if you’re related to me and thinking about reading this essay, it contains some personal information that you may be happier not knowing about and some contemplation regarding events in my childhood that you may be happier not hearing.
The week the Kavanaugh allegations exploded I happened to watch The Breakfast Club. I hadn’t seen it for years and for some reason I felt nostalgic. As I watched, found myself rather shocked by the level of sexual aggression in it. I hadn’t remembered it that way. Molly Ringwald herself has written about it in the pages of the New Yorker.
I am slightly younger than Brett Kavanaugh but definitely came of age during the same period in American history. My parents, apparently asleep at the wheel as so many suburban parents were during that time, allowed me to watch Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Caddyshack, and Porky’s among other, similar fare, when I was in the 6th to 7th grade. I watched these movies alone or with friends, repeatedly, no adult present to decipher the raunchy humor and sexual situations. I watched Animal House and Meatballs when my age was still measured in single digits.
This was considered normal at the time. No one thought anything of it. We talked about the movies incessantly, referenced them constantly, tried to behave as crazily and rebelliously as we could get away with because we were inspired by what we’d seen on the screen. We became obsessed with drinking and sex, obsessions that lasted all through our high school years.* Our yearbooks were heavily laden with inside jokes and sexual innuendo most of which we barely even understood and would never have done.
We bragged (lied) about going to keggers, too. Kids couldn’t even GET kegs – we mostly stole alcohol from our parents or got it from the occasional sketchy 21 year old. We loved to talk about “keggers” and “spodie odie” and doing Jello shots and getting Everclear from Oregon even though we’d never actually had any of those things. (I later found out to my very great dismay that it is best to stay away from Everclear from Oregon.)
My parents…well, at least my mother and stepfather, I’m quite sure my dad would have had an entirely different opinion had he known…didn’t really care as long as I didn’t get caught. If I was caught I was punished in a “wink wink, nudge nudge” kind of way. My mom was happy whenever I showed any signs of being a normal kid rather than an irredeemable social failure. And my stepdad was a partier too, he understood. Plus I guess I was otherwise a “good kid”.
I’m sure Brett Kavanaugh’s parents felt much the same.
This was my metric for normal behavior – that teenagers ran around and partied hardy and drank massive amounts of alcohol and the boys were always horny and cool girls put out and that adults pretty much turned a blind eye. When I watched Fast Times at Ridgemont High as an adult I was mightily surprised to realize it was actually casting teen sexuality and drug use in a fairly negative light but that wasn’t how we interpreted it. Not at all. We interpreted it as an endorsement and none of the adults in my world said otherwise. My mom walked in once while a friend and I were watching the poolhouse scene where two teenagers are having graphic and impersonal sex, and she said “Ugh! Why is he still wearing socks??”
It was considered normal at the time. No one thought anything of it.
I also rewatched Meatballs recently. I recall preferring Meatballs to other, similar movies because it was much more of a kid movie and well, I was a kid. I have such fond childhood memories of Meatballs that I almost let my kids watch it with me (luckily, it was late and they’d been super obnoxious that day so I sent em to bed instead.) Then something very disturbing happened
(you can watch it here: https://youtu.be/q85fsxWYG6A)
I watched Meatballs literally a dozen times as a child if not more, and never once picked up on how utterly messed up this scene is.** Bill Murray’s character practically attempts to rape a woman as she pleads with him to stop and actually calls – even screams – for help. And later on she becomes his girlfriend. That’s what I thought normal was. That’s what I thought sex was. That’s how I thought boys showed you that they liked you. No one told me any different.
I wonder how many times Brett Kavanaugh watched Meatballs?
