Over the past week or so, I have watched with horror as Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s first accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, has been relentlessly attacked. Online trolls published her personal phone numbers and home address on Twitter, forcing her to leave her home and go into hiding. Today, Ford testifies in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. I believe her.
But watching as Ford's life has been picked apart, her motivations cross-examined and her character questioned has caused a kind of PTSD in me. Because I know what it feels like to have to decide whether telling the truth is worth putting yourself and your loved ones through hell.
In April of 2017, The New York Times published the first in what would be a bombshell investigative series on sexual harassment claims at Fox News relating to former host Bill O’Reilly. Many of the women who alleged harassment had signed non-disclosure agreements. But when I was harassed back in 2013, I had not complained. I participated in no legal proceedings and thus had signed no such agreements. As a result, I found myself in the unique position of being able to speak more freely than some of the other victims who had been systematically silenced.
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And yet, when Times reporter Emily Steel asked me to speak about O’Reilly and Fox News on the record, I was terrified. Even for a media veteran like myself, with a long career in television news and radio, I was paralyzed by the idea of potential public shame. Remember, this was before the #MeToo movement had pushed supportive voices to the forefront.
And I had good reason to be afraid. From a professional perspective, Fox News holds massive sway in both the media and entertainment industries, and they had spent millions of dollars keeping the allegations against O’Reilly quiet. I was rightfully worried about repercussions speaking out could have on my career.
But there is a psychological element that’s equally as powerful. Being shunned by the tribe is a fate that humans have been conditioned to avoid at all costs. Indeed, our co-operative social systems depend in part on a behavior shaping technique called humiliation to create group cohesion. Back in our anthropological past, being shunned by the tribe meant certain death. Today we have evolved to experience public humiliation as physical pain. Research has shown that the brain processes social pain in much the same way that it processes physical pain. In short, public shame hurts. Bad.
But there was third layer to my fear. I know the history of women who speak out of turn. They are branded lunatics and witches. They are locked up or burned at the stake. And I know the present-day opinions of many men have not evolved as much as we might hope when it comes to their attitudes about sexual harassment or sexual assault. Research backs this up: Men have been shown to underestimate the psychological damage of rape and are more likely to victim blame.
With history and the patriarchy stacked against me, I spent months agonizing over whether or not I should go public. I bounced the idea off countless female friends and associates and in the process I noticed a rather shocking generational divide. Women over 40 had been conditioned to keep quiet, to navigate around land mines without complaint, to never be perceived as a whiner. They told me it would be career suicide, that I could be black balled.
But young women? My college-aged daughter and her feminist friends inspired me to no end. They thought it preposterous that I would consider not talking. If these bright, loud young women were unafraid to speak while female, then a full-blown, big-mouthed adult woman like myself shouldn’t be either.
This, too, will pass. And when this storm passes your voice will be more steady and stronger than ever.
Yet, I wasn’t wrong about the backlash. I endured my share of public humiliation. The trolls sent me violent threats (a chainsaw up the vagina, anyone?) and one published the addresses of my kids' schools online. But, as my attorney and friend Lisa Bloom advised me, once you walk through the fire, you will come out stronger and more self-confident. And she was right.
It’s been reported that Dr. Ford has received so many death threats that the FBI has been called to investigate. This is what happens to women who have the audacity to speak out. But I want Dr. Ford to know this: You are not alone. This, too, will pass. And when this storm passes your voice will be more steady and stronger than ever. This country is filled with women who understand the risk you took speaking out and your bravery now. And we’re with you.