The Burden of Proof

Dr. Ford, #MeToo, and what we ask from survivors

by Tiara Sharma

Illustration by Eve O'Shea

published October 5, 2018

content warning: sexual assault

There were moments in Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s questioning last week when I had to close my laptop out of sheer anxiety. Something about the televised event felt so inexplicably disrespectful; though I was watching the hearing in the privacy of my dorm room, I suddenly felt conscious of the millions of other eyes that, like mine, traced her every movement, dissected her every word. I grew disgusted at the thought that my visual consumption of Dr. Ford, and the larger scopic regime that captured her every angle, waiting for her to falter, associated me with her detractors across the country.

I watched Dr. Ford’s statement and her responses to the senators’ countless questions, hoping that she wouldn’t misspeak. There was, of course, so much on the line—not just for Dr. Ford or her family, but for an entire nation’s ongoing reckoning with sexual assault.

Her testimony against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, like that of Dr. Anita Hill during Justice Clarence Thomas’s hearing, revealed the sheer burden we place on survivors in the age of #MeToo. When asked by the senators if she would like a break during the questioning, she answered hesitantly, “Does that work for you?...I’m used to being collegial.” After hearing this, I couldn’t help but wonder how much more they—how much more we could ask of her. We need, after all, for survivors like Dr. Ford and Dr. Hill to impress us—with their intellect, their collegiality, and, in Senator Hatch’s own words, their attractiveness—even while we expect them to hold their own perpetrators accountable.

Feminist scholar Jacqueline Rose writes in the London Review of Books that, though our attention to sexual violence “may be sparked by anger and a desire for redress” on behalf of survivors, “it might also be feeding vicariously off the forms of perversion that fuel the violence in the first place.” Rose raises interesting questions about the ways in which #MeToo obliges survivors to exhibit and re-live their trauma in order for it to be legitimized. Indeed, the use of Dr. Ford’s teary visage as a promotional image for articles about the hearing reinforces the need for survivors to undertake procedures of justice themselves and to meet corresponding expectations of public testimony and liability.

In order for us to believe Dr. Ford, she needed to publicly articulate how it felt to be violated and, in effect, relive said violation for her spectators. She needed to be composed, but not emotionless, for only performing the right amount of pain and trauma could convince the predominantly male-identifying panel of politicians that she was telling the truth. In an article for the New York Review of Books, writer Melissa Gira Grant notices the “drift in the discourse from violated rights to violated feelings: […] the burden on each woman’s story to concern a man ‘important’ enough to report on, the detailed accounting of hotel robes and incriminating texts along with a careful description of what was grabbed, who exposed what, and how many times.” Grant remarks on something urgent here: the ways in which #MeToo era has almost commodified trauma and the communal spectacle of it. Survivors who come forward must now consider the optics of doing so and whether or not their story is palatable enough to consumers of mainstream media and, especially, social media. The movement has, in effect, produced a regime of proof—one in which survivors’ stories must be retellable in order to be believed.

As Grant continues, she brilliantly names the ways in which the #MeToo movement places the burden on survivors to publicize their experiences of violation and to render their emotions reproducible. In her article, Grant narrates her own experience of assault: “What I remember most, from ‘my story’ is how small the sex talk felt, almost dull. I did not feel hurt. I had no pain to confess in public. As more stories come out, I like to think that we would also believe a woman who said, for example, that the sight of the penis of the man who promised her work did not wound her, and that the loss she felt was not some loss of herself but of her time, energy, power.” Grant’s piece, put in conversation with Dr. Ford’s testimony and the legions of #MeToo narratives that have been published, flags urgent questions about what we expect from those who have experienced sexual violence; namely, how can survivors confirm and validate their experiences, and have their experiences be confirmed and validated, if their testimony can only be legitimized through public authorization?

The panel of politicians and the legions of spectators at home were ultimately as focused on the delivery of Dr. Ford’s testimony as they were on the contents of it. When asked by Senator Patrick Leahy about her strongest recollection from the night of the assault, Ford responded with something so painfully striking: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two [men], and their having fun at my expense.” But what if Dr. Ford had remembered very little from that night? What if she hadn’t undergone the medical training needed to provide psychological corroboration of her testimony? Kavanaugh certainly never had to prove he had a hippocampus in order to be believed.

It is no coincidence, then, that Anita Hill’s testimony involved a similar degree of physical and medical scrutiny. During Justice Thomas’ hearing, she was accused by Senate Judiciary Committee members of having erotomania, a condition in which individuals develop romantic delusions. According to Dr. Jonathan H. Segal, a who has studied the condition extensively, “Most patients treated for erotomania are young, single women whose scenario concerns an older male, often a boss.” Though younger survivors are often wrongly accused of “asking for” or enabling their own assault, this diagnosis of erotomania was never lodged at the white survivors who worked under, and were assaulted by, Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, and Louis C.K. That a group of non-medically-trained politicians misdiagnosed Hill exemplifies how the lived experiences of black women survivors, in particular, are pathologized even as they are denied.

The #MeToo movement necessitates public spectatorship and the act of witnessing as an actualizing force for Hill’s narrative—a means through which subjective experiences become objective histories. The movement, though successful in proliferating images and narratives of survivors and their bravery, creates normative expectations of how trauma can be articulated and how processes of justice can be enacted. And even after the public consumption of these narratives, there emerges an expectation for survivors to pave the way forward, to reimagine entire industries and living environments. Through its dependence on survivors as agents of societal rehabilitation, the #MeToo movement has failed to transform practices of collective accountability. Survivors are thereby responsible for seeking their own justice—defending their bodies, morals, and psyches against flagrant attack—all while reshaping a more just world.


TIARA SHARMA B'20 had to look up what the hippocampus was.