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Amid the Kavanaugh Hearings, I Think of a Girl I Know Who Died

My high school classmate’s death by sexual assault haunts my memories

Diana Hembree
Sep 27, 2018 · 8 min read
Cindy Cohn, in a picture from our 10th-grade high school annual in Atlanta. Photo courtesy of Diana Hembree

By now, you’re probably at least aware of the first public accusation against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Research psychologist Christine Blasey Ford of Palo Alto University told reporters that during a house party in her teens more than 30 years ago, Kavanaugh and his friend, Mark Judge, lured her to a room where Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed, tried to pull off her one-piece swimsuit, and covered her mouth with his hand to stop her screams.

“I thought he might inadvertently kill me,” Ford told reporters, adding that she only managed to escape when Judge jumped on the bed and toppled the two.

Within a week of Ford’s allegations, a second woman went public to accuse Kavanaugh of exposing himself to her at a Yale University dorm party — something one of Kavanaugh’s former male roommates said is plausible. Death threats have forced Ford and her family into hiding while a third woman, a former government employee with security clearances, has stepped forward with a sworn statement that she was gang-raped at a party that Kavanaugh and Judge attended.

As I write this, Ford is expected to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has vowed to “plow right through” and get Kavanaugh confirmed despite the allegation of assault. An attorney for the Judicial Crisis Network — a conservative group supporting the Kavanaugh nomination — cast Ford’s description of Kavanaugh’s alleged rape attempt as potentially only “rough horseplay.”

I’m here, a ghost from my suburban Atlanta, Georgia, high school past, to tell you it is not.

“I thought he might inadvertently kill me,” Ford had said.

It can happen.

I watched as male camp counselors forced boys to march while chanting “We hate girls!” and taught swimming by throwing screaming boys into the deep end of the pool. I felt lucky to be a girl.

Decades ago, one of my high school classmates died at age 17 after a sexual assault that allegedly involved six boys from the rival suburban high school. Alcohol and partying were involved. According to one news report, as she was dying, the teens — apparently afraid to take her to a hospital — left her on the lawn of her parents’ home, rang the bell, and fled.

Fast forward to the present. I’m scrolling through hundreds of tweets protesting the administration’s failure to investigate the allegations against Kavanaugh. I come across a CNN interview with five Republican women. Even if the charges of attempted rape were true, one said, “Tell me, what boy hasn’t done this in high school?”

Well, for starters, no boy that I was ever friends with. I can categorically say that none of the many male friends I’ve had from first grade to high school and college and beyond ever did anything remotely like that.

I sometimes wondered how my male friends managed to come out so kind, loyal, and fun given the way some of our institutions brutalized boys back then. In the first grade at Fitzhugh Lee Elementary in Smyrna, Georgia, the class and I watched in horror as a principal charged into the room, grabbed a terrified boy from his desk, and beat him with a wooden paddle until his eyes rolled back in his head.

At age 12, I traced a network of lashes on a friend’s back with my finger after he and another boy pulled up their shirts at the school bus stop to compare the results of the regular whippings they got at home. I watched as male camp counselors forced boys to march while chanting “We hate girls!” and taught swimming by throwing screaming boys into the deep end of the pool. I felt lucky to be a girl.

By the time high school rolled around — we had no junior high — my classmates and I were all under siege. Like thousands of other students in the district, we had to leave our leafy elementary Eden for a prison-like high school with windows too high and too tiny to see out of. My other elementary school, Morgan Falls, had been warm and affectionate; it’s remembered as a place “with a little golden mist around it,” as one friend put it. But the high school ruling class had learned a few of our students were so poor that they came to school barefoot — something I vaguely remember — and took pleasure in referring to it as the “hick” school.

We were headed toward our senior year. Like some of Kavanaugh’s accusers, I can’t remember dates or times. I just remember hearing that Cindy Cohn wasn’t coming back to school.

By then, the nearby cattle pasture, farm, barn, and endless woods had long been swallowed up by shopping malls and subdivisions. New money was pouring into the area, and with it were students with their own cars, designer clothes, and attitude. As in most Southern high schools, the popular kids were football players and cheerleaders with a smattering of drill team members and others. They tended to be affluent and mean. There were certainly exceptions, though, and one of them was Cindy Cohn.

Cindy sat across from me in homeroom. She was in the popular crowd, and I wasn’t, but she treated me no differently than if I were. A beautiful girl with long, dark hair, she was nice to everyone: genuine, lovely, and amazing. She and I never knew each other well enough to be friends, but she had a warm smile, and we exchanged occasional banter as we settled into our seats. Under her sunny exterior, she seemed shy, even a little anxious. Given the social dynamics at our school, I could certainly understand why.

