Columnist

“Was there ever a time that you drank so much that you couldn’t remember what happened the night before?” Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum asked Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh during their interview Monday. “No, that never happened,” the judge replied.

MacCallum followed up. “You never said to anyone, ‘I don’t remember anything about last night’?”

Kavanaugh: “No, that did not happen.”

This, I suspect, will be the field on which Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination survives or dies in the impending confrontation with the Senate Judiciary Committee. His categorical denial that he engaged in the conduct alleged by Christine Blasey Ford, or the behavior dimly recalled by Deborah Ramirez, springs a leak if there are blank spots in his memory.

MacCallum deserves credit for zeroing in on this issue. But an experienced prosecutor and judge such as Kavanaugh would immediately recognize the wiggle room she left with her questions. The first one should have been phrased this way: “Was there ever a time that you drank so much that you couldn’t remember what happened — or part of what happened — the night before?”

As for the second: Kavanaugh’s answer might have meant that he never blacked out so completely that he failed to remember anything — or it might have meant that he didn’t use those exact words.


Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill on Sept. 5. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

When hostile members of the committee squeeze the wiggle room out of those questions, as they surely will, America may be in for a crash course in the phenomenon known as “alcohol-induced amnesia,” or “alcohol blackout.”

Once believed to be primarily a problem of advanced alcoholics, blackouts are in fact common among young drinkers, according to recent research. In a pioneering study led by Aaron White, then of Duke University, 51 percent of college students who had ever consumed alcohol answered yes to the question “Have you ever awoken after a night of drinking not able to remember things that you did or places that you went?” Among respondents who had consumed alcohol during the previous two weeks, nearly 1 in 10 reported having blacked out while doing so.

We’re not talking passing out. According to White, who is now a senior scientist at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, blackouts occur when alcohol interrupts the formation of new long-term memory in the brain. People in this state of amnesia may appear relatively competent to observers. Using already existing memory, combined with new stimuli, they can engage in activity, carry on brief exchanges, recognize friends — even, yikes, operate cars.

But there are telltales. Perhaps you’ve met an overserved bore who keeps repeating the same fragment of conversation. It’s partial amnesia — he can’t remember what he said three minutes earlier. Or think of that tipsy person who can’t remember where she left her purse.

Unfortunately, this isn’t just a harmless matter of nattering and misplaced possessions. White and other scientists have documented more serious offenses that can vanish from a social drinker’s memory. In White’s 2002 survey of 772 college students, “many respondents later learned that, during the blackout, they had vandalized property, driven an automobile, had sexual intercourse, or engaged in other risky behaviors.”

Because blackouts have been closely linked with drinking too quickly, they are especially common in the chug-and-shot culture of adolescent experimentation. And no matter how soberly Kavanaugh lives as an adult, there’s ample reason to believe he was part of that culture in high school and college. Among the activities he listed in his Georgetown Prep senior yearbook were “Keg City Club,” “100 Kegs or Bust” and “Beach Week Ralph Club — Biggest Contributor.” (“Ralph,” for any readers lucky enough not to know, is slang for drinking until you vomit.) At Yale, Kavanaugh joined a fraternity and a senior society that both cultivated hard-partying reputations. His freshman roommate has described him as “normally reserved” but “a notably heavy drinker, even by the standards of the time.”

The same could have been said of me, so I am not casting judgment on the judge’s adolescent alcohol consumption. But if I were called before a Senate committee and placed under oath, I would not swear I never blacked out or lost a memory — not unless I was courting a perjury rap.

Kavanaugh’s accusers have acknowledged their own memory gaps. Between the passage of time and the blurring, blotting effects of booze, they aren’t claiming to remember everything. In a paradoxical way, their candor damages their cases even as it strengthens their credibility.

By contrast, Kavanaugh may be tempted to stake precisely that claim. He’s in a tight spot, with his life’s ambition on the line. If he maintains under oath that he remembers all, no matter how much he drank, he will be battling science, as well as inviting skepticism. Yet, if he acknowledges that some memories could be missing, he invites the inevitable next question: Exactly what might he have forgotten?

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.