The events surrounding the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation and subsequent shit fight over its optics offer the American public an opportunity to talk about many things, not the least of which is what drunk boys do. It’s a watershed moment for national self-reflection and a denial-busting conversation about our collective nonchalance. Listening to the rambling commentary about Kavanaugh and his keg party entitlement, there is an acquiescence that this behavior is just part of growing up, like jerking off and acne. That’s just not true. Binge drinking has long reaching and damaging effects, not the least of which is to the 1,800 kids who die annually doing it.
To be clear: alcohol is dangerous. It’s really, really dangerous. We just don’t know the depth of the insidiousness of it. We know it fuels cancers, damages livers, that it can decimate even the most stable of family systems, and that 88,000 Americans die annually from their use of alcohol. Alcohol stifles development. Of the freshmen starting college this fall, the largest percentage who won’t return for sophomore year will be due to the effects of their normalized binge drinking. Incidences of all sorts of bad things rise when alcohol is introduced: car accidents, violence between partners, emergency room visits, and yes, sexual assault.
Binge drinking is a cancer within American life. It’s harmful, it can be lethal and the consequences can germinate for decades. How do we feel about pregnant women smoking? Bad, right? Just a terribly unhealthy activity with potentially dire consequences for all involved. Yet, ubiquitous anti-smoking campaigns didn’t appear until the late 90’s. This should be how we come to look at youthful binge drinking: shock and horror and disbelief that we let it go as long as we did.
When I’m sitting across from a patient at a rehab intake interview there are often clues in their answers that offer me insight into an alcoholic in denial. “Cutting back” is always a grave concern for people who claim to be in control of their drinking. An admission of cutting back, or reporting it inadvertently, demonstrates a lack of control. If there isn’t a problem, why the need to cut back? Kavanaugh reports this in a classic way: “I liked beer, I still like beer, sometimes I had too many beers.” In a clinical assessment the next probing question would have been, “Talk about too many. What does that look like?” Kavanaugh has some personal metric for what “too many” is; as observers, we have none.
Kavanaugh’s tolerance is low for any scrutiny, and he pouted in public, a classic trait of the alcoholic. Alcoholics are nothing without their cultivated image. He would have us believe his drinking was nothing more than a harmless rite of passage, like the episode of Happy Days when Richie had “too many” beers. Everyone does it, he did it, and if it were a real problem, well, how did he get into Yale? Part of the denial of alcoholism is keeping one slice of life “highly functional” and, ideally, “high achieving” as proof there’s no problem. We all hide out; some people hide behind their significant other’s sloppier, more consequential drinking, Wall Street executives hide behind their earnings, and judges hide behind their estimable judgment.
The issue isn’t that Brett Kavanaugh may have had or currently has a drinking problem, the question is why is he so evasive about that notion and what will that do to the Supreme Court? There is a reason “sober as a judge” is a cliche– because you want a judge to be sober.
The (alleged) sexual assault has taken the lead in the conversation about Kavanaugh, but what we’re missing is where that intersects with drinking. In my career as a social worker I’ve sat with many young men who tearfully recount their version of a sexual assault they perpetrated while drunk. Oftentimes it’s murky, described like a film, with only one frame out of ten revealing their crime. Part of the denial is they don’t believe they have the potential to do that. As an A.A. guy I have heard not a few admissions of rape in meetings. “She was passed out, so I guess that’s kind of like rape,” they say. No, not ‘kind of’ like rape, that is rape. I believe every word of what Christine Blasey Ford said–but at the same time I also believe Brett Kavanaugh. Or, at least I believe in his own belief in his innocence. It would take years of therapy for him to come to any understanding about how he’s fully capable of sexually assaulting someone while drunk. He shows no indication, at least not publicly, of having any desire to explore that.
Blackouts are something to which people come around. It’s not an immediate admission. “Sure, I blackout all the time” is said maybe in 1 out of 1,000 rehab intake interviews. More often, they report a blackout without the insight, knowledge and honesty to report accurately. Kavanaugh gave the most cliche description of a blackout ever: “No, I never blacked out, I fell asleep.” Funny thing about blackouts, they’re hard to remember. His heightened indignation at the suggestion of a blackout indicates there is a kernel of not knowing. There is a spark of him thinking “Well, maybe…” The truth is, he doesn’t have a clue if he assaulted a teenage girl on the fated night. Alcoholics are the least accurate source of information about themselves.
Joe Schrank is Executive Editor of The Small Bow and author of the “I’ll Ask Joe” column. He is also clinical social worker, journalist, public speaker, and policy advocate.