Bravery is strange. It’s a word that makes us think of battles won, feats of strength and displays of energy and certainty. I think we confuse “being brave” with “not being afraid”. But the most courageous feats are usually the ones that feel terrifying. The ones that involve doing something that fills you with fear, but ones that you do anyway. True bravery is scary and I think that we’re often at our most courageous when we don’t feel brave at all.
Christine Blasey Ford has been brave. Braver than we’ll ever truly understand. It’s easy for us to praise her for that bravery, but it’s harder for us to really consider what it has been like for her to tell her story out loud on that public stage.
Her courage has been apparent and visible from the moment she shared her story, but seeing her standing in front of the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary was startling. Ford is sharing an experience about how the safety of women is sacrificed in order to allow privileged men to maintain power. We saw her speaking in front of some of the most privileged men in the world. Three of the male Republican senators – whose interest it was in to discredit her and undermine her – had also been present for Anita Hill’s testimony in 1991. Ford spoke out loud about her most painful and vulnerable experiences in front of people who have been dismissing women in public spaces for almost 30 years.
We all knew what the content of Ford’s speech would include. The details of her experiences are contained in the letter she sent to Senator Dianne Feinstein. We know that sending that letter was a courageous act and that Ford had forced herself to relive an extremely traumatic experience, because she believed it was important, and she wanted her words to make a difference. The letter focuses on the events, rather than the people involved in them.
However, her story takes on an even greater weight and resonance when we listen to her tell it. Twitter users discussed the emotional impact of hearing her voice, as she talked about what happened to her. “Hearing her voice break is about to have me in tears,” wrote one woman. “Hearing her testimony today, I felt her tremors wash over mine,” wrote another. “Hearing the pain in Dr. Ford’s voice breaks my heart. I’ve been there, I know how you feel, and I believe you,” said another. In the US, during her hearing, calls to the National Sexual Assault hotline rose by 147%.
I was raped by my boyfriend when I was 17. I didn’t call for help. I didn’t report it. At the time, I could not find my voice. For years, I survived it by simply pretending it hadn’t happened. More than a decade after the event, I started to share my story. Like Ford, I felt that I had some duty to others and that, if I talked about what had happened to me, my words might reach other women. I’d felt so ashamed and lonely for so long, and I hoped that hearing about my experiences might make someone else feel less alone.
Ford spoke out loud about her most painful and vulnerable experiences in front of people who have been dismissing women in public spaces for almost 30 years
In some ways, being able to put my pain into words helped me heal. For years, I had second-guessed myself, wondering whether I had any right to feel upset or distressed about what had happened, unable to silence the tiny voice that kept asking whether I was to blame. Telling my story helped me to become sure of myself. However, the act of saying “I had been raped” forced me to confront the emotions I'd refused to let myself feel when the event happened. Other women shared their stories with me, which was a huge honour, but it meant that I felt the weight of their pain, too, and I was unprepared for how crushing and overwhelming that would be. I knew that other people would rush to dismiss my story, because that is what our culture tells us to do.
The power and pleasure of men has a greater value and significance than a woman's pain. Still, I can remember every single tweet, message and comment that was made by those who didn't believe me, who didn't think my story had a point or who didn't think I was a convincing victim. I can only describe the experience as being like shedding a skin that had become too tight for the rest of my body. I had to burst out of it, knowing everyone would see how raw and bloody I was underneath. This is my experience of writing my story down. I feel braver for it – but not so brave that I could tell my story out loud, in detail, and certainly not in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, or any number of cold-eyed, white middle-aged men.
Ford has done the same thing on a completely different level, and it was heartbreakingly hard for me to listen to her tell her story with the whole world watching, with the man she was accusing right there in the room. “I am here today not because I want to be,” she said, with a barely suppressed tremor. “I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me.” Those words will haunt me forever. I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me.
Ford feels that it is her duty to relive her terror. She isn’t doing this because she is seeking closure, or because she is desperate to take back the autonomy that was taken away from her. In fact, by putting her face and voice to her words, she’s showing that showing her humanity and vulnerability is much more important to her than control. She isn’t seeking her own empowerment – even though it would be entirely valid for her to do so – she is seeking justice for women.
We already know that Ford’s bravery has led to threats to her personal safety, and her family have been forced out of their home. It’s so easy for us to distance ourselves from her daily routine, to assume that because she’s in the public eye there’s money and management and a magic, invisible support system keeping her safe.
But we need to stop thinking that. Ford may be luckier than many other survivors of sexual assault who don’t have her privilege – she is a well-educated, wealthy white woman, and she is already being taken more seriously than Hill was all those years ago. But she is still speaking publicly about one of the worst things that happened to her, with the full knowledge that doing so could change society for the better, but will immediately change her life for the worse.
Being brave never means that you stop feeling scared. It does mean that you believe, either in yourself or in something much bigger than you. It means that you aren’t certain of the positive outcome or the happy ending – but you know that there’s only a chance of either if you’re prepared to take a true risk.
Ford is doing this to make women’s lives less hard, and the least we can do is to recognise how incredibly difficult this must be for her. By acknowledging this, we might learn how to be as brave as Ford. Believing in ourselves isn’t always easy. But believing in women makes it easier.