|Not Only the Man Down the Street: Unpacking Megan's Law|
|San Diego Reader|
(First Published San Diego Reader July 12, 2001)
At the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, David Provost loads the Megan’s Law CD of California’s serious and high-risk sex offenders, all 86,000 of them—that is, all the convicted ones—into a computer. You (concerned parent, informed citizen) have requested to see the registry. You’ve brought in the names of a dozen Little League coaches, your ostensible purpose, and your real hope, to identify the man who lives down the street, whose hand you saw linger too long on the shoulder of your nine-year-old son. You have the man’s hair color and his approximate weight; your son mentioned a heart-shaped tattoo on his forearm, Cupid’s deviant. Though you don’t have the man’s name, you find the CD can be searched by Zip Code.
Provost, a gap-toothed fellow with an easy disposition, says the “stand-alone” CD is updated monthly. No, it’s not online. On average, one person a day comes into the office to search for sex offenders. The serious and the high-risk designations are based on the number of felony sex crimes or the nature of the crime. Some molesters are in prison; some are getting out; many have been out for a while. All must register whenever they relocate, the serious once a year, the high-risk every 90 days. And, yes, they stay on the list for life. Provost notes that in the unincorporated areas of San Diego county, an area the Sheriff’s Department oversees, there are 750 registrants (two are women). San Diego county has 5000 registrants and the city, about 2200.
Searching by zip code, you get 72 names and so it’s easy to scroll the mug shots. Clicking from man to man, they look familiar, like auto-body teachers at your community college. You discover yourself fighting the stereotypes—a beard flecked with crumbs, glasses sliding down a nose, a pair of eyes as shameful as they are prurient. Is what you see what’s there? As if to say shabby traits belong only to molesters. But it’s not true. These men are depressingly ordinary, like Wal-Mart shoppers. Not that Wal-Mart draws the sex offender. But Wal-Mart has as full a variety of anti-social American men as any other public crossroads. Finally, you try the heart-shaped tattoo as a search term. Odd, but that, too, comes up empty.
You next snoop online at KFMB/TV’s website and find a video clip of News 8 Investigator Kevin Cox’s report, “The Molester Next Door.” Cox consulted the Megan’s Law CD and, like you, found no addresses. So, from a list of 100 names, he tracked down via records in the county courthouse the addresses of three men: Robert Ellis Stone (convicted of molesting a seven-year-old girl and sentenced to five years probation); Loren Dean Abbott (served his sentence for molesting two girls); and high-risk offender James Phillip Cline (convicted twice for molesting girls). Discovering that each one lives close to a school, he confronts the men on camera. He demands they speak with him; he demands they answer why they are living near a school; he demands to know if the community should fear them. Classic reporter confrontation—camera jiggling, pocket change jingling, as all parties run—Cox gets close but the men don’t lure. They won’t talk; they shut their doors; they drive off. In a huff. For you, the story is not that Cox ambushes these folk on camera and “exposes” them; the story is, he doesn’t tell viewers where they live. But he knows.
You dial in Rick Roberts, local talk show host on KFMB/AM’s 760. He’ll be sympathetic; every Friday afternoon, he reads the names of the “Top Ten” sex offenders in San Diego, most of whom are child molesters. You’ve heard Roberts boast about his Rx for convicted sex abusers: “You round them up, cut off their testicles with a coffee-can lid, and put them in jail.” You heard him last September blast San Diego’s news outlets while he excoriated Superior Court Judge Lisa Guy-Schall for sending a boy into the guardianship of a man who was accused of sexually abusing him and whose live-in boyfriend had pled guilty to child molestation in Florida: “We’ll talk about Hua Mei, the panda, ad nauseam, front page of the newspaper for six months. This [molestation case] will get a mention, and it’ll be gone next week. Maybe if little 11-year-old boys that are getting sent off to live with pedophiles would put on little bear suits and chew on eucalyptus leaves, then maybe we’d give a damn.”
You call Lieutenant Bill Edwards of the San Diego Police Department’s sex crimes unit. He’s in charge of local public notification. At present he says there are “only 22” high-risk sex offenders in the city of San Diego. You ask if he’s watching those 22 and he says of course he is, but he’s not going to give away his “trade secrets.” The whereabouts of these 22 are verified every 90 days, as the law for high-risk offenders requires. Edwards looks for places where these men “put themselves in contact with kids when they shouldn’t.” He notes that the law also burdens the offender: He is supposed to tell the church for which he volunteers, for example, that he’s had a sex conviction. If he doesn’t and the police find out, he can be prosecuted.
You ask Edwards if he thinks community notification is working. He answers with a question: “How can you successfully monitor 5000 people in San Diego, 24 hours a day?” Like most government agencies, the sex crimes unit’s resources are too lean to protect everyone. Edwards says that after Kevin Cox’s TV piece in November, one man Cox confronted received death threats. The lieutenant was spooked: “My responsibility is to protect the general interest of the public,” he says, “but I also have to protect him and his rights.” This conflict, he says, is the downside of notification. Edwards doesn’t “want to create mass hysteria” by telling the public everything he knows. So, in the end, “I’m damned if I do notify, and I’m damned if I don’t.”
About now, you know how he feels: You haven’t found anything on the man who touched your son, so the police won’t file a report on him. You begin to think the man down the street is not a violent sexual predator—those men, you believe, are locked up for good at state mental hospitals, especially in the aftermath of Polly Klaas’s death. You begin to wonder if he’s a sex offender at all. Maybe he’s an exhibitionist. Maybe he likes collecting pictures of naked boys. Maybe he’s a masturbation addict. Maybe he likes to tousle the hair of little kids as your grandfather did. Not all these things are crimes and not all are connected. Exhibitionism, masturbating in public, possessing kiddie porn, acts that do not directly violate the bodies of another person, are misdemeanors—mild crimes in the law’s eyes. The man down the street is pushing you near the edge of an abyss called “your child’s body in public.” How do you welcome the appropriate touch of teachers and coaches, and not panic at a stranger’s hand on your son’s shoulder?
You next wonder about going door-to-door with a letter, a petition. But on what grounds—your indefatigable suspicion? You recall Lieutenant Edward’s telling you, if the man was a child molester and is off parole, “what benefit is there to saying, ‘Hey, this guy’s a child molester,’” unless “he’s involved in predatory behavior with kids.” It’s wrong to bear false witness against a neighbor. The man down the street has a right to be left alone. As an attorney, Louis Brandies, later a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, used that very phrase in 1890 to define privacy: The right to be left alone.
But you can’t help but think that those who’ve been convicted of sexual offenses have forfeited that right. You believe offenders re-offend, period. Indeed, the recidivism rates for molestation are among the highest of all crimes. One study, which looked at every year from the date of a conviction up to a quarter-century later, found the rate of repeat sexual offenses at 52%. The percentage is substantial, but you wonder what’s the best response to this tally? Should you, should we, remain calm, avoid stigmatizing all convicted child sexual abusers as ready and willing to perpetrate again? Should we be more insurgent than we are? Is a Goldwater-like extremism in defense of our children’s liberty justified?
In our zeal to expose the abusers, you and I and the rest of the country are up against the limitation of law, in general, and Megan’s Law, in particular. A 1996 federal statute, Megan’s Law was named for Megan Kanka, a New Jersey seven-year-old. She was “home-raped” and murdered by a twice-convicted sex offender who lived across the street. The law mandates states to enact passive and active public notification procedures to keep track of convicted sex offenders after their release from prison or jail. But this law, as symbol and fact, causes as many problems for citizens as it secures protections for children. Even if we do find a molester and make a ruckus about his presence down the street, he’s likely to move. Sure, he’ll register again. But this “rather mobile population,” as Provost portrays it, likes to ride the rails and not for the obvious reasons. He moves on because he’s lonely and shy, less often because he’s been forced to leave. Indeed, if the guy moves and he is a threat to re-offend, we’ve only succeeded in shifting the problem from here to elsewhere. What happens until elsewhere finds out!
Megan’s Law may have begun giving citizens the means to protect children by exposing perpetrators. But the law only goes so far. There’s no wrist bracelet, no scarlet letter, to tag a molester for life, so everyone knows what he did.
Despite the attempts of parents and law enforcement to utilize Megan’s Law, childhood sexual abuse continues to be a public health problem, in large part due to its unique nature. Since the crime is unwitnessed and its victims are children and young adolescents, for whom the burden exists to “report” the crime, the abuse is underreported and therefore unknown. Experts say it will remain so because the idea of “Chester the molester,” the dirty old man who targets kids in public settings, is the wrong universal. Chester does not represent the common perpetrator: the family member who commits incest. Ninety-five percent of sex offenders know their victims intimately and, at the same time, most of these relationships involve caring, intimacy, and love. For most of us, this is unthinkable. That the sexual abuse of children sometimes masquerades as the American family.
What follows is a tour through the minds and experiences of several San Diegans who are trying to comprehend the psychological and social problems of sexual offenders, the spread of child pornography on the Internet, and, the least discussed aspect, the plight of victims. What these people have to say sounds confidential, not because the information is esoteric or privileged but because so few people talk about it. And most don’t talk about it for good reason. Childhood sexual abuse is a crime rooted in the dueling, shaming silences of perpetrator and victim. To say it never happened. To bury it deep enough that it cannot be found. To bury it not only inside an individual or a family but also far from the non-abused who may want to learn from what has happened. To admit a desire to learn about what has been buried in others is also to admit to a third silence—why is it the majority of us who have not been sexually abused know so little about the barbarity some people practice upon children?
Perhaps the least uncomfortable place to begin a tour into childhood sexual abuse is with a district attorney, in the apparent safety of the downtown Hall of Justice. Jeff Dort, lead prosecutor in the D.A.’s office for Internet child exploitation, is running a quick errand to a nearby courtroom. He is stocky, solid, news-anchor handsome—his suit, tie, and white shirt are on the crisper side of new. Dort spent three years working on the third strike of “three-strike” cases in El Cajon before moving to the Family Protection Division. “So, you’re writing about sex offenders? I’ll tell you what I tell families of the victims: ‘Don’t even try to understand how these people are put together.’”
In his twelfth floor office, I ask him to contrast the old child pornographer with the new. Dirty old men, he says, used to have shoe boxes full of photographs stuffed away in their closets. The vice was localized. Traffickers might photocopy or make extra prints of a picture of a naked 10-year-old girl. They’d then share those with collector-friends. Physically, though, they could only reproduce a finite number of images. Dort says he still sees some of these grainy reproductions in his unsavory task of bookkeeping mountains of seized kiddie porn.
In the past decade, the crime has changed dramatically. Digital cameras, digital movies, scanners, JPEG files, and video clips have revolutionized the trade in kiddie porn. Computer-stored images can be sent “from pervert one to pervert two,” Dort says, “and from pervert one to pervert two to ten thousand.” The computer’s digital processing and transmission of images allows one to send not the original but a copy that is every bit as authentic, in terms of quality, as the original. I recall the German literary critic Walter Benjamin who wrote that in the age of mechanical reproduction “the aura of the original withers” in the transmission. Not so with digital technology: That original image doesn’t deteriorate with reproduction. It reproduces itself wholly: Whatever is simulated is real.
E-mailing child porn is distribution, more serious than the misdemeanor of possession. According to Dort, these pornographers are “not only duplicating it, which is a felony, but distributing it, which is a felony, and going across states lines, which is another felony,” a federal crime. Images sent from San Diego via America Online, for example, goes through America Online’s headquarters in Virginia. Child porn distribution is worldwide and to combat the growth in the United States, Dort is hooked into the new national unit, Internet Crimes Against Children task force. Law enforcement agencies in any of 30 centers trade information through a clearinghouse in Washington. The result is, two men trading kiddie porn between Hawaii and New York, for example, can be investigated and prosecuted in both places.
I want to know more about the change we are undergoing from shoebox to Internet. Dort calls the trafficking in child porn exponential. “Dad took a picture of his nine-year-old daughter, in the shoebox days, Xeroxed it and gave it to his friend, saying, ‘Hey, I know you like pictures of little girls, here’s a picture of my daughter.’ That’s a crime. But nowadays he would post it on the Internet, so the re-victimization occurs because when he puts it up on the web, hundreds if not thousands of people look at it, and then take that, copy that, use that in their own library and send it on.” It’s not uncommon for Dort to see the same images recurring when the “porn libraries” of “perverts” are seized. He’s seen libraries of 100,000 images. And this is a young technology.
“Is one picture one crime? Yes. Is 100 pictures 100 crimes? Yes, technically. On one CD I can have 20,000 pictures and just give you that.” Is that 20,000 crimes. Technically, yes. The victimization occurred once: Taking the child’s picture. That is, Dort argues, the greatest harm. But there is also residual harm: More eyes on the same illegal image constitutes more of a crime. Dort shares stats from a recent study, “Online Victimization.” One in every five youths on the Internet, aged 10 to 17, has received a sexual solicitation. “That’s scary.” One in every 33 youths has received multiple aggressive requests to meet offline. “Which is even scarier. At least when you’re online, Mary’s in her bedroom, and Nutcase, wherever he is, is somewhere else.” One in every four youths has received an unrequested naked picture via the Internet. At the millennium’s turn, 28 million children were online; the estimate for 2002 is 45 million.
At his computer Dort says, “Watch this.” Every day thousands of kids go to Sony’s playstation.com to look at video game products. If the kid types an “m” instead of an “n” at the end of “playstation,” that one spelling error opens the beast’s maw: He ends up at a German sex site.
