Disposable Heroes

One Way Back BY Christine Blasey Ford. New York: St. Martin's Press. 320 pages. $29.
The cover of One Way Back

“IF YOU WANT A HAPPY ENDING,” Orson Welles once quipped, “that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” But sometimes, it’s not that the story stops so much as that the audience stops paying attention. This might be one way to think of #MeToo, which, in the years since it has faded from prominence, has been historicized in largely triumphalist terms. One version of the story goes something like this: there used to be evil men who harassed and attacked women, and because these men were powerful, or seemed so, nobody stopped them. But then, all that changed. Some women began to tell the truth, in public, about what had happened to them. And others joined them. They felt compelled to speak—empowered, at last, by each other’s example. One by one, abusive men were felled, like Samson after a haircut; their money and status were no match for the women’s moral authority. The women were heroes, restored, at last, to a place of public respect by the force of their testimony. And we, the audience, were changed. We were enlightened and made more empathetic; we were reminded of the power of speaking the truth. This, generally, is where the story stops: on a happy ending. The curtain lowers, and the lights fade as cheers echo in the mezzanine. 

One Way Back, Christine Blasey Ford’s memoir of her testimony at the confirmation hearings of now–Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and its aftermath, extends the scene a little further, into the months and years that followed her public disclosure. This prolonged attention reveals a more complicated and difficult story than the typically pat histories of #MeToo allow. Ford is one of the most famous accusers of the #MeToo era, and the movement’s dimming hopes were already becoming apparent as her story was unfolding. Unlike some of #MeToo’s other prominent public figures, Ford didn’t choose to testify; instead, she was all but forced to. Most important, her words were futile: the man she says assaulted her when she was in high school was not vanquished by her declaration. He was confirmed to the Supreme Court, where he went on to vote to overturn Roe v. Wade

Instead of triumph, Ford’s story is one of anxiety, humiliation, ostracism, torment, and defeat. And so her account undermines the cheap sentimentality typical of conventional liberal accounts of #MeToo—from the solemn faces of Taylor Swift and Ashley Judd, dubbed “The Silence Breakers,” on the cover of Time magazine in 2017, to the schlocky righteousness of Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan in the Harvey Weinstein reporting drama She Said. In One Way Back, “courage”—that faintly condescending term with which public survivors like Ford are usually praised—does not enter into it. Instead, Ford’s story guides readers to an uncomfortable awareness: that #MeToo, for all the spectacle and moral edification that it was supposed to provide for its audience, demanded something much darker and costlier from the women at its center.

THERE’S NO USE SUGARCOATING IT: One Way Back is an artifact of a devastated life. Ford’s memoir is not heavy on self-pity. She is tactful, generous, and frequently funny. But the testimony and its aftermath have ruinously altered her life. Ford is a haunted woman, burdened by the past and the need—sometimes desperate—to create meaning from it. 

What she is haunted by is not sexual assault. Though the memoir covers Ford’s childhood and time in high school, there is relatively little about the famous night in the summer of 1982, which she painstakingly and convincingly recounted in the Senate: the night when, according to Ford, a drunk Brett Kavanaugh shoved her onto a bed, covered her mouth with his hand to stifle her screams, and tried to take off her clothes as his friend laughed. When Ford comes to this moment, she pointedly refuses to recount it again. “I’ve already publicly described in detail what happened to me during that party when I went upstairs to use the bathroom,” she writes. “The transcriptions of it reside in the annals of our judicial records or just beyond an easy Google search for anyone interested.” There’s a tinge of frustration here, a slightly caustic repulsion at the prospect of returning to this event yet another time, for yet another audience. But that’s because the scene at the high school party is not the story that One Way Back seeks to tell. The book shows that the central catastrophe of Ford’s life—the one that wreaks the greatest psychic and material havoc—is not the sexual assault she was subjected to in high school. It is what happened to her when she tried to talk about it. 

