A Tragedy of Choice

This case in Steubenville makes me think of my father.

Indeed, these cases always do.

My father is in prison and has been for nearly 25 years. He confessed and was convicted of sexual assault, more specifically, rape. I found out about this at 14 years-old. It wasn't the first time I'd asked, but the first time I asked someone other than my mother. For years, her response to that questions was,

"He can tell you about that."

She wasn't mean about it, just insistent that this wasn't her story to tell. After I'd been told, I walked to the house of my best friend, curled up in his lap, and cried until I couldn't anymore. He whispered into my hair,

"Ashley, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. But you're not your dad. You haven't done anything wrong."

My father wrote me a letter in 2009

at my request, explaining to me why he did what he did to those women. He was explicit in his explanation. No excuses. Not too many details, but enough to understand. He wrote that he made a choice--the worst decision he'd ever made. But he was adamant that it was his decision. Those women, they were his victims. And although he didn't think of himself as a monster, he had certainly decided to behave like one.

"That", he wrote to me, "was even worse."

Whenever a member of my family talks about my father, which isn't often, they always shake their heads and make some comment about how "nice" he was.

"Your dad was the best guy I knew." My uncle, my father's closest brother, sat across from me on the couch. "He was really funny. He could make anybody laugh. I think that's why your mama was so into him, I think. Yeah, real funny like you."

My eyes fell to my fingers twisting in my lap. I couldn't help but smile a bit.

My dad.

Like me.

I'm writing a book about my relationship with my father

and the (mostly one-sided) relationship he's cultivated with me via letters over almost three decades. We are close. He loves me very much. I love him very much. I am not conflicted about whether or not I love him. At times, I am certainly conflicted about what it says about me that I do.

Is this okay? 

He's done such a terrible thing. 

He is my father. 

But does he deserve my love? 

Of course, the issue with all of these questions is that I do love him, so they don't really matter. I would never defend what he's done. I would never ask anyone else to forgive him for his actions. I couldn't imagine the kind of arrogance and delusion that would inspire such a request. He and I agree that he's exactly where he's supposed to be. Living the consequences of his actions. Still, I am acutely aware that for some people, he will never pay enough for what he's done. I don't exactly know that they're wrong. But I can't help but hope they are.

I don't know if that makes me a rape apologist.

Does it?

I am sometimes terrified that someone will think this book is about proving to the reader, or myself, that my father is in some way not responsible. I want to be sure that I've written about this as responsibly as possible. But I also want to write what's real, what happened. I can't write him all bad. He's not all bad.

Is that okay?

I am a survivor of sexual assault, more specifically, rape

It was the letter my father wrote me in 2009 that convinced me I'd been the victim of someone else's choice, that I hadn't just made bad decisions that led me to the moment. It helped silence the shaming voice in my head.

Why did you go meet him?

Why didn't you bring someone?

Your mother is going to be so mad at you when she finds out.

Why didn't you listen to your mother?

You don't get to cry! Not about this! You did this!

For 10 years, I didn't need anyone to victim-blame me

I was doing plenty of that on my own.

I am pretty disgusted by how these high-profile rape cases are covered by the media

I may be even more disgusted by how these women and girls are treated by their communities whether their rapes are high profile or not. Even if were virgins, were we dressed like virgins? Were we being the good girls who don't incite violent sexual advances from mostly-good boys?

What happened, Ashley? 

Where were you? What were you doing there?

What did you do?

You want to know something crazy?

My rapist sent me a friend request on Facebook. His profile picture was of him and his son. You want to know something crazier?

I accepted his friend request.

For me, it was a no-brainer. There was a part of me, a part that grew smaller as I grew older, but still a very real part of me that still feared this person. I customized my privacy setting so he could hardly see anything on my profile, but I spent hours perusing his. I wanted to know where he lives, where he was going, what he was doing at all times. I wanted to know his every movement. 10 years later, I couldn't let him catch me off-guard again.

Does that sound like something a real victim of sexual assault would do? 

Cyber-stalk her rapist?

I don't know anything about real victims and their behaviors. I only know myself and mine. It felt real. It feels real. That's all I have in the way of proof. I can't believe I'm still wondering if I'm being a victim the right way.

Yet, here I am.

It was fear that kept me from telling

The fear of my rapist was only part of that. The other parts were fear that knowing I wasn't supposed to be seeing him anyway would negate his actions, fear that my mother might actually kill him leaving me with no parents instead of one, and fear that no one would believe it even happened and I'd just be a thirteen year-old who regretted her first act of sexual intercourse.

I couldn't be that girl.

So, I kept quiet for a long time. I eventually told my first boyfriend and my best friend. I started therapy as soon as I turned 18. I would sit in my therapist's office and cry so hard and so long that I asked my boyfriend to come and say to her what I couldn't ever seem to get out. I'd lost the words somewhere down inside myself, wherever I was storing all the secrets I'd never intended to share. But I got it all out.


I don't think I'm a rape apologist.

I don't think hoping when my father is released from prison he can have something like an okay life means I don't care about the women he raped. I think there is a difference between feeling sorry for a person who rapes, and feeling sad about who they could have become if they hadn't made such a heinous decision. This is a tragedy of choice. A lamenting not of the consequence, but of wasted potential, maybe?

Yes, I think it's silly for the media to spend so much time attempting to humanize unrepentant (until they realize they're actually in trouble) rapists and assailants. These boys clearly didn't give a shit about what they'd done until consequences arose. I didn't feel bad as I saw them crying in the courtroom. One of the boys crumpled into his father.

"No one is going to want me now," he wept.

I don't know if that's true or not. I do know that there's at least one very young girl out there who's thinking the same thing. I know I did. I know a lot of women and girls who did. He will have to live the consequence of his choice. Like my father.

But for those of us who didn't have a choice, those of us who survived the choices of men who violated our bodies, those of us who defend ourselves everyday, those of us who are still trying to figure out what does and doesn't make us a real victim, tears aren't enough to make us wish you didn't have to pay.

You're young, but you have to pay.

You're my father, but you have to pay.

You have a son, but you have to pay.

Revenge, justice, or divine order, it doesn't matter.

You will spend the rest of your life trying to prove you have been rehabilitated, we will spend the rest of ours proving that we have survived you.

It's not equal, nothing is. But you made a choice.

And this is the closest we get to setting things right.