When I Discovered My Brother Was A Sexual Predator.
I’ve fallen out of touch with a lot of childhood friends, but how it happened with my Christie was different – more sudden, and at the time, inexplicable. Christie was my best friend. Her mother, Suzanne, was my mother’s best friend since high school. In adulthood, they would get together for coffee once a week. I can still remember the times I spent listening to both of them hold forth on politics and relationships at the kitchen table while Christie and I would play hide and seek. But one day, Suzanne stopped returning my mother’s calls. Christie stopped coming over too. My mom struggled with depression and it was a hard blow for her. I was always protective of her growing up, and I remember feeling angry, blindsided and hurt. Christie was my best friend, after all. After a long decline from early-onset dementia, my mother died two years ago. She and Suzanne had never reconciled.
A year later, my half-brother, Todd died at the age of 52 from a heroin overdose. When I was in town for Todd’s funeral, Christie got in touch and soon afterwards, her mother invited me over for dinner. And over glasses of beer and wine, Suzanne told me a series of painful truths that helped unravel one of the central mysteries of my childhood. In the same conversation, I learned that my brother was a sexual predator and that my mother was a rape victim. Suzanne told me that Todd and a group of his friends had sexually assaulted Christie’s half-sister, Denise, in our home. Denise would have been about 11 at the time. Suzanne couldn’t bring herself to tell my mom because my mom was “fragile,” dealing with a continuous conflict between my father and my two half-brothers, and had herself been raped as a teenager by an ex-boyfriend. Not knowing what to do, she decided to cut ties and stopped talking to my mother. Christie, meanwhile, said she felt pressured at the time into not talking to me.
After our conversation, I felt numb for days. I pushed it to the back of my mind and did nothing for months. But then the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke out. It prompted me to asked myself some hard questions. There have been women in my life I could have treated better, and missed occasions where I could have stepped up to the plate to be a better man. Then I thought about my mother, who started a feminist book club when I was a child; women’s rights were important to her. What Suzanne had told me – that my mom had been raped, and that her parents refused to believe her or act on it – made sense to me, and I was able to confirm parts of it by talking to her sisters. What could I, as a man, do to seek a small amount of justice for the women in my life? Ultimately, it was a tweet from @sansdn, a feminist Twitter user in Sydney, Australia, that spurred me to action. San@…… “It’s easy as hell to call people like Trump and Weinstein monsters. It’s not easy, however, to critique the men in your lives the same way.” 7:21 PM – Oct 16, 2017.
I decided to do just that. First, I spoke to a few of Todd’s friends. I didn’t tell them about Denise’s story but asked if they could share anything about Todd’s relationship with women when he was young. One friend jokingly told a story about how his girlfriend woke one morning after a party to find Todd on top of her and that he had to pull Todd off her. “Man, Todd could be crazy!” he said, thinking I’d laugh with him. I didn’t.
In his book The Macho Paradox, Jackson Katz argues that sexual assault is a men’s issue. Men commit the vast majority of rapes, and men have a special responsibility to hold both themselves and other men accountable for how they treat women and girls. “Men have to think about what role they play, and how they can use whatever platform of influence they have to make it unacceptable for men to act out in sexist and harmful ways,” Katz told me. “Not because they are nice guys, helping out the women, but because they have a responsibility as men in a sexist society. If they don’t speak out, and they don’t use whatever influence they have, then in a sense they are part of the problem.” But, as San pointed out, it’s all-too-easy to do that in a tweet or a Facebook post, when the man in question is a celebrity who is being publicly shamed. The real work begins where you can have most impact – closer to home. And so I reached out to Denise, and she told me that she wanted to tell her story. As she would explain to me later, she wanted other victims to know about the importance of speaking up quickly about sexual assault so they can find the support they need. We agreed to meet in person at her home in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, not far from where I grew up. It was time to go home again. I caught a flight the next day.
