Unravelling the central mystery of my childhood taught me the uncomfortable truth about toxic male behavior and what I, as a man, must do about it
Ive fallen out of touch with a lot of childhood friends, but how it happened with my Christie was different more sudden, and at the time, inexplicable.
Christie was my best friend. Her mother, Suzanne, was my mothers best friend since high school. In adulthood, they would get together for coffee once a week. I can still remember the times I spent listening to both of them hold forth on politics and relationships at the kitchen table while Christie and I would play hide and seek.
But one day, Suzanne stopped returning my mothers calls. Christie stopped coming over too.
My mom struggled with depression and it was a hard blow for her. I was always protective of her growing up, and I remember feeling angry, blindsided and hurt. Christie was my best friend, after all.
After a long decline from early-onset dementia, my mother died two years ago. She and Suzanne had never reconciled.
A year later, my half-brother Todd died at the age of 52 from a heroin overdose.
When I was in town for Todds funeral, Christie got in touch and soon afterward, her mother invited me over for dinner. And over glasses of beer and wine, Suzanne told me a series of painful truths that helped unravel one of the central mysteries of my childhood.
In the same conversation, I learned that my brother was a sexual predator, and that my mother was a rape victim.
Suzanne told me that Todd and a group of his friends had sexually assaulted Christies half-sister, Denise, in our home. Denise would have been about 11 at the time.
Suzanne couldnt bring herself to tell my mom because my mom was fragile, dealing with continuous conflict between my father and my two half-brothers, and had herself been raped as a teenager by an ex-boyfriend.
Not knowing what to do, she decided to cut ties and stopped talking to my mother. Christie, meanwhile, said she felt pressured at the time into not talking to me.
After our conversation, I felt numb for days. I pushed it to the back of my mind and did nothing for months. But then the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke out.
It prompted me to asked myself some hard questions. There have been women in my life I could have treated better, and missed occasions where I could have stepped up to the plate to be a better man.
Then I thought about my mother, who started a feminist book club when I was a child; womens rights were important to her. What Suzanne had told me that my mom had been raped, and that her parents refused to believe her or act on it made sense to me, and I was able to confirm parts of it by talking to her sisters. What could I, as a man, do to seek a small amount of justice for the women in my life?
Ultimately, it was a tweet from @sansdn, a feminist Twitter user in Sydney, Australia, that spurred me to action.
I decided to do just that.
First, I spoke to a few of Todds friends. I didnt tell them about Denises story, but asked if they could share anything about Todds relationship with women when he was young.
One friend jokingly told a story about how his girlfriend woke one morning after a party to find Todd on top of her, and that he had to pull Todd off her. Man, Todd could be crazy! he said, thinking Id laugh with him.
In his book The Macho Paradox, Jackson Katz argues that sexual assault is a mens issue. Men commit the vast majority of rapes, and men have a special responsibility to hold both themselves and other men accountable for how they treat women and girls.
Men have to think about what role they play, and how they can use whatever platform of influence they have to make it unacceptable for men to act out in sexist and harmful ways, Katz told me. Not because they are nice guys, helping out the women, but because they have a responsibility as men in a sexist society. If they dont speak out, and they dont use whatever influence they have, then in a sense they are part of the problem.
But, as San pointed out, its all-too-easy to do that in a tweet or a Facebook post, when the man in question is a celebrity who is being publicly shamed.
The real work begins where you can have most impact closer to home.
And so I reached out to Denise, and she told me that she wanted to tell her story. As she would explain to me later, she wanted other victims to know about the importance of speaking up quickly about sexual assault so they can find the support they need.
We agreed to meet in person at her home in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, not far from where I grew up.
It was time to go home again. I caught a flight the next day.
Whenever we threw cookouts at our home, the adults would gather at the backyard patio, while the kids would go off and play, sometimes in Todds room in the basement.
Denise isnt sure exactly how old she was when it happened, but as far as he can remember, Todd was about 15, and she was 11 or 12. She knew Todd and his friends, and trusted them. She recalls Todd as the leader when a group of his friends encircled her and pinned her to a chair.
I didnt know what to do. It was very scary. All I see is me on the chair and all their hands everywhere on me, Denise told me. I dont hear what theyre saying. I got to the point where I was actually gonna threaten to spit on them. They didnt like that, but then I thought I cant really spit on them cause then theyll get mad at me, so again I felt powerless.