A High-Stakes Hearing Raises Two Voices, One Quiet, One Loud

It came down to she said, he screamed.

For a week and a half, since Christine Blasey Ford was identified as having accused the Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were in high school, America had heard everything about her and nothing from her. She was a name in a headline, a family photo. But until Thursday morning, the public had no idea what her voice sounded like.

It was not the voice of someone burning to be where she was. “I am here today not because I want to be,” she told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I am terrified.”

That was a credible statement. Flanked by lawyers, Dr. Blasey seemed tense, her breathing rapid, as she sat through the opening remarks. Her voice was quiet, when she began her remarks, so much so that the chairman, Senator Charles Grassley, a Republican, asked if she could move the microphone closer.

Instead — in one of the most anticipated televised Senate hearings since Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas in 1991 — she leaned in.

Her voice broke as she described her terror when she said that, after Judge Kavanaugh and a friend had trapped her in a bedroom, he held a hand over her mouth and tried to remove her clothes. (He denies the accusation.) It broke again when she described the “indelible” memory of the two teenage boys laughing; when she described escaping; when she recalled her husband later wondering, when they were remodeling their house, why she insisted on two front doors.

The Republican majority, hoping to salvage Mr. Kavanaugh’s nomination, handed off Dr. Blasey’s questioning to Rachel Mitchell, a sex-crimes prosecutor from Arizona, to avoid the replayable video clips of 11 white men grilling a woman — a sort of XX-chromosome optics shield.

This led to an odd questioning dynamic: Ms. Mitchell interviewed Dr. Blasey five minutes at a time, a serial cross-examination interrupted by episodic praise and boosting from the Democratic senators. It was unbalancing for a viewer, and ultimately didn’t add up to a larger arc. At the end, Ms. Mitchell apologetically said that the format was “not ideal.”

Dr. Blasey’s bearing was composed but not practiced, eager to accommodate, polite but firm in saying that she “100 percent” remembered Judge Kavanaugh as her attacker. She was even at times apologetic, telling Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat, “I wish I could be more helpful.” In an unusual turn, Dr. Blasey, a research psychologist, served as a sort of expert witness on herself, describing the process by which traumatic memories are imprinted in the brain.

Judge Kavanaugh, accompanied by his wife, was as aggressive and aggrieved as Dr. Blasey was reticent. Reading a new statement, not shared in advance, he called the proceedings “a national disgrace.” He raged; he barked. His eyebrows arched, his features twisted, his plosives smacked against the microphone. He fought off tears, exhaling hard and taking steadying drinks of water.

Call this a generalization — it surely is — but the two statements could not be a clearer contrast in how men and women are socialized and pressured to speak in public. One gender is rewarded for being furious, the other for not being “shrill”; one for hot emotion, the other for warm. (The first time Judge Kavanaugh’s voice broke, he was describing his daughter saying that they should “pray for the woman,” Dr. Blasey.)

After the opening, Judge Kavanaugh’s questioning followed more typical, if acrimonious, form. Republican senators — taking the reins back from Ms. Mitchell after she opened a line of questioning into their nominee — railed at the Democratic push against him. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican — who told cameras during the break that he felt “ambushed” by Dr. Blasey’s testimony — thundered that this was “the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics.”

The Democrats — several of them potential presidential candidates in 2020 — pushed the judge on his willingness to accept an F.B.I. investigation (with some detours into the meaning of slang like “ralph” and “boofed” in his high school yearbook). Judge Kavanaugh had an awkward exchange with Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, turning a question about his drinking back against her just after she had described her father’s problem with alcohol. He later apologized.

It was a raw, draining day, even by the standards of a raw, draining era.

There is a tendency, not just among TV critics, to describe live events like this as “political theater.” On NBC, Megyn Kelly, a former lawyer, said the morning’s testimony had produced “No Perry Mason moment.”

It’s understandable. TV has become our model for telling legal stories and for politicians to structure narratives. But this isn’t “Law and Order”; this isn’t theater. It’s a real thing happening to real people, dredging up real trauma for a host of survivors. The day’s coverage was filled with reminders of this, too.

Chris Wallace, on the conservative redoubt Fox News, said that the news story had led two of his daughters to tell him “stories that I have never heard before about things that happened to them in high school.” A 76-year-old woman from Missouri called C-SPAN, crying, to tell her story of having been molested in the second grade.

Multiply that by 50 states, thousands of cities, millions of homes.

However large the viewing audience, the hearing may have been aimed toward a much smaller one. A few Republican senators hold the balance on the confirmation. And Mr. Kavanaugh’s future as a nominee depends on one avid TV watcher, President Trump, who was reportedly disappointed that Mr. Kavanaugh didn’t swing hard enough in his numb, repetitive interview on Fox News Monday.

Mr. Kavanaugh’s fury, however deeply felt, may well have been voiced for the benefit of the Cable News Watcher in Chief (moments after the hearing, cable news excitedly reported that the president had tweeted his support). Dr. Blasey undeniably touched an audience, many of whom had kept their own experiences quiet.

What comes next will tell us whether it’s the soft or loud voice that carries.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A16 of the New York edition with the headline: Two Voices With a Notable Contrast in Volume. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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