A letter to my daughters — and my sons — about sexual assault

My beloved,

You are precious to me. My girls, you are vulnerable souls and fierce warriors. My boys, you are strong and protective, loyal and kind.

You are not however perfect. I would never place that burden on you. You are afraid, sometimes too concerned with the opinions of others, and you are prideful— you want to think you are unbreakable and invulnerable, that you got this life thing down.

photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

photo by Chip Smodevilla/Getty Images

These imperfections are part of what I love about you, but they are also dangerous vulnerabilities.

Men and women you know, friends, family members, have in the past two weeks cheered a national shaming of rape survivors. They shame for the same reason rapists rape, because they believe it gives them power.

They have blamed rape victims for the way they dress, for being drunk, for “putting themselves in a situation” to be raped. These people have even said they deserved it. I can’t convey to you how evil this is.

There is no “situation you put yourself in” that will ever make it ok for you to be harmed.

God, I hope you never have or ever will be sexually assaulted.

My daughters, I have given you practical advice. Don’t set your drink down. Be aware of your surroundings, never be alone with someone you don’t know and trust. Be alert to men plying you with alcohol and to their motives.

I have not suggest where to go if you need help, or stressed enough that you can trust my unconditional love, that there are people everywhere who will not judge you, or that you never have to be ashamed. You are beautiful spirits, the lights of my life. My hope is that you find people who light your life in the same way. It’s a father’s job to show his daughters what they deserve from a partner. I hope I have shown that you deserve respect, tenderness, love and safety.

My sons, I’m not sure I told you the most important thing.

Dont rape!

I don’t believe you would ever do anything so horrendous, but as I see people whom I thought I knew and loved joining the frenzy against survivors, I realize this is a more complicated command than you might think.

You may find yourself in a situation where a drunk girl seems compliant, it may even be your girlfriend—or wife—and suddenly what was black and white becomes gray. Or you may need to stand up and refuse to be a passive if unwilling accomplice to others.

You may have heard the expression, “No means no” as a standard for consent.

I call you to more.

“Yes means yes!”

That must be your code. An absolute, clear and uncoerced “Yes!”

But here is where it gets even trickier. You cannot stand by and watch other men do anything beneath your own code. Don’t turn your back on a woman in danger. Don’t let the repugnant stories and jokes about women go unchallenged, or tolerate the shaming  by shameless people.

It is often harder to stand up to your friends—and family— than your enemies.

But you must. Losing a friend or angering a family member is a small sacrifice for demanding respect for someone who could be your sister, your mother or step-mother, a cousin, friend or the love of your life. I have not been a perfect father. I have put you in harms away. I have been selfish. And most of your life I have not demonstrated the warmth and intimacy a man should show a woman. I have been given a second chance with your stepmother and I hope you are paying attention.

560DDB79-C7CC-4F33-B240-EDAFC2F7743FAround 35 years ago I was at a lake outside Maryville, Mo., I was 17, drunk, and staring in disbelief as a group of Northwest Missouri State University students tried to coerce an extremely inebriated girl into a “train,” a word that is supposed to make gang rape sound like it isn’t gang rape. I recall waiting for the right moment to step in and say stop, but the girl wasn’t giving in and I was scared. I like to believe I would have done the right thing.  But it was a long time ago. I’m not sure.

Make no mistake, if I did not ultimately  step in and stop them, I would have been party to rape.  The responsibility for that would not go away because “it was a long time ago” as we constantly hear from rape apologists. It would be a permanent blight on my character.

I was rescued from potential cowardice by a young lady, the girl’s friend, who waded into the pack of drooling men, and yelled, “Leave her the fuck alone!”

She gently spoke to her friend, helped her off the ground and took her away.

The circle of  men, and I use that only in the biological sense, flung up their arms and stomped away like petulant boys.

My dear sons, don’t lose your moral compass in  a moment that could devastate a woman’s life and define yours. Train each day by choosing to respect every woman you encounter. Make amends when you falter.

My dear daughters, surround yourselves with friends like that young lady at the lake—both male and female—who won’t hesitate like I did to wade in and protect you.

Please pay attention right now to what is happening in our country. Women, rape survivors, with the same decency and resilience I see in you, are rising up, casting off shame for the armor of purpose, righteousness, and power. Become swept up in this wave.

