When Vanda was 20, her parents called her into the living room to deliver some bad news. Her mother proceeded to tell her, very matter-of-factly, that her father had been arrested on charges of sexual assault. Her dad, who ran a prison pharmacy in Southeast England and was home awaiting his trial, sat there stone-faced while Vanda, a music student at a Manchester college, sank into the family’s green couch in shock.
“I just couldn’t add it up in my head that this person had done this thing,” the now-50-year-old librarian who lives in Ohio told HuffPost. “He was an authority in the local church and a respected person. Nothing in his life gave any clue to him being someone who could possibly go to jail for anything.”
Even though her dad was later found guilty of forcing a nurse at the prison to give him oral sex twice ― and eventually sentenced to two and a half years in prison as a result ― Vanda, who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy, desperately clung to her parents’ initial claim: that her father’s accuser was a liar. Even when his case appeared in the local news, she didn’t want to process the reality that the man she was raised to trust was capable of such disgusting behavior.
Behind the many high-profile men who have been accused of sexual misconduct in the past few months are spouses, family members, colleagues and friends struggling to make sense of how the people they love could commit such heinous acts. Last week on the “Today” show, Savannah Guthrie shakily asked, “How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly?” hours after learning that her co-host, Matt Lauer, had been fired over allegations of sexual harassment. Gayle King asked a similar question after Charlie Rose, her former co-host from “CBS This Morning” was accused by eight women of sexual misconduct. Sarah Silverman said about the allegations against comedian Louis C.K., “Can you love someone who did bad things?”
In cases of sexual misconduct, a victim’s trauma is always the most intense. In many cases, they have been preyed on by people they know and trust. But because sexual offenses often produce a ripple effect, trauma can also land on an offender’s closest friends and family (and in some celebrity cases, even their fans). These loved ones, commonly referred to as “secondary victims,” must grapple with whether to continue a relationship that now feels duplicitous.
In 2000, when Maureen Farrell Garcia found out her then-husband had been sexually abusing her preteen relative, she felt a mix of emotions. “I was enraged at and also terrified by the man who was my husband at the time,” said the 47-year-old, who teaches writing at a New York college. “I was also grieving because I recognized that everything I had believed was now in question and my whole life was going to be different after that point.”
A church pastor convinced Farrell Garcia’s ex-husband to turn himself in to the police. She says the officers were sympathetic toward him ― he avoided jail time by pleading guilty to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to probation and group therapy ― but he moved out of the house they shared with their 8- and 10-year-old daughters. Even though Farrell Garcia despised what he did, through it all she felt conflicted about the man she’d met as a teenager ― the man with whom she’d shared decades of good memories.
“You can’t just turn off having cared for someone for so long,” she said. “You’re in this place where you’re feeling two opposing emotions at the same time and it’s a horrible place to be.” Part of Farrell Garcia wondered if therapy could help rehabilitate her ex, but the other part of her thought, “I don’t feel like he can be fixed. I’m done.”
You can’t just turn off having cared for someone for so long. You’re in this place where you’re feeling two opposing emotions at the same time and it’s a horrible place to be. Maureen Farrell Garcia
Experts say it’s common for an offender’s loved ones to feel torn between love and disdain. “If your brother was accused of sexual assault or sexual abuse, how would you feel?” asked Brian Pacheco, the director of communications at Safe Horizon, a New York City-based organization that provides resources for victims of domestic and sexual violence. “It’s really normal in the short term for people to be confused and go back and forth between, ‘Oh they [are] a terrible person for doing this,’ and, ‘I want to continue the relationship.’ It’s important for people to sit with that and process. They don’t have to make a decision right away.”
Ultimately, Pacheco says, a person’s emotions can change over time, a reality many psychologists and counselors would address in therapy. People might shift from feeling defensive of offenders to feeling anger and betrayal toward them. Frequently, a perpetrator’s loved ones go through an intense period of mourning their relationship with the accused.
“It [was] like discovering that the person I knew didn’t exist at all,” Farrell Garcia said. “I found myself in a place where everything I believed felt like a lie. My whole life ... felt shattered.”
