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

say it survivor

Illustration by Brian Stauffer

Part 1: Laura

Our intention was to dance on his grave.

My cousin Mary and I set out from her home in Westford, late in the morning on a cold January day. We were warriors, heading into battle. We donned our nearly identical white winter coats—channeling our inner Olivia Pope—climbed into Mary’s Jeep, and turned the music up.

Our first dilemma was, of course, song choice. You have to have the right song to dance on someone’s grave. It needed to be something angry. Something empowered. Something triumphant. We spent the 20-minute drive surfing from song to song, trying to find something that struck the right chord. Not so easily done, as it turns out. How do you pick a soundtrack to a moment that has been so long coming?

As we got closer to Carlisle, driving down the picturesque New England roads, I felt a little faint. Mary felt a little barfy. We pulled into a store parking lot, and Mary spent some quality time behind a dumpster, hurling.

We weren’t entirely sure where the cemetery was, so we pulled into a police station to ask for directions.

That’s when I said, jokingly, “We should go in and file a police report.”

Mary said, “What would happen if we went inside and filed a police report?”

I said, “Let’s do it.”

We never picked a song, we never danced on his grave, but what we did instead changed our lives in ways we couldn’t have imagined.


Part 2: Mary

When I found my cousin again, it was the night before Thanksgiving. I had finished setting the table, so I cozied up in bed next to my already-sleeping husband and turned my attention to my evening routine: checking Facebook.

Many of the posts that night were about how thankful people felt, how big their turkey was going to be, or what family members they were looking forward to seeing. I felt a familiar twinge of nostalgia. I’m close with my husband’s family, but I hadn’t spoken to my own cousins in years—not since I was 13.

As a child, I’d spent so much time with them—especially Laura. We had a strong connection. We played countless games of foursquare, and reenacted endless episodes of Little House on the Prairie wearing our calico maxi dresses and the bonnets that my mom sewed for us. I, predictably, played the part of Mary, and my cousin Laura played Laura. Of course.

But then Laura’s parents divorced, and our family cleaved in two. Laura, her siblings, and their mother were cast out; I had a vague sense that they were “bad,” somehow. I never understood why. I was young. All I knew was that they were gone from my life.

As I scrolled through Facebook, I wondered: Where was Laura now? What was she doing? Was she happy? Did she have children? Was she cooking a turkey tomorrow? Dammit! She was supposed to be the sister that my mother did not bear. We were supposed to grow up together, to be each other’s bridesmaids and hold each other’s hair back and hold each other’s babies! We were supposed to hold hands through life’s highs and lows. It had all been incredibly unfair. I tried to figure out who to blame and then I remembered: our grandfather.

Impulsively, I typed Laura’s name into the search box. And there she was, as beautiful as ever in her Facebook photo, with her great big smile and her gentle eyes. We still held a strong resemblance to each other. Snuggled in bed, I struggled—my fingers hovering over the keyboard, then darting away. Again and again. Then I mustered up my courage and—boom—“Friend request sent.”

There was a wave in my gut of “Oh my gosh, I did it!” mixed with “What if she hits ‘Ignore request?’” It took me a long time to fall asleep.

She hit “accept” the next morning. On Thanksgiving Day, after a very long 35-year hiatus, I had my Laura back.

Our first phone call lasted more than three hours.

Me: “Why did we lose each other? Why did we never see each other again?”

Laura: “Well, I think that there were lots of reasons.”

Me: “Okay, let me tell you a story.”

This is what I told her.

On a summer day when I was around 12, we had just finished dinner and were cleaning up. Laura’s father—my mother’s brother, who was staying with us during the divorce—came home with a nest of bees in his bonnet, claiming that Laura’s mom had fabricated a story about his dad, our grandfather. She claimed, he told my parents angrily, that our grandfather had molested Laura. (Today, he says he remembers this differently.)

I listened to them talk, and then with about as much bravery and courage that any little girl could muster, I tabled my shame and said in a small voice, “He did that to me.”

