TW: Domestic violence, rape, sexual assault
Carter Thomas Sutton, 88, former professor of education at the University of Missouri, died in his sleep of natural causes on Monday, Sept. 28, 2009, in Columbia. At the request of Dr. Sutton, his memorial and celebration service will held on Saturday, Nov. 21. His greatest wish was to bring together his friends from different locales who would enjoy celebrating shared memories and faith.
Carter Sutton’s personal journey from Palatka, Fla., to his resting place in Columbia reflects the growth of a country and a man. The arc from a segregated South to the election of Barack Obama paralleled his own complex and personal path to the man he became, as did his transition from active Marine to a patriotic and proud veteran who deplored war.
Born in Palatka, Fla. on Sept. 21, 1921, the fourth of five children, Carter was raised in poverty. His parents, who were illiterate, did not know how to encourage his quest for higher education, but his own initiative next took him to the University of Florida.
When war broke out in December 1941, he enlisted in the Marines. He saw action in Guam and Okinawa and later was based in Beijing. He was discharged from the service in 1946 and returned to the University of Florida, where he met Laura Jean Smith. They married in 1948.
There she was – my grandmother – in the space in between “University of Florida” and “where he met Laura Jean Smith.” In that space, between the war and his marriage to Laura, is where he married my grandmother. It’s also where he violently raped and abused her, and where she somehow found the strength to leave him in an era when good Christian girls didn’t get divorced.
Until my dad sent me this obituary, which my uncle tracked down doing genealogy research, I’d never thought about my grandmother’s rapist as an actual human before. I didn’t even know he existed until I was 19 or 20. One day my dad asked me, “Did you know that your grandma was married once before she and grandpa met?” You could have knocked me over with a feather. “What happened?” I asked, wondering why I had never heard even a hint of this story. Dad told me that she divorced him because he raped her. Then he explained to me that in 1947, there were no laws against marital rape. If a man married a woman, he had unrestricted sexual access to her body as far as the law was concerned.
Needless to say, I was shocked by my father’s revelation. Divorce was frowned upon in my somewhat traditional Baptist family. It represented a personal failure, and for a middle-class southern woman, it meant you were damaged goods. To learn that our respected family matriarch – whom everyone adored, whose strength, sass, and seemingly infinite love showed me the kind of woman I wanted to become – had gone through something like that and not only survived but thrived, was at once inspiring and deeply heartbreaking.
A few months after my initial conversation with Dad, and only after he assured me it would be ok, I asked Grandma to tell me about Carter. He was literally the boy next door, I remember her saying. They wrote letters during the war and got married as soon as they were both discharged from the Marines. Then they moved to Gainesville for him to go to college, and that’s when he started raping her. I remember her pausing as she struggled with how to describe what he did to her with euphemisms, because she was a proper southern woman who didn’t talk about sex under any circumstances. She paused, cast her eyes downward, shook her head ever so slightly and said, almost to herself, “The things that man did to me.” Other than that one phrase, I don’t remember the words she used to describe her ordeal, but she communicated to me that the sexual abuse was both repeated and violent.
Even then, I didn’t quite process what happened to her. It seemed so long ago, and Carter was someone whose existence I only recently learned about. In my imagination, he was a skinnier and less handsome version of Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, but without a face. And he was evil incarnate, monstrous, something from a horror movie, but also not someone real or complicated or human.
But now, there he is, staring at me from my laptop screen, my grandmother’s rapist. His picture with the obituary is blurry and looks like it came from an old 1980s church directory. He has thinning white hair that is combed back from his far-receded hairline, and he’s wearing those slightly orange tinted heavy-framed glasses, popular among grandpas the world over. He has an old-man-large nose and a non-creepy smile. Basically, he looks like half the old men in any white Southern Baptist church. But I know what he did to my grandma, and the faceless monster in my imagination must be somewhere behind those eyes.
I read on.
Carter completed his master’s degree while Laura worked as a social worker with the state of Florida.
I wonder how often he raped her. Did she try to fight him off, or did she just resign herself to a lifetime of being violently sexually abused by her husband? Did she try to leave him? Did she go home to her own mother, like my grandma did, and tell her what was happening, but didn’t have the support she needed to escape?
Or maybe he didn’t rape Laura. Maybe he only felt the desire to torture my grandmother. Or maybe he raped other women to get it out of his system so as to avoid being left by another wife.
I wonder if Laura even knew about my grandmother and what Carter told her when she asked why grandma left him just months before Laura herself married him.
He was a high school social studies teacher from 1948 to 1951. As the Korean War heated up, he was recalled into the service and went into the Air Force…a son was born who died in infancy…he returned to college and he was urged by his wife, Laura, to complete his doctorate in education while also working as a high school teacher. He loved teaching and his students. Although he received many honors, awards and citations throughout his 40-year career, he was very proud to be named Teacher of the Year in 1986 by one of his own students.
I wonder if he raped any of his students when he taught high school or college. I wonder if a teenage girl or young woman in the 1970s would have ever even considered reporting a powerful male teacher or professor for rape. I wonder if anyone’s daddy or boyfriend or older brother beat the shit out of him and he had to tell his wife he got mugged.
Or maybe he was a beloved teacher who never touched his students. Maybe he just tortured my grandma.
He was a proud member of the Rotary Club, attending meetings all around the world.…and board member of the Salvation Army.
What an upstanding fucking citizen.
He is survived by Laura Jean Smith Sutton of Columbia, his wife and companion of 61 years; one sister; and his children and their families…
I wonder if any of them has the slightest inkling that their father raped my grandmother. I wonder if he was a good father and grandfather, if he was kind and loving, or if he was violent and full of rage. If I found his children and grandchildren and told them what he did to my grandmother, would they even believe me? If I were them, would I want to know?
I have so many questions about this man who raped and abused my beloved grandmother, after whom I am named.
Part of me is glad he’s dead. If he weren’t, I might be tempted to find him. But part of me wishes he was still alive so I could tell him that he didn’t break her, even though he tried. I want to tell him that my grandmother was more than a space between the war and Laura – she was kind and beautiful and loving and strong. She survived his abuse and moved on. She found my grandpa, a gentle and quiet man, and they loved each other so perfectly. I want him to know that in my grandmother’s life, he was nothing more than a horrible footnote.
*The author and her grandmother are the only ones whose names are unchanged in this essay.