Lately I’ve taken to wearing t-shirts, buttons, and pins that clearly identify me. “Dyke,” reads one, succinctly. “Black Lives Matter,” reads another, a gift from my girlfriend. “Fesbian Leminist” I include for an element of humor.
It isn’t enough, I convince myself in the wake of the 2016 election, to merely speak my mind (frequently, loudly, with gusto) about my various political and identitarian affiliations. I want, in fact need the man sitting across from me on the subway to know without a doubt who I am, what I stand for.
Suddenly, it’s October of 2018. Trump has been in office for 615 days. In the swirl of controversy, angst, and anguish already surrounding the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, a new name emerges, Christine Blasey Ford. The story breaks, the committee deliberates, the date is set for her testimony.
Thursday comes, I awake, and the first thing I do is arm myself with slogans. A Women’s March t-shirt, a pin-studded denim jacket. The hearing begins, and I turn to my laptop.
“I am here today not because I want to be,” Dr. Blasey Ford tells us. “I am terrified. I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school. I have described the events publicly before. I summarized them in my letter to Ranking Member Feinstein, and again in my letter to Chairman Grassley. I understand and appreciate the importance of your hearing from me directly about what happened to me and the impact it has had on my life and on my family.”
The impact of these words, on me, is immediate. Visceral. Unintellectual. There are no words, no slogans, for what is summoned in me when Dr. Blasey Ford speaks. I find myself removing my denim jacket, my pins, suddenly alone with the screen.
“When I got to the top of the stairs,” she continues, “I was pushed from behind into a bedroom. I couldn’t see who pushed me. Brett and Mark came into the bedroom and locked the door behind them.”
I am both there and not there as Dr. Blasey Ford describes what followed. I am reduced to tears — a phrase people say often, without really meaning it. But literally, I feel reduced, simmered down to a thick, pungent stew. I feel my skin begin to tingle, then go numb.
At the beginning and end is that word, that one word I still can’t seem to forget or stop feeling:
Used, by Dr. Blasey Ford, not in the past tense — but in the present.
I am reminded that her terror, then and now, stems precisely from this vertiginous sense that no one is listening.
After her opening statement come the questions. I compose myself, briefly. Drink some water, watch as Dr. Blasey Ford drinks coffee, smiles, laughs — attempting, as much as possible, not to take up too much space. I attempt the same — not out of humility, but out of exhaustion.
At this point I have moved to the train, the live stream continuing in a consistent torrent through my headphones. I don’t want to touch or be touched by anyone on the subway, perhaps more than usual. I don’t even want them to read my armor of feminist pins and react. I don’t want to see or be seen. I merely want — need — to listen.
And I do. For hours. Alone in my room, alone on the subway, alone in crowds of people. Even later, when the hearing finally ends, and I start reaching out again — checking in with friends, calling my mom — I can’t help but feel that each of us remains, in some deep sense, alone with this.
And yet, we talk through it.
We cry together.
We tell our stories.
Some of us tell our stories for the first time.
In a coffee shop, four days after the hearing, a barista reads one of my pins — the one that reads “fesbian leminist” — and says, in a tone more serious than you might expect, me too. In the moment between her recognition of me and my recognition of her there is a small leap of faith, a decision to trust the person she sees, to trust that person to see her.
If last Thursday has taught me anything, it’s that this moment of trust is only the beginning. We can no longer hide behind t-shirts, buttons, and pins. Not that we ever really could in the first place. Identifying as this or that is not the same as testifying — or bearing witness. Each is necessary for the other to function. Only when we are willing to practice all three does justice become possible.
As Dr. Blasey Ford so eloquently reminded us, “It is not my responsibility to determine whether Mr. Kavanaugh deserves to sit on the Supreme Court. My responsibility is to tell you the truth.”
Our responsibility is, and will remain, to listen.
Hannah Leffingwell is Ph.D Candidate at the Institute of French Studies at New York University.