#MeToo’s conventional narrative does not always allow for this distinction. In that era, sexual violence and its disclosure were presented as two phases of the same experience, one which begins with being attacked and ends with “telling your story.” But being assaulted and disclosing that assault publicly are very different ordeals. Nearly every woman you know has been through the former—fewer than one in a hundred have been through the latter. To name the sexual violence in your past, and to become the focus of a reckoning over that naming, is its own trial, entirely new and distinct from the attack itself. This public exposure and the process of recounting—which is met with rejection, humiliation, and retaliation from your opponents, alternating with the cooingly sentimental and ceaselessly patronizing descriptions of your “bravery” from what pass for friends—is what we commonly call “coming forward.” It is an emotional and psychic undertaking that few ever endure willingly, and even fewer understand. It’s the kind of experience that, once you’ve had it, you won’t quite trust anyone who hasn’t ever again.

This ritual humiliation is meant to be something that the public survivor does on behalf of other women, making her their symbolic representative. They cannot, or dare not, expose themselves; she does it for them. But disclosure makes the public survivor different from the non-reporting rape victim, makes them strangers to each other. 

Now, long after her moment of scrutiny has passed, Ford is still figuring out how to live in the shadow of her exposure. Her transformation is dramatic. At the beginning of the book, before she becomes a public figure, Ford is goofy, laid back. She’s conflict-averse, loyal to friends, and self-consciously apolitical. “Christine” sees herself as an outsider, maybe a bit of a rebel, and has endearingly stereotypical Gen X sensibilities. (She seems a little bit proud of how much she loves Pearl Jam and Metallica.) She never wanted to be famous. In fact, she writes with thinly veiled distaste about growing up in suburban DC, among the try-hard and haughty children of the political class. (Kavanaugh, like Ford, attended one of the area’s fancier prep schools. He was the son of a powerful judge.) She never quite felt like she fit in. When college rolled around, she was happy to escape.

Ford found herself more at home in California, where she went to graduate school. It had a slower pace and the kind of relentless cheerfulness that can only emerge among people who don’t experience winter. Californians are enamored of the future; in the sunshine, the past can come to seem very small and far away. Ford came to love surfing—a source of One Way Back’s many metaphors and digressions—and spent much of her twenties flirting with a series of affable, sand-caked men in beach-town bars. Along the way, she discovered a love of statistics, and became an expert in their use in psychology research. She moved to the Bay Area, met her husband on a dating site, and settled down. 

In these early chapters, Ford is playful, gentle, and markedly unambitious. Her main traits appear to be a good-natured guilelessness and a healthy unwillingness to take herself too seriously. She dyes her hair blue in the summers—a mark of the end of teaching each May—and spends a lot of time on the beach in the hippieish and unhurried town of Santa Cruz, enjoying its contrast with the striving tech types of Palo Alto, where she lives and teaches. History can be cruel and capricious this way: it often seizes upon the people who seem least prepared to become its protagonists. I find these chapters, in which Ford describes her life of mild suburban rebellions, to be among the book’s most painful. She’s so vivid and ordinary, this heavy metal mom in a minivan, so familiar. She has no idea what is coming. 

Ford learned of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement in the summer of 2018. She was almost immediately struck with the fear that Kavanaugh would be tapped to replace him. In the years since that party, Ford had kept distant tabs on Kavanaugh, feeling tethered to him by the ambivalent connection that keeps many women aware of their attackers’ lives. She knew bits and pieces about him: that he’d clerked for Kennedy and had gone on to become a hotshot lawyer working for Republicans back in DC. She remembers once having seen a picture of George W. Bush at his wedding. 

Even then, Ford could see that Kavanaugh had been accepted into the powerful DC inner sphere—the same milieu she had always felt rejected by and had rejected in turn. For Ford, the disaffection is more than a matter of taste. It’s a matter of family. In One Way Back, she reveals that she has often felt like a black sheep in their world of Washington power players. Her testimony against Kavanaugh has only hardened this estrangement. With one exception, her brothers have not spoken to her since she appeared in Congress. Later, she found out that her father, a severe and conservative military type, had written an e-mail to Brett Kavanaugh’s father—the men are members of the same golf club—expressing his gratitude that Kavanaugh had been confirmed to the Supreme Court. While the young Ford had fled Washington, heading to a California that was warmer both in climate and in spirit, Kavanaugh had fit himself seamlessly into the DC milieu of Ford’s parents. Soon he would achieve one of that world’s superlative honors. 

Christine Blasey Ford with her letters. Photo: Jim Gensheimer.

