The woman laughed a little, and so did her male friend, and she seemed proud of this self-description. A boy had jumped on her years ago. That was a fact. But would she now choose to tell the story as a near-rape? Or would she choose to tell a story in which he was just “pawing,” she was just “tough,” and what happened was completely normal?
Before a Supreme Court nomination was engulfed in hashtags and prognostication, there was just a small, long-buried story, about something that allegedly happened at a party, in a house, with a bathroom at the top of narrow stairs where a girl ran to escape. As the country prepares for Ford and Kavanaugh’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, I keep returning to the story that brought them there and the questions it has made us ask about ourselves.
Imagine this is not an allegation about Kavanaugh, because for many people this story has become about something both more vast and more personal: the things we do or have done to us, and the ways we try later to make sense of them.
Like the woman on the Metro: What would happen if her understanding of her story changed? What if she decided the incident wasn’t normal — or at least, that it shouldn’t have been? Would she be furious, or devastated? Would she feel relieved at the realization it shouldn’t have been solely her responsibility to make the boy stop?
What happens to any of us when a news event comes along that makes us rethink our own stories? What happens if we realize our comedies might have been tragedies, and our adventures might have been horror movies, and we, ourselves, might have been the monsters?
“I’m thinking, is there any man in this room that wouldn’t be subjected to such an allegation?” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) asked attendees as a fundraiser last week. “How can you disprove something like that? Which means, if that’s the new standard, no man will ever qualify for the Supreme Court again.”
He was making a point about false allegations, but it’s hard to imagine any man in the audience wasn’t combing over his own history, replaying things he did that seemed fine at the time.
What would it look like to reframe your own stories?
At the party, did she run and hide in the bathroom because she thought you were being goofy and annoying?
Or did she hide in the bathroom because she thought you might kill her?
Thursday’s hearing feels as if it could be not just an inquiry into two teenagers’ pasts but also an inquiry into all of our pasts, on America’s past, on all of the ways we have treated one another.
One reader wrote this week, furious the alleged Kavanaugh’s incident had been characterized as assault. I asked him to explain why he was so mad. Did the story feel relatable to him?
“I tried to take off the clothes of a number of girls without explicit permission in advance,” he wrote back. “My oh my. No ripping by me. Could there have been some exaggeration(s) about the alleged ‘screaming’ and ‘ripping?’ Have you ever put your fingers gently over someone’s mouth to hush up the person?”
But did you have to cover her mouth because you both were having a good, loud time?
Or was she was trying to beg you to stop?
We’re at a crossroads, and the choice before us is about how much we’ll insist on hanging onto the old version of our stories. Along one path, we get to keep these nice versions. In the nice version, all our previous decisions remain behaviors we consider normal and healthy. And because they are normal and healthy, we get to be good people. And because we are good people, everything can carry on as it always has.
On the other path, we interrogate these stories. We acknowledge some of our previous behaviors were wrong. And because they were wrong, we can acknowledge and apologize for them. And because we do that, we can all start to get better.
But we can’t have both. We can’t stubbornly cling to the hero versions of our own pasts and still fix the future.
So, what would it do to your life to acknowledge harm and pain — both what you’d experienced and what you’ve caused? Just as a hypothetical. Just as an intellectual exercise.
To begin with, some memories would feel terrible and uncomfortable. They might feel that way for a while.
Eventually, though, I wonder if we could raise future generations with better stories.
A 15-year-old girl is invited into a room by a 17-year-old boy. She says yes, or she says no, and either answer he accepts. And either way, we don’t have to rehash it 35 years later. Because both she and he tell the same story about what happened in that room.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.