I HAD KNOWN THE Sonnier family all my life. I had attended the Catholic elementary school in New Iberia with three of them, had served with one of them in Vietnam, and for a short time had dated Drew, the youngest child, before I went away to the war. But, as I learned with Drew, the Sonniers belonged to that group of people whom you like from afar, not because of what they are themselves, but because of what they represent—a failure in the way that they’re put together, a collapse of some genetic or familial element that should be the glue of humanity.
The background of the Sonnier children was one that you instinctively knew you didn’t want to know more about, in the same way that you don’t want to hear the story of a desperate and driven soul in an after-hours bar. As a police officer it has been my experience that pedophiles are able to operate and stay functional over long periods of time and victimize scores, even hundreds, of children, because no one wants to believe his or her own intuitions about the symptoms in the perpetrator. We are repelled and sickened by the images that our own minds suggest, and we hope against hope that the problem is in reality simply one of misperception.
Systematic physical cruelty toward children belongs in the same shoebox. Nobody wants to deal with it. I cannot remember one occasion, in my entire life, when I saw one adult interfere in a public place with the mistreatment of a child at the hands of another adult. Prosecutors often wince when they have to take a child abuser to trial, because usually the only witnesses they can use are children who are terrified at the prospect of testifying against their parents. And ironically a successful prosecution means that the victim will become a legal orphan, to be raised by foster parents or in a state institution that is little more than a warehouse for human beings.
As a child I saw the cigarette burns on the arms and legs of the Sonnier children. They were scabbed over and looked like coiled, gray worms. I came to believe that the Sonniers grew up in a furnace rather than a home.
It was a lovely spring day when the dispatcher at the Iberia Parish sheriff’s office, where I worked as a plainclothes detective, called me at home and said that somebody had fired a gun through Weldon Sonnier’s dining-room window and I could save time by going out there directly rather than reporting to the office first.
I was at my breakfast table, and through the open window I could smell the damp, fecund odor of the hydrangeas in my flower bed and last night’s rainwater dripping out of the pecan and oak trees in the yard. It was truly a fine morning, the early sunlight as soft as smoke in the tree limbs.
“Are you there, Dave?” the dispatcher said.
“Ask the sheriff to send someone else on this one,” I said.
“You don’t like Weldon?”
A Stained White Radiance
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