reading the signs

Brett Kavanaugh Will Pretend You Don’t Exist

Brett Kavanaugh. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Now that Christine Blasey Ford has stepped forward with her horrific and detailed account of how Brett Kavanaugh allegedly attacked her when she was 15 years old, we need to recognize a troubling similarity between her description of Kavanaugh as a teenager and what we have witnessed of him as a grown man: particularly the encounter between Judge Kavanaugh and Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, was a victim of the Parkland massacre.

The moment, which took place at Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing on September 4, went viral: Mr. Guttenenberg extended his hand to Judge Kavanaugh and Kavanaugh ignored him. It was a disturbing encounter for reasons both obvious and subtle. First, it was shocking to see Judge Kavanaugh fail to express even a shred of sympathy for Mr. Guttenberg’s personal tragedy. How could he — a man who’d spoken of his two teenage daughters during his hearings, boasting of coaching their basketball team — not at least murmur a few words of condolence to a fellow father of a young girl, someone who’d suffered such unimaginable pain? Next, it was terrible to see Judge Kavanaugh sidestep an opportunity to acknowledge the larger, ongoing American tragedy of gun violence.

But to me, the worst thing about this encounter was the peculiar way in which Kavanaugh’s blank gaze disappeared Guttenberg’s extended hand. He did not scowl or turn his back; he did not say “go away.” Kavanaugh did nothing overt to indicate that he did not wish to speak to Mr. Guttenberg. He did something far worse: Once Judge Kavanaugh recognized the man standing before him, he simply pretended he could not see him. Watch the video of this encounter: Kavanaugh pauses before Guttenberg, seems to take a moment to grasp what it is about, and THEN, upon realizing what is happening, he makes his face go completely blank. His eyes go dead, becoming blind to the man before him. After that, he walks away. But that is not the end. Mr. Guttenberg calls after him, and Judge Kavanaugh does not react — rendering himself deaf as well as blind. Kavanaugh apparently can shut down his physical senses when convenient.

Something else stayed with me about Kavanaugh’s encounter with Guttenberg, and it had to do specifically with that outstretched hand. Guttenberg was not there on his own behalf, he was representing his daughter. And when he extended his hand to Kavanaugh, in a way, his arm represented his daughter’s body. He was there in her stead, on her behalf. So when Kavanaugh disappeared that outstretched arm, gazing blankly through it, he was effectively also disappearing Jaime’s murdered body. He was refusing to see her even for that moment, as channeled by her father.

As I watched that, I thought of Kavanaugh’s retrograde views on women’s reproductive rights, and of what could happen if a Supreme Court — with him on it — overturned Roe v. Wade. I thought of all the young women who’d ever died of botched, back-street abortions before Wade. And I thought of the young women who would surely die again, for the same reason, if Kavanaugh’s nomination goes through. In that brief non-exchange with Mr. Guttenberg, Judge Kavanaugh demonstrated a chilling ability to blind himself to young women’s bodies, to deafen himself to life-or-death concerns that might affect those bodies. How can someone turn off his senses so completely, you might wonder? Well, it helps if you start practicing when you’re young. And this brings us to Christine Blasey Ford.

Professor Ford alleges that Brett Kavanaugh began the practice of shutting down his senses years ago — and he even tried to shut down other people’s. Consider the details she offers of the night she says he attacked her. According to Ford, Kavanaugh (and a friend) forced her into an empty room, pushed her down on a bed, and attempted to rape her. She was afraid for her very life, “I thought he might inadvertently kill me,” she has said. To cover her terrified screams, Kavanaugh both held his hand over her mouth and turned up some rock music.

In other words, according to Ford, first Kavanaugh made sure to hide her from the others at the party, disappearing her body in an upstairs room, making sure she (and his crime) were invisible to others, blinding the other guests to the danger Christine was in. Then, he tried to stop the sound her body was making, stifling her screams. He was making sure that neither he nor anyone else could hear her, just as he’d made sure they could not see her. Finally, we must assume that her terror for her life was plain for him to see, but he ignored it, in yet another way blinding himself to a life-or-death matter.

Christine Ford’s description clearly tracks with what we saw in that moment over 30 years later between Fred Guttenberg and Brett Kavanaugh: the same blank disregard, the same willed blindness and deafness toward the humanity, pain, and suffering of a young woman.

In a nearly uncanny twist, this week we also learned that the Texas Board of Education has seen fit to obliterate Helen Keller (among others) from its social studies curriculum. Keller was, of course, both blind and deaf. But despite those physical challenges, she saw and heard and learned. Her senses were damaged, but her mind and heart were intact and open. She worked as an ardent advocate for women’s suffrage and civil rights. She worked, that is, to grant visibility and audibility to others. Now, just as Texas seeks to expunge this admirable woman from memory, a man who is her exact opposite: a physically able man who metaphorically — and willfully —blinds and deafens himself to the rights of others, especially of women, is poised to ascend to the highest court in the land. In what kind of upside-down world would we allow Brett Kavanaugh to enter our history books just as we escort Helen Keller out of them?

Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination represents a shameless attempt to place on the Court a man with a nearly imperial view of the presidency, someone expected to protect Trump from indictment or impeachment. Yet again, this administration has shown us its intentions to subvert the Constitution, reverse progress in women’s and civil rights, and stoke the fires of racism and misogyny. It’s always been clear, but Kavanaugh’s curious affect at the hearings and Professor Ford’s allegations snap the picture into especially sharp focus — It’s time to trust our eyes and ears.

Brett Kavanaugh Will Pretend You Don’t Exist