photo by Brian Carter for Watts
Wendy with her book “The Preacher’s Daughter”
Wendy as she gears up for KJLH Front Page
(L – R) Iyanla Vanzant and Wendy Gladney
Incest and the Journey to Forgiveness
By Joy Childs
(L.A. Watts Times)
She was only 6 years old when her father started touching her. It began with his coming into her bedroom at nighttime. At first, he would just play with her face and her hair. And then he began touching her tiny breasts and the rest of her body. “And I would freeze … act like I’m asleep … so that’s how it started.”
In this case, the “it” is incest. And the victim of this sexual crime was our own columnist Wendy R. Gladney, whose father was the culprit. But as you will see, she is a strong and remarkable woman: When undoubtedly most of us would have buried these events deep inside, or succumbed to an addiction or two or three, or sought some sort of retribution, or worse, Gladney opted to take the path less traveled, forgiving her father and teaching others how to forgive the unforgiveable.
Here she candidly shares her very personal story with our readers—as she does in her book, “The Preacher’s Daughter,” as well as her play—in the hope that someone will be led to, as she did, “forgive to live.”
Under section 285 of the California Penal Code, “incest” is defined in terms of “consanguinity,” i.e., “the state of being of the same blood or origin; specifically: descended from the same ancestor.” (Merriam-Webster online dictionary).
Section 285 reads in its entirety: “Persons being within the degrees of consanguinity within which marriages are declared by law to be incestuous and void, who intermarry with each other, or who being 14 years of age or older, commit fornication or adultery with each other, are punishable by imprisonment in the state prison.”
It’s clear, then, that those in a familial relationship—fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and the like—may commit incest. Most legal persons consulted felt that, as for stepchildren, half siblings and adopted siblings, it is most likely that whether a situation give rise to a valid claim of incest would be decided on a case-by-case basis and would be based on the totality of the circumstances.
In the Beginning
After describing her first recollection of incest by her father, Gladney gave a quick overview of her story but, she added, “I’ll stick to just the part about my father. I won’t go into my mother since we’re focusing on the incest component … ’cause the mother side deals with abandonment, which had to do with racial issues. My mother’s white, my dad, black. My mother’s family disowned her when she had a black child and so she left …”
Of her father, Gladney says: “My father was a drug dealer, a gambler, had a gambling house, was a pimp and ran numbers … and growing up with my father and my father’s family, never even knowing my mother until I was grown—the first time I met my mother I was a freshman at UCLA …
So during those years when my father was caretaking in Riverside—my dad had a slew of babysitters … I would see how he was involved with them …They were always young girls—15, 16. 17. But when I was about 6 years old is the first recollection I have … It was a progression …
And I will say, the one thing—my father never penetrated me with his penis. But my dad did everything else—everything from oral sex—
LAS: –On you and you on him?
WG: Yes—to touching me everywhere … and when you grow up with a slew of – my dad was married four times and we had a slew of babysitters … and I think for him, part of his rationale … of how he could live with himself was because he would say, ‘… but I never penetrated you’ … And my dad owned a pool hall that was a gambling house, and he would drop us off there—I was actually sexually abused by another man in there when I was about 9 or 10 years old, where he just left me … and so when you don’t know another world and you don’t know what to do, and the only thing I remembered as a child is that my dad would say, ‘Well, your mom’s gone so if you tell, they’ll take you away from us.’
This was Gladney’s life—and she grew up desperately wanting out of Riverside. She went on to recount a hodgepodge of memories of being biracial and growing up with her Black grandmother and darker cousins—and wanting her hair pressed like them. She remembered being beaten up by girls at school for ‘thinking she’s cute.’
She also remembered how she could see her father engaged in sex through open doors, and would think, If he’s doing that to that woman, he shouldn’t be doing that to me. So she began to understand that what her father did to her until she was 16 was wrong—but not because someone told her it was wrong.
LAS: Did you ever tell anyone?
WG: I told my grandmother, a couple of aunts and uncles—my father had nine brothers and sisters—and at that time I was the first mixed child in our family [so] I was always told, ‘Well, that’s that White side coming out … ’
LAS: The White side! … So no one believed you?
WG: Years later one of my aunts–she had thought something but felt she had no power—apologized to me.
LAS: Did you ever say to your father, ‘No, daddy, this is wrong,’ or fight back?
WG: I did fight back, but I don’t think I said, ‘This is wrong.’ I do remember saying ‘Daddy, why? Why are you doing this to me? Why do I have to do this, daddy?’
LAS: When did the abuse finally stop?
WG: I was almost 16 … It was the first time my father approached me outside of my bedroom … I was in the shower. I don’t know if it was because I was standing up … He opened the curtain and he was looking at me, and he had his pants off and his penis [sic] in his hand, and so I knew what was next … And so— I don’t know—I just couldn’t take it anymore and there was just something in me, and I just screamed and I yelled so hard, and I pulled the shower rack and as I pulled the shower rack, I saw him coming toward me … and that was when I could hear someone in the house … And by now my dad was in the shower so my uncle, when he came in the bathroom, he snatched the shower curtain down and wrapped it around me and he grabbed my father and threw him out of the bathroom …”
And that, she says, is when her uncle realized she’d been telling the truth. She adds: “No one ever told me that they thought I was lying but nobody ever said they thought I was telling the truth.
