An old friend sent me a message a few months ago letting me know that the man who had a significant role in ruining my adolescence had died. The initial feeling of course was comparable to what my feelings had been for the last decade or so: numbness, disregard, nonchalance. In the moments after she told me, I felt like I was on standby, waiting for how I might react,
almost like I was bracing for impact. But it never came.
Unsurprisingly, the news spread back to my small hometown and soon my Facebook feed started piling up with links to obituaries, visitation dates and times, or people sharing memories of being in his class. I started to absorb these reactions as I poured through social media and slowly, the anger and hurt began to seep into me. Do they not know what he did? How can they say these things about someone they only caught a glimpse of?
Seeing the nostalgia and reverie made me feel betrayed by people who I hadn’t thought of in nearly eight years, and that was what stung the most. I thought maybe eventually I would feel upset that I didn’t get closure or an apology, but I didn’t. I felt upset that even in his absence he had the power to manipulate people into admiring him and manipulate people into seeing him as the victim.
During the time of the abuse nearly everyone knew what had happened. My grandma, for whatever crazy reasons, used to show me newspaper clippings from her town 50 miles away about the “scandal” as it unfolded. The media was unable to publish my name because I was a minor at the time of his court hearings, but there were no laws against kids from my high school leaving my name and their highly-valued teenage opinions on how I was a seductress, my parents were bad parents, and various other stances on the situation in comment threads on online news articles. His death was this scenario all over again; people misinterpreting who he was as someone who could never be a predator. Even though my name may not have been mentioned this time, it certainly still felt like a personal attack.
I never expected anyone to not be sad for his death. A life lost is still a tragedy, especially for his children and whatever other family he left behind. But when you carry something that heavy around with you for years, it is almost shocking when you find out that other people have forgotten. I suppose that after taking nearly a decade to realize that if you are a child, you are never responsible for the actions or abuse of an adult, I thought that some of my former classmates may have wised up in the interim and come to the same conclusion.
I hold no bitterness toward those I went to school with. As much as I was deceived, manipulated and had my vulnerability and young, impressionable mind preyed upon, so did they. The media, the small town politics, and society do a great job of telling us that there are two sides to every story, and we are taught to insert ourselves into every scenario we hear and make judgments based on how we believe we would react. I do it too.
But standing here as a mid-twenty year old successful college graduate with a respectable job and great family, I can earnestly say that my story is this:
I was preyed upon by a horrendously broken, ill man.
People did not understand the situation and they won’t understand it now, but what matters is that I know I was not responsible for his actions, his advances, his manipulation. It was not my fault. If I have to look at myself in the mirror every single day in order to remind myself to believe it, I will. It was not my fault.
When your abuser dies and you realize that others have memories of him/her that are anything other than traumatic, it will be painful, and once again you will question your role in what happened. Don’t. You might feel like his/her death makes you free. It doesn’t. You are free regardless. You are free of other people’s opinions of you, you are free of what the person who abused you told you about your worth. You are free simply because you exist.
When your abuser dies, there will be feelings that come back. Maybe you will be transported backward to an exact moment, a painful and abusive one. Maybe you will feel angry. Maybe you will cry. Maybe you will be happy that the threat of seeing that person in the grocery store or at your church or, God forbid, around your family dinner table no longer exists. Maybe you will pretend nothing happened. That is okay. Feel whatever feelings you need to because you have earned at least that. Feel what comes to you in the moment and promise me that when you are done, you will say/write/sing/scream, “It was not my fault.”
It was not your fault.