Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony last week made me want to wretch. And it wasn’t just for his grotesque display of white male rage at — the gall! — having to explain himself. Nor was it Kavanaugh’s “One of my closest friends to this day is a woman who was sexually abused” remark, though that was something truly repulsive. What really irked me, as a recovering alcoholic, was Kavanaugh’s repeated implications that his successes preclude a potential drinking problem. In the Supreme Court nominee’s mind, someone like him — a Yale graduate, a golden man-child, a former football player — could never have a drinking problem. Kavanaugh never said this outright, but this odious misconception wafted through the subtext like a stale beer.
I caught the first real whiff during Kavanaugh’s tense exchange with Senator Mazie Hirono, after the Democrat from Hawaii asked Kavanaugh if he’d been a heavy drinker in college. Kavanaugh, floundering and seething at this suggestion, deflected: “I got into Yale Law School. That’s the number one law school in the country. I had no connections there. I got there by busting my tail in college.” While Kavanaugh’s entire defense that day was built around his triumphs, here he was using his CV more pointedly: to nullify any implication of a drinking problem. In Kavanaugh’s eyes, academic and professional success not only negate any responsibility for alleged alcohol abuse — he made up for it in gold stars —, but the very possibility of alcohol abuse in the first place.
Kavanaugh made a similar insinuation under Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s questioning. Like many of us, Whitehouse wondered whether Kavanaugh ever drank to the point of vomiting — something, by the way, that even non-alcoholics do from time to time. Again, Kavanaugh obfuscated. He agreed the “ralph club” mentioned in his year book meant throwing up, but insisted it referenced his “weak stomach,” not necessarily imbibing alcohol: “I got a weak stomach, whether it’s with beer or with spicy food or anything.” But Whitehouse wasn’t buying it; nor should he have, so he pressed: “So the vomiting that you reference in the Ralph Club reference, related to the consumption of alcohol?” Again, Kavanaugh bypassed via a reference to his resume: “I was at the top of my class academically, busted my butt in school. Captain of the varsity basketball team. Got in Yale College. When I got into Yale College, got into Yale Law School. Worked my tail off.” To Kavanaugh, it’s completely, utterly, and entirely impossible for an alcoholic or problem drinker to reach the heights to which he’s soared. To Kavanaugh, and many of his supporters, I’m sure, alcoholics are by their nature unreliable losers; we’re flawed.
And Kavanaugh’s subtle but palpable equation of addiction with irresponsibility also extended to his assessment of Mark Judge, the former friend Dr. Christine Blasey Ford alleges was in the room when Kavanaugh allegedly assaulted her. Asked by Prosecutor Rachel Mitchell to describe Judge, Kavanaugh replied, “Funny guy, great writer, popular, developed a serious addiction problem that lasted decades. Near death a couple times from his addiction. Suffered tremendously from.” Those last details were completely unnecessary — Kavanaugh didn’t highlight personal problems of his other fiends — that there’s no other conclusion to draw from them other than that Kavanaugh’s trying to impugn Judge’s character.
He did so again when he cited Judge’s troubles later in the day, after Sen. Patrick Leahy asked the nominee if he was the basis for a drunken character named “Barthold Kavanaugh” in Judge’s book, Wasted: Tales of a Gen-x Drunk. Per usual, Kavanaugh didn’t address the question itself, instead offering a reminder that Judge had “a very serious drinking problem, an addiction problem that lasted decades and was very difficult for him to escape from. And he nearly died.” And, just for extra oomph, Kavanaugh added, “And [Judge] then developed — then he had leukemia as well, on top of it. Now, as part of his therapy — or part of his coming to grips with sobriety, he wrote a book that is a fictionalized book and an account….” In other words, Judge is sick, both in spirit and in body, and needs therapy to cope with his past. He’s therefore not to be trusted.
I can’t say whether or not Brett Kavanaugh has a drinking problem. I can say that I recognized a lot of myself in his evasiveness, especially in his ridiculous parsing of “passing out” versus “sleeping:” “I — passed out would be — no, but I’ve gone to sleep, but — but I’ve never blacked out. That’s the — that’s the — the allegation, and that — that — that’s wrong.” I stumbled through similarly flailing counter arguments back in the day, when I tried to justify my behavior instead of confronting it.
And I was reminded of myself too in Kavanaugh’s unhinged belligerence when Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse asked about blacking out and puking — “I remember what happened, and I think you’ve probably had beers, Senator, and — and so I,” he said to Klobuchar; then, to Whitehouse, “I like beer… Do you like beer, Senator, or not?” These testy exchanges awakened memories of biting back at friends who tried to intervene on my alcoholic behalf — “Well, you drink, too!”
I can also say that back in my drinking days, when I was using pennies to pay for whiskey, when I’d wait outside for the run-down, bullet-proof glass-encased liquor store to open — 10am, sharp —, standing alongside dirty men in torn clothing, next to women with hair askew and makeup smeared, even then, as I jonesed for my daily fifth, I didn’t see myself as an alcoholic. I wasn’t like thosepeople. I was wearing a nice coat; I had a good paying writing job (though I was still always cash-strapped); I went to a nice college, had impressive friends, came from an “good” background — I was above those degenerates waiting alongside me. Theywere the real alcoholics. I was just the tortured writer, like so many others — until I wasn’t; until I was so drunk I could barely type, until I was fired and kicked out of my house; until I was sleeping on friends’ couches, broken inside and out.
It wasn’t until I stopped drinking that I realized the callous universality of alcoholism, the way it crosses cultures and populations, playing no favorites, sparing no one. It wasn’t until I came through the fog that I understood that alcoholism doesn’t always bring people low, as it did me. There are countless functioning alcoholics out there — millions, probably —, but that doesn’t make them any less of drunks. Nor does it make them bad people. It’s simply that too many of those people see their own proficiencies and triumphs as evidence they’re okay. Their perceptions are so skewed, so convinced that alcoholics are of one type, and so brainwashed into believing they ain’t it. The alcoholic’s the other guy. They believe, as Kavanaugh does, that alcoholics are the irresponsible failures. This is a dangerous self-delusion.
The World Health Organization estimates that 3 million people around the world die each year from alcohol-related causes: cancers, cirrhosis, gun violence, domestic violence, sexual violence, car accidents, boat accidents — the list goes on. And closer to home, in the United States, alcohol-related deaths are the third leading preventable cause of death, contributing to at least 88,000 fatalities annually, according to the CDC. And these aren’t just poor drunkards dying in a gutter; they’re wealthy, powerful people who live in co-ops, suburbs and mansions; they’re mothers and fathers, they’re brothers and sisters — people who couldn’t or wouldn’t face their demons, and those caught in the middle.
If we don’t start addressing the very real issue of over drinking in our culture, including by expanding our perception of who can be an alcoholic, the problem will only grow, drowning us all. If we don’t address the dangers of alcoholism in America, well, we’re just enablers.