Shirley Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle describes a New England village that ostracizes a family after a murder committed by a family member years earlier. With George’s name on the sex offender registry, Lina and the rest of the family were to get a taste of life in Jackson’s story.
An older woman down the street whom Lina had been friendly with invited her over for tea. Without prompting, the woman launched into a lecture about the evil that sex offenders visit on society.
Lina left and never went back. When the neighbor next saw Lina in the street, she glared and said nothing.
Another afternoon, Lina and George were walking their dog, and Lina decided to turn around early to head home. On her way back, two neighborhood teen girls zoomed past on their bikes. “Aren’t you embarrassed to walk with him?” one said sotto voce as she passed.
After that, Lina mostly tried to avoid people’s eyes when she went out. She knew she’d mostly see hostile faces if she looked around.
At school, Daisy and her older brother started to get a few comments about her father. Lina says Daisy felt like she was being treated differently than before, though the change was subtle. She just wanted to fit in, says Lina.
In 2011, thinking that people might have moved on, Lina and George starting attending a neighborhood church. After many months, they decided to get involved in a church small group that gathered weekly for dinner. It went fine for the first two weeks—they were making friends and looked forward to the next week.
But the next Sunday at church, it was like someone had hit a light switch. None of the other couples would look at them. When Lina approached one to say hello, she muttered that she didn’t have time and rushed off. Another caught Lina’s eye across the foyer and glared.
Lina and George tried one more Sunday but knew it was no use almost the minute they entered church. Lina said a big hello to the greeter. He glared back and said nothing. They turned and left. That was their last Sunday.
Mostly, Lina feared for her family’s safety now that their address was on a list of people that many consider monsters. She’d read the stories about vigilantes who come to homes to beat up or kill sex offenders. “Someone could just decide that they want to kill my husband because he’s on the registry, and I may be in the way or they might just decide it doesn’t matter,” she says.
She started having a series of ailments–muscle tension, parasites, scoliosis, anemia, a serious jaw infection. Finally she went to a psychologist in 2005, who concluded through tests that she had PTSD. While most of us associate that condition with soldiers returning from combat, it turns out that ongoing stress can mimic the effects of war. For example substantial research shows that PTSD occurs relatively often among victims of bullying.
One of Lina’s neighbors came over to offer support–and for good reason. The neighbor’s husband had abused her own daughter. The neighbor, a teacher, knew that her family needed help but that if she reported what had happened, her family’s life would get worse, not better. So she withheld what she knew.
That happens to fit with what some victim advocates say is a problem with sex offender registries—they could, perversely, decrease reporting. As one leader of a state sexual assault coalition told researchers as part of a 2008 study, “We’re predicting a decrease in reporting [after passage of harsher sex offender laws]… The laws disallow discretion, and discretion is needed… We’ve lost focus on treatment and only focus on punishment.”
Daisy, now in her 30s and married, has son of her own and is completely reconciled with George, says Lina. The incident will never go away, but they’ve gotten beyond it.
Lina doesn’t give her husband a pass for the incident—“What he did was so wrong,” she says. “But it wasn’t the kind of wrong that couldn’t have been handled with some therapy and family counseling.”
The only medicine the state had to offer was worse than the disease. “If I’d have known then what I know now, I would never have told a mandated reporter,” says Lina of the therapist.
Before this disaster, Lina was a conservative Republican who did vote but wasn’t politically involved. Now she’s started to take action. She discovered Women Against the Registry, composed of the wives, mothers, and daughters of registrants. Something clicked, and now Lina helps out by monitoring news stories about sex offenders and writing in the reader comments sections to challenge common assumptions.
Interviews with other wives of sex offenders reveals that in choosing to keep their families together, they’re subjected to the same treatment as their husbands.
That’s why when Lina talks about the registry, she doesn’t differentiate between her and George: “Registrants and their families are subhuman in the eyes of society. It doesn’t matter that we’ve tried to do the right thing at every stage of this situation.”