Somewhere on the World Wide Web resides the online sex offender registry. Portals allow any of us to know where in our country those who have been found guilty of sex crimes but who have served their terms are now living. This watchdog can check any state, any location, even next door. One enters the portal with caution.
One evening not long ago, in early April, the clocks had already changed to daylight savings time, but, like most New England winters, spring had faked us out a few times and was slow to arrive and stay. My husband and I had enjoyed dinner and then he, an early riser, had gone upstairs to bed to be ready for a productive next day’s work. There were still too many hours of evening and darkness left for me, the night person. Again my visitor arrived without waiting for an invitation. She dug up the past, this angel of memory.
A much younger me had returned to my then-apartment, the top floor of a private house. I had spent most of that day in a largely empty urban courtroom with high ceilings and old wooden benches, two hundred miles away from my new home, awaiting a sentencing verdict. Near my building, my psychologist landlord stood outside and stopped what he was doing to talk to me. He affected some interest in my day and, in particular, in the outcome of the trial. I told him, “I never want to forget what happened to me.”
“You don’t? Why not?” he asked, giving me a judgmental look. I found this an odd—and unwelcome—comment from a psychologist, who should understand the value and importance of accessing memories. Who can tell the fortunate and surviving victim of serious violent crime what to choose to remember and what—and when—to choose to forget?
“I want to remember so that I can never forget how lucky I have been. I want to remember so that I will always remember to be careful, wherever I go.”
More than half a year earlier, it had been hot when I went to sleep, hot for a spring evening, hot even for a summer evening. A man standing over me with a twelve-inch knife awakened me shortly past sunrise. He spoke softly as he told me what to do, almost as if he were asking me to pass the sugar. The fight of my life, the fight for my life, was so quiet it was like TV with the sound on mute. Until the big scream and the sound of breaking glass broke through the layers of fear and drywall and hardwood flooring. For the crimes against me that he had committed that morning, he received a twenty-year prison sentence.
Hearing the sentence imposed brought dizzying relief, sweeping away some of my anguish, some of the dark clouds that had hung low and heavy in my life the previous six months. After mild celebrating with a friend and some family in the form of the best ice cream cone I’d ever had, I left the city that had once been my home, to return to another and my secure attic apartment.
Five months later, on the first anniversary of the assault, to celebrate my waking up safe and unthreatened, and alone, while still in bed, I celebrated not waking up to a knife at my throat by reciting the words of the enduring Hebrew prayer for the first time in my life:
“Modah ani l’fanecha, melech chai v’ kayem, sh’hechezarta bi nishmati b’ hemla. Rabah emunasecha.” I am grateful to You, living and eternal King, for returning my soul to me in compassion. Great is Your faithfulness.
A town car picked me up in the morning and carried me to my job, and from there my co-worker friends treated me to lunch at a fancy steakhouse. I was queen for a day.
Day by day, week by week, year by year, dream by dream, challenge-by-challenge I lived my life. Sometimes I felt that I was in a race with this man, this person, this inmate, who had in such a short period of time altered the trajectory of my life years before. He had the next twenty years in prison; I wanted to achieve my major personal goals and put my life together before he was released. An unusual rhythm accompanied my life: every four to five years a letter, with the state seal and words “Parole Board” embossed in gold in the upper right hand corner, arrived in the mail. My heart pounding, hyperventilating, hands shaking, I would hold and speak to the unopened envelope and pray: “Please not.”
Was the parole board friend or foe? Each time the parole had not been granted.
Good. I am safe. We are safe.
Year by year, the new life I had created and been given began to blossom and bear fruit. Yet the thought that one day his twenty-year term would be up always ran under the radar. Had he died or been killed while serving his term? Had he committed a new crime while in prison and had additional time added? If he were freed, would he harm any woman ever again? Had he become a better person? Would he try to find me or my family and exact vengeance for his lost years? Did he even know my name?
Nineteen years and eleven months from the morning that marked my life, another letter from the state prison system arrived advising me of his impending release date. Just another date on the calendar to others, to me it might as well have been lit up on a billboard. It was an odd comfort that the parole board, anonymous to me, didn’t know who I was but that I nonetheless mattered to them. That, too, was something to remember.
“Are we there yet?”
As the week of his release approached, my thoughts weighed heavier and heavier. I obsessed about writing to him in prison:
“I know your term is nearly up. I hope you will do good things with your life. Good luck.”
But I didn’t write a word. He might not appreciate it. It might rekindle memories he would rather forget. It might kindle anger—not a good idea. The postmark might tell him where I was living. I didn’t write, and then it was too late.
The afternoon of that release day—the twentieth anniversary of the –assault—I felt deep anxiety but much more relief. My life had already been rewritten and recreated, including the blessing of marriage to a wonderful guy. But the emotional significance of this day had to be respected. I was living in the past and living in the present. One way or another, it was going to be a new beginning for me, and for him. In the morning I said two prayers for him:
“I pray you are now a better person.”
“I pray for women to be safe.”
I imagined him stepping out of the prison, walking into the fresh air. And then my vision went blank. Was it a sunny day or a cloudy day? Was it raining or dry? Was somebody there to meet him? Or was he still alone, as he’d been through much of the court proceedings, and did he walk to a bus stop? I can’t remember now what I did that day. But I made sure that during the sunlight hours I was doing things I loved doing—probably took a nice bike ride—and in the evening my husband and I went out to dinner and he reassured me that I was not alone.
Late one long April evening as I relax in our quiet basement family room, ten years after he has walked out of the state penitentiary—a place so named because that’s where people are supposed to do penitence—not knowing or caring what need has moved me to do this, I and my angel of memory go online and search the sex offender registry.
I want this to be over quickly but I see it’s not going to be: The names are listed in rough alphabetical order so I have to scan each. I want to stop but keep on, one name at a time. Then his name is there. To the side is a photo, his photo, seemingly a recent one. The face is his but I can see the passage of time in the grey hairs. I note his street address, but it makes no impression on me.
I will not Google it.
The listing indicates he has a job. That’s something. I note the town where he works; he works near where my family lives and works. Intentional? Pure coincidence? Reason to fear? I look until I don’t want to—or can’t—look, or wonder, any more. I look until I understand that this is enough. I look until I am aware that I am numb. I look until my visitor’s welcome is worn out.
How do we remember? How do we forget? Jewish history and tradition is replete with appeals to the collective memory. This one is personal.
And so, years later, by accepting the memory, it becomes possible both to let go of the past and safe to remember it. It is safe and glorious to remember to never take my safety for granted. Safe to remember that in each tomorrow are events we can neither anticipate nor fathom and that shape us into who each of us is and will become. Safe to forge ahead.