PTSD, Memory and (Yes) the Supreme Court

This post is nominally about the he-said/she-said dispute over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination for the U.S. Supreme Court. But that’s not the topic. Not really. What it’s really about is decades-old trauma and why Christine Blasey Ford did not deserve the endless attacks on her allegedly shifting memories.

This post also comes from personal experience.

No, I was never sexually assaulted as a teenager, thank goodness. My experience was more mundane. At about the same time Dr. Ford remembers fighting off her attackers, someone marched me into the woods at gunpoint with the probable intention of killing me.

At least, that’s how the police viewed it at the time. My view was simply that there was a period of time in which I estimated my life expectancy in seconds.

Eventually, I escaped, partly because I was a 38:12 10K runner, and once I got a chance to put an obstacle between me and that gun, my legs took over. I was off and gone, hoping to get far enough away to make it a difficult shot before he could get a clear line of sight. It worked, because I’m here now to tell the tale.

Telling this story still brings up a bit of PTSD-related adrenaline. I can’t imagine what it would feel like if someone like President Trump was busily assaulting my memory of the event the way he has Dr. Ford’s.

I’m a guy, and can’t speak for women. I definitely can’t speak for Dr. Ford. But what I can say from my own experience is that memories like this are weird. Some things are in sharp focus. Others are a peripheral blur. There’s actually a whole science of this in sports psychology, where Olympic athletes can feel the same thing. A Tour de France cyclist once said that if a train wreck occurred beside him during the race, he’d know it had happened, but only in a sort-of disinterested academic manner.

Not to mention that memories warp with time.

People who don’t believe Dr. Ford see a shifty, untrustworthy person trying to spin her memories for maximum political gain. Having been in my own traumatic situation, however different, what I see is someone struggling across the decades to figure out peripheral details that had never before been relevant.

Start with the date. Ford was criticized because she initially said the attack occurred in the “mid-1980s” before settling down on 1982.

Forget the question of whether, 36 years later, there’s a meaningful difference between “mid-1980s” and “1982.” It’s not as though, when I was marched off into the woods expecting to die any second I was busily memorizing the date. (What I did memorize was the guy’s license plate number. I could recite that for years afterward.)

If I wanted to know the date, I could get it easily, because I was a robbery victim, not a sexual assault victim, which meant I felt a lot safer in reporting it. In fact, they caught the guy within a couple hours and convicted him a few months later.

But without going to the courts and looking it up, all I can do is what Dr. Ford appears to have done: try to figure out how the event fits into the sequence of other memories in my life. For example, I was in Alaska on a summer law clerkship. I only did that once, so that’s a huge landmark. Furthermore, I was on my way back to college to finish my Ph.D., so it was probably just before the start of the next semester.

The event also inspired me to do something non-academic for a bit, so I worked on a political campaign: specifically, John Anderson’s independent run for President. (He’d been my congressional representative for many years, so I’d had a pre-existing interest in him.)

Put that all together, and I get sometime in late August or, maybe early September, 1980.

And, when I started writing this post, I’d have told you I was pretty sure that that was the date. But, there’s a problem. If I play back a different part of my memory timeline, I get the date as 1979, not 1980. If so, my work on John Anderson’s campaign must have been a full year after the robbery that inspired it.

Does this mean I was never robbed?

I also know that when faced with events like this, your mind picks out specific details. Blasey Ford recalls her assailants’ laughter. I recall staring down the barrel of my assailant’s gun.

Later, the grand jury peppered me for details. What caliber was it? Was it a single-action or double-action? Was it loaded? Why didn’t I fight back?

Some of their questions were ridiculous, others were simply beyond my knowledge of handguns. And all I could say about caliber was that it looked like a cannon, but that was probably a matter of my perspective at the moment.

What I was certain of was that it was a revolver. And when asked if it was loaded, all I could say was that I didn’t know if there was a round in the chamber. But I could see four bullets, two on each side, staring at me. From their positions, it had to have been a six-round cylinder.

There are other details I vividly remember, including how I escaped. But two decades later, I was vacationing in Alaska and had a chance to revisit the scene of the attack.

