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.


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


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



A woman who fills me with awe

In my worst moments of insecurity, I plead with her, “Why do you love me?” She never rolls her eyes or tells me to grow up. I’ve heard beautiful women can’t stand insecure men. She patiently says, I love you because you are you.28912_1297963249029_1300685_n I love you because you love me like no one ever has. She reminds me of the four beautiful children I have brought into her life.

She still hasn’t addressed my tiresome fears. I’m no better looking, no more able to take her to exotic places, my dark list is still long and tedious… But she holds my hand and kisses me and the list gets all jumbled. I’ll have to pursue my argument later. It all seems pointless, anyway. Yes, it is true, she could do better than me. But she has chosen me, or as she puts it, she had no choice–we had no choice

I am daily in awe of this fact. I get to be with a woman who fills me with awe. I was filled with awe the first time we went out to lunch. As we left the restaurant, she stopped and thanked each person who worked there, whether they had helped us or not. I could see it in their eyes, they were as surprised– and charmed–as me.

Other men have taken her to Africa and Paris and Cabo. Me, I’ve taken her shopping at the St. Joseph, Mo. Hy-Vee–and she paid.

One of her trips to Missouri was for our wedding –Cabin 1 at Mozingo Lake. My children were there, so was my Brother Ryan and his daughter Olive and her mother NyEela. Pizza and Pepsi, storebought cake. My daughter asked if she could wear sweats. Of course, my bride said, scoring points. My friend Nathan Byrne presided.

A highlight of the evening was being pulled over on the way to the cabin –on the way to our wedding– by a police officer who saw a packed car on Thanksgiving and suspected no good. He was befuddled by a car full of children on the way to a wedding. The second highlight came when, in a rush to start a fire in the cabin fireplace, my son Joe burned my handwritten marriage vows as kindling.

I scribbled out new vows and married this woman of grace and infectious kindness.

That my children were at the wedding, a night my youngest daughter called a wonderful evening, is testament to this woman’s ability to break through barriers of pain and anger.

She entered my children’s lives at a difficult time, when I was splitting with their mother. My daughter Annie who now calls my wife Mamma J. and loves her deeply, recently passed a photo of us on the wall in our bedroom from that time. She frowned mockingly and said, “I remember that picture. That’s when I didn’t like you.”

It’s true, they didn’t like JJ much, and JJ gave them space.

I would never bring a person into my children’s lives who would hurt them or treat them with disrespect. That worry never entered my head. I followed JJ’s lead. Again I watched in awe.

She reached out with a letter. My daughter Emily warmed and sent back the Serenity Prayer. These days, Emily talks regularly with her stepmom and they Snapchat almost daily. Joe calls almost every day and seems more interested in talking with JJ than me. Jacob, in college now, doesn’t connect as often, but the affection has always been obvious.

My friend, Fr. Hugh Tasch, a Benedictine Monk, told me that when the Scriptures call for us to fear God, a more accurate translation is to experience awe in the divine. Fr. Hugh also asks me often about my own experience of the divine in my marriage.

When I met JJ and ended my failing first marriage, my parents and sisters turned their back on me and have never spoken to me again. They have done the same to my brother Ryan and his little girl. Ryan noted once that it is sad because if my family ever met JJ, he has no doubt they would love her.

Once again, I note a sense of awe. I am perfectly at peace with my shattered family because I must be with this woman.

I recall the night when it first hit. I had enjoyed a rich and exciting conversation with JJ, late into the night. We had laughed. I had longed for her. There were moments of uninterrupted silence. Emotions had swelled in me. I had nearly wept to hang up the phone. I got up and walked into the kitchen. My legs gave out and I barely made it to a chair. I sat their in the dark, catching my breath, smiling.

“So this is the way it’s supposed to be,” I whispered.

Maryville: A High Tech Plague in the Bible Belt

The question that keeps going through my head is: what will happen the next time?

Will teenagers and adults think twice before bullying a young girl who claims she was raped? Will the “good people” make it their business when their friends and neighbors are acting badly? Will young men ever learn that it’s not about whether a girl says no-it’s about whether she says yes.

There will be another rape case in Maryville’s future. That is a tragic certainty. Too many boys grow up with a wink and a grin, seeing sex as ax240-3fr conquest rather than as a gift to be shared and treasured, until one day it is no longer about intimacy but power and dominance. When a lone girl steps forward to say she has been assaulted, how will the community of Maryville respond?

This week the fury of a social media movement led by the hackster group Anonymous descended on Maryville like a Biblical plague. It swept through the Northwest Missouri town with Old Testament judgment, asking how the resident of this community of 12,000 people slept at night.

I grew up in Northwest Missouri near Maryville. I have friends and relatives who live there. It pained me to see people who I knew had nothing to do with the alleged rape of Daisy Coleman crying out at the unfairness of national and international attacks on their quiet town. “Most of the people here are good people,” was the universal refrain.

And it’s true. Maryville is a town of  mostly good people. But maybe being good isn’t enough in any community. Demanding that our neighbors be good may be what is called for

I saw one woman on a Facebook note that there needs to be a cultural change. She is right. We need to be more intentional about the responsibilities of community.

