Democrats will have their hands full trying to defend allegations of sexual assault against Joe Biden during the Presidential race
"As we all know, in the United States political system of the early 2000s, what goes around comes around." Justice Brett Kavanaugh spoke these words during a Senate judiciary committee hearing of a sexual assault charge brought against him by Christine Blasey Ford that nearly derailed his nomination to the US Supreme Court. What went around in September 2018 has come around in May 2020. Democrats who declared back then that Ford’s testimony disqualified Kavanaugh now have to explain their support for the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden, who faces a grave sexual assault charge.
Ford claimed that at a party in 1982, when she was 15 years old, a drunk, 17-year-old Kavanaugh trapped her in a bedroom, pinned her to the bed, tried to pull off her clothes and covered her mouth when she attempted to scream. In her Senate testimony, she came across as impeccably sincere, keeping her answers precise and substantive even as a quaver in her voice conveyed her anguish. Kavanaugh, in contrast, was petulant and whiny, appearing to protest too much and frequently descending into rants.
He was lucky that everything aside from Ford’s testimony was on his side. She had mentioned the incident to nobody for decades after it supposedly occurred. She could not recall the location of the house or the way she got there and back. The people she said were present could not remember any party of the kind described.
Being a professor of psychology at Stanford University, Ford was expertly qualified to defend her testimony. She explained that gaps in her recollection were normal because the neurotransmitter epinephrine “codes memories into the hippocampus, and so the trauma-related experience is locked there, whereas other details kind of drift". Since nobody else in the house that day had experienced the pain she did, their failure to remember was also understandable.
Joe Biden’s accuser, Tara Reade, has had a less distinguished career than Ford and offered a less consistent version of what she went through. The most serious accusation, recently disclosed, is that Biden cornered and digitally penetrated her in a Capitol Hill corridor in 1993, when he was already a veteran senator and Reade’s boss. Without diminishing the seriousness of Kavanaugh’s alleged behaviour, the criminal actions of a sober adult in a position of power surely outweigh those of a drunken teenager when assessing fitness for office. (There is a vocal body of opinion against making such distinctions but even those who argue against them make distinctions in practice. Some crimes are more egregious than others, no matter the category in which they fall).
Reade’s case is made stronger than Ford’s by the existence of corroborating witnesses. Her mother called into a television show hosted by Larry King in 1993 to say her daughter had problems with a prominent senator. Reade’s brother as well as a former neighbour named Lynda LaCasse, a committed Democrat and Biden supporter, recall having been told about the assault not long after it happened. Given these facts, it would be hypocritical for those who condemned the judge to maintain their support for the senator, a fact that Fox News and right-wing media are likely to highlight incessantly in the six months leading up to the presidential election.
Biden is a thoroughly mediocre candidate. He underperformed in previous runs for president, has articulated no vision for change, seems unable to open his mouth without making a gaffe, and looks aged and unsteady. His closest competitor in the primaries, Bernie Sanders, a year older at 78 and recovering from a heart attack, came across as a bundle of energy in comparison. Democrats turned to Biden because he was well-known and well-liked, a safe pair of hands, their best bet against the existential threat represented by Donald Trump. Those hands now look far from safe.
The Biden allegation ought to spur renewed introspection into how we process narratives of the kind presented by Christine Ford and Tara Reade. Having grown up influenced by books and films that questioned the relationship between interpretation and fact—works such as E.M. Forster’s A Passage To India and Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon—I distinguish honesty from veracity as a matter of habit. It opens up a way of thinking about sexual assault beyond the binary of “What she says actually happened" and “She is a liar making things up".
The connection of honesty to truthfulness in accounts of crimes was questioned in the late 20th century by the cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. Loftus conducted a series of pioneering experiments demonstrating how the mind distorts the past and how false memories can be implanted during therapy aimed at helping patients recover buried experiences. Reacting to Ford’s accusation, Loftus has said it is crucial to understand whether she attached Kavanaugh’s name to the incident right away, or much later, in therapy. Those records were not made public as part of the Senate hearing.
Julia Shaw, a researcher at University College London, who conducted a false memory experiment building on Loftus’ work in 2015, published a paper earlier this year analysing whether we can tell if other peoples’ memories are true or false. She mixed narrations of events that had actually happened with recordings of subjects with implanted “rich false memories" from her earlier research. She found that listeners correctly identified true memories a mere 60% of the time, and false memories in about 55% of the cases.
The work of Loftus and Shaw demonstrates we are bad at remembering things and also bad at interpreting other peoples’ accounts.
Bringing these ideas to bear on allegations of sexual assault, sadly, leads us back to an unsatisfactory impasse: We ought not to believe testimony without corroborative proof, but corroborative proof can rarely be present in such cases. Testimonies are usually all we have and doubting them only helps men accused of terrible crimes, many of whom are guilty. The dilemma will not be resolved until we build a legal system sensitive to the issue and a generation grows up conditioned to speak out about trauma without fear or misplaced guilt.
As for the forthcoming presidential election that will affect us all, I believe Biden probably committed a terrible act, and his adversary has probably committed several terrible acts. Since voters have a choice between two damaged candidates, I would unhesitatingly pick the offender less likely to destroy the world.
Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.