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The Hidden Fallout of Rape

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Rape. One of the ugliest words in the English -- or any language.

Coupled with -ist and added to "distant relative of mine," the word provokes a nauseating free fall.

This is not a story about the victim. This is the story about the family of the accused. This is a story about the painful collision of loyalty and loathing, disbelief and a slow, awful acceptance that somebody you love has done something you hate.

A little over one year ago, a distant relative of mine was accused of rape. I keep using that word -- distant. I can't bring myself to think of him any other way now. The accusation was stunning, like an atom bomb had gone off, leaving only shadows where the family had been.

What do you do, how do you feel, when someone you love has committed a crime like this? Gender, I am discovering, is thicker than water.

It was a party. Drinking was happening. The victim blacked out and found -- we'll call him David -- on top of her. Money for bail was gathered hurriedly by the family, as they reeled in shock. David was released and lawyers commenced building their respective cases.

David's nuclear family was shattered with shame and utter disbelief. They did not believe -- could not believe he had actually done it -- raped someone. But we all found ourselves, late at night, alone with our thoughts, thinking -- could he have? Cousin David? This friendly, funny, gentle, loving father, cousin, brother and uncle? It did not compute. Hard drive fail.

It wasn't a dark alley rape, I told myself, desperately, as it all began to sink in. He did not hold her down, tie her up or hit her on the head. It was a party. He got carried away. But sex that is not mutually consensual is rape. Rape. That word again.

I just cannot reconcile the crime with the person. My brain cannot wrap itself around it. It just can't. But it must.

Last week, David was found guilty. He will be sentenced to a maximum of eight years in prison. His wife has left him. His business has folded. His children, all under the age of 11, have been told something or other. He is a convicted felon. A rapist. His punishment has only begun. Justice has been served.

Or has it? Can justice be served in the crime of rape? Or is the word we are looking for responsibility? Penance? Payment? How about turning back the clock? Can we do that?

The victim now has lived through a traumatic event that will haunt her forever. Her shame, her trauma, having to be examined, cross-examined and for her family to know what she went through. What will put a healing balm on that? I don't guess that knowing that the perpetrator is behind bars will bring much comfort, because no bars can hold the awful memory of it at bay.

I live in the land of King Solomon, the wisest king who ever lived. Or so it is said. King Solomon thought outside the box. But the box of criminal justice is a one-size-fits-all, designed to handle a maximum caseload efficiently. The mechanism leaves behind searing shrapnel, too scattered to clean up, impossible to touch, the detritus of shattered relationships. But as messy as the criminal justice system is, I still believe in it. Convicted. He was convicted. I am paralyzed with the hot truth of it, the mind-bending nature of it.

For the rapist -- my relative -- is not the angry, mouth-breathing redneck, misogynist jerk you are imagining. He is a loving, funny, gentle father of three, who loves to cook.

But rape is rape. And despite idiotic protestations to the contrary, every rape is "legitimate" because every victim is the unwilling object of something gone horribly, horribly wrong.

My mind begins to overload again. I can't take it in. Does this mean any man anywhere can be -- is a rapist? Is the line that thin between nice guys and rapists? The implications fill me dread. You think you know a person.

I think of his family -- the rapist's family. I think of the way his wife discovered that her husband was unfaithful. I wonder what she is telling her kids about where daddy is. I wonder, as the kids get older, how -- or if -- they will have a relationship with their dad. I think a lot about forgiveness and second chances, but in the ground zero of it, I don't think that is yet possible.

Over twenty years ago, I was date raped. A surprising, dismaying number of my friends experienced the same thing at one time or another. This was back in the time when "date rape" was not in the public sphere as much as it is now. I too was filled with rage, humiliation and shame. But I did nothing about it. I did not have the courage to face the police, the courts, judge -- and the rapist. The difference between this victim and me is that she did stand up. She stood up for all of us and for that, I respect and admire her. I wish that respect and admiration could bring her healing, but I know it can't.

At the time, what would I have seen done to the man who raped me? Probably to have his genitals cut off in a public square. Now, 20 years later, on the rare occasion that it comes to mind, I still burn when I think that my rapist has gone on with his life, never having had to take responsibility. Never having lost a night's sleep. Maybe having done it again. I don't think I would have cared about the implications for his wife and kids or family. I would not have cared.

And then I find myself coming full circle to painful confusion -- but this rapist is -- he was -- a nice guy. This rapist is a father and was an upstanding member of his community. This rapist's life as he knew it is over. Maybe he will have some epiphanies about his life while in prison. Maybe this will straighten out the things that were slowly, corrosively going wrong in his mind and in his life before it happened. Or maybe he just made a mistake in the moment. Such a mistake. What is the word for mistake times infinity? A tragedy.

I awake this morning and remember this horrible thing that has happened. And once again, I cannot work it out in my mind. A person that I love has committed a crime that I hate. Statistics show that the vast majority of rapes go unreported and that cases brought to court are fewer yet. Rapists run rampant. An example must be made.

In my inability to make sense of this, I want to say stuff like "we all make mistakes" but I choke on my words. This is not just a "mistake." Not for the victim and her family. Not for the family of the perpetrator -- the rapist. The worst feeling about being raped is not the bruises or the being roughed up -- it is the being stripped of one's humanity for a few moments that last an eternity.

The actions and stupidity of one man have ruined the lives of countless others. How should the rapist pay? Should his family pay? Never mind, they are. Oh how they are. I only wish there were a better way to mete out justice, keep women safe and punish the rapist in a way that brings some good, some light back into the world. I have no idea what the answer is. I am still reeling. I wonder what King Solomon would do.