© 2022 KMUW
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Remembering An Assault


When writer Caitlin Flanagan read Christine Blasey Ford's accusation against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, she instinctively believed her.

CAITLIN FLANAGAN: I think that what this is showing us yet again is that there's a huge number of American men, some of them who have become incredibly respected, and justifiably so, who sometime in their late adolescence or their very early manhood, forced sex out of a girl or woman, or tried to do it. And for them, that was one of the childish things they grew out of on their path to becoming a better man. And for the girl, it was a trauma.

MARTIN: Flanagan herself was nearly raped in high school, an experience she describes in a new article in The Atlantic. It happened after she moved to a new school where she had no friends. And then one day, this guy offered to drive her home. Some listeners may find the details in this interview disturbing.

FLANAGAN: And I thought, oh, that's great. You know, I'll get to know him, and I'll meet his friends. And this is - and I'd had my eye on him. And then he ended up saying, let's go to the beach. And I said, OK. And when we got there, it was totally deserted. And he really tried to rape me. And we fought in the car. We truly were fighting against each other. And then at a certain point, he just stopped.

I think it was clear enough that - to him that I wasn't going to give up, and that if he went forward and had intercourse with me, that it would just be absolutely, 100 percent because he had held me down under protest and yelling. And then he drove me home.

MARTIN: And you didn't tell anyone?

FLANAGAN: No. I felt so ashamed. I thought it was a reflection of who I was. I thought, well, this just shows why you don't have any friends in this new town. You're not the sort of person that people want to take to parties and get to know and are proud to be associated with. The only thing you have to offer is someone might drive you to the beach after school and take sex from you. I thought it was a reflection of me and not a reflection of him.

MARTIN: Later, he wrote in your yearbook an apology. And you start your piece in The Atlantic by quoting from that. What did he write in that?

FLANAGAN: It was a very powerful and very heartfelt apology. But he talked about the fact that it was entirely his fault and that he felt bad about it and had wanted to tell me this all year long, and that he had great respect for me and that he knew I would succeed in life because I was smart.

And it was - to me, at 56 years old now, I look at that and I think that was a really profound thing for an 18-year-old boy to write. It had huge amount of self-reflection and self-knowledge. And it showed that he must've been thinking about what he'd done all the rest of that year.

MARTIN: You said he, years later then, apologized to you again in person in this very kind of emotional way. In the course of any of those apologies, did he ever explain why he did what he did?

FLANAGAN: No. And I often wished I'd had the maturity to say, I'd like to talk about - more about this. You know, when I get off work at this time, could we go and, you know, get a coffee somewhere and talk about it? But I was still so young. And I was still - again, I felt a little bit of shame, I think. I didn't want him to think that my life had been defined by such a moment as that. But I bear him no ill will. He apologized twice, and that had a lot of meaning for me in my life.

MARTIN: The title of your piece is "I Believe Her." And you are referring there to Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault when they were teenagers. He has completely rejected the allegations, says there's no truth to it.

I assume you don't know either of them personally, and therefore don't have any other information than what's already out there. Why does your own personal experience - what you have just shared - why does that make you think that Christine Blasey Ford is telling the truth?

FLANAGAN: Well, it informs my decision. But what clinched my decision, as I say in the piece, was that when she gave her report to The Washington Post, and I saw, oh, she told two different times - she told her psychologist about this event in recent years, but long before he was nominated, and that it was a significant enough event that the psychologist notated that, and that she'd also taken a lie detector test. When I look at that test in light of the notes from the psychologist, I say, well, that's some good evidence there.

And then when I look at more that we've learned about Brett Kavanaugh's life in that high school and about this best friend that he had who liked to joke about getting super drunk and being forceful with women, you know, at 56 years old, I know that the simplest explanation is almost always the right one. But just as a woman who's been around this earth for a long time, sounds to me like he did it.

MARTIN: Why did you decide to write this? It is a departure for you to wade in so specifically in a political moment like this.

FLANAGAN: Well, part of the thing is that when you get older, everybody tells women the bad things that happen. And a lot of good things that happen when you get older are that you're not guarding these things that would be humiliating to you when you were younger. It's totally settled part of my life, you know?

And I thought it would be valuable because people see me as someone who's very much a critic of many aspects of contemporary feminism, and has even been a critic of some aspects of the #MeToo movement. But this is an area where I feel very strongly that this happens to women. This happens to girls. And it happens by men who sometimes go on to become very prominent people. And I thought it would be a useful, worthwhile offering to put my story into the record as well.

MARTIN: And even though this happened decades ago - because this happened decades ago, there are those who would suggest that people change. People make mistakes. Should we all be held accountable for things that we did when we were 17 years old?

FLANAGAN: I think, you know, norms were different, but right and wrong wasn't different. I'm kind of a social conservative, and I was having a bit of a friendly quarrel with another - a true social conservative. He didn't think it was a big deal. And as a social conservative, I think one of the very first principles is men don't abuse women.

And that - and in this case, there was no - it wasn't even as though it was mixed signals. It wasn't a thing that began consensually. They brought her to this room and did it to her. And so as a social conservative, I think this is ghastly.

MARTIN: Caitlin Flanagan is a contributing writer at The Atlantic magazine. We've been talking about her most recent piece, titled "I Believe Her." Thanks so much for your time, Caitlin.

FLANAGAN: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF POPPY ACKROYD'S "RAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.