Daniel Zhao

The weeks surrounding the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh ’87 LAW ’90 to the Supreme Court were some of the most painful weeks of my life, easily the most painful of my time at Yale. At the time of his nomination, I was dating an active Republican at Yale, and we discussed all of the possible picks over the påhone. Neither of us loved Kavanaugh. He was excited about Kavanaugh’s Catholicism, although he had been hoping for a nominee who broke the pattern of elitist prep schools. I didn’t know much about Kavanaugh, but I disliked his history on abortion rights. We broke up long before we had a chance to discuss the allegations of sexual misconduct.

I never dwelt much on the term “sexual misconduct” itself before the stories of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez surfaced. I assumed that sexual misconduct was defined as any kind of unwanted sexual approach that crossed personal boundaries; I believed that I would know it when I saw it. I would not.

As more and more details emerged about Kavanaugh, my friends and classmates and I got stuck on loop talking about the same sickening buzzwords. Privilege. Elitism. Toxic masculinity. Frat culture.

The words don’t really mean anything until you witness them in action. They feel academic, almost clinical, like a diagnosis. You can look at them in a Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies textbook and then file it back on the shelf. Until a man masturbates in front of your friend after she tells him to stop. Until a boy slides his hand across your waist at a party, and even though you can’t remember his face, you remember the feeling of his hand on your body. Until someone videos you without your consent and you can’t ever be sure that it’s gone. Until you tell someone you don’t want to have sex, but they keep offering you one more cup of wine, keep moving their hands, then your hands, and asking “Are you sure? Are you sure? Are you really sure?”. Once you start to define predatory behavior, to reflect on it, you start to see it all around.

I remember Sept. 27, 2018, the day Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford testified before the Senate. I listened to the hearings all day. I skipped class. I wandered around campus, unable to sit still. I kept my earbuds in, listening only to the audio; I couldn’t bear to look at the faces of the men both behind the bench and on the stand. I felt like my blood had been replaced with something dark and molten, and I muttered obscenities to myself and evoked many startled glances from strangers. My friend, a reporter for the News, urged me to stay away from the swarm of cameras gathering outside the Law School. “You look too angry,” she said. “You look like a good story. You’ll get targeted.”

In the days leading up to the hearing, I participated in every event I could. I protested at the Women’s Table in front of Sterling Library. I joined a massive Facebook chat organizing the placement of posters on bulletins in support of survivors. I shouted. I chanted. I cried. I raised my voice the way Yale has taught us to do, and I did it in honor of all the survivors I know. There are too many.

The hearings destroyed me. I couldn’t believe Kavanaugh’s reactions to the questions, his contempt for the proceedings. I couldn’t believe the dialogue I was hearing on campus and in the news. “Even if the allegations are true, they have nothing to do with his ability to function as a Supreme Court justice,” someone told me.

“That’s not true,” I said. “The allegations have everything to do with it.”

On Oct. 6, Kavanaugh was confirmed. The same students who organized protests organized a tribute of sorts. It felt more like a memorial or a lamentation. Of the ugliness. Of the brittle truth which flashed in front of our eyes and across our phone screens every day. Flowers were arranged on top of and beside the Women’s Table — the only spot of color on a bitterly gray day. Dozens of cards were written and stuck to the side of the table in support of survivors. Messages of hope, heartbreak and mourning. I wrote one and taped it on the gray stone. A message in rainbow chalk was splashed in between the towering library and the stone table: SOLIDARITY WITH SURVIVORS.

After the confirmation, I felt numb while navigating both my classes and social spaces. Nothing we had done mattered. Kavanaugh was on the court, appointed by another alleged sexual offender. Life carried on, midterms arrived and eventually the pain dulled. We couldn’t do anything except move on.

Less than a month later, on Halloween night, I was reminded that the hearing wasn’t really behind me, and it would possibly never be behind me. That night, after being repeatedly groped at Hallowoads, I went home with someone I trusted, someone who I had been seeing before. In a drunken fervor, he began ranting about the Kavanaugh hearings, angry because he had known REAL survivors. “You know, I have friends who have survived cancer. Someone shoving their dick in your face doesn’t make you a survivor.”

I curled up on the bed, too bone-weary to move, too stunned to speak. “I’m glad he’s on the court. Trump 2020!” he exclaimed before flopping onto the bed. He also admitted to tearing down, in the middle of the night, posters supporting survivors. I told him that I was one of the people who helped to replace them.

When I read last month’s New York Times piece, “He Fit in With the Privileged Kids. She Did Not,” I felt the wound open fresh inside of me. I was filled with an irrational urge to send the piece to the boy from that Halloween night. I wanted to send him the link and say, “Read this. Really read it. And tell me she isn’t a survivor.” I was filled with the irrational urge to wrestle compassion out of him, to force him to understand what it was like to be touched, to be mocked, to be shamed in a place that was never designed for you.

But I didn’t send the text. I know that we cannot seek empathy where there is none. We cannot force compassion.

Every person’s pain is exquisitely unique, as unique as the people themselves. I will never claim to understand any other person’s trauma. I can only write about my own. Listening to Kavanaugh’s hearings, existing on his old campus, walking the paths I know he once walked, was almost intolerable for me. I grapple every day with the fact that I belong to an institution that produced men like Brett Kavanaugh. It continues to produce people like him because, although changes have been made, social spaces continue to be male-dominated and unsafe for many students, especially women, students of color and queer students.

I wanted to end with a call to action, to offer solutions to improve the sexual culture at Yale. I believe changes need to be made, both at Yale and nationwide, but I can’t offer specific policies that will eradicate a problem so complex and deeply embedded. All I know is that sexual misconduct at universities is not a distant, clinical issue or a political platform. It’s a personal issue, one that affects and damages the lives of countless students of all genders.

I don’t know how to fix this problem. But I can see it. I can name it. We can start there.


Abby Lee abby.lee@yale.edu