Such adult sites, which also link to child porn, are common. To illustrate Dort types three words into his search engine, “boys pictures pickle.” Why pickle? “Pickle means penis.” More than 9 million sites, it is reported by Excite, have hits for these words. Some are authentic kids’ sites. But many—he scrolls down the page but doesn’t click any blue-highlighted URL—are child porn: “manpickle.com”; “full monty nude boys member page”; “hardcore boys get down and get nasty”; “well-hung horny naked boys member page.” Are all these illegal? “Well,” says Dort, careful not to click, “I’m guessing that ‘pictures of live naked boys under 18’ is illegal. They’re telling me it’s illegal.” But that doesn’t mean any investigator can catch the person. Dort writes a quick e-mail to explain to his boss (“there’s a reporter here from the Reader”) why he has called up these sites.
The greatest harm, though, is done not by the trafficker but by the manufacturer. Dort tells me the story of the “poster child for kiddie porn,” San Diego’s Mac David Cochran. Cochran posted images on child porn sites of himself having sex with his daughter. An anonymous person tipped the FBI in San Francisco that he had seen the image on the Internet. Search warrants were issued to find where the images came from, technological tracery apparently not difficult to do. The FBI discovered the man who sent the image was living in San Diego.
San Francisco FBI transferred the case to the San Diego Police Department. They obtained a search warrant, went to the home, knocked on the door, and, Dort recalls, “the little nine-year-old girl in the picture answers the door.” In the home, they found an 18-minute videotape of Cochran and his daughter in “five or six vignettes or scenarios in different rooms.” Investigators later found the video itself had been posted on the Internet. The feds, Dort says, charged Cochran with “uploading and manufacturing pornography,” but after Dort took the case, he added on the charge of molestation and got a much severer punishment for Cochran, 143 years in prison.
I ask him for his reaction to what he saw on the tape.
“Gross is not the right word,” he begins. “Gross can mean—meth people don’t clean their homes. They pour kitty litter in a corner and just let their cats go there. That’s gross. This was visual. I don’t know how to describe an image where I know it’s the biological father having sex with his nine-year-old daughter. The audio is on, where he is saying, ‘Look, we’ve done this before, it doesn’t hurt that much, let’s hurry up before Mommy gets home, I’ll finish in a few seconds,’ and then he comes on her. I don’t know how many times I had to watch it for the case. Probably, 50 to 60 times.”
Why that many?
“We charged crimes for every time he touched her, and I wanted him punished for every time he touched her. If, let’s say Bob, touches any child under 14 with a sexual intent in his mind anywhere—touches her, for example, on her inner thigh with a sexual intent that it’s either going to arouse her or him, that is a felony, punishable by 3, 6, or 8 years in prison. So when Cochran was doing this to her, I didn’t just charge that [touching] section [of the code]. I charged him with aggravated sexual assault of a child, basically, rape of a child. So that’s 15 to life each time he touched her. And the judge, who had to look at the tape—some of it was in different bedrooms, so if you think about it, you had to move the kid and the dad and the video camera to a new room. The law punishes you for starting over. So each time, Cochran had a break to stop doing this, but he continued. The punishment just keeps going up and up and up.”
Dort says he wasn’t “nauseated exactly” by watching the video over and over. Perhaps such fortitude is the reason why he’s in charge. He recalls that many deputies in the office “watched and cried. It is horrible. The worst case I’ve had to deal with, and I’ve had to deal with homicides, where people are obviously dead. This is worse. I know she’s 12 now and there’s no way she’s going to have a normal relationship in her life because she’s so messed up.” The girl, he continues, had “so buried it inside of herself that she was passing it off as ‘not that bad.’ During the trial she felt she was sending her father away to prison.” It was nearly impossible to convince her that his action was not, in some part, her fault. Again, Dort reminds me about the offenders: “Don’t even try to understand how they’re put together.”
Clinical psychologist Dr. L. C. Miccio-Fonseca has tried for 20 years to do just that—understand how offenders are “put together.” At her Clinic for the Sexualities, another high-rise suite of offices, this time in Mission Valley, she presents herself as an independent practitioner who often gets called to evaluate sex offenders although she does do therapy with victims. Beside her desk is a stack of dolls, their lifelessness a reminder that sometimes only symbolic play or language can activate young children to express the physical relationships going on in their families.
Compact in body, confident in voice, Miccio-Fonseca begins with a frank description: “People have unconventional, unorthodox sexual proclivities, and that doesn’t mean they are necessarily sex offenders. For example, you have somebody who’s into feces and urine as an erotic arousal—that’s not against the law. It’s unusual, it’s disgusting, but it’s not against the law. It may be an indicator that an individual has a paraphilic disorder, a sex disorder, a mental disorder. Pedophiles fall into that, rapists fall into that, lust murderers fall into that. Not all sex offenders have a paraphilic disorder.”
A pedophile is someone who “has a predominant arousal pattern for” prepubescent infants or children. A hebephile is a pedophile interested in adolescents. Pedophiles seek to have sex with young people in their families, usually because their prey are readily available. Pedophiles believe that children are “mutually desirous” of such contact; they also believe it their duty to initiate the young person sexually, often in the same way the pedophile himself was initiated. Then there’s the incest offender. A father with five daughters who is sexually aroused by one is “not necessarily a pedophile,” Miccio-Fonseca says. That man is a child molester. But, in most minds, molester and pedophile are the same thing. Not so, she says. Child molesters “may sexually act out with a child because they’re under stress, lost a job, have financial difficulties. But, in other circumstances, they wouldn’t migrate to a child. That individual is higher functioning, more often than not has no criminal background, is more sociable, quote-unquote.”
I find myself trying to grasp the difference between pedophile and child molester.
“Look,” she retorts, “if I said to you, ‘What’s the typical heterosexual?’ What would you say to me? Well, you’re going to say, ‘They’re male or female.’ Great. What else can you tell me? There’s such a variance among heterosexuals that the same variance is present among rapists, pedophiles, people who have a paraphilic disorder.” Topology-hunting goes on constantly in those who study paraphilia, she says. It’s a natural inclination to want to find similarities. The people Miccio-Fonseca treats, however, are as different as “every finger on your hand.” Nevertheless, she’s aware of the image of the molester, trawling the playgrounds for children. A characterization that is seldom the case, she says. Nor is it true that he’s likely to be gay, sociopathic, or poor.
When we turn to discuss the victim, she says flatly, “The sex offender is a victim. But the victim is not necessarily sentenced to be an offender.” This man, though, “doesn’t get perceived as a victim but rather as a perpetrator.” Most perpetrators she has interviewed describe traumas of being molested or raped by a family member. Most. Not all.
