All this talk of Cain and Sandusky and Paterno just makes me just want to crawl under the bed, and pull my kids in with me. Pretty much every woman I know has had one (or several) experiences in which someone said or did something inappropriate, whether during a surfing lesson in Waikiki, as my friend Annie recounts, or by a babysitter, a friend of the family, a boss, a colleague…the list goes on and on.
I will never forget that scene in The Kite Runner, that horrible scene where Amir witnesses the rape of Hassan and runs away. I remember literally gasping when I read it, and holding my hand to my chest for I felt like I’d been punched.
How could someone walk away? We can process what Sandusky did as an example of pure evil, but what do we do with Mike McQueary? What do we do with all of the silent accomplices who were aware of what was going on but did nothing?
Years ago I was a witness. I did not witness the actual act of sexual abuse, but was told of it, by the victim. She was in late adolescence and on that lovely brink of womanhood when a girl is full of boundless sensual innocence. She was like a younger sister to me, her mother a friend, and she confided in me often as we ate ice cream and had movie night in my small apartment. She trusted me in the way that young girls often do, seeking out someone who is not a parent but is still old enough to be one, or at least has the life experience to be able to offer a ready ear, gentle advice.
I violated her trust. I had to. When she told me what a friend of the family had done—calling her over to his apartment one day on some innocent-seeming ruse, asking for a back massage and then caressing and trying to seduce her—I was stunned, and despite the fact that she begged me not to say anything, I did. I had to, and it was not easy. In her mind it was the ultimate betrayal, but I knew that he had been the betrayer, not I.
Being a witness can be terrifying. We are taught not to rock the boat, to keep to ourselves, not to interfere in the lives of others. There can be all sorts of factors which make the witness feel isolated and fearful of coming forward.
We need to have discussions with our children beyond those “don’t talk to strangers” and “your body is your own” ones that we have when they are young. We need to keep talking about it to them as they grow older and even as they become adults. It’s not an easy discussion, but so very important. This is a reminder to us of their vulnerability.
As parents and as a society we need to add to our lessons not only how to distinguish right from wrong, how to take responsibility for our own behavior, but how to take responsibility for the behavior of others. We need to teach them (and ourselves) how to be a responsible witness, and how sometimes it is our moral imperative not to remain silent, but to “tell.”