Politics

The expert in the room: Dr Blasey Ford is both victim and her own psychologist

The alleged victim of sexual abuse who addressed Thursday’s Senate hearing on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh was her own best advocate.
27 Sep 2018 – 4:36 PM EDT

Who better than a trained psychologist to testify on her own behalf about an alleged traumatic incident in the past.

During her Senate testimony on Thursday, her voice cracking at times, Christine Blasey Ford spoke in expert terms about the trauma she suffered from the incident 36 years ago involving Supreme Court nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

Harrowing as it was, who better than Blasey Ford, a 52-year-old with multiple degrees in experimental and clinical psychology from top flight U.S. universities, including Stanford University School of Medicine?

The outside counsel who questioned Blasey Ford, Maricopa County prosecutor Rachel Mitchell, recognized as much towards the end of the hearing. “I've been really impressed today because you've talked about norepinephrine and cortisol, and what we call in the profession, basically the neurobiological effects of trauma.”

Mitchell was selected to ask questions for the Republican Senators because of her experience as a sexual abuse prosecutor.

On several occasions, as Blasey Ford described the how the alleged sexual assault had impacted her life, she turned to professional and scientific terms, revealing herself to be an expert witness in her own case. "For me, personally, anxiety, phobia, and PTSD-like symptoms are the types of things I've been coping with. More specifically, claustrophobia, panic,” she said.

Where there any other incidents that had also “contributed" to her anxiety and PTSD, Mitchell asked.

Ford replied that conditions like anxiety and PTSD are "multifactorial," adding that she could not rule out "biological predispositions" that individuals may be born with. Her age at the time, 15, could also have been a factor, she said. “The younger you are when these things happen it can possibly have worse impact than when you're brain is fully developed and you have coping skills that you developed," she explained.

For years she said she was too scared to talk about what happened, only disclosing it years later to a therapist, her husband and close friends.

That made her a textbook case of sexual abuse. "Study after study shows, trauma, shame, and the fear of consequences almost always cause survivors to - at the very least - delay reporting, if they ever report at all," pointed out Sen Kamala Harris (Dem-Ca), herself an experienced sex crimes prosecutor before entering Congress.

Now a professor of psychology at Palo Alto University and a research psychologist at the Stanford, she told the hearing how chemical processes in the brain can affect memory. She described being a "fight or flight" mode at the time of the incident and felt a rush of adrenaline as she allegedly escaped the clutches of Kavanaugh. “The details about that night that bring me here today are ones I will never forget,” she said. “They have been seared into my memory and have haunted me episodically as an adult."

She described being pushed into a room and Kavanaugh groping her and covering her mouth as she tried to scream out for help.

“How are you so sure that it was he?" she was asked.

"The same way that I'm sure I'm talking to you right now. Basic memory functions," she replied. “Also, just the level of norepinephrine and epinephrine in the brain - that neurotransmitter encodes memories into the hippocampus so the trauma-related experience is kind of locked there, whereas other memories drift," she added.

That moment in her testimony was especially convincing, according to Eugenio Rothe, professor of psychiatry and public health at Florida International University (FIU). "When I heard that part my reaction was 'I think this guy lost his nomination,' he said. "It was a good explanation. She really dissected every part of it," he added.

Could her accusation against Kavanaugh be a case of mistaken identity? she was asked several times.

"Absolutely not," Ford replied, leaning into the microphone with a confident voice.

Kavanaugh has denied any knowledge of the event described by Blasey Ford. While he has admitted to some youthful indiscretions he says he was never involved in any abuse of women.

Blasey Ford described how she struggled emotionally and academically for several years after the alleged assault. "I had a very hard time, more so than others, forming new friendships and especially friendships with boys. I had academic problems."

During the hearing, Democrats repeatedly hailed Blasey Ford as a heroine for coming forward despite having kept the identity of her alleged abuser secret for decades.

Sen Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, put it best perhaps. "You're a teacher,” he pointed out. “Well, you've given America an amazing teaching moment."

Regardless of what happens with the nomination, he added: "You have inspired and given to courage to women to come forward. You have inspired and you have enlightened men."


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