Imagine you’re the father of a young man who was raped. What do you do? Where do you go? One father shares his family’s story of pain and healing.
Editor’s note: This story was sent to us by one of our regular writers, someone whom we love and support. He has asked for his name to be withheld to shield the identity of his son. We—along with the author and his son—feel their story is one that needs to be told, as too often fathers and sons are left out of the narrative of rape and survivorhood.
I am writing because I don’t know what to say and I can’t think of anything else to do. My wife and I are speeding through the dark, rushing to be with our son who is experiencing …I don’t know what. The truth is: I don’t know anything about male sexual assault and how to help my kid.
This was not covered in the parenting manuals. And there is no pamphlet in our doctor’s office “How to help your son recover from rape.” I don’t know what to expect. Will he be going through the stages of grief? I don’t know what to do. Do I hug him or do I do what I normally do: slap him on the back and say, “Hey dude, it is good to see you”? I don’t know what to say. Do I go with, “Hey, heard about your rape. That sucks, man”?
My wife is uncharacteristically silent, and when she does speak her voice is eerily calm. When she called this afternoon, I knew that she had bad news as soon as I heard her voice. She was talking in that deliberately calm voice used by doctors and police officers as they deliver bad news.
She said, “Honey, I want you to get up right now and go somewhere private and call me back.”
“You caught me while I was out of the office.” I said. “I can talk now. What’s wrong?”
“I just heard from our son. He needs us to go up and be with him. He was raped.”
I had been walking through the parking lot , on my way into my office building but her words stopped me dead in my tracks. My brain quickly started sorting out the words that she had said, putting them together in different combinations, trying desperately to make some sense of them. I thought, “She said ‘rape’, but she was talking about our son. Has he been accused of rape? Certainly not. She must have said our daughter. Or maybe I just heard raped when she actually said …what?”
“I have made a couple of calls, and I am putting together a list of resources for male rape victims. But what he really needs right now, what he is asking for, is for us to drive up and be with him. He has specifically asked for you to come as well as me. So you are going to need emergency family leave.” My brain jolted as I realized that I had not heard her wrong or misunderstood. Our son had been raped, and he had to be seriously traumatized. For him to ask for us to come and be with him, he had to be in very bad shape. And for him to ask for me… he must need something from me, and I have no idea what it is or how to give it to him.
Shock settled over me, making my brain buzz like a florescent light fixture “I don’t know what to say,” I mumbled.
I meant that I was so overwhelmed by the news that I had no idea what to say or do. But my wife misunderstood. She had already moved beyond disbelief and had begun executing a list of things we needed to do before we can leave. “You tell your boss that your son was assaulted, and that he needs his parents. You don’t need to be specific. Just tell him that your son is expected to make a full recovery, but he needs his parents right now.”
I followed her instructions, feeling hollow and robotic as I went to talk to my boss. As I stumbled through some sort of explanation I wondered if I was talking too loud. I felt like my head was a big empty echo chamber that somehow is magnifying my voice. He made the appropriate sounds and told me to take whatever time that I need.
By the time that I got home, my wife had a list of four things we needed to remember when helping our son through this. First a list of resources and now tips for interacting with a male rape victim. This is how my wife handles problems. Had she been aboard the Titanic, she would have set off ransacking the library if they had one or the Captain’s quarters for a reference book on how to survive nautical disasters. Then she would have read aloud from it as she ordered around the crew. “It says here that all lifeboats should be launched completely full. That one has an empty seat. Throw in my husband here.”
Four times now she has told me the list of things that we need to remember*, but I’ll be damned if I can remember a single one. None of them were concrete suggestions like, “Take him for a beer.” Or “No alcohol, just hot tea.” I searched my mind for something – a book or movie – about how a dad handles his son’s rape. Even if the guy got it all wrong, I figure that at least I will know what not to do. But I can’t think of a single cultural reference to this. I realize that we are in Lewis and Clark territory here. There are no maps.
Even packing was odd. What does one wear to comfort a son who has been sexually assaulted, I wondered. Then a thought struck me, if the police were involved, would they take him more seriously, be more motivated to seek justice on his behalf if I am dressed in a business suit?
“Are the authorities involved?” I asked, hesitantly.
“No, and I support him in not reporting it. In that information I got from my sources, I read that police officers are not very good at handling a same-sex rape, especially if the rapist and victim had a prior relationship.”
“So this was date rape?” Even as I ask it, I realize that it doesn’t really matter. Rape is rape no matter where it happens or who does it. I feel the gravity of that now as never before.
“No, it was one of his best friends. They had gone out to a party, and when they got back to his friend’s house it was so late he accepted the guy’s offer to crash there. When he woke up his friend was…” her voice trailed off.
I couldn’t think about that, didn’t even want to imagine what it would be like to wake up to a friend raping you. So I concentrated on packing, and I decided that casual would have to do. I was throwing things into a bag when I realized that I have not done my laundry. I have no clean underwear. I began riffling through dryer, going through a stack of clothes next to the hamper hoping to find some that aren’t too ripe.
My wife saw what I was doing. She said in that almost creepily calm voice: “There is a Target near his apartment. You can pick up some when you go out to get some groceries.”
I wondered why we will be buying groceries. Then I realized that she will be cooking for our son. She will probably leave a couple weeks worth of food in his freezer when we go. It seems that you feed a fever and a cold, and a broken heart and a person recovering from the trauma of rape.
Now, as I sit in the passenger’s seat with my wife driving exactly nine miles over the speed limit, I can’t stop myself from thinking about what my son must have felt. How scared he must have been. How powerless and violated. I wonder how large of a bomb crater will be left after we clear away the debris. Will he have PTSD? Will he need to come home and be near us for a while? How will he learn to trust again? Will he ever have another male friend?
I don’t have clean underwear or a clue of what to do when we finally arrive. My wife has lists, resources and food. I’ve got nothing. The one thing that I can offer my son is what I am bringing him: my presence and my love.
But as I have been writing this, I realize that I am not just writing to keep myself occupied. I am bearing witness. I am writing because there is something incredibly powerful that sometimes happens when the suffering of victims is validated and recorded.
I am also writing because I don’t want other dads to feel like I do right now, so lost that I don’t even know which map to use. I don’t have any answers, but at least I can share my experience. And maybe if enough of us do that, we can start to discover what helps and what doesn’t.
I expect that this will not be a short journey, and so it is my plan to write regular updates, to bear witness to my son’s suffering and recovery as a male rape survivor. I don’t know that what I write will actually help anyone, but writing is the one thing that I can do.
And I need something to do.
*Some reminders of how to help survivors when talking about their assault:
1. Express empathy for their experience and feelings.
2. Remind them that there is nothing anyone can do to deserve rape, ever, and that they were not to blame for what happened to them.
3. Ask them what they want and how you can support them, such as being present or giving them space, resources for healing, or supporting them reporting or not reporting their assault. Put the agency for moving forward in their hands, and let them guide you in how to help.
4. Offer resources for their healing, or offer to help find those resources – such as a support group, a therapist, a 24 hour support helpline, or even the police or campus authorities, should they want that.
For a 24/7 support hotline that is welcoming to male survivors, contact SafePlace.org or call 512-267-SAFE (7233)
Photo: Flickr/Rob Deutscher