In a radio interview on September 18, Iowa senator Chuck Grassley said of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings: “You understand we’re talking about thirty-five years ago. I’d hate to ask, have somebody ask me what I did thirty-five years ago. And I think I look at it this way.”
As many commentators have pointed out, disturbed, Senator Grassley was a senator thirty-five years ago in 1983. He had entered the chamber two years before, elected by Iowa farmers like my father, who hoped Grassley would represent them as agriculture prices plummeted. Thirty-five years ago, Senator Grassley was fifty years old, an elected official who had served the public since he entered the Iowa House of Representatives in 1959. It is absolutely our right to know what he was doing thirty-five years ago.
But what about Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee? Do we have the right to know—or even to ask—what he was doing thirty-five years ago? Thirty-five years ago, Brett Kavanaugh was seventeen, attending the exclusive and expensive Georgetown Preparatory School, an all-boys Catholic school. He was captain of the basketball team, he was cornerback for the football team, and he might have sexually assaulted a classmate, Christine Blasey Ford, while his friend Mark Judge watched.
In hours of testimony from both Ford and Kavanaugh on September 27, senators in the judiciary committee attempted to determine what exactly happened in those moments when Kavanaugh was seventeen. Who was lying? Whose memory was flawed? And the shadow lurking behind the questions, echoed in that radio interview with Grassley: did anything someone did thirty-five years ago even matter?
Or, to phrase the question more baldly: if a man commits violence at the age of seventeen, should it harm his chances of meting out justice in the highest court in the land at the age of fifty-two?
Every day of the week, I spend hours in a classroom with seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds. Every day of the week, I pose questions to them, I listen to their observations and arguments, I read their written ideas. They are not children, though they clap their hands when I occasionally bring them treats, and they cheer on the rare day I give them a break from homework. They would surprise most of the men and women in the Senate Judiciary Committee with their adultness, with their sense of right and wrong. They are fully formed people at seventeen and eighteen: their emotions are complex, their awareness of the world deepening, their ability to express themselves strengthening.
A seventeen-year-old who forces a girl onto a bed and thrusts himself upon her, laughing, does so recognizing the violence. Maybe the next morning, he will regret it, maybe he will hate himself, maybe he will even apologize, but he is as responsible for it at seventeen as he will be at fifty-two. What it reveals about his nature is the same at either age.
However, what that seventeen-year-old does not have is a fully developed frontal lobe. That last part of the brain to develop—which does not finish developing until a person is twenty-five—is the part that governs judgment, emotional expression, and sexual behavior. It’s the part that stems our impulses. In a classroom of high school seniors, this means a boy will sometimes lob a ball of paper across the room, or a girl will blurt out an insult to someone else, or someone will throw a punch. Later, in response to that adult question “Why?” the answer is often, “I have no idea.” It’s true. Their filters aren’t fully operational yet. Give them eight more years.
Like most other seventeen-year-olds, then, seventeen-year-old Brett Kavanaugh had not yet developed an ability to control his impulses: his drinking, his anger, his sexual hunger. The future judge lacked judgment.
But maybe the person who exists before the filter is fully formed reveals exactly what we need to know. There is a purity in my seventeen- and eighteen-year-old students. They shimmer with the raw truth of who they are. A girl who will, in ten years, discover how to smile a certain way and dress with power and walk with assertiveness, now hides between the dark curtain of her hair and talks only to a few trusted classmates. A boy who will, in ten years, learn to defer to colleagues in meetings and to allude to pop culture at office parties, now unapologetically divulges his expansive vocabulary and poses complex philosophical questions in discussion. They straddle a divide, these seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds, between the children they were and the adults they are not yet. They will learn to adjust, to adapt, to control—to judge. But not yet.
This makes some of them terrifying. A boy who barges forward with his impulse to hurt a girl reveals a true self. Yes, he will learn to control those impulses later. But there is still the truth revealed.
Lately, my colleagues and I have had many conversations that begin, If I was held accountable for what I did at seventeen… We murmur about illicit drug use, lies we told our parents, pranks we played, risks we took. Sarah at seventeen, her own frontal lobe underdeveloped, stayed out too late, drove too fast on dark Iowa country roads, and trusted a boy too much. But. Sarah at seventeen—the core truth of her—was also a glimpse of me now, at forty-one. At seventeen, as now, I was often uncertain and awkward around other people; alone, I was self-assured and strong. At seventeen, as now, my strength and my flaw was my passion for everything to mean something, my sense that I was responsible for it all.
And Brett Kavanaugh at seventeen? Accounts emerge that point to an aggressive drinker, a fraternizer who joked freely about sexual exploits, a boy driven to succeed academically who cared little for gentleness.
The question before the FBI is what, exactly, he did at seventeen. But at the Supreme Court hearings on September 27, Kavanaugh revealed that, regardless of crimes he may have committed then, who he was at seventeen was a glimpse of who he is now, at fifty-two. At fifty-two, he is belligerent, rude to those who question him, simmering with an anger barely controlled.
Senator Grassley hints that actions committed thirty-five years ago matter little to him when he considers a person’s qualifications now. Then let him see the man before him, who, at fifty-two, in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, looked far less like a Supreme Court judge and far more like a wounded and offended teenage boy. Regardless of what the FBI investigation discovers about him at seventeen, Brett Kavanaugh at fifty-two has revealed himself as utterly unfit to act as a balanced, impartial justice for this grown-up nation.