I post this on my 52nd birthday (it is now past midnight in Boston). Over the last two years—since I turned 50—I have spent a great deal of time contemplating my “identity.” Indeed, my first post, in December 2016, was an exercise in contrasting autobiographical framing. Since that split-screen introduction, I have been coming to terms with what I have learned through genetic testing and my dogged investigation of the circumstances surrounding my in-utero adoption.
One clear conclusion is that I owe my fortunate—almost (but not quite) “privileged”—life to that adoption.
That notion of privilege—of “white male privilege,” in particular—came into very sharp focus for me (and for the country) last week.
Like many Americans, I spent Thursday, September 27, 2018 riveted by the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and United States Court of Appeals Circuit Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh before the United States Senate (“Senate”) Judiciary Committee. Our living room television was tuned to MSNBC from 9:30 am to just after 11:00 pm, with a brief interim in the late afternoon to take our daughters to the library and swimming class then let them watch their own shows in the early evening.
And then I spent Friday, September 28, 2018 equally riveted by the decision of Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) to condition his vote to approve Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to be an Associate Judge of the United States Supreme Court on the final vote being delayed by no more than one week so the FBI could conduct a supplemental background investigation into a series of credible accusations of sexual assault made against Judge Kavanaugh. Although the efficacy of that investigation is now in some doubt.
Setting aside the fact I am a political junkie who closely follows events of this nature and a natural human curiosity to see and hear Dr. Ford tell her story, I was particularly riveted by what I recently learned about my personal connection to Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
Just after 6 pm on Thursday, September 20, 2018, as I was sitting on the sidelines of our eldest daughter’s soccer practice, I noticed a missed call and text message. Both were from the identical 917 area code telephone number; that area code covers the five boroughs of New York City.
The text message read as follows:
“Hey Matt, it’s Ben Protess from the New York Times. I’m working on a story that I wanted to run by you. Can I grab a minute? Many thanks.”
I was skeptical—though I could not imagine why anybody would prank me in quite that way. And I quickly ascertained a Ben Protess writes for the New York Times, though I could not see how any of his areas of investigative focus applied to me. Perhaps it was something I had written on this blog?
After consulting with my wife Nell, who saw no harm in returning the call, I dialed the 917 number.
“This is Ben.”
I introduced myself.
He thanked me for returning his call, and we chatted for a few minutes…
…and that was how I learned that Judge Kavanaugh was a fellow Stilesian, though he was Class of 1987, while I was Class of 1988.
I wrote recently about the residential college system at Yale University, where I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in political science in 1988:
“When I was an undergraduate at Yale, there were 12 residential colleges; I was in Ezra Stiles College (class of 1988). These were intended to be smaller communities—each with its own residential building(s) with interior courtyard, dining hall, library, seminar rooms, Master and Dean, etc.—within the larger community of undergraduates.”
To promote further identification with one’s residential college (purportedly randomly assigned, though special requests are sometimes honored), freshmen in 10 of the 12 (when I enrolled in 1984) colleges actually lived in a college-specific “hall” on Old Campus; freshmen in Silliman and Timothy Dwight move directly into their respective colleges (as do freshmen in the recently-opened Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray colleges). Two of these halls had an odd “rivalry”: periodically, a student from one hall would yell, “Wright Bites!” to which a student from the other hall would yell “Durfee Sucks!” Wright Hall (now Lanman-Wright Hall) houses Pierson and Saybrook freshmen, while Durfee houses Morse freshmen (at least, they did in the 1984-85 school year).
Ezra Stiles (ES) freshmen live in Lawrance Hall; two of its four entryways (A and B, I believe) are pictured below (photograph taken on the weekend of my May 1988 commencement).
Here is a view from College Street, looking north-by-northeast. Lawrance Hall is just beyond the tall structure in the center of the photograph, though the building just beyond the black truck looks essentially the same.
Each of the five floors had a suite housing six students, divided into a common room, bathroom, two double and two singles; I occupied a single in the suite on the 4th floor spanning entryways A to B.
There were also smaller suites in the basement of each entryway. Judge Kavanaugh occupied one in D entryway his freshman year—the year before I arrived.
Adding to the separation is that freshmen generally eat in a cavernous dining hall called Commons, while upperclassmen eat in their residential college dining hall, though with a valid dining hall card you could eat in any Yale dining hall, including the graduate school.
In other words, when I was a freshman, I would have had minimal, if any, contact with a sophomore like Brett Kavanaugh. Only when I was a sophomore and junior—and he was a junior and senior—did we both live in Ezra Stiles College (whose courtyard is pictured below in May 1988).
