I Believe Her: A Reading List

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On September 27, 2018, I sat home alone at my kitchen table, my laptop open to Christine Blasey Ford delivering her opening statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Outside, the neighbor’s dog barked and a truck throttled down the street, but as Dr. Ford uttered the phrase, “but his weight was heavy,” the world around me, the one I have built for myself here and now, seemed to dissolve. As she testified about Brett Kavanaugh and Mark Judge’s laughter, “pin-balling off the walls,” I wept. My body tensed. I was no longer seated at my kitchen table, but waking up instead on the cold hard tile of my college dormitory, my assaulter and my best friend both standing above me, laughing.

During the second semester of my freshman year of college, my mattress had been placed directly on the floor because a neurological illness had stolen my ability to safely climb into my lofted bed. The man who assaulted me was a friend. The night of, he kissed my roommate goodnight before making his way down the ladder of her bed. He crawled on top of me, using his body weight to pin me down. His breath smelled like beer. With one of his hands he pressed hard against my collarbone, and with the other he groped me beneath my shirt. When he at last fell asleep on top of me, I squirmed away. Not knowing where else to go, I found a spot on the tile floor and curled up there for the rest of the night.

There are more details but, even in saying this much, my voice quakes. I have seen what happens to women who offer testimony. Leigh Gilmore, in her book Tainted Witness, writes about “how women’s witness is discredited by a host of means meant to taint it: to contaminate by doubt, stigmatize through association with gender and race, and dishonor through shame, such that not only the testimony but the person herself is smeared.” Women who report sexual assault are asked, what were you wearing? Why didn’t you tell someone? How hard did you fight back? During her Senate testimony, Dr. Ford was asked, “So what you are telling us, this could not be a case of mistaken identity?” “You would not mix somebody else with Brett Kavanaugh, correct?” “You do remember what happened, do you not?” And in 1991, when Anita Hill faced the Senate Judiciary Committee to offer her testimony of Clarence Thomas’ sexual harassment, she was asked, “Are you a scorned woman?” and “Do you have a martyr complex?”

Watching Dr. Ford on the stand, and remembering with respect Anita Hill who testified before her, it is clear to me that both women’s testimonies represent much more than simply the confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee. In their stories, I hear my own, of which I am usually reluctant to speak. And in the voices of people who disbelieve both Ford and Hill, I hear my worst fears vocalized. In the days that followed Kavanaugh’s confirmation, all that held me were the words of writers who skillfully dismantle harmful rhetoric, expose systems of privilege and power, illuminate the stories of vulnerable others, and bravely voice their own.

I believe Dr. Ford. I believe Anita Hill. And I believe in the power of our collective witness as a way to make change. As Tarana Burke, Amanda de Cadenet, Glennon Doyle, Tracee Ellis Ross, and America Ferrera wrote recently in their open letter to Dr. Ford,

“You’ll see it when we march, when we walk out, when we show up.

You’ll see it in the voting lines that go on forever.

You’ll hear it in our reawakened voices.

You’ll feel it in our strengthened siblinghood.”

1. “One Year of #MeToo: The Legacy of Black Women’s Testimonies”(Allyson Hobbs, October 10, 2018, The New Yorker)

By writing about the fragmented nature in which memory of her own sexual assault emerges, chronicling historical incidents of black women such as Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Simril, and Betty Jean Owens bearing witness against their attackers, and examining the context surrounding Anita Hill’s testimony, Allyson Hobbs illuminates why it is so difficult for women — particularly African American women — to share incidents of sexual violence. She emphasizes that to move forward we need to stop privileging the voices of white women, and create a narrative that’s more inclusive.

“To do better by all women, we must listen and recognize the historical and contemporary circumstances that shape their experiences and have real consequences on their lives.”

2. I Rewatched Anita Hill’s Testimony. So Much Has Changed. So Much Hasn’t. (Liza Mundy, September 23, 2018, Politico)

Liza Mundy writes about Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, providing valuable context for how incidents within the 1991 hearing can be reframed based on our current knowledge of sexual harassment. This piece was published before Christine Blasey Ford testified, but Mundy offers insight as to how Dr. Ford’s testimony might be received differently based on changes in the digital age, the presence of female members on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the influence of the #MeToo movement.

