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My cousins are twenty-eight and twenty-nine. He’s related to me on my mom’s side and she’s related to me through their marriage. I introduced them as a couple when we were in high school after he asked me to help him find a girlfriend. Of course, there had been a lot of issues with women up until that point, including some awkward comments from him to me (“You should do a wet t-shirt contest”)… but I thought those remarks were just par for the course, given our shared history. I strongly suspect he is a survivor of sexual abuse. His father (my uncle) molested me as a child. I believe he inflicted similar abuse and passed down his gross attitudes toward women onto his children.
Well, at first, everything seemed great. They start dating and hit it off. He snaps out of his depression, goes back to college, gets a driver’s license and travels to Europe with her. They move in together and years later, he proposes. I was a bridesmaid in their wedding. I consider his wife to be one of my oldest and closest friends. But I’m keeping a secret from her.
Over a year ago, at a party we co-hosted in their new home, I went to hug him goodbye and he stuck his hand down my shirt and squeezed my breast. We both had been drinking. I walked out of his house in shock, but I said nothing to my then-boyfriend on the way home. Well, as it turns out, I’m not the only one he groped that night. Two other friends were also subjected to this assault. I’m calling it assault because there’s absolutely no way this touching was invited. It was a hug. He is my cousin and their friend. None of us wanted this to happen. We don’t even want to be alone with him anymore.
The total (that I know of) now stands at four women who have been groped without permission. Each time, he’s drunk and his wife is out of sight. He clearly has issues with alcohol, but the line has been crossed and he’s acting like a sexual predator. The last time he groped me was three weeks ago. He slid into the backseat of his wife’s car while she walked another friend to the door of her house. He hugged me from the side and I went stiff. He touched my chest and I made my voice firm: “You’re touching my tits, stop it.” I pushed him away, but he reached for me again. When I pushed back, he finally pulled away… and called me a tease. When his wife got back to the car, she looked at him strangely. She asked him what he was doing in the backseat.
Here’s the hard part: she’s pregnant.
I am at a total loss as to how to proceed. I want to protect her, but it’s hard to imagine that she’s not catching on to his drinking problem and his boundary issues with women and the sexual predator side of his personality. What do I do? Silence isn’t protecting me or my friends. I feel responsible for introducing them as a couple, knowing he had issues — but he never tried anything like this when we were teenagers. And it’s not even just happening with only me. I want to protect myself and my friends, but I don’t want to hurt someone who has a lot at stake. Please help.
What a complicated and painful situation you’re in. I’m sorry you were abused when you were a child. I admire how you’re trying to do the right thing here, trying to protect yourself and others.
It sounds like in addition to protecting yourself and your friends from getting groped, and protecting your friend (that’s how I’m going to refer to your cousin-by-marriage) from the knowledge that she’s married to and pregnant by a sexual predator, you wish you could go back in time and protect her from marrying your cousin in the first place. But, as you note, how could you have done that, when you didn’t know then what you do now about him? It sounds like you realize you bear no blame for introducing the two of them, but that the worry of responsibility still itches at you. From my experience, this isn’t unusual when someone to whom we’re stitched by blood and time and loyalty shows a pattern of hurting others within that same web. We can’t believe we couldn’t have altered events
Reading about your predicament makes me feel protective, too: I wish I could go back to the past and protect you from your uncle, or that some other adult was able to do so. But that’s impossible, of course. Time has moved on. From what you say in your letter, I gather that you’ve grown into a strong person with clear boundaries and a store of empathy that allows you to see multiple sides. You’re a good advocate for yourself now. You’re in a position to protect yourself—you’ve already done so when you pushed your cousin away and told him to stop. In fact, although I understand why you want her as an ally, I think you can protect yourself from your cousin more effectively than your friend will be able to, whether or not you tell her about his behavior. But let’s set that aside for a moment.
I can’t stop myself from getting caught up in the hypotheticals here: Your cousin was fathered by the man who molested you as a child, and you suspect your cousin was abused as well. Now your cousin is exhibiting substance abuse problems and is committing sexual assault. Over the course of the last few years, I’ve looked into studies that seek to understand the connections between being sexually abused as a child and sexually abusing other children as an adult. The findings are not easy to break down simply and there are multiple factors involved, but it’s safe to say that there’s an increased likelihood that male childhood victims will become adult predators. It’s all too easy for me to make assumptions upon your assumptions and to leap to, if not conclusions, a state of acute concern: Another person who might need protecting is the child who’s going to be born into this family. Here’s where your friend, the mom-to-be, is really going to be on the front lines. Not to mention your cousin himself.
