The title I wanted to give this post was too long to fit in the header:
And for you, Roman Polanski, a big plate of mashed potatoes, right in the face, you pig. And may your sorry ass rot in jail until you die, and then may you burn in hell, with your apologists, forever. Alternative Title: “Mashed Potatoes”, the story of a tattoo. Or, how my daughter, at age 17, put in jail the man who began molesting her when she was seven and raped her when she was nine years old.
This glow-in-the-dark tattoo is on the left arm of my youngest daughter. It’s invisible under normal lighting, but under a black light in a darkened room it’s easy to read. It memorializes the day she sent her rapist to jail.
Justice will prevail
Love will overcome
And all the evil will fail
May 23, 2006
When she first got the tattoo, it was visible in daylight:
Over time, it faded. Now you can’t even see the scar. You can only see the tattoo if she wants you to see it. Of course, the scar is there. When a child gets raped, there are scars. That’s a simple fact, jack. Or should I say, that’s a fact, Whoopi. That’s a fact, Martin. That’s a fact, all you pig-awful apologists for Roman Polanski.
The following discussion contains some explicit description of sexual abuse of children.
War hero, rapist
The story of my daughter’s violation is as easy to summarize as it is horrible to contemplate. Two families, the Burton-Sundmans (my family) and the Bryants, became friends. The wives in each family, Betty and Lissa, formed an intense friendship. Each family had a young daughter, and the girls likewise become extremely close. When the girls met, they were in first grade.
During one particularly rough patch a few years later my family found itself one summer without a place to stay. My wife and youngest daughter E went to stay with the Byrant family while my son, older daughter and I were scattered to the winds.
Alas, unknown to everybody, the father of the Bryant family, Steve, was a pederast; he had been molesting both girls starting when they were about seven years old. He bought them liquor and pornography; he told them stories about forced sex with child prostitutes when he was a soldier in Viet Nam. He locked his daughter’s friend “E”, (my daughter) in the bathroom with him and made her watch him masturbate. Eventually, he raped her.
When the girls entered their teenage years, Bryant backed off. He became obsessed with moving his family away, off the island of Martha’s Vineyard. This, despite the fact that his wife, Lissa, had developed ovarian cancer.
The Bryant family moved to Maine; we went there to visit them a few times. Lissa was fading and we knew she wouldn’t be around much longer. When it became clear that she was down to her final weeks, she insisted on coming back home to Martha’s Vineyard to die. Betty, my wife, spent days sitting with Lissa, cradling her in her arms, stroking Lissa’s hair with Lissa’s head in her lap.
And then, shortly after Lissa has been laid to rest, our daughter, E, then a senior in high school, told us what Steve had done to her. Steve, the decorated Viet Nam combat vet.
Lissa died in November, 2005, of ovarian cancer.
Betty’s and my daughter, “E”, had kept silent about it for nine years.
First she had kept silent out of intimidation by Bryant, and then, as she matured, out of love for Lissa and Betty. Lissa was dying slowly and painfully of cancer, and Betty was her rock, her confident and solace in her final weeks and days. Our daughter E knew that if she were to come forward with the story of what had been done to her by Lissa’s monster of a husband it would rupture the apparently close bonds between our two families–and the actually close bond between Lissa and Betty. So, E let Lissa die in peace, and let her be buried in peace. And then she went after the bastard Steve with a methodical vengeance.
This is what Steve looks like, by the way, according to the Maine Sex Offender registry:
While my daughter E’s classmates were doing college tours and deciding where to apply and writing essays and all that (and studying and having social lives and being seniors in high school), E was doing those same things– and also meeting with detectives–first local police detectives, and then Massachusetts State Police detectives, and then with the ADA (assistant district attorney) and with counselors from the local Women’s Center. And all the while she was keeping this hidden from her friend “R”, Steve and Lissa’s daughter. While maintaining the normal exterior of a carefree high school kid–she was on the soccer team and made the honor roll was Queen of her senior prom–she was hiding the fact that she was about to spring a trap that would put Stephen Bryant in jail for years.