THERE ARE TWO WAYS TO EXPLAIN the moral wrong presented by Kavanaugh’s confirmation. One is to say that it is an insult to women when the men who rape, grab, beat, and demean us are elevated to positions of power, because their rise reaffirms that power is intended to maintain women’s subordination. But there is another, perhaps more optimistic, way to explain what’s wrong when men like Kavanaugh are appointed to positions like the Supreme Court: it demeans the office if a man who does cruel and repugnant things is elevated to it. In the first version, power rewards those who abuse it and works to keep hierarchies intact. In the second, power can be something virtuous and noble, meant to ensure collective dignity, but its righteous purpose is corrupted and betrayed when power is given to bad people. Ford saw it the second way: she thought Kavanaugh wasn’t suited for the Court because what he did to her meant he wasn’t good enough for it. Perhaps her most revealing and tragic mistake is that she assumed that other people would agree. 

That summer, as rumors of Kavanaugh’s impending nomination swirled, Ford began to tell people about what he’d done to her, first in candid conversations with her beach friends in Santa Cruz, then in a letter to her Palo Alto congresswoman, and then, finally, in a tip line to a reporter at the Washington Post

The cascading series of events that followed were almost entirely outside of Ford’s control. Over the following months, the risks to her were steadily raised, and her own hopes had to be repeatedly lowered. At first, she thought that her story, delivered quietly to her congressional representative, could prevent Kavanaugh’s nomination. When he was nominated anyway, she thought maybe if she told more people, it would be withdrawn. She tried to reassure herself: even if she couldn’t keep her identity a secret, at least her story would blow over quickly, and the public’s attention would move on. When she was finally convinced to get a lawyer, she thought it was a formality. When she was persuaded to fly to DC, it wasn’t initially clear that she would have to testify. It wasn’t until she was literally walking into the hearing room that someone told her that there would be a camera inside; she had never anticipated being on television. This moment would singularly define her life and supplant everything she had been before. No one had bothered to tell her it was coming. Ford sat uncomfortably in the hearing room, hot from the crowd and the lights, wearing a blue suit she never would have chosen for herself; it had been purchased for her the day before, by a lawyer.

The hearing goes by in a bit of a blur. But Ford speaks of her performance with pride. Her nervousness gave way to resolve. She was determined to be authentically herself, and used the language that was most familiar to her: she explained the brain’s basic memory functions, as if the Republicans’ demand of How do you know it was him? could have possibly been asked in good faith. She described the humiliation of her assault with the peculiar and unforgettable summation, “indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter.” Even by the standards of #MeToo’s skeptics, Ford was superlatively credible: professional, articulate, consistent, and patient. She betrayed sadness but never anger, and frequently repeated that she wanted to be of help. She didn’t waver when the same questions were asked over and over again; she didn’t lose her temper at Chuck Grassley, even though she wanted to. For a brief moment, for those of us watching at home, it seemed as if the power of her testimony might actually change the outcome of the nomination. Ford went back to her hotel, and didn’t watch Kavanaugh’s testimony, in which the judge screamed red-faced into his microphone and sarcastically talked back to the senators. She says she has still never seen it. She left the Capitol exhausted but relieved. She had been perfect up there. But all he had to do was be angry. 

IN ONE WAY BACK, the Ford we see after that day in 2018 is less playful and, out of necessity, less trusting. In the days and weeks that followed her testimony, senators and the president went on television to mock her. She was subjected to a deluge of threats and vicious cruelty online. There were people with credible plans to kill her, and she couldn’t go back to her own home for months. For a long time, Ford needed full-time bodyguards, which did not come cheap. She still utilizes a remote service that scans the internet for threats and calls her whenever there’s a serious one—something that usually happens around elections and also, for some reason, every New Year’s Eve. As a result, Ford has become a minor expert in personal security. She seems to have rehearsed every terrible scenario in her mind, giving out safety tips and tricks to her readers. If you think someone is following your car, don’t speed up, she says—instead, pull into the right lane and slow down dramatically. Set up motion-activated lights outside your house to spook would-be attackers. Get a dog. 

