'The Day I Learned My Father Was a Pedophile'

This article first appeared on davidrynick.com.

One of the disturbing and hopeful sign amidst the many difficulties of our present world condition has been the continuing parade of revelations about the sexual predation of men in power.

The assaults reported seem to have occurred in almost every sector of our society, from religion to entertainment, from sports to politics, and within the confines of the nuclear family itself.

Wherever men have held power over others, some of them have used it to gratify their sexual desire.

I suppose this should not be a surprise. The drive to procreate is one of our great biological urgencies.

When our species was young, the men who did not really really want to have sex were the ones who lost out in the competition for mates and offspring. Therefore we did not inherit their less urgent genetic coding.

And piled on top of this primal drive, our western culture is the perfect Petri dish of conditions for sexual assault: the intensely cultivated myth of muscular individualism (a recipe for loneliness) and the aggressive media campaign of hyper-commercialized, commodified sexuality as the answer to whatever ails you.

I write this not to make excuses for my father's actions, but to put into context what I am about to reveal. My father was not a bad man, but what he did brought great and continuing harm to victims and to those around him.

My recently deceased father was a caring and somewhat charismatic minister turned therapist. He was also one of those sexual predators who we have been learning about, though it was never public knowledge.

He confessed to me one sunny afternoon in the late summer several decades before his death. We were walking on the bank by a small stream when he told me that he had had sex with young women when he was in his thirties and forties and was married to my Mom, his first wife.

Sue Lyon, the actress who played the title role in 'Lolita,' Stanley Kubrick's movie from Vladimir Nabokov's novel about a pedophile, July 1962. Michael Hardy/Express/Getty

I was shocked but not surprised. He had always been strangely close to teenage girls and the circumstances of his divorce from my Mom were convoluted at best.

My response to his confession was to tell him that what he did was deeply wrong; both the violation of his marriage vows and the inappropriateness of the age difference.

He admitted to bad judgment, but defended his actions by saying "I was so lonely I wanted to die. Would you rather I had killed myself?" He was ashamed and defensive, all at the same time.

I didn't press him for details. What good would it be to know the sordid details of what was in the past and so clearly wrong already? He was in his early 60s when he confessed to me. At the time, I thought he was genuinely repentant, but now I'm not so sure.

I was troubled by his confession, but wasn't sure what to do. In the end, I decided to do nothing. I believed that the events that had happened were in the past. I thought he was telling me the truth.

I was also strangely honored that he would share this terrible secret with me, that I would chosen for this complicated intimacy.

I was wrong on every count.

Wrong, first in thinking that these events were in the past. To my knowledge, he never sexually assaulted another young woman after this time, but I have come to see that these sexual predations are never over. The consequences of these events in the lives of the victims and perpetrators are deeply traumatic and continue through their whole lives.

I learned this first from one of my stepsisters, the adopted daughter of my father's second marriage. I was never a part of that family and she and her sisters had cut off all contact with my father shortly after their mother died.

I vaguely knew this was because of my father's inappropriateness, but I had no idea the extent of his predation until I got in touch with my stepsister two days after my father's death.

In the course of the conversation, she told me the story of her ongoing assault and rape at his hands while she was in high school. My stepsister herself had repressed these horrific memories until she was in her twenties and beset with debilitating panic attacks while in medical school.

I was shocked and horrified to hear her stories. They made sense in the context what my father had alluded to, but the duration and the actual conditions of his abuse were far beyond what I could ever have imagined. What my father had confessed to me was only a shadow of the real truth.

In speaking with my stepsister, I realized, for the first time, the terrible and ongoing impact of his actions on her. I listened as well as I could. I was thankful that she would tell me the truth and told her how sorry I was that my father had done such terrible things to her.

I also said how sorry I was that I had not asked more of my father and had not reached out to her when I first heard. She was thankful for my listening and said it made a difference just to be heard and believed.

Through listening to my stepsister's story, I have begun to understand some of the struggles that victims of sexual abuse have throughout their lives. This was all brought back to me last week in reading Diana Nyad's amazing and courageous article, "My Life After Sexual Assault," that appeared in the NY Times.

Nyad speaks not just of the terror and confusion of the assault itself, but of how these events have impacted her vision of her self and the world around her all her life. How the struggle goes on.

My other mistake in response to my father's confession was to keep it secret. I did tell my wife, and eventually my daughter. I also, very belatedly had a conversation with his third wife. But now I see how I could have done more.

I thought the events were in the past and there was nothing that could change what had already happened. What good would his public humiliation do? I didn't want him to be subject to the fury our hypocritical society has for those who commit sex crimes and certainly didn't want him to go to jail.

I see now that my silence was a kind of collusion with his original crimes. This silence was a continuing pain for his victims who could not tell their story—could not have their truth acknowledged.

Part of the violence of these sexual violations is the silence that must be maintained after the assault. This silence is coerced with the lie of the "specialness of our relationship" or the threat of what will happen if the truth comes out.

I should have held him more accountable to face the impact of his actions–to confess and make amends to these women who he had used so selfishly for his own ends.

But the silence was also destructive for my Dad. I don't think he was ever able to come to terms himself with what he had done. He never went beyond a shame and fear of public humiliation.

I have come to see that this is very different from a true confession, acknowledgement of harm done and willingness to attempt to atone for what he had done. Though he never could have made up for what he did, there might have been some healing for his victims and for himself in at least bringing it out into the open with honesty and remorse.

Though there were never any real public consequences for his actions, my father lived the last decades of his life in fear and a consuming, but barely acknowledged, guilt. The possibility of public humiliation and even criminal charges dogged him all his life.

He used to tell me that he thought he was forgiven. But through the last years of his life my father suffered from nearly debilitating depression and frequent night terrors. On the last morning of his life, he was terribly agitated at one point and said. "We need to protect the children. We have to make sure they are safe."

He was right, but he was never able to make the connection that one way to do this might have been for him to be honest about what he had done. And in this, I was complicit.

My telling this story publicly now is not to defame his memory but to have the truth be known, both for his victims and for others who are perpetrators and victims, that they might not be alone in their suffering and that we, all of us, might protect the children.

Now that we are beginning to unearth and name some of the violence that has been done by men in power, what do we do?

Here are some of the questions that we need to explore:

  • How do we honor and support the victims in their life-long journey of healing?
  • How do we deal with the perpetrators in a way that holds them accountable and also acknowledges their humanity?
  • What are the root causes of sexual violence and how can we begin to address them?
  • Can we teach our young boys to allow themselves the full range of emotional connection so it's not a choice between sex and desperate loneliness?
  • Can we begin to take action against a commercial culture that exploits and objectifies women to sell its endless products?
  • Can we find new ways to honor the power, intimacy and delight of sexuality as an integral part of our lives?

The good news is that the tacit acceptance of sexual abuse by men in power is being challenged across our culture.

We are beginning to hold ourselves accountable to protect those who are vulnerable and even white men in positions of power are no longer immune to the consequences of their actions.

David Rynick, is the author of This Truth Never Fails, a collection of short observations and reflections.