How to Bring a Dead Man to Justice

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.”

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.


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.


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 (, 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.


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