In the early 1960s, a doctor in a small town was sentenced to four years in prison for raping three teenage girls during their gynecological exams. The girls didn’t understand what was happening to them. Each of them learned after the exam that the doctor had been using himself in place of a speculum.
Twenty years later, his life reclaimed, the doctor held his young granddaughter’s hand and led her through his exquisite garden, teaching her the names of his flowers. He showed her how to set up a birdfeeder that attracted songbirds and repelled the crows. Smitten with her grandfather, the child would fall asleep with words like foxglove, alstromeria, and tanager dancing through her head.
I am that child. I didn’t find out until I was 21 years old that my grandfather was a rapist. I had just graduated from college. My mother sat on my bed one night, and said there was something she needed to tell me. As her words tumbled out, I mentally justified each revelation:
“37 years ago, Grandpa was sent to prison.” (For something minor, I thought.)
“He was convicted of rape.” (Statutory, I was sure.)
“Several of his patients came forward and accused him.” (Why would they do that?)
“And he confessed.”
It was the dawn of the Internet age, and my mother was afraid that at some point I might find information about my grandfather online. I don’t think it ever would have occurred to me to research him -– to this day, I’ve never Google searched any other relative. But suddenly I knew more than any news article or conviction record could tell me. My grandfather slept peacefully in the next room, his arms wrapped around my grandmother, as they had been nearly every night for more than 50 years.
My family loved my grandfather so deeply it bordered on reverence, and it simply did not occur to me that I could feel any differently. New laws were restricting the activities of sex offenders. My grandfather would not, my mom explained, be allowed to play tennis in any public park unless my grandmother accompanied him. He would have to cease his volunteer medical work.
“Life is going to be very difficult for him,” she fretted, “so we all need to be supportive.”
Nothing changed the night I found out, and as I learned over the years, not much had changed either on the night when my grandfather was arrested. My mom was 16, the same age as the youngest victim. My aunt and uncle were younger. My grandmother moved the family to a different town and waited patiently for my grandfather to return.
The day after I found out, my sister gave the valedictory speech at her high school, extolling the virtues of public education while lambasting the local school board. My grandfather cheered loudly, and his face glowed with pride in his outspoken progeny. Seated next to him, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for my honest and forgiving family.
Throughout my twenties, I rarely thought about what my grandfather had done. I spent a year in Turkey and befriended a Kurdish refugee family living in a tent outside Ankara; worked as a family planning counselor in Philadelphia; and got a master’s and law degree in Boston. I adopted a dog, broke several hearts, picketed the 2000 Republican Convention, wrote poetry, learned to cook, took art classes, and went on and off various psychiatric drugs. I was restless, but satisfied. My family anchored me.
Soon after turning 30, I met a young woman named Viviane. She was seeking political asylum in the U.S. after being raped and tortured by the police in her native Cameroon. I was working at a law firm in D.C. and accepted Viviane’s case pro bono.
Once a week for almost a year, Viviane sat in my office and re-told her story, hoping eventually to gain the confidence to tell the story in court. I would go home at night and cry myself to sleep, thinking at first that I was blessed with an abundance of empathy, and then realizing -– very suddenly and without warning –- that I was not crying for Viviane, but for three women whose names I didn’t know, whose faces I would never see, and whom I would never be able to help.
“My grandfather is a rapist.”
I started saying these words to myself frequently, at unpredictable times. I would be riding the metro to work, or eating breakfast at my desk, and -- perhaps in fear that my life had become ordinary –- remember that my grandfather was a rapist. I also started telling anyone who would listen, which really meant anyone within earshot. One day a co-worker asked me to have a drink with her after work. We sat in the Old Ebbitt Grill, drinking red wine and watching the lobbyists and congressional aids get trashed on expensive martinis.
“Have I ever told you my dad cross-dresses?” my co-worker asked me.
“My grandpa is a rapist.”
I won. I won every time. I would stop conversations, become the center of attention at parties, make new friends and send others running. I discussed my newfound realization with my cousins, who agreed that it was odd how nobody discussed Grandpa’s crime or treated him any differently. We started referring to him as “The Rapist,” which -- horrifyingly -- made the situation a little bit funny.
Grandpa would ask for the salt at Thanksgiving dinner, and one of us would mutter, “The Rapist wants the salt.” When he turned 90, we brainstormed how to celebrate. Would it be more effective to give him a gift certificate for mandatory castration, or show up at his birthday party wearing armored girdles?
But none of these retributive fantasies ever came true. My family forgives by denial, and when I tried to challenge my mom’s and aunt’s loyalties to their father, they insisted that “He was a good father, “It was a long time ago,” or -– most bafflingly –- “It could have happened to anyone.”
What “happened” to my grandfather could not have happened to most people, because people make their own moral decisions. My grandfather made a terrible choice. But I made choices, too -– the choice to bury my own horror, and then to revive it and make it my identity. I became the Granddaughter of the Rapist, in a fruitless quest for understanding, retribution, and redemption.
Recently I took on another pro bono client, a young Russian woman whose brutal rape by the Russian police forced her to flee and seek refuge in the U.S. I feel protective of her, and responsible for the treatment she receives in my country. I want to assure her that she will be safe, that such horrible things don’t happen here -- but of course I can’t. I can only tell her that I will help her get political asylum. Sometimes I’m afraid she’ll ask me why I care about her. I’m afraid of what my answer will be.
At 36, I’m learning that I will never make peace with what happened, but also that it didn’t happen to me, and that nothing I can do will give back to three unknown women the lives they deserve. I can simply be myself, be truthful, and find other stories to tell.