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Christine Blasey Ford and the dark side of laughter

Christine Blasey Ford regularly returned to her scientific background to explain her sexual assault allegation against Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh on Sept. 27. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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A bold suitor marries a headstrong woman, brands her as his chattel, and denies her food and clothing until she repeats his falsehoods as a docile wife. This is the story Shakespeare tells in “The Taming of the Shrew,” a tale of gender domination.

In the opening, a lord, who assembles the players, slyly wonders how his men will “stay themselves from laughter.” Modern audiences might find the performance more distressing.

On Thursday, Christine Blasey Ford stepped out onto the stage of a congressional hearing and told a panel of mostly male lawmakers that the laughter of two boys had seared her.

She testified to remembering certain details about the bedroom where she alleges that Brett M. Kavanaugh, President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, attempted to rape her when he was 17 and she was 15 — an accusation he denies. She claims that Kavanaugh, urged on by a friend, groped and grinded against her, placing his hand over her mouth when she tried to scream.

But most of all, she said, she remembers the laughter of the boys — “the uproarious laughter” — the kind of mirth so morally complex in Shakespeare’s work.

“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” said the research psychologist, who wove into her personal account before the Senate Judiciary Committee a scientific defense of her trauma. She spoke of norepinephrine and epinephrine, fight-or-flight hormones released when the body is under stress. She described how “trauma-related experience” locks itself in the brain’s memory center.

In a day of high drama, a scene featuring Ford and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) stood out. The dialogue went like this:

Leahy: Well, then, let’s go back to the incident. What is the strongest memory you have, the strongest memory of the incident, something that you cannot forget? Take whatever time you need.

Ford: Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the laugh — the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.

Leahy: You’ve never forgotten that laughter. You’ve never forgotten them laughing at you.

Ford: They were laughing with each other.

Leahy: And you were the object of the laughter?

Ford: I was, you know, underneath one of them while the two laughed, two friend — two friends having a really good time with one another.

Laughter expresses joy. It forges bonds. It is a hallmark of a good life and helps people endure the bad. Research suggests that laughter may aid short-term memory retention in older adults.

But laughter also has a more sinister aspect, said Robert Provine, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County and the author of “Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.” He observed that the two teenagers who went on a shooting rampage at Columbine High School in 1999 were reportedly laughing as they ran through the hallways, massacring their classmates.

“Raping and pillaging throughout history has been accompanied by laughter,” Provine said. “Laughter has been present during public executions since the beginning of time.”

There is no suggestion that the wrongdoing of which Kavanaugh stands accused is in any way parallel to these acts — or the ones dramatized by Shakespeare — but rather that the reason laughter would have been encoded in Ford’s brain is the same reason it marks both human delight and utter depravity.

“It’s ancient and powerful,” Provine said. While there are scores of different languages, everyone laughs in essentially the same way, he said. And whereas language has to be learned, laughter, like crying, is intuitive. “It’s part of the universal human vocabulary.”

Laughter often derives its power from leaving others out, according to Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist at University College London. “Even lovely, warm laughter — it’s not a bonding behavior if it doesn’t leave anyone out.”

Even worse, she said, is when someone is not just excluded from the laughter but made into its object. “Being laughed at — that’s as bad as it can be,” said Scott, who studies the science of voice, speech and laughter.

Ford would remember becoming the object of a joke, particularly under circumstances in which she already felt vulnerable, experts said.

“Fear memories and emotional memories are really strongly encoded in the brain,” said Richard Huganir, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University. Ford, he said, “was obviously incredibly afraid, very emotional — and the laughter probably made her feel even more emotional.”

By contrast, Scott said, those doing the laughing may scarcely remember what they found so funny, given how normal a behavior laughing is. “The people laughing can be having an absolutely wonderful time, and it can simultaneously be the worst thing in the world for the person being laughed at,” she said.

Laughter is especially potent when it accompanies intimate forms of violence, Provine said, because it makes clear the power dynamics of the situation.

“There seems to have been a kind of bonding between the boys,” as Ford described it, he said. “They were part of the group. And Dr. Ford was not part of the group.”

Laughter is significant, he added, because it’s an “honest signal — it’s harder to fake and so it’s very persuasive.”

Ford, a professor at Palo Alto University in California, had psychology at her disposal in explaining why the laughter had stayed with her. But literature, film and philosophy also record how laughter can express malice, scorn and contempt. Far from being a simple expression of joy, it has figured as a complicated moral response.

In “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the anti-slavery novel that helped bring about the Civil War, Simon Legree, the archetypal slave master and incarnation of evil, “laughed brutally” as he kicked Uncle Tom.

In “Hannibal,” Anthony Hopkins, portraying the serial killer Hannibal Lecter, lets out a throaty snicker after describing hideous acts.

And in “The Republic,” Plato argued that laughter was a sign of irrationality, recommending that the guardians of the state should abstain from it, “for ordinarily when one abandons himself to violent laughter, his condition provokes a violent reaction.” The Greek philosopher was troubled that Homer had made the deities laugh in his epic poems. “Then if anyone represents men of worth as overpowered by laughter we must not accept it, much less if gods,” Plato wrote.

Laughter, Provine said, is “primal.” Just as its dark side can be indelibly imprinted in memory, it also holds a memorable place in the Western canon.

“I should die with laughing,” says an old man in “The Taming of the Shrew.” Which was the Bard’s reminder that laughter can sometimes appear as a deadly serious act.

Meagan Flynn contributed to this report.

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