Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford went to UNC, then moved 3,000 miles to reinvent her life. It wasn’t far enough.
Published 11:42 am Saturday, September 22, 2018
The Washington Post
When Donald Trump won his upset presidential victory in 2016, Christine Blasey Ford’s thoughts quickly turned to a name most Americans had never heard of but one that had unsettled her for years: Brett Kavanaugh.
Kavanaugh — a judge on the prestigious U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia — was among those mentioned as a possible replacement for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016. When Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch, Ford was relieved but still uneasy.
Then Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement and Ford, 51, began fretting again.
“Her mindset was, ‘I’ve got this terrible secret. . . . What am I going to do with this secret?’ ” her husband, Russell Ford, 56, recalled.
To many, Kavanaugh was a respected jurist. To her, he was the teenager who had attacked her when they were in high school.
Ford had already moved 3,000 miles away from the affluent Maryland suburbs where she says Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a house party – a charge he would emphatically deny. Suddenly, living in California didn’t seem far enough. Maybe another hemisphere would be. She went online to research other democracies where her family might settle, including New Zealand.
“She was like, ‘I can’t deal with this. If he becomes the nominee, then I’m moving to another country. I cannot live in this country if he’s in the Supreme Court,’ ” her husband said. “She wanted out.”
These were the lengths that Ford, a professor and mother of two, once considered to avoid revisiting one of her most troubling memories — one she’d discussed only in therapy and with her husband. Instead her deeply held secret would come to dominate the headlines, putting her and her family at the center of an explosive debate about the future of the Supreme Court.
Now, as she considers testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ford’s truthfulness is under attack across social media and by the president himself. Death threats have poured in. Her email was hacked.
On the day that Ford publicly identified herself as Kavanaugh’s accuser in an interview with The Washington Post, her husband was driving their 15-year-old son and his friends from a soccer tournament in Lake Tahoe. He couldn’t answer the calls that were blowing up his phone; by the time they reached home, a crowd of reporters was waiting.
Russell struggled to explain it to his children. “I said that Mommy had a story about a Supreme Court nominee, and now it’s broken into the news, and we can’t stay in the house anymore,” he recalled. The family was separated for days, with the boys staying with friends and their parents living at a hotel. They’ve looked into a security service to escort their children to school.
While Ford met the FBI on Friday to discuss her safety, critics continued questioning her motives and memory. Why, they ask, did she wait decades to come forward? Trump joined the chorus on Twitter, declaring, “I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents.”
As senators weigh Kavanaugh’s confirmation, the endless news cycle has pried into every corner of his accuser’s life to find out who Christine Blasey Ford really is.
The answer is someone very different than who she was. In Bethesda, Maryland, Ford’s life was one of cloistered advantage, with her time spent at a private school for girls, at the Columbia Country Club and at parties where she moved easily among the privileged and popular.
But after high school, and after the alleged assault, Ford left the Washington area and never moved back. She took up surfing. She dressed in jeans when she wasn’t in a wet suit atop a surfboard. Colleagues mistook her for a native Californian. Quietly, she garnered a reputation for her research on depression, anxiety and resilience after trauma — telling almost no one what she herself had endured.
“I have lived with that story my whole life,” she said in an interview with The Post before her name became public. “I’ve moved on. I have done wonderful things and have a great career and a great community, and have done a total reboot living in California.”
She successfully reinvented herself far from the place where her family is known, where politics reign, where Kavanaugh gained power and prestige – and where next week, she may return to relive it all again.
• • •
Growing up, she was just “Chrissy,” and in the way of younger siblings, was often described by her relationship to someone else: sister of Tom and Ralph, daughter of the older Ralph, a golf course regular who would go on to become the president of the exclusive, all-male Burning Tree Club. Ford’s mother, Paula, was well-liked among the kids at Columbia Country Club because she remembered their names.
“You weren’t just a chaise lounge to be walked past to her,” said Stephen Futterer, a Chicago doctor who was on the club’s swim team with Ford. “There were definitely those families that had a little controversy, like the parent who drinks too much or the son who was caught stealing from the men’s locker room, but that was not the Blasey family. They were just average for the club.”
Like many affluent families in the area, the Blaseys sent their children to single-gender private schools. For Ford, that meant six years at Holton-Arms, where students wore blue plaid skirts they would try to convince their mothers to hem shorter. Her classmates included the daughters of the King of Jordan and members of the J.W. Marriott clan.
Coach purses were the it-bag to carry, and at lunch, the girls were allowed to sit outside, tanning their legs and drinking Tab.
Intellect was rewarded, and Ford had no shortage of it. Her favorite teacher, Jack Caussin, taught anthropology at the all-girls school after 20 years in the Marine Corps. (“My main qualification was having five sisters,” he said.) Ford stood out as a bright and witty teenager who seemed removed from much of the drama that filled the school’s hallways, said Caussin, now 84 and retired.
“In class, she always contributed,” he said. “I could always count on her for a wise crack or two to make me laugh.”
Ford’s inner circle was, “How do you say this? The pretty, popular girls,” explained Andrea Evers, a close friend. “It wasn’t like we were a bunch of vapid preppies, but God, we were preppy then.”
Weekends were spent shopping at the White Flint mall, flashing fake IDs at Georgetown’s Third Edition club – the drinking age was 18 then – or flocking to the house of whoever’s parents were out of town to drink six-packs of Hamm’s or Schaefer.
Every summer, the “Holton girls” would pack into a rented house for Beach Week, an annual bacchanal of high-schoolers from around the region. The prep schools that formed Ford’s overlapping social circles usually gathered at a Delaware beach town each year. Kavanaugh, in his senior-year yearbook, cited his own membership in the “Beach Week Ralph Club.”
