This isn’t really my story to tell, but it’s the story I haven’t been able to stop mulling over since the #MeToo movement shifted into high gear during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. It’s a story that put two essential parts of me – the feminist part and the maternal part – in direct conflict.
One night in the fall of 2008, my son (then age 18) and his girlfriend (age 19) got into a fight in her dorm room in Santa Clara. They’d known each other since he was 9, and they’d been in an on again/off again relationship through high school and the beginning of college.
HE said: He heard she’d “cheated on him.” He confronted her. She denied it. He didn’t believe her. Tempers flared. He claimed he “didn’t hurt her”. As his mother, I wanted to believe him. But…
SHE said: He assaulted her. To my knowledge, she was not physically injured by my son, but I have NO doubt she feared for her safety with him that evening. My son had a history of emotional volatility (although not a history of physical violence against others). As a woman and as a feminist, I believed her.
I never found out what actually transpired that evening. I wasn’t “in the room where it happened,” and the matter was never fully litigated. My son was charged with domestic violence and accepted a plea deal. He did time in prison, attended residential psychiatric treatment, completed an anger management program, and was still on probation when he died in 2010.
I was a teenaged girl once, with a boyfriend who was possessive and jealous. He thought of me as “his.” Heck, the culture norms were so pervasive and convincing, I thought of myself as his! Although no one ever said so explicitly, I knew I was expected to be “true” and “faithful” to him. The same was not expected of him. If I cheated on him, I would be branded “promiscuous” and “easy.” If he cheated on me, he would be patted on the back, even applauded. This double standard existed long before I came along, it survived into my son’s generation, and it is apparently still well-entrenched in our culture.
Friends of my son (and some of their parents) told me what a “slut” and “lush” my son’s girlfriend was, and that her accusations had to be bogus. The maternal part of me really wanted to settle into that possibility and wanted to make it all her fault. It wouldn’t reflect so badly on me, as a parent, if it turned out my son wasn’t the abusive neanderthal the Assistant D.A. was making him out to be.
But the other part of me, the part who had been a teenaged girlfriend of a possessive and jealous boy, who had experienced sexual harassment at work [see: “Bad Behavior”], who had learned to avoid dark places at night, who had thought twice about wearing certain outfits, who had learned to check the back seat of her car before getting into it at night, who had put up with cat calls and lewd comments about her fuck-worthy ass, etc., etc., etc., that part of me understood what this was: blaming the alleged victim and shedding doubt on her version of the facts by undermining her character. And I hated it.
I gave my son a piece of my feminist mind, expressed my anger and shame, and then, as his mother, I stood by him as he navigated the criminal justice system and lived the consequences of his actions.
But I believed the girlfriend.
Just as I believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.
Just as I believe ALL women alleging sexual wrongdoings and violent attacks at the hands of men.
This is not to say that women are incapable of making up stories. I wasn’t born yesterday. But the percentage of women who have the balls to drag themselves through the circus which is the American “justice” system in cases such as these, just to give some guy a hard time, is so minuscule as to be negligible, even laughable.
I’m willing to believe women and girls FIRST, even before all the facts are uncovered (if they ever even can be), even if the accused is my own flesh and blood! Because we’ve been doing it the other way for a long time – believing the men first, presuming their innocence – and that has resulted in nothing but a deep, gangrenous wound in our culture. The Patriarchy (with its inherent sense of entitlement for men) has wreaked its havoc for centuries, and the #MeToo movement is a long overdue swing of the pendulum in the other direction.
Having said that, I do believe in the presumption of innocence as a valid cornerstone of our justice system. The alternative – the presumption of guilt – is Draconian, inhumane, uncivilized and downright dangerous. I don’t want to live in a society that punishes, imprisons and executes the falsely accused without thorough investigations into the facts. Which, let there be no mistake, we did not get in the “case” of Ford vs. Kavanaugh.
However, when the accused is male, white, and privileged, and the overarching construct under which this unfortunate drama gets played out is PATRIARCHY, then perhaps this presumption of innocence needs to be re-examined and even momentarily set aside. Otherwise, women will continue to get the raw end of the deal.
For. Centuries. To. Come.
We must find a way to reconcile (A) women’s allegations of sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape and other forms of violence, with (B) the presumption of innocence of the accused.
We must also find a way to validate women’s stories without requiring them to provide “evidence” (as our clueless First Lady has suggested), or to carry the burden of proof. It is often an impossible burden to meet, given the circumstances under which these behaviors and attacks take place. [A former prosecutor apparently agrees with me; see: “A Prosecutor Schools Melania Trump on ‘Hard Evidence.’“]
Must women be expected to record all their personal and intimate encounters? Must they anticipate when violence is going to strike, so they can arrange for a video crew to be present? Must they collect DNA samples from their rapists (only to have this evidence used against them as “proof” that they “consented” to the violent sexual interaction)? Must they provide eyewitnesses and corroboration, as if these things happen out in the open for all to see?
Having an eyewitness to these crimes is rare. The fact that Dr. Blasey Ford could place and name another individual in the room is remarkable! There are usually only two people present: the perpetrator and the victim. Which is why it typically boils down to a “he said/she said” contest. Which is why it then boils down to a question of character and credibility of each party.
I don’t know how to resolve this dilemma. Perhaps an evidentiary exception could be made to allow lie detector results to be admissable as evidence when these cases are litigated in the future. In comparing the testimony of Judge Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford before the Senate Judiciary Committee, my gut sense is that her credibility far outshone his. That has to count for something, right? Well, it didn’t this time; and it’s unlikely it ever will unless a seismic paradigm shift occurs.
Our sacrosanct presumption of innocence seems to apply, more often than not, to the privileged white males in our society. It certainly doesn’t apply to non-white men or to women of any color. It’s time the noble words chiseled into the marble of the Supreme Court, “Equal Justice Under Law,” really did apply to ALL.
[The source for the featured photo of the pussy-hatted crowd is unknown to me. I don’t like using images I cannot attribute to a particular person or organization, but the photo captured so much of what this piece is about – women’s organized and peaceful outrage. Thank you to the photographer, whoever you are!]