In the fall of 1983, three weeks into his freshman year at Yale, Kit Winter switched dorm rooms. He had been sharing a room on the fourth floor of Lawrance Hall, entryway D, with a kid from Rhode Island named James Garman. But Garman was studious and Winter liked to stay up late, and they had heard about an unoccupied single in the basement. So they cooked up a scheme to tell the dean that they weren’t getting along, and Winter moved down to LD01, a three-man suite, where two rooms opened up onto a large living area. Winter took over the empty single. The double was already occupied. James Roche, who has publicly supported Deborah Ramirez in her account of being sexually threatened by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, lived there. And so did Kavanaugh himself.
Winter immediately noted the cold, alienated dynamic in LD01; the place was profoundly inhospitable even by 1980s college standards. “It was a dungeon space,” recollects Garman, now an organic farmer. “It was dark and it was cellar-like, and it was thoroughly creepy.”
And while on the first floor of entryway C, a group of guys had gotten together some furniture and a big-screen TV, creating a gathering place for people who liked to watch sports, the living room down in LD01 remained entirely unfurnished except for an old keg — “and I think there was also a broken floor lamp much of the time,” Winter recalls. “And as you might expect in a sizable empty room, there were a lot of dust balls and Solo cups and trash on the floor. It was not an inviting space. It was pretty grim.” The environment was disturbing enough that Winter mentioned it to his high school friend Itamar Kubovy, who also ultimately went to Yale. “I remember Kit saying how uncomfortable it was, how creepy it was,” Kubovy recalls. [Editor’s note: Winter, Kubovy, and I went to high school together in New Haven, and Winter’s family and mine were friends.]
Especially disgusting was the shared bathroom, which was always covered in vomit. Kavanaugh and his crowd, whom Winter characterizes as “loud, obnoxious frat boy-like drunks” were the hardest drinkers on campus even back then, when hard drinking did not hold the stigma it does today. In a statement earlier this week, Roche recalled Kavanaugh “frequently drinking excessively and becoming incoherently drunk,” and Winter corroborates that recollection. “There was a lot of vomit in the bathroom. No one ever cleaned it up. It was disgusting. It wasn’t incidental. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, this weekend someone puked in the bathroom.’ People were constantly puking in the bathroom. Constantly.” Lori Adams, a retired psychiatrist in Underhill, Vermont, was a friend of Winter’s at Yale. “I remember,” she says, “that you couldn’t use the bathroom because his roommates vomited all over the floor and didn’t clean it up.” (Winter clarifies that Roche wasn’t much of a drinker and that although he himself drank a fair amount during freshman year, he very rarely drank to the point of throwing up.)
The social dynamic within the triple was nonexistent to the point that Winter felt uncomfortable. From the start, Winter and Kavanaugh barely acknowledged one another’s existence. He remembers no conversation between them. Kubovy, still in high school at the time, sometimes visited Winter’s dorm room. “It’s weird never saying hello to one of your two roommates,” he says, in retrospect. (Several years later, Dana How lived next door to Kavanaugh, and his recollection is similar. Kavanaugh and his roommates “didn’t talk to anybody,” How remembers. “They were completely antisocial. The door was closed. These guys were completely disconnected.”) In LDO1, Kavanaugh and Roche were also very nearly strangers, according to Roche’s statement; “Brett and I did not socialize beyond the first few days of freshman year.” (Roche moved out in December of that year.)
Once in a while Winter and Roche would talk late at night, sitting on the floor in the double, “leaning with our backs against the beds,” Winter remembers. “For the last 35 years, if anybody had said, ‘Tell me about Jamie Roche,’ I would have said, ‘Jamie Roche is the most stand-up guy you would ever hope to meet.’ Jamie stood out as centered, mature — more of a gentleman than the frat boys. He had nice manners.”
Many of the residents of Lawrance Hall that year describe the social life on campus as extremely tribal and isolating, with the elites and legacies hanging with each other, dominating and creating ripples of inarticulate fear, while the outsiders — the nerds and the scholarship kids and the people of color — circled the outskirts seeking friendly alliances. The fraternity brothers at Delta Kappa Epsilon — to which Kavanaugh pledged — could be heard in the streets at night chanting. “There was always more than a strong whiff of sexual violence hanging over the Dekes all the time,” says Garman. Dana How recalls consciously deciding to stay away from one of Kavanaugh’s frat brothers — he can’t now remember the reason why.