Recently Miccio-Fonseca evaluated a violent rapist, who confessed that from age 5 to 13 he was sexually assaulted by an uncle. “The uncle would tie his hands to his feet”—she reaches to her ankles, keeping her legs straight—“then would take a rope”—wrapping it around her body—“throw it over a door and haul him up. He would then anally penetrate him, turn him around, and ejaculate on his face and force him to orally copulate him. That right there,” she says, “is a victim. That victim grew up and became a horribly violent rapist. The mother of that boy tried to get help for fear he was going to grow up to be a sex offender. [It turned out that she had also been raped by the same man.] Very few resources for him to go to. Because why? Because he’s a male victim; he was afraid to talk about the fact that he was assaulted by a male; and there weren’t groups of other males to whom he could go. We could have aborted these other rapes if we had caught that kid early enough, if we would have served this boy.
“Imagine what that would be like,” his rage at being assaulted for so long, “almost ten years of assault. And this is an uncle who said, ‘I’ll cut your fingers off if you tell anybody and then I’ll fry your tongue.’ You’re a kid of five years old: ‘I’m not going to tell anybody!’ That makes sense. That’s a normal response. He’s not going to go to school and tell people because he doesn’t hear his peers talking about this, either.” Because he so fully identified with his aggressor, the man became a rapist.
Males are not seen as victims, Miccio-Fonseca points out, because we don’t think “males can be vulnerable and victimized.” She tells me that during lectures she’ll mention the rape of males and initially hear laughter. “People don’t think a man can be raped. Imagine a man who’s been raped and he goes to a police station. Is he going to be believed?” The literature states, one in five men have been molested at some time in their lives, usually by other men in their families, on rare occasion by women. She believes 20 percent is a “conservative” number. Because once again we are haunted by the underreported nature of the crime. “Men are shier than women,” Miccio-Fonseca says, “about reporting sexual abuse. If they do, others may think they’re gay. Male victims are afraid of being ridiculed, ashamed of themselves and their pasts. They often bury the abuse in their psyches; don’t deal with it. They may have poor sexual performance. Few support services are available, unlike services for women. Male victims over 40 don’t discuss it. When men who have molested men are caught, often the victims don’t get involved with a criminal trial, for example, for many of the reasons I’ve cited.”
Bringing up numbers, I mention a few studies I’ve read, and Miccio-Fonseca stops me. She’s unimpressed by numbers. They’re “always artificial,” she says. But she does admit that statistics with some meaning are known about women because, in general, support services, counseling, and treatment for women are better organized and more widely available than they are for men. Women are socialized to participate in treatment, to communicate their feelings, and to talk about their progress.
The theory that victims become abusers doesn’t hold for both genders—there’s no “inordinate amount of female sex offenders.” She’s not sure why this is so. It’s also true that many men sexually abused when young do not become abusers. In fact, according to a National Institute of Justice study in 1997, “Most victims of childhood sexual abuse do not go on to become child molesters.” Though a cycle can exist, it doesn’t predict behaviors. Some of those molested grow up and have sexual dysfunctions, problems with intimacy and romance. Often victims will self-medicate with drugs and alcohol instead of offending or getting into therapy.
Is there a predisposition for a sex disorder? Miccio-Fonseca is uncertain. The research on a genetic I.D. is in its infancy. In her experience, it is often the case that offenders “typically have people in their families who have unconventional sexual turn-ons.”
As for those who do not molest others, “they may have a sturdier disposition,” she says. “Maybe they have more resources or family or community support to recover from the trauma. Maybe they get into treatment right away. Maybe many of the offenders who offended them are people with whom they have worked something out in treatment together. Perhaps those victims were not so severely . . . any abuse is serious.” Here she hand-chops in the air a “three-point scale: mild, moderate, severe.” It could be that many victims are not severely abused, recover more easily, and do not themselves become abusers.
“Not every sex offender,” she insists, “goes to Atascadero,” a state mental hospital for sexually violent predators. “Not every sex offender goes to prison. Not every sex offender goes to jail.” Miccio-Fonseca on occasion evaluates people with sex disorders who are not charged with a sexual offense. “Maybe there’s not enough evidence—a kid doesn’t want to testify against the person, the person is suspected but there’s no evidence. So he doesn’t go to court. He might come to me and says, ‘Listen, I got a problem and I want to figure out what you can do for me.’ He might be referred to me by his attorney but there’s not enough evidence and they’re not going to prosecute him. If someone says to me I sexually molested a ten-year-old and she lives at such-and-such address, obviously I have information to report. But if someone comes in and says, ‘I’ve been molesting,’ and gives me no information, what am I going to call in? The first thing [the police] are going to say is, ‘Who’s the victim?’ ‘I don’t know. He won’t tell me.’”
Miccio-Fonseca says such wily foxes understand the separation of treatment from crime: If they admit to a crime and go to prison, they’ll get no treatment. But those men who admit their crime are few. Much larger is that other strata in our society of men who are “never caught” and will never tell. A small percentage may be in treatment but never divulge specifics. And because some child molesters haven’t been arrested or charged or convicted, their numbers are not part of any percentage. They simply go unreported. “Then the question becomes,” she says, “‘How many victims are there really out there?’ I say a hell of a lot more than is conservatively estimated.
“I don’t think Americans know how to answer the problem of sex offenders,” she says. The notification laws and the attendant vigilantism are prime examples of what she calls “our dilly-dallying and confusion.” When perpetrators are targeted with signs in their yards identifying them as molesters or their names are read on the radio, she says they “go underground, move someplace else, can’t be supervised, can’t be monitored—and then there’s more victims. We have not answered the question, ‘What are we going to do with these individuals?’ The research shows that if they get treatment, we can reduce recidivism. But I think the American public has a difficult time with that, these days.”
To create a safer society for young people, Miccio-Fonseca advocates “thorough sex education. What is and what is not appropriate sexual behavior in our society,” she believes needs continual discussion at the child and the adult levels. Next she wants the public to understand why offenders are usually victims. After that, we need to acknowledge that research proves perpetrators can be treated. “There can be a reduction in risk with an offender. Simply arresting the offender, putting him in prison and leaving him there for 2, 5, 10, 15, 20 years, with no treatment, and then releasing them—that individual will typically be worse coming out than he or she was coming in. Did we solve the problem? No, we made it worse. And we put the society at a higher risk.” Prison is the worst place to send this population, she says. “Typically they are beaten and raped; they’re lucky to get out of there alive. They congregate around other sex offenders. They hone their skills like other criminals in the system. It is really an institution of higher learning, of how to be more anti-social, how to be a better burglar, how to be a better rapist, how to be a better pedophile. It’s not producing positive results.”
