I started reading to the kids when they each were in the womb. All through their childhoods, after supper, we stayed seated around the table while I read for half an hour. Afterwards we hung out another twenty minutes talking about what just happened to Harry Potter, and whether or not he would find the next horcrux in time.
As they got older—the four of them stretched between six and twelve years old—I brought in the adult novels and memoirs. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meaney, and, one of their favorites, Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides.
About two-thirds of the way through Conroy’s book, there’s a rape scene. An escaped convict and his crew break into the family’s house, imprison the mother and the kids. The convict rapes the main character, a twelve year old boy, in front of the family. He sodomizes the child.
Michelle and I had read the novel years before. She asked if I was going to skip over that scene. I said Absolutely not. She was afraid the scene would disturb them and I said Exactly.
I read the scene, finished, and looked at our four kids around the table, with all our dirty dishes still spread over it. The scene was big in their minds. They were confused. Disturbed. Our eldest, Raquel, asked, “Why did he do that?”
And that began our very first family dinner conversation about rape.
They all had questions. Michelle and I answered them, two guides walking them through the mess of what sexual abuse is. Their eyes were a bit vacuous with the scene, their young minds prodding it to see if there was some sense to be found in it. They were bothered, but Conroy’s writing didn’t do them any damage. It took them to the place we spend a lot of time avoiding—those certain horrors that one human does to another.
They wanted me to keep reading. They wanted to know what happened to the children, the mother, the rapist, the absent father. They had fallen in love with the Wingo family. Through that book, and the train of others throughout their childhoods, they honed their skills of empathy. And they all became readers.
We tucked them in for the night. Michelle went to bed. I closed my office door and wept, huge tears, big dollops of them. I thought of another children, whose own story had yet to be told. But I was also happy, for I had done my job as a father, and did so through a piece of literature. So I cried a little more.