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Ron Martz: Memories can fool us when recalling truth
Perhaps Kavanaugh-Ford stories’ disparity is due to the mind’s reaction to stressful events
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Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh arrives Sept. 27, 2018, to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. - photo by Associated Press

One apparently ignored aspect in the ongoing salacious melodrama over the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is that he and his primary accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, may both be telling the truth about what happened back in the summer of 1982.

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At least, the truth as they remember it.

After watching the testimony of Ford and Kavanaugh through a lens that I tried to make as politically and emotionally neutral as possible, I could not decide who was telling the truth and who was not.

I did not necessarily want to believe one or the other because of personal experiences dealing with the issue of sexual assault. I have had a family member sexually assaulted, but she decided not to notify authorities because of the shame and degradation she felt. I also have had a family member falsely accused of sexual battery. As soon as the charge was made, the concept of a presumption of innocence was tossed out the window by law enforcement and the judicial system.

Both those events have had lasting impacts not only on the individuals involved, but on all family members.

The testimonies of Ford and Kavanaugh were compelling. Both seemed forthright and honest about what they believe happened or did not happen.

The other women who have come forward with even more lurid stories about Kavanaugh’s behavior are reminiscent of the hysteria that gripped the country in the 1980s following largely unfounded charges that children in day care facilities were being subjected to sexual abuse and satanic rituals.

For Kavanaugh, it may be that he may not accurately recall the incident, if he was even there, because of his fondness for and overconsumption of beer on the night in question. If that happened, it is not an excuse for sexual assault.

For Ford, it may be something quite different. A particular psychological phenomenon known as “False Memory Syndrome” may be at play here. Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a cognitive psychologist and expert on human memory, has been studying the issue of false or reconstructed memories for more than 40 years. In her book “Witness for the Defense: The Accused, the Eyewitness, and the Expert Who Puts Memory on Trial,” Loftus writes that an individual’s memory is not like a videotape recorder. We don’t just pull a memory out of a box in our brain, hit the “play” button and remember exactly what happened as it happened.

“With the passage of time, with proper motivation,” she wrote, “or with the introduction of interfering or contradictory facts, the memory traces change or become transformed, often without our conscious awareness.”

This is especially true of people who are subjected to stressful situations that induce fear. Loftus says that “when people are afraid, their memories slip and slide, neglecting details, rearranging facts. The finished product, the memory that seems so clear and focused in our minds, is actually part fact, part fiction, a warped and twisted reconstruction of reality.”

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Christine Blasey Ford is sworn in before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Sept. 27, 2018. (Jim Bourg/Pool/Abaca Press/Tribune News Service)
Ford said she does not remember all the details of the night in question, but that is not unusual, especially at her age and because of the nature of the alleged assault. But, it’s also possible that when she revisited those memories during a 2012 counseling session with her husband she may have “disremembered” some aspects of the event, such as who was actually there and who did what to her.

Soldiers in combat experience much the same issue with memory and perception, as I discovered during Operation Iraqi Freedom. I was an embedded reporter with a tank company out of Fort Stewart at the time. During the initial assault on Baghdad in April 2003, one of the unit’s tanks caught fire after it was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

The tank was dead in the road and I observed from the vehicle just behind it as soldiers first attempted to douse the blaze while under heavy enemy fire, then scrambled to remove all the gear and weapons so it could be destroyed in place.

Just weeks later, I sat down with the members of that tank crew and several other soldiers who were there to reconstruct the events for a book I was writing. There were as many versions of the events of that day as there were soldiers in the room with me. Even my own memory failed me, I discovered several years later, when I was asked about the location of a particular officer. I thought he was nowhere near the tank, but later learned he was on top helping fight the fire.

Reconstructing memories from traumatic events can be frustrating. But, they can also be life-altering to the individuals involved.

In March 2009, “60 Minutes” aired a segment called “Eyewitness” in which a rape victim identified from a mug shot the man she believed assaulted her and later picked him out of a police lineup. She said that during the rape, she studied the man’s face closely, looking for any clues that would help her later identify him. When the man she had identified was convicted and sent to prison for life plus 50 years, she felt relieved.

The man protested his innocence. It took 11 years and the advent of DNA testing to discover that the man originally sent to prison on the testimony of the eyewitness was actually innocent. Another man who looked much like him was the actual rapist.

Historians are forever dealing with the fallibility of memory and eyewitness accounts of events. One notable case involved John Dean, the legal counsel for President Richard Nixon during the infamous Watergate investigation that led to Nixon’s resignation.

After the Senate in 1973 convened hearings into the Watergate break-in, Dean gave investigators an in-depth 245-page statement regarding his dealings with Nixon and other members of the administration about the incident. One portion of that statement involved a meeting between Nixon, Dean and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman on the day the Watergate burglars were indicted by a federal grand jury.

According to psychologist Ulrich Neisser, when audio tapes of that meeting were made public, the truth on the tapes had absolutely no resemblance to what Dean had submitted to the Senate.

“His account is plausible, but entirely incorrect,” Neisser wrote in a paper titled, “John Dean’s Memory: A Case Study.”

There is some question whether Dean was purposely trying to mislead the Senate committee by inflating his own role in the affair or whether he actually thought he remembered things the way he had written them.

Loftus says that “our representation of the past takes on a living shifting reality; it is not fixed and immutable, not a place way back there that is preserved in stone, but a living thing that changes shape, expands, shrinks and expands again. ... Enormous powers — powers even to make us believe in something that never happened.”

So, who’s telling the truth? Ford? Kavanaugh? Maybe both. Maybe neither.

At this point, in what has become a rather sleazy saga, no one knows for sure exactly which version of what people now say they believe is actually true.

Ron Martz is a Northeast Georgia resident, Marine Corps veteran (1965-68), journalist and former educator whose commentaries appear monthly.

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