Her relationship life
Gladney’s been married twice and has two children. She talked quite openly about how the incest affected her marriages and even some relationships.
She also knows that what happened to her was not her fault—it was her father’s. But she ultimately learned to forgive him.
LAS: What started the forgiveness process?
WG: My dad had a heart attack when I was 16, and my grandmother told me he might not make it so if you wanna see him you probably should do that … So I got on my bike, went to the hospital and I saw my dad. He was lying in bed and I just said, ‘Daddy, I just want you to know that I’ve forgiven you for everything you’ve done to me, and I want you to have a chance to get right with the Lord before you die …’ And he had a tear in his eye … So in releasing him, helped to release me …
Thus began Gladney’s ability to “forgive to live.”
Another viewpoint: Sex crime prosecutors
Al Jenkins, a retired deputy district attorney who prosecuted cases involving sex crimes against children from 1985 until he retired in 1992, says there were very few incest cases, that these are largely unreported.
LAS: What’s the most graphic case you remember, the one that you’ll always remember?
AJ: … For me, they were all important … There were a lot of cases that I imagine the average person would find unusual … although incest in the Black community was not very prominent amongst the child sex cases … Most of the child sex cases we handled [back then] were Latino and Caucasian.” He estimates the cases he saw were 60% Latino, 2% Black, and 38% White and Asian.”
While his experience was that Black incest was “unusual,” Black child sexual assault—i.e., sexual assaults on children by non-family members—“were much more common.” These cases were prosecuted in much the same way as other cases in the DA’s office. He explained:
“Mother would finally find out some way that the child has been assaulted. She then calls the police. Police take a police report. Police would take the report to the DA’s office; the filing deputy makes a decision with respect to whether to charge someone; charge is filed …
During the last five to six years [of my career], I was the filing deputy for a child sexual assault so police would come to me. I would look at the police report and, if I thought it was important enough or if I was unhappy with the report itself, I would interview the victim, the case would be filed and would go forward in prosecution just like any other trial.”
When asked about the youngest sex crimes victim he recalled, Jenkins told of an almost unimaginable /incomprehensible case of incest. The victim was a Black 1-year-old child—Jenkins didn’t recall whether the victim was a girl or a boy—whose grandmother was having the baby perform oral sex on her.
AJ: So the baby’s just lying there, really … It was in an automobile. It was on Vermont just across from USC in a parking lot.
LAS: Was it repetitive or just one time?
AJ: One time as far as we know. The grandmother was seen outside the car … The observer called the police … And … thereafter when the grandmother was out on bail, she was arrested for the attempted murder of her daughter. She tried to break in to kill the mother of the child …
LAS: Wow! … Are there other cases that stand out?
AJ: I’ve had priests sexually assault altar boys … This was unusual in that he spent Christmas Eve in the house and molested the children— two boys, both altar boys at his church—in the house … Eventually they said something to somebody … who said something to the mother who went to the kids who finally admitted it. Then she went to the church. Church said, ‘Well, we’ll look into it.’ She waited but the church hadn’t done anything so she went back and they gave her more yada yada, so eventually she went to the police. And by the time we got to the church the priest had been sent—or had gone back to—Mexico. Never came back.
The recently appointed head of the sex crimes division of the district attorney’s office, Patricia Doyle, who’s practiced for 30 years, describes a current prosecution practice that’s much as it was when Jenkins was practicing in that division:
PD: Cops investigate a complaint from someone who could be a family member, a child or a teacher … a girlfriend. They bring it to the DA’s office. It is screened and it’s decided whether there’s enough evidence. Interviews are conducted. A deputy DA is assigned by the screener. [S/He] interviews the kids, who in many instances don’t disclose the whole story right away. There may be forensic psychologists involved.
Doyle explained that a forensic psychologist is frequently appointed by the court to assess a defendant’s competency to stand trial or to assess the state of mind of the defendant at the time of the offense.
Doyle continued by explaining that the DA will file though, unlike other divisions, the sex crimes division utilizes “vertical prosecution,” meaning the same deputy DA handles the case from beginning to end. “If there’s a suspect, arraignment is within 48 hours. There’s a preliminary hearing within 10 days. If court feels there’s enough evidence, then a trial is set.
Her youngest sexual abuse case was a [bi-racial] child of 4. The case involved the mother’s [Latino] boyfriend; fortunately, the authorities had sufficient physical evidence within 24 hours of the event. It took about a year to get to trial. The kid was 5 by then. There was a competency hearing, and it was determined she was competent to testify.
PD: She was doing a good job on the stand until she saw the defendant —she hadn’t noticed him until then. And then she started to cry. The deputy DA’s called for a break, during which the little girl kept saying she didn’t wanna talk. But we persuaded her (even bribed her with candy!), and she finally sighed and agreed to tell her story.
During the trial, the defense attorney asked her how she knew the touching was wrong, pressing her with, ‘Did your mommy tell you it was wrong?’ Child: ‘No.’ Defense attorney: ‘Did the deputy DA tell you it was wrong ?’ Child: ‘No.’ Defense attorney: Well, how did you know?
Child: Because I thinked it in my brain.
The childspeak, translated, of course, led to a conviction.