How to Bring a Dead Man to Justice

We set out to dance on the grave of the grandfather who molested us as children. We never got there, but what happened instead changed our lives. —By Laura Perry and Mary Lovely

Part 4: Mary

We went back.

As it turned out, Officer Paul lived in an apartment next door to our grandfather’s house—next door to the house where both of us were abused. When we’d told him the address the night before, he said, he’d almost fallen over—but he didn’t react outwardly.

But later, he told us, it dawned on him that once, years before, a neighbor had said something to him about our grandfather. It was an offhand remark, but now he remembered: She’d said that the old man in that house had been “mean” to her daughter.

When he went home after meeting with us, he told our story to his wife. “I just want to help those girls,” he said. So he went to talk to his neighbor, and asked if she remembered what she’d told him years before. And then, he said, his neighbor began to cry when he mentioned our grandfather’s name.

We’d always wondered if our grandfather had molested girls outside the family. Now we knew there was at least one.

Hours later, Laura and I sat with this lovely mother, Officer Paul’s neighbor. We sat at that same conference table where, less than 24 hours earlier, we had told our story. Officer Paul sat with us. When his neighbor walked in, Laura and I both immediately got up from the table, all of us crying, and we all three hugged.

There were no words. We held one another.

Her daughter was only a year younger than I, and her story was all too familiar. And as we talked, Officer Paul wrote.

This woman told us she had never known that our grandfather was abusing her daughter; by the time her daughter told her, he was dead. This mother’s anguish at not having known was so raw, and so palpable. Her sorrow at not having been able to protect her daughter was painful to watch.

But as we talked, Officer Paul wrote it down.

That night, Laura and I drafted a letter of accolade about Officer Paul. In the morning, she left to drive home to Connecticut; I headed, letter in hand, back to the police station. I intended to drop the letter off and leave, but when I got to the station, Chief John Fisher invited me to meet with him.

His office was impeccable. There was not a speck of dust. The windows gleamed. Every book sat as if at attention on the uncluttered shelves. There was a marked juxtaposition between the bookshelves and his desk, however, which was overrun with papers, notepads, and a bag of
popcorn. I had no idea what I was about to learn.

He motioned to the desk, to the papers that covered it, and he explained that those papers were our “case.”

We had a case?

The chief told me he had just come from Carlisle Town Hall, where he’d alerted the chair of the Board of Selectmen that his officers were working an investigation and that they were going to need to ask the public for their help. Anytime there is publicity surrounding the department it is his practice to let the selectmen know.

As we spoke, two officers were casing the neighborhood where our grandfather lived 35 years ago. They were searching for other neighbors who might remember him. They were searching for more victims. The district attorney had been notified. There would be a press release.

I had a moment of reflexive dread. We’d stirred the pot—the one thing we had been taught from childhood never to do.

Then I felt guilty. I didn’t deserve to have the police go to all this trouble. Really. It had all happened so long ago.

And then I had an overwhelming feeling of rage.

Rage on behalf of the girl I once was. I was abused from the age of eight until I was about 14. I am now 48 years old. I had waited almost my whole life for this—for someone to take me seriously. For someone to say that a crime had been committed against me, and to seek justice on my behalf.

Finally.

The instant I left the station I called Laura. I told her what the chief had said. We were silent, and then we both cried. We could not believe it.

In the weeks that followed, the Carlisle police continued to investigate our case. It didn’t matter to them that the crime was decades old and the suspect long dead. Detectives called our parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, spouses, cousins, and family friends. They called a club to which our grandparents had belonged for many years. They even called a friend of mine whom I haven’t seen in 30 years; she had stayed with me at our grandfather’s house when we were just teenagers.

Carlisle is a small, sleepy, well-heeled town, but not every community has the resources or time to launch an investigation such as ours. We understand that our situation may be an anomaly.

But.

There is no community that lacks a budget for compassion and respect. Kindness is priceless. There is no statute of limitations on kindness. Everyone can find a few moments to honor the victim of a crime.

It is more valuable than any budgetary line item.

Laura and I found tremendous healing in telling our story. To help other survivors who have had the same experience, we formed an organization called Say It, Survivor (sayitsurvivor.com), which offers guided writing workshops to support victims of sexual abuse.

Our investigation is still open. We’ve been told the department will keep it open indefinitely in the hope that other victims eventually come forward, have closure, and get help, too.

 

Part 5: Laura

To the Thief,

If we were to list what you stole from us, we would write forever.

We’ve heard other survivors say that their childhood was stolen. That’s close to being true for us. What you stole was the child within us. We were ancient ruins before we were 10.

When we look back at pictures of us from that time, they look like us…almost. It’s as though they are very realistic masks of the girls we used to be. But blank. Like a light went out. We turned the corners of our mouths up for the camera, because we were obedient girls and knew that’s what was expected—but there was no joy. We were guessing at normal.

We looked tired. We were tired. All the time. You stole our belief that we were safe in the world. Even in our little worlds. When someone who is supposed to love you, supposed to protect you, violates your trust and desecrates your body, you feel as though danger lurks everywhere. If you aren’t safe in the cocoon of your own family, you understand that you will never be safe anywhere.

You taught us to hate our bodies. We still have not entirely unlearned that lesson, even more than three decades later.

We know that if our focus is on the wounds of the past, we will miss out on the blessings of the future, and we are unwilling to allow that. In order to cast out that darkness, in order to banish that hatred, what we finally realize is that we need to forgive you.

We don’t want to carry these heavy things anymore. Without forgiveness, there is no freedom from this. From you. And we want to travel light.

We are going to do our best to let you go. To have this be one thing that happened, a long time ago. Not the defining thing. Not the totality of who we are. Just a chapter in the book of our lives—perhaps never completely closed, but a section we hope to revisit less and less. There is too much happiness ahead of us, too much goodness and grace in the world, to spend time reliving such pain.

We refuse to continue to be your host. We will not feed you anymore. You own a great deal of our past, but we will give you none of our future.

You cannot have that.

It’s time to sit in the sun.

Goodbye.


Yiqing Shao Yiqing Shao, Digital Editor at Boston Magazine bmagdigital+yshao@gmail.com