I lost my virginity at 15 because I thought that’s what cool girls were supposed to do. I couldn’t understand why no one wanted to be my boyfriend after I let them have sex with me. I tried it several times but much to my surprise, nobody ever wanted to be my boyfriend. Nobody ever fell in love with me. I concluded that it had to be because there was something fundamentally wrong with me, that I was inherently unlovable and probably repulsive. Because every movie and TV show and even Judy Blume herself told me that I was supposed to have sex with boys. That was what boys wanted and that was what girls were supposed to do and afterwards, the boy would love you and you’d live happily ever after, or at least go to the prom. I didn’t want sex, I didn’t really even get the point of sex. I wanted a boyfriend. I wanted someone to validate me as lovable and not repulsive. I thought sex was the way to get a boyfriend, and I thought a boyfriend was the way to get validation. That was the message I had internalized and the long-term consequences of that message have made me very unhappy over the course of my life. Despite being entirely consensual, the actions I undertook as a girl and young woman due to that belief have caused me real emotional trauma. It’s taken me decades to fully set that message aside and I probably never will get over the trauma.
I suspect Brett Kavanaugh had internalized a similar message – that he was supposed to try to get sex from girls because sex with girls was portrayed in every movie we ever watched as the highest accomplishment any teenage boy could attain. A boy that didn’t try to get sex from girls was a loser because trying to get sex from girls was what boys were supposed to do and if the girl was cool she’d do it with you. Spiking the punch was what awesome non-loser people did at parties (punch was created by God to be spiked, we all knew that) not because you were trying to make girls incapacitated to take advantage of them, but so the adults didn’t know you were drinking their bottle of old forgotten vodka you’d stolen from the back of the liquor cabinet.
Boys didn’t have to trick or force girls into getting drunk, because girls wanted to get drunk. Everyone wanted to be shitfaced drunk and hopefully make out with someone they liked, that was the whole point of a party. Being drunk was not only fun and exciting, it greased the wheels of social and sexual interactions that you had no idea how to manage and had tons of anxiety about. You went to parties to get drunk and maybe meet someone who liked you so you could suck face (remember when “suck face” was a thing?) and maybe even more than that if you were a cool girl. No one was at a party for polite conversation or a game of Uno, not even if you went to a Catholic school.
I bet Brett Kavanaugh’s party-dude motivations were a lot like mine. He wanted to be validated and everything he had seen and heard was telling him that getting sex was the only way to be a man. Wrestling with girls who didn’t seem to be that into it and were struggling and telling you to stop and even calling for help was totally cool because Bill Murray did it in Meatballs and that girl ended up as his girlfriend in the end so it had to be ok. Right? Wrestling around with girls like that was just one of the ways that cool guys like Bill Murray got sex.
And that brings me back to The Breakfast Club. If you haven’t watched The Breakfast Club, one of the main characters is a troubled hooligan by the name of Bender (Judd Nelson), who sexually harasses Molly Ringwald (playing a character named Claire, a rich spoiled girl). While hiding under a table, Bender looks up Claire’s skirt without permission and it’s implied but not shown that he touches her in some intimate fashion. Bender says that Claire is uptight and repressed and she needs to embrace her sexuality. He claims that he’s actually trying to help her by pointing this out. This was a recurring theme in the 70’s and 80’s – the uptight, sexually repressed woman, the man who helps her loosen up with his magical penis power, and the happily ever after.
In the end, we find out that John Bender is an abused child and his antisocial, boorish behavior is all because he was shown by the adults around him that kind of behavior is ok. The reason he’s acting out is because of his pain. The adults around him didn’t protect him and didn’t teach him right from wrong. The adults modeled bad behavior for him and it’s really all he knows. You can’t blame him for being an asshole and a bad guy, because being an asshole and a bad guy is what he was taught by adults and he is still a child and not fully responsible for his behavior. Bender is not irredeemably damned by being a 17 year old who acts badly, even criminally. Yet John Bender is a decent guy, underneath. It may take some time, some maturity, and some understanding from others but by the end of the movie we fully believe he will overcome those early negative lessons he received from the world around him, and become a good man, worthy of Claire’s earring, and maybe even her love.
