Another college rape, another moment of outrage.
Like random shootings across America, which always seem to end up as a rallying cry by the NRA and Congress to protect “basic gun rights,” college assault cases tend to take on a certain sameness. The act occurs, often at a party, usually after much drinking. A boy rapes a girl and then protests that it was consensual. The victim ends up being put on trial as much as the assailant, much outcry occurs about how the system does little to nothing to protect the rights or safety of young women on college campuses . . . and then it all dies down.
The San Francisco Bay Area has been shaken by the latest instance of such violence against a woman, this time at that most venerable institution, Stanford University in Palo Alto. An underclassman named Brock Turner, a swimmer on track to compete at the Olympics, assaulted a young woman after meeting her at a party last year. She admits to having drunk heavily. He dragged her unconscious body behind a campus dumpster and penetrated her with his fingers and other objects (but not his penis; hence, no rape charge, only assault). If he had walked away and the young woman had pressed charges, chances are good that nothing would have come of this. However, two bikers were riding by, saw Turner on top of the victim, chased him down and caught him, and wound up testifying against him.
With that kind of eyewitness testimony, the jury had no choice but to find Turner guilty of three counts of sexual assault, which they did unanimously. However, at the sentencing Judge Aaron Persky, who could have given the guilty man up to ten years in prison, chose to sentence him to six months (of which he will probably serve three). The judge’s unconscionable reason for this leniency was that a harsher sentence would “have a severe impact on him.”
Those who have followed this case will be aware of the extraordinary letter that the victim wrote and read in court addressing her assailant at the sentencing hearing. It begins: “You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today.” She describes in brutal detail what she went through and how it left her feeling worthless. Her words are both angry and compassionate:
“You should have never done this to me. Secondly, you should have never made me fight so long to tell you, you should have never done this to me. But here we are. The damage is done, and no one can undo it. And now we both have a choice. We can let this destroy us, I can remain angry and hurt and you can be in denial, or we can face it head on, I accept the pain, you accept the punishment, and we move on.”
Brock Turner is not accepting his punishment. Despite the judge’s leniency, Turner is appealing the sentence. So, despite the victim’s brilliant and persuasive rhetoric, another young man refuses to accept responsibility for his actions. The woman’s letter has gone viral, prompting international discussion on the issue of campus violence against women and of rape laws. How many of us expect any real change? A petition is in play to remove Judge Persky (currently up for re-election) from the bench, but the odds of this deserved action succeeding are slim.
I could stop here, and perhaps a few people would comment in support about how terrible the whole situation is, how bad we all feel, how something should be done.
But I want to talk about the other letter. The one Brock’s dad, Dan Turner, wrote to the judge asking for leniency for his son. A father certainly has a right to do this – to point out the great qualities of his child, his potential to do good in the future, and to remind the court of how much he has suffered for his actions. I can imagine Dan Turner spent a lot of time trying to get the words right, to paint a picture of a typical good kid who has let “worry, anxiety, fear, and depression” replace “that easy going personality and welcoming smile.”
When Dan talks about the change in his son’s eating habits, I’m sure he had no idea how these words would go down in public:
“Brock always enjoyed certain types of food and is a very good cook himself. I was always excited to buy him a big rib-eye steak to grill or to get his favorite snack for him. I had to make sure to hide some of my favorite pretzels or chips because I knew they wouldn’t be around long after Brock walked in from a long swim practice. Now he barely consumes any food and eats only to exist.”
Turner probably didn’t count on most of us reading this and comparing it to the suffering Jane Doe endured that night and continues to endure as she tries to put her life back together. He might have thought that this made his son seem more human, that a lot of us would nod and smile, thinking of times we were so upset that we couldn’t eat either, and sympathize with Brock.
Toward the letter’s end, Dan reminds the Judge that Brock “has no prior criminal history and has never been violent to anyone including his actions on the night of Jan 17th 2015.” (my italics)
Well . . . it seems clear that Dan does not believe, or wants to not believe, that his son did anything wrong that evening. He has said in public that he believes Brock was a victim of a long-standing campus drinking culture, that his son drank to assuage the doubts about fitting into college life that besets so many freshmen. And, of course, Brock’s defense was that all acts were consensual, and what father would choose to believe otherwise, despite the evidence?
All of this is hard for us to take, but it is somehow understandable coming from an adoring father for the son who had so much potential. But then we have a statement right in the middle of the letter – a statement I just cannot get around (again, the italics are mine):
“(Brock’s) life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”
How dare he? How dare this man reduce the irrevocable violence his son perpetrated on an innocent woman to a percentage? “He’s been good so much and has only been bad a little bit, so look at the big picture here and let my rapist son go.” Who the hell does Dan Turner think he is?
I’ve been teaching for twenty-eight years, and most of the parents I have met have been good people and good parents. But I have known my share of Dan Turners, both fathers and mothers, who feel their children’s wants and needs exceed the rights of others, exceed the rules, exceed the basic tenets of appropriate behavior. They have a plan for their son, a dream for their daughter, and nothing and nobody is going to stand in the way of that dream. A few whine and plead when the occasion arises, but most attempt to win their case through intimidation. They may or may not excuse their child’s inappropriate behavior at the moment, but they want to make sure that there are no repercussions for that behavior. They balk at their child not getting the highest grade or winning the biggest role; that’s your mistake, they say. They attempt to hold other people accountable for their own child’s mistakes, just as Dan Turner does when he blames the college drinking culture for robbing Brock of the conscious choice to not take advantage of a drunk woman, to not drag her behind a dumpster and assault her.
Every day in my job, I make decisions that affect dozens of young lives. I post three cast lists a year, I grade hundreds of projects, I evaluate whether students on the cusp of graduation have fulfilled certain requirements they need to receive their diplomas. I know that poor decisions have consequences for students, yet it still pains me sometimes to have to mete out those consequences. All I can do is encourage my students to make good choices, to handle success with humility and defeat with grace. Because at any moment the next choice will come along, the next chance to get it right or make amends or prove that you are a person of worth. Most of my students handle their successes and failures exactly this way because they have been taught how to do so, a lesson as important as you will find in any class.
I can understand Dan Turner wanting to share the good in his son and to do all he can to see that good does not go to waste. The victim of Brock’s crime saw that good herself and spoke eloquently in her letter about it. Dan says that his son was “absolutely devastated by the events” and “has expressed true remorse for his actions on that night.” And although victim has not heard that remorse directed at her, I can understand a father wanting to believe his son is sorry for what he did. But when Dan Turner dismisses his son’s violence as “20 minutes of action out of his twenty plus years of life” – when he infers that a few minutes of extreme violence against a woman is a relative sin when compared to years of good acts and great promise as a swimmer, a scholar and a cook – that is something I cannot understand or forgive. And the leniency of Brock’s sentence? The fact that a judge ignored the lifelong, severe impact Brock inflicted on Jane Doe in order that the assailant would not be severely impacted? I can’t understand or forgive that either.