If someone you loved, or even someone you knew, were accused of a crime would your first response be to seek refuge in denial? I’ve always believed that I’d be able to look truth in the eye and accept it, no matter how distasteful or horrendous. I did, at least, until a recent event occurred just blocks from my home.
For years, we’ve all watched the neighbors and friends of serial killers, mass murderers, pedophiles and others express shock when crimes are disclosed so close to their doorsteps. How many times have we heard: “He was a nice guy, a quiet guy, a good neighbor?” How many red flags sprouted out of his front lawn while no one took note?
Even more amazing to anyone looking at a crime from an objective distance are the family members that never noticed. The estranged husband of Susan Smith stood beside her as she sobbed coast to coast. He believed in her innocence. We, the public, believed in her innocence.
Many scoffed at her ignorance—others refused to believe she knew nothing. How could she climb into bed with him night after night and not know about his secret life?
Kathleen Peterson had no idea that her husband Michael led a double life—outwardly heterosexual and monogamous but engaging in sex with men at the Y, trolling the Internet for homosexual pornography and even contacting male escorts on-line. Kathleen didn’t know until the last night of her life. Her murder kept Michael’s secret for a while—but not for long.
But what of Martha and Margaret? Michael was guardian of those two girls from the time they were very small. They stuck with him through the trial and through his appeals. He was convicted of murdering the mother figure in their lives but he was also suspected of responsibility for the similar death of Martha and Margaret’s biological mother, Liz Ratliffe, sixteen years earlier. And yet, they found their refuge in denial—in the place where facts are irrelevant and emotion trumps evidence.
The proclivity for denial doesn’t end with murder. Many times, stalwart family members hearing accusations of serial rape have stood up denying the guilt of a son, brother, husband or father—even when confronted with the panties of victims stuffed in the corner of his dresser drawer. Learning of charges of pedophilia, some still deny even after learning that their loved one’s computer was filled with thousands of indecent images of children.So how would you react? How would I? I’d like to think that because of my background, I could be objective and stand always in defiance of the siren call of denial. And then I read the headline about someone I knew—someone I respected—and I stumbled.
The high school Criminal Justice teacher, a man in his sixties, retired from law enforcement, was accused of sexual impropriety with a teenage girl in one of his classes. My denial rose up like floodwaters, bearing indignation on its crest.
I was certain that the student was making it up in typical adolescent drama queen fashion. She didn’t get the grade she wanted or she felt humiliated in class, or she couldn’t get the letter of recommendation she wanted. I knew it had to be her fault, her problem, her vindictiveness. I refused to accept the possibility that this man I knew was at fault in any way.
I remained there for two days, certain of his innocence. Then the newspapers told the story of his text messages to the girl. He expressed his infatuation with her in vivid words. He wanted to leave his wife to be with her. It was like cold water in my face.
My first thoughts were amazement at the stupidity of this man. Former law enforcement and a criminal justice teacher and yet he leaves a text message trail? After assimilating those facts, I was overcome with outrage. Outrage at the teacher for betraying the trust placed in him by the students, the school, the parents—by society itself.
And outrage at myself for my willingness to believe the worst about the girl who had the courage to stand up to his behavior, face the possibility of embarrassment in her community and the ostracizing by her classmates—the girl who was willing to do the right thing.
Yes, my denial only lasted two days but it was a source of inner shame. I suppose I should be more tolerant in my judgment of myself. After all, denial is a natural, protective reaction to stress. I don’t think I can manage to cut myself that much slack but I do know I can do it for others.After all, perpetrators on all levels strive for stealth—some perform exquisitely, others are bumbling idiots. Who am I to judge those who are taken in by these manipulators?
When I see a parent submerged in a deep well of denial, I’ll be empathetic of their unenviable situation. When I see a spouse certain of their loved one’s innocence, I won’t automatically suspect their involvement in the other’s crime or its cover-up. When I see a mother prostrate from the burden of a child’s guilt, cobbling together a flawed alibi to protect the babe she bore, I will understand.