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Treacherous memory: Brett Kavanaugh and the summer of 1982

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Yesterday I read a fascinating (to me) document: an oral history of my family in the year 1982, centered primarily on a trip that me and my five siblings took to southern California.

The document was put together by one of my brothers, who is a historian, so it was very skillfully done.  He did separate oral interviews with all the siblings, as well as my parents, and then constructed a narrative describing our shared — or not — memories of the same events.  Here’s a passage that I want to use to make a broader point (the ages at the time of the people quoted ranged from nine to twenty-three, me being the oldest, and my historian brother being the youngest) :

Luisa: We then went to see the Nosans. And they had all the food out and I think Paul said something super embarrassing. Well, I didn’t think it was so bad, but Francis was like, “Oh my God, Paul,” and I was like, was it that bad? I can’t remember what it was.

Francis: No memory.

Paul: No memory at all.

Bernardo: It was actually that Paul had invited us over there to dinner. Everyone was kind of horrified because he called them up and instead of saying, you know, we’d like to take you to dinner or something like that, he just said, you know, we were hoping we could bum dinner off of you, or words along those lines.

Manuel: I remember Paul fucking up the thing with the Nosans. And me and Francis were just, we couldn’t believe what he’d done. I remember Mami telling us, “When you’re there, you call the Nosans, you invite them out for dinner, and then you’ll go down to San Diego and treat them to dinner.” That was what we were supposed to do. So Paul calls, why we let him do it is beyond me, but Paul calls and asks them if we can come over to their house for dinner, and me and Francis are like, “No! No! That’s not what you are…no!! You dip shit.” And of course they invite us. There are six of us. He invited the six of us over for dinner. Oh my God, I was so embarrassed that he did that.

Bernardo: We made Paul do it. Paul didn’t want to do it. But we said you’re the oldest, you have to do it. {Laughing} Definitely pulled that card on him.

Isaac: Poor Paul. They made him do it and then he fucks it up. {Laughing}

Note how I had no memory whatsoever of this incident when I was asked about it.  Interestingly neither did the second-oldest sibling, who was understandably horrified and outraged at the time, especially because everyone knew he was the person who should have been specifically deputized by my mother to carry out this sort of task.  My sister remembered that I had committed some awful faux pas, but didn’t remember the details of what it was precisely.  But at least two of my brothers had very clear memories of exactly what I had done.

Even after being reminded of the whole incident in detail, I had only the vaguest recollection of my actions that day.  I certainly remembered the dinner itself, but that was about it. The most I can say that, in retrospect, this is exactly the sort of thing I would have done, as anybody who knows me really well will readily attest.

There are many similar incidents in this oral history: events that some people remember clearly, while others have only vague recollections, or no memory of all, of the same family dramas.

The relevance of this to the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation controversy is obvious.  Christine Blasey Ford said Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge sexually assaulted her at a party in the summer of 1982, when all of them were teenagers.

Although I was of course aware of the general theoretical insight that human memory is very fallible and tricky, only after reading this chronicle of my own life in 1982 did I fully grasp how false Kavanaugh’s testimony must have been.

Consider that Kavanaugh and Judge were probably drunk at the time of the incident, while Kavanaugh didn’t, per Blasey-Ford’s own account, manage to actually sexually penetrate her.  I’m not minimizing what Kavanaugh did: per CBF, he tried to rape her and failed.  That is a serious crime in itself, and there is every reason to believe she would remember such an incident vividly, and be haunted by it.

But here’s the thing: there’s also every reason to believe that he would not remember the incident, at all.  As in, have no recollection of it whatsoever.  And this wouldn’t require being “blackout drunk” during the event, by any means.  After all, to him at the time, “nothing happened.”  He tried to “score” with a chick at a party, with the help of his crazy friend Mark, who was always helping the two of them pull off crazy stuff of one sort of another, especially when they were drinking, which was pretty much all the time. But he “got nowhere” with her, so it’s quite possible that he would have had trouble recalling the incident six months later, let alone 36 years down the road.

Now I’m not saying that Kavanaugh didn’t have any recollection of the incident.  Maybe he remembered it as clearly as at least two of my brothers remembered how badly I botched the dinner invitation. Or maybe he had a very fragmentary, incomplete memory of the event, like my sister did.  But it’s completely plausible — and indeed even likely — that, under the circumstances, (how often, after all, did Kavanaugh engage in “high-spirited teenage hijinks” in the long-ago summer of 1982?) neither Kavanaugh nor Judge had any memory whatsoever of this incident. This is especially likely given that the general social pattern that provides the background for the incident — going to lots of parties in high school, getting drunk, “joking” a lot about having sex, consensual or otherwise, with girls like CBF — are all things that it’s been established beyond a reasonable doubt that Kavanaugh actually did regularly. Why, in other words, would he even be expected to remember something like this?

Given the social context in which he lived, and the kinds of things he clearly did do at the time, the only truthful answer to the questions he was asked under oath about the incident, if he didn’t actually remember it, would have been, “I don’t remember if I did or didn’t do what Christine Blasey-Ford says I did to her in the summer of 1982.”

Now of course that doesn’t mean that, technically speaking, Kavanaugh was lying when he said he was absolutely certain that he didn’t do what Blasey-Ford remembers him doing to her.  After all, he could just be the sort of supremely arrogant fool who sincerely believes that, if he doesn’t remember having participated, 36 years ago, in what to him at the time would have been a trivial incident, that means it didn’t actually happen.

But really, what are the odds that a upper class white male preppie who went on to become a Yale Man and a federal judge could turn out to be that kind of person?

 

 

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