“Even now, even given the remarkable climate-change wrought by the #MeToo moment, we are seeing in real time how women can be intimidated by everything from the attacks they face to the constrictions placed on how they can tell their stories.”

(Related: read Exclusive: we re-ran polls from 1991 about Anita Hill, this time about Christine Blasey Ford by Dylan Matthews at Vox.)

3. And You Thought Trump Voters Were Mad  (Rebecca Traister, September 17, 2018, The Cut)

Studying historical instances of rage in relation to both race and gender, Rebecca Traister examines the ways in which anger can be progressive or a means of maintaining harmful institutions of power.

“This fight has been against an administration with virtually no regard for women, for their rights, or for the integrity of their bodies, either in the public or private sense. The point should be obvious, yet the anger of the female protesters has repeatedly been cast — as Ford’s story quickly was — by those threatened by it as desperate and performed.”

4. What Do We Owe Her Now? (Elizabeth Bruenig, September 21, 2018, Washington Post)

On September 21, 2018, Donald Trump tweeted, “I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed,” which immediately resulted in a viral #WhyIDidntReport hashtag on Twitter. There are a slew of reasons why women don’t report, one of them being the way that sexual assaults are treated by both authorities and communities.

Elizabeth Bruenig, in a tour de force of literary journalism, writes about a woman named Amber Wyatt who reported her rape 12 years ago to both friends and authorities in Arlington, Texas, only to be harassed and shunned by her peers to the point that she had to leave school. Authorities, even though they were in possession of a rape kit and Wyatt’s testimony, chose not to prosecute, saying “it was a ‘he said, she said’ thing.”

“Making sense of her ordeal meant tracing a web of failures, lies, abdications and predations, at the center of which was a node of power that, though anonymous and dispersed, was nonetheless tilted firmly against a young, vulnerable girl.”

5. What Kind of Person Makes False Rape Accusations? (Sandra Newman, May 11, 2017, Quartz)

On October 2nd, 2018, to the cheer of a crowd in Southaven, Mississippi, Donald Trump mocked Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, saying, “How did you get home? I don’t remember. How’d you get there? I don’t remember.” He lamented, saying Kavanaugh’s “life is in tatters. A man’s life is shattered,” insinuating that Dr. Ford contrived her story of sexual assault.

While I am reluctant to engage with Trump’s abhorrent mockery of Dr. Ford, his unfounded claim that Dr. Ford made up her assault feeds into the extraordinarily harmful narrative that men’s lives are being ruined by women. Sandra Newman addresses this claim in her extensively researched essay, “What kind of person makes false rape accusations?” Point by point, she breaks down commonly made claims such as innocent men facing rape charges, false reporting, and who falsely reports, and counters each with data from a variety of unbiased studies.

6. Speak Truth to Power  (Lacy M. Johnson, September 24, 2018, Longreads)

“It seems impossible to speak about rape precisely because this threat of violent retribution is real, whether explicit or implicit, but also because of the widespread belief in our culture that rape is an aberration: a violence so unthinkable, so unfathomable, so taboo as to render it unspeakable.”

Through examination of Philomela’s rape in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Steubenville, Ohio rape trial, Bill Cosby’s trial, the 1 is 2 Many campaign, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, among others, and by integrating her own experiences as a survivor of rape and sexual assault, Lacy M. Johnson, in an excerpt from her book The Reckonings: Essays, elucidates how women’s testimonies are perpetually ignored, silenced, shamed, trolled, and threatened. Johnson advocates for women to speak their truth — and publically — even in the face of fear.

7. Gabrielle Bellot: The Story I Kept Hidden (Gabrielle Bellot, October 11, 2018, LitHub)

Gabrielle Bellot, in addition to voicing her own experiences with sexual assault, writes about the history of trauma women have endured as a result of harmful patriarchal systems, and emphasizes the importance of telling true stories as a way of fighting back.

“When I hear the President of this country ask, dismissively, why women would wait to come forward and call women who make allegations “really evil people,” it feels like a slap in the face. And then it reminds me why so many women never speak up at all, even now, but instead let our memories curl up into a deep place inside us, until we can almost believe we’ve forgotten them.”

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir of running and illness.