The eyes in the mug shot were what broke me.
I don’t know what it is about them, but I can’t get rid of them. I can’t even see the rest of his face, even though I had seen it hundreds of times before.
The eyes, somehow different than I remember. Somehow less something or more something.
When I saw them, I finally figured out why it was so hard for all those people overall those years who supported the Catholic church and other societal institutions refused to believe the crimes the children revealed.
On Wednesday, my wife sent me a picture message, with a tag line of “Does this name sound familiar to you?” The photo was of a newspaper brief that noted an emeritus professor from a school at which I once worked had been arrested on suspicion of child molestation.
I read the name. I read it again, because, after all, unless you’re a presidential assassin, very rarely are you referred to by your full first, middle and last name at any point in life.
My first thought was, honestly, “I thought he had died.” The man was old when I knew him and that was nearly 8 years ago.
My second thought was, “This can’t be the same guy.” After all, people share names all the time. I remember once being on the phone with a jail supervisor asking about a guy who had been arrested and they needed to know if the guy’s middle initial was “E.” or “F.” because they had two guys in the system who matched the name I gave them.
I did a quick Internet search and found the larger article.
It was the man I knew, now in his late 70s.
There was the mug shot.
There were those eyes.
I felt like a power hitter had just slammed a wooden bat into my chest, with the barrel pressing right under my left breast. My throat felt like someone had clamped a strong hand onto my larynx and squeezed. I instinctively covered my mouth with my hands as my eyes widened and locked on the screen.
The article was like those I had written dozens of times before. Perfect inverted pyramid, quotes from a police report, a “nothing to hide” statement from the accused.
The accusations weren’t any more lurid than any others I had seen before or any other stories I had written on the crime beat. I often tell students that I’ve seen stuff that would make a Billy goat puke, so this wasn’t a case of virgin eyes casting upon a dark deed. In fact, as I write this, a police report about a man who bludgeoned a prostitute, cut her open from pubis to neck to watch her organs work and then had sex with the semi-living body sits next to me in a file drawer.
I’m not given to vomit easily.
Still, the minute I read this story, which was like every other story I have ever read that turned out to be 100 percent accurate, I found myself fighting the instincts I have chastised in others.
“This can’t be real.”
“There has to be something else going on here.”
“What’s the underlying story?”
I voiced none of those thoughts because I knew better. And yet, it still came back to that underlying sense of shock and disbelief.
The man was a professor who became one of the ten most identifiable faces in his field, despite working in a place that wasn’t known as a “name place.” He was a distinguished lecturer. He was a beloved scholar and teacher.
Beyond that, he was a quiet, thoughtful man who was nice to everyone in the department, something that wasn’t always true of everyone there. He could have thrown his weight around or pushed to widen the fractures between his discipline and others, but he didn’t.
He was always nice to me and seemed to be that grandfatherly figure who would pull a quarter from behind a grandson’s ear. When my wife invited my entire department to a surprise birthday party for me, only three faculty members showed up: My two best friends and this guy. He bought me a Loony Tunes coffee mug, and I have no damned idea why I remember that fact 10 years later. He lived three blocks from us.
Stop, I tell myself.
These things are all true, but they don’t negate the accusation. I can pile the sandbags of character as high as I want, but the wave of reality will still get through.
It is quite likely that on top of all of these other great and mighty things, this man molested a child over a period of years. And maybe this is just the tip of that iceberg, if what A used to tell me about people who molest children is accurate.
Still, I now understand why it’s so hard for members of the public to accept that someone they know committed a dark and depraved act. It’s why rape, incest, molestation and other similar crimes are massively under-reported and why the public anger is often so swift and horrible, re-victimizing the victims.
Even knowing all I know about the crime, the people who commit it, the stigma cast upon victims and the societal backlash, I couldn’t stop those thoughts myself.
I wasn’t angry that I didn’t see this coming or worried that he had been near my child or something like that. I wasn’t fearful or ready to demand answers from him. I just felt myself physically lock up and felt my mind flail about.
Maybe my emotions were simply instinct and that the only saving grace I could allow myself was that I at least understood enough to know what was happening in my head before I said or did something stupid.
I don’t think that’s enough, but that’s all I have and I doubt I will ever have any more.