What do you do, as a father, when your adult son is raped? You tell him you love him, you stand by him, make him laugh and maybe even take him to the zoo.
Editor’s Note: This is Part Two of a 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 family—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. Read Part One here.
It has been a couple of days now since our son told us that he was raped. I am back in the car, speeding through the night, this time towards home. Again, my wife is driving, but with none of the steely determination that she brought with her. She has stopped crying, but every twenty minutes or so she interrupts her silence to ask, “Are you sure that it is okay to leave him?”
I am sure. Positively…Really…Mostly.
It is hard to leave him. I will miss him and worry about him. But I think that he has all that he needs now to recover.
As it turns out, caring for a son who has been sexually assaulted is less awkward and difficult than I expected it to be. I expected it to feel like aliens stole my son and replaced him with some fragile facsimile of himself. But is still him – still the bright and strong young man that we raised. Of course he is hurting. But the pain is more like someone recovering from an accident than like someone dying of cancer.
On the trip up to see him, I had been worried about things like whether or not I should hug him. As it turns out, none of that worry was required. When we arrive he grabs first my wife and then me in massive bear-hugs. “Thanks for coming.” He says with a catch in his voice that nips at my heart.
My wife is looking eager to get started, to clean up his place, do his laundry, cook meals and generally set the world right again. But he is having none of that. “How about if we all go to a hotel?” he asks. “I could use a night away from here.” I get it. He needs us, but he doesn’t want to be treated like an invalid.
We get back in the car and he directs us to a motel. We check into a double suite with a pull out bed in the living room sofa and two queen sized beds in the bedroom. My wife offers our son his choice of where he wants to sleep. He asks to take the second bed, and I can tell from her face that she is glad to have him in the same room.
We start unpacking and take turns in the bathroom changing for bed. When I come back after my turn, I notice my wife is thoroughly ransacking her bag. “What are you looking for I ask?”
“Underwear! I could swear that I packed them!”
I can’t help myself; I laugh. While we were packing to leave, the fact that I had no clean underwear had been a major obstacle for me. She had neatly lifted me over the hurdle and I appreciated it. But it had only added to my feeling of incompetence.
Now I realize that we are on the same footing. Her plans to feed him and nurture him in all the ways that she knows how have been blown out of the water. And now we are similarly without clean underwear. As it turns out, neither of us knows what in the hell we are doing.
Our son drops off to sleep quickly. It is clear that he was exhausted. I wonder if he has been waiting for us to get there so that he can feel safe enough to sleep. I know that if I had been raped in my sleep I would have a hard time falling asleep again for a long time after that.
It takes me a while, but I finally fall into a fitful sleep. I dream that I have been challenged to a duel, but I keep getting the place and the time wrong. I keep showing up to empty fields while my challenger waits miles away gloating at my cowardice. I wake up thinking “He said the field behind the Miller’s pond, didn’t he? How could I get this so wrong?” It doesn’t take an analyst to puzzle out that little message from my subconscious.
In the small hours of the morning, my wife gets up to use the restroom, and when she comes back she leaves the light from the bathroom on. I watch as she walks back across the room. The lighting and her grief have conspired to make her look miserably haggard. I know how she feels; earlier I had seen an old and disheveled man in the mirror.
For a few minutes she sits on the edge of our bed looking over at our son. I can see what she sees. In those unguarded moments he is our little guy again, the toddler who raced around the living room like his Superman cape had caught fire. He was fearless in a way that spoke of supreme optimism and unlimited faith in his fellow humans. In this moment, he is still that little boy.
She gets up and turns off the bathroom light and settles in next to me.
“He is going to be okay,” she says. But there is just a hint of a question mark at the end of her sentence.
“He is going to be okay.” I say back with all of the conviction that I can muster.
Just after seven our son wakes me by gently shaking me. He whispers, “Want to go get some waffles before Mom wakes up and insists that you eat something healthy?”
