped Ford. From what Copaken writes, there was a shocking amount of groping going on in the Georgetown community in the 1980s. She describes a world in which “most of us thought getting our bodies groped at a high-school party—or anywhere—was the unfortunate price we paid for having them” and writes of a friend “having her skirt ripped off her body in the middle of a bar mitzvah dance floor.”
If this was a sociocultural norm for Georgetown at the time, there should be more than Kavanaugh on trial. But he’s the guy in the hot seat, and he could be lying about his lack of recollection of any encounter with Ford.
Then again, Ford’s memory could be a construct of bits and pieces of multiple gropings (if that world was as Copaken describes) and multiple boys that somehow came to focus on Kavanaugh. But there is no way of knowing because it is a memory, not a fact.
It is even possible Ford and Kavanaugh have totally different memories (or non-memories) of a meeting in the context of their own, personal truths: Kavanaugh has honestly forgotten rolling onto a bed with another teenager he thought might be sexually receptive, and Ford has judged his groping not as a bad effort at misguided teenage foreplay but an attempt at rape.
In the world of teenage boys, sad to say, an incident like this wherein no one’s clothes came off might well be forgotten quickly. That’s only more likely if Georgetown in the ’80s was some sort of American grope town. And the odds that Kavanaugh did something inappropriate sometime, somewhere 35 years ago have to be high because most high-school jocks do something inappropriate at some point in their high-school lives.
That he might grow up to repress those memories is entirely possible, too. Times have changed. Attitudes toward what the former prosecutor questioning Kavanaugh called “horesplay” have changed even more.
Just ask former Sen. Al Franken. Sad to say, many young men are lusty, young versions of a breast-fondling, ass-grabbing Franken. Most of them, thankfully, grow out of it, unlike Franken. Franken’s adult behavior, at least some of it, is known because there is documentation. Kavanaugh, if one believes the women with whom he has associated as an adult, has not been groping women.
Thirty-five years ago, who knows? And that is the giant problem in the Kavanaugh case. The truth of what happened long ago is simply unobtainable. The Federal Bureau of Investigation could spend years investigating an attempted assault in an undisclosed location on an unknown date witnessed by people who don’t remember anything.
Personally, Ford convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that she believes Kavanaugh attempted to sexually assault her. I’m equally convinced President Donald Trump firmly believes many of the false statements he makes.
Beliefs, to repeat, are not facts. Facts are bits of information that can be independently verified. In this case, there are no bits of information that can be verified. Kavanaugh, who appears a little anal about his personal record keeping, might actually be able to clear his name with something as simple as the date of the alleged assault.
His old calendar might put him somewhere other than Georgetown, but there is no date.
Where does this leave the country? Facing a mess with no obvious solution.
To wholly believe either Kavanaugh or Ford solely on the basis of their memories you must suspend knowledge of how the mind amplifies, diminishes and twists recollections. Or ignore this reality to embrace partisan politics and join those rushing to insist one or the other of these people are lying and the other telling the truth because the politics matter more than anything.
Having denied the accusation, Kavanaugh can’t bow out now because it would convince one group of partisans he is admitting guilt, and his character would be forever smeared. Having been publicly attached to the accusation, Ford can’t retreat because it would convince the opposing group of partisans she lied, and her character would be forever smeared.
Both are now-successful adults trapped in a story about whatever it was that happened when their paths somehow crossed in high school – that being one of the few agreed upon facts. The other is that no rape took place, which makes the incident both better and worse.
To many a man who as a boy groped a girl (and apparenlty to Copaken), it says these are things that happen as awful as that might sound. To many a woman who as a girl was groped, it underlines that all men are potential rapists, and Ford is lucky she didn’t become another victim among the far too many victims of rape.
And on this we build our own truths to decide who is lying and who is telling the truth, and the political partisans of the day – political partisanship at the moment being about as ugly as it has ever been in this country – play us every way they can.