In the hallway of the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington DC on Monday, a woman told fellow activists, assorted journalists and TV cameras about the thing that she hasn’t been able to forget.
“You do not forget someone choking you.”
She was raped by a man who put his hands around her throat and it was this specific detail that had lead her, she explained, to take a train from Boston to the US capital in order to protest against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and show her support for the women who have accused him of sexual assault: “When I heard Professor Ford say that Kavanaugh had his hand over her mouth, I believed her. You do not forget someone choking you. You do not forget someone putting their hand over their mouth. [sic] If you’re thinking you’re going to die.”
Kavanaugh has vigorously denied allegations from two women: Christine Blasey Ford, who claims he drunkenly held her down, covered her mouth and tried to take her clothes off while at a house party in high school, and Deborah Ramirez, who says Kavanaugh exposed himself to her without her consent while they were at Yale together. Both incidents are alleged to have taken place more than three decades ago – what each party remembers is crucial.
For survivors of sexual assault, the patchwork collection of things you don’t forget – like song lyrics or your childhood landline phone number, firmly wedged into a corner of your mind – includes moments like the one this woman – desperate to be heard – was willing to share.
As a result, we have an ever-growing internal log of experiences and interactions that often leave us feeling uncomfortable, unsafe and ashamed. Moments that we often outwardly played down or laughed off or ignored at the time, but which are added to the list in indelible ink. They may be fleeting in real life, barely spoken out loud, even – but in our minds they are stubbornly enduring.
When we talk about sexual assault, we nearly always talk about memory – who remembers what happened, and when and how and who was involved
It could be remembering all the Tube adverts you pretended to read to avoid the eye contact of the man staring unblinking at you. Or the realisation that your tights are being pulled down by someone other than you. It might be the taste of the drink you didn’t pour and you didn’t want.
These are recollections that are going nowhere; they have set up permanent base camp, brought supplies and are ready for the long haul. And it’s confusing because, as women, we are so often told that our memories are not enough – not good enough, not clear enough, not impartial enough. In the Kavanaugh cases, this is especially true, as the decades which have passed since the alleged incidents cast doubt on his accusers’ accounts, even though Ford has recounted telling her therapist about her experience in 2012, after years of silence.
Our memories are persistent. A recent paper on how sexual violence affects women’s memories of stress found that women who have survived sexual trauma experience stronger, more vivid and more intense memories of their most stressful life events. It concludes that as these women repeatedly rehearse thoughts, their mind generates new and compounded trauma.
When we talk about sexual assault, we nearly always talk about memory – who remembers what happened, and when and how and who was involved. We talk about versions of events, timelines, movements, clothing, gestures and interactions. It is these details that Kavanaugh’s supporters are poring over now.
Because when the evidence isn’t stolen goods or incriminating documents or an autopsy, but the victim’s own body and experience, the “truth” of what happened is scrutinised and dissected more than any other crime. And so victims of sexual assault have been told that unless their experience is completely crystal-clear – uncompromised by alcohol, clothing or past sexual behaviour – then their memory alone may be insufficient. And when the trauma of sexual violence can result in survivors having little or no memory of their ordeal, the lack of recollection may be just as stark as being able to remember every second of it. Even if it is an absence of specifics, the space in a survivor’s consciousness is still occupied.
Alongside the Washington DC protest where the woman spoke about her rape, thousands of women walked out of their workplaces, homes, universities and schools to show solidarity with the women alleging Brett Kavanaugh assaulted them. The hashtag #BelieveSurvivors began to circulate.
Because the perfect victim, as decreed by society or by the justice system, does not exist but many imperfect ones do. Just because a memory would not secure a conviction, a charge or even an arrest (and statistically very few do) does not mean that a crime is washed away. Instead it’s added to the internal ticker tape that is constantly printing the remembered receipts of our body’s violations. And every new entry compounds all of the others.
Patriarchy has given male perpetrators the luxury to so often wipe their own slates clean. For them, it is as if it never happened. But sexual assault is preserved in every woman that cannot cut loose from her conscious what happened to her. There are things that we don’t forget.