Monday, June 20, 2005

When a Family and a Community Shatters

Our neighbor found out a couple years ago that her oldest daughter was being molested by her husband of almost two decades. Apparently, he had been molesting her for six or seven years and had recently been trying to molest her best friend and that is when this whole thing got out in the public. He was thrown in jail and before a trial could be held, he plea bargained and for admitting his guilt to one count of the several dozen he was being charged for, he has to spend the next twenty-five years in prison. He left behind a shattered family and a shattered community to pick up all the broken pieces.

Paul and Patty (not their real names) have been friends of our family ever since I can remember. Being part of rural Iowa, we consider and call them neighbors even though they actually lived over fifteen miles away by gravel roads. Partly because when you live in a rural area, you want to retain a sense of community even if that means calling people that far away neighbors and partly because they farmed quite a bit of land next to my parents farm and lands. Although their kids were younger than my brother and I, we spent lots of time entertaining them on visits, picnics, and family get togethers at their and my parent's houses. At no time did we ever suspect anything was wrong.

Paul and Patty home schooled their kids, partly because they were poor and couldn't afford everything associated with public schools but mostly because they thought they could do a better job. Patty undertook all of the teaching duties and because they were the only home schooled children I knew, I paid close attention to see how well their education was compared to mine. Even though Patty only had a high school education and was never what you would call an academic, she did a good job of teaching and the kids always seemed to be as smart or smarter than their peers. The one thing that was missing however was the social interaction with other kids and other kid's backgrounds. I think this was a factor that let the molestation go on for so long.

The molestation began when the oldest girl was only twelve. According to the mother and father, the father had intercourse with the young girl several dozen times and from what the mother has said, told the girl that it was what all fathers did to show their love for their daughters. When the daughter was turning eighteen, her father started taking her and her best friend on road trips to haul grain to the river on overnight trips. Paul evidently tried to make moves on his daughter's best friend who knew that such behavior was wrong. The daughter's best friend started asking questions of Paul's daughter and shortly the daughter talked to her mother Patty. Patty called the police, Paul was arrested and the family along with the community shattered into millions of tiny pieces that can never be put back together the way they were.

I was floored when I heard the news because it took me completely by surprise. I had spent lots of time with Paul and had even gone with him on a road trip myself to try and patent a good idea that he had. I had talked with his daughter lots of time and never once did I suspect anything. Paul was a member of my parent's church and actively took part in doing leadership roles and teaching Sunday school classes. How could he do such a thing and remain unnoticed for such a long time? To this day still partially blame the home schooling that created the lack of social interaction with peers where she might have learned that such behavior was neither acceptable nor commonplace as she was led to believe.

I haven't seen or talked to Paul since he was arrested and later put in prison but my father has. When one of your friends gets thrown in jail, the neighborly and Christianly thing to do is to go visit him. Before his trial and his admittance of guilt, most of his former friends and neighbors abandoned him already assuming guilt. My father would visit him once a week, mostly listening as Paul talked of his family and farming. I don't think my father ever asked about the specifics of the trial mostly because he didn't want to know and even warned Paul that anything he said about it would be turned over to the authorities. Nevertheless, Paul wrote my parents letters talking about the crime and in the end, they turned them over to the prosecution, which didn't make Paul very happy. He has since quit talking to my parents.

During this time that my parents remained in communication with Paul, the community and Paul's wife Patty expressed their displeasure. It's understandable, but my parents were between a rock and a hard place. Do they presume guilt too and turn down a long time family friend, abandoning him like so many? It created lots of bad feelings in the community until people realized that because they listen to Paul doesn't mean they condoned his actions. Eventually those wounds closed over but I'm not sure they will ever completely heal. Patty on the other hand I think understand more fully than others and has become good friends with my parents once again. Enough so that she asked to join our father's day celebration at the park on Sunday for the sake of normalcy for her youngest kids.

However, the pieces still lie everywhere and sharp edges abound. I find myself biting my tongue always wanting to mention Paul's name in some old memory that our families share together and not knowing if that will hurt worse than avoiding his name altogether. Those kids are growing up without a father and by the time they get a father back, if ever, they will have families and children of their own. Will they allow their father to be a part of their child's life? The sharp edges of the pieces will be exposed even then.

The molested oldest daughter left out east to go to a college far away from her father and the memories and refuses to come back. I think the pieces in the form of memories followed her out there even though she was trying to avoid them. At the age of nineteen, with the wounds of her past still fresh, she married suddenly. I am terrified that her marriage is a rebound of her past and a way to feel loved after having been hurt by the one you loved the most. I feel sorry for her. The pieces lay everywhere in our community and their sharp trail goes all the way out east. Can a community and a daughter ever pick them all up so that life can resume?

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