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.