I once shook
the rapist's hand. That was, of course, before my brother's phone call,
when he told me about the rapist, that the man that his ex-wife had been
dating, was engaged to be married to, even, was the rapist. The rapist
had been raping for over thirteen years. The rapist was a cop who investigated
crimes against juveniles, including rape. He had told the mother of one
young rape victim, "I can't understand that. I can't understand how someone
could do that to children." There was real anger in his voice, the mother
said. As if he was feeling real pain over this. The rapist never assaulted
children. His victims ranged from 20 to 55. Even a rapist must, after
all, have a moral code, a line over which he will not cross. I've heard
that serial killers will not kill other murderers. Recognition of the
profession, you know.
The rapist had been very good at his job
as a cop. Many officers on the county police force said he was an honored
and valuable detective, decorated over and over again. A cop became the
suspect when several victims met with a detective and said that the demeanor
and actions of the rapist seemed appropriate to a cop. The skill with
the handcuffs, the way he held the gun - to prevent anyone from pulling
it away - the long flashlight he used to try to blind them in the dark,
held over his shoulder so he could use it as a weapon if he needed. The
officers investigating the rapist noticed that one of their own resembled
the composite sketch. They got his DNA from the saliva on a cigarette
butt, and it matched the DNA of semen samples. My young niece, my brother's
daughter, had spent a great deal of time with the rapist, of course. She
said how much she hated the rapist's smoking, how he smoked in the car,
in the house, how they had to sit in the smoking sections of restaurants.
I hate smoking, too, I told her. To me, smoking always represented a lack
of control, a place to hide. When it was all revealed, she asked her mother,
"So are you finally gonna break up with him?"
The rapist has become my favorite party
story, the one that trumps all others when I stand in a corner at a professor's
house, listening to endless tales of travels, of books, of histories personal
and otherwise. Then, when the timing is right (or sometimes not), I'll
blurt out, "Yeah, but you want to hear something interesting?" And this
is the way I begin the rapist's story: "You know how I've said before
my brother's divorced? Well, his wife started to date this cop . . ."
It continues with details, even stories of the rapes: "He would try to
piss on his victims before and after the rape, but could never do it.
Isn't that fucked-up? He took his time, talking to them the whole time.
He even gave the women advice on how to avoid this from happening in the
future." I tell the story as a build, with my tales of interaction with
the rapist. But I always save the kicker for the end, just when the listener
can't believe any of this is real. "My ex-sister-in-law, you know what
she does for a living?" Pause. Drama, you know. "She's a rape crisis counselor."
There's few things finer than a great party story. I seek out people I
barely know to tell them, insinuate myself into peripheral conversations
about daily events, and then I pull out the rapist's story, and we are
all alternately shocked and saddened, sometimes we even laugh at the implausibility
of it all, and we share in a moment of mourning for this debased culture,
this lost society before heading to the bar, the buffet table, the bathroom.
The rapist confessed when he was arrested
while on the way to get a stress test. It had been, he said, two years
since his last rape, he was, he said, in a steady relationship, he had
found, he claimed, religion in his return to Catholicism, he thought he
was free and clear, he was sorry for the pain he had caused, he had started
raping during his first marriage as it crumbled apart, he was sorry to
his own teenaged daughter, he was sorry to the department, he didn't mean
to hurt anyone, he was willing to be punished for his sins, he wanted
it all over as soon as possible, he refused to say why he did it, he always
worked honorably and faithfully and intensely on all his cases, he never
raped anyone involved in a case he was investigating, he was the rapist,
he knew, for now and forever, he would be the rapist.
He confessed to six rapes. He was suspected
in at least six more. He had to be moved to another county jail because
the local one held criminals he had put behind bars. The county wanted
to make sure the rapist was safe. The rumor was the rapist had been raped
in jail by one of the pervs he had put behind bars. My family and friends
told me he got what he deserved. There's also a rumor that he committed
a murder. In fact, most of the unsolved murders and rapes in the area
are being ascribed to the rapist. He has become the canvas on which the
palette of all crimes are painted.
The rapist is a doughy man. Not fat, just
bulky and round. He wears glasses, thick, brown ones. He has thin lips,
a flat nose. His bristly, curled hair is cut close to his scalp. His wide
head seems to just rest, a lead balloon, on his shoulders. His hands are
tough and thick with muscle, his arms rounded with tanned skin from driving
around in short sleeves. I don't say these things to condemn the man.
He isn't ugly. I just wonder if I would see his doughiness as innocence
if he wasn't the rapist, his middle-aged bulk as a sign of self-doubt,
finding himself in a relationship with my ex-sister-in-law where there
was honestly love, but in the middle of families who despised him for
simply being there. But he is the rapist. And every thought of him has
The point here is that I did shake hands
with the rapist. I have always thought of myself as someone who is above
the fray, able to see clearly in any situation. Even though my brother's
wife left him and started dating the rapist almost immediately, I have
always thought that it was for the best, that sometimes marriages don't
work out, that if my ex-sister-in-law really went through that tidal shift
in her life perspective, then fine, good sailing, go on your way. I first
met the rapist briefly when I was introduced to him when the rapist and
my ex-sister-in-law were dropping off my niece at my brother's house.
Then, during a visit home for my niece's birthday party at my ex-sister-in-law's
parents' house, I greeted the rapist with a handshake, a few mumbled words
of greeting. And at some point, looking around the house, the linoleum
brick floor, the dark-enameled fake mahogany curio cabinets filled with
unmatched china pieces, Hummel sculptures of birds, of children, the old,
musty, beige afghan-covered couch, and the dining room chairs with fraying
red cushions scattered about, and all the children there for my niece,
her cousins, her school friends, her church friends, and I felt a disgust
welling up in me like earthworms after a storm, and I realized my complicity
in the event, that my presence was saying everything was alright, that
we had moved beyond the point of two-families-who-had-once-been-joined-torn-asunder,
that we were all putting on masks and airs and that the food cooked by
my ex-sister-in-law's mother, the excess of the chickens and cakes and
rice dressings and jambalayas and the rabbit stew, and all of the gifts,
just spoke to how far we had allowed ourselves to be suckered into this
illusion of accommodation, this lie of togetherness, all for the sake
of an eight year-old who couldn't care less how many adults were at her
party. We all, all grown-ups, watched the children play in the center
of us, our floor show. And the final straw, as they say, was when the
rapist, who had not yet been revealed as the rapist, of course, gave my
niece his present, a rosary necklace, with a playing card-sized description
of the meaning of the rosary. It described all the prayers, the Hail Marys
for each bead, the Litany of the Blessed Virgin which asks us to remember
Mary as Mother and Queen.
By his own admission later, this was only
six months after what he called his last rape. So I walked up to the rapist
and asked him about the rosary. He described it to me.
"So," I said, "truly, faithful Catholics
say the rosary."
"Yes," the rapist answered.
I continued, "I mean, you'd have to really
understand the meaning of Catholicism in order for the rosary to mean
He looked at me confused, and now, looking
back, I wonder if he thought his cover had been blown, that his rapes
were about to be exposed, here and now.
"Isn't that right? Isn't it? That you'd
have to be a good Catholic? You'd have to be a Catholic who believed deeply."
At this point, all I knew is that this man had supplanted my brother,
that my ex-sister-in-law had been fucking him probably from the moment
of the divorce, that we were all hypocrites in that room simply by our
presence, and me, in my little moment of nobility, I decided that at least
one hypocrisy was going to be exposed.
"I'm not sure what you're--"
"What I'm trying to say," at this
point my voice had risen in tension and barely contained rage and everyone
in the room was staring at us, staring at me and the rapist, "is that
I think it would be wrong to not be a good Catholic and say the rosary,
that it's supposed to mean faith, you know? It's supposed to signify something,
"What--" the rapist sputtered.
"And that I'm so glad we're all such good
Catholics here." And then I turned around and walked out.
I headed to my mother's car in the driveway.
I got in, turned on the radio and the air conditioner, and leaned back
to think about how I hadn't really said what I meant to say, that "good
Catholic" should have been "motherfucker." After a couple of moments,
someone tapped on the passenger side window. My ex-sister-in-law's father
stood there, hands in the pockets of his sky blue coveralls. He was a
thick man, muscular and hairy-chested, with a round nose and bald head.
I got out and walked over to his side of the car.
"You know, things should be like they were,"
"I'm sorry for what I did in there, " I
responded. "I had no right--"
He interrupted me. "You know, when I was
in the Army and stationed overseas, I had a chance to go to all sorts
of weddings. I went to Danish weddings, Jewish weddings, even one in Vatican
City. But there was this one fella, an Indian, from India, and he was
one of my closest friends. And when he decided to marry his Indian girlfriend,
they flew a group of us to New Delhi for the wedding, a Hindu ceremony.
It was the most beautiful thing. For two days, we celebrated that marriage.
It was at the bride's family's house. We drank, ate, danced. She was decorated
with the Mehndi designs all over her hands and feet -- rich, rich red,
nearly maroon, like blood, in these swirls and paisleys, and she was dressed
in this sari with gold embroidery of birds, butterflies, flowers, her
arms covered with bracelets and a gold band around her waist. Just lovely.
When the groom arrived, there were fireworks and a band playing and he
was showered with flower petals. They performed ceremonies where they
held a red scarf between the two of them. There are so many things that
they're required to do in the course of the ceremony - they walk around
a fire, seven steps, and with each step they each proclaim their love
for the other, and with every step the words become more passionate, until
they vow lifelong devotion. They exchange garlands. In the end, there
was this ritual where all the married women went up to the bride and leaned
in and whispered blessings in her ear. They bonded completely, families,
the bride, the groom. It was beautiful." Red began to color his nose,
and his eyes watered up. "That's the way we should all love." He pulled
out his handkerchief and blew his nose and shuffled back into his house,
where, I learned later, the rapist sat with his head in his hands, not
knowing what he had deserved to bring on such animosity.
In a rosary, in the space between beads,
one says the Fatima Prayer, which asks, "Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins,
save us from the fires of hell and lead all souls to heaven, especially
those most in need of Thy mercy." It is a prayer one says over an absence,
over a string.
