A few years ago, after 17 years of friendship, a man I adored and thought I knew very well was sentenced to three decades in prison for charges related to pedophilia. His case included acts on children so young, I hadn’t realized prior to his arrest that such crimes even existed.
Due to there being a mountain of video evidence (he had recorded himself), he admitted his guilt on the first day of his trial, and it was over almost before it had begun. Selfishly, I felt relieved that none of us would have to hear the minutiae of everything he'd done, but, reeling and in a state of shock, I decided to read the judge’s sentencing remarks online. I thought they might provide some catharsis. Instead, even the cursory details wound up making me physically sick. The vomiting went on for days until my parents finally summoned me home. I don't recall any other point in my adult life where I needed to be next to my mother so badly.
In the days and weeks that followed, there were long phone conversations with friends, as everyone tried to process the hows and the whens and the whys. At one point, my sister, in another country and not privy to the same news coverage, called me, convinced that he had been set up and somehow tricked into pleading guilty. "What must they have done to him?" she asked, audibly distressed. It was a testament to how good he had been at pretending to be someone else.
After a while, you have to stop talking about it. The need to move on becomes palpable. You don't want to keep loudly dissecting the details in case it prevents other people from healing. So about a month in, still unable to reconcile the person I knew with the person in prison, and tired of going around in mental circles, I made the decision to tell myself he was dead. Doing so allowed me to mourn the friend I had lost—the person I thought he was, the inside jokes we shared, the teenage history—and put the whole thing behind me.
Except it's not really that easy. I was never actually convinced that the root cause of his criminality was a sexual attraction to children. He did not fit the classic profile of a pedophile at all. He was outgoing with other adults, had a lot of friends and a steady stream of age-appropriate girlfriends, and was fiercely protective of his nieces and nephews. Compounding matters was the fact that it was a high-profile case; now and again, new stories about him would emerge. One summer, at a wedding, a stranger made a joke about him, unaware that I had known him. To this day, when people find out where I'm from, some of them ask if I ever met him in a manner that suggests he's halfway to becoming an urban myth.