When she turned on the news to watch Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings in late September, she wanted to vomit.
“When I first heard Christine do her testimony, I felt empowered by it because I thought she was going to have her platform, but Kavanaugh was so angry,” said the one-time Brazoria County resident, who we will call Amy to protect the identities of those involved. “It was like everyone thought a ‘good guy’ can’t be a rapist. Just because you’re a ‘good guy’ doesn’t mean you can’t be a rapist or an attempted rapist.
“Then, when I heard people say, ‘We believe her but we’re still going to vote for him,’ that brought me back to what people said about my case,” Amy said. “They said, ‘Well he’s a nice guy and she’s a nice girl. That wouldn’t happen.’”
Her recollections are from almost two decades ago, when she was a college student. Her longtime boyfriend had recently broken things off, and she tried to forget about her heartbreak for a bit by attending a party where some of her friends would be, Amy said.
When her ex showed up, his new girlfriend at his side, Amy said she tried to flood her emotions with alcohol.
She drank and drank and drank until she threw up, she said. Then, she went to use the restroom. She described herself as being so drunk she could barely stand when she stumbled into the trees, away from the already remote area where the party took place.
Amy claims a man then pushed her to the ground, removed her clothes and assaulted her. She says she began to lose consciousness and was unable to scream for help. She regained her senses and heard a friend calling for her in the distance. Amy says the friend found her naked and unable to move without help.
Amy did not immediately go to police. When she did come forward, years later, a grand jury declined to indict the man she claimed had assaulted her. A lack of physical evidence and holes about her credibility because she had been heavily intoxicated that night likely were factors.
“There are still a lot of sensitive times that come up and you never know when it’s going to come up and then ‘boom!’ — you feel it all over,” Amy said.
Those flashbacks are not unusual, experts say.
RELIVING THE PAIN
Retraumatization is something that happens to victims over and over again when sexual assault cases appear in the news. With the rise of the #MeToo movement over one year ago — felling movie executive Harvey Weinstein, comedy legend Bill Cosby, celebrity chef Mario Batali, Sen. Al Franken, actor Kevin Spacey and others in its course — sexual assault survivors experience vivid flashbacks of their own assaults with each new, detailed revelation.
“Trauma changes the brain,” said Sarah Kinsworthy, a counselor at Counseling Connections for Change in Pearland who works with survivors of sexual assault and specializes in trauma therapy. “When someone experiences a traumatic event, the part of the brain we call fight-or-flight mode stores the memory in the body, so you have the body memory as well as the visual memory.”
The Kavanaugh hearings touched a nerve with many sexual assault survivors. The National Sexual Assault Hotline reported it had the busiest day in its history after Ford testified, handling a 738 percent increase in calls over a typical Friday, NPR reported. YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago’s Rape Crisis Hotline had three times as many as usual.
In many cases, callers had significantly healed from the event and hadn’t thought of it in years, Anne Pezzillo, director of counseling services at the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, told NPR’s “Here and Now.” Involuntarily, their minds brought them back to their personal hells as if it were happening anew, she said.
How it felt. What they heard. What they saw. And everything that came after.
“When someone hears a case like the Kavanaugh case in the media and they are triggered, they have not only an emotional response and physiological response, but beliefs they have about their trauma come back,” Kinsworthy said. “For example, they say, ‘I don’t believe I’m safe’ or ‘I’m not in control.’ It could be a number of negative beliefs they may have. ‘I was helpless,’ ‘I was powerless.’ It’s a very real experience for victims.”
The #MeToo movement helped bring attention to sexual assault claims, but in doing so, it revealed how little is known by the public about the complex issue.
Dawn Lawless, a social worker at Counseling Connections who regularly works with juvenile sex offenders, said the problem has to be addressed from all angles by everyone.
“You’ve got to address it across the spectrum,” she said. “Teach teenagers early on about dating and relationships, teaching college students about self-care. And you have to deal with the offenders. There has to be treatment for offenders to determine risk levels and whether they’re a risk to reoffend.
“And then focus on recovery. Because once you’re a victim, your vulnerability to be a victim a second time is higher. That’s even higher for children because they’ve already been compromised on a certain level.”