They gathered on the second floor of a brick town house just off Central Square in Cambridge. There were coffee and bagels from Bruegger’s in the back of the room, a wide-screen TV in the front corner. They pulled out laptops and smartphones, anything they could find to take in the spectacle.
They were like so many other Americans on Thursday, taking time out of their busy workday to watch Christine Blasey Ford testify before a Senate committee that will decide whether Brett Kavanaugh gets a seat on the Supreme Court. And then to watch Kavanaugh.
But this group, the staff at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, watched and listened to the proceedings with trained ears and eyes, with years of experience, with hard-earned empathy, and what they saw and heard alternately inspired and frustrated them.
They were inspired by the poise and straightforwardness of Ford, recognizing in her the voices, the catching, halting breath, of so many victims of sexual assault who have recounted their experiences to them.
They were frustrated by Kavanaugh’s denials, seeing them as resting on so many of the stereotypes that surround sexual assault, and by senators who seemed intent on confining the proceedings to an indecisive display of she said, he said.
And they wondered when all was said and done — Ford’s steadfast insistence that she was sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh, Kavanaugh’s ringing, emotional self-defense, and the Greek chorus of partisan bickering by the committee that will decide who is more credible — whether most people in this country understand the dynamics of sexual assault any better after this daylong marathon of testimony.
Gina Scaramella, the center’s executive director, said all the attention paid to Ford’s allegations and those by other women had prompted a simultaneous flood of anxiety and generosity; more victims reaching out for help, more donors wanting to underwrite the center’s work.
“This has raised consciousness,” Scaramella said, but it has also left victims and survivors of sexual assault wondering whether they should come forward, to seek prosecutions or seek justice however they define it. The stakes, Scaramella said, are high.
As Ford took her seat in the hearing room in Washington, Scaramella shared the words of someone who had left a note with a donation: “This is a bad week, thinking of survivors and wanting to help however I can.”
Ford was in the middle of her testimony when Stephanie DeCandia, director of the center’s programs, exchanged glances with Jesse Moskowitz, the center’s senior hot-line coordinator. Moskowitz stepped outside of the conference room and talked to some survivors who were calling in.
As Ford spoke, the people who deal with victims and survivors of sexual assault on a daily basis nodded, sometimes vigorously, sometimes imperceptibly.
“The breathing,” Sharon Imperato, who is in charge of training and clinical innovation projects said, almost to herself, watching Ford testify. “We see it all the time. The hyper focus on the details. About [her assailants] bouncing off the walls as they went down the stairs. Their laughter. There are physical reactions from victims. Those are the things that let us know they are real.”
Everyone who works at the rape crisis center saw those things, as Ford spoke. They believed her.
“The weight on her,” Scaramella said, referring to Ford’s claim that she remembered feeling Kavanaugh on top of her, of thinking she might die when he allegedly covered her mouth to prevent her from screaming for help.
As testimony wore on, people got up and left, wanting desperately to watch it all, but knowing they had work to do.
Dave Rini, who coordinates the center’s support group for incarcerated survivors, had to leave. Patrick Donovan, who runs prevention and community awareness programs, had to leave to prepare for the launch of a program for young people who serve as peer leaders, kids about the same age as Ford and Kavanaugh were when Ford said he attacked her.
Kavanaugh’s full-throated self-defense did not impress the assembled staff.
“The yelling, the anger,” said Katia Santiago-Taylor, the center’s advocacy and legislative affairs manager. “If [Ford] had talked to anyone on that committee the way Kavanaugh did to some, the hearing would have been halted and she would have been escorted from the chambers.“
Eliza Campbell, a community engagement specialist at the center, saw Kavanaugh trying to portray himself as the victim, no matter how many times he said he had no ill will toward Ford.
“He’s convinced he’s the victim,” she said.
Moskowitz saw Kavanaugh’s fervent insistence that he has been a champion of the girls he coaches in basketball and the women lawyers who have worked for him as irrelevant to the question at hand: whether he sexually assaulted Ford.
Campbell listened to Kavanaugh recite his education, his accomplishments, and his rise from one prestigious school and job to another, shaking her head.
“He is showing a level of privilege that is disturbing,” she said. “He is reinforcing all the stereotypes, that so-called good men who do good things and are good to others cannot possibly commit sexual assault.”
Many of the staff noted that while both Ford and Kavanaugh have endured all sorts of threats and menace from partisans on both sides, only Ford has had to relocate from her home. Twice.
As testimony wound down, Alma Huerta Dominguez, who coordinates services for bilingual clients, was sitting there, thinking, wondering what the day meant for a national understanding of sexual assault.
“Are we better off today?” she asked, and the question hung there, like a cloud.
Kevin Cullen can be reached at email@example.com .