People who ignore and scoff at them,  who don’t listen and believe them, people who shame them,  do so at their peril.

I love you.

Dad

RAINN operates the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline: 800-656-HOPE

https://www.rainn.org/about-national-sexual-assault-telephone-hotline

The hotline offers:

  • Confidential support from a trained staff member
  • Support finding a local health facility that is trained to care for survivors of sexual assault and offers services like sexual assault forensic exams
  • Someone to help you talk through what happened
  • Local resources that can assist with your next steps toward healing and recovery
  • Referrals for long term support in your area
  • Information about the laws in your community
  • Basic information about medical concerns

Also visit the Website of Planned Parenthood

https://www.plannedparenthood.org

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My friend isn’t gone; she’s still setting me straight

Over the past couple weeks I have felt a frightening loneliness. I was angry for digging myself into a hole that felt catastrophic.

I take that back, wrong metaphor. There was no digging; that would imply effort. Rather, I invited the loneliness in, a charming bully that posed as solitude.

I needed someone to help me make my oppressor leave. I couldn’t tell my friends at work, even when they noticed a change in me.  I couldn’t bear the way they would look at me. I said I was tired, hadn’t been sleeping, which was true. I talked to my wife, vaguely, and she gave me answers. I got angry. Strangely, I wasn’t sure I wanted an answer.

I instantly knew who to call. My friend Carol. As sudden as the thought evaporated, I wept. IMG_0734

The same day that the loneliness moved in, I received a photo of Carol’s newly completed grave stone.  Her family had gracefully designed it with the words “I love you more than bunnies,” chiseled in script beneath the names of her children.

It has been two weeks since I received the photo. Carol died a year ago yesterday. I’m not sure how I didn’t see the connection.

When Carol died, I had the word “surrender” tattooed onto my forearm in her memory. It’s situated so that I see it continually throughout my day. Each time, I think of her. Surrender is central to recovery and most daunting. It’s scary to admit that one’s life is unmanageable and to trust people who say that giving up control promises freedom. Carol and I talked about surrender a lot. She had moments of clarity, but then someone or something would descend and fill her with fear. She grabbed control with both hands and tied a knot.

I believe Carol did ultimately surrender, in her last days, while in a coma. She held on with all her might but after nearly two weeks a change came over her. She found someone to trust. The children she had raised—she was often astonished by how much she loved them—would be alright. It might take time and suffering, but she trusted them. Then she surrendered her life.

Surrender has  transformed my life. Accepting life on life’s terms, finding comfort in mystery, learning  to loosen my grip on life, not asking too many questions about what disturbs me, these practices have not always made life better but they have certainly kept it from getting worse.  However, I confess, I have not accepted that compulsion and fear loosened their grip on me but took  Carol. I am not comfortable with that mystery. I have too many questions and no one to ask. I am angry at this disease.

When I stood in my bedroom on that day when  I received the photo of Carol’s gravestone, it felt  like she was standing next to me, gushing about her children. Our friendship was an adventure of unbearable pain and intense joy, deep truths and shallow deceptions. I did a lot of talking–too much–trying to reach my dying friend. But then, Carol would come back with a gush of wisdom. When I was insecure, overwhelmed, afraid she set aside her greater suffering, even hid it, to point out my foolishness and hubris.

We listened, argued, talked over one another, then she would silence me with a cheap shot, using my own words against me.  Or she would blurt out something snarky that made me laugh and and touched my heart at the same time.

I felt Carol in the room with me again earlier this week. She told me to get off my ass, stop blaming lack of sleep, my introversion, my “disconnected” feelings and go out and make friends. Stop feeling sorry for myself.

I did what she told me. I talked to a friend with one of the most generous hearts I have ever encountered. She makes my days better simply by being in the same building. Like Carol she minimizes her own hardships to lift my spirits. She thinks I don’t notice.

I talked to another friend who is working so very hard to recognize those moments of clarity in her own unmanageable life. We are tight. Our conversations are profane and profound, hilarious and honest, and filled with much love.

At the end of a rough day yesterday, I stopped on the way home to get something to drink. I walked past the beer section and grabbed a Coke.

As I opened the cooler, I saw the word “surrender” on my arm.

