At 8:45am last Thursday, I stopped halfway up the steps to the San Francisco Hall of Justice and peered out from under my umbrella at the building looming over me. I was overcome with anxiety and nausea. After a week of nightmares and insomnia, I should have been relieved this day had finally come, but one question kept haunting me:
What was I trying to achieve by coming here?
Three months ago, my mom emailed a new article link to me and my brothers. No context. Just the URL. It said something about a San Francisco lawyer being arrested for trading graphic child porn. I dismissed the email immediately, thinking she was just sending a general FYI about local news.
That night, my youngest brother texted me and asked if I saw the news article. That’s when I knew something was wrong… And it clicked in my mind before I could find the archived email. The child porn trading criminal was my step grandfather.
I was numb with horror, as I attempted to process my thoughts with my boyfriend and roommates. They didn’t know how to comfort me. How could they? I imagine not many people could have related to what I felt in that moment.
At first, I tried to simply understand. My grandmother (his wife) had passed away in January 2017, and her gradually-fading health already resulted in a family schism far beyond my knowledge. I accept that that grief has varying effects, but trading child porn seemed like an unrelated extreme.
Then I was angry. When did this fetish start? When I was a child? When my grandmother passed? As someone who spends her time as a shelter and advocate volunteer for human trafficking survivors, I’m still not sure if I’ll ever forgive for this type of crime.
My next emotion was conflict and confusion. Twice I’ve spoken to a group of incarcerated women at the San Francisco County Jail, one block down from the Hall of Justice. I’ve met criminals convinced of everything from theft to murder. My role as a guest speaker was to share my own transformational moments and encourage them to turn their lives around. Shouldn’t the same mindset apply in this situation?
What about the fact that he’s technically related? Or were all ties cut when my grandmother died? I shudder at the thought of calling him my “step grandfather,” especially at the thought of his victims. But am I supposed to “support” him as a family member? Where do I draw the line?
At some point, logic took over. I wanted answers. I went to the Criminal Division section of the San Francisco Superior Court website and searched for his name. I found the date, time, and place of his pre-trial, and I decided to go. I had no idea what a pre-trial entailed at the time, but it didn’t matter. I wanted to see the justice system at work.
So there I was this past Thursday morning, waiting in the hall of courtrooms. My instinct told me to remain hidden. I didn’t want him to know I was there, and I’m not sure he ever found out. I went into the courtroom with my head down and sat directly behind him, wondering if I should just say “fuck it” and walk out. I kept asking myself:
What was I trying to achieve by coming here?
Within an hour, a pre-hearing was scheduled for May. The whole morning was uneventful, and it made me wonder if I should keep coming to the courthouse or stop following this case altogether. At this point, perhaps I’m driven more by curiosity about the justice system than some arbitrary need for emotional closure.
Deep down, I believe everyone can turn their life around, no matter what the crime. It might be more difficult for me to accept in this situation, but I think I’m allowed to have conflicting thoughts and emotions. Going to the Hall of Justice and walking by County Jail was a reminder that it’s not my place to judge others. Doing that would only hurt myself.
What’s within my control is to keeping seeing through a lens of understanding and compassion. If I’m going to keep speaking to populations like incarcerated individuals and human trafficking survivors, I need to let this situation expand my knowledge of what family members (and perhaps victims) experience and help me better connect.
On a tangent, this has re-fueled my desire to go back to school for psychology. That sounds like a more productive takeaway. I could spend hours continuing to overanalyze the situation and sent myself into a dangerous spiral, but what good would that do? If my goal is motivating others to accept and move forward, I should do the same.