When Christine Blasey Ford and Jim Gensheimer each had a son in the Junior Lifeguard program at Seacliff beach south of her Palo Alto, California home, Gensheimer, instead of just watching the boys, would swim out past breaking waves to train for a triathlon.
And Ford? “She’d paddle on her surfboard and be my lookout,” Gensheimer tells PEOPLE for this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday. “If I got in trouble, I could take a break on her surfboard.”
Today, it is Ford who has thousands — maybe millions — of lookouts pulling alongside her after the psychology professor testified under oath (and “terrified,” in her words) to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 27 about being sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh when she was 15 and he was 17. (Kavanaugh has denied the allegation.)
Her story, recounted in her small and sometimes quavering voice — “He began running his hands over my body and grinding into me. I yelled, hoping that someone downstairs might hear me, and I tried to get away from him, but his weight was heavy” — seemed to free whatever women had kept locked up since the #MeToo movement began last October.
A 76-year-old survivor calling into C-SPAN with her story from second grade went viral while other survivors flooded the National Sexual Assault Hotline in record numbers. “She is a true heroine,” longtime friend Kate DeVarney, a neuroscientist, tells PEOPLE.
“Her courage in speaking up has already had a profound impact on helping all who have been victims of sexual assault,” she says, “that their story will be heard and they are not alone.”
But while many people are for rooting for Ford, 51, the surfing, soft-spoken PhD-professor-mom has perhaps as many detractors, upset that her allegations against Kavanaugh, 53, have put a wrench in his Senate confirmation.
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“A big fat con job,” is what President Donald Trump calls her allegations.
Ford’s been the target of death threats, and her family has had to leave their house, says Gensheimer, with friends taking in her teenage sons so they can stay in school.
For more about Christine Blasey Ford, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
“She’d been trying to forget this her whole life,” Gensheimer tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “Now her life is never going to be the same.”
Ford had not wanted to go public, until her confidential tip to her local congresswoman began to leak on Sept.12.
Four days later, a besieged Ford stepped forward in The Washington Post.
Two more women then accused Kavanaugh of decades-old drunken and sexual misconduct when he was a student at the private, all-boys Georgetown Prep outside Washington, D.C., and then at Yale.
All three women asked for an FBI investigation, which Kavanaugh resisted. “I’ve never sexually assaulted anyone,” he swore to the committee. “Not in high school, not in college, not ever.”
As the FBI reportedly investigates some of these claims in its one-week inquiry before a Senate vote on Kavanaugh’s lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, Gensheimer says Ford and her husband, who works in high tech, are re-evaluating their futures.
“I think they have a lot of things to think about now that the hearings are over,” he says. “I think this is sinking in, it throws in the question of, is it safe to live here? I think everything is in question now.”
If you or someone you care about is affected by sexual violence, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline