All illustrations by Joe Frontel
“I need you to keep this a secret,” she said.
It was April 25, 2012. I was having lunch with my sister on a sunny day at an outdoor cafe. She tells me our father has been molesting my four younger sisters right under my nose for the last 20 years. She wasn’t planning to tell me, she said, until our father died, to avoid bringing shame upon our family. But as he’d recently inherited a large sum of money and immediately asked my mother for a divorce, he was demanding to take our youngest sister, then 16, into his custody. My sister said she wanted me to work behind the scenes to keep the youngest in our mother’s custody—and above all, to tell no one in the outside world what was happening.
I could not believe what I’d heard. It had never crossed my mind that my godly, devoted father was capable of molesting his own children. And yet, in that moment, I knew exactly what I had to do. If my father was raping his daughters, my father would have to go. I wasn’t going to let this secret stay kept.
I called Child Protective Services that night to find out what I needed to do. They asked me to talk to my mother before I called the police. I called her that night and asked her to come over. While I waited for her to arrive, I felt like I was being taken over by a wrathful, ancient demon. As soon as she came over, I asked her if she knew what was happening. She looked at the floor. “Yes,” she said quietly. “But I’ll go down with my husband. God set him over me.”
I lost my mind. I screamed at her so hard spittle flew out of my mouth. My face distorted with rage and despair. She just looked at the ground, saying nothing, mouth set firmly. I towered over her, swearing and accusing and interrogating. How could she let this happen to her own daughters? I demanded.
This went on for hours, with my mother refusing to budge or cooperate. Finally, I was too exhausted to go on. I sent her away with my pledge to stop at nothing to see my father go to prison for what he had done. She left quickly without speaking a word. The door slammed behind her.
Fifteen minutes later, I heard a knock on my door. It was my mother.
“Your father confessed to everything. I need you to go with me to the police station to file a report. I don’t want to do it over the phone,” she finally said.
I still recall my mom sitting with her legs out on the parking lot of the courthouse, back against her car. A police officer calmly taking a report. By the time we arrived back at my parents’ apartment, it was already swarming with a dozen cops wearing tactical badges.
They didn’t arrest him that night, but they did make him leave his home. A few weeks later, he fled the US to the Republic of Georgia with $20,000 from my parents’ joint savings account. His brother is in the government there and he felt so confident in Georgia’s non-extradition laws, he wrote letters to my sisters on Father’s Day, blaming my mother’s lack of interest in sex as the reason he molested them.
He appeared to be starting a new life, with a new LinkedIn profile and lots of Facebook posts about his adventures in his new country. We watched helplessly as our gleeful father flaunted his escape from justice.
This continued until a Russian-backed coup toppled the ruling party and with it the protection it afforded my father. Within weeks of the coup, the FBI, Interpol, and the Tbilisi Police arrested him at his apartment. He spent nearly six months in an old Soviet-era gulag before the US government found a military plane to bring him home. They didn’t want to waste the money on a commercial ticket.
My parents were deeply religious. They defined their lives through piety and strict adherence to the Bible. My sisters and I were home-schooled and raised in poverty on a farm in rural Kentucky. No church was conservative enough for my parents, so they worshipped at home with us and a few others they knew who were dissatisfied with the excesses of the modern church. We spent almost all our time at home. Outside hobbies and socializing did not exist.
My father was emotionally distant and physically abusive, but I loved him. I grew up isolated and starved of physical affection, envious of my sisters who enjoyed a lot of time on my dad’s lap, seeming to get lots of hugs and affection. I would learn that every time I saw my dad cuddling with my sisters, usually at the kitchen table or late at night while they played video games, he had his hands down their pants. At night, after my mother and I went to sleep, he would do worse things. I would realize later that I had witnessed my sisters being sexually assaulted in front of me every day for 20 years.
While my father sat in county jail awaiting his trial, he seemed intent on beating the charges leveled at him. He entered a plea of not guilty and spent the last of his resources on an expensive defense lawyer. I was afraid that he might actually beat the charges. If he did, I believed his first act of freedom would be to obtain a weapon and kill me in my sleep.
