• Lacy Johnson: Men in Power and the
    Lies They Tell

    On Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump, and the Malleability of Truth

    My mother likes to remind me that when I was a child I lied. I lied about my name when I introduced myself to total strangers. I lied about my age. I used a fake ID in high school and college, though she doesn’t know about that. I don’t think she knows that I used to tell my classmates I had been adopted, that my dad was a spy. I told a girl at church camp that I had a younger brother who died. I lied because I thought these lies made me interesting.

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    When we moved and I started in a new school I faked nausea to spend the morning at the nurse’s office and chest pains to get my mom to pick me up so I wouldn’t have to face the other children. I lied about where we lived. I blamed others, my younger sister in particular, for dishes I’d broken, water I’d left running all night so that the horse trough overflowed and a slow river flowed down the hill. I lied to protect myself from trouble or to protect others from knowing how much trouble I was really in.

    When I was 14, a 17-year-old boy I liked raped me in the basement of my best friend’s house. The next day, when I rode home in my mother’s car, and for many days and years after, I didn’t understand what happened well enough to name it, and would have lied to spare her from the pain of it even if I did.

    I told no one what happened to me in my friend’s basement that night but rumors began circulating in advance of the story I hadn’t yet found language to tell. This story, in which I was “easy,” became the true one because it is the story everyone believed. The boy who raped me was popular, was older, was a star athlete. He had so much potential, people said. I had bruises on my thighs, a set of unanswerable questions running through my head: was it something I did? Was it something I said? I remembered his breath smelled like beer and a little like cinnamon. The lie he told became the story that shaped my life for years. Other boys believed it, and arrived in my life to claim their turn.

    There was the boy who used his sister’s death to pressure me into sex. He was hurting so much, you see, and couldn’t I just please tell my parents I was spending the night with a friend. There was the boy who spiked my drink and drove me far out into the countryside. I threw up into the tall grass on the side of the road while he tried to undress me from the waist down. Afterward, I lied about the cuts on my elbows and knees. There was the grown man who convinced me to lie to my parents about his age. The lie protected him from charges of statutory rape. None of these lies protected me.

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    One man, my college Spanish teacher, convinced me to lie to his department so they wouldn’t find out he had pressured me into sex while I was still a student in his class. When we moved in together, my mom said she was worried because he was so much older, was always so combative in conversations with her, and anyway, why didn’t I come to visit anymore. At the time, I told her I was so happy. I said that he loved me more than anyone, because that is what he told me. He also told me his violence was not violence, that I did not see what I saw or hear what I heard. I could not trust the evidence of my own eyes and ears. I was worthless, a waste of time. I was stupid, ugly, and backwards, and more than anything else I was lucky to have him and also he would be lost if I left. No one would ever love me as much as he loved me, he said.

    The strategy of an abuser is to keep facts unclear, reality a little unstable.

    Once, after that, a man shoved me at our apartment and I stumbled and hit my head. I hid in the bathroom and locked the door. The man tried all his usual tricks: he was sorry, his temper hurt him more than it hurt me, and after all, hadn’t I hurt him too because my anger was disproportionate to his crime, because I was the one who was being unreasonable and hateful, and shouldn’t I apologize. He was relentless: shouting, crying, demanding that I acknowledge that his suffering was true, real, and that mine was a lie.

    Looking back, I am able to see clearly how it worked, but at the time it felt entirely bewildering to have my reality bent and given back to me twisted and unrecognizable. The strategy of an abuser is to keep facts unclear, reality a little unstable, to keep the truth always in a kind of uncanny relationship to itself, unrecognizable even when it’s completely apparent.

    I bring this up now because for the past several years I have felt it happening again.

    *

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    The word “truth” comes to us from an ancient Indo-European root word that means to be firm, solid, and steadfast—like wood, like a tree. From that ancient word, deru, we have carved dozens of words to describe the durability of things—words like truce, trust, obdurate, and endure. This meaning, though, is so different from the word’s current usage. “Truth” has come to mean something malleable and convenient—not like wood but like water. It fills whatever container you put it in.

