Christine Blasey Ford sent an unusual Facebook message to her best college friend this summer with a question: Had she ever mentioned a sexual assault that occurred when she was in high school?
Her friend, Catherine Piwowarski, her onetime roommate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said she had no memory of that. She didn’t know at the time that Dr. Ford was considering coming forward with her allegation that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her in the 1980s, when both were teenagers in suburban Maryland.
Interviews with friends and acquaintances of Dr. Ford paint a picture of a guarded person, one more interested in discussions of sports and science than politics and personal trauma. Her decision to go public this week with the explosive accusation has thrust her into an uncomfortable spotlight and put her three-decade-old memories at the center of a fight over the fate of President Trump’s second Supreme Court nominee.
Democrats have pointed to her allegation as a reason to disqualify Judge Kavanaugh. Republicans, without dismissing her claim, have questioned why her allegation wasn’t aired sooner, before hearings were held earlier this month. They also say that her recollections are spotty and imprecise but potentially tarnishing to a nominee they see as extremely qualified for the court.
In recent days, Dr. Ford has faced online intimidation and death threats, and her family relocated from their northern California home, her lawyers said. This harassment, her lawyers said late Tuesday, has made her reluctant to testify Monday about details of a night she has rarely discussed and has said she struggles to remember. While she had initially agreed to testify, her lawyers said she would only do so after an FBI investigation into her allegation, which Republicans have rebuffed, saying nothing new would be learned.
Dr. Ford didn’t return calls for comment or answer the door this week at her home in Palo Alto, Calif., where she lives with her husband and two sons. Her lawyer Debra Katz also didn’t respond to requests for more information.
Dr. Ford, a 51-year-old research psychologist, said in a Washington Post article that she and Judge Kavanaugh were teenagers at a party in the early 1980s when he and a friend, whom she identified as Mark Judge, pulled her into a bedroom. Judge Kavanaugh pinned her down on the bed, groped her and tried to take off her clothes before she escaped, she said. Dr. Ford told the Post she didn’t tell anyone about the alleged incident in detail until a couples therapy session with her husband in 2012.
Judge Kavanaugh, 53, unequivocally denied the allegation, saying he didn’t know who had made the claim until Dr. Ford identified herself in the story on Sunday.
“I have never done anything like what the accuser describes—to her or to anyone,” he said.
Mr. Judge has told lawmakers he has no memory of the alleged incident.
Dr. Ford’s friends describe her as credible and trustworthy; Judge Kavanaugh’s have defended him as respectful and honorable.
Dr. Ford, a professor at Palo Alto University in California, graduated from the all-girls Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Md., not far from the Georgetown Preparatory School Judge Kavanaugh attended. High-school classmates recalled her as a kind and popular cheerleader who played soccer and was on the diving team.
“She was one of the nicest ones,” said Eliza Knable, who was in the same high-school class but not part of the same friend group as Dr. Ford.
Many Holton-Arms students socialized with or dated boys from nearby prep schools, including Judge Kavanaugh’s, said Samantha Semerad Guerry. She was among a group of Holton alumnae from the class of 1984 who signed a letter to lawmakers in support of Dr. Ford.
“One friend said, ‘If she can’t prove it, she doesn’t put pen to paper,’” Ms. Guerry said of Dr. Ford’s allegation. “She’s not an overly sentimental person. She brought logistical reasoning.”
Judge Kavanaugh’s friends are similarly convinced he is an honorable man incapable of the offenses Dr. Ford described.
“In every situation where we were together he was always respectful, kind and thoughtful,” Maura Kane, who dated him in high school, said in a statement. “The accusations leveled against him in no way represent the decent young man I knew.”
None of Dr. Ford’s high school or college friends interviewed for this story remembered her talking about the alleged incident at the party. Betsy Kingsley, a high-school friend, said she recalled a different gathering that both Dr. Ford and Mr. Judge attended during her sophomore year of high school.
Friends said it was clear Dr. Ford remained traumatized decades later. Jim Gensheimer, a friend in Palo Alto, said she confided in him that she needed more than one exit door in her bedroom to prevent her from feeling trapped.
She told some classmates she was concerned that coming forward would diminish her privacy, Ms. Guerry said.
In July, Dr. Ford sent a tip to the Post and wrote a letter to her congresswoman, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D., Calif.), who encouraged her to reach out to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. She wanted to tell her story in confidence “so that lawmakers would have a full understanding of Brett Kavanaugh’s character and history,” Ms. Katz, her attorney, said in a letter to the committee. After reporters caught wind of the letter, Dr. Ford came forward to tell her story on her own terms, wrote Ms. Katz, who is well-known in Washington for her work representing women in the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment.
Friends say Dr. Ford isn’t intensely political. Federal records show that Dr. Ford, a registered Democrat, has made three donations since January 2017 totaling $42 to Act Blue, an online service that provides a one-stop donation platform used by Democrats seeking office.
The recent publicity Dr. Ford has received is in contrast to the quiet professional life she built for herself.
After high school, Dr. Ford threw herself into her studies, spending much of her time working in research labs, Ms. Piwowarski said.
At Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., where she pursued a master’s degree, she learned to surf and met Brian Merrick, an avid surfer, through mutual friends. They started dating around the end of 1991, which blossomed into an eight-year relationship, said Mr. Merrick, adding that she was “sweet, cute and with a good attitude.” He met and grew fond of her family in the Washington, D.C. area, describing her father as a self-made man whose conservative views sometimes clashed with her liberal outlook. But Mr. Merrick never saw her become involved in or working for a political cause.
At no point in their relationship did she mention an incident involving Judge Kavanaugh—whose name he had never heard before—or any case of sexual assault.
“It strikes me as odd it never came up in our relationship,” Mr. Merrick said. “But I would never try to discredit what she says or what she believes.”
Dr. Ford’s studies led to a distinguished career in psychology. She has co-written more than 50 scientific books and publications on topics such as the relationship between childhood abuse and neglect and adult depression; post-traumatic growth after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; and whether acupuncture is a useful treatment for depression during pregnancy.
After receiving her doctorate from the University of Southern California, Dr. Ford worked as a research associate in psychology and biostatistics for Allan Reiss, a psychiatry professor at Stanford Medical School.
Dr. Ford focused on the quantitative analysis in studies involving children with “genetic and medical risk factors for suboptimal behavioral outcomes,” Dr. Reiss said, including such rare conditions as fragile X syndrome and 22q deletion syndrome.
“She was thoughtful, thorough, collaborative, good-natured. And it’s hard to be good-natured, sometimes, in that role, because a lot of people may want the results to be in a certain direction or of a certain nature, and sometimes they’re not that way,” said Dr. Reiss, director of Stanford’s Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research. She served as a co-author on several of his papers.
Dr. Ford later moved her primary office to Palo Alto University, which operates programs in partnership with Stanford.
Samantha Buchman, who graduated from Dr. Ford’s clinical psychology doctoral program in 2017, said Dr. Ford talked sports, not politics, in class. “She likes to use a lot of surfing metaphors when she teaches because she is a surfer,” she said.
Ms. Piwowarski, the college roommate, said Dr. Ford visited her a few years ago in North Carolina ahead of the divisive 2016 presidential election, but they didn’t talk politics. Instead they chatted about their experience raising teenagers as their children played in a river.
—Jim Oberman, Paul Beckett, Jess Bravin and Lisa Schwartz contributed to this article.