However, as I told Mr. Protess, I was not aware (or I had forgotten) Brett Kavanaugh and I had both lived in Ezra Stiles College for two years until our telephone conversation.
Following that revelation, I asked Mr. Protess how he had found me, and he cryptically observed the Yale Daily News archives are publicly available. And, in fact, I had appeared in a story my junior year about winning a “guess the Grammy Award winners” contest sponsored by the campus radio station. I won $25, but I was also supposed to program the station for an hour; that would have been a blast.
And then we got to the heart of the matter: did I know any ES’87 folks to whom he could talk about Judge Kavanaugh? Specifically, did I know anyone who would know something about an event that took place in Lawrance Hall during his freshman year? It is almost certain (though I do not know for sure) that he was seeking information about the not-yet-public allegations made by fellow ES’87 alumna Deborah Ramirez.
Unfortunately, as much as I was drawing a blank on Judge Kavanaugh, I could not remember any names from the class ahead of me; in the moment, I blanked that the husband of a fellow ES’88 alum was ES’87. What I could do, however, was reach out to the two dozen or so ES’88 alums with whom I am friends on Facebook. They did not remember much about Judge Kavanaugh either, though I learned at least one other New York Times reporter as well as a Bloomberg News reporter was also calling ES’88 alums. I also learned (as has since been reported) that “Jamie” Roche was a freshman-year roommate of Judge Kavanaugh, and that a fellow member of his junior varsity basketball team had written a heartbreaking Facebook post about the Brett Kavanaugh he knew versus the Brett Kavanaugh emerging through the allegations.
As with Judge Kavanaugh, I do not remember Ms. Ramirez or Mr. Roche…or two other Class of 1987 alumnae who have spoken publicly about Judge Kavanaugh.
But here is the thing. The residential separation of Yale freshmen (in 10 residential colleges) may promote strong bonding within members of the same residential college and class but it also delayed routine interaction with upperclassmen for one year, after which social circles have already formed. It is certainly possible I encountered Brett Kavanuagh in the dining hall lines or in my capacity as (in consecutive years starting with freshman year) Secretary, Fundraising Committee Chair and Chairperson of the ES College Council, but if so, I do not recall these encounters.
Still, I would have shared the following volumes with Mr. Protess had I had any listing Brett Kavanaugh, though I suspect he or one of his colleagues eventually found a copy of one or both. I had forgotten until I pulled it off the shelf that we referred to The Old Campus as “the face book.”
When I told Mr. Protess that, as a natural archivist, I had kept copies of these two volumes, he said “Bless you for doing so.”
You’re welcome. Thank you for performing the republic-saving work of independent investigative journalism.
If I have one quibble with the New York Times’ reporting on Ms. Ramirez’s allegation, it is its overly simplistic division of Yale students into “moneyed elites” and “lower middle-class outsiders.” Those folks were certainly there, but the vast majority of my fellow students came from the same background as me—middle class families who were not part of the nation’s financial and/or political elite. When I attended my 30-year reunion this past summer (driving to New Haven, CT for the day with our two daughters, who had a fabulous time exploring the campus and making friends with fellow alum’s children), I enjoyed a panel discussion on our current political climate by fellow members of the Class of 1988. One of them had written a book detailing the liberal egalitarianism that had emerged at Yale—once a conservative bastion of the nation’s most elite sons—in the decades prior to our enrollment. In this newly meritocratic Yale, what counted most when I matriculated there were your abilities and achievements, not your social status or family history—or which elite prep school you attended.
Judge Kavanaugh is being pilloried (rightly, in my opinion) for the privileged-white-male attitudes he displayed in his appallingly rude behavior towards the Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday; this exchange (with a fellow alumna [Class of 1982], no less) particularly upset me. When I was at Yale, I certainly encountered a few white male students with the same attitudes, one of whom (the roommate of friends in a different residential college) could barely hide his contempt for me—a non-athletic (then, anyway) middle class non-legacy who had attended public schools and was accepted into Yale (after being wait-listed) solely on the strength of his grades, test scores and activities. At least, that is why I think he despised me. All these years later, it hardly matters.
But it pains me to think that casual observers of Brett Kavanaugh’s smug contemptuous behavior think it in any way reflects the reality my friends and I experienced at Yale. Far from “entitled,” the vast majority of us did not attend elite prep schools nor did we come from well-connected families (my widowed mother owned a small carpet and upholstery cleaning company). Instead, we worked hard both to be admitted there and to succeed there, expecting no special treatment.