Miccio-Fonseca would like to reintegrate the molesters and pedophiles into our society but under strict supervision. “In my 20 years doing this, I’ve interviewed astronomers, astrologers, chemists, mathematicians, judges, lawyers—a variety of people. They’re not the Jeffrey Dahmers, not the Ted Bundys, not the John Wayne Gacys. But they are sex offenders. Do we forget about those people? How do we deal with these people who need to be monitored, supervised, and watched with regard to being around children or babies or adolescents or elderly women?” Their sexual proclivity, while destructive, is neither evil nor diseased in ways those words are understood. To call it “satanic” is to misrepresent it “terribly,” she says. What pedophiles and molesters and rapists do is awful and wrong. But, she says, “these are our brothers,” part of “our human family” and she wants to carefully bring them back into the fold at a time when very few would agree with or allow her her wish.
Megan’s Law and the state-by-state registries have helped us turn a corner on the sexual abuse of children, according to Miccio-Fonseca. We are starting to reckon with this problem as a society and, she hopes, to acknowledge its complexities in treating victim and victimizer. There appears to be a correlation between the increasing amount we know about childhood sexual abuse and our waning ability to deter it. We know chasing offenders away only propels the problem elsewhere; we know parents are beginning to monitor their children’s use of the Internet just as smut peddlers find new means of luring the curious. We also know that not everyone wants to help the pedophile uncover the trauma of his own abuse so he can heal his life. For many, our compassion tanks have only so much fuel—better to serve the survivor than the perpetrator.
The closeted world of childhood sexual abuse might take a page from social problems that have been addressed in recent years with greater openness and public acceptance. Problem drinking took center stage, a couple decades ago, with the self-betterment program Alcoholics Anonymous. In like manner our attitudes have changed about drug addiction. These days when Robert Downey Jr. gets arrested for cocaine and methamphetamine use, he is booked into another treatment center while friends and family work the TV tabloids with the mantra that Downey has a “disease”; it’s not his fault. Downey has had the great luck of being an unfortunate drug addict in an age that has legislatively with California’s Prop 36 elevated treatment over punishment.
I realize that the use of drugs victimizes others less directly than molestation does. But the honesty and lack of shame with which we view drug addiction is now almost universally approved. How might we begin to liberate a similar discussion about childhood sexual abuse? Is it possible for our media, our religious and political institutions, to participate in the discussion? Will our devotion to the privacy of the family keep us from speaking up? Who might shape our individual and social responsibilities with regard to molesters and pedophiles?
On the individual level, consider Jorge Gonzalez.
Gonzalez is a lanky 24-year-old computer whiz, who recently skateboard-ed to a Pacific Beach coffeehouse for an interview. Over hot chocolate, he describes how he got involved a year ago as a self-labeled “cleaner” of child porn on the Internet when he was one of 50,000 people to download a free file-sharing system called Gnutella. Gnutella is a decentralized program that networks computer users together directly. Whoever uses Gnutella can talk directly or transfer files, provided they’re online at the same time.
What Gonzalez loves about this program is its lack of restrictions. “It’s open forums, an open-society approach” to the Internet, he says. No one patrols or censors the material shared. It’s strictly peer to peer. With typical cyberspace transactions like sending e-mail or visiting a web page, it’s not hard to trace where the transaction originated. Each time we click, a number, or “unique identifier,” records the place and the time of the action. On Gnutella, though, a user can set himself up as anonymous, that is, without a “unique identifier.” There’s no way to trace where the files are coming from or going to.
Such free trade is an invitation for renegades like Gonzalez but also for traffickers in child porn. On Gnutella Gonzalez saw obscene material being sent “by the ton.” He was appalled and fought back. He created a set of files, identified them as images with lurid titles (“sex with 12-year-olds”), then posted them as part of his own “files to share,” which meant they could be downloaded by anyone using Gnutella. But he knew that not all Gnutella users had set themselves up as anonymous. When Curious Chester opened one of these clearly labeled child porn files: Surprise! A skull and crossbones popped up, saying, “you’re busted.” Busted meant Gonzalez had recorded the person’s Internet protocol address, noting the online identity of the person who wanted to view the image.
Gonzalez pinned further ill-repute on the “looker” by posting the violator’s Internet Protocol address on his Zeropaid.com website. He posted the computer addresses of these potential child-porn viewers on his “Wall of Shame.” Theoretically, anyone could take information from the “Wall,” contact the person’s Internet Service Provider (like AOL), and prove the person was seeking illegal images. One problem, though. The searcher hadn’t downloaded anything because all he saw, upon opening what he hoped would be “sex with 12-year-olds,” was a skull and crossbones.
In effect, Gonzalez had busted the person’s intention. Ingenious. Gonzalez doesn’t turn anyone in. He leaves that job to individual service providers; they decide if they want “to kick the person off” their server. When Gonzalez first started sending out fake files, he watched 5000 downloads go on per hour. Now because of the “Wall of Shame” there’s maybe a hundred an hour. So he knows he’s had an effect.
Gonzalez admits to “accidents.” Because people often download huge numbers of files, they may receive some of his “fake” child porn files. His remedy was, if they would e-mail him, he’d take their Internet Protocol addresses down. Not everyone liked being an “accident.” Inside of a few months, he had received several death threats on his website’s forum.
Why did he take on this crusade?
“Because I have a little brother and sister,” Gonzalez says. “These images are disgusting. How would I feel if my little brother showed up on these networks with his pants down? I wanted to deter people who were using this program.” His metaphor verges on arrogance; his watch-doggedness is undeniable: “I take a picture of the person picking up the prostitute and a picture of his license plate, and I put it on my website.” What Gonzalez sees on the web he says is “morally and lawfully wrong.” He admits to “entrapping people but this is child porn. What is the government doing on ‘peer-to-peer’ technology? Are they putting a stop to [illegal material]? Not to my knowledge. I’m trying to do something good. You could say I’m a mousetrap. But who would you rather have as the mousetrap? Me or the government? I’m trying to do more preaching than anything. We the people need to stop this ourselves. Don’t rely on the government to stop the problem. Take it in your hands and say, ‘What can I do?’”
Gonzalez pulls back his artillery when I ask what’s the most difficult part of being a vigilante. Being contacted by people with missing children, he says. “That really sent shivers down my spine. They would say, ‘I know this is not your job but would you please post information on your website?’ It’s a lot to handle. I say to myself, again, ‘Is what I’m doing right or wrong?’ I’ve probably got a thousand e-mails of people saying keep doing what you’re doing. A small percentage is saying ‘You’re off the wall.’ It’s a bit much for one individual.”
In terms of social responsibility, consider Robert Fellmeth.
