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For Ford, Could the Senate Hearings Open Up Old Wounds?

Research shows that the trauma of sexual assault lingers for victims, and ruminating over the memory of an assault could re-traumatize survivors.
Christine Blasey Ford testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 27th, 2018.

Christine Blasey Ford testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 27th, 2018.

Christine Blasey Ford, the Palo Alto professor who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, testified Thursday morning before the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified," Ford began. "I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school." Ford was roundly praised by Democratic committee members for coming forward and choosing to testify, but research suggests that re-living psychological traumas comes with risks for Ford and other survivors who may be watching.

In her testimony, Ford described the fear she felt—a fear that she might be raped or killed—when Kavanaugh allegedly placed his hand over her mouth after she says he held her down and groped her. Her face was stricken as she described the "uproarious laughter" of her two attackers.

Since coming forward, Ford has faced a constant stream of harassment and death threats; fearing for her safety, she and her family have since temporarily relocated away from their home. Ford told the committee on Thursday that "my greatest fears have been realized—and the reality has been far worse than what I expected."

While Republicans and Democrats alike wanted to give Ford a platform to share her story, the act of testifying is likely an emotionally taxing one for Ford—a survivor who experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after her assault. A small study published earlier this year, for example, shows that stressful memories are stronger in women who have experienced sexual assault compared to women who haven't. The researchers found that sexual assault survivors tend to remember the stressful events in more detail, and often consider the event a critical point in their life history. Survivors were also more likely than women without a history of sexual assault to ruminate over bad experiences and develop PTSD, anxiety, and depression.

In the afternoon, Kavanaugh delivered a forceful denial of the allegations, and attacked the confirmation process as a "national disgrace." What the day's event will mean for the judge's confirmation remains to be seen, but following Ford's testimony, Republicans were unmoved. "You need more than an accusation for evidence," Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters after Ford's hearing. "You need corroboration and that's what's missing here."

It's clearer what the testimony means for Ford. Having to re-live those stressful events—especially in an unsympathetic setting such as a public Senate hearing with a prosecutorial tone—could be re-traumatizing for victims like Ford. According to the study's authors, "repeated rehearsal of vivid stressful life memories generates more trauma memories in the brain, making the experience of [sexual violence] even more difficult to forget."

Just following the Kavanaugh saga from the outside could be triggering for survivors: After President Donald Trump questioned Ford's credibility in a series of tweets last Friday, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, which runs the National Sexual Assault Hotline, saw a 42 percent increase in the number of calls it received.