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Stories to Live With


What she wanted to tell me was that my brother had been raped. Dan shared this with her not long before they broke up. He was drunk one night, and they fought. She suspected that he knew he was losing her. Through his anger and his tears he told her the story, how he’d been just a child when it happened, six or seven years old if she remembered correctly. When she told me Dan’s description of the rapist, I knew exactly who it was.

This news made him even more mysterious and distant to me. How could I imagine that, the act itself, much less what it meant to him? How could I dream my way into his shame? In some perverse way, this revelation put an end to my desire to learn more about his life. I couldn’t bear to think there were more skeletons leering in the closet, waiting to be discovered, if only I managed to find the person with the knowledge of the secret. Besides, learning he’d been raped shifted the blame. Cracks appeared everywhere in my story of who failed him, and how, and when. Although I’d refrained from crafting elegant theories about his motives, in effect offering a forgiveness he did not seek for an act he did not explain, I’d failed to grant myself a similar pardon for my inability to save him. The simple and persistent notion that it was my failure to call him that led to his death began to slip away as I found myself unexpectedly exonerated. It was as if I hadn’t been able to bear the thought that his pain was so profound I couldn’t have talked him through it even if I’d tried. I needed the distinction. I needed to believe I was that important to him, although deep in my heart I knew I was not. The news that he was raped as a small boy—this brought to the surface a hidden truth of his death, an obvious truth I had failed, somehow, to grasp: that it was about him. It was nothing personal, at least insofar as his family was concerned. Can we possibly make our peace with that? That perhaps there is nothing we could have done given what we did not know? That he hid his shame so brilliantly, so capably, that we could never have seen him in all his complexity, no matter how hard we may have tried?

This story, viewed in just the right light, absolved both him and those of us who loved him, yet it still had about it the odor of a spoiled fruit. Try for a moment to imagine this being the greatest gift you ever give your parents: the knowledge that their son was raped as a young boy. Imagine hoping that this news can be—in addition to many other things—a source of some small comfort and even relief. So it wasn’t inexplicable, his death. It didn’t arise out of nowhere. People who report being sexually abused as children are six times more likely to attempt suicide, according to reliable studies. So there you have it: sleep tight, Mom and Dad.

Imagine the act of traveling halfway across the country to confront a child rapist being the one thing you can do in your brother’s memory that seems worth a damn anymore. Imagine being ushered into his bland middle-manager’s office, finding him a little flabbier than you remembered, a bit too falsely jovial, and shaking his hand, exchanging polite meaningless words, smiling at this man you can’t help thinking is responsible for your brother’s demons, your brother’s death, no matter the voice of calm and reason in your head. The small talk dwindles to inanities; the moment arrives when you must announce the purpose of your visit. Imagine feeling the most unexpected thing just then: nervous, ashamed even somehow. What if you have the wrong guy? What if your brother made up a story for sympathy in a moment of crisis, when he felt himself to be losing his fiancée? Imagine thinking, for even an instant, that your brother was capable of inventing such a story to manipulate a woman he loved.

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Comments Post a Comment »

  • Not to deflate this writer's balloon, but why did he think his work was done? The perp admitted his guilt -- no guiltless person would stop at lack of memory; he had said that because he didn't know what proof the writer had and feared violence or public exposure too much to deny it outright. So why did the writer not look into what access the perp had to any small children at this point? Even if the perp were childless and worked in a corporation, was he a youth pastor, a scout master, a peewee ball coach? The writer has no reason to blame himself for his brother's death, but if what he wanted was justice, there is plenty left to be wrung out.

    Posted by Mike on Sat 24 Dec 2011

  • Agree with Mike's comment.

    The writer's brother would have truly died in vain if the pedophile is not brought to justice. The same "reliable sources" proves that pedophiles have a pattern of doing this not on just one but many children. For the writer to protect the identity of the abuser and bring a touch of bad taste to his brother for being an unwilling victim shows everything that is wrong with our society today.

    It just so seems, after reading this article, that perhaps it is better for our male (the females have far much more help: a mere accusation instantly brings legal circus around the male abusers) victims simply turn over and die than be empowered against their abusers.

    Posted by Ben on Sun 25 Dec 2011

  • Reminds me of Anne Enricht's "Gathering", except for the ending that takes the story in a different direction.

    Posted by Michal on Mon 26 Dec 2011

  • Mike and Ben: to report what else he did with the information he had is another essay, another purpose than this essay serves. The author is not writing a 'coming to justice' nor an education piece for victims of abusers. What you both say, that abusers should be reported, even decades after the fact, is all true. What the author did or didn't do in those terms are not part of this narrative.

    Posted by Grant on Mon 16 Jan 2012

  • Of course what the author did/didn't do is part of this narrative. Did you not read to the end? He spends the ultimate paragraph discussing his feeling of release after looking at the perpetrator; clearly the author's impression that "[his] work was done" is meant to operate as the cathartic moment of the essay.

    Posted by Mike on Thu 2 Feb 2012

  • There is room for compassion here, there is room to embrace this grieving man and point him toward groups waiting to give him solace and power to handle this unspeakable thing left only to him. As a group we are charged to want justice and I am convinced it will come more quickly when we lend the man a hand rather than piling on with recriminations. He did not owe us a Chapter Two. I am certain we all encourage him to find the group that will take him through the next steps because he is not alone. I leave it to readers to do their own web search, it will not take long to find the appropriate and welcoming sites. RSD

    Posted by Roberta on Fri 10 Feb 2012

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About the Author

Philip Connors is currently at work on a memoir about his brother, to be published by W. W. Norton. His book Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout will appear in paperback from Ecco Press in February 2012. His last essay for Lapham’s Quarterly appeared in the Spring 2011 issue, Lines of Work.

You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s. He’s more particular. The father is always a Republican towards his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat.
Robert Frost, 1960
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