Nightmares and an axe
It was during this period that her nightmares got really bad: after she had come forward to us (her parents) and to the police, but before Bryant had been arrested. Nightmares about him tracking her down, raping and killing her in her own house. In fact, our daughter had pretty severe post-traumatic stress disorder; it had just gone undiagnosed for years. Looking back, that diagnosis explained a lot about her early adolescence. After coming forward, she took to sleeping upstairs in bed with her mother while I slept downstairs on the couch by the front door. I sharpened an axe and put it by the door; I had E feel the edge. “If he comes here, I will kill him,” I assured her.
I wish he had.
During this time my wife came up with a clever device. She knew how hard it was for E to talk about what had been done to her, about the man who had stolen her childhood, about the police investigation, about the whole business. So my wife said to her one day, “we will never say his name again. If you need to talk about any of this, or if you’re upset and don’t want to talk about it, just say ‘mashed potatoes’.
After E came forward, as you would expect, many things became harder instead of easier. Things that had been hidden were now exposed. I remember times when the three of us would be sitting to dinner and my daughter would start to sob and softly say ”mashed potatoes“, and excuse herself. Then she and my wife would go upstairs to bed (accompanied by our faithful dog Rosa) to watch Tommy Boy or Stewart Saves His Family and I would stay downstairs cleaning the dishes, consumed with rage and guilt.
Our daughter told us how Bryant used to buy beer for her and his daughter R starting when they were about ten years old. How he showed them pornography. How he told her tales from Viet Nam, tales about how when underage prostitutes (or kidnapped girls) were giving blowjobs to him and his friends he used to hold an electric drill to their cheeks to make their mouths vibrate.
Stephen Bryant went to trail on May 23, 2006.
On the advice of the Assistant District Attorney and the West Tisbury chief of Police, E gave her consent to a plea bargain in which Bryant would serve 2.5 years in the county jail here on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, plus ten years probation. That plea bargain could be the subject of another long rant, so I’ll skip over it for now. 2.5 years is the proverbial ”slap on the wrist“. But so be it.
I will never know what a childhood was like that didn’t involve abuse
Here is the text of the statement my daughter read to the court at Bryant’s sentencing. Don’t read it if you are timid. This is a statement written by somebody unafraid to walk into a tornado, and it may shake you up:
It was very hard for me to write this letter, as you all would probably assume, but not for the reasons you probably believe. It was not because it would ”reopen a wound“, not because it was be too hard for me, not because I can’t talk about it or any reason along those lines. The wound has never been closed, and as far as not being able to talk about it, or it being too hard, that is a laugh. ”Abuse“, ”victim“, ”penis“, ”fear“, ”mistrust“, ”liar“ have been a part of my daily vocabulary since I came forward. My stories, my confessions and my fears have become topics of everyday conversations.
It was hard for me because of all the anger I have. Why should tell Steve what he did to me, let him know exactly how he hurt me? To allow him to have a little more satisfaction at my expense? But then I thought about it and decided that I wanted the last words he would ever hear from me to be these:
I am thankful for all of the anger you have filled me with because I know now I will never allow another man to say an inappropriate word, make a crude gesture, give an unnecessary touch, try to break me down, try to hurt me, abuse me, or obtain any power over me ever again. I know this because I know not only what it takes out of person to bring a man like Steve to the place he is today, but also the chances of that man being found guilty, or punished to the full extent of the law are slim.
I only wish that Steve could be found guilty of embezzlement or fraud, for then I would never have to worry about seeing him again. And after all, is that not what you did? You stole from me, what was entrusted to you. You stole my trust, my spirit, my childhood and my strength– and all by touching parts of my 7 year old body. I know that you will only be put away for two years of a five year sentence because, after all, you are a ”good person“, ”this was a first time offense“ and you ”deserve the benefit of the doubt“. That bothers me.
Was Steve not given the benefit of the doubt 10 years ago when he first began calling me out of bed at night, or taking me on treasure hunts that would always end with the caressing of my 7 year old body with his disgusting, rough, fat, TRUSTED hands?
As for the term ”first time offender,“ there is no truth to that. In legal terms yes; as far as I’m concerned, no. He was a one-time offender the first time he touched me. What accounts for the other times he touched me, exposed himself to me or did other sexually things that no 2nd grader should ever know of, let alone have done to them? Was that first time offender’s luck? Statistics say a pedophile will hurt a child 65 times before they are caught. I guess it was just lucky 66 for me then.
