Regret. They say it is the saddest word in the English language. In fact, I’ve heard many a person say their goal is to “live without regrets.” (Winner of the irony award is “Hero” Hayden Paniettiere. She got this phrase tattooed in Italian on her back. It was misspelled. So now it effectively means “I regret this tattoo” – while a motto I can totally get behind, it is probably not what she intended. Which is why I always say if you are going to get ink done, best to get it done in your own language. That and be very wary if someone offers you a “free” tat.) But back to living without any regrets. I ask you: is this possible? Is there truly someone out there who regrets nothing?
Because it sure isn’t me.
I regret tons of things. I regret things I ate. Things I didn’t eat. Phone calls from friends I didn’t answer. PR e-mails I did answer. Heck, half the time, by the end of the day I regret the clothing I put on that morning. (Does anyone else have this problem? I swear I start out the day thinking I look fine but I pass a mirror at 4 p.m. and want to run screaming back into my closet. Maybe that’s why I have too many clothes.) But what I regret most of all is the whole situation with my ex-boyfriend. Most people understand that I regret ever meeting him, ever falling for him, ever dating him. Of course people understand that I regret going out with him – against my better judgment – that darkest of nights. But when I say I regret everything to do with him, I mean everything. I regret talking to the police. I regret the court case. I regret what I wrote in my affidavit. I regret what I said in my victim’s impact statement. I regret his sentencing. I even regret his punishment.
Most people do not understand that level of regret.
If I could undo it all, from the very beginning, I would. Some people say that being sexually assaulted has made them a stronger person and while I have indeed learned much from the experience I would not echo that sentiment. It was vile from start to finish and I still feel tainted by it.
Sitting in a tiny conference room just off the courtroom during a break in the proceedings and watching the other victims who testified in various stages of a nervous breakdown is one of the most vivid memories I have of my court experience. The prosecutor had herded us all back there to give us one last round of instructions: “Don’t be afraid to show some emotion. Let the court know how hurt you are! Crying’s fine. Crying’s great, actually. But not too much. Don’t get hysterical or they won’t be able to understand you.”
We all interpreted that differently. One of us was so angry that she kept turning away from the microphone to yell at G. Another wept so hard that we could barely make out anything she said. As for me, I clenched my jaw so tightly I saw stars and had a headache for two days afterward. All of us were hysterical. It didn’t help that the court had seen fit to seat him directly behind the podium all of us were to speak at. If I had sat down I would have been in his lap. The memories that triggered were not pleasant ones. Still, I remember peering at him intently as I turned to walk back to my seat. He didn’t look up at me. Not even once. His father, the only person who had accompanied him to court that day, sat behind him with one hand over his eyes. It was as if they thought they could will me out of existence. It almost worked.
I did not feel good about what I had done. And yet the prosecutor congratulated us all as he herded us back into that little sterile room. “Just you wait until the sentencing. He’ll get what he deserves. Prison is not kind to sex offenders.” There was a joke of the don’t-drop-the-soap variety and a small chorus of chuckles. This did not make me feel better.
What did he deserve? I just finished reading a heart-rending book called “Chasing Justice” by Kerry Max Cook. Cook served 20 years on death row for allegedly brutally raping and killing a woman – a crime he did not commit and was exonerated of two decades later. His tale of prison life – including, yes, the shower rapes and other sexual abuses he suffered – was so disturbing to me that I almost couldn’t finish the book. Some would say a man convicted of his caliber of crime deserves such treatment. I don’t think any human being, even a guilty one, deserves that.
I have tried ever since my own experience not to imagine what life was like in prison – the prison that I helped put him in – for my ex-boyfriend. I never wished for him to be sexually assaulted by another inmate or guard. I never wanted him to pay for his crimes in kind. What I wanted was simple: I wanted him to stop hurting people, including himself, and I wanted him to get help. It’s all I ever wanted for him from the day I first saw him for what he was. If it took the legal system to accomplish this then so be it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t regret it.
I didn’t do any of it to punish him. I never wanted retribution.
And yet he was punished. And I was paid back – literally. Did he deserve the punishment he got? Was it enough? Was it too much? Did he get the help he needed? I’ll never know. And honestly, I don’t want to know. After all, unlike the much-maligned Cook, G. did sexually abuse at least 9 women and girls that I personally know of (although only three testified against him in court). Something had to be done. I realize that there are other vast differences between the two cases – the matter of scale, obviously – and yet it brought up the question again that I have never, in all the years since, been able to answer for myself: Did I do the right thing?
I wish I could be self-righteous in my victimhood. Indignant. Vindicated. That’s how I’m supposed to feel, right? Anything but ambivalent. Anything but regretful. But the fact remains: many mistakes were made and some of them were mine.