The Blackout explanation

So, we do know for a near-certainty that Kavanaugh is a brazen liar.  I’m not convinced, though, that he’s lying when he claims he did not assault Blasey Ford.  I’ve been thinking for a while that the most likely explanation is that he literally did not remember doing so from being so drunk.  Of course, despite all the contrary evidence (including a not-too-distant speech to the Federalist Society), Kavanaugh is entirely unwilling to admit he ever drank so much that he might have forgotten things.

The reality, though, is that this is fairly common among heavy/binge drinkers.  Sarah Hepola, has written a whole memoir on the subject and thus is a perfect person to weigh in (and bring the science) to the Kavanaugh case.  When I first heard her interviewed about drunken blackouts a few years ago on Fresh Air, I remember finding it incredibly enlightening.  Anyway, the key parts from her NYT Op-Ed:

One of the trickiest things about blackouts is that you don’t necessarily know you’re having one. I wrote a memoir, so centered around the slips of memory caused by heavy drinking that it is actually called “Blackout,” and in the years since its 2015 release, I’ve heard from thousands of people who experienced them. No small number of those notes contain some version of this: “For years, I was having blackouts without knowing what they were.” Blackouts are like a philosophical riddle inside a legal conundrum: If you can’t remember a thing, how do you know it happened?

In the days leading up to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, a theory arose that he might have drunk so much as a teenager that he did not remember his alleged misdeeds. The blackout theory was a way to reconcile two competing narratives. It meant that Christine Blasey Ford was telling the truth but so was Brett Kavanaugh. He simply did not remember what happened that night and therefore believed himself falsely accused. Several questions at the hearing were designed to get at this theory, but it gained little ground.

I want to be clear, up front, that I cannot know whether Judge Kavanaugh experienced a blackout. But what I do know is that blackouts are both common and tragically misunderstood…

A few clarifications. First, I dare you to find the heavy drinker who hasn’t passed out from too much booze. To say you were just sleeping is like my dad saying he’s resting his eyes when he’s napping. It’s a semantic dodge.

Second, and more crucially, this answer tips toward a common conflation of the act of passing out — sliding into unconsciousness, eyes closed, being what drinkers often call “dead to the world” — and the act of blacking out, a temporary, alcohol-induced state in which you can remain functional and conversational, but later you will have no memory of what you did, almost as though your brain failed to hit the “record” button. This phenomenon remains unknown to many, even experts who ought to know better — doctors, journalists, judges. [emphases mine]…

“Piecing things together” is a phrase that jumped out at me when I read Judge Kavanaugh’s 2014 speech to the Yale Law School Federalist Society, in which he describes drunken heroics as a routine part of campus life; Senator Richard Blumenthal also leapt on this at the hearing, although Judge Kavanaugh deflected the inquiry, as he did every question about any possible dark side to his consumption.

One particularly dastardly aspect of blackouts is that other people don’t necessarily know you’re having one. Some people in a blackout stagger around in a zombie state; others quote Shakespeare. I had friends who told me I got this zombie look in my eyes, like a person who was unplugged, but others friends told me, on different occasions, that I’d seemed fine.

It wasn’t until this century that scientists really understood blackouts. For generations, experts thought they were the exclusive realm of alcoholics, a sign of troubled late-stage drinking. But non-problem drinkers black out all the time. In fact, that kind of drinker would be a good candidate for someone who might remain ignorant of their blackouts. You see this in sexual assault cases: A woman believes she passed out the night before, but she actually blacked out, leaving untold minutes or hours unaccounted for in her memory bank. This is hellishly confusing — because to the person who wakes up not remembering what happened, it feels like you must have been asleep. Disrupting that assumption requires some contrary piece of evidence: Cuts and bruises, strange clothes you don’t recall putting on, a friend’s testimony, surveillance footage. Today’s young people are more aware of their own blackouts — in part because scientists have gained insight about them, allowing media stories to spread, but also because those kids carry around phones that record everything they do, making them much more likely to have that jarring moment of cognitive disconnect. Wait, when did I type THAT? Wait, when was THAT picture taken? Previous generations simply did not carry such handy data collection services in their pockets…

One of the most unforgettable moments in an unforgettable hearing came when Senator Patrick Leahy asked Dr. Blasey about her strongest memory of that night. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” she said. The word Dr. Blasey used, hippocampus, is significant. The hippocampus is a part of the brain that plays a central role in memory formation. And damned if it isn’t a part of the brain disrupted by a blackout. The hippocampus stops placing information in long-term storage, which means what happened, what you did, what you said, what hurt you might have caused another human — all of it turns to a stream of unremembered words and images that pour forever into the dark night.

So while Dr. Blasey’s brain was pumping the epinephrine and norepinephrine that would etch the moment on her brain, it is quite possible that one if not both of those men were experiencing something like the opposite: A mechanical failure of the brain to record anything. Such a dynamic is breathtaking in its cruelty, which makes it no less common.

We don’t know if that happened, but based on what we do know, it is a damn compelling explanation.   Next most likely: in my opinion.  Kavanaugh remembers and is flat-out lying.  We know he has no compunction about flat-out lying.  Least likely: Kavanaugh didn’t actually do anything wrong.

Anyway, I do think the blackout explanation makes a lot of sense.  And based on all the related evidence (which Kavanaugh is so obviously lying about), he almost surely drank himself into a blackout state on multiple occasions.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to The Blackout explanation

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    This leads to another question: when did he stop drinking so heavily and why and how?

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