Thank you, Carol, for being there for me.

For a moment her universe is aligned

Her concerns are those of any mother. As a single parent she is both mom and dad to her teenage son. She tries a little too hard to be the good mom, but there is nothing contrived about the way she looks at him. He is the center of her universe.

32903a9a98473841d90c6140d829b59eThey are going out to eat, a weekly tradition she insists upon. “This way, I hope he’ll at least talk to me once a week,” she says with a nervous laugh, tinged with guilt.

I smile at her devotion. She introduces me to her son. He is named after a Hall-of-Fame shortstop I grew up cheering for. I laugh, and say, cool name. “Oh, yeah,” she says, “I’m a huge baseball fan!” Suddenly, the ball cap she wears everywhere makes sense.

“This is the guy I told you about,” she tells her son.

Without looking up, he says, “You didn’t tell me about him.” Her eyes dart back and forth, she smiles at me.

“Yes I did,” she insists patiently. “You might want to play basketball with him or just hang out together instead of hanging out with me all the time.” She’s eager for a male influence in his life.

“No you didn’t,” he grunts. He’s no different from my son. One of the favored pastimes of teenage boys is trying to make adults look foolish. She and I make eye contact. I wink.
A quick change of strategy. She points at the deck of cards in his hands and brags, “He’s a magician!”

I ask him what his specialty is. Despite himself, he warms to the conversation. Mom knows what she’s doing. He looks me in the eyes and tells me card tricks are what he does best but he’s branching out. We talk for a while as Mom stands by beaming, thrilled to see him opening up. This could bode well for dinner conversation.

After a quick chat, I tell him it was very nice to meet him and we walk out of the lobby of the shelter. Behind us, the volunteer answers the phone, “Catholic Charities.”

Mom and son walk away toward the restaurants of downtown Santa Rosa. He’s still talking about his cards. A hush of cool on the breeze promises the evening will be forgiving.

She looks back once more and waves, then looks at her son, secretly thrilled that she insisted on their evening together. Standing in the lengthening shadows I notice that her nervousness is gone. She is comfortable and confident.

In this moment there is no worry, no fear. They are at home. Not homeless.

Love is thicker than blood

Editor’s Note: I’ve started a new job at a family homeless shelter in Santa Rosa, Calif., so I haven’t posted in awhile. But this week, I’m proud to post a blog from a guest writer, my daughter, Annie Madden, on a related topic: authentic family.

Family is not always blood. Sometimes the most important person can be someone who happens to walk into your life at the right time. They can be friends, step-family or even a pet. There are endless ways to describe this six letter word that blood relatives IMG_3291sometimes take for granted. A true family member is someone you can be depend on during the highest and lowest times of life. They love unconditionally and pass no judgement. Their presence is a source of joy and an effortless example of humility to the people they love. These are the attributes of my step-mother, JJ Madden.

I may not call her mom, but JJ, or Jeryl as I call her to her chagrin,  is the most passionate and loving mother to enter my life. When she married my father it was not always rainbows and butterflies. The divorce was fresh and she was lucky to get a hello from me. JJ respected my pain and never pressed. However, as time passed, my relationship with my biological mother crumbled at my fingertips, and JJ was there to pick up the pieces. I do not remember exactly when the epiphany happened, when I  decided to love this blonde, strong-spoken woman, but I will always be grateful that I did.  She  is in my life now and it feels perfect.

She loves cats, surfing, Johnny Was clothing, my father, my siblings, her children, her home, Volkswagen buses, cooking, lying in bed with Netflix, and saving the ocean. Those are only a few things, yet as I name them I realize we have a great deal in common. Although, our main similarity is that we both think I am hilarious.

My greatest joy is making Jeryl smile.

JJ is my family, forever. She is my mom. She is my best friend. She is my rock to lean on. I don’t think I would be the person I am without her. She has taught me to humble myself, to share my feelings, and to be passionate about everything I do. She has shown me that I am beautiful just as I am, and that I can make magic happen. I have only known JJ for five years, but sometimes I wish I had known her when I was a small child. Or I wish I had warmed to her sooner and not been so stand-offish when she married my dad. But JJ tells me not to waste time on such thoughts.

We weren’t ready, she tells me. We came together right on time.