Spouses, family and friends also often feel complicit in their loved one’s offenses. In 2015, when Suzanna Quintana left her husband, whom she now describes as a sexual predator, she worried about her role as an enabler. When she found out he was fired as a restaurant manager for sexual harassment before they met, Quintana believed the colleague accusing him had lied. She accepted his apologies after he flirted with their 16-year-old babysitter and commented on the size of a young family friend’s breasts. When their 19-year-old tenant said she felt uncomfortable after he entered her apartment without asking, Quintana downplayed the incident.
“I clinged to the man that I knew and made excuses for that other man who would show up half the time,” she said. “We had this history and this love. The threat of that being taken away was sometimes too overwhelming.”
She filed for divorce in 2015, after her husband’s too-close relationship with a group of 19- and 20-year-old women made Quintana question his pattern of sexually predatory behavior. She remembers thinking, “I need to connect a lot of dots right now. How do I fit into this? Do I have blame and did I enable? I think that’s a natural reaction for women to be like, ‘How am I at fault here?’ Even though we’re not.”
Critics have denounced women like Guthrie and Silverman for not calling out their colleagues’ harassment sooner, accusing them of staying silent to protect their careers. While Pacheco maintains that a predator’s inner circle should condemn abusive behavior when they become aware of it, doing so can be a difficult process.
“We really have to put the onus on the person who committed the act,” he said. “[People] feel powerless that they couldn’t step in and couldn’t change what happened ... but part of it is knowing that it wasn’t your fault.”
Members of the entertainment world described the sexual misconduct of prominent predators like Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. as open industry secrets. But, often, offenders are very skilled at hiding their crimes.
“Many of these guys are super charming and likable,” said Alexandra Katehakis, a Los Angeles-based sex therapist. “Everybody loves them and they are the life of the party.”
Though it might be more reassuring to think of sex offenders as monsters we can spot in plain sight, the reality is much more complex. Predators are also people who sit around family dinner tables with their children, celebrate anniversaries with their spouses and have close relationships with their siblings. As a result, partners and family members who feel attached to perpetrators might choose to stay in their lives despite criminal behavior.
Ottawa-based psychiatrist Paul Fedoroff runs support groups for spouses and loved ones who want to have ongoing relationships with sex offenders. He tells them it’s possible to compartmentalize feelings of love and hate.
“[They] have a right to feel different about the person than [they] do about the crime,” he said. “Being in love with your husband doesn’t mean that you are not acknowledging the crime he did is reprehensible.”
Fedoroff says some perpetrators can attempt to reform their behavior and maintain healthy connections with proper treatment. “It’s a myth that sex offenders are unchangeable,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with loving a man who has changed and who is no longer offending. [But] that doesn’t mean they have to forgive the past offense or excuse it in any way.”
In fact, Katehakis notes that it is helpful for perpetrators to have a support system in place when they seek treatment. Not every loved one, however, will want to stay in an offender’s life. As a therapist, she says her job is to “restore [a spouse or family member’s] self-esteem” so that “they can decide whether to stay or go.”
Both options are valid, but Pacheco believes the process of reconciling your love for a person with your contempt for their behavior largely hinges on the offender’s willingness to hold themselves accountable.
“[It] starts with an abuser saying, ‘I did something wrong and [I] need to change my behavior,’” he said. “It’s hard to move forward if someone [is] not taking responsibility for their actions.”
Vanda has not been able to look past her father’s crime because he has never admitted his guilt. After going to therapy for the past five years, she came to believe his accuser, but when she tried to broach the subject with her dad over the phone, he shut her down.
“He had no remorse for anything,” she said. “We were to see him as a victim and that was the end of the story.” Vanda no longer wants her father in her life, but says that “had he showed repentance at all, that would have been a conversation we could have had.”
Farrell Garcia also decided to leave her husband after he abused her relative; they no longer speak. Being in counseling made her realize she could never trust him again, but it also helped her reach a place where she can see him for more than his crimes.
“I do love him in the best capacity that I am able to, knowing everything that he did,” she said, adding that her version of love meant holding him accountable for his behavior rather than showing him affection and staying in the marriage.
“It’s easier to think he is horrible, and he is horrible. But if he wasn’t also human and funny and charming and intelligent, he wouldn’t have been be able to get away with what he was doing. So we have to recognize that those are qualities of people who are abusive. He just used those qualities for bad things.”
- This article originally appeared on HuffPost.