I won’t read Tara Reade’s memoir, Left Out: When the Truth Doesn’t Fit In. Her October surprise hasn’t garnered any press so it doesn’t look like many other people will either. Nevertheless, let me take the opportunity to explain what substantiates sexual violence narratives for me and what doesn’t.
I’m a sexual assault victim-survivor. I know what it feels like to be questioned about what really happened. So, yes, I start by believing people when they tell stories of sexual violence.
When I listened to Tara Reade’s initial interview, I was completely drawn in by her allegation that Joe Biden assaulted her, as horrible and incongruous as it was. She sounded credible, and I believed her. I was struck by the sensory descriptions in her explanation of the incident: the weather had been unusually warm and the wall cold. The brain typically does not process trauma linearly, but often focuses on sensory experiences. My understanding of the impact of trauma on the brain bolstered the credibility of Reade’s telling of her story for me.
Long before Tara and Monica, I was an intern on Capitol Hill. The office dynamics Reade described felt realistic to me. I used to say “the hill” was an apt moniker as there was a lot of climbing to the top, elbowing others out of the way. It was an honor to bring the senator his lunch. Such a culture can be a breeding ground for abuse. I didn’t know Joe Biden, but the senator I worked for chose me from hundreds of applicants because I asked a question at an event where he was speaking. I had no doubt, even then, that it didn’t hurt that I was an attractive earnest young woman.
While Donald Trump openly brags about grabbing women by their private parts, Biden does not talk about women in sexually suggestive ways. Reade describes Biden doing something that is completely out of character from his public persona and reputation. But arguments that Biden’s a good guy or “he never did it to me” did not convince me. In fact, I find such assertions offensive. The fellow student who raped me in college is now prominent in his field. Supposedly upstanding people abuse. That’s how they’re able to. People consider them honorable until they find out—often too late—that they’re not.
Victim-survivors, because of the trauma we’ve experienced, may be unreliable, angry, and difficult. And yes, victim-survivors often do suffer from chronic money problems. Reade’s late rent payments may more likely indicate that she was assaulted than that she wasn’t.
The fact that Reade’s story started out with harassment and then months later expanded to abuse was not, in my view, a reason to disparage her story either. It may take time for victim-survivors to come to terms with what happened. Decades later, I’m still processing the assault I experienced. It took years before I spoke publicly about my story, and even then, I eased into it. Reade’s favorable comments about Biden also weren’t a reason to rule out an assault. Victim-survivors often stay in relationship with people who have assaulted us because we want to make it right somehow. I did. Likewise, I wasn’t bothered by the minor inconsistencies between her tellings. I found the specificity in Reade’s story, given the passage of time, realistic. Decades later, she could describe about as much about what happened to her as I could about the rape I experienced in college.
So while I started by believing Reade, why have I not ended by believing her?
What did convince me was the evidence conflicting with Reade’s stories. Biden office staff did not participate in fundraisers. And Biden didn’t want young women serving food. Other former staffers found it highly unlikely that Reade would have been asked to serve drinks at a fundraiser. And once I realized that Reade was describing the assault happening inside, I was skeptical. I remember those bright white underground corridors. They were crowded with people. There are no alcoves. An assault there in the middle of the day is improbable.
The conflicting evidence—and there is more than I just enumerated—is the most significant rebuttal to her story. A story can be true even if there is no corroborating evidence. Getting corroborating evidence years later, I know from experience, takes dedicated detective work. I’ve spent hours tracking down former dorm mates who might have heard something and the ex-girlfriends of the student who raped me. Their experiences might support a pattern. It’s not easy. I know only too well that Reade’s lack of solid contemporaneous or corroborating evidence does not mean the assault didn’t happen. But if she had some, that would bolster her case. The corroborating evidence Reade did dig up was not persuasive. The people Reade had told were not convincing witnesses. And the evidence they provided was recounting what she had previously told them so her allegation remained a single-source story.
In this case, then, there’s evidence contradicting the incident and no direct evidence supporting it. A pattern of abuse is another type of evidence which can give credibility to an accusation. While such an assault by a powerful man could theoretically be a one off, psychologists say it is unlikely. The lack of other assaults is not definitive, but a pattern of assaults would support Reade’s story. But, unlike Trump with 26 women coming forward with stories of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse, there are none with Biden. He has shown a lack of respect for women’s personal space, but not in a sexual way.
I cringe when people interrogate a victim-survivor’s character. Victim-survivors are suffering from trauma and may not be likable. But when the only solid evidence is Reade’s word, then her history of deceit is relevant. Being unable to pay her rent is one thing, but manipulating and duping people to avoid paying it is another. Reade is under criminal investigation for lying under oath about her educational credentials as an expert witness on domestic abuse. The fact that she provided a trauma-informed description of her alleged assault may relate more to her ability to craft a story given her knowledge of the field than the reality of what happened.
Reade’s lies felt familiar to me—an ex of mine was a pathological liar—in that they begin with a grain of truth. Biden can be a little too touchy feely. He did work out at the Senate gym. Reade was told to dress more appropriately at work. But then the stories expand beyond credibility. Like those of my ex, the lies take on a truth of their own. Initially, she sounds believable, but a little investigation shows that the details don’t line up. Reade has a pattern of lying while Biden has no pattern of assaulting. And when someone has such a pattern, they lose the benefit of the doubt. I learned to begin by assuming that my ex was lying no matter how convincing he sounded. False sexual assault allegations are rare. As a sexual assault victim-survivor, it pains me to say that some people do make false claims of sexual assault, but as the ex of a pathological liar, I recognize patterns of deceit when I see them.
This is not to say that I’m enthusiastic about Biden. I’m not.
Touching people like he does, violating their physical boundaries, is not o.k. even if his intention is empathetic and not flirtatious. Intention is different from impact. He apparently doesn’t understand that his position as a privileged white male means that other people may not feel free to object to such touch.
Biden also owes Anita Hill an apology. While his sponsorship of the Violence Against Women Act might have been his attempt at amends, it is not for him to decide how to repair the harm. It was for her. What might she have asked for? How might VAWA have turned out differently if he had consulted her?
The fact that we’re choosing between two privileged old white men for President says a lot about what women are up against in the United States today. Biden isn’t perfect. But he has empathy and the current occupant of the White House does not. Biden is committed to ending violence against women and to policies that support women, from healthcare to paid family leave, while Trump is decimating the gains that we’ve made, from Title IX to healthcare.
I didn’t vote for Biden in the primary. But I voted for him to be our next president. And I encourage you to vote for him, too.
© 2020-2021 Michele Beaulieux. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). That means you are free to share and adapt as long as you attribute to Michele Beaulieux, don’t use for commercial purposes, and use this same license. And if you do share, I’d love to know! I may revise, so to avoid sharing an outdated version, I recommend linking to this page, where I provide the date of the current iteration. 1.13.2021
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