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Brett Kavanaugh’s terrible non-apology reminded experts of the language of abuse

In a column published just hours before the Senate vote, Kavanaugh downplayed his actions and blamed anyone but himself.

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh penned an apology op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this week that experts say used abuser tactics, blaming anyone but himself. (PHOTO CREDIT: Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images)
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh penned an apology op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this week that experts say used abuser tactics, blaming anyone but himself. (PHOTO CREDIT: Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images)

The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece from Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh Thursday night, hours before the Senate voted to advance his confirmation.

In the column, titled “I Am an Independent, Impartial Judge,” Kavanaugh offered a watered-down non-apology for his behavior at a hearing last week to address several sexual assault allegations against him, and argued that he was “independent” and non-partisan.

“I was very emotional last Thursday, more so than I have ever been. I might have been too emotional at times,” Kavanaugh wrote, referring to his many outbursts at Senate Democrats, who he claimed — without proof — were coordinating a smear campaign against him, in league with the Clintons.

“I know that my tone was sharp, and I said a few things I should not have said,” he continued. “I hope everyone can understand that I was there as a son, husband and dad. I testified with five people foremost in my mind: my mom, my dad, my wife, and most of all my daughters.”

Kavanaugh added that his time in high school and college had been “ridiculously distorted” by the press and Democrats, and said his wife and daughters had faced “vile and violent threats” as a result. He promised to “continue to contribute to our country as a coach, volunteer, and teacher.”

“Every day I will try to be the best husband, dad, and friend I can be,” he wrote.

To many experts, those words mirrored the language often used by abusers.

Nicole Bedera, a researcher at the University of Michigan studying sexual violence and masculinity, told ThinkProgress the column read to her like a classic abuser apology. When abusers apologize, Bedera said, they make victims feel as if everything is their fault, rather than taking any blame themselves.

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“In the case of abuser, they tell the survivor, ‘I know that what I did wasn’t good, but I only did it because I was pushed too far,'” Bedera said.

A website under Brett Kavanaugh’s name is being used as a resource for survivors. CREDIT: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
A website under Brett Kavanaugh’s name is being used as a resource for survivors. CREDIT: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

That, she said, was precisely what Kavanaugh did in his column. 

Bedera said she was also struck by Kavanaugh’s promise that his aggressive, angry outbursts would not happen again.

“But the thing we know about abusers is they will do it again,” she said. “If it were really a one-off, he wouldn’t have to work this hard.”

Understanding the ways in which Kavanaugh has employed different, specific damage-control tactics, Bedera noted, is particularly important.

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“The behavior he has been exhibiting has been consistent with abusers the whole way through… and if you come from a place of believing the survivors that have come forward, what Kavanaugh and his angry outburst shows us is, in a way, a form of corroboration,” she said.

Psychologist Jennifer Freyd told ThinkProgress she also noticed several familiar tactics in Kavanaugh’s column. She cited one line in particular which she found especially manipulative — when Kavanaugh noted he was in high school and college “more than 30 years ago.”

“What is the reason for saying that? Let’s think about that,” Freyd said. “Because it was so long ago, it doesn’t matter? We can’t trust the memory? …It’s not spelled out, but why keep repeating this passage of time?”

Freyd noted another reason why understanding Kavanaugh’s language was important. As part of her work, Freyd has been researching something she calls “institutional betrayal.”

“If [an] institution responds poorly and supports a culture that makes these sorts of events more likely… the institutional betrayal adds harm over and above the personal,” Freyd explained, adding, “Dr. Blasey Ford was the victim of very great institutional betrayal.”

CREDIT: Yana Paskova/Getty Images
CREDIT: Yana Paskova/Getty Images

Freyd said she believes the effects of the abuse won’t stop with Ford. Though she has been unable to research it, she expects that people who empathize or identify with Ford will experience the harms of institutional betrayal because of the way many Republicans in Congress and in the White House have responded to the allegations.

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“It’s affecting our wellbeing, our bodies and our minds,” she said. “It’s almost like we went through this natural disaster except it’s not a natural disaster. It’s all human made.”

Kavanaugh’s non-apology apology was published a week after Ford, one of three women to come forward with allegations against Kavanaugh, publicly testified under oath Thursday about the time she says he attempted to rape her at a “gathering” in high school.

Both in an interview with The Washington Post earlier this month and during her emotional testimony on Thursday, Ford said Kavanaugh forced himself on her, groped her over her clothes, and tried to pull off her clothing. When she tried to scream, he then covered her mouth with his hand and turned up the music in the room to muffle her cries. She said Thursday she believed Kavanaugh might accidentally kill her.

The second woman who came forward, Deborah Ramirez, told The New Yorker that, at a party in college, Kavanaugh thrust his penis to her face against her wishes. A third woman, Deborah Swetnick, says she was gang raped at a party where Kavanaugh was present. Though she did not directly implicate Kavanaugh in the attack, she wrote in a sworn affidavit that Kavanaugh was among a group of boys with whom she associated and that he frequently spiked women’s drinks or drugged them in order to rape them.

Despite the allegations against him, the Senate voted 51-49 for cloture Friday. They will vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation Saturday. The floor vote was delayed for several days after Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) called for an FBI investigation into the allegations, which concluded Wednesday.

Ford’s lawyers told reporters that Ford was never interviewed as part of the inquiry.