Christine Blasey Ford may not have a calendar outlining the summer of 1982, but that does not mean she forgot it.
During her testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, Ford, a Palo Alto University professor who has previously co-authored research papers on brain science, offered a fact-based explanation on how she is able to still clearly recall when Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh allegedly assaulted her 36 years ago.
“It’s basic memory functions and also just the level of norepinephrine and epinephrine in the brain,” she said. “The neurotransmitter encoded memories into the hippocampus so that trauma-related experience is locked there, so other memories just drift.”
Ford has been candid about her spotty memory — particularly in regards to the timeline — since she accused Kavanaugh of pinning her in the bedroom of a Maryland home and attempting to remove her clothes. She has said she is unsure when exactly the alleged assault unfolded, but Ford believes it was at a party during the summer of 1982.
Despite lawmakers’ repeated efforts to question the credibility of Ford’s memory, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a Boston-based psychiatrist with decades of research on post-traumatic stress, said she “remembers more than people usually do.”
“The nature of trauma, the nature of terror is that it overwhelms the brain and the brain’s coping mechanism — but you remember terror. Maybe you don’t remember the context, but you remember the terror,” said van der Kolk, the author of “The Body Keeps the Score.”
Richard McNally, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author of “Remembering Trauma,” used the example of a man being robbed at gunpoint to illustrate the concept. The victim may be able to describe in precise detail what the firearm looked like, but unable to remember whether or not the gunman had been wearing glasses.
“Recalling a traumatic experience is not a video machine, a person is not going to remember every single detail,” he said.
The spike in hormones, as Ford pointed out, can cause a traumatic event to become “encoded and frozen in time,” McNally explained. This encoding tethers the event to the panic and fear of the moment, but not necessarily the context.
Ford, for example, said more than anything she remembered Kavanaugh laughing at her with his friend, Mark Judge.
“You don’t remember it just in your mind, your body remembers. You again feel these intense sensations of fear and terror,” van der Kolk said. “The very act of trying to recall it alone is very painful. It’s why people don’t go to therapy. It is overwhelming.”
Dr. Deborah Goldfarb, an attorney and assistant psychology professor at Florida International University, added it’s also part of the reason why people don’t report instances of sexual abuse and misconduct. A delay in disclosure is “quite common” in instances of sexual assault, she said, adding “time alone should not be a bar to hearing evidence.”