My mental health fell apart. I had a recurring nightmare every night: I was chasing my father through a huge labyrinth (sometimes a massive house full of endless rooms and hallways, sometimes an industrial complex, and sometimes the crooked, cobbled streets of an Eastern European city). He ran ahead of me, always just out of my grasp. Sometimes he would fall to his belly and slither under a vent or a crack, then leap out at me with hands outstretched to strangle me. I often woke up from these dreams choking back a scream.
I regularly had panic attacks and flashbacks so intense that I would black out, barely remembering what preceded them. The triggers were unpredictable. Sometimes a scene of deer hunters or rural life in a movie would send me into a catatonic flashback. I would be unable to move, unable to talk, almost unable to breathe. The world around me faded away, replaced with hallucinations of life on the farm with my father. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night gasping for air. I experienced dissociation, anxiety attacks, and suicidal thoughts on a daily basis.
My relationship with my wife and my family rapidly deteriorated. My mother flailed, attempting to give my youngest sister into the custody of the state while trying to find a job to replace the income my father provided. Relations with my sisters were tense. The only love they’d ever known, broken as it was, had come from the man I had taken away from them. They tried to hold things together, but refused to seek therapy or any kind of help, choosing instead to stoically muscle through their pain. They took it out on me, I suppose because I was an easy target. They accused me of being emotionally toxic and mentally unstable.
After a year of trying to hold my family together, I couldn’t take it any more. I had to get away. I got a new job and moved to Seattle. A couple months after, my wife of seven years began a series of affairs and then told me she was done. We filed for divorce. She was living with her parents in Tampa, Florida within four months, leaving me alone in a new city. By now, my family had mostly stopped talking to me entirely.
I lost my faith during this time, descending into a cold atheism. I studied science obsessively for over a year, reading books by Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan. I watched every episode of NOVA and Cosmos I could find. In truth, I was on the way out of religion for a while, but I fell over the edge into nihilism. If nothing else, focusing on atoms and molecules and the endless amount of dirt and gas in the universe—real stuff—helped to ground me when it felt like everything I’d ever known was a lie. Lacking anything or anyone to pray to, I became more despondent.
I turned to sex, drugs, and heavy metal to numb the pain and make the nightmares go away. I played Nine Inch Nails at full blast in my car as I drove up and down western Washington’s back roads. Marijuana, alcohol, MDMA, and magic mushrooms helped me at least keep the worst of the nightmares at bay, and gave me a fleeting feeling of happiness and tranquility. I even buried myself in work—anything to distract me. I was a sweaty, overworked, nervous mess. I rapidly gained weight and lost sleep and I put anything into my body and mind to fill the ragged hole inside.
Two years passed. My mental health was only getting worse as my father’s trial approached. I got a call from the Spokane County Prosecutor on the morning of September 4, 2014. It was brief. She told me that my father pled guilty to all charges and received a sentence of 160 months. I sobbed for the entire morning, feeling every emotion it is possible to feel. I was the only member of my family to testify against my father at his sentencing hearing later that month. I held nothing back in my testimony against him. I hoped the judge would give him the longest possible sentence the law allowed. She did.
Relationships between fathers and sons are complicated under the most ideal circumstances. Millions of years of evolution drive an instinct that compels sons to learn from their fathers, to become like them, but also to rebel against them, to be different, to be a force of change in the tribe. I took a chainsaw to the fabric of social order, and I paid the price. As bad a man as my father is, I still struggle with the guilt of placing the man I loved and admired for so long into a cramped, violent cage where, as a pedophile, his life is constantly at risk. I know he is where he deserves to be, and I know society is safer with him behind bars, yet the pain of knowing I put him there still lingers.
With time, however, I have finally started to experience some healing. I have more good days than bad ones now. I am comfortable being single for the first time since my divorce, without jumping into co-dependent relationships just to feel safe.
Can I forgive my father? Does he deserve forgiveness? What could he possibly say to me or anyone else that would make restitution for what he did? Sometimes I want to make the long drive through eastern Washington’s dusty highways to visit him, just to look him in the eye, to see him in his prison jumpers, a guard lording over him. But what could I hope to get from seeing my father, a broken old man only two years into his sentence?
I think about all those nights back on the farm in Kentucky when my father would stay up late, tearfully memorizing Bible verses about being washed in the blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of sin. If it was a sign of a guilty conscience, it was the only one my father ever showed.