The first time I went to the Bryant’s house for dinner Steve let us use our fingers to eat our dinner. He was instantly the coolest dad ever.
I’ve never had to hate someone I loved before. I’ve never had to see a therapist to learn how to hate my father. Because that’s what you were to me Steve, a father.
You disgust me. You repulse me. You haunt my dreams and daily life. When everyone else was asking for clothes and money for their 18th birthday I was asking for a padlock for my door because the lock that was on my door already wasn’t strong enough. Silly me, I thought a lock could keep you out. But the fact is I can never and will never be able to lock you, or lock what you did to me out.
You have no idea what it is like growing up having to question the motive of everyone who said they loved you. To wake up as a 10 year and feel dirty. To feel as if you could be picked out of a crowd because you were covered with shame and guilt. That you were tainted as 10 year old because you let an old, gross man touch you. To crawl in your own skin. To hate yourself every day for letting someone hurt you that way, but still allow it to happen because you were helpless. To know that those feelings will never go away. To know my childhood will always be tainted; to know that all the gifts you gave me were wrapped in guilt, not love. To know that it didn’t have to be the way it was, but to know that it was and that I will never know what a childhood was like that didn’t involve abuse.
You are a pedophile, a child molester, a sex offender, a monster, but worst of all a father.
What I don’t understand, and will be damned if I ever do, was what got you so excited about taking advantage of a little girl. Was it the anxiety, the fear, or the absolute terror you could see in my 7 year old eyes when you would lock the door behind us? Was it the way I would articulate my 8 year old vocabulary to plead with you to not do what was the inevitable? Or was it that you knew you had complete control over my 9 year mind and body?
I hope that when those doors are finally closed behind you.
And you are finally locked away. And someone else has complete control over you. You feel exactly the way I felt for those 5 years of my life.
When I hear the name ”Roman Polanski”, I don’t think of the decorated movie director wearing a tux. I think of the decorated combat veteran, the war hero, wearing prison garb:
Sure, Roman, I know you’ve won all kinds of awards for directing motion pictures. And Stephen Byrant won all kinds of awards for being in a war and killing people. So here’s my suggestion: why don’t the two of you find a nice quiet room somewhere and swap stories with each other? What should you talk about? What does a sophisticated movie director fluent in umpteen languages have to talk about with some uncultured, obese, smart but uneducated carpenter from Martha’s Vineyard, now living in a trailer in rural Maine? I dunno Roman. Why don’t you try talking about mashed potatoes. Everybody loves mashed potatoes. Maybe Whoopi Goldberg and Martin Scorcesse can visit you in jail and you can have a mashed-potatoes party!
And how is it now?
From the moment I learned what had happened to my daughter, I knew that I had to resist the tendency to dwell on my own guilt. In retrospect I see how many warning signs were there, how many red flags I dismissed. I failed to protect my daughter, and for that I will be consumed by guilt until the end of my days. But to dwell on that would only put further stress on the person I failed, and goodness knows she doesn’t need that on top of all her other stresses. I don’t have a time machine; I can’t fix the past. So I try to stay focused on what I can do to help everyone I love now and henceforward.
My dear wife feels the same way, although heaven only knows the toll this ordeal has taken on her.
My daughter, meanwhile, a college senior, is active in abuse-prevention groups and continues to speak out about sexual assault, and especially about sexual abuse of children. Although she does not enjoy talking about what happened to her, she does so, in the belief and hope that she can prevent others from having childhoods stolen from them as hers was stolen from her.
I am writing this, with my daughter’s permission, to remind all good persons that there are bad people out there. Don’t be paranoid, but be aware. Trust your instincts. I did not trust mine, and that cost dearly. And please, denounce apologists for pedophiles like Roman Polanski and Stephen Bryant. Do not let their nonsense go unanswered.
As for me, this is my hope. I cannot say it’s my belief because I know too much of the injustice of the world. But this is my hope, to which I dedicate my life:
Justice will prevail
Love will overcome
And all the evil will fail
You’ve wondered elsewhere, John, why there are no comments here. I can explain why with what a friend of mine said: “There really isn’t anything to add; there are not words deep enough or sharp enough to express either the profound horror or the depth of empathy this account inspires, and glossing it over with hugs insults the work she’s done to save her soul.”
