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Perception Vs. Reality

Coming to Terms with My Grandfather as a Sex Offender

“How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation they’ve behaved badly?” Savannah Guthrie, when breaking the news about Matt Lauer’s sexual misconduct.

My grandfather used to tell me stories of how “we come from outlaws.” According to my grandfather we were related to the Younger brothers. If you know the story, the Youngers were the other half of, and rode with, the Jesse James gang. He would tell me proudly of this lineage and boast of having played with Cole Younger’s grandson. I don’t know if any of this is true (Jesse is a common name in our family) but I loved to hear the stories and spent many hours reading about the Old West. I gained an affinity for the outlaw persona and it’s reflected in many of my favorites: Raiders fan, Dale Earnhardt fan, Batman fan. I chock this up to my grandfather’s influence.

I loved my grandfather and many of my early memories include doing things with him. My mother divorced her first husband shortly after my younger brother was born — I was four. We lived with my grandparents for a while, off and on, for the next few years until my mother would remarry. Even then we would see our grandparents weekly. At four years old I can remember him giving me this big bottle of milk with a large nipple on it and then saying “Come on, we’re going to feed that calf.” We march outside to the pen and the calf comes running over. I hold the bottle up and the calf latches onto the nipple and starts sucking. Slobber is splattering on my hands and face. I’m struggling to hold this heavy, full bottle of milk up while trying to keep the calf from pulling it away from me. I remember mustering all of my four year old strength and my grandfather laughing and encouraging me on, “That’s it, hold that bottle up there.” He would take me fishing and camping. He’d teach me how to tie my shoes and how to use tools. I have fond memories of helping him build a chicken coop (not that I did much building), tend the garden and even of watching the Jets/Colts Super Bowl. My perception of my grandfather was that he was a great man. He was my primary male role model growing up.

One day when I was 17, my brother comes running out to my room to tell me mom is inside crying. My bedroom was a 22ft trailer set-up in the backyard so I wasn’t always aware of what was going on inside the house. As I enter from the back door I see my mother sitting at the dining room table weeping. “What’s wrong?” I asked. She tells me it’s nothing and I shouldn’t worry about it. My sister is in her bedroom in tears as well.

I would later learn my sister had revealed to our mother our grandfather had been sexually molesting her. My sister was 15 when this came out. At first I wasn’t sure what to make of this; are you sure, that’s not my grandfather. Maybe there’s some kind of misunderstanding. I would later learn he had been doing so from the time she was three. This would have been as far back as when we were living with my grandparents and I was learning to tie shoes and watching football games and thinking the world of my grandfather.

But, it wasn’t just my sister. Over time I would learn he had also molested my mother. Stories would surface time and time again of my grandfather’s sexual misconduct. The reality of what my grandfather was, was clashing with my perception of him.

It’s hard for me to understand how he could have done these horrible things to such a little girl. He damaged my mother and my sister forever. I see this damage reflected in the decisions they made, the personal insecurities with which they struggle and the fear with which they live. My mother always seem to be looking for an escape and would later tell me her first solid night’s sleep came the day after my grandfather died. This breaks my heart.

To me my grandfather was a wonderful man. The memories I have are only fond ones.

My sister hates my grandfather. Her reality of my grandfather is that he was deplorable man. Her stories make me hate him as well. This emotion conflicts with the memories of my grandfather. The man I adored as a child, looked up to, loved, was a monster. I grapple with this notion. The stories of an awful man, credible stories from people I love, hardly seem real. All of the experiences I have with my grandfather are positive—all of them. The family did not shun him; all the aunts and uncles and cousins would show up for holidays and anniversaries. He was the proud, dominating patriarch until his death. Reality questions my memories and challenges my perception.

And then I wonder about my grandfather’s childhood.

I know very little about my grandfather’s upbringing and except for playing with the Younger’s my grandparents didn’t talk much about their childhood. What made my grandfather so hard and mean, to hear my mother describe him: so abusive and domineering? And yet he was so gentle and kind with me. Was he beaten as a child? Was he molested? Or was he just genetically predisposed? Did I remind him of a younger self, was he trying to make amends to my mother or did he just love me more than the others?

I can’t understand his behavior and I’m not trying to excuse it. It conflicts with my personal experience and so the stories seem to be of another person. I imagine my grandfather suffered from his own internal conflicts, certainly he was troubled. How much of his experience, environment, biology contributed to his behavior I can’t know. My grandfather should have been convicted of his crimes and thrown in jail, he wasn’t. I can’t hate my grandfather the way my sister does, understandably, and yet, I hate my grandfather for what he did. My perception does not match my sister’s reality.

It’s difficult for me to speak to the feelings of the victims of my grandfather having not had their experience, but that day as I sat and watched Savannah Guthrie, I knew exactly how she was feeling, and I empathized… and I wept.

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