My husband and I are currently watching the multi-part documentary The Keepers on Netflix. It is hard to watch, even harder to stop watching. We are four episodes in. If you aren’t familiar with the story, it begins with the unsolved murder of a young nun, who was a popular teacher at a Catholic girls school in Baltimore in the late 1960s. As the story unfolds, we learn one of the priests at the school regularly abuses the students. It gets darker from there, but you can watch it yourself.
The most compelling thing about The Keepers is the frank storytelling of one of the victims. Jean Wehner was a teenager in 1969 when her favorite teacher was murdered. Today she is a model wife and mother, a beloved member of the community and of her large family. She’s the sort of woman you want at your bake sale and your book club. She is also the survivor of years of brutal abuse at the hands of people who were supposed to protect her. As she tells her story, much of it only recently dredged from the depths of her memory, I keep looking at my husband and asking: How is this woman still alive in the world?
It will not surprise you to learn that the church chose to shun the victims and protect the monsters in this case. It’s a familiar story now, but this one takes place before the Boston Globe Spotlight team uncovered years of systematic collusion and coverup of sexual abuse by the Catholic church.
This kind of abuse happens whenever there is an imbalance of power. We saw it at Fox News, where the owner and star personality spent years sexually harassing women. We heard it on that bus when the current president told Billy Bush he could do anything he wanted to women because he was famous. And we saw it in the case of Bill Cosby, who walked away from his mistrial last week with a jaunty hey, hey, hey, in the voice of Fat Albert. I hope he regretted that before the words were out of his mouth.
No one wants to think of Dr. Huxtable as a monster, but he is. The disconnect between a public persona and the demon inside is what makes these men so bold. They believe their own fiction. Cosby continues to present himself as the sweater-wearing, joke-cracking father figure, even while Andrea Constand bares her soul in a humiliating public trial and more women come forward every week. Bill O’Reilly remained smug and self righteous right up to his last broadcast. That priest who abused all those girls in Baltimore in the 1960s and 70s went on to serve at other schools and other parishes. At this point in the documentary, he is still alive and I am desperately hoping for harsh justice.
But justice rarely comes for these men. The world is on their side. The church moves them around, one step ahead of the accusers and the law. Or the lawyers circle up and protect them from anything more devastating than job loss with a hefty payout. Or they get a hung jury and hey, hey, hey themselves out of the courthouse like an asshole. Or we elect them president. And I know some of you think I’m conflating crimes here. You think the man who brags about “pussy grabbing” doesn’t rise to the level of a serial rapist. But I say a culture that rewards “pussy grabbing” gives cover to the serial rapist. The rapist knows it. The grabber knows it. We all know it.
For each of these men there are hundreds of women like Jean Wehner and Andrea Constand. They are incredibly brave. The people who protect the monsters work hard to suppress the stories these women tell. They blame the women for not coming forward sooner. They shrug and say they don’t understand why any woman would continue to have contact with a man who’d abused her. It’s a shameful and pathetic lie. They know exactly why women continue to have contact with abusers. The abusers have the respect and the esteem of the community. They control jobs and opportunities. They have the money and the connections and the power. And they never let you forget it.
When these men victimize women and children, they are doing so with the confidence that the world is with them. It’s been that way forever. It makes them bold. Well, I am part of the world and I say it’s time we switch sides. I say we stop making excuses for men who hoot at women on the street. Let’s stop letting guys off the hook when they get aggressive at the bar or in the boardroom. Let’s stop lecturing college women about drinking too much and start lecturing college men about boundaries and consequences. Let’s lift the statute of limitations on rape and impose harsher sentences. No more “boys will be boys” or “locker room talk” excuses. Let’s hold these men accountable for their words and their actions.
If we want to stop the monsters, we must first change the culture. We must stop granting them the permission and the power to seek out their next victim. If we can’t do this, we are all complicit.