As the parent of a child who reported her sexual assault at age 15, I am disgusted by the response to the sexual assault allegations brought forward by Christine Blasey Ford about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
My daughter Chessy was a freshman at St. Paul’s School, a prep school in New Hampshire, when senior Owen Labrie sexually assaulted her in a locked mechanical room in 2014. In spite of progress we have made with #MeToo and #IHaveTheRightTo, it appears that rape culture and its playbook are still very much alive in our culture.
Like most victims, Chessy struggled with guilt, shame, and blame. Chessy initially didn’t have the language to describe what happened to her as assault, nor did she understand it was against the law. In the days after, girls approached Chessy and told her that Labrie had done the same thing to them.
A dorm adviser overheard Chessy sobbing in her room, and instructed her to call me. Looking back, it was a defining moment. I am grateful that Chessy picked up the phone at midnight and called me for help.
In the days since Ford stepped forward to name Kavanaugh, I’ve had flashbacks to the horrible moments that have marked our lives since Chessy reported. The prep school alumni who signed a letter blindly defending Kavanaugh reminded me of the St. Paul’s parents and alumni who helped raise $100,000 for Labrie’s legal defense. The vitriolic attacks on Ford dredged up memories of how Chessy’s peers bullied and ostracized her, because she had the audacity to call out a powerful student with a bright future. A false but predictable narrative was spread that Chessy’s father was angry at her for having sex and forced her to cooperate with a criminal investigation.
Apparently, the fact that Chessy wanted to be a good citizen and protect other girls from getting hurt by Labrie was incomprehensible to her school community — just as it seems is Ford’s decision to shed light on the character of Kavanaugh, a nominee for a lifetime appointment to the country’s highest court.
I think about Ford being forced into hiding before the Senate hearing and wonder if the public service of stepping forward is worth the price she and her family will pay. Ultimately, no one can answer that question except Ford and her family, but I can say from experience it will take some time to process the answer.
Watching anyone — but especially your teenager — endure the criminal process and suffer from the tactics of the well-worn playbook of perpetrators, their apologists, and complicit institutions like St. Paul’s School was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to witness as a mother.
The playbook is simple: deny everything at all costs, and bully and shame victims into silence. St. Paul’s tried as hard as it could, even threatening Chessy’s anonymity.
“Deny until you die’’ was the phrase that Labrie used to talk about the sexual assault of my daughter. I can see that same swagger in the disparaging response that has met Ford and Deborah Ramirez since they stepped forward.
The unprecedented campaign by a Supreme Court nominee — appearing on TV with repeated public denials — and an unapologetic president of the United States by his side to rip into the victims reminds me of the public relations machine that went into overdrive, employed by St. Paul’s, after my high schooler spent days on the witness stand under grueling examination.
Just this week, our president questioned the delay in reporting by Ford, claiming that the details of her assault couldn’t have been as bad as she says if she did not come forward at the time. I couldn’t help but think of Archibald Cox Jr., the head of St. Paul’s board of trustees, who earlier this year described my daughter’s sexual assault as an “unfortunate event for everyone.’’
As Chessy says, it is far easier to believe that a girl or woman is a liar than to believe that someone held in esteem could be guilty of something as heinous as sexual assault. Even in the #MeToo era, how can survivors be expected to come forward and seek justice of any measure if their communities and our country still have the primary impulse to attack the veracity of survivors?
My family and I are committed to letting teenage survivors know they are not alone. As my still-teenager has said, four years later, we’ve been dragged through the mud, and need to share what we’ve learned. Chessy has written a book, “I Have The Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope,’’ to let survivors and their loved ones know that they are not alone, and to help them find strength to stand up to their perpetrators and the institutions that protect them.
My husband Alex, a St. Paul’s alumnus, and I, along with Chessy, have started a nonprofit called I Have the Right To, to raise awareness about the prevalence of sexual assault in high schools, the need for consent education in schools, and to help survivors know and exercise their rights.
We have relocated to Washington, D.C., to work with change-makers and advocates, as well as schools like Georgetown Day School, which is breaking new ground with programs like the annual Summit on Sexual Assault and Consent for Washington-area students and parents.
Despite all this movement forward, hearing the dialogue around the confirmation proceedings puts us back in the dark post-assault tunnel as a family. After Chessy’s harrowing experiences, the question remains: Will it have been worth it, going through all we went through, if this is where we have arrived today?
For now, the answer is yes. We are committed to the fight against the entrenchment of rape culture, the crime of sexual assault, and the reflexive attacks on survivors’ rights.
Susan Prout is co-founder of I Have The Right To. ihavetherightto.org