Whenever we threw cookouts at our home, the adults would gather on the backyard patio, while the kids would go off and play, sometimes in Todd’s room in the basement. Denise isn’t sure exactly how old she was when it happened, but as far as he can remember, Todd was about 15, and she was 11 or 12. She knew Todd and his friends and trusted them. She recalls Todd as the leader when a group of his friends encircled her and pinned her to a chair. “I didn’t know what to do. It was very scary. All I see is me on the chair and all their hands everywhere on me,” Denise told me. “I don’t hear what they’re saying. I got to the point where I was actually gonna threaten to spit on them. They didn’t like that, but then I thought I can’t really spit on them cause then they’ll get mad at me, so again I felt powerless.” She isn’t sure how long it went on for, but the memory of the emotions she felt then is still raw, many decades later. Fear, anger, and guilt, because she thought that she had brought it on herself. When the boys paused for a moment, she bolted out of the room, and to her mother. But she was afraid to say anything directly. “I just remember going outside, trying to get my mom to notice that perhaps something was wrong, but not making it so obvious that all the adults would notice. I didn’t know what to do and it was an instinct of mine learned from society that I couldn’t say anything about it because I didn’t want the grownups to get mad.” Her mother told her to go play back inside, back to the room. Denise obeyed. There, the assault continued.
At a moment when some are rushing to downplay the alleged sexual assaults committed against young girls by Roy Moore, the Senate candidate in Alabama, it’s worth saying that what happened to Denise in the basement of my childhood home was a life-altering event for her. The shame and guilt she felt in that moment lingered, and grew, and spread. At 11, she played the piano, the harpsichord, the violin, and sang in the church choir, but suddenly, her interest in music faded. Her mother knew something was wrong, but couldn’t figure out what had happened. “She was extraordinary, and that ended,” Suzanne said. “She had to be talked into going to choir practice or talked into practising. She just went into this little cave of her own making. And I thought it was because of something that was happening at school. I didn’t understand what the impetus was that began that.” Denise described her descent as a domino effect: “Your whole perception changes about how you think people look at you.” Years would go by before she would tell anyone.
There was another person I had to talk to while I was home: my other half-brother, Chris. I’m 35, and he’s 51, a year and a half younger than Todd. He would have been about 13 around the time it happened, and I needed to ask him what he knew. We met a restaurant. When I broached the topic, he asked not to be recorded, and the conversation grew heated. Later though, we talked over the phone, and he agreed to go on the record. First, he denied knowing anything about it. “I have no memory whatsoever of seeing this go on, or hearing about it, nothing,” he said. He did not speak fondly of Todd, however, recalling a time when he tried to bring a girl home only for Todd to make a move on her. He remembered Todd’s attitude toward women as being “very confident and aggressive”. “I’m telling you, the culture was different in those times. Todd was jock, handsome. Of course, he always thought the girls wanted him. Boys will be boys,” Chris said. Chris generally had two lines of thought. On one hand, he said that if what Denise described did happen, “there was nothing right about it”. But he also continually tried to shift the responsibility back to her, recalling times she did things that he said could have been interpreted as suggestive. “There may have been a little promiscuity going on. Right?” he said at one point. (Again, Denise was about 11 at the time.)
The conversation moved to our mother. He began by saying that he believed the story of her being raped as a teenager, and that hearing what our mother went through had upset him. For a moment, after what had been a draining conversation, I thought that we had finally found common ground. But again, he shifted. “I think that sucks, but the other thing I remember now – I’ve heard a couple of different people, throughout the years – is that our mother was a little promiscuous when she was young,” he told me. My heart sank. I mean, really? This was our own mother he was talking about. As we went back and forth, I concluded that the tendency to shift the focus back to the accuser was reflexive and almost hardwired in him, as I think is often the case for men of his generation. This is something many women know and have known, but I was discovering it first-hand.
Some of my earliest memories are of Chris swinging me by my feet as a child. He loves his wife and they have a solid relationship. He’s my brother and I love him. But what I found in our conversation was a painful example of the kind of attitudes that made Denise and Suzanne, as well as countless other victims, reluctant to come forward. And if I were to stay silent about it, or just shrug it off as the kind of thing guys say sometimes, I would, in essence, be participating. I choose not to participate.
Denise slowly began her healing process, and eventually got married and then separated. She has a daughter in college and a son in high school. Both live with her, and all three perform together at church – Denise and her daughter Cassandra sing in the choir, while her son Colin plays in the bell choir. Her children were in the room as she told her story. She wanted them to be there. “What I hope people get out of this is, that they should not be embarrassed about it. They should tell somebody as soon as it happens so that you can get the help that you need and you can start to move on from it. And you can move on from it,” Denise said. “I would say a lot of me has been able to move on, but there are still parts of me that need to be fixed. Knowing that these things happen, I feel that I have been able to be very open with my children. Let them know that if anything happens to them, they can come and ask me and I will not judge them and I will try and help. I think people need to know that there are people out there that will help them and support them,” she said.
Credit: Jerad Goyette for The Guardian, 28 November 2017.