Fathers, sons, and accountability

When an indefensible crime is brushed away as a mere mistake in judgement


Brock Turner (right) has been sentenced to just six months in prison. Photo: Dan Honda/AP
Brock Turner (right) has been sentenced to just six months in prison. Photo: Dan Honda/AP

In her almost 15 years on this earth, I’ve had to write several letters of recommendation or appeal for my child. To get into this school or that, this camp or that, her father and I have been asked in various ways, “What are your child’s strengths and weaknesses, and why should we care?” We dutifully fill in the forms as truthfully as we can and send them off. Last week, the world got to see another letter by a parent: Dan Turner’s statement to judge Aaron Persky in San Francisco.

Turner is the father of Brock Turner, a former Stanford University student who was convicted of three felonies and faced a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison for sexually assaulting a young, intoxicated, unconscious woman. The letter is breathtaking. The judge listened and saw fit to give the criminal six months in jail, with probation, so he will probably serve even less time. There is uproar over the judgement. I can’t stop looking at the letter and thinking about the line between loyalty and delusion.

The letter talks about how the poor boy is so devastated that he can barely eat. It never once mentions the victim. I bet her appetite isn’t so great right now. It says he has never been violent in his life, “including his actions on the night of January 17, 2015”. I guess raping an unconscious woman behind a garbage dumpster doesn’t count as violence. It talks about his nice personality and his swimming and his good grades and blah blah blah. It blames alcohol, other people, even Stanford. It never once blames the criminal. I wonder how, and if, this boy was ever disciplined while he was growing up.

I am not blaming the father for the son’s crime. I would never go down that road. The rapist was legally an adult when he committed his crime. He alone is responsible, even if his father was as much of a fatuous idiot of a parent as this letter seems to indicate. We influence our children, but whether they commit crimes or win awards, ultimately the buck stops with them.

No, I am not blaming the father for the son’s crime, but I am saying this: As parents, it is our job to support our children. However, whingeing about how your son got into Stanford and is such a great swimmer and such a nice guy who loves his good food, and calling the time when some other parent’s child was raped and devastated “20 minutes of action”, isn’t support. It’s entitlement, snobbishness and sexism taken to toxic levels. I went to Stanford too. It doesn’t make me a better person than anybody else; it makes me damn lucky that I was in the right place at the right time. It doesn’t give me licence to ruin someone’s life and get off lightly because I like pretzels. But then maybe if I were white, had a penis and was a champion swimmer, things would be different. The impressionable young man who fell into bad company and a “culture of alcohol consumption and partying” was at the same university as Carl-Fredrik Arndt and Peter Jonsson, the two other Stanford students who stopped to rescue the woman Turner raped. Their fathers must be proud. And if the rapist in this case had been a black man, who didn’t go to Stanford, I wonder what his father could have said to sway the white judge—who also, like most people in this story, went to Stanford.

How would my father have reacted? I’ve written before about parents of victims, including my own parents, who were superb and did all the right things. But what about when you’re the parent of the bad guy? My father basically thought his children were perfect. He was undiscriminating in his adoration of us. But when we were in the wrong, oh, he let us know. What if my brother had committed a violent crime and hurt a woman? I think our father’s heart would have broken, and he would have visited his son in prison every day if he could. But I cannot imagine that he would have made excuses and asked for probation because his boy got good grades and went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and shouldn’t be punished for “20 minutes of action”. He would have stood by his son, because we stand by our children, but he would have been ashamed of him, rightly, and concerned for the real victim.

We’ve come a long way in the way we talk about rape. We aren’t automatically blaming the victim here. Just a few years ago, her being drunk would have been enough to make it all her fault. But not blaming the victim doesn’t mean you don’t blame anyone. And if it’s your child, no matter how loved, who must take the blame, then even though it will break your heart and sear your spirit, you must accept it.

Andrew Solomon, in his riveting book Far From The Tree: Parents, Children And The Search For Identity, has this to say about parents of criminals: “People who see and acknowledge the darkness in those they love, but whose love is only strengthened by that knowledge, achieve that truest love that is eagle-eyed even when the views are bleak.”

Your son did a terrible thing, Mr Turner. You can face this and still love him. If you instead feint and dodge and misdirect and refuse to put the responsibility where it lies, maybe it’s not him you love but a chimera of your own making. That type of love serves nobody.

Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.

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