I dress quietly in the dark, and we sneak out the door without waking her. It feels like we are partners in a caper, and without thinking, I give him a side-hug and say, “Thanks for calling us, man.” He hugs me back and says, “Thanks for coming.”
We get down to the breakfast room and my son makes a beeline for the food while I go for coffee. When he sits down across from me, his plate is loaded with waffles, eggs and fruit. He wolfs down everything on his plate in under five minutes. He similarly demolishes a second helping not even slowing down until he is well into his third. It occurs to me that he may not have eaten a decent meal since any of this happened.
We get back up to our room, and my son falls back on his bed. Within seconds, he is soundly asleep. I get the feeling that this sleep is really important to him, but check-out is just around the corner.
Five minutes later, I am standing in the lobby, trying to explain why we need a late check out. “It’s my son.” I say hesitantly. “He is having a hard time of it.”
The young man behind the counter looks at me appreciatively and says, “No problem man. You gotta be there for your kids. I got you taken care of. We will give you an extra late check-out at no additional charge.” I am so profoundly grateful and touched that I find myself welling up with tears.
“No problem, man.” He says in a voice that is one part encouragement and one part an urging for me to buck up. “You go take care of your family.”
I go back upstairs and sneak back in quietly. But my wife is awake, and as I slip back into bed she asks “What time is it?”
“Don’t worry about it. I just went to the front desk and we have all the time that we need.” It makes me feel good to say this, like I have done at least one truly helpful thing.
We snuggle up together and have a whispered conversation as our son sleeps soundly. I have been worried about what we would do all day. It seems awkward and just plain wrong to sit around the whole time just looking at each other. My wife and I decide that we will go do something as a family, maybe find a nearby park or museum. We will let our son pick which activity sounds good to him.
We get up and head into the bathroom to get ready for our day. That is when we discover just how poorly we have packed. She has forgotten deodorant, I forgot a razor, and neither of us remembered toothbrushes or hairbrushes. We both laugh about it, and these oversights only enhance our solidarity. We are in this trench together - dirty underwear and all. When we go to leave the bathroom, for some reason, she turns out the light before she opens the door. We are plunged into a deep velvety darkness as she fumbles with the door handle. Without thinking about it, I reach out and pull her into my arms. We stand for a long while in that mute embrace.
As I hold her, I realize that I have been very concerned about her since we got the news. Back when she was our son’s age she had been raped and seriously injured by her attacker. I worry that this will bring back a lot of feelings for her, and I want to give her this minute in a dark room, tucked away from our son, to fall apart if she needs to. But she is okay, she assures me. Really, she is okay.
Twenty minutes before our grace period of a late check-out expires, I wake my son by turning on Cartoon Network and upping the volume just a bit. I have given some thought to how to wake him since I don’t want to startle him after what he has been through. He comes awake slowly, but when he finally surfaces I can see that the sleep and food have done him a world a good.
Our son suggests that we visit a nearby zoo, and it turns out to be an inspired choice. We could not have chosen a better day for it. The weather is perfect, and we have the place almost entirely to ourselves since it is a school day. We can talk as we walk without being overheard or bothered.
When we go into the reptile house, my wife gets a bad case of the jitters. Between the stress of the situation and her fear of snakes, she practically vibrates with tension. I know that she would rather not be here. But our son is interested, and nothing is going to stop her from being with him. We are looking at an exhibit featuring various species of rattlesnakes, when my wife’s phone buzzes in her pants’ pocket. She yelps in fear, and starts trying to shimmy out of her jeans. She has managed to undo the top button on her jeans before she realizes that what she felt and heard is unrelated to the snakes. I am relieved when she laughs, because there is no way I can stop the laughter rising in me. We all laugh until we are bent at the waist gasping for air. It feels like a stiff ocean breeze blowing through a funeral home, bringing the promise of days spent frolicking in the sun into a dark room filled with sorrow.
