The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What happens when your rapist dies

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Patti Davis is the author, most recently, of the novel “The Wrong Side of Night” and the daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

In 2018 I wrote a piece for The Post describing a sexual assault that happened to me nearly 40 years earlier. It was something I had never spoken about with anyone. I was emboldened by the #MeToo movement and by the courage of women who came forward after years of silence. I Googled the man at that time, wondering if he was still alive. I knew he was older than I, so there was a possibility he wasn’t. I saw that he was close to 80 and retired, and that there had never been any charges leveled against him, although I’m quite certain I was not the only woman he assaulted.

Sexual assault scars you in secret ways. You don’t wear your wounds for others to see, and you often don’t pay attention to them as you go through your life. But if something triggers the memory, images come back in a flood. When Bill Cosby walked out of prison, freed on a technicality, I thought of all the women who said he had assaulted them — the memories they lived with and the memories that eluded them because he drugged them first. I thought of their wounds opening up, and the flares of anger they had to feel.

And then, for some reason, I Googled again the man who assaulted me so long ago. He died last year.

For several minutes I stared at the computer screen and his obituary. I looked at his smiling photo, remembering too clearly the smell of his breath and the weight of his body.

But most of my attention was on what I was and was not feeling inside. I didn’t rejoice at the fact that he was dead, and for that I’m grateful. That’s not the person I want to be.

There was instead a sense of threads being snipped off — the thread of fear that our paths might someday cross, or that another woman might divulge what he had done to her and then I’d feel obligated to name him, to come forward in support.

There is the thread of uncertainty that every victim feels — what if I had acted differently? Was there any way I could have avoided what happened? I suddenly felt as if I could let go of that. I also felt a strange release from anger. I didn’t need it anymore — my rapist was gone from this earth, and he would face whatever justice lies in wait on the other side of life.

But there is also this: When a man has assaulted you, when he has forced himself inside you, his shadow remains even after death. All of Bill Cosby’s accusers — he acknowledged in a deposition giving Quaaludes to young women with whom he wanted to have sex — will learn that, if they don’t already know it. He is 83, and those he targeted are younger, so logic would suggest they will outlive him.

Sadly, so will what he did to them. Rape outlives the rapist.

There is a relief when the man who assaulted you is no longer here, and I think it’s okay to feel that. Better than rejoicing, because that would mean he pulled you down to an ugly depth that doesn’t serve anyone. But it is relief accompanied by resignation: that even death can’t dim the memory of what he did. Somehow, we have to accept all of that.

If we’re lucky — those of us who were also so terribly unlucky — we will think about him less often, we’ll breathe a little easier, and we’ll be better at folding up his shadow and moving it out of our way.

Read more:

Eugene Robinson: Cosby no longer lives in prison, but he will always live in shame

Rachel Vogelstein and Meighan Stone: #MeToo helped put Cosby in prison. His release doesn’t diminish the movement’s global triumphs.

The Post’s View: Bill Cosby’s release is a vindication of the rule of law. It is no vindication of Bill Cosby.

Harry Litman: Cosby’s freeing was correct as a matter of law. But it’s in no way a vindication.

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