Like Kavanaugh, Ford was part of that alcohol-fueled culture. But those unchaperoned parties, at beach rentals and Bethesda basements alike, frequently left the girls feeling embattled.
“The boys were pretty brutal,” Evers said. “They would do what they could to get you drunk, and do whatever they would try to do to you.”
In her Post interview, Ford said a group of boys from Georgetown Prep was at one of the beer-drinking sessions in an unsupervised house near Columbia Country Club, possibly in the summer of 1982. One of them was Kavanaugh, who she described as an acquaintance. At the time, she was 15, and he was 17.
Kavanaugh and his classmate Mark Judge had started drinking earlier than others, she said, and the two were “stumbling drunk” when they pushed her into a bedroom. She alleges that Kavanaugh laid on top of her, fumbling with her clothes and pressing his hand over her mouth to keep her from screaming. Only when Judge jumped on top of them was she able to run from the room and hide until she could flee the house, she said.
Her biggest fear afterward, she recalled 37 years later, was looking as if she had just been attacked. So she carried herself as if she wasn’t. Down the stairs. Out the door. On to the rest of her high school years, she said. On graduation day, she wore the required white dress and carried red roses. She told no one.
For college, her first chance to start over in a new place, she chose the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, five hours away.
“It was not easy for her,” said Dan Goldstein, one of her closest friends at the time. “She had gone to a very small girls school and now was at a giant state university.”
Years later, Ford would describe college as a time when she “derailed,” struggling with symptoms of trauma she did not yet understand.
She’d been a cheerleader in high school and joined a sorority, but the lifestyle was too much like the place from which she’d come. Despite the talent for math she had shown in high school, one college classmate recalled Ford failing a statistics class. She made a close friend in Catherine Ricks Piwowarski, who would become her roommate and matron of honor. But the two spent much of their time inside, watching MTV videos of Bon Jovi and Motley Crue.
“In what was a very boisterous university atmosphere, we were not particularly involved in the social life,” Piwowarski said. “Our apartment for both of us was kind of a safe place. . . . But we were a bit isolated.”
It was during Ford’s junior year when Goldstein, who now works as an English teacher in Japan, gave her the advice that would change the course of her life.
“He said, You’re really smart, and you’re just like totally [messed] up,” Ford recalled. She remembers him saying, “What are you doing? . . . Everbody’s getting it together but you’re like not.’ It was kind of a harsh talk.”
If she was going to graduate on time, he said, she ought to major in psychology. The major didn’t require students to take classes in a specific order, so Ford could take them all at once.
That was how Christine Blasey Ford came to spend her life researching trauma and if it is possible to get past it.
• • •
Ford did graduate on time, and then made a transformative jump to the other side of the country. Her high Graduate Record Examinations scores got her into a clinical psychology program at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. A doctoral program at the University of Southern California followed. By then, Ford had learned to surf and wholly embraced the So-Cal lifestyle.
When she moved to Hawaii for a one-year internship to complete her PhD – taking a cheap studio apartment within board-carrying distance of Sans Souci Beach — the conversion seemed complete.
“I think she had really reinvented herself,” said Jeff Harris, her supervisor at the University of Hawaii counseling center. “A surfer from California is a different image than a prep-school girl from Bethesda.”
It was her love of surfing that would catch the eye of Russell Ford when he was browsing profiles on Matchmaker.com. At the time, he was an engineer for a medical-device firm. She had made the switch from clinical practice to working as staff statistician in Stanford’s psychology department.
For their first date, they just had dinner, but it was their second date – a surfing date – along the San Mateo coast that cinched their relationship.
“There’s an exhilaration that happens as you ride a wave,” Russell said. “Your entire focus is on the wave and, in that moment, there’s nothing else you’re thinking about.”
He knew that more than a love of water had brought her West.
“She didn’t always get along with her parents because of differing political views,” Russell said. “It was a very male-dominated environment. Everyone was interested in what’s going on with the men, and the women are sidelined, and she didn’t get the attention or respect she felt she deserved. That’s why she was in California, to get away from the D.C. scene.”
As their relationship deepened, Ford told him that she’d been physically abused years earlier. He would learn the specifics of the event, including Kavanaugh’s name, during a couple’s therapy session years later. But then, he just listened.
“I could tell she was uncomfortable going into all the details,” he recalled.
On June 21, 2002, they married at a park in the Redwood forest in front of about 100 people, many of them were friends from her Washington days. Soon, they had their first son and eventually moved to Watsonville, near Monterey Bay, so they could surf and escape the hectic life of Silicon Valley. The commute, though, was too much, and by 2005, they returned to the Palo Alto area after their second son was born.
With two small children, Ford decided to enroll in another master’s program at Stanford, specializing in epidemiology. Her master’s thesis explored the relationship between trauma and depression.
Ford dedicated herself to continuing that kind of research as she taught graduate classes at Stanford and Palo Alto University. She is beloved by students for her easy-to-understand lectures — complete with surfing metaphors — and admired by colleagues for her analytical mind and inventive mathematical models.
She took a particular interest in resilience and post-traumatic growth – the ideas that people who endure trauma can return to normal and even wind up stronger than before. Ford said she has given speeches about this topic to students, telling them, “You can always recover.”
She’ll need to remember those lessons if she testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Ford knows what to expect: a hi-def repeat of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings. Three surviving members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during that 1991 confrontation will be on the dais — but this time the spectacle will unfold in the age of social media. She will likely be asked to detail every moment of the alleged attack. How much she had to drink. Why she went upstairs. What she was wearing.
She will be back in the city she left behind, facing the skepticism and exposure she has tried to avoid since the moment she fled that teenage party.
• • •
The Washington Post’s Julie Tate contributed to this story.