The subtext of The Breakfast Club is that we’re all taught a lot of things by culture and our parents but part of growing up is that we start to see past those things towards deeper truths. One of those deeper truths is that we’re all fucked up and figuring it out as we go. We’re all victims of childhood circumstance, born into a certain time and place and culture, to people who may or may not have our best interests at heart and who are themselves all fucked up and figuring it out as they go. Adulthood means we have to learn to set aside messages that are toxic and unlearn lessons that we totally got an A++ on when we were young.
John Bender was 17. It was all he knew. Brett Kavanaugh was 17. It was all he knew. And I know that it was all Brett Kavanaugh knew because it was all I knew when I grew up at about the same time, in the same sort of place. When I was 17 I concluded that a set of entirely screwed up norms and rules was 100% true because I had watched some movies. When I was 17 I thought movies seemed like a pretty decent way to figure out how the world worked because nobody else was paying any attention to me anyway. But I was a child and I had a child’s understanding of such things. Just like with Fast Times at Ridgemont High, things that were meant to be commentary, even criticism, I took as endorsement. Things that were meant to be humor, as outrageous behavior that no person should ever really do, I took as endorsement. And nobody ever bothered to tell me any different. As I became an adult, I learned differently and became a different and hopefully better person. I would not want to be held accountable as a 48 year old woman for what I did at 17. Would you? Would any of us?
Thus I have a really hard time reconciling 17 year old Jimmy Bennett as an innocent victim of Asia Argento while simultaneously envisioning 17 year old Brett Kavanaugh as the sinister ringleader of a gang rape squad. Either 17 is old enough to be fully in control of one’s sexual choices or it isn’t. My experience is, that it isn’t, particularly for boys, who have been shown to have trouble with impulse control, particularly when alcohol is involved. I think we’d be very hard-pressed to find any boy who came of age in the 70’s and 80’s who didn’t engage in some questionable alcohol-fueled sexual behavior that everyone thought was perfectly normal, even developmentally appropriate at that time. Brett Kavanaugh did not get drunk and hold a girl down at a party this year or last year or ten years ago. This was 35 years ago, a different time and place. He was a teenager, a child still, and not responsible for his actions. When you know better, you do better, and barring any new information that comes to light, Brett Kavanaugh has seemed to mature into a decent and law-abiding adult.
As the days go by, I keep thinking that this just has to be the part of the movie where everyone comes to their senses and thinks “My God, what are we doing here? Going through the high school yearbook of someone who’s entire adult life has been so respectable that they’re under serious consideration to sit on the Supreme Court?” It’s absolutely repellent to me that people are going through their political opponents’ high school yearbooks looking for dirt. It turns my stomach. And this has nothing to do with Dr. Ford’s allegations, either. The same thing was done to Neil Gorsuch and it made my skin crawl then, too. I’ve seen recent reports from Stephen Miller’s 3rd grade teacher about his behavior as an 8 year old and it disgusts me.
Children are off limits. Whether it’s Barron Trump or Chelsea Clinton or yes, even young Brett Kavanaugh, children should be off limits. Childhood should be a time free from the need to present a squeaky clean image to the media. We will be destroying the best parts of childhood in a very real way if we allow this repellent trend to continue on. Being a teenager is a time of trying on identities and not always getting things right. When I was 17 I had a Chinese Communist hat because I thought communism was super cool and I wanted everyone to know I was a rebel. Now I know that Chinese Communism killed 100 million people and I feel massively ashamed for ever wearing that hat. There were kids at my school who escaped from the communists in Vietnam on boats and helicopters, leaving friends and family behind to face prison or death, and there I was trotting around the halls in that ridiculous hat.
When I was 17, I was absolutely unqualified to sit on the Supreme Court. But what happened when I was 17 was a lifetime ago.
