A close family member was accused – twice – of sexual assault. It was two decades before I questioned why our family believed him instead of his victims.
I am a woman. I am a feminist. And it took me 12 years to admit that someone I loved was a sexual predator.
This isn’t easy to acknowledge, but it feels especially important after a year marked by several high profile accusations of sexual assault and domestic violence. Almost every case featured public scrutiny of the accuser’s history and values and motivations; almost every case featured a woman who choses to publicly stand by the accused. Many other women responded with shock and disappointment: Why would any woman defend a rapist? How could any smart, confident woman be in such denial?
The public refusal to believe rape accusations is harmful to all women, and it casts a shadow on rape victims all over the world. But as appalling as it is to refuse to believe a woman who has been so brutally violated, I cannot help but feel some empathy with the disbelievers, because when a close family member of mine – who I’ll call Steve – was accused and convicted of sexual assault, I refused to believe it.
My father had left for Nigeria when I was two years old and my brother was six months old and, as we grew up, Steve was what we imagined a “cool dad” would be like: he was funny, he swore, he played pranks. He always had time for us when it seemed like all the other adults had more important things to do.
The first time Steve was arrested for sexual assault was in 1988, when I was seven years old. I remember little more than visiting him in prison, talking to him through the glass. Nobody talked about why he was there.
When he was released three years later we all acted as if nothing had happened. Steve went back to being the ticklemonster and the prankster in the family. He babysat me. We went to Disneyland together.
Three years later, he was arrested again – this time, for a particularly violent rape of a prostitute.
After his second arrest, I was old enough to know what was going on. His parents frantically scraped up every dollar they could for his defence, emptying their retirement accounts and selling their house. They were confident that the truth would win out and people would see that Steve was the victim of a vindictive woman.
Steve’s parents were kind and loving people. But these charges brought out a shocking side to them.
“That whore”, Steve’s dad would say. “That lying whore.”
When the victim showed up to court covered in cuts and bruises and her neck in a brace, Steve’s parents argued to us that it was a ruse: the bruises were makeup; the neck brace was for show. My mom, who hadn’t even been particularly close to Steve, believed all of their stories and justifications. She never said anything to vilify the victim, but she would say that something about it just “didn’t seem right.”
When Steve was convicted for rape for the second time and sentenced to 12 years in prison, we still didn’t believe that our Steve was capable of something so monstrous. His parents cried every day over the injustice of the system. My brother and I sent letters and pictures to him in prison. He made us little gifts in return, and we treasured them. I dreamed that the police would realise they had made a mistake and he could come home. I would wake up crying.
I missed him desperately.
Nobody ever talked about the first conviction. Nobody ever discussed the charges that led to his 12-year stint. We didn’t tell any of the extended family where he was.
Even after I grew up, got married and had kids, I still didn’t believe Steve was a rapist. So, when he was released, I greeted him with open arms. We had a party; I painted a banner.
One evening, a few years later, we were all at a family dinner. Somehow his jail time came up in conversation.
“That whore,” his dad whispered. Everybody quietly nodded and changed the subject.
After dinner, I drove home with my brother’s then-wife and I realized she was shaking with rage. I didn’t understand.
She finally turned to me and said, “Do you realize that he just called a rape victim a whore?”
She looked at her two little girls in the backseat, and I did too. I finally realised what this looked like to an outsider, what I had been condoning all these years – all to preserve the fantasy of a man who never existed, all to keep from realising that my love had been wasted on someone who was the embodiment of everything I stood against.
What a failure of a family we were, to enable this man and to put a roof over his head while he was victimising women. I can’t imagine how people must have shaken their heads at us as we refused to believe a woman covered in injuries, and how terrified they must have been to have us in their neighbourhood. We must have seemed absolutely delusional to deny that there was anything behind not only one, but two rape convictions. How heartless we must have looked to call a rape victim a “whore”.
It’s terrifying that we never questioned it.
I no longer have any relationship with Steve. The man I see now has tainted every memory of the man I once knew. His mother, to this day, rages at the system that unfairly locked him away, and she still supports him financially and emotionally. I think that admitting that the baby she rocked in her arms grew into a monster would kill her; it would strip away every year, and every day that she had poured her love and devotion into him.
We have to believe victims, even if we are hurt and ashamed by what they say. It’s necessary to face that pain and that shame in order to protect the innocent and get justice for those who have been harmed. The pain and heartbreak that the families of rapists face should never be an excuse for turning your back on victims – and I know just how devastating acknowledging the truth can be.