BALTIMORE, MD, October 09, 2018 — Brett Kavanaugh, recently confirmed to the Supreme Court, stands accused by at least three women of sexual assault or inappropriate behaviors. Senator Susan Collins, a key deciding vote in Kavanaugh's confirmation, explained her support to CNN, “After hearing Christine Ford's very compelling and painful testimony, I thought…'perhaps he needs to withdraw' but then he came back with such a forceful denial …” This raises the question of whether a forceful denial suggests innocence.
When questioned about the allegations by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Kavanaugh responded by denying the allegations, crying, yelling and accusing Democrats and the Clintons of fabricating the allegations in an effort to destroy him. While his supporters in the Senate found Kavanaugh's display convincing, experts in sexual assault found his behavior consistent with a pattern of offender behavior previously identified in the scientific literature.
Dr. Jennifer Freyd, Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon, studied abusers and coined the term DARVO to describe the reaction offenders often display when confronted with their wrong doing. DARVO stands for “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender”. According to Joyanna Silberg, PhD, President of the Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence, “The purpose of the DARVO defense strategy is to gain sympathy by claiming to be the true victim and to derail any investigation of the original allegations.”
Denial generally involves loud protestations of innocence and deflection from the key issues. Accusations may involve questioning the credibility of the victim and attacking anyone supporting the victim. Finally, the accused typically claims to be the “true” victim, showing themselves as more hurt than the abuse survivor as they blame everyone else for the situation. This approach tends to reverse the conversation, bring sympathy to the accused, and cause concern about the pain of the actual survivor to be eclipsed by the presumed pain of the accused.
This dynamic was present in the Senate hearing which both Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Kavanaugh testified. According to Bob Geffner, PhD, Council advisory member and President of the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma, “Dr. Ford's testimony was credible and moving. She had disclosed years before to her therapist and others, she described sufficient details, and there was no discernible reason for her to have lied or misrepresent her experience. When Kavanaugh's turn came, several credibility issues about his youth surfaced. However, he cried and raged about the agony the accusations had caused him and his family and by the time the hearing was over, Kavanaugh was viewed by many as the true victim and Dr. Ford was dismissed by many as mixed up or mistaken in her identification.” “I do believe that she was assaulted,” Collins told CNN, “…. but I do not believe that he was the assailant.”
According to Dr. Silberg, “There is no scientific basis for believing Dr. Ford would remember the assault but misremember who assaulted her–particularly since she was familiar with Kavanaugh and his friends. Studies show that victims tend to remember central aspects of the trauma very well. When victims misidentify their attacker, it is because he was a stranger—someone they had never met before or seen since,” asserts Silberg.
“Unfortunately many people who watched the Kavanaugh hearing formed opinions on the credibility of the two parties based largely on their preexisting political beliefs,” notes Dr. Silberg. “We offer a more scientific basis for assessing the dynamics involved. While the presence of DARVO is not conclusive evidence of guilt, it certainly cannot be accepted as an indication of innocence. Moreover, there is no valid reason to doubt Dr. Ford's memory of who she claims attacked her.”
The Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence is composed of national leaders in psychology, psychiatry, medicine, law, and public policy who are committed to the ethical application of psychological science and countering its misuse by special interest groups. Members of the Council are dedicated to the health, safety and well-being of children and other vulnerable populations. More information can be found at: www.leadershipcouncil.org
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