Is it right or reasonable that people can be tried and found guilty in the court of public opinion decades after the fact for childhood behavior? For emulating things so widely accepted as normal at the time that they were shown in movies watched by millions of impressionable young people – like binge drinking and yes, even things that we now consider to be sexual assault but didn’t then. I say this not to minimize the seriousness of what may have happened to Dr. Ford. I say it because at the time, if authority figures would not have seen a boy and a girl wrestling on a bed as sex assault, how can we now retroactively expect a drunk teenager to have seen it that way? How can we draw conclusions about a person’s character on this basis? I cannot make any sense of the hypocrisy of people many of whom have done the exact same things that Brett Kavanaugh is accused of now, if not far worse, many of whom have pointed fingers at prudish, Puritanical Christians for disapproving of unsupervised coed teenagers and excessive drinking, sitting in judgement over the behavior of a teen boy 35 years ago.
I don’t know if Brett Kavanaugh is telling the truth. I don’t know if Christine Blasey-Ford is telling the truth. I think it’s entirely possible that either or both are innocently misremembering events, and that time has blunted both their memories to such an extent that neither accurately remembers what happened. What I do know is this – we cannot start holding adults responsible for bad behavior – that they cannot be criminally charged with now, and wouldn’t have been criminally charged with at that time – that they might have done as children. Especially when the rules were different when they were children. Especially when they were children in a world in which the adults had temporarily abdicated responsibility and left a generation of kids trying to piece the world together with the assistance of National Lampoon and Black Label Beer.
Especially especially when they were children a long time ago and have lived their adult lives as an otherwise decent person. We understand this principle when it comes to Jean Valjean or Red from The Shawshank Redemption. A person can do something wrong, even criminal, when young and go on to live a productive life, to be a credit to society in some fashion. And at some point justice is no longer served by punishing them for a crime long ago. At some point, punishing a person for a long-ago crime crosses the line into revenge. As an adult, by all accounts, Brett Kavanaugh has been a credit to society.
If the things we did when we were 17 are now fair game for criticism, even censure, what army of saints are we going to find to serve in public office? Who will we find who has a clean enough history? Mike Pence, maybe, but most people interpret Pence’s choirboy image as a sign that he’s a warped and abnormal human being. Far more likely is that people will just become better at hiding peccadilloes, covering things up, paying people off, driving their sins even deeper underground. Parents will need to become even more helicopter-y than they already are, because apparently these things really do go on your permanent record. In addition to fighting to get toddlers into Ivy-League preschools, we’ll all have to hire publicists, handlers, and social media managers for our 10 year olds (and of course, only the very rich will have the money for all this). Our nation will end up being led by prim, prissy, goody-two-shoes who’ve never fully lived, or by incredibly wealthy people whose entire lives have been so micromanaged that we have no idea the type of leaders they’d become. Or maybe and probably most likely, by people who are so good at burying secrets that we can never know what kind of person they even are.
Like they said in The Breakfast Club “We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it than others.” Do we really want to be governed by bizarre people who are just really good at hiding how bizarre they actually are?
Maybe instead of setting the behavioral bar so high no one can cross it, it’s better to acknowledge that we’re all human and all make mistakes in our childhoods. Unless those mistakes have been officially added to the public record at the time, or are part of a larger pattern that continued into adulthood, we need to let those potential mistakes go. Let’s just stick with the public record and behavior of our adult politicians because only adults are fully responsible for their behavior. Let them show us how they will lead and in the case of judges, rule, and let the stuff they did as teenagers stay in the past where it belongs.
*I had a Peechee I used for years – well into high school – upon which I had drawn a giant, grinning penis man wearing a top hat and a monocle. My friends and I would pat him for luck before important tests. He was named Ralph (whatever Kavanaugh’s inner circle meant by “Ralph”, to us, “Ralph” meant penis a la Judy Blume’s book Forever which prominently featured a penis named Ralph). I still have it.
**What’s worse is that it even looks to me like the actress is uncomfortable with it, like maybe beloved Bill Murray was taking things way too far and going off script with some of it.