An ex San Diego prosecutor, Fellmeth directs the Children’s Advocacy Institute, which he founded in 1989 at the University of San Diego as part of their Center for Public Interest Law. With other attorneys, he represents children’s health and safety in the state legislature and the courts as well as through public education programs. Before we discuss the subject of molestation, Fellmeth wants to drive home a point or two about our society’s hypocrisy toward children. Kids, he says, “get the most public attention and the most private inattention. The politician kissing the baby, followed by the politician cutting their throats behind the scene, happens over and over and over.” Fellmeth’s words accelerate noisily as his ire about the political abandonment of children emerges. Over the years he has gotten fed up with the lobbies of self-interest, in which “gays represent gays, handicap represent handicap. I decided we’d have a real civilized society if everybody was forced to represent a group other than their own.” He began working for kids because “they have no political power, they’re not organized; everyone says they love them but they don’t invest in them.” To illustrate the breadth of their helplessness, in Sacramento there are 1600 registered lobbyists. Only 1.5 represent children.
Kids get left behind because those who negotiate the “pot” of public money “take something from people who aren’t at the table. Often, that’s the future, and we’ll pass it on to someone else. Children represent the pass-on. We have a history in this country of 100, 200 years of sacrifice for our children. Tom Brokaw wrote that wonderful book, The Greatest Generation, about how our parents and grandparents made enormous sacrifices for us. I think his thesis is a little bit off. I don’t think that generation was the greatest. I think we’re the worst. That’s the difference. There’s a chain that goes back before them—in the settling of the west, in the building of an infrastructure, whether it’s highways or water systems or utilities—spending enormous amounts of money for people who would come later. We’ve done that. The first schoolhouse in the town, spending half the harvest to get that schoolteacher out from the east. The country is littered with these examples of sacrificing for children.”
Fellmeth considers social responsibility a “tribal issue. To what extent do we view the children of others as our children. To what extent are they part of our tribe. To what extent are we willing to invest in children other than our own children. To the extent that you’re willing to do that, that’s a mark of a civilized society.”
I want to know what Fellmeth regards as the major changes that have impacted kids, negatively and positively, with regard to molesters.
“There’s movement,” he says, “helpful and not helpful to children. An example of the latter is an organization in Sacramento called VOCAL,” Victims Of Child Abuse Laws. As people who maintain they’ve been falsely accused of abusing children, Fellmeth says, “they have a tendency—even where they’ve been convicted and the evidence is overwhelming—to say, ‘Uncle John could never do that.’” He calls it “the same old problem” of people denying the truth in the face of their accusers. But he fears as a lobby the group is dangerous. They have been responsible for helping legislate qualified immunity for Child Protective Service workers. Fellmeth believes CPS workers need “absolute immunity” to accompany any review of their actions, so they will not be deterred when it is necessary to remove a child from an abusive home.
Fellmeth acknowledges that legal protections for kids have been strengthened, to some degree, via public notification. But to safeguard children he’d go much further. “We can’t afford not to have an Orwellian world for [the offenders]. These people have to live in this [type of] world for the safety of our children.” Orwellian, a multi-potent reference, usually summons up the paradoxes of 1984: “Freedom is slavery” and “war is peace.” Fellmeth’s usage pertains to totalitarian scrutiny, restricted here to the “hard-wired sex offender.” He is not suggesting that our world adopt “Big Brother,” but that their world must.
“This does not mean becoming vigilantes,” he continues, “because there is a certain vigilante flavor to Megan’s Law.” He describes Megan’s Law as “more a demagogic political response than it is a real protection for the children. I don’t think the idea of tracking molesters is very useful. What are the odds that every parent in your neighborhood is going to check the CD and know a molester is there? It’s just not efficient. If you really want to be serious, you’ll put them in an environment where it is Orwellian, where they’re being watched by someone other than parents who happen to call up and check. I don’t think a child is any less deserving of protection because her parent doesn’t think to do a massive check.”
What would be an efficient method of monitoring sex offenders?
Ankle bracelets or house-arrest shackles to impede if not terminate their movement, he says. “I wouldn’t even foreclose on the Australian approach,” an allusion to settling the worst pedophiles on a Devil’s Island all their own. And yet even this (perhaps) workable solution is an improbable option in what Fellmeth calls our “adult-centric” society. As he sees it, the idea that even molesters are innocent until proven guilty victimizes children. “I think it’s appropriate for certain categories of behavior that are extremely habitual in their innate nature, that the presumption [of your innocence] can properly be reversed.”
Fellmeth would like a support-group model mandated for sex abusers—lifelong confessional recovery. “You have a problem, you have to face it, and you need to use the same approach [people are using] for severe alcohol and drug disability. It’s not, ‘I’m innocent,’ it’s ‘I have a problem and I’m diseased and I’ve got to fight everyday.’ The person who’s doing that, I’m a little more likely to take a risk on, than I am, in the current environment, on a person who’s served his time. You’ve paid your price to society, now we’re letting you go knowing full well that you’re still wired the same way. We haven’t done anything in prison to change your wiring.”
Fellmeth closes our talk by giving me a concept we agree needs unpacking: confidentiality. For him the term involves “protecting the criminals more than the victims.” Confidentiality for offenders works to empower their lives underground. He notes that it’s better to limit their secrecy by saying, you, molester, have forfeited some of your right to privacy because of what you’ve done. Megan’s Law is the legal beginning of that forfeiture. But if we accept why a sex offender should have less privacy, are we able to ask the same from the victim; the family that protects his or her secret; the priest, the counselor, the minister, the relatives, who each may form a link in the great chain of concealment? Is it possible, is it wise, to know more about what victims suffer, how they maintain their silence, and who they are?
There are no easy answers to these questions, a sentiment with which everyone I spoke to agreed. But there is at least one person who no longer works in silence: Former Miss America 1958, Marilyn Van Derbur Atler. At 51, Van Derbur Atler finally went public about the long-term sexual abuse she and her sisters suffered as children and adolescents from their father. As one of the most sought-after keynote speakers in America, she asks at the end of her frank discussion about child sexual abuse for those who feel comfortable to stand and acknowledge themselves as victims, as survivors, to alert friends and colleagues who they are without having to share the details of their stories. Little by little, more survivors get up, she says. The people who remain seated are as astonished by how many stand as those who stand are astonished by one another.
In May deputy district attorney Gregg McClain brokered a plea bargain with a Ramona man, Jimmy Leroy Ward, 38, on 5 counts of felony sexual abuse of a 12-year-old boy. Ward pled guilty to 5 of 10 original counts and will spend 23 years in prison. The boy, who is now 16, had testified in a preliminary hearing against Ward and would have, McClain said, testified in the criminal trial as well. In 1996, the boy was placed into Ward’s home in Ramona by the boy’s mother; she had given up caring for him because he had problems at school, got in fights, stole, and suffered from Attention Deficit Disorder. In 1998 Ward was granted custody of the boy by Superior Court Judge Lisa Guy-Schall, who knew that Ward’s live-in boyfriend had pled guilty to child molestation in Florida but who said, after Ward was arrested, that “it was my hope and belief Mr. Ward was properly motivated in his desire to care for the boy.”