It was easy enough to locate, because it was a scenic overlook offering a view across a valley to a large glacier. That’s why I’d been there in the first place. But beyond that, little fit my memory. It wasn’t as isolated as I’d remembered, though new construction might have accounted for much of that. What really startled me was how short the trail into the woods actually was. Adrenaline messes up our sense of time, often by making seconds feel much longer. If you’re walking or running, that, in turn, messes up your sense of distance. I knew I was in the right place, but it didn’t match my memory.

Again, this was a robbery and possible attempted murder, not a sexual assault. There are major differences. I did experience some degree of PTSD, and I have sometimes feared being judged for getting myself into such a dangerous situation. But that’s nothing compared to the approbation sexual assault victims often feel.

My point is simply this. My own experience was pretty mild, compared to Dr. Ford’s. But if I have trouble distinguishing the gun that was pointed at me from a Wyatt Earp .45 Colt…and if my sense of time and distance are warped regarding an event about which I testified to a grand jury only days later…why shouldn’t Dr. Ford’s memories be even more slippery?

The important details truly stick. I know it was a six-shooter revolver. I will never forget those four bullets, staring at me evilly, two on each side. I know what it felt like to be marched into the woods, expecting to die. I know what it felt like to be plotting my escape. I know what it was like to make the attempt, expecting to be shot in the back at any second.

Those are the type of things that stick. The stuff that’s not relevant to survival doesn’t. Because at the time, you’re totally focused on survival.

And this is why the alleged “inconsistencies” in Dr. Ford’s story don’t matter. If you’ve not seen your own version of those bullets staring at you, it’s hard to understand how the urgency of the moment affects your perceptions of some details…and how strongly others are seared into your brain.

Richard A. Lovett writes & hangs out with runners

Richard A. Lovett is my professional name. Friends know me as Rick. I’ve done a lot of things in my life, but these days, I’m primarily a writer and running coach. The details are elsewhere on this site, but for now, I’ll cut to the chase:

Science writing. Over the years, I’ve written for Science, Nature, New Scientist, Scientific American, National Geographic News, Cosmos, and Popular Science. I’ve also written dozens of science articles for Analog Science Fiction & Fact. I’ve swept together 17 of my favorites into a book, Here Be There Dragons.

Science fiction. My work has largely appeared in Analog, but I’ve also sold to Nature, Cosmos, Apex & Abyss, Wisconsin, Running Times, Marathon & Beyond, and Generation. It’s mostly short fiction, although I’m considering turning a series of novellas into a novel. Some of my stories have been collected in a book, Phantom Sense & Other Stories.

Awards. I’ve won 11 of Analog’s Analytical Laboratory Awards, which is basically a reader’s choice award. They are split about equally between fiction and science. That makes me the most decorated writer in Analog’s history, which is something I still sometimes find hard to believe.

Sports writing. I don’t write about the latest scores; I write about how to improve your own game–generally in distance running, although I’ve also written  about bicycle touring and cross-country skiing. Recently, I write mostly for Peak Performance (in the UK), but in the past I’ve written for Running Times, Marathon & Beyond, and Competitor.

• Coaching. For a dozen years, I’ve coached  Portland, Oregon’s, 250-member Team Red Lizard. Six times, I have also had the privilege of coaching women for the U.S. Olympic Team Marathon Trials—twice each in 2012, 2016, and now, 2020.

The science of running and aging

I wrote this article in 2009 for Running Times, and amazingly it’s still online. It’s also an evergreen topic: “The Science of Aging and Running: Why your body slows and what you can do about it.

Last spring, fresh into a new masters age group, I ran a 5K. Nothing unusual in that; I’d run spring 5Ks the year before … and the year before that … for quite a few years. The surprise was that I was 45 seconds faster than I’d been in any recent year. Age-graded, it was a massive PR.

Short course, I thought, but a couple weeks later, I did it again, then twice more. Friends were wondering about my training. “What are you doing differently?” they asked.

When I went back and looked at my training logs, the answer was surprising: I’d cut back my mileage. I’d done it simply because I was busy, but as the winter progressed, my speed workouts had responded. For masters runners, less is often more.

Aging, like injuries, is one of those things most of us prefer to deny...read more.