Trigger warning: sexual abuse
As soon as I was old enough to understand the word “pedophile,” I knew my grandfather was one. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized everyone else around me had known it too.
My grandfather frightened me. And it wasn’t just me who was terrified of him. He seemed to have a hold over everyone, even grown men who were much bigger and stronger than him. It was an unspoken rule in the family to never upset him. So when I suggested his behavior towards myself and the other children in the family was “pervy,” I quickly learned to never suggest that ever again.
The stereotype of an abuser in the family is that they are manipulative and seem normal — “just like everyone else.” When it’s revealed that all along they have been hurting people, everyone is shocked. They seemed so loving. They seemed so nice. They seemed like the last person who could be capable of hurting anyone.
My grandfather never fit that stereotype.
He didn’t try to hide that he was sexually inappropriate. He was what the adults in my family affectionately described as “a dirty old man.” He was constantly touching other women, groping them, and making suggestive remarks. This was seen as an endearing trait, even by some of the women he was touching. “He means no harm,” “He’s only playing,” and “People need to learn to take a joke” were phrases repeated through the years. And their repetition protected him because he was allowed to get away with this behavior for a very long time.
He never tried to hide what an awful person he was. In fact, he had been brazen and unashamed his whole life.
It was common knowledge that he used to beat my grandmother and his children. I grew up hearing stories of how he would beat my father as a child, going as far as to break his nose. Once he even pressed my father’s face into the grate of the fireplace when it was lit. Sometimes his punishments were sadistic, one of them being he would whip my father with a belt and if he cried out in pain he would whip him even harder.
But this disturbing story was somehow romanticized. He suffered a stroke and it “transformed his personality.” He saw the error of his ways and never beat his wife or children again. It’s no coincidence that his stroke happened as his sons were becoming men, and I believe the fact they were old enough to fight back was the actual reason he stopped beating them. But this tale was told with such passion and warmth that I, along with the rest of the family, believed it to be some sort of inspirational story.
His abuse didn’t just stay within the family. They were rumors that he had raped people in his youth, but again, the story was spun in such a way that somehow no one ever addressed those rumors. “It was in the past,” “He was young” and “It was a different time” were phrases repeated time and time again and served as protection.
Volatile, vulgar, and sexually inappropriate — it was obvious this man was a predator.
As a child, I felt so frustrated and confused. He made me uncomfortable and took too much of an interest in me. I couldn’t understand why I was the only one who could see him for what he was and why no one would listen to me.
I began to think I had made the whole thing up. When everyone around you is acting like you are over sensitive, you start to believe it. Maybe it was true that he meant no harm. Maybe I did need to learn to take a joke. And I really tried. But I couldn’t see what was funny about being catcalled, groped, and generally objectified by my own grandfather.
One day I made a fuss. I was leaving at the end of a family visit, and he came behind me and cupped my chest. He lifted me off the ground and the pain in my breasts was excruciating. I was only thirteen and I didn’t understand what had happened. But I understood that it wasn’t right.
The adults in the family were quick to pacify him. “Oh, we know you were only playing. You don’t know your own strength!”, “She’s just upset because you accidentally hurt her, that’s all! She will be fine.”
But I wasn’t fine. I blamed myself for that incident for many years. I was overreacting. I could have got him into trouble.
Part of me wishes I had got him into trouble. The other part of me knows he would have evaded trouble because even concrete evidence wasn’t enough for trouble to catch up with him.
Up until this point, the only evidence I had was seen as weak. He was doing enough for it to not be exactly okay, but not quite enough to properly get into trouble. Everything was so easily explained away. That was until my very brave little sister came forward.
At eight years old, she did the thing the adults in the family should have done but refused to do. She protected the children.
I wasn’t present at this time. I had made some excuse about homework so I didn’t have to visit him. As far as I was aware, I was the only child in the family he behaved inappropriately towards. If I had known the truth, I wouldn’t have let my little sister go there alone and have to be brave without support.
Our cousin had married a woman who already had children. Two of these children were girls who were close to my sister’s age. As they were playing together at my grandfather’s house, the eldest of the girls told my sister that my grandfather had been touching her “private places.” The youngest, who was four years old, also revealed he had been doing the same to her.
Although my sister had been conditioned her whole life to doubt her own perception of my grandfather’s behavior, she acted with such certainty. She told our parents and the police were called.
And she, not my grandfather, suffered the consequences.
The entire family called her a liar, swore at her, and tried to bully her into backing down. They threatened the girls, even blaming the eldest for being “too sexual” because she liked sitting on her uncle’s lap.
She was seven years old.
And she was black.
I believe this was a huge factor in why they tried to sexualize her behavior. I also believe it was one of the reasons my grandfather was abusing her. No one liked her because she “wasn’t blood.” And even though no one wanted to admit it, they didn’t like her because she wasn’t white.
None of the adults, not even my parents, protected the children. They seemed to think calling the police was enough. They allowed my sister and those two girls to be screamed at, insulted, and blamed.
As much as they tried, they couldn’t stop my sister. She was an advocate for the girls and bravely spoke about the abuse she had suffered herself.