The boy was abused in Ward’s home on several occasions between 1996 and 1999. According to the plea bargain, Ward committed a lewd and lascivious act upon the boy; continued to engage in lewd and lascivious acts “over a period of time not less than three months in duration”; induced the boy to engage in lewd acts with another person; and engaged in oral copulation with another person whom the court labeled “incompetent.” Ward did not plead guilty to the earlier charge that he sold the boy to strangers Ward had met on Internet chat-rooms (one called “Bi-Sexual Dads”). In related cases, John Earl Williams pled guilty to a felony and a misdemeanor count of having sex with the boy after being solicited in an Internet chat-room; in exchange for potential testimony in the Ward trial, Williams was given a one-year sentence, which he had already served awaiting his own trial. Edmond Roger Rivera pled guilty to three counts of sexual abuse with the boy. According to McClain, Rivera was photographed in sex acts of the boy. Earlier this year Rivera died in prison of natural causes.
When the story broke in the Union-Tribune last September, the revelations enraged the public, fired up by talk radio, culminating in a call for the judge’s ouster. I asked McClain to explain why this case captured people’s attention. He says that in addition to the heinous nature of the crime and the fact that the judge placed the boy in a home where an admitted molester lived he believes the public knows very little about child molestation and criminal sexual behaviors by adults. Such cruelty, perpetrated by the bench and the accused, was truly news to people.
Is it because the public doesn’t want to know or does the media not report enough about the crime?
“I don’t think,” McClain says, the sexual abuse of children “gets exposed enough because, it’s like, how do you expose it? The problem is, if you run a front-page article with all the pictures, showing people what’s really out there, you couldn’t do it. You couldn’t publish the photographs. The public—I don’t want to say the public doesn’t want to know, but where can they go to read it? If I pick up the Reader—if I have kids, how do I go home and sit there with my Reader and read this. And if I don’t have kids, I’m 18 to 35, I don’t care. I don’t have kids so it doesn’t affect me. It’s so annoying, so bothersome, so distasteful, that even reading it for information’s sake, people can feel as if they’re condoning it or being a part of it.
“For me, the most disturbing aspect is child pornography and the fact that there are kids out there we can’t find. We know they’re being victimized because we can see the pictures of them being victimized, and there’s nothing we can do about it. That to me is the hardest thing. As a prosecutor, if I see a crime being committed, then I want to go out and investigate that crime, I want to go out and make it not happen, I want to stop it. And when you see this stuff on the Internet, you’re totally powerless—you’ve got this baby that’s crying and there’s semen all over the baby’s face; you’ve got this three-year-old kid and somebody’s got his penis in this kid’s mouth—so I want to stop that, and it’s like, I can’t even identify the kid, I can’t identify where it came from, I can’t do anything about it. I’m stuck, I’m powerless. That is what is so incredibly disturbing.
“The boy [testifying against Ward] I can fix. I can stop that problem. That’s easy. It’s all those other kids I can’t identify, I don’t know where the crime is happening, I don’t even know who the perpetrator is.”
Manufacturers of child porn along with those who prostitute boys and girls over the Internet understand the secretive nature of the crime all too well: They know the public is not going to see and, probably, not going to hear much about what they do. As McClain says, even pixelated clips—blurred images of Mac David Cochran and his nine-year-old daughter, for example—would never be shown on local TV newscasts, seldom on national TV newsmagazines and seldom in the print media. Sure, sexual abuse can be written about in a newspaper, presented carefully with warnings, done in “good” taste. On occasion, documentarians have dramatized victims’ stories, though only when victims are willing to speak out. But without more intensified exposure in the mainstream media, any meaningful discussion of how we might handle the grossly hidden dimension of this problem will not occur.
All this is made more difficult by the fact that the public doesn’t want to know about it. Not because people don’t care. Rather, many are conditioned to avert their eyes and sensibilities from graphic sexual content. “When I do child abuse cases,” deputy district attorney Jeff Dort says, “the jurors don’t want to sit on them because they don’t want to hear about dad molesting his daughter. Personally, I’d much rather hear about some check fraud case—I mean, wouldn’t you?—than sitting and watching the district attorney put up 40 images of what is clearly child porn.”
Dort’s and McClain’s frustration about the invisibility of the crime brings us to that hydra-headed monster, secrecy. This is another thing perpetrators understand: The secrecy children and adolescents must practice in order to protect others and themselves. The fact that most kids are afraid to speak of sexual advances by strangers or relatives; the fact that boys can’t talk about sexual matters for fear of appearing gay; the fact that no one can teach kids about appropriate and inappropriate sexual matters without parents and church leaders objecting; the fact that children’s natural curiosity about sex is now being exploited via the “privacy” of the Internet; the fact that Cochran’s daughter did not want to testify against her father, whose crime and punishment were, in her mind, partly her responsibility.
Add to the silence of children and adolescents the adult victim of childhood sexual abuse whose strictures about speaking out are understandable but now very different from the child’s muteness. Adult victims are lifelong co-conspirators with their hidden child selves. Two memoirs, Sylvia Fraser’s My Father’s House and Richard Hoffman’s Half the House, depict how difficult—and yet how necessary—it is to unmask the adult protector in order to give the child back its voice. All adult victims of sexual abuse are reluctant to explore the graves of their childhoods. And there is much evidence to suggest, as Dr. Miccio-Fonseca has said, that our culture buries the hurt more deeply for men than it does for women.
In the two hours spent eating lunch and talking with a man I will call David, I am fascinated most by his stare: Whether it is steadied on me while he examines the import of my question or into the distance, there are years of far away in David’s stern blue eyes. Often he looks toward the far-off to find his thought. Apparently it’s not inside him. What’s inside him is hard to read. He’s well versed, he says, (“you understand”) at not revealing what he’s feeling. And yet the intensity of his gaze belies his guardedness. When I finally ask when it began—“And,” I say, nervously, “it’s OK that we don’t talk about it in detail.” “No,” he says, “I don’t mind”—the eyes still seek and resist my query, and he lingers on and in the distance, sending the memory farther away (Does it roam unfettered? Is it always epidermal?) and then sighting it and reeling it back in until I think he sees the whole, the boy-and-the-man at once. The child who grew up in several homes in Pacific Beach where it occurred. The parents who worked, albeit at different times of the day. The San Diego State student so severely depressed he needed medication. The Air Force enlistee whose 5-1/2 years were “good years.” The driver who loves pushing 100 on the freeway. The loner. The businessman. The survivor, today, at 40. Nineteen of those 40 years in and out of psychotherapy. The last eight in group therapy. The last three in a men’s group, where as one of five victims he testifies to and cries over, contemplates and, on occasion, assuages the memory of the sexual abuse he endured at the hands of his father.
“The abuse began at a very early age,” he says. “When I was seven, I reported it to my mother in a roundabout way. As soon as she knew what was going on, he was out. She divorced him, never saw or heard from him, and she never talked about him or the abuse. Ever. Almost until this day. She hates talking about him. And I knew that. I just repressed it more and more, any memory of him or the abuse.”