She was such a sweet girl that I wondered how she fit in with our school’s popular crowd (known as the “In Crowd”) or if she even knew how some of them acted. Several of the “In” girls harassed the one Asian student at our nearly all-white school. Non-popular girls were also a walking target. In the eighth grade, I remember one football player, at age 13, looking around our science class in disgust and exclaiming, “No hot girls here, only dogs!” In the cafeteria, other football players, hulking senior boys, would grab 13- or 14-year-old girls they didn’t know from behind and nuzzle and grope them for maximum humiliation. One friend of mine accosted this way whipped around and slapped her tormentor across the face, a sound that I suspect rings in his ears to this day.

But Cindy was sweet and kind, and I was sure she would go far — that, like the rest of us, she’d slip through our concrete walls one day and fly. I got involved with gymnastics and an alternative newspaper, and school began to seem less like an open-air prison and more like a bad place that nonetheless contained pockets of intense camaraderie and good feeling. Then tragedy struck.

We were headed toward our senior year. Like some of Kavanaugh’s accusers, I can’t remember dates or times. I just remember hearing that Cindy Cohn wasn’t coming back to school. Then there were horrified whispers from friends: a party, alcohol, unconsciousness, a gang rape involving six boys from the rival high school, Cindy dying from the assault, suffocating on her own vomit.

If you had committed that crime and were convicted, you’d have been punished. You’d likely be a registered sex offender and ineligible for a teaching position, much less a lifelong appointment to the Supreme Court.

I didn’t know what to do with so much horror. The night I found out, I thumbed through our 10th-grade annual until I got to Cindy’s picture. She looked back at me, her eyes merry and trusting. I felt desolate and physically sick. I didn’t know her parents, but thinking about them was almost unbearable.

In my memory, no teachers or administrators ever talked about what had happened. A few days after Cindy’s death, while I was at a gymnastics training at another high school, I fell off the balance beam and burst into tears. The young gym coach rushed over, thinking I was hurt. I couldn’t stop crying and frightened myself by telling her the whole story. “It’s bad enough Cindy died,” I cried. “But why did she have to die like this?” She told me she was so very sorry, and when I looked up, she had tears in her eyes. It was the first time I had ever seen a teacher cry.

The boys pled guilty to rape and attempted rape; the shortest sentence was two years of probation with no prison time, and the longest was four years of prison followed by three years of probation. The prosecutor in the case said recently that he regrets the light sentences, especially after having a daughter. “It always bothered me in years since,” he said. “I always kicked myself over the leniency that I showed those boys.”

In a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Cox Broadcasting Corp. vs Cohn, Cindy’s father had sued when a TV reporter broadcast her name because it violated a Georgia law at the time that forbade the release of the name of a victim of sexual assault. Cox eventually won, which the media considered a victory for free speech. Years later, I’d sometimes hear about the case at a journalism event and feel that chill, a nightmare from the past seeping back in.

Now I feel a different kind of chill as certain people defend Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged attempted rape. Some don’t even argue that he didn’t do it; they suggest that even if he did, he should still be able to join the highest court in the U.S. New York Times opinion columnist Bari Weiss, citing Kavanaugh’s reputation as “a prince of a man,” asked on MSNBC, “Should the fact that a 17-year-old, presumably very drunk kid did this — should this be disqualifying?” An article in the Atlantic, though unfavorable to Kavanaugh, questioned whether an adult man “should be denied a seat on the highest court in the land because he did something objectionable — even horrifying — on the cusp of adulthood.”

The latter was a rhetorical ploy, but both questions showed a curious lack of logic. If the definition of “something horrifying” is an attempt at a violent sexual assault, it’s a crime. If you had committed that crime and were convicted, you’d have been punished. You’d likely be a registered sex offender and ineligible for a teaching position, much less a lifelong appointment to the Supreme Court.

The same logic applies to the plea of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) that if Ford’s charges were true, “I think it’d be hard for senators to not consider who the judge is today — because that’s the issue. Is the judge a really good man?… By any measure, he is.” What Hatch is saying is that should the charge of attempted violent rape prove true, we should only focus on the present because the person who committed the crime is presumably more mature and accomplished now then he was then, even though he’s never shown any remorse for what he did. Or, to put it more bluntly, because he got away with it.

I’m looking at a different photo of Cindy in our junior year annual. A year after her radiant 10th-grade photo, she looks grave and reflective, almost somber. In another few months, she would be dead. She was bright, lovely, and kind, and she never even got to be 18. When I reflect on the Kavanaugh hearings, this is all I can think about.

I cover consumer affairs, science, the workplace and fraud.

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