My rapist’s wife is smiling at me. She’s holding hands with her toddler, kneeling next to her in front of an auburn-leafed tree that stretches its branches toward a perfectly blue sky. Mother and daughter are wearing matching outfits. They even match the tree. A yellow dress for the little girl with the wispy blonde hair, and a matching accent scarf for the mom with perfect teeth and beachy waves. She’s holding a letter board.
#CozyFamily #GirlMom #Twinning
I’m pretty sure that I own the same pair of ankle boots, the kind with the zippers on the side.
Her husband stands behind them, one arm threaded protectively behind his newly walking daughter so she doesn’t topple over.
They look like something that I’ve saved on my Pinterest board. The one that I call “Family Photo Ideas.”
Their smiles are matching. My rapist’s daughter looks happy, as all toddlers should when they are nestled between the grown-ups that keep them safe. My rapist is a grown-up now. And his job is to keep her safe.
I never meant to Insta-stalk this man, the one with the unique last name that makes him very easy to find. But algorithms had interrupted my mindless scrolling the night before to serve me a suggestion that was very possibly his brother.
I knew his last name, because I repeated it to the Dean of Students at our university 20 years ago. I knew his last name, because it had a unique sound when spoken on tape to a police officer.
One out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, according to RAINN and a survey conducted by the National Institute of Justice. After I took two showers that morning, after my roommate drove me to the hospital, after I dropped out of the chemistry class that I shared with my rapist (even though I was getting an A), I would look around every other class that I was in and wonder if the women there were also in the 1 in 6 club. I would do the quick math. If there were 24 of us in a class, then four of us had been thrown from a life trajectory that we had earned, by an entitled perpetrator who believed he owned our bodies.
Time, distance, and great therapy softened the adrenaline response that used to be my trusty sidekick. I started working in shelter programs and police departments. I convinced myself that I could put my memories in my pocket, reaching in to the darkness on occasion to turn the smooth stone of pain over in my hand, reminding myself that it was there.
I moved to a different city, created a new life with a husband and two children. When I thought about my rapist, he was forever the 20-something boy with the pictures of his high school sweetheart on the bulletin board in his bedroom. I had convinced myself that he was frozen in time.
Until his wife stared back at me on my screen, daring me to doubt the perfection of her suburban hashtags from the tiny square of her Instagram photo. For those of us who were assaulted by our peers in high school and college, the entrance into parenthood is a reminder that healing includes shepherding our own children through a world not yet fluent in the language of consent.
We rely on social media to connect us to a community of parents who share similar experiences. What happens when we are reminded that some of those parents are perpetrators? They are parenting our children’s classmates, coaching their sports teams, and yes, even teaching their own daughters the importance of consent and personal safety. Perhaps their wives are reading the same midlife articles that we are, fighting their changing bodies and gasping for breath in a #MeToo era that reminds them of how precarious it is to be a woman.
My rapist’s wife gives him the cover of decency, of obscurity, of Pinterest-perfection, simply by existing. I have no doubt that the secrets of her husband’s devastating choices are buried as deeply in his pocket as mine are. What does it say about his redemption if their life together can be spun into an Insta-advertisement for boho clothing and trendy mascara? What does it say about me if I catch myself coveting her perfect long bob and her ability to create place settings from pine cones?
It makes me pull my children closer. I look around at back-to-school night and imagine who might be joining me in the 1-in-6 club. But this time, I’m wondering whose husband played a role in this statistic. What if he is here, in this carefully crafted adult life that I have created to protect my children from the life that I lived before I was their mom?
Rapists grow up. We cannot leave them behind and hope that they stay there, even if social media softens them with hashtags and filters. They will grow up to hurt us in different ways, with unearned power and privilege and political capital. Not all of them will run Hollywood movie sets or become famous, but they might run baseball practice or the neighborhood watch.
The ongoing project of raising boys is to create a world where they can absorb and reflect kindness and empathy. To give them the tools to navigate relationships and rejection, and to help them to be fluent in the language of consent and concern. The conversations that I have with my sons have an urgency about them, a furious need to protect them from experiencing the pain that I have felt. Or causing it. Because every rapist is somebody’s son and every rapist can also grow up to be somebody’s father.
I study the face of my rapist from where he is encapsulated on my phone screen. I can’t help but wonder if his protective arm around the girls he loves is a reminder that he knows how dangerous the world can be to them. Perhaps he has found himself somewhere in the valley between regret and remorse, furiously shielding the women in his family from the scary monsters of the world. It shouldn’t take loving a wife or cherishing a daughter to teach someone that women’s bodies are not to be owned or conquered or destroyed.