My favorite scene in one of my all-time favorite movies — 1982's The Verdict, with Paul Newman as a down-and-out lawyer taking on The Establishment — comes near the end when Newman's attorney finally locates the woman whose secrets of male ambition and cover-up, which cost her her career and forced her to leave Boston, can prove his case.
The lawyer puts the ex-nurse, Kaitlin, on the witness stand to reveal how a powerful doctor and his allies pressured her to alter a hospital admission form to cover up a near-fatal case of malpractice. As she relives the experience, the woman's long-repressed anger comes flowing out.
Who were these men? It's a question that a lot of folks — especially (but not exclusively) American women — are asking themselves in anger this week as they watch a stunning spectacle in Washington: Decrepit white men so desperate to defend a corrupt and corroded social order that they are attempting to do, metaphorically, what 51-year-old research psychologist Christine Blasey Ford insists a future member of the power elite did to her in the early 1980s — turn up the background noise and cover her mouth so no one can hear her scream.
The immediate stakes of the drama that has played out over this weekend — whether Dr. Blasey will tell her story alleging a sexual assault by a 17-year-old Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump's Supreme Court nominee who could bring a conservative jurisprudence for the next generation, and whether that will torpedo his Senate confirmation — are so high that it's easy to lose sight of the much bigger cultural moment that's taking place here.
This is a cultural and psychological battle that's taking place — about what kind of society America wants to be in the 21st century and beyond. Sure, Republican senators like Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — so determined to ram through Kavanaugh before he's even heard one word of this woman's story, with their initial demands that Dr. Blasey testify only on their terms, at a date, time and place of their choosing — are executing a short-term and shortsighted political strategy. But more and more people, especially women, are seeing things for what they really are: An ancient patriarchy clinging to what it's always done in the past: Control the narratives of women.
Except there's good reason to believe that this time the creaky old gears of the patriarchy machine are finally breaking down, that Dr. Blasey will tell her story on her terms, on her chosen date, and with millions of women watching her back. Men are terrified.
(A quick footnote: There's been a lot of confusion on how to refer to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford — I'm joining the New York Times in describing her how people know her professionally, as Dr. Blasey. The fact they we're still fumbling and arguing over what to call women is a bizarre exclamation point on all of this.)
The more we learn about Dr. Blasey, the more she comes across as a credible, compelling woman with a story that America needs to hear. We already knew that she told her account of the assault to her therapist and her husband earlier in this decade, that she named Kavanaugh as her attacker and that she told other friends in 2017 before Trump named the judge as his SCOTUS pick. She was willing to take a lie-detector test (not admissible as evidence, but she passed) and she also wants an investigation by the FBI, which is known to criminally charge people who don't tell them the truth. From an excellent profile in the Washington Post and other news accounts, we've since found out that whatever happened in that suburban bedroom 36 years ago, Dr. Blasey was so traumatized that she insisted that her bedroom have a second exit, and that she even considered leaving the United States upon learning that Trump had Kavanaugh on his short list of picks for the High Court.
It's the other side, the Kavanaugh side, that has played prevent defense, in a full-blown cover-up mode from Day One. It's Team Kavanaugh, with the full backing of the Trump White House, that has thwarted an FBI probe that could get to the bottom of the allegations and which had always before this been standard operating procedure, including in the infamous Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas showdown of 1991. That's in keeping with a process in which a record number of documents have been hidden from the public, with a Republican Senate accelerating everything to 110 mph after slamming the brakes for a whole year on then-President Barack Obama's failed court pick, Judge Merrick Garland.
What was the real reason for this confirmation process on steroids? Why such an effort to spin Kavanaugh from Day One as "America's carpool dad" and trusted coach of 15-year-old girls' basketball players? How could Team Kavanaugh round up 65 female contemporaries from the judge's younger days to vouch for him in a matter of hours after Dr. Blasey's allegation dropped?
What exactly did they think was coming down the pike for a judge who joined both a fraternity and a private club at Yale known for their heavy boozing and skirt-chasing, continued bragging about his wild, partying law school days well into adulthood, and was said by the well-known Yale law professor to prefer female law clerks who had "a certain look," like a model?
