The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Forgiving my Father, the Serial Rapist

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The winter following the devastating earthquake in Haiti on January 12, 2010, I visited my mother often, mostly on Sundays when the echoes of the many news stories on CNN still lingered throughout the house. Every Haitian person I knew was draped in a thick blanket of sadness. The memory of all that we called home had been reduced to a steady stream of twenty-four-hour news coverage, an influx of international aid, and tens of thousands of dead bodies. After the 7.0 magnitude earthquake ravaged the island nation’s capital and nearly leveled its national palace, surely there would be a deep unearthing of all that makes Haiti what the media labels “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” There have been books and documentaries and political think pieces all framing the history of the first black republic in the West. I’ve read and watched most of them. So when on one of those Sundays my mother casually said, “You know, your father was a sexual predator,” while finishing her meal at the dinner table, I believed her and the truth of it all settled like a stone in water.

My mother had dropped hints of this in my childhood and all throughout my adult life by using the usual Papa-was-a-rolling-stone descriptors like “womanizer” and “cheater” when she talked about my father, who was thirty years her senior and married to someone else when I was born. But hearing the term “sexual predator” unleashed in me a set of emotions I couldn’t even begin to wrap my head around. While my mother continued eating her dinner and revealed this bit of truth to me as smooth as air, I now had to come to terms with all that it means to be the daughter of a “sexual predator.” A serial rapist. So maybe, I can describe myself not as a love child, as I had previously thought, but as a rape child. Natural disasters have a way of uprooting deep-seated truths.

I’m also using the descriptor “serial rapist” here because I’ve seen it applied to Bill Cosby. He, like my father, raped women. Repeatedly. While Cosby drugged his victims, my father didn’t need any Spanish Fly, nor does it seem he actually physically forced himself onto anyone. I’m told he wasn’t a violent man. I believe this, too. He wouldn’t have needed to use physical violence. His brand of rape rode high on patriarchy, misogyny, racism, colorism, colonialism, and poverty. And his victims were left incapacitated under the thumb of all that ails a country like Haiti. I’d call this Third World Country Fly.

My father was handsome, charming, funny, witty, a grimo (light-skinned), and a popular, well-respected businessman. He founded a radio station in the late 1960s in the beautiful southwestern seaport town of Les Cayes. In the 70s and 80s, he owned a women’s soccer team, organized matches and community events, and was responsible for bringing world-renowned performers like Miriam Makeba into the country. He was famous for his over-the-top Poisson D’Avril (April Fool’s) jokes. I was told the story of how he’d announced on the radio that there’d been a giant shark washed ashore at the nearby beach. The whole town had stopped everything to set their eyes on this huge shark. There was no shark, but there were lots of laughter and follow-up jokes that continued to live way past his death in 1991. My father, the popular, well-respected sexual predator/serial rapist died of HIV/AIDS. I was 12.

By that time, my mother had married and had other children—my newborn baby brother and four-year-old sister. We’d moved into a small apartment in Queens and she’d been saving up to buy a house. Her American Dream was merely a breath away. Just seven years prior, in 1986, Haiti had managed to oust Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, ending a 30-year father/son dictatorship. With a fledgling democracy and a newly elected priest as president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti was still dealing with the crushing stigma of being identified by the FDA as one of the four risk groups for the AIDS epidemic—known then as the 4-Hs: Heroin addicts, Homosexuals, Hemophiliacs, and Haitians. I was a news junkie at 12, my favorites being the six o’clock news anchored by Bill Beutel and Barbara Walter’s 20/20. I’d watched the April 1990 coverage of the Haitians’ protest across the Brooklyn Bridge against the FDA’s rules barring Haitian immigrants from donating blood. In that same month, 18-year-old hemophiliac Ryan White had lost his five-year battle with AIDS.

So at 12, I would’ve had enough context for understanding HIV/AIDS. But, I was in middle school, and news stories were just that—news. Haiti with all its instability and poverty was a memory we’d all folded up and tucked away. Seventh grade and music and fashion were more real, more tangible. I’d been getting ready to go to school, wearing a Walkman and overalls with one strap down when I learned that my estranged father had died from diabetes. This is what my mother told me—diabetes. I didn’t cry. I simply decided to add three tablespoons of sugar onto my cornflakes instead of five. My mother, however, cried for days.

