My maternal grandfather was a pillar of the community, beloved by his family. He was also sexually abusive. He died when I was a child. I only remember one incident happening to me—during a cuddle session he encouraged me to put my mouth on his penis, and then told me to let it be our little secret. I've always remembered that. I feel like more happened, but no additional memories have ever surfaced. There were rumors I heard as an adult that he molested other kids in the neighborhood. And he had a sexual relationship with my mother.
She says nothing happened as a child but as an adult he started telling her he loved her in a romantic way. My godmother told me he was "all over her" at parties. My mother told me she fully realized his intentions when he said he wanted to take nude polaroids of her. And she let him. All she'll really say about how she felt about his attentions is that they "made her very uncomfortable." And she loved him—she and her sisters all pretty much idolized him. My one aunt knew (she said nothing happened to her), and I asked her how she reconciled that. And she said she guessed she compartmentalized it—she loved him, thought he was a wonderful father, and didn't really think about the other stuff—and when she did, she just wished he wasn't "that way."
I did lots of dramatic processing of this stuff and lots of therapy in the late 80s and early 90s. I read books, I journaled, I talked to my mom and tried to understand what she experienced. I got caught up in being a survivor, and wanted to reclaim repressed memories of worse stuff happening to me. But I never did. And little by little I started to let go of the drama of it and I stopped chasing down the idea of repressed memories. I came to terms with the fact that although I suspected other stuff had happened to me, I would never actually know. And that that was OK. And I moved on as much as anyone could.
So now it's 2019 and I'm almost 50. My mom just moved into a nursing home, and while cleaning out her drawers... I found those polaroids my grandfather had taken of her, Dan. I know it was him because he is in some of them, taken into a mirror as she goes down on him or he feels her up on his lap. They were taken over a period of years. She had led me to believe he never really did anything sexual with her besides photos. But he did. She said it didn't happen when her mother was alive, but I can tell from details in the photos that it did.
And here's the thing, Dan... in the photos, for the most part... she looks happy. I know she was probably acting, because that's what he wanted from her. But it just makes me question my assumptions. Was it terrible abuse, or forbidden love? Or was it both? What am I looking at? There's a part of me that wants to dramatize, and there's a part that wants to minimize, and how sick is this, and how common, and how likely is it that she enjoyed sex with her father? What would I prefer—that she enjoyed it or that she didn't? Could she have been happy? She kept the photos. Were they fond memories? I know that she loved him. She kind of fell apart when he died. Was he a fucking manipulator who had a gift for making his victims feel loved and special as he exploited them for his own selfish needs? Yeah, probably that's closest to the truth. But I don't actually feel like I know anything.
I don't know if I'm going to bring it up with mom. She's old and sick and in a nursing home, and I dragged her though these types of conversations in my twenties. I might. I don't know. I'm writing you just because I want context, I want input, this is so far out of most people's experience and I want someone who has heard more sexual secrets than probably anyone in the world to tell me—just tell me something. Tell me what you think.
Whirlwind Of Emotions
I think you should immediately sit down and watch all four hours of Leaving Neverland, the new HBO documentary by British filmmaker Dan Reed. It focuses on the experiences of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two now-adult men who were sexually abused by the pop star Michael Jackson when they were boys. Allegedly. It's an important film to watch, WOE, but it's not an easy one to watch, as it includes graphic descriptions of the sexual abuse both men claim to have suffered as boys.
The second-most disturbing part of the film after the graphic descriptions of child rape—or the third most disturbing part after the credulity/culpability of Robson and Safechuck's parents—may be what the men have to say about Jackson. Both describe their abuser, a man who sounds a lot like your grandfather, i.e. a pedophile and a predator and an expert manipulator, in romantic terms. They both say they loved Jackson and both remain deeply conflicted about their feelings for Jackson then and their feelings for him now. It was their affection for Jackson—their desire to protect him, to protect themselves, and to safeguard what Jackson convinced them was "their" secret—that led both men to lie to law-enforcement officials when Jackson was accused of sexually abusing different boys.
You should also listen to Mike Pesca's discussion with Reed on The Gist. Reading your letter today, the morning after I watched Leaving Neverland, reminded me of something Reed said to Pesca:
"What the film's about is the reckoning. It's two families coming to terms with what happened to their sons. And a big part of understanding that, you know, so why the silence? Why did the sons keep silent for so long? Why did they keep the secret? And the key really is to be able to explain why Wade gave false witness and perjured himself on the witness stand. And the reason for that, of course, is to do with how survivors of sexual abuse experience that. And how they keep a secret and how they form deep attachments sometimes with the abuser and how that attachment persists into adult life."
Your mother, like Robson and Safechuck, lied to protect her abuser. Her father in your mother's case, a man who abused her and abused you and without a doubt abused others. She may have held on to those photos for the same reason Robson and Safechuck say they defended Jackson: she loved her father and was so damaged by what he did to her—she had been so expertly groomed by her abuser—that she felt "loved" and "special" in the same way Jackson's alleged abuse once made Robson and Safechuck feel loved and special. So as horrifying as it is to contemplate, WOE, your mother may have held on to those photos because they represent what are, for your mother, "fond memories." And while it would be a comfort to think she held on to those photos to prove she was abused to family members who doubted her story if she ever decided to tell the truth, her past defenses of her father work against that explanation.
Leaving Neverland demonstrates that sexual abuse plants a ticking time bomb inside a child—shit, sorry. No passive language: Leaving Neverland demonstrates that sexual predators like your grandfather and like Jackson plant ticking time bombs in their victims. Even if a child is groomed to believe that sexual abuse is proof that they're loved and special, a reckoning almost inevitably comes. One day the full horror and weight of what was done to them comes into focus—and, if the victim was manipulated into defending their abuser, they can wind up feeling guilt for the the abuse others may have suffered. These reckonings can shatter lives, relationships, and souls.
It doesn't sound like your mother ever had her reckoning—she may never have come to grips with what was done to her and, tragically, what was done to you. And your mother wasn't the only member of your family who "didn't really think about the other stuff." Just as denial and compartmentalization enabled Jackson and facilitated his crimes (and allowed the world to enjoy Jackson's music despite what was staring us all in the face), WOE, denial and compartmentalization allowed your "pillar of the community" grandfather to rape his daughter, his granddaughter, and scores of other children.
Like Robson and Safechuck, WOE, you have a right to be angry with the adults in your family who failed to protect you from a predator. That many of them were victims too provides context but it does not exonerate.
I'm glad your grandfather died when you were young. It's tempting to wish he'd never been born, WOE, but then you would never have been born and I'm glad you're here. I'm particularly glad you there, right now, embedded in your damaged and damaging family. By being there and telling the truth, WOE, you're shattering the silence that allowed an abuser to groom and prey on children across multiple generations of your family. Your grandfather can't victimize anyone else, WOE, but by being there and telling the truth you've made it harder for other predators to get away with what your grandfather did.
P.S. You might also want to do a little reading about repressed memories. This short piece offers a good summary...
However, to quote the American Psychological Association, there is “little or no empirical support” for the concept of repressed or dissociated memories of sexual abuse. People who were sexually abused as children usually do remember some or all of the event, although they may not talk about it or see it clearly.
...while this longer piece at Pacific Standard goes deeper. Suffice to say, WOE, it's possible you don't recall other incidents not because you repressed the memory, WOE, but because there were no other incidents. The single incident you do recall is bad enough and damning enough all on its own.
P.P.S. There's a moment in the credits for Leaving Neverland that I think you might want to replicate. It involves some things one of Jackson's alleged victims saved and a fire pit. You'll know what I mean when you see it.