This is the thing I don’t want to say: My son’s beloved community theater teacher raped one of his former students.
The reason I say raped, not “allegedly raped,” is because he was convicted, and sentenced for having sex with a 14-year-old girl, a former student. Statutory rape. His conviction rattled me to the core. The experiences my son had under this theater teacher’s supervision were hugely positive. He and his family are people I like. I still can’t imagine he’d do something so terrible —and yet he did.
When he was arrested nearly two years ago, early June, the news hit me fist-in-stomach-hard. On that very hot afternoon, I felt mostly for the teacher—and for my eldest son, who’d studied with him and worked on a couple of community productions as a stagehand. The teacher’s accuser, a former acting student of his, had been just 14 at the time of the alleged crime—and I didn’t want to think about her at all.
In a long, intense, teary conversation with our 12-year-old, my husband and I defined statutory rape. We explained that neither accusation nor arrest assured guilt. We said this wasn’t black and white, right and wrong, necessarily. Our boy was scared and confused; we tried to allay his fears.
Privately, we whispered that the best-case scenario was likely entirely gray. If he’d made the mistake of being alone in a building with a 14-year-old, that was a lapse in judgment, not a crime. Things couldn’t be as bad as they seemed. Could they? We didn’t want to believe someone we’d trusted, someone that cheery and that focused on a vision for the community, could be hurting a child in one of the worst ways imaginable. In my denial, I was too willing to cede all benefit of the doubt his way. I couldn’t articulate it to myself then, but I didn’t want to face the possibility that I’d put my son in harm’s way.
In the days that followed we offered our concern to the teacher and his wife. From arrest to trial to sentencing 18 months lapsed. When I saw the teacher with his young son, he was a dad not unlike the other preschool dads, cheerful and patient and overtired. Up until the trial, I didn’t let myself contemplate rape. It wasn’t that I actively disbelieved her—thought she was lying or consenting. I just told myself it was the jury’s to decide. Although I am a feminist and mother to a daughter, I found the possibility of his guilt too disconcerting—and I willed it away. Or tried to will it away — what gnawed at me was that I let my fear and my loyalties place me on what I’d have generally imagined to be the wrong side of a rape trial. I’m ashamed that I couldn’t take a real step toward having empathy for her, because I was so afraid of how I’d feel if I believed her.
I read newspaper reports of the trial both reluctantly and avidly. The young woman’s testimony and others’ corroboration were compelling. His testimony that he hadn’t been alone in the building was corroborated, too — but if I hadn’t thought of him and his family as friends, I knew I wouldn’t have believed him. The jury didn’t: he was convicted. Five counts of statutory rape. He was released on bail until sentencing.
I’m not sure why I was incredulous. I’d acknowledged that had he been a stranger I wouldn’t have harbored doubt. I hadn’t stopped liking him, though. To see him as perpetrator remained too hard to imagine. Instead, I saw the father and the husband; I saw the son and the wife. I wrote a letter on his behalf to advocate that he serve time in the county jail closer to his son without hesitation.
I should have let in the possibility of the young woman’s truth so much sooner. Once I read newspaper reports of impact statements the accuser and her father both made during the sentencing hearing—her mother was too upset to speak—the walls I’d put up crashed down. Her anguish and her parents’ grief propelled me to experience my own fear and anger at my son’s vulnerability. I started shaking. Finally, way too late, I was scared. I was devastated for the victim. And I was ashamed I hadn’t really worried about her before.
That afternoon my son texted me: “Five to seven years.” He was in stage manager mode for the high school musical. I texted back: “I know. How are you?” He replied, “Fine.” I knew we’d talk, eventually; I didn’t know what I’d say.
That same night, at the show, I watched all those earnest performers and my sense of violation, even at a remove, surprised me, like a rush of water I’d barely held at bay with a faltering dam that finally burst. I was flooded with sadness and fear for all the families who trusted this man, including us. I don’t think my son wanted to imagine the teacher had done something so wrong — and I hadn’t pushed him to do so.
In retrospect I fault myself for how little we discussed the victim, her violation, her feelings, her rights. I still don’t know how I turned away from a whole side of a two-sided story. Or maybe I do—and that’s the thing I feel worst about—that I didn’t want to feel something terrible could occur so close to us, that it wasn’t a stranger or a person I deemed unsafe for my son to learn from accused of this crime, so I held fast to my denial, some very washed out gray.
But I only wanted the kind of gray that would let me be right about someone I’d trusted as a friend. This kind of gray—the kind that allows my trusted friend to also be the man who raped a girl barely any older than my son, that allows me to have been so wrong, that leaves me both angry and fearful and grieving and somehow still caring—this is a gray I’d never imagined, and never imagined trying to navigate a child through. It’s left me looking at myself in disbelief. That fist-in-my-stomach breathlessness isn’t going away.
Sarah Buttenwieser is a writer in Northampton, Mass,. who writes the blog Standing in the Shadows for the Valley Advocate newspaper. A version of this article appeared in Motherlode, the parenting blog of The New York Times (http: parenting.blogs.nytimes.com).