A police psychologist told the newspaper
that the rapist might have gotten some kind of kick out of dating and
being engaged to a worker at the Rape Crisis Counseling Center. That he
was thrilled that he might be nailing someone who had comforted his victims.
Here's my cut-through-my-own-bullshit truth: The rapist was fucking my
ex-sister-in-law. She received flowers and gifts and treats from the rapist.
The rapist seduced her. The goddamned stupidity of it, of the hiddenness,
of the unknown, that we became that pathetic neighbor or relative on the
local news, spouting off about how I didn't know, about how he seemed
so normal, how he led a double life. The rapist fucked her. She has to
live with that. She has to live with the fact that at some point she woke
up to discover everything she believed about the world was wrong. And
somewhere in the back of my head it gratifies me, somewhere in there I
think about all the people she exposed to the rapist, and I am glad she
failed. ("We have to be careful," I told my sister, when she said there
was something in her that was happy our ex-sister-in-law received a kind
of just desserts, a karmic comeuppance. "Otherwise we're saying, 'Gee,
I'm glad he raped twelve women so we could feel good.'")
Every week my mother sends me news about
the rapist from the local newspaper. Most recently she sent a front page,
which featured a picture of the rapist in his jailhouse orange jumpsuit,
hands cuffed together. There were two stories: one about the crimes, one
about the life of the rapist, how he had been abused, how he had been
divorced, how his ex-wife said he liked to masturbate staring out the
window of his apartment at women playing tennis. The next week my mother
sent me an article that was an in-depth interview with one of his victims,
about how he held her at gunpoint, forced her to put on lingerie and dance
for him, how he made her shower when he was done. The woman was not easily
intimidated. She cleansed herself badly, she did not wipe the carpet well
when he demanded it. She wanted evidence to be left behind.
The rapist decided he wanted to end everyone's
pain and suffering and was going to plead guilty to six charges of rape.
The rapist didn't like the deal he was offered: two consecutive and four
concurrent lifes without parole. Each victim wanted separate justice,
to be able to look at the rapist and know that he gave his life individually
for each of them. The rapist decided to plead not guilty by reason of
insanity. The rapist rescinded his plea when the victims decided they
didn't want to go to trial. My ex-sister-in-law was in the courtroom when
he was formally sentenced. He has been sent to a special security prison
with molesting priests, child abusers who accidentally killed their children,
prison informants and others who might simply be butchered upon entering
the state prison.
I think about conversations I could have
with the rapist. I daydream about visiting him in prison, staring into
his eyes, asking him why and how, and him just staring at me, through
the glass, me listening to his breath on the phone receiver. He tells
me that he took pleasure in the deception. "You will never know the power
I have known," he says, "The ability to say dance and they dance. You
sit out there and ask me questions that you can't ever understand." I
tell him I want to understand and he stares at me, his dead, glazed eyes
looking at my eyes, my mouth. "You want to know what it's like? Imagine
when you were a boy and you were fishing. Now think about when you would
catch a fish, and when you pull it up the fish is dancing on the line,
throwing off water, hooking itself deeper. Now think about when you get
that fish on the dock and you grip it tightly and get out the needlenose
pliers and pull that hook out, trying so carefully not to tear the mouth
of the fish. Then the fish jumps out of your hand. It's slimy, you didn't
have a good grip. Then you stare at that fish as it flops around, leaping
in the air, hoping when it comes down it falls into the water. And you
have decisions you can make. You can place that fish back in the water.
It goes on its way, a little scared, but it's a fish, it won't learn a
thing. Or you become fascinated with it gasping for air, the slight movement
of the gills, the mouth opening and closing, the sudden burst of energy
when it turns and flops around. Now, if it was you, you might hit it in
the head to stop its suffering, or you might put it in an ice chest so
you don't have to see it. But me? I'm going to sit there and watch that
fish, however long it takes, just sit and watch it dance and gasp until
it doesn't move anymore. And then I'm going to cast my line back into
the water and pull in another one." He looks at me one more time, smiles,
his capped back teeth showing in the harsh fluorescence of the room, then
he hangs up the phone, allowing the sound of the crackling wire to be
the only explanation.
The rapist is out of the newspapers now.
He is an anecdote. Dateline did a story about the obsessed detective
who broke the case. You might have seen it. The drama of a trial was eliminated.
He sits there in his cell, awaiting his rapture, praying to put aside
his rage. I think about all of us, not his victims, who will never receive
mercy enough from one God, but the rest of us, who met him, who spoke
with him, who learned to love him. Now, sometimes in the darkness, sometimes
in the light, I think about the gentle terror of knowledge, of the unmasking,
of revelation. The rapist convinces himself of his repentance, but we
know that the rapist has done himself in with a cigarette butt. He has
exceeded his abilities, and he must live on praying for his redemption,
holding his rosary beads tight, like memories, cutting into his hands
until they bleed, asking endless forgiveness. And we, we search for affirmation,
we seek wisdom, we want moral lessons, but we fail, yes, we fail.