And we now know this: In growing panic mode as it looked more likely that Dr. Blasey would testify, Kavanaugh's closest allies did what Dr. Blasey alleges her assailant did 36 years ago: They turned up the noise. Specifically, a leading member of the longtime movement to get more conservatives on the federal bench — Ed Whelan of the Ethics (no, seriously) & Public Policy Institute — went public on Twitter with an insane conspiracy theory. Based on a kind of Illuminati of Google maps, Zillow floor plans and high school yearbook photos, Whelan smeared and libeled a man who's now a popular middle school teacher in a Southern city as a childhood rapist, so rancid is the desperation to get enough people to believe a "mistaken identity" theory that would help force Kavanaugh upon America. What's more, Whelan even accessed Dr. Blasey's LinkedIn page before her name was made public, raising critical questions about what was really going on between Whelan, Kavanaugh and the White House.
If that wasn't bad enough, Senate Republicans have metaphorically tried to do something else that echoes Dr. Blasey's horrific experience: Cover her mouth so that no one could hear her. In the long history of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republicans have never placed a woman on the panel. And the 11 GOP men who now serve — led by the 85-year-old chairman, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa — said they would determine a remarkably rushed date for her testimony, deny her request for other testimony (most notably that of her other alleged attacker, Kavanaugh's classmate and close friend Mark Judge), and go ahead and vote on the judge if she didn't comply.
Equally bad, key senators also suggested that — to frame it in their mindset and terms — they might humor this gal by letting her speak, but in the end the men who run what's jokingly called "the world's greatest deliberative body" would not be influenced by anything she had to say. "In the very near future, Judge Kavanaugh will be on the U.S. Supreme Court," McConnell told a gathering of social conservatives last Friday. "So, my friends, keep the faith. Don't get rattled by all this. We're going to plow right through it and do our job."
If you think McConnell's awful words are a chilling echo of Dr. Blasey's story that two boys tried to plow through her objections in a suburban bedroom one night around 1982, you're not the only one. But there's a growing sense that the same voodoo that allowed male senators from both parties to belittle and then cast aside Anita Hill's powerful testimony 27 years ago isn't going to work in 2018. Already, Republican senators have conceded to Dr. Blasey's timetable and allowed her to speak on the date of her choosing, Thursday. The #MeToo movement has given Dr. Blasey some leverage that women did not have before, with even the most Neanderthal political brains realizing what a disaster it would be to jam Kavenaugh onto the High Court without her testimony. That's one meaningful Jenga piece yanked from a shaky foundation of male supremacy on the brink of collapse.
And women are feeling it. They are feeling a escalating sense of rage as they watch the lengths to which men like McConnell, Grassley, and Whelan will go to belittle, diminish and try to deny a woman's lived experience. They are infuriated by a process in which a president who is accused of — and has admitted to on tape — serial sexual abuse and misconduct gets to pick a lifetime Supreme Court justice who emerged from a primal soup of toxic masculinity, and whose case is being advanced by men saturated in the same sick culture (including the PR aide hired by the Senate Judiciary Committee to steer Kavanaugh, who turned out to have his own history of sexual harassment.) And they are so inspired by Dr. Blasey's courage that many — even the daughter of a Republican president, Patti Davis — are coming forward to tell their own stories they have kept repressed for far too long.
That's because while they see the importance of the issue at hand — keeping an unfit judge like Kavanaugh off the nation's highest court — they are also seeing the broad manifestations of a diseased American society. In Grassley's demands, women see the ways their own stories have been ignored or contested. In the story of a youthful sexual assault, they see a powerful metaphor for a Republican movement that wants to control their bodies, including their reproductive rights. And in Dr. Blasey's resolve to finally not just tell her story and tell it on her own terms — even with America's most powerful men up in her face — they are amplifying the answer to the oft-asked yet somewhat ridiculous question of what do women really want. They simply want to control their own destiny.
What Jennifer Weiner, the former Inquirer journalist turned best-selling novelist, wrote in the New York Times Sunday morning sounds exactly like the women I've been talking to this past week: Especially this part:
To try and reinvent a cliché written by one of my fellow men, hell will have no fury like these women when they go to the polls — and trust me, they won't miss this for anything — on Nov. 6. And when they pull the lever, I have to think that this is what will be going through their heads. Who were these men?