My wife's father was a convicted rapist

I researched his court case without her knowledge. The more I learn, the more horrified I am

By Cary Tennis
Published July 25, 2011 12:01AM (EDT)


Before we were married, about nine years ago, my wife told me her father had died in her late teens, but she didn't mourn or miss him because she had been estranged from him for a full decade. As our relationship grew, my wife (let's call her "Rebecca") went on to tell me that her father ("Jim") was a convicted rapist who had spent seven years in prison and died shortly after his release.

We almost never discuss the torment he's caused in her life. I guess owing to this silence, my curiosity eventually got the best of me and I went to the Internet to learn more.

Despite the family's narrative of his innocence, I was convinced there was more to the story. A seven-year sentence? There had to be a solid case, right? You can probably see where this is going -- the case does seem solid. What's worse, this would have been his second rape charge and conviction. The first crime occurred about five years before Rebecca was born, when her brother was a baby. In that first case, my now mother-in-law ("Nina") gave testimony to one of his two conflicting alibis, which fell completely apart, and he was convicted and served about five years. The math suggests Jim and Nina married and gave birth to my wife soon after Jim got out of jail. (It was another 10 years before he was convicted and imprisoned again on another rape charge).

Jim's crimes continue to haunt this family. Rebecca is intensely private and cautious among strangers. Her brother is a depressive with no contact with the eight kids he's fathered with two ex-wives and two other girlfriends. Battling depression and severe anxiety, Nina is a virtual recluse.

Given her upfront honesty in all of this, I don't think my wife has purposely hidden her father's first conviction from me. I do think that her mother never told Rebecca about the first rape, nor about her testimony in support of the apparently fake alibi. I also think Nina has always suspected Jim was guilty of these crimes, but could never admit the truth.

Due to my snooping, I know the truth, which I have not shared with Rebecca. Also due to my snooping, I am now wary of my mother-in-law. What kind of moral character does she have to lie for a rapist? And then marry him upon his release? And then have a child with him? What does it say about the whole maternal side of her family -- that Nina's brothers and sisters and parents never intervened to say, "Don't marry a rapist"?

So, my problem. I find it hard to empathize with Nina – in fact, I find her lies and support of a rapist despicable. I recognize that I'm being harshly judgmental, but I think Nina is amoral and stupid, and find myself wanting less and less to do with her.

Also, I can't help it, but I now look at Rebecca through the lens of this knowledge. Like, how twisted is her DNA? How damaged is she, really? Would I have married into this family if I had known the whole truth? You know, even after six and a half years of marriage, I have to wonder: What's under the hood?

What, if anything, can I do with the secrets I've learned?

Burdened With Secret Knowledge

Dear Burdened,

What matters is how we live today, how we treat each other in the shadows and echoes of historic crimes.

Rape is a poison in our society and its effects live on for generations. Long after its perpetrator is dead, a rape lives on. So you live in the shadow of a certain history, hoping that love can redeem the shame and criminality of the past.

And of course it can. Love is a great cleansing and healing force. People who were once strangers can indeed come together and fashion for themselves a vessel of healing. It happens all the time. But some are more gravely wounded than others, and take more time. You must have a framework, a method, a way of dealing with it.

The thing to do is to start, today, being honest with your wife and making this history and your private response to it a part of your shared life. If you are afraid of what this criminality in the family means, imagine how she feels. I suggest that you and she come together on this. If you need outside help, get it. Get someone to guide you through talking about this. It's potentially explosive, yes, indeed. And who knows what else is involved?

Though it will be painful and possibly upsetting, the place to start is by humbly admitting to her that you have researched her father's court cases without her knowledge and consent.

This alone may be an explosive admission. Just establish the factual basis: I have been researching your father's court cases on the Internet, and I realize I should have discussed this with you first. It was dishonest of me to do this behind your back. I apologize. I want to make amends.

What amends can you make?

One amends you can make for taking this action without her knowledge is to promise her not to reveal this or to let it poison your love for her. You can make a pledge to her that you will be the kind and protective custodian of this information. You have unearthed something that your wife may not want to deal with quite yet. So do what is kindest. Talk with your wife in a gentle way about this. What a thing to carry through life with you, right? She did not choose her father. Her mother chose that man but she did not. Yet she probably loved him as one loves a father regardless of his past.

What does it mean to love a bad man? What does it mean to have a bad man for a father? What does it mean to have a father at all, to owe your existence to a man whom you feel bound to yet will never fully understand?

And what of her mother? What kind of person marries a convicted rapist? What I have learned by answering thousands of letters over nearly 10 years is that each situation is unique. There is no blanket rule for humans. The amazing complexity and variation in people's stories has taught me this.

Lastly, how do we honor rape's victims? By taking up activities in the present that can reduce the likelihood of repeating the past. Knowing what grave damage rape can do, we contribute to causes that reduce rape in the present and future. We volunteer where we can. We learn and speak knowledgeably about the issue. We counsel survivors. We help people protect themselves against it. In this way, we seek to uncouple the future from its bloody past; we seek to set the future free of mindless repetition. We work for change.

The important thing is how we live today. Let that be your guiding principle: How you treat your wife and family, what you contribute to future generations: That is what is important today.

Citizens of the Dream

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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