Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

“Not MY Son”

There was a kid on my block that used to really piss us off.

He wasn’t part of our regular group. He was a couple of years younger than the youngest of us (me), presumably enough of an age difference that he just didn’t quite fit. We generally avoided him and his friend, a nasty little kid who lived around the corner. But every once in a while, our paths would cross, we would try to play together…and it would just go all wrong.

How wrong? Well, on one or two occasions, we actually felt the need to tattle.

Again, I have no memory of what he ever actually did that was so wrong, but I do remember this, quite clearly: When we told his mother, she said, and I quote: “Not my Kyle. My Kyle would never do that.

That pretty much sealed it. We didn’t play with him after that.

I find myself thinking of Kyle’s mother (his father we almost never crossed paths with at all, though I have a vague memory of him looking like some straight-man, secondary character from a 50s/60s comedy show, like The Dick Van Dyke Show or something like that) as Facebook and social media pours hate onto the parents of Brock Turner. In the event you’ve been hiking the Appalachian Trail for the last year or so, Turner was just recently convicted of three counts of felony sexual assault for an attack on a young woman at Stanford University in January, 2015, and though the prosecution rather generously asked for just six years in prison (Turner could have gone for 14), the judge gave him six months in county jail.

The judge was almost certainly influenced by an outpouring of support for Turner, including the letters from Turner’s mother and father, both of which have been made public. Turner’s parents have come under a lot of fire for their letters, but here’s one question for those blindly lashing out: What were they supposed to do?

Turner’s in that hazy age where he’s no longer a child, but not quite an adult. The responsibilities his parents face have shifted (and this is a stage I find myself at with my girls). The job of teaching him right from wrong is mostly over; so, too, is the job of protecting him from the preventable harms in the world (I should note, however, that as parents, we’re always role models for our kids, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop trying to protect my kids; it’s instinctive). Turner’s at the age where he has to start standing on his own feet, where he has to make his own decisions, which should be planted firmly in the foundation that’s been built for him by his parents. Sadly, he made a terrible decision, and so the Turners are forced to play defender.

As defenders, they both wrote letters in support of their son. They should not be vilified for doing this. The content of their letters, however, is another thing. These are the very definition of “tone deaf.” Neither Turner mentions the victim. The letters focus on what happened…to Brock. In the very first paragraph of Mrs. Turner’s letter, she uses what I think is a very telling phrase: “since the verdict”, as in “…since the verdict, he [Brock] has not smiled.” And while Mr. Turner’s letter comes closer to admitting someone else was hurt, he also uses one of the most unfortunate phrases possible when he says the damage to Brock’s life is “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action….” ‘Action,’ of course, is a word that’s been used by guys for years as a euphemism for sex. He then proceeds to pass the buck, blaming alcohol and sexual promiscuity on campuses for his son’s trouble. It’s perilously close to victim-blaming.

I can’t blame the Turners for defending their son. He’s their son; they love him. Despite the verdict of the court, despite the evidence and the testimony, despite the gut-wrenching letter the victim read to Turner in court (and this should be required reading for all, especially boys), there’s almost certainly some part of their brains that can’t believe their son did this. “Not my Brock; my Brock would never do that. Unfortunately for all involved, he did.

It should go without saying that I am in no way defending the rapist, Brock Turner, for his actions. He deserves far more jail time than he received, and he has to live with the consequences of the choices he made. Nor am I defending the words used by Mr. and Mrs. Turner on behalf of their son. Be angry at Brock Turner for what he did; be angry at the judge for this tap on the wrist; be angry at the Turners for what they wrote, but don’t be angry at them for writing. I suspect most of us would have done the same.

7 Responses

  1. I remember reading about this, specifically the "steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action" and thinking, "Well, that's where the attitude came from — like father, like son." I think you're way too nice calling the parents tone deaf. Their lack of sympathy for the victim and the lack of remorse from all three indicate he probably did plenty of things in the past that he wasn't punished for, probably due to the father's "boys will be boys" attitude. It was very lucky those two male students happened by mid-rape of the unconscious girl, otherwise no one would've believed her – assuming she had any memory of it at all. And no, I don't think it's right to put blinders on and defend your child in front of overwhelming evidence of guilt. I believe it's that defensive "not my son" attitude that got him in this mess to begin with. I wouldn't be surprised if your neighborhood creeps went down the same road and became criminals due to the parents refusal to deal with the kids' actions at an early age.

  2. Such a horrifying situation. I often why some things are made public – and this is one of those situations. How is this helping anyone?

  3. -Stacy–I agree. Agreed. As stated above, I understand why they did it, but can't abide how.
    -Lexa–I certainly understand where you're coming from, and I agree that the attitudes expressed no doubt contributed to the thinking that led the son to committing his horrible act. The "blinders" thing is tough–how can you believe that your child committed an unspeakable act? I hope I never find myself in that sort of position.
    -Jemi–you raise a good question. It's part of the public record, therefore, it can be made public. I think the Turners and others who wrote letters are more than a little put off by the fact the letters have been released, but it's part of the process. And as bad as it is, I think it's actually a good thing in this case, because it helps illustrate which attitudes about campus rape (and rape in general) need to change. One of Turner's childhood friends wrote a letter that is even more illustrative of blame-shifting than the parents. It made me angry, but it is also highly instructive.

    Thank you for your comments. I know this is not really the sort of thing you want to be reading about in what is supposed to be some kind of writerly type of blog. I appreciate your thoughts and your words.

  4. I just read an article about the Stanford Women's Swim Team. Most say they aren't surprised he was arrested for rape. They recount him making lewd and disparaging comments about their bodies. They thought there was something wrong with him and steered clear. I bet if people dug around in his past, they'd come up with a lot of other girls who had trouble with him, too. Now you've got me curious – I'm going to go see if I can find that childhood friend's letter. 😉

  5. Oohh. I read the story about Rasmussen and her letter, and how her "band" has been canceled from some show. It's pretty interesting that when called on it, she defended herself by saying she was only 20, thereby implying her opinions were flawed. Yet the judge based his decision on her letter and others. Hmmm…

  6. -Lexa–in regard to your first post, that's news to me–I hadn't heard that at all. The one thing I'll say by way of caution, however, is that what may have been initially seen as merely annoying–but ultimately harmless–behavior can look much worse when viewed through the prism of arrest, trial and conviction. Not saying they didn't feel that way from the get-go.

    Rasmussen's letter may have been worse than either of the letters written by Turner's parents. It completely pissed me off when I read it. That letter is campus rape culture in printed form.

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