Ford’s most dramatic injuries are psychic. She has the constant anxiety of people whose lives have been changed in a sudden catastrophe, like a car crash. And she has difficulty grieving her old life. “For an entire year after testifying, I didn’t teach,” Ford writes. “I mostly only left my house to go to therapy.” Not long after the testimony, her husband bought her a fuzzy gray Ugg-brand blanket, and she spent months underneath it—some days too scared of the threats against her to risk going outside, other days just too shell-shocked and devastated to consider leaving the house. If the lead-up to the testimony had been a whirlwind of decisions and activity, the months that followed were a long, slow denouement, one with little in the way of action but an excess of emotional wretchedness. She spent a very long time awed and horrified by what had become of her, subsumed in the stillness of shock. How to describe this quiet devastation, the mourning and terror that follows disaster? Ford is sometimes a bit ashamed of how hard she took the blow. She compares herself to Anita Hill, who told Ford that she went back to teaching just three days after her own testimony, and wonders if maybe the older woman is better than her, made of tougher stuff. Self-censure, alienation, paranoia: such is the psychic territory many women traverse after rape, too. It’s a journey that is arduous, claustrophobic, dark, and, on the surface at least, profoundly uneventful. Ford tells it straight: she stayed home in comfortable clothes, surveying what was left of her life. 

The smallness of her world has persisted. “I used to love taking road trips and would regularly drive from Palo Alto to Los Angeles every weekend to surf,” she writes. “But now it’s a big deal for me to go to a new coffee shop.” Later, she recounts the perverse relief she felt at the outset of the pandemic, when she realized that she could go out with less fear and shame when she was wearing a mask. 

Ford was in her early fifties when she testified, but in her descriptions of her life before that moment, she has the curiosity and openness of a teenager. One gets the sense that she was not done becoming herself, that new versions of Christine would have emerged. Those other futures—that capacity for self-invention—are among the things that she has lost. Early on in One Way Back, Ford recounts a conversation with a PR representative, one of the bevy of flacks who suddenly appeared in her once-humdrum California life in the dazed months surrounding the testimony. Ford called the PR firm upset about something in the press, frustrated that the media image of herself bore so little resemblance to the person she’d once known. The PR rep cut off these ruminations. “You can never be anything else now,” the rep told her. “You can never be different than you were on that day.”

Two women protesting Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh outside the Supreme Court, Washington DC, September 24th, 2018. Photo: Wikicommons/Avery Jensen.

WHEN FORD BECAME A FAMOUS VICTIM, she was affixed in the public mind to her testimony, her assault, and her attacker. This hardening of identity is often what most disturbs the public survivor—the way it cleaves her life into before and after. 

Nearly a decade beyond #MeToo, we still do not know much about the after. At least, not for the women. There is a seemingly bottomless popular interest in the experiences of abusive men and in the afterlives of powerful figures who have been accused of sexual misconduct. Fiction, nonfiction, and film have contemplated their humiliation and rage, their professional downfalls, their denials or repentance, their rehabilitation or exile. In 2019, Jane Mayer published a long profile in the New Yorker of former senator Al Franken, who resigned from office after being accused of groping and harassment by multiple women. Mayer’s piece dwelled sympathetically on Franken’s diminished circumstances, writing of how he puttered tragically around his home. In 2022, viewers were enthralled by Todd Field’s two-and-a-half-hour psychodrama Tár, about the exposure and downfall of a sexually predatory orchestra conductor, played by an exquisitely tailored Cate Blanchett. In the aftermath of #MeToo, a number of allegedly abusive men have written long essays contemplating their predicament. The radio host John Hockenberry, accused of sexual harassment by several colleagues, wrote a lengthy Harper’s Magazine piece, “Exile,” in which he mourned the death of a sort of yearning old-timey romance in which he is a noble true believer. In the New York Review of Books, the Canadian broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi’s “Reflections from a Hashtag” provided meandering thoughts on the author’s newfound infamy, which followed a criminal trial for multiple violent sexual assaults. But the piece ended hopefully, with Ghomeshi flirting with a pretty stranger on a train. The genre, by now, is an old one. Most of these works owe much to J. M. Coetzee’s 1999 novel, Disgrace, in which a South African professor’s impotent and humiliated life in the months after he is exposed for the rape of a student is mixed ominously with the end of apartheid. For these figures, too, it’s less what they’ve done that pains them. It’s what happens when people find out. 