I wonder if it’s possible for you to talk to your cousin directly. Is there a friendship between you, or enough of a vestige of one to make it possible for you to sit down with him when he’s not drunk and discuss these issues openly? I suggest that as your first step. In my movie of this moment, you address him open-heartedly but frankly, with both firmness and concern. You note his excessive drinking and the way it affects his behavior. You ask him if he recalls his lunge at you in the car and at the party. You tell him other women have reported similar events, and that you and your friends consider his drunken groping assault, that it fits that legal definition. You state that he is never to touch any of you that way again, drunk or sober. And then in the movie I’m playing, you’re able to turn the conversation towards his father. You say something like: “You didn’t have the best role model in your dad. Do you remember how he used to say these sorts of gross things about women? Did you know he molested me?” You might also ask your cousin if there’s anything he should be trying to work out with a therapist as he prepares to become a father. What kind of legacy does he want to pass on to the next generation? What does he want his children to be saying about him in twenty years time?
Look, I admit it. Even in my movie version, it’s hard to picture this scene ending on a problem-solved note. Even if you’re able to get all the word outs, it’s the rare person who’s going to be able to respond thoughtfully to this combination of accusation and revelation. You are likely to bear the brunt of some anger. Your relations with both your cousin and his wife might become strained. He might go around talking shit about you, and the ripples could extend into your community of friends and family. There could be serious ramifications.
And knowing that all this is a possibility, I’m still advising you to talk openly about your childhood sexual assault with a man who’s assaulted you. What, am I nuts? Am I abusing the honor of being asked to write this column by offering totally irresponsible advice? To be honest, I’m not fully convinced otherwise! On a fundamental level, you have to listen to your gut about this, and maybe the best thing I can offer is the presentation of a scenario for your gut to respond loudly to. But let me tell you where I’m coming from, and why I feel the way I do.
I, too, was sexually abused by a family member. In my case, it was by the teenaged cousin who came to live with us when I was a small child. I later learned that this cousin had suffered abuse at the hands of his own father (not sexual, as far as I know), and—a much bigger bombshell for me—that as an adult he was sent to prison for molesting another girl. This news shot into my veins a dose of grief-guilt serum that pumps there still. I felt I should have been able to protect this other little girl and that I bore some responsibility, even though I had done nothing wrong, even though before this other girl was born I had eventually told others what my cousin did to me. And having disclosed my own abuse, I know firsthand that the kind of revelation I’m suggesting you make doesn’t always go down in some movie-worthy way, leading to clarifying crisis or change. People can have a hard time hearing or accepting or even understanding news that a family member is pedophile, let alone knowing what to do about it. Disclosure can land with a thud and have no immediate apparent effect at all.
But even those thuds do have an impact. It might take more than one of them for the ground to shift, and it might take awhile for the fissures that form to widen enough to let in some light, but every thud makes change more possible. We can’t go back in time and protect you or me or your friend or the girl my cousin abused later, but we know things now that might lead to better protection for people down the road. Knowledge is a kind of power.
That’s why I think in addition to telling your cousin, you should also tell your friend about every facet of this whole tangle. Do so in as gentle and compassionate manner as you possibly can, focusing on facts (this is what my uncle and my cousin did to me) rather than on judgments (your husband is a sexist predatory asshole and the son of one). I think this even as my heart breaks when I put myself into the position of a pregnant woman hearing such terrible information about her husband. Oh how awful. Is there any worse time to hear such news than in the vulnerable state of pregnancy?
But will there ever be a better time? Not wanting to hurt others with the ugly knowledge we carry is often part of what keeps us quiet about abuse, but we have to ask who is best protected by the resulting ignorance. You mention that your friend may already suspect that your cousin is reproachable in his behavior towards women. On some level, she might find relief in having her worst doubts confirmed by someone she trusts. Hopefully she’ll be willing to back up your demands that he cease his assaults. But even if that is not her first reflex and instead she lashes out at you in pain or hides in denial, you will have planted the seed that might help her to keep her eyes open down the road, to listen to her inner voice, to not dismiss her own suspicions as crazy. You might be paving the way for her to make an important move for herself and possibly her child in the years to come.
It really fucking sucks that people who have been victimized have to put themselves at risk and revisit injury by speaking out on matters that can make us sick to our stomachs, but it can be empowering, too. By addressing your cousin’s behavior and the larger family context with both your cousin and his wife, you’ll be helping to create a community in which sexual assault of any kind is clearly defined as wrong. You’ll be saying that eyes will not be closed to abuse even when it’s uncomfortable to confront. I believe this will help make the world safer for you and for other women and children. From what you write, I think you have it in you to be so bold, but you’re the one who understands the nuances of your particular situation. Whatever you decide, you have my deep respect. I wish you all the best.
Zoe Zolbrod is the author of the novel Currency and the forthcoming memoir Memory Scales: A Family Story, which explores how child sexual abuse reverberates throughout generations of a family. Her essays have appeared in The Weeklings, The Nervous Breakdown, and Salon, and she’s the co-editor of the Sunday Rumpus. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Featured image is a picture of Zoe.
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