It's not every day you learn that the man who molested you as a child has died.
It was our ritual of dinner and a movie night. I was watching our latest Netflix arrival with my husband, Chad, a film called, Breaking the Waves, the evening I received the text message: Bill died this morning.
I pressed pause.
"Is everything all right?" asked Chad. I told him the news. "How do you feel?"
Honestly, I didn't know.
Thirty-five years ago, I was a boy living on Staten Island. After my 11th birthday, my parents enrolled me in Boy Scouts. That's where I met Bill Fox -- a burly Irish cop and Scoutmaster. When I found myself sitting in his bedroom for a private meeting a few weeks later, I was well prepared to be tested to advance rank to "Tenderfoot." Instead, he showed me porn and instructed me on masturbation, something he called "boy bonding," something all boys did, he explained, in private and sometimes with other boys.
A great power runs in the emotional current between a man and the child he is entrusted with. That child sees this man as an extension of his parents and, along with that, comes respect and loyalty. Over the course of the next two years, I met with Bill in his room many times, each time imprinted with the belief that he was not trustworthy but still bound to him by loyalty.
Subconsciously I sent signals: my grades slipped, I avoided friends, and I wet the bed (a telltale sign of molestation). When, at thirteen, I finally confided in my parents, Bill was asked to step down. No charges were pressed: he simply went away, and I tried to forget what happened.
In 2008, a chance meeting with old friends sparked a memory of Bill. I looked him up online and discovered that in 1982, he had talked a suicidal teenager off a ledge and adopted him. Bill coauthored a memoir entitled The Cop and the Kid and was named Father of the Year. My discovery left me feeling as if I had been kicked hard. I couldn't breathe.
Compelled to find him, I located Bill and spoke to him on the phone. He had no recollection of me. I wasn't surprised: an alcoholic won't remember every martini he'd ever drunk, so why would a monster remember every victim? He proudly told me that he had adopted fifteen boys over the past twenty-five years. This news echoed in my head with the memories of those afternoons I spent with Bill in his bedroom. I wondered how many boys he had groomed over the years under the pretense of "boy bonding." And I wondered how many of those boys had come to call him Dad.
It would have been easiest to simply hang up and try to forget Bill, again. Instead I went to the police. After they launched an investigation, three of his adopted sons came forward with allegations of molestation. Ultimately, Bill was sent to prison, but Hallmark doesn't make a card to commemorate the day your child molester goes to jail. I didn't celebrate. I simply went on with my life.
Then, less than two years later, Bill died in prison.
The news left me numb. My family reacted with strong emotions. "I hope he rots in hell," said my sister, Josephine. That night in bed, Chad gently asked whether I was okay. Even my best friend, Eric, bombarded me with texts, concerned with how I was feeling. While everyone waited for my reaction, I felt nothing. My therapist explained that my apathy was a way of disconnecting myself from the unpleasant memories of Bill. In time, I would experience the stages of grief.
When I was molested, a part of my childhood died. Discovering Bill was still molesting boys gave me strength to face him again as an adult.
But grieving him? No way.
Yet, Bill's death was all I could think about. I'd walk to work and arrive not remembering how I got there because I was so preoccupied with the idea that I was going to grieve someone who caused me such pain. If only this process could be resolved with a nice long walk. What I learned is that sometimes distance is measured in days, not feet. Walking helped me put things in perspective. I arrived at the conclusion that there are attachments we make in our lives -- even the negative ones -- that are so intense that when they're broken by death you still feel the loss. But it wasn't Bill's death I was grieving, it was the memory of my childhood.
Two weeks after I received that text message informing me of Bill's death, I arrived home to find Chad waiting at a set table.
"What's the special occasion?" I asked.
Chad looked at me strangely. "It's called dinner and a movie night. Remember?"
There on the counter, the new Netflix had arrived. I smiled. Suddenly, I was reminded of the life we'd built together, and it was comforting to know I could negotiate my way back home despite the detour.