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Brett Kavanaugh and People Who Can’t Apologize: Some Thoughts on Yom Kippur

Published in ChicagoNow, September 18, 2018

One thing about Donald Trump that his base admires is his refusal to apologize. Ever. It makes him seem strong, tough, and powerful. On the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday in which atoning for your sins is central, this inability to admit wrongdoing and ask the person you have hurt for forgiveness shows strength of character, not weakness. Today, I am thinking about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and his response to being accused of sexually assaulting a girl at a high school party when he was seventeen and she was fifteen.

We don’t yet know the truth of what happened between Kavanaugh and now California professor Christine Blasey Ford, but many people, mostly men, have been quick to attack her and trivialize her experience because it happened so long ago. She claims Kavanaugh was very drunk and assaulted her at a party, holding his hand over her mouth to stifle her screams. He denies being at the party. Trump calls Kavanaugh “one of the finest people that I’ve ever known,” and “a very special person.” Faint praise coming from a man accused of assaulting many women and having affairs with a Playboy bunny and porn star right after his third wife, Melania, had given birth to their son.

If Kavanaugh did attack his accuser, I would have had more respect for him if he apologized to her directly rather than trying to discredit her plausible tale from so long ago. It’s hard to understand her motive for lying about this. Testifying will be very painful, and chances are she will end up the villain of the story and the Republican majority will put Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court. Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, anyone?

Apologizing to her if he did attack her as a drunken high school student, on the other hand, would be an honorable thing to do. In the tradition of Yom Kippur, it doesn’t need to be public or under oath. Sins between individuals have nothing to do with God’s judgment or Congressional hearings. According to Marjorie Ingall, good apologies are about taking ownership of what you did, even if you feel you were wronged as well. It really isn’t about you. It’s about empathy for the person who was wronged, giving that person what she needs, making some form of restitution if possible, and being forgiven by that person.

I heard an interesting confession of wrongdoing three years ago from Mark Oppenheimer, host of Tablet Magazine’s podcast Unorthodox. Back in 1984 when he was ten, Oppenheimer made a crank phone call. During this era of missing children on milk cartons and accusations of satanic rituals, he called the hotline number, pretended to be a girl he barely knew at his school, and told the person answering the phone that her father was molesting her. This resulted in the police tracing the call to his home and a severe punishment from his parents. But the part that upsets him is that the girl’s father was investigated by authorities. He never knew what happened to the girl and her family, but he is haunted by the unknown consequences of his actions. For thirty years, every Yom Kippur he feels the need to find this girl and apologize to her directly.

Maybe he has tracked her down since making this public confession. If not, even though he was only ten at the time, he feels great shame about what he did. Being able to apologize and be forgiven would lift a huge burden for him. More importantly, especially if his action brought pain to this girl’s family, it would give her the opportunity to let go of over thirty years of anger and forgive him.

According to Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy, who write the blog Sorry Watch, true apologies are not that complicated and involve five simple steps:

  1. Say you are sorry.

  2. Say what you did (take ownership).

  3. Talk about the impact of what you did.

  4. Make amends in some way.

  5. Talk about the steps you will take so it won’t happen again.

Ingall provides a more detailed explanation and examples of how to do this in a Tablet Magazine article, How to Say You’re Sorry.

The non-apology apology that is so common, especially on the political front, won’t do. “I’m sorry you feel that way,” doesn’t cut it if people are truly trying to make amends. Making excuses for your actions is irrelevant if you have hurt someone. Hopefully, the person you have wronged will forgive you, but it may take time. According to Jewish tradition, you have to try to apologize three times before giving up on receiving forgiveness from the wronged party.

Here’s what not to do when you truly apologize:

  • Make excuses for why you did what you did.

  • Combine your apology with an insult that blames for victim for triggering your action.

  • Claim it was a joke and the person is overreacting.

  • Claim your action was misunderstood, making you not really at fault.

  • Apologize for vague things like “what happened” or “the events of last week.” (Politicians are really good at this one.)

  • Tell the victim she is too sensitive or overreacting.

  • Imply it is time to move on and forget it happened. (Not your call. It’s up to the wronged party to decide.)

Back to Judge Kavanaugh, if he did do what he is accused of doing, apologizing to Professor Blasey Ford, even after all of this time, is what would show strength and good character. I’m inclined to believe her version of events because she has nothing to gain and much to lose by coming forward, and Kavanaugh has lied under oath about other things. But I’ll concede that only the parties involved know the truth. Sitting through a he said/she said hearing on Monday will not resolve the harm done by one person to another. Only they can do that.


by Laurie Levy
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