My dad was the kind of guy who lit up a room when he walked in. He was known by most as a world adventurer, a working-class hero who’d give you the shirt off his back, a man who prioritized compassion above all else, as someone who could make you feel like he’d known you your whole life within minutes of meeting you. He was also a convicted rapist.
Yeah, that last one surprised me too. But as the current news cycle is making painfully clear, offenders are often the last people you’d expect them to be. They don’t exist in a vacuum; they’re our brothers, our coworkers, our friends—and our fathers.
My dad and I had a complicated relationship. I loved him—I mean, he was my dad—but as I got older, his normally jovial character started to morph into an increasingly toxic personality. When things were good, my dad taught me candid life lessons, he shared my passion for music, and he always made it clear how much he cared.
But when things were bad, he was prone to fits of anger, guilt-tripping, and gaslighting. As much as his friends and family raved about what a great guy he was, my dad wasn’t always so much fun to be around. In-between those awful tantrums, he’d act like the supportive parent I’d always wanted, which made me wonder for years if I’d imagined the awful parts.
By the time my father died of a sudden heart attack, I was in my early 20s, living far away in another state. At that point, I’d learned how to love my dad for who he was while accepting that he’d never be the emotionally available father I really wanted. In those final years, we mostly spoke on the phone, and over time, I learned how to keep things light and when to hang up if he tried to take the conversation in a negative direction.
A few days before my dad’s funeral, I was back in my hometown, sitting on the couch in my aunt Cassie’s living room. We were sorting through old pictures, looking for images of my father to tack onto those funeral parlor memory boards that people stare at when they’re trying not to cry too much. In the oldest snapshots, I saw a man I barely recognized: Dad in his 20s, walking across a Spanish beach in scuba gear; Dad on vacation, kicking back on the deck of a boat with a beer; both of my parents, together, young and tan and invincible, leaning out of a train in Thailand on their honeymoon; Mom and Dad in front of a Christmas tree, a two-year-old me squished between them, big grins on all of our faces.
In those younger years, my dad looked so vibrant and carefree. He was nothing like the pale, tortured man I’d known at the end of his life. When I mentioned this out loud, a web of family secrets came crashing down.
“Well,” my aunt said before taking a deep breath. “Something major happened between then and now.” I don’t know what made her decide to finally tell me the truth in that moment, because what she went on to share had been a family secret for decades: When I was a blissfully oblivious preschooler, my father—who spent the weekends watching Barney and Friends with me for hours—had been convicted of sexual assault.
Years after that moment, sitting on my aunt’s living room couch, surrounded by photos of happier times, I’d dig up more details about the case. I’d learn that it was a date rape, that it happened on a work trip to a tiny town after a night of partying, and that the survivor was significantly younger than he was. I’d discover what drugs were involved in the assault and would read a horrifying write-up in that tiny town’s local paper that repeated his (and my) last name ad nauseum, alongside the word “perpetrator.”
But when my aunt first told me about the assault, all I knew were a few fuzzy details. I knew that it happened while my parents were still married, that my mom threw up when he came home and told her what happened. And I knew that I was tucked in bed at home, cozy and unaware, at the exact moment that another woman’s life was permanently altered by my dad.
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By the time I learned the truth, my job description included (and still includes) writing frequently about sexual assault and the importance of believing women. But still, I had a hard time reconciling things: I knew my dad could be a jerk, and even manipulative, but a rapist? I scanned through every interaction I’d ever seen my dad have with women, searching my memories for clues that something was off. But that’s the thing: Sometimes, you just don’t see the signs.
It turns out that at the time of my dad’s death, I was the only person in his universe who still didn’t know what really happened; when charges were pressed shortly after the assault, the news spread all around our small town. Most of my dad’s friends stayed by his side in the aftermath, and although my parents split up, my mom defended his character when it came to the assault. He went to prison for a short while, and I was told a made-up story to explain his absence—which, to be clear, is definitely not how a shrink would suggest explaining this situation to a kid.
My family rallied around my dad, fully convinced that the case was some kind of mistake or false accusation. That’s what most of them still believe. I wish I could fall right behind them in that line of thinking, but I can’t. In all the years I spent with my dad after his release from prison, he never gave me a clue that he would hurt a woman in that way. But what’s tough to grasp, and what my family still struggles with, is that my dad’s geniality doesn’t mean this assault never happened.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the children of publicly outed predators. I wonder whether Harvey Weinstein’s daughters have trouble sleeping. A few years ago, when Bill Cosby finally faced consequences after years of sexually assaulting women, his daughter Evin publicly defended him. The internet responded with a (justified, in my opinion) mix of rage and pity at the deep well of denial she seemed to be lost in.
Whenever I think of telling my friends about what happened to my family, I think of Evin Cosby. I tell myself that for now, my dad’s past needs to stay a secret. Before I share the truth with my friends, I have to find a way to explain that I can love my father without being in denial that he did a terrible thing.
How do I express that I see my dad as both a great and awful guy at the same time? How do I point out that while I still admire some aspects of his character, it doesn’t mean that I think he’s innocent of sexual assault? It’s tough to distill all those complicated feelings into a sound bite you can toss out over drinks when sharing childhood memories. One thing is for sure: When a beloved public figure is accused of sexual misconduct, no matter how likable or kind they seem, I am no longer surprised.
Sometimes it tears me apart that I can’t offer my dad’s legacy the unquestioning loyalty that his siblings and his mother did. But then I think about his accuser. Is she OK? Does she know he’s no longer alive? When he was released from prison, was she scared that the man who sang me to sleep and wiped away my tears would find her and hurt her?
No matter how much of a hero he was to my five-year-old self, my father was simultaneously someone else’s “me too,” and I can’t put that fact into a tidy box. Maybe someday I’ll settle on some definitive answers about how I feel. More likely, though, I won’t. Instead, I’ll learn to permanently exist in the emotional in-between of my family’s messy, painful truth.