When I grew up in rural Arkansas during the 1950s and 1960s, if I wanted to do something my parents didn’t approve of they would ask “What would the neighbors think if they knew you did that?” So it was important to our family to maintain our reputation in the community as honest, God-fearing people. I was taught that I should maintain my reputation by “behaving” myself and not acting in an unseemly way.
Now, in fact, our family had some really “tasty” gossip that everyone knew about, but never talked about. My grandmother’s father, a rather successful insurance salesman, was the town drunk in the 1930s and 40s, frequently passing out behind the local bar and other unseemly behavior.
My mother’s brother was also a violent alcoholic, but that information was kept from me, and from the community here because uncle Monster moved to another state for many years so that his drinking, wife and child abuse was hidden from the community.
When my family was looked at in detail, there were some “bad eggs” in the bunch that violated community moral standards, however, the family still tried to maintain a “respectable” image. What the community thought was important to some members of the family at least.
When my son Patrick became a “public shame” and our friends knew he was a thief because he robbed their business, yet they didn’t hold a grudge, but I remember the shame of sitting and talking to our friend. I remember the shame of sitting with the court mandated therapist, and the police, going to court. Fortunately for me, at that time all this happened, we lived in a large city where we had recently moved and not many people knew about Patrick’s crimes, and I didn’t volunteer any information to anyone who didn’t already know. Public shame partly depends on where you live, how newsworthy the crime is, and if you have a “reputation” in the area in which you live. Large cities are somewhat protective of “public shame” except in instances of very prominent people, at least more so than a smaller venue.
When we moved back to rural Arkansas and Patrick had by this time gone to “big boy” prison on a five year aggravated robbery charge in another state, when people would ask me how my kids were doing, or where they were, I would say “Oh, Patrick lives in Texas and works for the State of Texas, but doesn’t get home very often but we go down there to visit him.” Now that was technically a “truth,” but in fact it was deceptive, and deception is in reality (not technically) a lie. Because I did not want to admit to these people, even extended family members and close friends here in Arkansas that didn’t already know, that my son was a thief.
When Patrick was arrested for murder, only five months after he was released from prison on parole for the aggravated robbery, I went into a tail spin. I locked myself in the house, refused to answer the phone and went into such a deep abyss of shame, pain, depression, and rage that looking back now I realize I probably should have been hospitalized in a mental health facility to help me cope with such profound grief. It was a deeper grief than I had ever suffered in my life. The loss of my aspirations for my son’s life. Not his aspirations of course, but my aspirations for his success and happiness. I knew his life was by my estimation ruined. I worried about his safety.
It took me a very long time, almost two decades from the time he started his criminal behavior to the time I finally said ENOUGH! I started slowly healing, and blogging under a screen name about my son and how as a psychopath he had no conscience, no moral compass and no remorse for his crimes. He is and always will be a danger to society and to his family in particular.
When I realized that my son’s buddy and ex cell mate and three-time convicted pedophile was living with my mother, sent there by my son for God knows what purpose, but I firmly think it was to kill me, but at the very least, to gain control over my mother’s money. I’d finally had enough of hiding… I decided I had enough of hiding where my son was and is and why. I actually filed a petition with the local court to evict Hamilton from my mother’s home, and the judge granted it, but shortly after that, Mom allowed him to move back in. Our family’s shame was made very public in our small community. My youngest son and I fled for our lives, leaving our home. My mother’s anger at me for publicly shaming her by telling the court that she had a sex offender living with her, and that her grandson was in prison for murder totally infuriated her. Oh my gosh, “What would the neighbors think?” Mrs. X’s grandson in prison for murder, how awful!
When Patrick came up for parole, I told my friends where he was, asked them to write letters to the parole board and protest his parole. I no longer felt the shame of my son’s failed life, of his crimes, as my shame.
What do the neighbors think? Well some of them I really don’t know. Others of the extended family and neighbors really could, I think, care less, after a short bit of gossiping about “Ain’t it awful about Joyce’s boy?” They don’t think about it unless someone brings up the subject. Other people I know will not come to my house out of fear that a killer sent by Patrick might come to kill me and shoot them….and that started after the very public arrest of Kenneth Hamilton for trying to break into my son’s home with a gun in his hand, most probably with the intention of killing my son. The man went to prison for being a felon in possession of a hand gun, and though he was a three time convicted sex offender, he got only a short sentence since all other charges were dropped in exchange for a guilty plea to the felon in possession of a hand gun charge.
Trauma and drama in your family, from the acts of an offender, can be very hurtful to those who love them. They can “ruin” a family’s reputation, or bring accusations of poor parenting upon the parents of an offender, or in some instances, no one except immediate family really takes notice.
Handling the shame and blame game of an offender in the family, and also worrying about what the neighbors think, is a lose-lose proposition. To strangers, if asked about my kids, I just tell them I have two biological and one adopted son, and what state they live in. That’s an appropriate amount of information for a casually met person or a stranger to have, but for those people who are truly my friends, I tell them the truth...a joy shared is doubled and a grief shared is halved. Sharing my pain with my friends, not covering it up and playing “let’s pretend it isn’t so,” has freed me to heal, to grow and become whole. To heck with what the neighbors think.