I have heard in the past week many Maryville residents say they were unaware of the case until it was reported in the Kansas City Star. I find this disingenuous. I knew about it and I live outside the Maryville area. There were reports that Daisy and her family were bullied relentlessly by teenagers and perhaps even adults.

For every person engaged in this bad behavior there were at least five people who knew about it and did nothing to stop it.  A victim of violence should be able to turn to law enforcement for protection and solace, but more important she should be able to turn to her community.

As the English philosopher, Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”

Research has shown that boys learn how to treat women from mothers who earn their respect, and from watching how their fathers treat women. And girls learn how they deserve to be treated from their fathers and the men in their lives.  It is a family, and a community, responsibility.

I read several comments from Maryville residents, including Sheriff Darren White, who were simply glad to see the case behind them.

The hacker group Anonymous set out to make sure that wouldn’t happen. The power of the Internet has been startling. Leaders at the top of Missouri government have joined the chorus and in a move that would have seemed impossible a week ago, a special prosecutor has been appointed to investigate the case.

Some in Maryville have admitted remorse over their community’s silence the first time this case made headlines. Many, on the other hand, are angry and hurt by the attacks that have swarmed like locusts in the past week.

Bibles in the homes of Maryville families recount the wrath of Old Testament justice. In those ancient stories entire populations suffered for the sins of the few.

The wrath of online attacks have been every bit as indiscriminate. While some have chosen to target the boys involved in the alleged rape and the officials who dropped the charges, many of the attacks have been scattershot and filled with vitriol for the entire community.

Many Maryville people are being judged and bullied for something they didn’t deserve. They feel violated.

Others feel a sense of self-blame, a feeling that they should have done something different. Shame is the natural response. Psychologists say that when people are shamed, it is normal to become angry, to make excuses, to cut themselves off from the outside world, or to strike out in vengeance.

The healthier choice is to learn about what is causing shame, to grow more empathetic. Avoid isolation and bitterness.

The people of Maryville will likely remember what has happened to them for some time. They have a choice to make about what they will do with this experience, what kind of community they want to be.

At least they have each other.

Oh, the giddy anticipation of daydreams coming true

For my wife on our anniversary.

I would be with you.
In my innocence, before life became difficult, I daydreamed about you. Your eyes danced like light on water. Your golden hair touched my face. Your skin was of sun and sweat and mountain air. Your legs dangled, bumping against mine, as we sat on a wall laughing. You giggled with me when I tickled you in the back yard as fireflies 1235066_10200478278179342_836543230_nwhispered to one another in the secret dark. In fantasies that I never told a soul, you smiled only for me, and your smile was summertime and warm kitchen smells in the winter and breezes on the water. You would hold my hand and make funny things happen to the patter of my heart. I would never get the nerve to kiss you, but the thought of that elusive kiss would torment me.
I wished that I knew back then that dreams come true.
I would be with you.
Girls troubled me. Their hairspray, their makeup their smiles were never for me. My shoulders tanned in the sun, eyes shot red from swimming pool days, bugs bounced against baseball park lights on muggy nights. Desire for nameless you was swampy inside me. Summer was when you haunted me.
You faded in my thoughts. How could someone so real be real? Set aside childish things.
Silver buses and a moment of laughter. Mythical California, sun-kissed skin and that laugh. A laugh that meant it. A laugh filled with joy and pain. A laugh filled with life.
We passed one another on the way to someone else. I stare at the photo, my arm around your waist, your hand in mine, stirrings unacknowledged. One bus ride, a few moments in the dark. What might have been? Young passion unleashed.
I had forgotten you, my summertime fantasy. I didn’t recognize you.
I remember envy in an airport. I wanted you. Then you were gone.
A quarter of a century. Water under broken bridges. Healing scars, so many mistakes.
Then an earthquake: forbidden lust, forbidden love, divine desire.
A crash of perfection, beautiful ruin.
My heart still hammers in my chest.
The absence of you is heavy with miles and missed years.
Looking at you fixes everything.
Still daydreaming.  Your eyes dance for me in blue light of a darkened bedroom. Your hair kisses my face as we make love. Your skin burns me like the sun and steals my breath like the altitude at timberline. Your legs tangle with mine in the sheets and wrap around me when desire tries to carry me away. My long ago fantasy did not know your heart. You soothe me with kindness, your generous love makes me unworthy. You smile at me. I pray it will always be for me.
I ache. The longing of absence when we are apart. The pain of physical want when we touch.  Passion without restraint. The agonizing curiosity to know you, to make up for lost time.
Life is harder now. Choices hold consequence. History holds regrets. Love means suffering. Irrational fears, clouds of compulsion, obsessions. Small price for my girl.
I am in love. I love. I am loved. Love is not a choice. Love is having no choice.
If only I had known through all the dark times, if only I had known so long ago. Perhaps the joy, the giddy anticipation, would have been too much to bear. Perhaps amorous impatience would have driven me mad.
Oh, if only I had known.
I would be with you.