Dr. Stanley Goldstein - Author and Psychologist

A Psychologist's Thoughts on Clinical Practice, Behavior, and Life

On The Kavanaugh Hearing, Memory, and Adolescent Development

September 30, 2018

Tags: Kavanaugh, memory, sexual abuse, adolescence

While concerned with some political issues, I try to ignore the froth. I have several times recommended (without effect) that it would benefit psychologists if our professional organization moved its headquarters to a less insular setting than Washington, D.C. Despite this, I was captivated by the Kavanaugh Hearing for it raised questions in my mind about long-accepted personal truths.
A story which Iíve occasionally told is, at the age of seven or eight, being thrown out of the Boy Scouts for committing a prank: putting hot pepper on jelly beans. The kids that I treat love to hear it though I never would have dared behave as they do (hitting, biting, destructiveness). Yet after the Hearing, I questioned my memory of this event, now believing that, rather than being expelled from the Boy Scouts, I had simply lost interest and stopped attending meetings.
Adolescence is normally tumultuous for its required developmental tasks are great: to appropriately separate from parents; to make provisional educational and vocational goals; and to explore intimacy through dating which arouses powerful feelings. These are harder to achieve if emotional weaknesses deriving from faulty developmental experiences exist. While movies, popular fiction, and private personal narratives often relate adulthood problems to a single brief event, this is not how it happens. Instead, the incident is merely an addition to an already problem-filled, psychologically complex existence.
There is a little-referenced study correlating the effect of sexual abuse with age (published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry in the 1980s, as I remember. What was found was that what was most psychologically damaging was abuse that occurred earliest in life, before the age of six. That taking place during adolescence had a less damaging effect. While my experience with these patients has been limited, Iíve found this to be true. These teenagers (all girls) seemed older than their age, having been forced into maturity by their untimely sexual experience.
What is important in coping with a brief adolescent trauma is the underlying strength of the basic ego capacities which form as a toddler and derive from adequate parenting. I am thus dubious when long-term adult and marital difficulties are professed to derive from this alone. Such an event adds to the teenagerís anxieties but did not cause their later life failures.
And of Kavanaughís intermittently tearful, hesitant testimony. Having testified as an expert psychologist witness in court many times, I recognize (and advise others) that staying cool, not exhibiting anger no matter now objectionable the questions, is best. A lawyer has their job to do and the witness has theirs. As one might say: itís all business, nothing personal.
Similarly, while itís not good for a clinician to cry while with a patient, I have become tearful: when a mother described the death of her toddler; and another mother described losing her voice while battling school officials on behalf of her daughter. Doctors are human; patients donít want or expect them to be machines.
Which brings me to my (take it for what you will) judgment on the Kavanaugh Hearing: that both Dr. Fordís and Judge Kavanaughís adolescence were more psychologically complex than was presented. For simplicity of motive and behavior, one must turn to the movies.