The Simplest Thing

We tend to imagine that it isn't our brothers, fathers, and sons who rape, and that rapists are animals and have nothing to do with us. It's just not the case. By maintaining that rapists aren't linked to us, we undervalue the problem and, sadly, we also perpetuate rape culture.
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On December 21, 2012--the day, according to the Mayan calendar, that the world was supposed to end--I found out that sixty-one-year old Don Haidl, a self-made multi-millionaire and former assistant sheriff in Newport Beach, had died of "natural causes" earlier in the week. I'd been reading about him and his family and staring at their photographs for years, wanting to write a novel based on the Haidl gang rape case, which took place in Newport Beach in 2002. Alisa Kaplan, the "Jane Doe," had recently made her name and story public in the hopes of becoming a spokesperson and advocate for survivors of similar crimes. Alisa and her family had been harassed and terrorized through two trials. Gregory Haidl, son of the now deceased Don Haidl, had gone to jail, along with his friends Kyle Nachreiner and Keith Spann. They're registered as sex offenders. Alisa had warned me of Don Haidl and his allies' thug-like tactics. Now he was dead.

On a cloudy and gusty Saturday afternoon soon after, still recuperating from the flu, I drove to Rancho Cucamonga, the city where Alisa and her perpetrators had lived. I wandered, visiting the three high schools (the Cougars, Grizzlies, and Braves), and the outdoor mega-mall. Gregory Haidl's childhood home looked neglected: paint peeling, the front lawn browned, and a dilapidated camper in the driveway. I stopped by the restaurant located in a strip mall where Alisa had been a hostess. A man outside a Starbucks begged for spare change.

Then I came home to my teenage sons. My eldest was on the high school football team at the time, and I'd been closely following the Steubenville rape case and other football related rape cases. My son had friends over, talking and playing video games. His friends call me Mom. I've known many since they were in diapers. Now they're young men around the same age as Gregory Haidl at the time of his crime.

That same night I came across an interview with Junot Diaz and scrawled what he'd said into my notebook:

I grew up in a world...where largely I wasn't really encouraged to imagine women as fully human. I was in fact pretty much--by the larger culture, by the local culture, by people around me, by people on TV--encouraged to imagine women as something inferior to men. And so I think that a lot of guys, part of our journey is wrestling with, coming to face, our limited imagination and growing in a way that allows us not only to imagine women as fully human, but to imagine the things that we do to women--that we often do blithely, without thinking, we just sort of shrug off--as actually deeply troubling and as hurting another human being. And this seems like the simplest thing...

In this same notebook, my fictional narrator began to emerge. What would it be like, I wondered, to be the younger brother of a rapist? What if my narrator had been involved? Implicated? What if he had to make a moral decision? He'd be about the same age as my sons and their friends.

If I'd been told that I would write a novel through the point of view of the rapist's brother, and that I'd gain compassion for the family, I wouldn't have believed it. I was sure I'd write from the side of the victim. Yet by focusing on the family of the rapist, I had to ask difficult and uncomfortable questions such as: What made my character a rapist? How much of the story is specific to family dynamics? How much could have been any kid growing up in our culture?

In retrospect, because I'm raising sons who are in their teens and involved in sports, including football, the question of how some young men--fifteen, sixteen, seventeen-years old--might think it's okay to rape, became vital.

In the latest media covered rape trial, the prestigious Episcopal prep school in New Hampshire with a long list of esteemed graduates, St. Paul's, denies a longstanding culture of entitlement and misogyny--pillars of rape culture. St. Paul's deemed itself ignorant of the "senior salute" tradition until 2013, and, subsequently, to its more unsavory features. Older graduating students proposition younger classmates for a hookup before graduation, an interaction that can be as innocent as kissing, to males competing to "slay," "score," and "pork" as many of their younger female classmates as possible. (A list of potential names had been passed between the men, and a tally of conquests in indelible marker decorated a wall behind the washing machines.) In a letter, St. Paul's administration stated: "The allegations about our culture are not emblematic of our School or our values, our rules, or our student body, alumni, faculty, and staff."

St. Paul's public relations inspired denials perpetuate the problem. In our culture, people argue that women are responsible for preventing their own rapes. When we blame victims for not fighting hard enough or not taking precautions to prevent their own rapes, we perpetuate rape culture. When we treat the rape of sexually active or intoxicated women as if it is not really rape; when we assume that the rates of false reports for rape are high; when we laugh at jokes that are made at the expense of rape victims; when we accept as innocent a beloved comedian rather than the countless women who have come forward; when we don't care about prison rape because the victims are criminals and, therefore, supposedly deserve it; when our police departments don't take rape investigations seriously and leave completed rape kits untested for years, we also perpetuate rape culture.

But what I learned as well is that we tend to imagine that it isn't our brothers, fathers, and sons who rape, and that rapists are animals and have nothing to do with us. It's just not the case. By maintaining that rapists aren't linked to us, we undervalue the problem and, sadly, we also perpetuate rape culture.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.