It had taken all of my might to step out of that dark scary place, believing that if I could get myself there, if I could stand in the light just for a moment that it would be okay.

Stop. Pause. Turn. Head cock. Dish towel down.

One of my parents said: “I wish you had told me that.”

Me: “Well, I am telling you now.”

That was it. That was all that was spoken of it. The moment turned from little, petrified, ashamed Mary to the importance of those dinner dishes getting cleaned right away.

This—this disregard for my truth—was almost worse than what had happened to me at the hands of my grandfather. Who was going to protect me? Did they love me? Why wouldn’t they listen to me? I must be bad. That was it.

I’d held that pain for 35 years, I told Laura. The shame and self-loathing inside that little body of mine festered there, having a say in my choices, my decisions, my life.

Two months after that first Facebook contact, for the first time in decades, Laura and I met. She came to my house in Westford. Wrapped in cozy blankets in front of a well-tended fire, with copious amounts of chamomile tea, we let it rip, we shared it all. We figured out many of the missing pieces—and the uncanny parallels in our lives apart, as we’d both struggled to deal with what had happened to us. Together we agreed that Grandpa had our past but he would never, ever have our future.

We decided to prove it, the next day, by dancing on his grave.


Part 3: Laura

As we pulled up to the police station, the car got quieter and quieter. We hadn’t decided on a song to dance to, but we had stopped talking about it—in fact, we’d mostly stopped talking.

We walked in, after Mary barfed again, and there was an older police officer behind the glass window. Mary told him we were looking for the cemetery—and I had a moment where I thought, We’re probably not really going to do this. Then my beautiful cousin, who is the bravest person I know, said: “And we would like to report a crime.”

That got his attention.

She said, “Our grandfather sexually molested us 35 years ago, and we want to report him.”

He ushered us into a conference room, where a young officer came in to talk to us.

Officer Paul Smith had a kind face, and an unassuming manner. His dark hair was short, cut military style. He looked younger than he was, I’m guessing. He was gentle with us, but very professional and matter of fact, which made it easier to tell him our story. He introduced himself, sat down, and asked us questions about what happened. Names, addresses, dates. He methodically recorded our answers in a notebook. I called one of my sisters, and put her on speakerphone. We were crying.

“Sweetie,” I said, “he’s writing it down.”

He wrote it down.

I cannot begin to tell you how powerful that was.

He said several times, “I don’t want to open any wounds, so if you don’t want to answer this, that’s okay.” Finally I said, “The wounds are all still open. Obviously. What do you want to know?”

I found myself saying, to a police officer, “I was raped.” I never thought that would happen.

Then Mary asked a question I would not have thought to ask, but the answer to which I really needed. She said, “What would have happened to him, if someone had reported it?” The officer told us the procedural things: He said he would have interviewed us, he would have interviewed our grandfather, he would have corroborated what he could. And then, he said—

“I would have driven down the street and arrested him.”

That is what should have happened. We knew there was nothing to be done. We knew there would be no consequences, and no justice. Life is staggeringly unfair sometimes. But now there would be a record. We walked into that police station holding the jagged shards of our story, of our childhood, and said, “Look, this happened.” And Officer Paul Smith bore witness.

We told Officer Paul that if anyone else should ever come forward about our grandfather, to please give them our information. We wanted to meet them.

At that point we were still planning to go to the cemetery. Officer Paul offered us a police escort.

I think it is important to note, in the face of so much awfulness, that people really are mostly very good. He was so kind. He took it so seriously. He honored our lost childhood.

Mary decided she wasn’t quite ready to dance on our grandfather’s grave. That was okay. We’d found each other again, and we had plenty of time. We headed home, exhausted, having agreed to spend the rest of the evening talking about nothing more meaningful than Adam Levine’s abs.

And that’s where this was supposed to end.

Then I got a call the next morning from Officer Paul. He said, “Can you come in? I have something I want to tell you guys.”