So, when Judge Kavanaugh answered (or, rather, did not answer) questions with some variation of “I got into Yale College,” I wanted to scream, “Yeah, so the bleepity-frick what? What does that prove? That your character is revealed by your resume? No, sir, it is not. And please do not lump my beloved fellow alumnae/i in with your irrelevant, temper-tantrum-driven defense of your (alleged) misdeeds.”
And one more thing. The stories of Brett Kavanaugh and his circle of friends, male and female, engaging in seemingly endless drinking (and vomiting in the bathrooms) do not paint an accurate picture of what life was like in Lawrance Hall in the mid-1980s. This is not to say there was no drinking at Yale, despite the drinking age in Connecticut being 21 when I matriculated there.
I certainly did my share of (illegal) drinking at Yale, at least after my sophomore year. Through the middle of that year, I was scared to consume any alcohol, believing I had an addictive personality (and I had vivid memories of how goofy my mother looked when she and her friends would smoke pot; she actually told me that I was not allowed to do drugs until I was 32 years old, which was when she started smoking pot). Plus, my primary experience with alcohol had been the watered-down swill my father drank when he took me to Philadelphia Phillies baseball games at long-gone Veterans Stadium and the Mogen David wine proffered at our large extended-family Seders. However, something that year tempted me to try a bottle of Molson Golden—and it was good. Until I turned 21 at the start of my senior year (prompting my roommates to take me to the now-defunct Gentrys’ for my first legal drink; I panicked and ordered a gin and tonic I did not love), I would have older friends order Molson for me at pizzerias like Broadway (which, sadly, no longer exists), Naples or Yorkside; this was before I discovered Scotch whiskey my senior year.
That November, I decided to attend “The Game,” held in New Haven that year. I was home in Penn Valley, PA for Thanksgiving break, so I awoke early that frigid Saturday morning planning to eat breakfast and drive the three-plus hours to New Haven. Somehow, I skipped (or skimped on) breakfast. Arriving at the off-campus apartment I shared with two other ES’88 men, I though I would prepare a thermos of hot chocolate and peppermint schnapps. The only problem was that all we had was a bottle of peach schnapps and a little bit of orange juice—the key components of a fuzzy navel. And instead of a thermos, I found a plastic pitcher—meaning that what I brought to the game with me was a large amount of peach schnapps mixed with a small amount of orange juice. This combination was quite delicious on my empty stomach during the first half of the game, as I sat and shivered with one of my roommates and his older brother, who had driven us to the Yale Bowl. The second half of the game, however, I spent mostly in the men’s bathroom “reliving” what I had drunk in the first half. And I cannot apologize enough to my roommate’s older brother, in whose car I puked on the ride back to our apartment. I was supposed to drive another Stilesian home to Pennsylvania that night…but clearly that did not happen. Thanks to a spectacular cheeseburger sub from here, however, I got through the night and was perfectly fine in the morning (thanks to the metabolism of a 21-year-old). I drove my friend home, with no hard feelings. With all that, however, I could not stand the taste of peach anything for more than 30 years.
As a fellow ES’88 alum pointed out on Facebook, the fact that few of us recall Brett Kavanaugh likely stems from his affiliation with the hard-drinking Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) fraternity. My understanding is that the residential college system emerged in the 1930’s as a counter to fraternity culture (Yale did not admit female undergraduates until 1969). Despite that, a number of fraternities operated on the fringes of our consciousness (well, my consciousness, anyway), though their actions never reflected the student body as a whole. And I once had the pleasure of “passing the Cups” at Mory’s—but that felt separate from the broader Yale experience.
The point being: Brett Kavanaugh existed in a social/drinking circle at Yale that the vast majority of my classmates did not—and, partly as a result, he left little-to-no impression on us. And his white male prep school entitlement is a far cry from the experience I had at Yale, where I befriended men and women like me: middle-to-upper-middle class overachievers who were admitted on merit and continued to work hard to excel (or just survive) there. That is the Yale I am proud I attended, and the one I celebrated with a magnificent group of friends this past May.
One final thought.
I have not addressed the OTHER social circle in which Brett Kavanaugh moved: the elite prep schools of Washington, DC and its close Maryland suburbs (where the man I am nearly-certain was my genetic father was raised—though he attended public high school, as did I in suburban Philadelphia). This harrowing expose, written by my wife Nell’s close childhood friend, succinctly captures a dark reality of that world: the drunken predatory boys only too willing to take sexual advantage of just-as-drunk girls. Nell attended one of those all-girl high schools and has stated multiple times in the last two weeks she could easily have been one of those girls, but for a large and chivalrous high school boyfriend.
I would like to shake the hand of that boyfriend in gratitude someday.
Until next time…