When I watch the proceedings of the sexual misconduct case against Brett Kavanaugh I can’t help being taken back to what happened to me in London forty years ago. I was 22 and living alone in a share house. My bedroom, on the ground floor of an old Victorian terrace, was the only room occupied on that floor. Everyone else lived on the levels above.
It was a Saturday night. I was recovering from glandular fever and bronchitis and had decided to stay home and go to bed early. I had been very ill and I still felt weak. In the early hours of the morning I was woken up by the sash window next to my bed being opened and a man dropped into my bed beside me.
The only light in the room came from the streetlight outside and I could see that the interloper was a huge man. I recognised his shape as someone I had seen at the local pub.
Consider the situation. I was alone. I had been woken up by a stranger leaping onto my bed. I was in complete shock and unable to process what was going on. The man got into bed with me and told me he was going to sleep with me. My mind, calm now, tried to negotiate. I appealed to reason. He smiled. I told him I would scream; that other people were in the house. He said he would kill me and that no one would hear me. He got up and locked the bedroom door sealing me in. Every bone in my body turned liquid. My mouth was dry. My heart thumped in my chest. Still my mind tried to reason and strategise. If I ran to the door, which he blocked, I would need to unlock it, run down the passage and unlock the front door. I would have no time. He would be on me in an instant and things could get violent. Even if I managed to get to the street – then what? The streets were deserted and I would be on my own.
The intruder came back to bed and lay on top of me. He had a body like a prize fighter and I was pinned down. At the moment I was about to be raped something happened.
An old boyfriend walked past my house on his way home from a party. He couldn’t get a taxi and must have made the momentary decision to ask if he could sleep on my floor. He banged on the door. Startled by the noise the intruder loosened his grip on me and acting on instinct I pushed and ran. Fumbling with the lock, I hurtled down the passage and dived at the front door. When I saw who it was I collapsed on the floor.
My rescuer, who happened to know the intruder put two and two together. He didn’t believe the story that I had invited him to be there. The intruder decided to make things political by calling me a racist. He was an African American and I was a white South African. I knew that in the political climate of London in the 1970s I would not be believed and sympathy would not be on my side. I was right about that. Rather than shrink from he had done the intruder spread the story around the neighbourhood of how I had come on to him, invited him home and then turned racist on him. People who knew me, unable to separate distraction from issue, vilified me. One night as I stood in the pub with a friend I was spat on.
I had no evidence to back up my story which is probably why I didn’t go to the police. It would have been one word against another and in the realm of law and order the odds do not run in the woman’s favour.
I was too young and naive to deal with the full force of hate that rained down on me. I had done nothing wrong. I had not been out on the town or down at the pub. I had not been wearing a skimpy dress or “asking for it.” I had been tucked up in bed on my own with glandular fever when my window was forced open and my life changed forever.
A few months later I began to experience debilitating panic attacks. They came out of nowhere. At first I did not make the connection. I thought there was something fundamentally wrong with me. I convinced myself that I was going crazy. I had no support around me to talk it out. I lived with the panic attacks for the next few months and slowly my life shut down. I became severely depressed and unable to feel joy in anything.
The attacks were unpredictable but they took a predictable form. I would become claustrophobic and unable to breathe. It was as if a weight had settled on me. I felt as if an abyss would open up behind me and I would fall into it. When the attacks hit I would roll into a ball with my shoulders hunched forward. Even my hearing and eyesight was effected. Music would slow down and I developed double vision. The only relief I found during these attacks was when I put my head under a towel over a bowl of boiling water into which a few drops of Friars Balsam had been added. Whether it was the steam or the ancient smell of my childhood, the combination would calm me down and I would be able to breathe again. Because this was my only relief I stayed close to home.
I lived first in fear that something or someone would harm me and then in fear of the onset of an attack itself. I became so anxious and debilitated that I was unable to work and had to resign from my job. Soon I never left the house and after that I would spend up to a week in bed. I was only 22 and it felt as if my life had been stripped of joy and meaning. I had no idea what was happening to me.
It never occurred to me during that time that I was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder caused by the night I was attacked. Nor did it seem to occur to anyone else who put my symptoms and strange moods down to neurosis and in this judgement I became more anxious because I began to believe this neurotic version of myself. It was as if I had become unmoored from my centre.
After several months of these symptoms my mother flew me back to South Africa. There, in my familiar world with family around me, it took another year before I could go to the shops on my own. I was jittery and always needed to have someone safe and familiar near me to stave off the constant fear of menace which haunted me.
The person I turned into was hollow; a far cry from the independent soul who had packed up and flown off to London. I had set out to conquer the world and I returned home beaten.
It was long distance running that gave me the tools to cope. Whether it was the immediacy that comes from the physical pain of training and racing or the affirmation of life that the sport gives you, running, along with a healthy lifestyle, helped me dig my way out of darkness. I had come to running feeling powerless and out of control and with it achieved physical and mental power and structure.
Violation of your body and your personal space unmoors you from your sense of self. That which gives a sense of safety and security is shattered by those who mean you harm. Defences have been breached and vulnerabilities exposed. Your ability to trust another’s intention and your own judgement is gone. There is also a sense of shame, of having been caught out. Of not being strong enough to resist what is happening to you. It feels as if you are caught in quicksand. The more you struggle, the more you sink.
With regard to Kavanaugh, whose hearing has brought on these thoughts and finally set free this story. There is nothing more smug or sanctimonious than a man who hides behind his wife and his children as if, wild oats being sown, the family capsule bestows righteousness and washes away sin. It’s such a cliche.
“The greatest weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” (Steve Biko). As long as women remain silent about what happens to them they will remain subjugated. Our stories need to be told because together they weave a story about the moral fabric of the societies we live in. The individual who is left to stand alone makes an easy target. I believe Dr Christine Blasey Ford. Why else would anyone risk career, reputation and the wrath of male power if not for the truth?