Today, as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, giving her recollections in heartbreaking detail of how he sexually assaulted her as a teenager, she relayed a detail that spoke to the lasting impact of her trauma: as an adult, while renovating the house she shared with her husband, Dr. Ford insisted on installing a second front door, wanting a second escape route in the event of an emergency.
In a conversation with the Cut, Dr. Tracey Shors, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Rutgers University who specializes in the study of stress, memory, and the lasting impact of teenage sexual assault, explained the evolutionary logic behind that second door, and other measures women take to assert some sense of control in the wake of trauma.
Can you explain the psychological reasoning behind something like the second door, or whatever form of habitual self-protection method a survivor might practice after a traumatic event?
Everyone’s different. There are a lot of individual differences in how people respond, and the events themselves, of course, differ tremendously. But there are some commonalities in how people, men and women, respond to trauma, or stressful life events.
It’s important to understand that memories are made for us so we can survive in the future. I think some people have these idealistic, romantic ideas of memory — it’s to help me remember my grandmother baking cookies or something, which is fine, but the value of memories is that we use them to prepare ourselves for similar things that could happen in the future. So in general, when you encode something bad that happens, you take that memory with you in your brain into the future so you can avoid things like that.
I had an experience when I was younger, in my 20s — I wasn’t assaulted, but someone broke into my house. I still don’t sleep on the ground floor. I just refuse. And it’s been decades. I just feel safer that way, because I had that experience. So I don’t find [wanting a second door] particularly unusual.
I think a lot of times we think of those sorts of behaviors as paranoid or irrational, but it sounds like you’re saying they’re an example of successful evolutionary adaptation.
I was just lecturing some of my students about this yesterday. Of course we have to remember things, good and bad, so we can learn how to get more good things, and avoid bad things. It’s totally normal to have some fear and anxiety and all kinds of trauma-related symptoms after something bad happens, and to some extent, that’s a healthy response. When it becomes a problem is if it interferes with your life, which is what happens when you have PTSD. But our studies show that even among women who’ve experienced sexual violence, less than a third have PTSD. But they still have symptoms. They still think about it a lot, they have some anxiety. The memories don’t go away.
Can you explain how those memories translate into these learned behaviors later on?
In my case, I said I didn’t want to sleep on the ground floor, but in my life, sometimes I’ve had to. If given the choice between one door or two, she’s clearly a very educated, thoughtful person, so she probably also realizes that this is going to make her feel safe. It’s not like it’s this involuntary need to have doors, but rather, “Wow, this will make me feel safer, I’d like another door.”
Do you think that’s a way to reassert some control over a situation in which she didn’t have any?
People feel the most fear, or a lot of fear, when they feel like they don’t have any control, and they’re helpless. That was what she described feeling during the alleged assault. Clearly that was one of the worst times of her life, was when she felt like she couldn’t escape. Now in the future she wants to have a means to escape.
And in your experience, is it normal for those feelings and associations to persist for decades?
These things become learned. Most of the sexually violent experiences happen to women when they’re young, when they’re teenagers. One of my good friends had an experience when she was young and it still bothers her to this day, and she’s nearly 60 years old. It varies from person to person — in this case, she went to graduate school, she got a Ph.D., she’s a successful biostatistician. It isn’t like she can’t cope. She just has this experience that is still with her, and she wanted to be able to tell people about it. To do it in front of the world and have everyone take apart pieces of it — I even get nervous talking about it and I’m not even talking about myself.
How can people manage these memories? Is there any way to recover from them?
We have this intervention I devised especially for women who’ve experience sexual violence that combines meditation with aerobic exercises. We published a paper last year showing it’s super effective for helping women overcome these memories and the thoughts that plague them. Not only do we have to understand more about trauma and how it affects the brain, but also ways to help women recover, and keep their brains healthy and prepared for other things that might happen.
And it sounds like part of that can be these protective behaviors.
You want to have ways to protect yourself, of course, and if that involves not sleeping on the ground floor, or having extra doors, by all means that should be done. But there are also ways to help us learn how to think about what happened and learn how to deal with these memories, because the memories are what interfere with our lives.