I’ve been thinking about mothers and sons.
“I don’t think I have been able to take a deep breath since this happened,” Carleen Turner wrote in her letter to the court after her 20-year-old son, Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. “My first thought upon waking every morning is, ‘This isn’t real, this can’t be real. Why him? Why HIM? WHY? WHY?’”
It’s the myopic, self-pitying cry of a woman who has no empathy for the young female victim, a mother who cannot see past the suffering of her own son. But the fact that Mrs. Turner is singularly broken-hearted by the sexual assault conviction (and lifelong sex offender status) of her son is neither outrageous nor wrong, exactly. Hers is the kind of irrational, frantic love that society demands of mothers.
But Mrs. Turner’s Why him? is still grating, and partly because it’s the ersatz echo of a real and thoughtful question, i.e.: Why did my son think it was okay to penetrate an unconscious woman? Or even: What could I have done differently to teach my son this was not okay?
Yes, it’s true that the sins of a child do not necessarily fall at the feet of his parents and that no person is entirely responsible for the actions of another. But we’re talking about something specific.
We’re talking about mothers and sons.
A mother of a son has an opportunity—actually, a responsibility—to make a man understand something about being a woman. It’s not too much to ask: If you bring a man into this world, you should try to release him into the integrated wild with some baked-in empathy for the second sex.
What could Carleen Turner have told her son that would have prevented him from seeing a blacked-out woman as prey?
What should all mothers tell their sons?
Maybe something like, “Look, women are men’s equals in every way but one: the majority of women are physically weaker than the majority of men. Do you understand what that means? It means a woman lives her life knowing that the men who pass her in the street, the men sitting next to her at the bar, the men who hit on her, the men she’s friends with, and the men she sleeps with can likely physically overpower her. Think about that. Imagine every time you went on a date with someone, you knew they could physically overpower you if they wanted to. Imagine if every time you got drunk, you were around people who were physically capable of carrying, handling, and penetrating your body.”
Would that have been enough to make a difference with Brock Turner? Maybe. It’s the same simple truth about the sexes that Margaret Atwood wrote about—“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”—and that Nic Pizzolatto successfully cribbed in the only watchable scene from True Detective Season 2, when the ridiculous Ray Velcoro asks the equally ridiculous Ani Bezzerides why she carries knives and she answers, “Could you do this job if everyone you encountered could physically overpower you? I mean, forget police work, no man could walk around like that without going nuts. Fundamental difference between the sexes is that one of them can kill the other with their bare hands.”
But maybe not. I suspect the trouble is that men like Brock Turner don’t see themselves as the kind of men who hurt women; they see themselves as the kind of men who deserve women.
What could make a young man like Brock Turner understand how destructive, how disgusting that mentality is?
Not Margaret Atwood.
Maybe not even his mother.
I don’t know.