Women do not typically receive this kind of prolonged attention in the aftermath of sexual violence. Their psychic life is not pried with pity or prurience; their paralysis or tragic humility is not mined for metaphor. Part of what makes One Way Back such an unusual book is the simple fact that the warped afterlives of public survivors are so rarely depicted at all. 

Women’s stories of what happened after their disclosures fail to capture the popular imagination in the way that stories of the accused do. Maybe one reason for this is simple misogyny, that reflexive form of narrative sexism that leads us to imagine men as protagonists and women as tertiary characters. But there is something, too, about the intractability of the survivor’s position that can preclude the narrative tension that so often animates accused men’s stories. She was wronged by the man, and then when she talks about it, she is wronged, too, by the society that refuses to care. No suspense is on offer here: the heroine has tried to change her world by telling a truth about herself, and she has failed. It is a story of narrative inaction, of a failure to effect change. A story, that is, about the futility of storytelling itself. 

ONE WAY BACK IS A DEEPLY self-conscious book, filled with commentaries on the process of its own writing and Ford’s fear—potent and reasonable—of what will be directed at her once it is published. Her impulse is to avoid the spotlight, to simply fade away. As she puts it, “Why would I open myself up again? Why would I throw myself back out to the sharks?” She’s conscious of the many ways her tone could be misinterpreted. “As I’ve written this book, I’ve often worried that it will come off too negative,” she writes. “That in describing the horrible aspects of what happened to me, it won’t properly pay tribute to the people whose care literally kept me alive.” Why write this book now, years later, at the least commercially viable moment? Because she felt incapable of writing it earlier: “If you had asked me a couple of years ago why I wanted to write a book, I would have said I wanted to destroy the people behind the political machine that ruined my life,” Ford writes. “Clearly, I wasn’t ready to tell this story.” 

Ford thinks of her new authorship in the same way she conceived of her initial decision to testify: she feels a duty to other women. After the hearing, Ford received thousands of letters; years later, she is still slowly making her way through them all. The vast majority were messages of support from women around the world, and many included disclosures of the writers’ own rapes and assaults. The non-reporting women Ford had been made to represent did not remain abstractions to her; instead, their stories became almost suffocatingly material, cluttering her dining room and filling up boxes in her garage. This is why Ford felt a responsibility to tell a story of triumph. But a failure to be honest about what really happened would also betray the women who had believed in her. “I wondered what it had done to all these letter writers to watch me testify and then see it not change the final decision,” Ford writes. “I worried in the months—and then years—that followed that if I shrank back into hiding, it would send the wrong message to anyone I had helped, anyone who had been inspired to share their own story despite all the terrifying reasons to stay silent.” This is why she had to write a book, she reasons. “It was as if I had crawled out of a cave only to walk back in and tell everyone else who was still hiding inside, ‘Don’t go out there, it’s not worth it.’” 

#MeToo was supposed to be a moral revolution. Following along in the media, livestreaming Ford’s testimony on our laptops, checking the push alerts about new accusers—all of this was supposed to provide a kind of education in the wrongness and pervasiveness of rape, to generate a “reckoning” that would help us all be kinder, more careful with one another, less complicit in gendered exploitation. We were supposed to be changed by these women’s self-exposure, and what was then euphemized as the difficulty of this moment was supposed to be worth it. We were supposed to honor their sacrifice by changing our own behavior.

We did not. The plundering of public survivors’ psyches during #MeToo—their vulnerability and humiliation, their drained emotions and bank accounts, their curtailed prospects and usurped identities, their rage and grief and degradation—appears, in retrospect, to have been less about our edification than about our entertainment. Ford and many, many women like her sacrificed their anonymity to let us rummage through their lives for lessons. It was a gesture of desperation but also one of hope. I’m no longer sure it was a wise one. 

Maybe this is another reason why the accusing women’s post-#MeToo stories are so rarely told. It would be too painful to look at that bitter denouement—too dishonorable for us, too brutally discouraging for other victims. For all its overdue honesty and historical corrections, the triumphalist account of #MeToo actually allowed us to avoid looking at inconvenient truths. Cutting off Ford’s story after her testimony meant that her courage could be our triumph; looking away meant that her suffering did not need to be our shame.

Moira Donegan is a writer and feminist living in San Francisco.