Saturday, November 10, 2007
My Grandfather's Prison Records
Pardon my preoccupation, but I’ve been waiting for my grandfather’s prison records to arrive. This would be my U.S. grandfather—should I say “of course”? I wouldn’t have known about this if it weren’t the case that the Washington State Archives are more than usually digitized. That allowed me to discover through casual surfing that this man I knew only by inference from family damage had been incarcerated for “carnal knowledge of a female child.” It took two years to get around to sending away for the file, I was so apprehensive about what it contained.
My father having been 48 when I was born, and his father having been 41 when he was born, there’s a disorienting effect of skipped generations, rapid transport to a distant world. The prison file begins in 1916, in an archaic culture of vanished occupations (blacksmith, duck farmer, confectioner). On the whole, its news, if hardly good, is better than I expected. The female child was about 14; “the rape was not a case of force but was rape by reason of the age of the female.” In November 1916 the county clerk writes to the prison superintendent, “we have the little girl, who was the victim of this man . . . and she is staying with us; she seems to harbor no ill feeling toward him, and says that he was always kind to her, and she seems to wish to write to him, and have him write to her.” Most of the file is taken up with the considerable efforts of the family and community to get him out early, and includes a petition signed by citizens, the sentencing judge, and the then prosecuting attorney of Cowlitz County (not the same one who proscecuted the case). They sound concerned about the “three children of tender age” effectively orphaned by his imprisonment, as the mother was dead.
They were right about that. What’s most alive about my grandfather today is his five-year absence when his children were 2 to 9 (nor did he ever entirely return, it seems), and what would turn out to be its effects in breakdown, mental illness, and failed social relations. I don’t think the community ever told the children why he’d been absent; they told them that he felt badly after his wife’s death and went away. They couldn’t explain the sexual content. Perhaps that made matters worse, as though his absence had been pointed neglect; or perhaps they weren’t really lying--perhaps it was a kind of disinterest that led him to do something so stupid in the wake of his wife’s death. The story, at any rate, does untie a knot in the narrative. It’s because I knew what happened later, long after his death, that I expected it to be even worse, a matter of more explicit violence and madness, where the locals who know him diagnose only “weakness of character and environment”--prosaic preconditions of disasters that may or may not unfold. As his children didn’t know what had really happened, my grandfather didn’t know what happened to his children, not even after some of it had started happening. The afterlife of things that never occurred to him has outlasted all of his thoughts.