Sound Off

Helena Michie, Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality

It goes without saying that the Ford/Kavanaugh hearing, like the Hill/Thomas hearing of which it was a terrifying echo, was not a hearing at all. At least not if “hearing” begins with listening. Jeff Flake did not hear Christine Blasey Ford, and neither, apparently, did Susan Collins. Here are some other people who did not hear her: Orin Hatch, who has a history of not hearing women at hearing; Donald Trump who is unspeakable; the Republican base, who only listen to Fox News; and me.


I chose not to hear Christine Blasey Ford, at least not, as they say “live,” because I could not bear to. I chose instead to get in my car and drive to a rented house in Galveston, to a long-planned celebration of a not-yet birthday with feminist friends. If I had stayed in Houston to listen to the hearings, I would have not been able to leave the house. If I had listened on the car radio on the way to the beach, I would have driven the car off the road. When I got to the uncharacteristically splendid beach house we had rented, I noted it was full of TVs. While part of me itched to tune in, I went instead to swim in the Gulf and waited for my friends to join me, many of whom, I knew, would have been braver and would have watched—and listened—to the hearings.

My friends helped me to listen. The TV was mostly on over that long weekend, replaying “highlights” from the event. Sometimes we ignored the TV and listened to the Gulf instead, as the sound of the waves pulled us out onto the rainy beach. Sometimes we huddled in its glow, as if it were a fire pulling us indoors and inward. Some of us stayed up late into the night, for others the sound of Ford’s voice, of Kavanaugh’s voice, of the voices of talking heads, followed them to bed. On the second night, left alone and awake downstairs, I turned off the sound but not the TV.

I learned the following morning, from an interview, that Nina Totenberg, long the legal reporter for NPR, also sometimes watches with the sound off. Her reasons are, I think, different from mine. Totenberg believes that the truth is more easily revealed through body language. Although muting the TV offered me pictures that would go viral as a montage of stills—Kavanaugh’s increasingly empurpled and enraged face, Ford’s newly-cut hair tumbling over her face as she nonetheless managed to look her questioners in the eye—I did not silence the hearings in the interest of knowledge. I did it out of refusal and self-protection. Somehow, sounds were more frightening than images.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh, wearing a black suit, white shirt, and blue tie, is visibly angry as he responds before the Senate at his confirmation hearings to be a Supreme Court justice.
Judge Brett Kavanaugh responds angrily in his statements before his confirmation hearings to be a Supreme Court justice.

And when I finally did listen, I learned that sound was also the most terrifying sense for Ford. Everyone who watched, listened to, or read about the hearings remembers this: When asked what she remembered best about the night she was assaulted, it was not the sight of Kavanaugh’s face (although she will never forget his face). It was not the hand over the mouth to silence her (although she will never forget that either). It was the sound of laughter after the attack as, still in the room where she was assaulted, she listened to the laughter of her attackers, directed at her and towards each other, as they staggered drunkenly down the hall and into a future that erased her.

Listening to Ford about her own listening and her own memories of sound, I found myself listening more closely to myself. What Ford remembered was not simply that her attackers were laughing, but that they were laughing to, speaking to, each other. My own memories offer me two incidents, not forgotten but relegated to different stories, two eerily similar incidents from my childhood and early teen years when much older men—one a priest and one friend of my father’s—slid their hands down the back of my skirt, inside my underpants, while carrying on a conversation with another man who did not know what was happening. I do not know what to make of the almost identical form of the assault. These men, my assailants did not know each other, lived in different countries. Sometimes, when I try to explain the fact that multiple men exposed by the #MeToo movement used similar M.O’s, forcing, for example, their victims to watch them masturbate, I wonder if there is a guide for abusers somewhere. Are conversations going on to which these men are a party?

For me, looking (and listening) back, the worst violation of those moments lay not in the touching, but in the talking, the carrying on of ordinary conversation as the assault was happening. The conversation, which was not directed at me, nonetheless contained a message for me. The fact that these men were able simultaneously to abuse a young girl and to carry on a perfectly normal conversation was meant to tell me: “This is normal. This is not a big deal. Business as usual. Life goes on.” The message was a message about sound and silence. “There is nothing for you to talk about.” And, of course, “Don’t say anything.” It was no coincidence, of course, that the conversations that went on over my head, as the men’s hands slipped into my pants and rested there, took place between men. In my own mind, now as the stories merge, the two assailants were also somehow talking to each other across time and space— that aging priest in a car on the way to a slightly illegal ceremony that would make me a godmother at ten years old, and that newspaper man who was always a little drunk and did what he did in a room full of people.

It is the sound of their voices, talking in such ordinary tones—one in Italian and one in English—that makes the two stories one, and that one a story of assault. Until a few months ago, the first was part of a story about how I as a non-Catholic child became the godmother to the illegitimate son of a dressmaker and a Senator. It was a good story. The other, which I almost never told, was part of a story of journalists and alcohol. It was barely a story at all. Bringing those stories in into conversation allows me to hear their voices and my own. And, of course, Christine Blasey Ford’s.