Echoes From the Past
My brother molested me when we were kids. Should I help him fight new sex-abuse charges?
Photo by Teresa Castracane
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My brother, who is in his late 40s, was recently arrested and charged with sexual abuse of a child when she was 9 years old. This girl is now 16 years old and says she didn’t remember the abuse until recently. This charge came after she and my brother’s daughter, who were friends, had a huge fight and severed their relationship. In addition, my brother had something to do with the accuser’s brother getting into legal trouble. My brother has denied the charge and passed a lie-detector test. My brother, who is one year younger than I am, has asked me to speak to his lawyer and be a character reference for him. Here’s the problem: When we were growing up, my brother used to sneak into my room at night to touch me, and this is what he is accused of doing to this girl. It seems like a bit of a stretch to think this is a coincidence, but he has passed a lie-detector test. I don't know if something that happened more than 30 years ago is relevant. Our parents were abusive and distant, and I felt that he did what he did, and I didn't do enough to stop him, because we were so starved for love and attention. This situation has brought up a lot of old feelings, guilt, confusion, etc. I don't know if I should be honest with his lawyer. It is also complicated by the fact that child protective services have taken his children out of the house, and the court case will affect whether he is allowed to have contact with them. It would destroy any relationship with my brother and probably with my entire family if I said anything about our childhoods. What should I do?
As I started reading your letter, I was thinking that this sounds like a case of someone being falsely accused of sexual abuse. These instances are rare, but they do happen, even though what’s more typical is that abuse goes unreported. Then came your revelation, and it turns out you were one of those abused children who never told anyone. You recognize you cannot be a character witness for your brother or at least not one his lawyer would want. So as you point out, your dilemma is whether to simply decline to speak or tell your story. I spoke to Lisa Lerman, a professor at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law, and she said if you were to tell your brother’s attorney what happened to you, that lawyer would not be obligated to disclose this to the prosecution. However, the information could affect the defense because the lawyer would likely then be constrained from asserting there have never been any other such accusations against your brother. That seems like a worthwhile limitation to put on the defense.
The bigger question is whether you tell the prosecution. While coincidences do happen, I agree with you that it stretches credulity to think that this girl is manufacturing a story that just happens to describe your own experience. As for the circumstances of her accusation, it’s not unusual for young people who were abused and kept quiet to blurt out their story while under emotional duress. If you accept the girl’s account, then that means your brother molested his own child’s playmate. That would make me worry about the safety of his children and any others who have been unsupervised in his home. The fact that he turned to you as a character witness makes his passing of a lie-detector test (which are notoriously unreliable) look at lot less exculpatory. Your brother needs a mental health evaluation; perhaps he dissociates himself from his own actions. I think you should consider having a consult with a lawyer of your own to discuss all your legal options, including what would happen if you spoke to the prosecution. It may be that becoming a witness against your brother is just too wrenching, but at least you will have considered it. Then please get some psychological counseling. I’m concerned that you’re still blaming yourself for what happened to you as a girl (“I didn’t do enough to stop him”). You had an awful childhood, which this situation has brought back to the surface. You deserve to have a caring person help you deal with all this pain.
Dear Prudence: The Happy Hooker
My boyfriend and I have been a couple for a year, and we recently moved in together. He is a very intelligent, mature, caring, and funny man, and I feel our relationship has a great chance at "going the distance." Since we began cohabitating I found out he has a strange habit: He keeps a remnant of his baby blanket inside his pillow case and, after he thinks I am asleep, he pulls it out and sucks on it. I discovered this while changing the sheets one morning and noticed a wet spot on his pillowcase. I tried to talk about this with him, but he became embarrassed and refuses any attempt to discuss it. The habit itself is not a deal-breaker. What is a deal-breaker is the wet blanket, which has a smell. I want to hand wash it, but I don't want to do this without his permission. I understand the blanket might help him relieve some anxiety; it's the hygiene issue that bothers me. I can't wrap my head around kissing him in the morning knowing that he's been sucking on the blanket at night. How do I raise the issue of washing the blanket? And is this a "normal" thing, or does it suggest deeper issues?
Without blankey your boyfriend might be sucking down a bunch of pharmaceuticals to get him through the night. But if more people had a piece of blankey to chew on, they might need fewer refills of Xanax. If this is it as far as your boyfriend’s weirdness goes, consider yourself lucky. Many people have little totems—a special coffee mug, a good luck charm—that calms them down. You need to decide if you actually want to raise this issue. But since your boyfriend knows you know, it would probably be better if this wasn’t a source of shame for him. Tell him you’re sorry you embarrassed him about the piece of blanket. Say you hope he feels he doesn’t have to hide it from you, and knowing this about him makes you feel better about letting him learn about your own little quirks. Say one of your things is hygiene, and you’d be more comfortable if he’d let you gently wash out the blanket from time to time. If the whole subject is too uncomfortable for him, then let it go for the time being. All you have to do in that case is limit your morning kisses to post-toothbrush ones.