The law is a blunt instrument

Are you done? I am.

For me — and, I suspect, for most people who’ve been sexually assaulted — the past week has been a rough year. We are approaching a singularity in the form of a Senate hearing, scheduled for Thursday at 10 a.m. EST, and the closer we get to it, the more gravitationally crushing it gets. Like a passenger on a ship hurtling toward a black hole, I’m experiencing some time dilation. You can watch the whole thing on C-SPAN 3 if you like. Personally, I don’t intend to look out the window.

To belabor the metaphor here: I’m not expecting this hearing to be a wormhole to another dimension, one in which Senate Republicans abruptly discover that women are people, that character is a thing, and that right action is more important than the seizure of power. I expect we’ll just be crushed, and the spirit and substance of the law along with us.

On that front: I’ve bet a good friend $50 on the ultimate outcome of Brett Kavanaugh’s upcoming job interview. He’s more optimistic than I am, but I’m expecting to collect.


This is excruciating to watch. I’m feeling the terrible pressure of gravity. But no despair. Never despair.

Why not? Let me tell you: It’s not because I’m an optimist. Nor is it a function of feeling particularly inspirational, or brave, or any of the milquetoast You Go, Girl adjectives people toss your way when you talk in vague terms about being a Survivor. It’s not because the night’s always darkest before the dawn, or something. (It isn’t.)

It’s because I’m from here, out in the black, deep in the forest, beyond the surveillance cameras. And we know something about the law: It wasn’t made for us. It has no love for us. It doesn’t know us. It can’t touch us. It can’t even see us. When the law fails to obey our will, we make it up; here in upstate New York, God knows, we have whole networks of judges and officials and law enforcement officers who do as they see fit, whatever the law may say.

I know. I’m married to an elected official, and one who works for a judge, to boot. I covered local news and politics for years. I’m supposed to care about the law. Don’t laugh.

I do care, you know. I have a modicum of civic virtue. But the truth is, for good or for ill, the law is almost never near at hand. When help isn’t coming, and you’re alone with whatever devils Beelzebub has put aside for you, the law is always far, far away. It isn’t a lifeline you can call. It isn’t an antibiotic that will cure the infection. At best, if you’re incredibly lucky, it’s a voucher for some pittance of justice — or vengeance, if you like. A coupon redeemable for 10 percent off the cost of your pain.

For those who believe in the noble ideals underlying the brand called America, it’s tempting to think of Kavanaugh’s probable confirmation to the highest court in the land as a tumble from grace. But let’s be real: The courts have never done their job on rape. Right now, all over this country, children — boys as well as girls — are confronting their own mortality in bedrooms and back alleys, at the hands of people they can’t physically or socially escape. And SCOTUS will never hear them.

A lot of those children, and the adults they became, are telling their stories now, whether the powers that be like it or not. There’s a hashtag for it on Twitter: #WhyIDidntReport. I can tell you exactly why I didn’t: I was five, and my mother was told by a lawyer that I would be put on the stand, grilled and cross-examined and traumatized, and he’d walk anyway.

I wonder sometimes who that lawyer was, and whether he still practices in Ulster County. I wasn’t in a position to understand the legal advice at the time, much less appreciate it, but as an adult in full possession of my faculties, I can’t really argue with it. I wonder if that lawyer, or anybody else privy to the finer points of my own hellish private Idaho, will read this column — not the first missive I’ve produced on the topic, and probably not the last. I wonder what kind of a mess they’ll make in my yard this time around. There’s always blowback for speaking up, and most of it is invisible.

Why not despair, then? This is bleak stuff.

Because here’s what we can do, what has always been within our power to do: Build our own culture. Raise the kids up right. Believe each other. Defend each other. Make reparations. Hold each other accountable. Draw boundaries. Refuse to truck with those who won’t respect them. Get. It. Right.

The Supreme Court may be the ultimate arbiter of the law, but they follow the people. The highest court in the land can dole out plenty of suffering, but it’s helpless to stop a fully-realized zeitgeist in motion. Ordinary people are going to have to lead on this, just like they’ve had to lead on people of color and women and LGBT folks being people at all. Men like Brett Kavanaugh don’t build our culture, they’re built by it.

The unrelenting din of the news cycle is forever demanding that we choose between two options: Outrage A or Outrage B. But if doing journalism, and looking for the deeper story, has taught me anything, it’s this: There’s always a third way.