The problem with the neighbor

Lets say you and your family move to a new town. Its a small town, and prosperous, with a tight community and good schools. The kind of place most parents would like to raise their children.

The house you buy is a nice one. Its on a good street, with lots of other homes of similar value. Most of the neighbors have kids in the same schools your kids will be going to, and they all share similar values, attend the same churches, are at the same socio-economic level, etc. Though you come from a different state your neighbors do a good job of making you feel welcome and at ease. Everyone in your family agrees, they feel like they belong there.

Right next door to your new house is a prosperous family with deep connections to the community. The owner of this home, your neighbor, is the owner of a factory that employs about 20% of the community. He is well liked by everyone you meet. His factory sponsors many of the local sports teams for children, baseball, soccer, football, etc, and he himself often coaches these teams, although he is happy to step-aside if someone else would like to coach instead. His wife keeps a good house and is socially active in the community (she’s on the PTA, is a board member of the church, raises funds for the volunteer fire department, etc.). Their children are polite and well behaved, which you notice every time they visit to play with your kids, or when your kids go to their house to play. Moreover the children are always supervised well, so much so that you always feel your children are safe when around them.

Then one day one of their kids come over to your house and you notice some bruises on his arm. There are four of them, a series of circles going up his arm in a line about a half inch apart, each one the size of an adult’s fingertip. Since you came from a rough part of town, you have a good idea of the cause, this is the classic indication of a grab mark. You ask to see the inside of the child’s arm, and there you find a fifth circular bruise that perfectly matches the placement of a thumb.

About a week later, another one of their children is over playing at your house and you notice a similar pattern of bruising. You don’t want to alarm the child so you don’t point it out, but later that night you talk to your spouse about it. You both agree this might be a worrying trend, but you’d rather be sure before you say anything. After all kids often play rough, and can sometimes bruise themselves like this.

A few weeks later your spouse tells you that your neighbor’s wife showed up at a PTA meeting with a black eye. She’d covered the bruise up with make-up, as good as she could, but it made people uncomfortable in the room. Everyone pretended as if it wasn’t there.

That’s when you start to cautiously talk to your other neighbors about the bruises. At first most people are reticent to talk to you, after all you are an outsider in their community, but after a while they start to open up. You hear stories about when your neighbor was a boy and in high school that are worrying. They seem to indicate a pattern of violence. There are rumors that he was arrested several time for assault, but then let go because his father was the mayor.

Some of the stories you hear are so outlandish that you’re pretty sure they are fiction. They’re the kind of stories that are spread by people who are jealous of another’s power or position. But some of the stories you hear are disturbing in their detail. They sound to your ear much more factual. To make matters more difficult the town is divided about the issue. Some people you talk to readily believe your neighbor is a monster, while others are equally sure the man is innocent and is being framed by outsiders for nefarious purposes. Though you try to remain as neutral and as objective as possible you discover that just bringing up the topic is enough to place you in one camp or the other. Worse still, you hear rumors that the local police, the local schools, and members of your church, have actively harassed the families of anyone who asks too much. So just trying to gather reliable data is enough to see you and your family hounded out of the community.

Meanwhile, your children continue to play with your neighbor’s kids, your spouse continues to work in the community, and you still have a job to do and the ever present need to pay the mortgage. Your family is entrenched in the community, is prospering by all accounts, and has never been harmed by your neighbor. The victims of his actions have never come forward and claimed to be injured. No one you know, including yourself, have witnessed your neighbor committing a violent act since he became an adult, but at the same time you’ve gathered enough evidence to be sure there could be no other source. The bruises not only line up exactly with his hands, they also sometimes show ring marks that are consistent with only him. If you were a prosecutor you would have sufficient evidence to prove a case against your neighbor to the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” yet if your also equally aware that if you tried the man in this small tight-nit community you could never find a jury that would convict him.

So what do you do? At what point is the evidence sufficient for you to say something? If you do nothing, people will be harmed. If you do something, you and your family will probably be harmed. What do you do?

3 thoughts on “The problem with the neighbor

  1. First, being that I am new in town, I don’t talk to the neighbors at all. The bruises are sufficient cause to report to DFACS. This is not really about the town at all, or about the social status of the child abuser/wife abuser. The conundrum set up seems to be too confining. The guy would probably not be tried in municipal court, which would possibly mean he would be tried at the county seat… but we aren’t even there yet. You report and let the people do their jobs. It would be unusual that none of the victims had ever had to go to the doctor or emergency room, or that a teacher might not notice the marks, or that an abuser would be so careful as to not hit when there was any scheduled events which might reveal the evidence of a beating. Chances are, other folks have seen the evidence as well and may even have reported it.

    Having said that, I only discovered recently that my best friend growing up, who I spent time with every day, got the crap beaten out of him all the time, but mostly severe whippings with a belt. I also know a woman also grew up in the 50’s/60’s who used to be embarrassed to go to school with belt marks on her legs, exposed by girls having to wear dresses back then. Neither of these fathers were ever reported, to my knowledge… but thankfully, times have changed somewhat and the ideas that what a man does in the privacy of his home, regarding abuse, is not the neighbor’s business, aren’t true any longer.

  2. Ooooooooooh, that’s a tough one. How old are the kids, yours and theirs? Do you have another neighbor you trust enough to talk to about this?

  3. I should probably add that this problem is not a real one, but one I devised as a metaphor to talk about how we deal with impending problems that our government is unable or unwilling to solve. I had Climate Change in mind when writing this, but really its not the only issue in which a democratically elected body is ill-suited to fix.

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