We relax in each other’s company and actually start having fun. We ooh and aah over the baby animals in the nursery. We feed the ducks, and spend the better part of an hour just watching meerkats play. We tell stupid jokes and try to out-pun each other with each new exhibit.
About an hour before the zoo closes we head back over to the otter exhibit to watch what the zoo keepers have told us is their play time. We descend into a man-made cave that allows us to watch the otters as they dive and swim under the water. They remind me of our kids when they were younger, climbing out of the water and then jumping back in over and over.
As we as we watch two otters play-fight under water, my wife goes down a new list she has gotten from an expert that she has contacted. This time it is of three things that he should remember: 1) it is not his fault 2) we support him 3) he can heal. I am just grateful that these are not things that I am supposed to remember as I have again forgotten the list of four things* from yesterday.
Our son winces at the first one, and when she is done with the list says, “I am not so sure about it not being my fault. I think that I have to take some of the responsibility. I was drunk.”
My wife turns an unattractive shade of magenta, and I grasp her hand applying firm pressure in the hopes of stopping her. I am pretty sure that yelling at your kid is not on the list of things that the experts suggested.
“Do you think that while you were drunk you said, ‘I want you to f**k me after I am asleep, and even after I wake up and say no repeatedly, I want you to keep f**king me until you are done?’ Because unless that is what you said that… NO, even if you had said that you should have had a safe word, and no sane person would have done a non-consent scene with a drunk person… There is no way… How could…” She is sputtering and her voice is getting louder and increasingly shrill. Even the otters look alarmed.
“I think what your mother is trying to say…” I interrupt, patting her hand since obviously the squeezing was not getting the message through “…is that the rapist is always 100% at fault and the victim shares none of the blame.”
“But I could have been smarter” he says looking pointedly at me. “I could have been sure that this was a safe person before I ….Well, I had spent the night at his place and he at mine several times. I should have seen it coming, but it was just so unexpected.”
“Wow, who knew that rapists could be so rude? Everyone knows that it just plain courteous to give at least twenty-four hours notice before you intend to rape someone,” my wife says. I am taken aback by the absurdist humor in the middle of a very serious conversation. But my son starts laughing.
“Really, how dare he?” he asks in mock horror. “Etiquette dictates that he gives enough time for me to RSVP. For all he knew, I had plans for an unmolested life.”
And just like this my wife and my son are laughing about how absurdly rude rapists are.
No thank you notes? How gauche.
Perhaps there should be an Emily Post for Rapists. “Dear Emily, Is it still rape if you bring balloons, a cake and yell ‘Surprise!’?”
My wife has always insisted that rape jokes are NOT funny – ever. But now she is trading them with my son like baseball cards. The jokes aren’t really funny, but the two of them are cracking up. I turn and watch the otters, hoping that this does not go horribly wrong. But surprisingly, the gallows humor is almost as restorative as the sleep and food.
As we walk back to the car, I fall a bit behind my wife and son, giving the space to talk about things that he might not be ready to say in front of me. As we near the car, she puts her arm around his shoulder, and he leans his head on her shoulder. For just a couple of seconds, they walk this way. Just before she lets go, I see him take a huge breath. As they move on, there is a change in his body language. He stands up straighter and carries himself with more confidence and ease.
We are in the car looking for someplace to eat when our son says, “You know what really sucks about this? Now I am going to have to stop singing in the choir.”
“I don’t understand the connection.” I say.
“The guys who.. he is in the choir, and if I don’t want to see him at least once a week I will have to quit.”
My wife makes sympathetic sounds, but this does not sit well with me. My son has a strong baritone voice, and he loves to sing as a part of a group. He says that it is so much more enjoyable than doing solos because you are part of something bigger than yourself. He says that it is like being a fish in a school; Yes you are swimming, but you are also being carried along by the slipstream of your fellows and by the currents that move you all as one. He needs this, perhaps more now that ever.