    “What I know is the truth,” Brett Kavanaugh told Fox News in an exclusive interview last year, when two allegations of sexual assault seemed to threaten the certainty of his confirmation to the Supreme Court, “and the truth is I didn’t sexually assault anyone.” He repeated this line days later when he took a seat at a polished table in front of the Judiciary Committee before launching into a 45-minute tirade fueled by his many grievances. Chief among them, that these women—the women coming forward with accusations as well as the committee members before him on the dais—had forced him to answer some uncomfortable questions, had made him wait a little to begin the job he believed belonged to him, and had dared to impede his upward trajectory to ultimate power. He insisted he didn’t have any power at all, that he couldn’t have committed sexual assault because he has a high regard for his daughters and his friends who are women, that he never went to parties except for the ones he attended, that in fact these accusations are a crime and he is the victim.

    This is the truth, he insisted, over and over again: he is a good, beer-loving guy, his past actions shouldn’t be taken so seriously, what one woman says or many women say is not that big a deal. If the truth were that he had sexually assaulted someone he, of all people, would know. Other men would know. But the woman herself? She could not possibly know, and her story could not be trusted even if she did.

    “I won’t know if they are liars until I hear them,” President Trump said at a press conference before Professor Blasey Ford testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Women who make accusations tell lies, he has repeatedly suggested—not only the women who came forward with stories of assault at the hands of Brett Kavanaugh, but also the women who disclosed in the first year of Trump’s presidency that Roy Moore had abused them as girls—as children—and especially all of the 20 women who have repeatedly insisted that Trump himself assaulted, harassed, or abused them—the youngest was only 13 years old at the time. These women are liars, he insists, as are the journalists who write unflattering stories about him, and also anyone who conducts an investigation into his illegal behavior. It is a lie to quote something he said but later changed his mind about. It is a lie to even ask him a question.

    *

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    It is, perhaps, a little ironic that after all my years as a very good liar the job I have now is teaching others how to tell the truth. I teach creative nonfiction to undergraduates at a private university in Texas, where students usually arrive in my class under the impression that “creative nonfiction” means taking the truth and changing it to be better, more interesting—that facts somehow don’t matter, especially if they aren’t very convenient to the story you want to insist is the truth.

    So much injustice in a woman’s life can be traced back to a man claiming the power to control her narrative.

    They are not entirely wrong. Truth is defined by those in power, I tell them. One insufferable know-it-all will always make a case for “objectivity,” for observation, for peer review and the scientific method. I draw a rectangle on the board as an illustration of the frailty of his point. Inside the rectangle I draw eight ovals. “This is a photograph of six eggs,” I say. They look at me blankly for a moment. The know-it-all always raises his hand to say, “actually, there are eight eggs.” I offer my sincere apologies. “Eight eggs, then. Do we agree that this is a photograph of eight eggs?” I ask. Several nod their heads. I ask the others to corroborate this. Yes, they nod. I put the chalk down and stand back from the board where I have drawn a rectangle with eight ovals in it, say, “See?”

    They agree to corroborate this “truth” that my crude drawing is a photograph of anything real despite the evidence of their eyes and ears because I am the Professor. I am “in charge.” I am white and able-bodied and cis-gendered and affluent, and they have been trained, all their lives, to defer to authority, to the person who is in control of the narrative, and possibly over their future. Always, there is one student who doesn’t defer, who sees the fact that I am a woman as a weakness, who questions me at every turn, and tries every day to prove me wrong. I tell my students, even him, that they should distrust me, should distrust any power that claims for itself a label of absolute truth. Let’s trust instead in evidence, I say. “And the story of your experience should count as evidence.”

    *

    The problem with “truth” is that it is not always entirely objective. Unlike, say, a whistleblower’s accusation that the president has pressured a foreign power to interfere in our elections—for which we have a transcript summary, and possibly a recording that can be corroborated by multiple parties—an accusation of sexual assault is not an object that can be studied, contemplated, observed, and described using terms on which both the assailant and his victim can mutually agree. The violence occurs, most often, without witnesses; it requires concealment, isolation.

