We called him Ralph, on his insistence. His daughter was my age -- which was, what, 8? 9? -- and all the kids that would come to her house called him by his first name. We gossiped about him, too, although not within his daughter's earshot. Ralph is gross. Ralph is a skeeze. Don't let Ralph hug you. He hugged everyone, all us kids, and the hugs went on too long and sometimes there was a kiss that surprised you with a repulsive, probing tongue, and everyone knew there was something weird about Ralph but we never said anything to a grownup.
Until someone did. I don't know who it was or what was said but all of a sudden Ralph's name was in the paper and along with his history of being an IBM employee and a family man with a wife and kids, Ralph was described as exactly what he was: a molester.
It wasn't until my mother tearfully asked me if Ralph had ever touched me in an inappropriate way that I realized that what he did was wrong. Really wrong.
Not just the hugging. The other stuff.
It only happened once that I remember. I was spending the night with my friend, and we were sharing her bed. It was dark and Ralph came in and climbed in bed next to me. Was she asleep? Was she pretending? I don't know. He whispered that he thought maybe I was cold, and that he would try to warm me up. He took my hand and brought it under his pants to his penis. It felt monstrously creepy, skin slipping loosely over some hard insistent thing, and I pulled away. Did he say anything, then? I don't know. I think maybe he just left, as stealthily as he'd come.
And that was that, except for those hugs and furtive French-kissing attempts. Ralph was gross, I knew that much. We all knew that. But I never considered telling anyone about that night -- not because I was afraid, or even ashamed, but because I didn't really realize the seriousness of what had happened.
It all came out when he ended up in the paper. My babysitter told my mother that she'd heard me saying something about how Ralph was creepy, and my mother sat me down and asked me questions, and eventually she wept brokenly while I confessed. I remember she was so, so upset ... not just that it had happened, but that I'd never said anything. Why, she kept asking me. Why?
I didn't know then and I still don't know now. Why didn't I tell anyone about what he'd done? Why didn't it even occur to me that he was doing very bad things to kids, and that we all needed help? Surely I wasn't so uninformed as to not know it was wrong for a grown man to put a little girl's hand on his penis?
I don't know how many kids Ralph molested, and I don't know what happened to him. I know what happened to me, though: my mother packed us up, sold our house, and moved us across the entire country, from Virginia to Oregon. For a while, I was sent to a counselor who, just like the jokes go, asked me to point out the areas on a doll where I'd been touched. I felt bewildered, a little, at all the attention -- at all the fuss. Eventually life went on, and I think I can say with honesty that I mostly forgot all about Ralph.
It's only now that I'm a parent that I really have a sense about how my mother must have felt back then. How furious she must have been with Ralph, how heartbroken and frustrated she must have been over my silence.
What would I do if the same thing happened to one of my children? I think I would lose my mind with grief and anger. I would want to tear the flesh from the molester's body with my bare fingers, I would never in a million years be capable of forgiveness.
And oh, I would be shattered that my kid didn't come to me. I would question, a thousand times over, what I could have done differently. Should I have talked more about the bad things adults sometimes do to children? Should I have drilled it into them over and over: if this ever happens to you, tell an adult?
What did my experience teach me, I wonder. And the answer is the same as it's always been: I don't know.
How do you educate your children about sexual abuse, and what age did you start talking about it?
Image via Flickr/mrhayata