We’d left Les Cayes for New York City when I was four years old. I have vague memories of my father being a constant presence in my toddler life. He’d bought me dolls and drove a bright yellow Volkswagen Beetle. He and my mother had been together in some strange way: My father didn’t live with us, he’d only visit, bringing with gifts from his travels. I’d also known that my father had a light-skinned, curly-haired wife and two light-skinned, curly-haired children—markers of socio-economic status in the blatantly colorist Haiti. My mother was his young mistress, and the whole town seemed to have agreed to this. In Haiti, there is very little to no debate about whether it’s OK for successful men to have one or two mistresses outside of their marriage. So there were also lots of other women. The whole town seemed to have agreed to this as well.

*

Six weeks before the tragic earthquake in Haiti, for the first time since leaving Les Cayes, I met my half-sister—my father’s first daughter from his marriage. She’d always known of me and her father’s affair with my mother. I have vague memories of spending time with her and her brother. I knew them as my older siblings, and back then as children we’d all been oblivious to the complex details of how this came to be. She found me on Facebook, of course. She cried when we first saw each other. She’d told me that my father had sent for me before he died, but that my mother wouldn’t allow it. To this day, I still don’t know how many attempts my father had made to see me. At the reunion, I was suddenly a beloved little sister, and I learned my daddy had actually loved me, too. My world ballooned to the size of the universe, and at its very edge was my own daddy-blocking mother being pushed out and off. I imagined my childhood with my siblings and father—a life of world travel and endless beaches and jokes after jokes. This is how my half-sister described her girlhood.

Then there was her own mother. “He was a great father, but a terrible husband,” she’d said.

I asked my newly discovered sister if it was true that our father had died of AIDS. When I was in college, my mother had told me that her initial explanation of for my father’s death wasn’t correct, that instead of diabetes he’d had HIV. All throughout my high school years, she’d tried to scare me away from boyfriends by warning me that the boys calling my house were “full of AIDS!” Maybe telling me the truth about my father’s death was her last hope for keeping me a virgin. In any case, I hadn’t believed her. Part of me attributed the change in her explanation to her being a woman scorned.

But my sister revealed that not only did our father die of AIDS, he gave it to his wife, and almost wiped out a whole women’s soccer team, too.

These stories sounded like folktales. Or maybe legends. My father was legendary. No way. A soccer team? But this came from his own daughter who herself is still dealing with these ghosts.

That’s when the truth that his genes makes up half of mine settled in my bones. My father was a nymphomaniac. Is that hereditary? Did I pass this on to my son? Did I attract other nymphomaniacs because they can sniff it in my DNA? Is there some karmic debt that’s been passed on to me? No. Thank goodness. I married a feminist man who’s helping me raise kind, intelligent children. He brings me tea and meals while I write. It looks like I’ve been spared karmic debt. If so, it’s partly because of my mother.

At some point, my mother loved my father, the sexual predator, serial rapist. Or maybe it was not love at all. Perhaps she was attracted to the security gained from being connected to a man of status. My mother was a news reporter at my father’s radio station. I’m told that she was able to send money back to her parents in rural Haiti and send her older sister, my aunt, to nursing school. This “love” must’ve been stifling. The story is that he wouldn’t let anyone else have her. By virtue of having his child, he owned her. This sort emotional abuse was enough to make my mother flee the country with no money and her young daughter. Knowing that she had that much courage is what liberates me.

A few days after the earthquake, I learned that I have another half-sister—my father’s daughter by yet another woman. We were born three months apart. We were best friends in Les Cayes, and my mother never let me forget this. She’d even kept a picture of us together and would often ask me if I remembered her. I imagine the earthquake had dredged up all sorts of shit for Haitians everywhere. So after telling me that my father was a sexual predator, my mother said, “You know, ______ is your sister.”

I’d been washing the dishes while she started on a slice of cake from a local Haitian bakery in Queens to celebrate my little brother’s 19th birthday. Midwinter break was just around the corner. It was the first bit of respite after the many phone calls to relatives abroad, the newspapers with endless photos, the reports and analyses, and the star-studded Hope for Haiti telethon. The rest of the family—my siblings, my step-father, my husband, and children—were all in other rooms. These moments alone with my mother were rare now—the silences were thick and wide, filled only with brief praises for the children and how they’ve grown. So this bit of vital truth to the story of how I came to be came like a puncture—strong, sharp, and sudden.