This seemed to prompt other children in the family to come forward too, including my other sister.
I asked my mother if I should come forward too. She discouraged me. I was so confused and beaten down by years of conditioning. And he hadn’t hurt me in the way the girls had reported. It never went that far.
As an adult, I understand feeling uncomfortable was too far. But as a child, I compared my experiences to others and convinced myself I was overreacting.
Although I gave evidence to the police about things I had witnessed my grandfather harassing and being inappropriate towards women inside and outside the family, I never told them about what happened to me. My father was present in the interview and discouraged me from elaborating on how my grandfather regularly made sexual remarks about my body and would slap my backside in a sexually aggressive way.
Even in a police interview, an adult in my family was protecting him.
The case went to court and the vast majority of the family were on his side. Even my aunts and uncles supported him, despite the fact some of their children had been abused. I was devastated, but not surprised at their loyalty to him.
Although I still feel angry and let down by the adults in my family, I understand they had all been groomed. It doesn’t justify their actions, but I don’t think they consciously realized they knew there was a pedophile in the family.
“It is crucial to note, that child sex offenders ‘groom’ both the child and the family. It is also important to note, that the sexual abuse of children has no social boundaries. Child sexual offenders are skilled at deception and conniving in all their perverse undertakings.”
–Pedophiles Groom Both The Child And The Family by Jayneen Sanders
My grandfather managed to talk his way out of anything and could convince people to be loyal to him, despite how openly cruel and predatory he was. With the help of family members, he managed to convince me I had some sort of personality flaw which made me perceive his behavior incorrectly.
But I had been perceiving everything correctly. And surely the justice system would too.
He was sentenced to ten years on the sex offenders register, five years in prison, but that was reduced to two years on account of his age. He was released early for “good behavior” and served a total of eighteen months.
The family welcomed him back with open arms. Meanwhile, his victims remained unsupported.
He received protection in prison as he used his skills of intimidation and deception to climb to the top of the hierarchy. When he was released, he desperately wanted to go back to where he was respected and protected. Outside of prison, everyone knew what he was and he feared for his safety.
He decided he would break his bail conditions and approach his granddaughters. He openly told the family he intended to do this. Upon hearing that these were his intentions, me, my parents, and my sisters were forced to flee our home. Meanwhile, he stayed protected and supported by the family.
Inevitably, he went on to re-offend. He befriended his elderly neighbors and abused their granddaughter. He went back to prison for a short time and when he was released, he was cared for in a nursing home until his death.
Despite being in prison twice, he never served the five full years of his initial sentence. Meanwhile, his victims served a much harsher sentence. Completely unsupported, my sisters and I had to navigate our own healing journeys and grieve for the childhoods we never had. I lost touch with my cousins, but I largely suspect they felt the same.
Outing an abuser doesn’t ruin their lives. They will have groomed people other than the children they abuse and often this ensures their protection.
The only lives it ruins are those of their family. The children have to recover from the trauma of being abused and the re-traumatization of not being believed. The adults in the family go through a grieving process, especially if the pedophile was their parent or spouse.
“Marriages break up — not just the marriages of the offender and his wife or partner, but also the marriages of the couple’s grown children, which means that grandchildren are affected as well.
In-laws are also affected. Women married to the sons of men who have been convicted of pedophile sex offenses may withdraw emotionally and sexually, leading to the breakdown of their marriages.
Children of sex offenders question their own sexuality and fear that they may have inherited their father’s perversions.”
–A paedophile in the family by Kathyrn Holmquist
Nearly every marriage in my family has broken down, including that of my parents. The strain of what happened was too much, even for family members who had stayed loyal to him.
The main piece of advice we give to children about abuse is to “tell someone.” This is the right advice to give, but it needs to be followed up by believing and supporting them.
In a study called The Truth Project, it was found that many victims of childhood sexual abuse were not believed.
“I tried to tell my mum what happened. She just slapped me from one end of the room to the other and said it didn’t happen. I went to bed, and I’d locked it away. I didn’t remember from that day. My mind had totally closed up … Like I said, my mum just slapped me and said it didn’t happen; so, it didn’t happen.”
-Victim and survivor, the Truth Project
“The effects child sex abuse has had on me and my family is, me being ostracized by my family therefore it’s caused a big family argument where I am not believed. Still to this day my brother says we won’t talk about your ‘illness’ but now I know why.”
-Victim and survivor, the Truth Project (‘Have your say’)
We need to do better. We need to ensure we don’t re-traumatize children (and adults) who come forward. We need to believe them.
The Truth Project found that 42% of victims have problems with relationships in later life and 22% going on to attempt suicide. Who knows how these statistics could be influenced if we believed and supported children and understood the signs of grooming.
To this day there are people who don’t believe me and the other children my grandfather abused. The damage is irreparable.
I am one of the lucky ones. I have received a lot of therapy and am living a full and meaningful life. But the scars remain and I will never get my childhood back. And for a lot of people whose childhood has been stolen by abuse, when they are not believed their adulthood is stolen too.
Thank you to my sister for being the hero of the story.