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    A year ago, Professor Christine Blasey Ford tried to insist to the Senate Judiciary Committee and the world that she was the only person who could tell the truth of her experience of sexual terror at the hands of Brett Kavanaugh. Eleven men from the GOP looked on without expression or emotion, maybe without even listening, while their “female assistant”—a woman named Rachel Mitchell who is an accomplished prosecuting attorney with over 20 years of experience—asked Professor Blasey Ford to question some of the worst moments of her life. Professor Blasey Ford admitted that her memory is foggy on certain details: how she got to the party, how she got home, which of the two boys pushed her into the room and which one locked the door. Brett Kavanaugh held his hand over her mouth and fumbled to remove her one-piece bathing suit, grinding his genitals into hers—on that much she was certain. Senator Feinstein asked how she could be certain that it was Kavanaugh. “The same way I’m sure that I’m talking to you right now,” Blasey Ford, now a research psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, responded before explaining how norepinephrine and epinephrine in the brain work together to encode memories into the hippocampus. “The trauma-related experience, then, is kind of locked there,” she explained, “whereas other details kind of drift.” She can be certain that while Kavanaugh attempted to rape her, she met the other boy’s eyes several times and thought he might help her, but he didn’t. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” she said.

    Every woman I know also watched that hearing because Professor Blasey Ford’s experience so closely resembles many of our own—the truth of which remains unverified, uncorroborated, unwitnessed. Though some of us have so-called “hard” evidence, or documentation, there is no way to prove a memory; its only evidence is a story that can be questioned, doubted, and dismissed, if we find space to tell it at all. Professor Blasey Ford told her story to the Judiciary Committee and women watched on television, on airplanes, crowded around cellphones on the subway. We watched instead of working, instead of attending meetings or filing reports or buying groceries. We watched in bars and coffee shops and one another’s homes. I watched because even now the experience of sexual violence continues to try to assert power over my life. The memory resurfaces and each time tells me a story—a false one—about my weakness, and failure, and shame. I feel, sometimes, less than human and entirely alone.

    I circle the line “I was raped,” as she has written—a sentence with the vocabulary of her own memory but the grammar of others’ disbelief. I offer instead “he raped me.”

    But last year I wasn’t alone in that feeling. Dozens of women protested and were arrested during the confirmation hearings. Women on the Judiciary Committee raised objections and reservations and asked for a more thorough investigation. Thousands of women protested in the atrium of the Hart Senate Building, on the steps of the Supreme Court, in cities across the country, on our own streets, at our jobs and in our homes. Thousands more told their story of assault, many for the very first time, and were believed. Despite our objections, the GOP, in the words of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, “plowed right through.” We were outraged, and are outraged still—more so after the recent release of Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly’s bombshell investigative biography of Kavanaugh himself—though we have been told time and again there is no basis for what we felt or feel, that our feelings are not even real.

    *

    The proximity of truth to endure in the sprawling family tree of the English language suggests the ways truth’s strength is often tested. “After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies,” writes Judith Lewis Herman in Trauma and Recovery. “It never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it on herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on. The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail.”

    So much injustice in a woman’s life can be traced back to a man claiming the power to control her narrative. I teach the lesson of that at least once every semester, when a student comes into my office to talk about an essay she has written about her sexual assault. Usually we’re not even talking about the writing, though sometimes we work on verbs and subjects, changing passive verbs for active ones. I circle the line “I was raped,” as she has written—a sentence with the vocabulary of her own memory but the grammar of others’ disbelief. I offer instead “he raped me.” It is hard to prove, but the burden of that isn’t hers to carry. She’s in control of this narrative. It is hers, and hers alone.

    What’s at stake in my conversations with these writers isn’t really active verbs, or a clear subject, or even good writing; it’s a transfer of the power to define what is real. A story cannot alter our experiences or their material, emotional, and psychological effects, nor can a story change our memory; but insisting on the truth of what we have seen and felt and heard—on the evidence of our humanity despite the lies that dehumanize us—can restore our power and dignity. We can feel, once again, fully human, and maybe if we’re lucky, a little less alone.

    Lacy M. Johnson
    Lacy M. Johnson
    Lacy M. Johnson is a Houston-based professor, curator, activist, and is author of the essay collection The Reckonings, the memoir The Other Side — both National Book Critics Circle Award finalists — and the memoir Trespasses. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Virginia Quarterly Review, Tin House, Guernica, and elsewhere. She teaches creative nonfiction at Rice University and is the Founding Director of the Houston Flood Museum.





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