WASHINGTON -- The world heard Christine Blasey Ford's shy, quiet voice for the first time Thursday as she stepped into the harsh spotlight of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room to tell her story about an alleged sexual assault by Brett Kavanaugh.
For those who watched Ford Thursday, believing her story, it was the ultimate act of courage—a raw, emotional retelling of the trauma of a sexual assault at a time when her privacy has been violated in every conceivable way.
Flanked by her attorneys as she sat before a ring of senators, the California psychology professor came across as authentic, determined, and also vulnerable, as she recounted the story that has haunted her for more than three decades.
In an unusual arrangement that was intended to avoid insensitive questioning by male Republicans senators, Ford faced off against a female sex crimes prosecutor who appeared, at times, to try to undermine the credibility of her allegations. The prosecutor was quickly sidelined during Kavanaugh's subsequent testimony.
Ford's voice sometimes trembled as she recalled how Kavanaugh and his friend, Mark Judge, shoved her into a bedroom at a high school party when she was 15, and Kavanaugh held her down on the bed as he attempted to remove her clothing. She described her terror when Kavanaugh clapped his hand over her mouth as she tried to scream—a moment where she said it was so hard to breathe that she thought he might accidentally kill her.
Faced with Kavanaugh's unequivocal denial that the incident occurred, Ford was pressed on whether she was absolutely sure that Kavanaugh was her assailant. "100%" she replied.
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy asked Ford for her strongest memory of the incident in the early 1980s.
"Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two and having fun at my expense," Ford replied, her voice breaking. Hippocampus refers to the part of the brain that is involved in storing and processing memories.
"You've never forgotten that laughter?" Leahy asked her.
"I was underneath one of them, while the two laughed," she said, in the most chilling moment of the hearing. "Two friends having a really good time with one another."
Much has been made by Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham about Ford's inability to remember the time and place of the attack. So Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar asked Ford what she hadn't forgotten about that night.
Ford painted a vivid picture of her narrow escape from what she believed was Kavanaugh's attempt to rape her: "The stairwell, the living room, the bedroom, the bed on the right side of the room - as you walk into the room, there was a bed to the right - the bathroom in close proximity," Ford told Klobuchar, "the laughter, the uproarious laughter, and the multiple attempts to escape, and the final ability to do so."
She said the assault "drastically altered" her life, noting that she struggled to get her act together during her first two years at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and dealt with unwelcome memories of the incident as an adult.
"The details about that night that bring me here today are ones I will never forget. They have been seared into my memory and have haunted me episodically as an adult," Ford said.
By hiring Rachel Mitchell, an experienced sex crimes prosecutor, to ask questions on their behalf, Republican senators were hoping for better optics than 1991 when the uncomfortable exchanges between senators and Anita Hill, who accused then-nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, infuriated female voters who made 1992 "the year of the woman."
Mitchell essentially served as a human shield for the 11 male Republican senators. But Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley made her job far harder by insisting on switching from senator to senator every five minutes—created a jarring effect where Mitchell had to stop and start, making it difficult to follow her line of questioning.
Kavanaugh also faced questions from the prosecutor at the start of his testimony, but shortly into the proceeding, Republican senators, who rarely engaged with Ford, began to ask their own questions of the Supreme Court nominee, leaving Mitchell to sit in silence for the majority of his hearing.
While Mitchell was polite, the contrast between her cold, careful questioning — clearly intended by the GOP to highlight inconsistencies in Ford's story — with the warmer, more compassionate questions from Democratic senators made Ford seem even more sympathetic.
The California professor seemed to be doing her best to appear collegial and at ease in the most unusual of circumstances, asking for "caffeine" twice near the beginning of the hearing, and smiling through her nervousness in exchanges with Grassley and Mitchell.
Her testimony was bolstered by the fact that she took pains to avoid appearing political.
She sometimes had the air of the slightly disheveled college professor sorting through her papers, as a curtain of hair fell around her face, with strands getting entangled in her glasses. Her answers were sometimes technical and scientific, like when California Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked Ford how she was so sure that her attacker was Kavanaugh.
"The same way that I'm sure I'm talking to you right now. Basic memory functions," Ford told Feinstein. "And also just the level of norepinephrine and epinephrine in the brain that sort of as you know encodes, that neurotransmitter encodes memories into the hippocampus, and so the trauma-related experience then is kind of locked there, whereas other details kind of drift."
When Feinstein and Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono made political statements about the failures of the Republican committee members, or this being a crucible moment for the #MeToo movement, Ford sometimes seemed to disengage, staring down at her papers or whispering to her lawyers, rather than sustaining eye contact.
She repeatedly apologized for gaps in her memory and assured committee members she would "like to be more helpful" with the timeline, noting that it could be useful, for example, if the FBI could pinpoint when Judge worked at a local Safeway grocery store, because she had an awkward encounter with him there six to eight weeks after the attack.
Underscoring her unfamiliarity with legal matters, Ford alluded to how scared she was when she took the polygraph exam on the advice of her lawyer: "You can tell how anxious I was by the terrible handwriting," she told the committee, referring to the account she wrote out by hand on yellow paper before the test was administered.
"You know you are not on trial. You are not on trial," California Sen. Kamala Harris told Ford, who grew tearful when Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker praised her for her courage.
"You are sitting here before members of the United States Senate's Judiciary Committee because you had the courage to come forward, because as you said, you believe it was your civic duty," Harris said as Ford nodded.
Ford teared up when Booker told her that testimony was "nothing short of heroic."
"What you are doing for our nation right now, besides giving testimony germane to one of the most sacred obligations of our office, is you are speaking truth that this country needs to understand," Booker said to Ford. "How we deal with survivors who come forward right now is unacceptable, and the way we deal with this unfortunately allows for the continued darkness of this culture to exist."
At the end of the hearing as senators began bickering over which documents would be entered into the record, one of Ford's lawyers asked if she could be excused -- allowing the politics play out in her absence.
"Let's just be nice to her," Grassley said, prompting Ford's other lawyer Debra Katz to throw her hands up in the air.
Ford nodded appreciatively as Grassley thanked her for her bravery and left the hearing room in relief.