Sin of the Father

updated 07/25/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/25/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

AS GENEVIEVE LOWERY RINDFIELD haltingly relates the event that shattered her life 51 years ago, she often lapses into poignant silence. On the afternoon of Jan. 7, 1943—her 18th birthday—Rindfield was finishing work as a live-in housekeeper in the Adrian, Mich., home of John and Ida Brooks. As she sat on the living room sofa waiting to be dismissed for the last time—she was leaving for a clerical job at the local cable factory—John Brooks, 42, her uncle's brother-in-law, approached her. They were alone; his wife had gone out on errands. "He came over, knelt down beside me and started fondling me," recalls Rindfield, now 69. Then he raped her. "It was shocking to me," she says, remembering how she felt there was no choice but to submit, "because I knew this man. I didn't holler. I didn't scream out."

In fact, Genevieve planned to remain silent about the rape forever, but she soon discovered she was pregnant. Within weeks her parents moved the family to the far side of town, and her mother threatened to ship her disgraced daughter off to a home for wayward girls. "My mother could not handle people talking about me," says Rindfield.

But talk they did. Whispers soon gave way to scorn after Genevieve's baby girl Diane was born the following September. Because Genevieve refused to publicly identify the father or press charges against Brooks, few in the rural community seemed willing to believe that she was a rape victim. For his part, Brooks, an illiterate factory worker, denied raping Genevieve when her stepfather confronted him and accused Lowery of sleeping with an anonymous truck driver.

This month, Genevieve's version of events was finally confirmed when Diane won half of Brooks's $180,000 estate after court-ordered DNA tests on his exhumed remains proved his paternity. "My mother needed to be exonerated, and this had to be brought out in the open," says Diane, 50, explaining why she filed her objection to the will. "There was always a little bit of doubt, even in me. Now, once and for all, there is proof."

For Genevieve Rindfield, the victory was as bittersweet as it was belated. "There are so many people—like my mother—that I would have liked to have known about this who are not living anymore," she says softly. "I kind of wanted those who condemned me to have seen that I wasn't lying."

Extremely shy and naive, young Genevieve Lowery had been ill-prepared to handle the ostracism that followed Diane's birth. Insecure about her looks because of a lazy-eye condition, Genevieve had, as a teenager, avoided appearing in public and spent most of her time caring for her mother, who suffered from tuberculosis. "You were seen and heard and never asked questions," she says of her upbringing.

While she was pregnant, Genevieve says, her stepfather had spoken with the childless Brookses about adopting the baby, but she changed her mind the moment the infant was born. "You fall in love with your own child no matter what," she explains. "I always felt I was selfish—maybe the Brookses could have given her more. But I kept her."

That decision carried a high price. Neighbors shunned her. "She was completely cut out," says Phyllis Putnam Shoebridge, 68, a childhood friend. Genevieve remembers feeling a constant sense of shame. "Whenever I walked into a room it would get kind of quiet," she says. Three months after the baby was born, her mother succumbed to tuberculosis, and Genevieve, certain she had died of a broken heart, blamed herself.

After three years as a pariah in Adrian, Genevieve Lowery moved 120 miles away to Dowagiac, Mich., where, claiming she was a war widow, she look a job as a telephone operator and met Adolph Rindfield, a bowling-alley maintenance man from nearby Berrien Springs. They married in 1950 and had five children of their own.

As a child, Diane grew up believing her real father had been killed in World War II. But when she was 12 a friend at a pajama party told her of the rumor that she had been conceived in a rape. Though Diane questioned her mother about it, she was given few details, and 18 more years passed before the daughter learned her father's name, after obtaining a birth certificate in preparation for a vacation in Canada. In 1983, Diane—by then married to service station owner John Burkhard and living with their seven children from previous marriages—spotted her father at a family funeral. She tried to speak to him, but fled in tears after blurting, "I know who you are."

Believing that as a Christian she had a duty to forgive her father, Diane telephoned Brooks in 1991 to tell him so. Deeply agitated, the old man screamed, "I didn't do it! I didn't do it! It was the truck driver!" Then he hung up.

The next year, John Brooks died at the age of 92. At that point Diane decided the only way to put the matter to rest was by contesting his will. Over the objections of other Brooks relatives, a state court ordered that Brooks's body be exhumed for a series of DNA tests. A pathologist removed two ribs and some muscle tissue for comparison with blood samples from both Diane and her mother and concluded there was a 99.99 percent probability that Brooks was Diane's father.

Yet some of Diane Burkhard's rivals for the legacy remained unconvinced. "I'm not going to say she isn't his daughter, but it has never been proven," says Brooks's nephew Charles Neal, who says the exhumation for DNA testing was "a horrible experience for anyone who cared about him." (For more on DNA, see story page 157.)

When Burkhard first filed her suit, Michigan law did not allow unacknowledged children to make inheritance claims. But her case led the state legislature to pass a bill last October making an exception for illegitimate children and those conceived by rape.

Because Brooks had no other children, Burkhard's lawyers believe she was entitled to inherit the entire estate. Instead she accepted a settlement of $90,000, leaving $40,000 for 12 Brooks family members named in the will, with the balance set aside for court fees and taxes. In approving the settlement, Michigan probate judge Charles Jameson told Diane, "The wrong committed by Mr. Brooks can never be righted or changed. But we can today give Diane a father and a measure of justice."

For Diane the decision brings a close to a lifetime of shame and has brought her closer than ever to her mother. "It shows that I am a good person, and my mother is a good person too," she says. "God took a bad thing and made a good thing out of it. From now on, I'm going to hold my head up."

BRYAN ALEXANDER in Berrien Springs

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