The uncorking began last week.
And by noon on testimony day — as a university professor with an unruly wisp of hair and an admitted caffeine habit reached back for her frightened, 15-year-old self and yanked her onto America’s stage — the long fermenting cocktail of shame, blame, sadness and anger of American women over the age of 40 exploded.
“I am terrified,” said California professor Christine Blasey Ford, as she prepared to recount one of the most searing experiences of her life: her alleged sexual assault 36 years ago by Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh.
I was watching this with a group of women, all of whom couldn’t bear to witness the hearing alone and most of them for the same reason.
The woman next to me leaned over and said, “She’s terrified. But not intimidated.”
When Ford’s account of her alleged sexual assault by Kavanaugh when they were teens made headlines this month, the stories began pouring out — and they’re still coming, especially from older women who have maintained their silence for decades.
My inbox began pinging hourly. The women emailed that they were crying as they typed:
“I was raped by a park ranger.”
“I was sexually assaulted by a friend of our next-door neighbor when I was seven years old.”
“He helped me up the stairs when I sprained my ankle, then took advantage of me when we got to my apartment.”
“I am a 70-year-old woman. A man tried to assault me when I was 11 years old. I NEVER told anyone and I never will. My father was a policeman who called rape ‘attack with a friendly weapon.’ ”
The silence is so much bigger than folks know.
I spent Thursday at a Capitol Hill rowhouse where 75-year-old Karen Mulhauser was hosting a watch party.
“There is coffee and tea, there are scones, cookies I’m calling ‘gendersnaps,’ and I have wine, too, if anyone needs it,” Mulhauser said. “There are marshmallows available for anyone who wants to throw them at the screen.”
Mulhauser was 34 when two men broke in and raped her in the Capitol Hill house we were all gathered in. Her 7-year-old boy slept downstairs during the incident.
But she was believed. Police arrested the two men, and they were locked up.
She doesn’t count herself among the women who weren’t believed, who were silenced, who held it back all those decades.
About a dozen women came, moving from scones and tea to corn bread and chili.
Nearly all of them had, at some point in their lives, been sexually assaulted.
“I’ve never told anyone about this,” one of the women said. “Ever. I’m saying it out loud for the first time. Right now.”
And on her phone, she pulled up her husband’s Facebook post about one of the women who have accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault. He was not supportive, to say it kindly.
“See,” she said. “I’ve never told anyone.”
I keep seeing and hearing them, the stories.
I heard from the parent of one of my high school classmates. It’s been decades since I saw her. She told me about her assault by a family member when she was young. “I told my Mom and she got mad at me and told me not to ruin things for her/us!” she wrote.
I heard from my mother-in-law’s 70-something best friend. It was at school. She was 15. It was her teacher. She never told.
But why now and why these women? We’ve seen empowered millennials take on college sex assaults. We’ve seen stars and interns take down lecherous bosses in the #MeToo movement. Why is this moment such a juggernaut?
Empty nests. That’s part of it, said Maggie Syme, an assistant professor of gerontology at Kansas State University.
The women who are ending their long silences finally have the time — and the wisdom — to consider what happened to them. They were assaulted in an era when it was seen as their fault. They were wearing lipstick, or they’d gotten in a car with a guy. Or it was a man everyone loved. Uncle Jimmy? He’d never. So they kept quiet.
And then they spent decades raising families, pursuing educations and careers, putting others first. They kept their memories tamped down.
Usually, Syme sees this reckoning in veterans.
“Older men with combat trauma actively reengage with these memories,” she said, after suppressing them for so long.
With women, sexual-assault trauma that was similarly avoided often resurfaces when life slows down. “It’s labeled ‘Later Adulthood Trauma Reengagement,’ ” she said.
On Thursday across America, women reengaged with a bespectacled professor leading the way.
Ford showed them how, with two swigs of caffeine and a firm gaze, to end the silence.
When Kavanaugh began his surly testimony, the women uncorked the wine.