In other words: The sound of one hand clapping is the praise in the silence of respect.
Well, there is something else to be said. Thank you.
Thank you, Burton-Sundmans all.
Your words, E and J, have altered my attitude and has been discussed in my home.
No offense but I think you need to be RATIONAL here my friend rather than venting your anger at Roman Polanski. Seriously.
It is surely an awful case of rape and inadequate justice IMO in regards to your daughter and it sounds like a terrible thing.
However in the case of Roman Polanski the 13 year old consented to the sexual act at the time – according to her no less. To this day the woman who was that 13 year old girl has stated that she DOESN’T FEEL SHE WAS HARMED in any way by having sex with Polanski and has also publically stated she DOES NOT WISH POLANSKI TO FACE CHARGES over the incident.
Whether you like it or not children and adolescents have a sexual component within them. Kids younger than 13 have sex with their boyfriends for better or worse. Pre-teen children play sexual games with each other whether we like it or not.
Please understand I’m in no way trying to justify your daughters rape and abuse by this asshole – just stating facts and calling you out on this unjustified, IMO, rage you seem to be venting towards Polanski.
Surely your not going to say, in light of what Polanski’s “victim” (right) has to say, that Polanski has harmed anyone? If so what the hell makes you know better than the “victim” what effect this has had upon her?
Seriously, get a grip. You sound like some puritan engaged in a witch hunt who has cast all sense of perspective and reason aside like in the middle-ages. Like a large number of people these days who, when it comes to “saving the children”, take a head buried in the sand approach to preteen/adolescent sexuality and simply brand any relation at all between young people and sex to be “evil” and to be stopped and punished at all costs.
Sorry if this seems offensive but it’s how I see it.
Peg, Howard: Thanks for your comments.
Polanski was a fugitive from justice. Now he comes back to face the consequences. “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime,” as they say. So too bad for him.
He drugged a 13 year old and penetrated her vaginally and anally after she said had said “no”. That’s rape, my friend. Seriously, you need to get a grip on your understanding of English.
He is in trouble for a criminal matter, not a civil one. It wasn’t a “Plaintiff V. Polanski” case, it was a “People V. Polanski” case. Surely you understand the difference between a civil case and a criminal one, don’t you, my friend? If not, you need to get a grip on your understanding of how our court system works. Seriously, you sound like an asshole.
I nowhere said anything about adolescent sexuality, and you have no idea how I feel about that topic. Seriously, my friend, I think you’re projecting your preconceptions onto me, which I think is rather chickenshit of you, especially since you didn’t leave your real name. Really, you need to get a grip. If you want to keep your head in the sand about the fact of child abuse and rape, please, by all means keep your head in the sand. Or in the mashed potatoes.
And by the way, my friend, rot in hell. No offense.
I have read this material and am interested in publishing some of it in my monthly newsmagazine the Utica Phoenix. Are you and E willing?
Also, I am interested in knowing the warning signs/intuition that you missed/ignored. It would be good for people to be aware of that information.
If any good can come of this horrible episode, it is that I can try to be more aware and careful and observant about what is going on in my kids’ world. Thank you John for putting this to (electronic) paper.
I’ll be in touch with you soon.
Wow this story is just Wow….
I stumbled on to this while looking at black light tattoos. I am a 22year old and when i read this it enraged me no girl deserves that no matter what. I’m glad you and your family prevailed over all of this… Steve will get his right after he takes his last breath everything is marked in this life and god knows what happens. you cannot hide anything from him and you know that…
God bless you and your family.
Nicely written and very touching and inspiring. Everyone has a story, and stories like E’s need to be told and heard to a mass of people who just don’t understand firsthand the pain of such gruesome torture so many children indoor. Our experiences shape us and while E was SO DEEPLY wounded it seems as though she is allowing those events in her life to lead her to great purpose. She seems to realize the power she has gained to become a voice to those who are too afraid or too wounded at the moment to use their own. Speak E, many will listen and be changed forever by what they hear.