We are now several weeks into this mess and I am no closer to an opinion on the central issue than I was on day one. In my mind nothing I have seen or heard has moved me from the place I started in. A woman of more than credible credentials (Christine Blasey Ford) has leveled a serious accusation at a man of previously unblemished reputation (Brett Kavanaugh). Her claim is far too troubling to be approached with anything but the upmost seriousness. Her lack of substantiating detail is far too wide spread to simply believe her. It is now imperative that some convincing conclusion be drawn, and unlikely that we are going to experience that outcome. It is my habit in high profile stories like this one, to avoid all but the most superficial of news coverage in it’s early days. When I was younger I would have read every word as it was printed, ping-ponging back and forth from one editorialized excuse for reportage to another pontificating boisterously as I went. At this stage of my life I find it less exhausting (and embarrassing) to let things settle out a little bit. Aside from avoiding the cringe-worthy frothing about I just referred to I’ve found that not immersing myself in the headlines allows me to reflect on secondary or tangential issues that used to elude me. That in mind, the most evocative part of all of this for me is, as yet, a strong lesson on the uncertain nature of memory. By now we have all been treated to an uncountable number of words on that subject recently and I don’t want to consume too much of the readers time by rehashing all of it.There has been a fair amount of discussion concerning the enhanced likelihood of remembering a traumatic event. Again, admitting that I have not been slavish in my attention to the news in this regard, I have seen very little that deals with the other end of that equation. While the weight of a given event is a large factor in our tendency to record it, it also correlates highly with mixing of sources in it’s recall, which is a frequent source of error and distortion. Researching memories of victims of the 9/11 attacks, William Hirst (psychology chair and professor at The New School) found that over time many survivors forgot key details and or claimed memories of specific events that did not occur. Elizabeth Loftus has spent a career on the potential malleability of memory. None of that is intrinsically vitiating to Dr. Ford’s position, but it ought to give those so disposed pause before they simply decide to throw their weight behind her without at least trying to cast a more clinical eye on the proceedings. For me the issue of gaps in her memory call to mind (pardon the irony) a couple of personal experiences which at once make her both more and less believable, highlighting why I find it currently impossible to reach a definitive conclusion of my own.
Years ago I had the good fortune to train a young physician in my particular profession (pediatric echocardiography). Over a period of roughly eighteen months I spent hundreds of hours with her and, not surprisingly, considering the amount of time involved we developed friendly relationship. Between patients we discussed all manner of things including art, politics, and a host of other essentially academic interests. Having grown up in another country she provided an interesting and different perspective on things for me. After a while we would occasionally turn to more meaningful subjects, such as family. I was adapting to the struggles of marrying later in life and being a stepparent. She was trying to juggle a burgeoning medical career and an impending marriage. She would talk to me about her fiancé’s family dynamics as well as her own. Which would not be terribly interesting except that her future mother-in-law was Mia Farrow. It wasn’t any big deal to her, or me for that matter. But it did, for obvious reasons make the specifics of the conversations a bit unusual at times. I can clearly remember one instance where she discussed how much her future husband, as well as his siblings, truly detested Woody Allen. Nothing surprising there. They saw him as someone who had taken a beloved family member (soon- Yi) from them. I imagine it didn’t improve their humor to ponder the idea that he had then seen fit to marry her, after refusing to extend the same level of commitment to their mother. We spoke of it for a few minutes, with me listening for the vast majority of the time. At some point I realized that what was most interesting about her recounting was what I wasn’t hearing. Finally I interjected, asking her how much they hated him in light of the question of molestation involving the daughter he and Farrow had. Close to ten years later I can still vividly see her face as she turned to me to respond. Arching her eyebrows to a degree usually associated with Cesar Romero she favored me with a smile that I still think of as the moment when I first came to understand the phrase “shit eating grin”. And there it was, an unspoken but not (to me )ambiguous indication that her future, peer in-laws, and by extension herself, had a few doubts about the veracity of the claim against Mr. Allen. What’s most interesting to me is what happened next. I asked her, with a voice raising in disbelief if she was implying that they thought the child had been coached. And I’m sure she said something compelling , but I don’t remember exactly what it was. I feel confident saying that whatever the exact verbiage was it did nothing to dispel the conclusion I had reached, but that’s where it ends. It’s not surprising to me. My memory for the spoken or written word is demonstrably greater than average according to the general consensus of the people I know who make comment on it. My visual memory is sharper than that, as best evidenced by my ability to describe past images in vivid detail, a talent which has allowed me to make a living for the last twenty years. Realizing how obnoxious all of that sounds I state it not promote myself but to indicate why I’m much more certain of that young doctors facial expression than I am of her ensuing statements. I’m not attempting to refute or buttress Ford’s statements in any way here. I’m merely reiterating an event from my past that had it been described to me by a third party I would have bet everything I owned on being able to narrate with machine-like precision. And I can’t. If you’re already on team Ford I’m sure you see the shortfall in my recollection as a nod to her own missing details. You’d be right except for one thing. I’ve never told any one the preceding story without attaching a disclaimer to it indicating that while I’m comfortable in my opinion I can’t quite state it as fact. The other story that has come to mind as a result of current events is personal, somber, and while utterly without salacious content just as much a part of my decision not to decide on the matter at hand.
On July 24th, 1969, Apollo 11, returning from a lunar landing mission, splashed down successfully in the Pacific Ocean. In the more intimate setting of a Brooklyn backyard, your humble author conducted his own experiment regarding the whole man versus gravity thing. I finished in second place. Starring in the epic that was my sixth birthday party, I thought I’d put on a show for my friends by swinging around on the climbing rope attached to our swing set. By my neck. I guess undiagnosed is as good a term as any. At any rate, this was no pathetic cry for help, just a dramatic manifestation of my limited ability to see into the future. I also seemed to have been lacking in the capacity to understand that the same forces that caused me to fall off my bike would probably do their best to ground me as I formed a very poorly made cravat from the roughly six feet of knotted nylon rope that came within a hair’s breadth of sparing you from having to read this. Trying to stay on point here, I remember almost every detail vividly. I can still see the horrified faces of my friends as they watched me slowly swing in circles. I can see my neighbor vaulting the fence between our yards and racing to me in time to lift me up and loosen the rope. The sun was high as it was early in the afternoon. I know that the rope sat between the swings and the lone monkey bar, on the opposite end of the set from the slide. If you’re on team Kavanaugh you are probably enjoying the quasi-sexual joy of a gotcha moment. After all the drama of the day has pretty clearly imprinted many of the facts in my mind that have eluded Ms. Ford as they might apply to her own horrific experience. If I can bring all of that back from forty nine years ago she should be able to do so from a shorter distance. But. But I can also accurately describe what I looked like as I hung there, and you know, that just isn’t possible. When I think of that day I usually see things not only from my physical point of view, but from those of the guests also. That is quite clearly a screen memory, regardless of how real it seems. In addition when my parents retold the story over the years they would make mention of one of the kids in attendance, Hilary, coming in from outside to let the grownups know what was going on. Which is intriguing because I flat out don’t remember her being there at all. So, there it is. And isn’t.And is even when it wasn’t. Because that’s the nature of memory. Which is a source of warmth and wonder when we wax nostalgia, but an obstacle in the concrete world of testimony and confirmation.