Another person, who arrived at Yale from a working-class background, remembers encountering the upper levels of the social hierarchy for the first time and understanding them as “dangerous.” “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, you’ve got to be really careful around these people.’ I saw it through a class lens. I don’t want to be somebody’s little mouse. I don’t want to be somebody who gets eaten. Looking back, I perceived things as dangers rather than, ‘Oh, fuck. This is crazy.’ Back then, it was sort of a game where there had to be some way to play it where you weren’t a victim.”
All of which may go some way to explaining why the atmosphere in LD01 was so silent and charged. Kit Winter is gay. He had come out to his parents the same year he entered Yale, and lived on his own on and off for months, including — during the summer before college — in New York City on the Lower East Side. He had multiple piercings in his ears and wore a motorcycle jacket and his hair in a punkish pouf. People remember him as visible and strong — “he wore his soul on his sleeve,” says someone who dated him at the time. So it is perhaps not too surprising that he and Kavanaugh, the jock from Georgetown Prep, failed to connect. “Jocks were often the anathema of gay people at Yale at the time,” says Adams. “They didn’t treat them well. I had gay friends who were stalked, followed home, their doors beaten in, things like that.”
Winter adds that at that moment in his life, he was inclined toward isolation. He would eventually become a student leader at Yale and, during the early years of the AIDS crisis, a visible gay activist. But as an 18-year-old freshman, he was still working things out, and disdainful of the sheltered, privileged people who dominated his environment. “I was out, but I was still a little alienated. I was not really a joiner, I don’t think. Yale was not a particularly gay-friendly environment, but I was also not a particularly friendly person. I looked alienated. I felt alienated. I drank a lot.”
What is surprising, however, especially in light of today’s priority on hearing and empowering the voices of society’s underclasses, is the extent to which Winter and all the alienated kids who arrived on Yale’s Old Campus (where all the freshmen live) in the fall of 1983 regarded the social structures and their places in it as normal and expected. Winter felt that his own discomfort, the essential weirdness of his living situation, was barely worth mentioning. “At the time, my response to most stuff was to listen to more punk rock music and to have a scotch. I felt very abandoned. You could have thrown rocks at me and I would have kept my head down and kept walking.” Winter did tell his friends about his living situation. “I remember that Kit was really unhappy with his roommates,” says Lori Adams. “They were jocks and Kit was an out gay man with peroxide blond hair. He was uncomfortable there. And he didn’t spend much time there.” But he didn’t tell anyone with any authority to change things. Winter had already cashed a chit to move to the desired single, and he didn’t want to irritate the dean with complaints.
Which is why Winter didn’t say anything when he came home one day that fall to find a dead pigeon nailed to his door — not on the front door of the suite, but on his own bedroom door. “It wasn’t rotten or anything. I assumed that someone found a dead bird on the ground,” he says. “I interpreted it as an act of social hostility slash terrorism. I thought it was a very clear message. ‘We don’t like you, and we don’t want you here.’ I didn’t know who it was who didn’t want me here. I didn’t know who had done it.” Again, Winter didn’t tell authorities or administrators and he didn’t call the police. He didn’t try to figure out who had done it — though as someone who lived in Lawrance that year points out, it was done by someone with serious intent: “The doors were really dense wood. It would take some real hammering to get a pigeon nailed to that door.”
Winter threw the bird away, and told a few friends, and the story circulated, as stories do. “I think my general response was, screw you. I’m not going anywhere,” he says. But what’s remarkable now is how little a dent it made in the memories of Winter’s friends or the other people in his dorm, as if such targeted attacks were just part of the everyday. “I remember this moment of hostility around the bird,” says Kubovy, “but it’s all part of the blur.” By email, Roche confirms that he also vaguely remembers the pigeon.
But the incident, and that whole tense and silent year, have forced Winter to think a lot about the nature of memory, especially during a time of intense emotional development and heavy drinking. “I have thought a lot about Kavanaugh’s statement on Fox, that he never drank so much that he didn’t remember what he had done the next morning. And having witnessed the level of drunkenness of Brett and his crew in that dorm, and the vomitous aftermath in the bathroom, I find that very hard to believe. I was not a blackout drinker, but there’s tons of stuff I don’t remember because I was drinking a lot, frequently. Anybody who drank a lot in college and can stand up 35 years later and say, ‘I am sure that did not happen’ inherently lacks credibility to me.”