I was overcome with a mix of joy that my childhood friend is really my half-sister and betrayal that my mother had kept this from me. The news reports continued, along with the calls for donations, the fundraisers, and endless conversations between Haitian artists about the need to do something and anything. And at the end of each day, I’d sit by the computer scouring Google and Facebook for this new sister of mine, praying that she had not perished in the earthquake. At first, my older sister refused to acknowledge that there’d been another sibling. To her, I was the only legitimate half-sister. But she knew of this childhood friend of mine. Les Cayes is a small town. What the internet could not provide, I gained from a few phone calls across the Haitian diaspora in Miami and Boston. She’d been on Facebook after all. I placed an old photo of her next to her gorgeous profile picture, and again, my world ballooned. She had survived the earthquake.

After a brief online exchange of names, dates, and phone numbers, for the first time in my Haitian immigrant life, I had a reason to actually call Haiti (so many numbers to dial!). Not only did I have to tell her that we’re sisters, but I had to tell her who her father was. I can’t possibly understand what it must’ve been like to survive a devastating earthquake, then get a call from a long-lost friend in New York telling you that your father was that famous guy on the radio who used to come to your house all the time and whose funeral you watched on TV. And then to have to piece together the details of your life, after having been told that your mother died of a “sickness,” and that she’d been raped. And once you confront your family about all this, they simply hand you a picture of you and your long lost half-sister as toddlers. And you realize that they’ve known this all along.

I’m not a Vodouisant, but I can play one on TV. Meaning, I know the rules (lwas) and understand the worldview. It’s something I had to dig for myself while searching for answers outside of the usual narratives about Haiti—poverty, corruption, and Hollywood’s version of voodoo. I discovered a whole new worldview where spirituality rests at the core of every tragedy and triumph. There’s a complex pantheon much like Greek or Roman mythology, and the songs, dances, and prayers are a mix of indigenous African and Taino culture. This is what makes sense to me. So in thinking of the hows and whys, I realize that zanset yo (ancestors) are my lifeline, regardless of the life they’ve led. I am because they were. Just a few weeks after the earthquake, sometime at the end of February, my newfound half-sisters and I were on three-way calling from Haiti, Miami, and New York. Our big sister told us it just happened to be the anniversary of our father’s death. I thought, maybe, that this serendipitous moment of atonement, of us finally finding each other and communicating on the 19th anniversary of his death following the most devastating natural disaster our country had ever experienced, was our father’s orchestration from the other side.

Later that year, I went to Haiti and stayed with my new childhood friend turned half-sister. We said a prayer and poured libation for our sexual predator, serial rapist ancestor. We are because he is.

*

As a little girl, while my father was busy raping and womanizing in Haiti, I found the quintessential daddy figure in Dr. Huxtable. I was 9 or 10 years old when I prayed to baby Jesus for an upstairs/downstairs house just like the Huxtables. My mother even looked like Mrs. Huxtable—same roller-set hairstyle and all. The Huxtable daughters were all the perfect barometer for black girlhood. The Huxtable house, their daily shenanigans, their clothes, their hair were my visual utopia. As an immigrant, I needed to see this. I needed to understand exactly what my mother was running towards. We all wanted that little bit of Huxtableness in our lives.

I think of the actual Cosby daughters often. My own father wasn’t touted as being the quintessential daddy-figure in the public’s eye, but according to his eldest daughter, he certainly was to her. She stills talks about him with pure, unfiltered love and admiration. I wonder if the Cosby daughters can do the same. I wonder if the media will allow them to publicly love and support their father.

I’m sure my father was indeed a noble man to many. Twenty-five years after his death, someone in Haiti created a Facebook page in his honor. Yet, there are the women, my father’s victims, who have buried their rapes beneath rubble and bones, and even taken them to their deaths. When it comes to sexual violence against women, there’s bound to be a hex-throwing witch who will quietly curse the rapist, their children’s children, and every living thing that they ever loved. If I know anything about black women’s spirituality, I know that hexes can be in the form of prayers, hums, rocking and moaning, and lots of tears. I think I’ve been spared some of the psychic tolls that come with being the daughter of a sexual predator partly because I was not a direct witness to any of his wrongdoings. There was and will never be a public stoning of my father in the media. I was never there to experience any late night returns, or arguments with my mother, or evidence of other women coming in and out of his life. There will never be a slew of women coming forward to speak their truth. In a country like Haiti, there is no justice for rape cases—be it statutory rape or spousal rape. So what remains in Haiti, whose spirituality, history of violence, and oppression run as deep as fault lines, is scorned-women magic.