“That pisses me the fuck off!” I say and both of them almost freeze. I never curse, and two words in one sentence is practically a blue streak. My wife casts around a wary gaze, looking to be sure that my outburst has not distracted me from some important driving task like stopping for pedestrians.
“Yeah, me too.” My son says. “But what are you going to do?”
I take my cues from their festival of dark humor in the otter cave. I do my imitation of a grumpy old man yelling at the neighborhood, speaking in a quaking and querulous voice and shaking my finger in the air. “Are you really asking what am I going to do? Because you are not so grown that I will not show up at your choir rehearsal and take that little shit aside and give him a stern talking to.”
My son laughs and in a voice that mimics the one that I had just used says, “There will be no more raping. Do you understand me young man?”
That isn’t at all the kind of conversation that I had in mind. In my imagination, I held that shitstain by his collar while I promised him that if he ever touched my son again I would fuck him up in at least six highly creative and excruciating ways before I killed him.
Suddenly, I am aware of a ball of fiery rage lodged somewhere between my heart and my navel. I take a couple of very deep breaths, but they don’t seem to help. I don’t know what else to do, so I begin reciting multiplication tables in my head. I start with one times one.
When I have finished twelve times twelve, I press the issue in a way that I hope is gentle. “There is another option. You could report the assault. I think that it might give you grounds for a restraining order if nothing else.”
He is quiet for a minute. And then he says, “Did you guys see the video that I posted a few days ago? It is really funny.”
For the rest of the ride, he and my wife share funny videos and pictures on their cellphones. I know that I have screwed up, and as I drive I try to calculate just how much damage I have done.
While we wait at the bar for a table my son says, “I think you are right. I am not going to quit the choir. I am going to walk right up to him at the next choir practice and tell him that either he quits or I will press charges.”
My wife and I say supportive things, but I am not at all sure about this plan. Facing a rapist alone sounds like a really shitty idea. But I keep those thoughts to myself. Maybe that is what he needs. After all, if the car incident taught me anything it is that I don’t know squat about any of this.
He takes a drink from his beer and then says, “I think that you guys should go ahead and go home. I am okay now. And I don’t want you guys missing any more work or spending more money on hotel rooms. I am seriously going to be okay.”
My wife is so stunned that her mouth literally falls open. I am not as shocked. I saw something shift in him after their time with the otters. He needed food, sleep and to know that his parents were available if he needed them. Having been held, and heard and fed, he has his feet under him again and wants to reassert his independence.
My wife tells him that we will worry about work and money later; family comes first. But I support our son, and she soon realizes that she won’t win this one. She thinks that she is being tactful and discreet when she disappears into the bathroom for a long while. But we both know that she is crying.
While she is gone, I listen while he talks about what happened. What he told me in those moments, I will take with me to my grave. I tell him that I have been keeping a journal and am thinking of making it a series of articles. He gives it his blessing. Like me, he feels in utterly foreign territory, and believes that we should at least leave behind us a map.
Over dessert and coffee my wife takes a piece of butcher paper that she has gotten from our server and writes out a contingency table. “If I am alone and start getting upset or anxious I will ______.” “If I am having a hard time in the middle of the night, who will I call?” With his permission, she puts the phone numbers for different people who have offered support, a crisis hotline, and even the number for inpatient treatment if he ever needs it.
As she reels off the list of resources that he has at his disposal, I realize that I have absolutely no idea what recovery will look like for him. I am deeply concerned about his plans to confront the guy. And I have no idea what the road ahead will look like. What does our support look like now? Do we call him every day, twice a day or wait for him to call us?
And so I sit in the car, and watch as the mile markers whiz by. We are nearing home, and my wife has stopped asking if I am sure that it was okay to leave him. Unnervingly, now that I no longer needed to reassure her, my confidence in our decision to leave him is waning.
I text him, “I just want to be sure that you aren’t alone tonight.”
He texts back: “I love you too.”
*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)
Heart photo: Flickr/nadia & massimo