Why Sexual Assault Memories Stick

Christine Blasey Ford says she has a vivid memory of an attack that took place when she was 15. That makes sense.

As a psychiatrist I know something about how memory works. Neuroscience research tells us that memories formed under the influence of intense emotion — such as the feelings that accompany a sexual assault — are indelible in the way that memories of a routine day are not.

That’s why it’s credible that Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Judge Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, of sexually assaulting her when they were both teenagers, has a vivid recollection of the alleged long-ago event.

.. The reason has to do with the way memories are encoded when a person is experiencing intense emotions. When people are assaulted, for example, they experience a surge of norepinephrine, a stress hormone that is a relative of adrenaline.

.. The role of norepinephrine in the enhancement of memory was demonstrated by a 1994study in which researchers randomly gave subjects either propranolol, a drug that blocks the effect of norepinephrine, or a placebo just before they heard either an emotionally arousing story or a neutral one. Then they tested subjects’ memories of both stories a week later and found that propranolol selectively impaired recall of the emotionally arousing story but not the neutral story. The clear implication of this study is that emotion raises norepinephrine, which then strengthens memory.

That is why you can easily forget where you put your smartphone or what you had for dinner last night or last year. But you will almost never forget who raped you, whether it happened yesterday — or 36 years ago. There’s very little chance that you are, as some senators suggest Dr. Blasey is, “mixed up” or “confused.”

.. It is also important to note that what Dr. Blasey is describing in her report of sexual assault by Judge Kavanaugh is not a so-called recovered memory — one that a person believes he has recalled after having suppressed it for many years. Quite the opposite: It is a traumatic memory that she’s been unable to forget.

.. Some commentators don’t dispute Dr. Blasey’s veracity. Instead, they deem an assault as described by Dr. Blasey as irrelevant to Judge Kavanaugh’s fitness to serve on the Supreme Court because he would have been just 17 years old and drunk at the time. We all know that teenagers are notoriously impulsive and should be forgiven for doing things like that, right?

Wrong. Sexual assault cannot be easily dismissed as youthful indiscretion or the product of alcoholic intoxication. First, alcohol does not create violent sexual impulses so much as it unleashes or magnifies pre-existing ones. And second, a sexual assault in which Brett Kavanaugh put his hand over a girl’s mouth to silence her would be in a far different category from a dumb but not character-revealing prank like shoplifting cigarettes. Teenagers are notorious risk-takers because, in part, the reward circuit of the brain develops long before the prefrontal cortex, the seat of reasoning and control. But that doesn’t mean they have no sense of right or wrong or that they are hard-wired to violate the rights of others.

.. Since teenagers change so much, these people say, bad behavior then isn’t necessarily predictive of adult behavior. Sure, but why take the risk for someone who will have so much power? Dr. Blasey’s accusation is credible and deserves a full investigation.

What the man accused of helping Kavanaugh assault a woman wrote about female sexuality

In two memoirs, Judge depicted his high school as a nest of debauchery where students attended “masturbation class,” “lusted after girls” from nearby Catholic schools and drank themselves into stupors at parties. He has since renounced that lifestyle and refashioned himself as a conservative moralist — albeit one who has written about “the wonderful beauty of uncontrollable male passion.”

.. He was caption editor for his yearbook, which included lines like “Ebony and Ivory” beneath a photo of a white and a black student, and “Do these guys beat their wives?” beneath a group photo of several boys.

.. Judge never wrote about any sexual violence at those parties, nor did he mention Kavanaugh attending any. But Judge’s 1997 memoir, “Wasted,” references a “Bart O’Kavanaugh” character who passes out drunk and throws up in a car.

.. Judge has written dozens of columns in the decades since, including several for this newspaper. Femininity, masculinity and sexuality are perennial themes. He has written that safety razors are too feminine, that former president Barack Obama is practically a woman, and that gay men have infiltrated the priesthood.

.. He has also written repeatedly about his thoughts on sexual violence, which might make him an interesting character witness if Ford’s accusations against Kavanaugh result in a prolonged public investigation.

.. In general, Judge has been unsparing of men accused of assault, including the conservative Senate candidate Roy Moore, and his condemnation of male aggression sometimes bleeds into critiques on women’s behavior, as when he wrote last year for Acculturated:

“There’s never any excuse to rape, a crime that I think is almost akin to murder because the rapist kills a part of the human soul. And yet what women wear and their body language also send signals about their sexuality.”

Two years earlier, in an ode to “sexy” pulp novels, Judge lamented “social justice warriors” who confuse rape with innocent demonstrations of masculinity. He wrote then of “an ambiguous middle ground, where the woman seems interested and indicates, whether verbally or not, that the man needs to prove himself to her.”

“If that man is any kind of man, he’ll allow himself to feel the awesome power, the wonderful beauty, of uncontrollable male passion,” Judge continued. To illustrate his point, he linked to a scene from the 1981 film “Body Heat,” in which the hero forcibly breaks into a woman’s home, and is rewarded with a kiss.

Richard Rohr: Constantinianism: A Changing Religion

Much of what Jesus taught seems to have been followed closely during the first several hundred years after his death and resurrection. As long as Jesus’ followers were on the bottom and the edge of empire, as long as they shared the rejected and betrayed status of Jesus, they could grasp his teaching more readily. Values like nonparticipation in war, simple living, inclusivity, and love of enemies could be more easily understood when Christians were gathering secretly in the catacombs, when their faith was untouched by empire, rationalization, and compromise.

.. The last great formal persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire ended in 311 CE. In 313, Constantine (c. 272-337) legalized Christianity. It became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380. After this structural change, Christianity increasingly accepted, and even defended, the dominant social order, especially concerning money and war. Morality became individualized and largely focused on sexuality. The church slowly lost its free and alternative vantage point. Texts written in the hundred years preceding 313 show it was unthinkable that a Christian would fight in the army, as the army was killing Christians. By the year 400, the entire army had become Christian, and they were now killing the “pagans.”

Before 313, the church was on the bottom of society, which is the privileged vantage point for understanding the liberating power of Gospel for both the individual and for society. Within the space of a few decades, the church moved from the bottom to the top, literally from the catacombs to the basilicas. The Roman basilicas were large buildings for court and other public assembly, and they became Christian worship spaces.

.. When the Christian church became the established religion of the empire, it started reading the Gospel from the position of maintaining power and social order instead of experiencing the profound power of powerlessness that Jesus revealed. In a sense, Christianity almost became a different religion!

The failing Roman Empire needed an emperor, and Jesus was used to fill the power gap. In effect, we Christians took Jesus out of the Trinity and made him into God on a throne. An imperial system needs law and order and clear belonging systems more than it wants mercy, meekness, or transformation. Much of Jesus’ teaching about simple living, nonviolence, inclusivity, and love of enemies became incomprehensible. Relationship—the shape of God as Trinity—was no longer as important. Christianity’s view of God changed: the Father became angry and distant, Jesus was reduced to an organizing principle, and for all practical and dynamic purposes, the Holy Spirit was forgotten.