There was indeed a comeuppance for my father in the form of a deadly sexually transmitted disease. But as his daughter, it’s my duty to reconcile my father’s wrongdoing—not for him, but for myself as a woman. In the spirit of ancestral healing, which is at the core of Vodou philosophy, I have to find the good qualities of those whose blood and cells run through my body, and lift them up. Or else, those very monstrously destructive characteristics could be my downfall, too. I can’t let the truth of who my father was consume me. I can’t deny that it’s part of me, either. Whatever my father has broken, I have to build back up.

I suppose communities have to work in the same way. Whatever a culture has broken through misogyny and oppression, it has to build back up. It’s not quite apology, nor forgiveness. It’s not quite wiping the slate clean, either. It’s scrubbing. Back-breaking, knees-on-the-ground scrubbing. Because the history of the violence has seeped into every crack and crevice of the society. From our cultural heroes to our loved ones, we become both victims and victimizers. If we don’t dig deep enough, it eats away at our roots and the core of who we think we are. And even if we demonize a single drummer, the furtive rhythm of misogyny and sexual violence continues to pulse through everything that sustains us. It becomes the air we breathe.

President Obama recently said about the Cosby rape cases, “I think this country, any civilized country, should have no tolerance for rape.” Upon first reading this, I couldn’t help but notice the tentativeness of this statement. It lacks assertion. Even more so, there’s an underlying idea that “uncivilized” countries are given a pass on how they choose to deal with sexual violence against women. Or not. Therefore, rape, like its perpetrators, is relative to country or culture and its proximity to wealth. Within this context, I can view my father also as a victim of everything that gave him power over his victims—patriarchy, colonialism, slavery, racism, and poverty.

I can’t help but think of the full trajectory of my father’s life. Because no person is born violent, is born hateful. I’ve heard that his mother, my grandmother, was a very dark-skinned woman. I wonder if she herself was raped since she mothered such a light-skinned child—my father. There’s no proof here. There are no police reports, of course. There’s silence, so there can only be speculation that violence begets violence. That’s the sort of critical thought a child of a perpetrator can bring to any act of violence. Something happened to him, too. I have to know that this is true so I can lift the man up, my father, my ancestor—by virtue of having lived and having done so much for a community. And right there on his Facebook page, created by residents of Les Cayes who want to preserve the town’s history, are the many photos of the women soccer players. While shedding a few tears, I look into each of their faces as I apologize on my father’s behalf, and those same tears are a libation in his memory, too.

Now, as a parent and writer for young readers, I’ve decided not to compromise my love of all things Huxtable, or Fat Albert, or Little Bill. My children can binge-watch The Cosby Show as much as their heart desires. My son can keep his copies of the Little Bill series. Yet, my daughters will understand that Bill Cosby, not Cliff Huxtable, was also a serial rapist. This does not negate his contributions to the larger community. Just like their maternal grandfather was a serial rapist does not negate his work and my existence. This sort of dual existence of ideology evokes the spirit Marassa—the divine twins in Haitian Vodou mythology, depicted by three figures. With any one idea, be it misogyny or racism, there exists conflicting points of view. For instance, with rape, there is both victim and victimizer representing opposing forces. The third entity in this duality is the culture that either condones or condemns the act.

If Haiti had been a different sort of country, and patriarchy was turned over on its head to warrant a public stoning of my serial rapist father, I’d look the other way and would certainly be there in the end to clean up the mess. Even as the public stoning of Bill Cosby continues, without due process of the law, there will always be loved ones—be it his devout fans, his daughters, or Camille—to clean up the mess. And within this duality of fallen hero and beloved father figure, exists the third entity that is American rape culture. Even in this civilized nation, women still bury their secrets beneath bone and concrete, and maybe even take it to their graves.

***

Art by Mirlande Jean-Gilles.


Ibi Zoboi's writing has appeared in Haiti Noir, edited by Edwidge Danticat, The Caribbean Writer, and The New York Times Book Review, among others. Her upcoming middle grade novel My Life as an Ice-Cream Sandwhich (Dutton Young Readers) is due out in 2017. More from this author →