I'll never forget the call. It was three years ago. I was 30 years old, enjoying a beautiful fall Saturday in Austin, when I got a text from my brother-in-law: “Family talk — 15 minutes.”
I was confused, but didn’t think much of it.
When my brother-in-law called, I got a shock so big I fell to the floor.
"We found out that your father has touched a little girl,” he said.
First I felt anger that my father could do something so horrendous. Then, a huge wave of sadness washed over me so forcefully that I crumpled to the ground, grabbed my knees, and began taking enormous breaths.
Granted, my father wasn’t what you’d call a good man. When I was 13, he'd become addicted to online pornography; a few years later, he came out to our family about his sex addiction. He’d had a string of affairs while married to my mom. Still, my siblings and I thought he was 20 years past all of that.
Apparently he wasn’t, and this transgression was different. This was the mack-daddy of all crimes. This was the one that outdoes them all.
My brother-in-law was calling because something had happened the night before between my father and a little girl. It was so appalling that the girl told her parents, and the police were informed. An arrest seemed likely.
My father is now behind bars, serving up to six years in prison for this offense.
I don’t share this news easily or often. In fact, whenever I speak honestly about my father, the first question is almost always, "Were you abused, too?"
Not physically. My father’s pornography addiction infiltrated my parents’ marriage and for hours, almost every night for over a year, I heard them have phone sex with other couples. I'd lay there traumatized, my whole body shaking with nerves.
I now understand that what I endured was sexual abuse, even though it wasn't physical. What I learned from therapy, from close friends who have also been abused, and from self-help books, is that sexual abuse isn't always in the form of physical touch; it comes in many other varieties, which can be just as damaging. In fact, any act in which sexual exposure occurs (physical, verbal, visual, or psychological) and the child is victimized is considered sexual abuse.
If you think you may have been a victim but need more help, I highly recommend A Wounded Heart as a wonderful resource. This book not only put to words the emotional and relational problems I was having as an adult, but it helped me relinquish the shame I was carrying and provided incredible tools to help me heal from the past.
Something that this book also helped me learn is that, much like an addict or someone with a behavioral issue — most child molesters don't just become so overnight. It’s a degenerative condition, usually set in place when the abuser was first abused himself as a child. When the pain and trauma didn't get correct healing, things got worse.
My father is a prime example of this. While he is an adult and is therefore responsible for his own behaviors, there were many factors that got him from point A to point Z. He was neglected by his parents who favored his older brother, and according to family rumor, he was abused at a summer camp when he was young. When online pornography became so easy to obtain in the 90’s, his sex addiction hit full throttle, and because it never was fully addressed in therapy, this was the next step of his acting out.
Since this ordeal, my eyes have also opened up to the sad truth that people don't view child molesters the same way they view other criminals. I guess I’d always done the same; but just never given it much thought.
Now, when I'm in a conversation and the topic of child molestation is brought up, I always think to myself, If they only knew that this "worst person ever" they're describing ... is my dad.
I always avoid sharing what I know because it would undoubtedly create the most awkward moment, and we’d have a difficult time recovering to regular conversation. People think it's so far removed from them, or as though it's so disgusting that a "normal," educated person could never know — let alone be related to — someone who is a child molester.
While I hate what he did (and what all of them have done), seeing my father in this ostracized group suddenly humanized sex offenders and overwhelmed me with compassion and sadness in knowing that they were probably all victims, too.
Since this crime is "the worst of the worst," people like my father are practically ruined for life. It depresses me, and makes me scared for how people might hurt him while he’s in prison, and apprehensive about him ever fully moving past this.
Even though it seems unlikely that I'll ever have a real relationship with my father, I’d love to see him embrace the truth of his crimes, find full rehabilitation, and move beyond this so he can enjoy the latter part of his life in peace. It's difficult to know what could actually work for him. While there are programs and self-help groups out there, especially for the spouses of the offenders, few of them have proven to be radically successful.
My hope in coming out with my truth and the lessons I learned is that we undo the stigma that's attached to child molesters, and raise awareness of just how common child sexual abuse really is. Here in the United States, one in five girls and one in 20 boys is reported to be abused, but the majority of cases go un-reported, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
It's so much more prevalent than we fully realize. I hope that by coming out with my story, I can shed some light on what I've learned, and discuss things that people might otherwise be afraid to.