Suddenly given a key to his private life, I’m unsure how far to enter. He says several times that’s it’s OK. He knows the limits of what he will and won’t tell me about himself. Does this mean he has come out of it intact?
I ask, how badly has it affected you in the years since?
“The abuse interfered with emotions and intimacy with other people. Such that whenever I would interact with anybody—my mother, my [step]father, my friends, anybody—those relationships were all tainted.”
Can you give me an example?
He replies, “tough question,” and the distance-retrieving stare goes out, a smile curling the corners of his mouth. “And I deal,” he says, looking back briefly, “with tough, sad questions with a smile, so if you see me smiling, that’s why. It’s my way of registering difficult thoughts.” A moment more, staring.
“I’ve always found it difficult,” he says, “interacting with men. I have tremendous fear of men. Anytime I’m around a man, it’s not a normal interaction. I picked that up when I was in high school. Just in the way the other guys were interacting. How come no one else feels this? How come I’m the only one? I never was good friends with anybody in high school. Ever. I don’t engage in activities with other people at all. I’m purely a solo person. I will not get emotionally close to anybody.”
And then, this spills out. Though raw and honest, it demonstrated what he calls the “scripted” therapeutic voice of his confessions. “When I reported the abuse to my mother and she kicked him out of the house and divorced him and that took place within 24 hours . . . I was attached to him. I mean we were lovers, if you want to call it that. I was as intimate with him as I could possibly be. Because he and I had sex. And we had sex for five years before that. It started when I was two. And”—during these ands I can feel David once again in touch with the distance—“my earliest memory is having sex with him. And for five years after, I had sex with him. And so, for me to report that to my mother and this man’s gone—everything . . . I was so attached to him emotionally. Everything was just taken away. I’ve never, ever been able to form any kind of a close bond like that with anybody ever. Ever, ever. And I doubt I ever will. I felt so hurt, so much of a loss. Despite the fact that he was my abuser. He was my dad. I looked up to him. I treated him as my dad. I emulated him, I followed him everywhere, I did things with him. And now he’s gone. And I don’t think I’ve ever truly recovered from that. And it’s nothing that my mother did wrong, I don’t think. I can’t blame her for it. That’s just the way it was. And, but she never talked about it, and refuses to talk about it. Doesn’t want me to get in touch with him. I have no idea.”
Have you thought to contact him?
“I’ve thought about it a lot and I’ve always decided not to. Partly because I’m not sure I’m ready to go there and I know [not contacting him] is what my mother would want. I’m one of those boys who holds his mother on a pedestal. I idolize her, she’s the perfect mother. And I have problems dealing with her because I view her as perfect.”
The muddle of David’s life seems clear: The loss of intimacy with anyone, which the abuse occasioned, mixed with his wiring as a depressive and his overcautiousness around men has shaped him to be what he calls a lifelong “observer, not a participant. I watch everything. I’m always trying to figure out where [people’s] weaknesses are, where their strengths are, what they’re thinking—even after I get to know someone, it’s just the way I am.”
Do others deal with you in the same watchful way?
“No. The way people deal with me is simple. They don’t. Either I’m conceited or snobbish. I’m unwilling to be their friend so they’re not going to waste their time.” David says he’s always been unflappable—by necessity. During the abuse, he says, “my mother had no clue.” He kept the secret in part because his dad threatened and used “physical and emotional abuse” to keep him quiet. “The abuse occurred quite often, usually while my mother was at work. It was not limited to my father, but was engaged in by one of his friends as well. Both of them assured me that I would be punished by God if I ever told what happened. I was good at acting as if everything was just fine.
“And I’ve perfected that over the years. Presenting a very polished person. So that to the casual observer, to friends—let’s say office mates, I don’t have any friends—they have no clue what’s going inside of me. Absolutely no clue. I can present a perfect exterior no matter what’s going on in my life. That just evolved from what happened.”
So there’s a dichotomy between you at the office and you in your men’s group.
“Oh yes. I’m a totally different person.”
Are you the real you, the real self, in the group with the other men?
“Yes. In the group I am. I come alive more. I’m free to talk about anything I want to. Anywhere else I’m always guarded. I choose my words very carefully. I think about what I’m going to say ten times before I say it. In the group I can just say what’s on my mind.”
Would you like to be that person you are in the group, in the world?
“I don’t think so,” he says, by now seemingly on more trusting ground. “I don’t like that person. That’s part of the depression, too. I don’t really like who I really am. I don’t think I could function in the world or be accepted if I were really the way I want to be. It would mean more rejection, more loneliness. I might be wrong; I might be embraced. But I don’t think so. I intend to not let down my guard ever and be myself. I thought that at one point—when I started the group therapy—let’s integrate the real me into how I act and interact with other people. I don’t think that will ever happen.”
I can’t quite keep up with all the enigmas. David seems to be a lost child-man and a highly reliable, functioning person. The fact that he can sit and talk to a stranger about the incest is testament to some headway. But as fast as the shield comes down, the shield goes up. Out in the world the shield rises against what he calls “normal intimacy,” which the rest of us might regard as everyday niceties—office picnics, luncheon dates, softball games. No big deal. Such obligations David sees as far too intimate to indulge in.
He’s tried having roommates twice, but they each lasted only 24 hours. Relationships? He pounces on the word: “I don’t have”—then searches the far away—“I do now. It’s taken me a long time. I don’t have lasting relationships. I do now but we don’t live together. I don’t know if I can articulate all the reasons why. But it’s mostly because I’m different.” He says he’s never been able to combine an emotional and a physical relationship. “Once I’m intimate, I can’t be sexual. It just doesn’t work.”
It sounds like you value the idea that people should be able to live with one another.
“I think that is true. I’m just not one of those people who can. And that was a goal eight years ago. But I don’t think I’ll ever achieve that.”
Much of David’s paradoxical nature seems based in the fact that he is a molested male. “In our society we as men hide our emotions. We don’t have emotions or feelings. We have ideas. There’s a slot that you fit into as a man.” David says he’s much more aware of being a man trapped in these slots because he was sexualized and abused at such an early age. He believes men are more highly scripted than women. And he seems to despise and cooperate with that script, perhaps as a legacy of his father’s order to never tell their secret. “I’m not willing to take the risk of saying, ‘Hey guys, this is me. I’m different than what you think.’” When I suggest that not all guys are programmed, he seems to want to convince me it doesn’t matter. The role is set. “It’s what you see, out on the street, on TV. Guys are together, they don’t have emotions.” Could it be, for David, that not following the script is tantamount to betraying the gender?
Some victims of sexual abuse act out their molest in what Dr. Miccio-Fonseca calls “unorthodox sexual proclivities.” In a prepared response to other questions, David writes that his prime acting out came during college when he was “addicted to sex.” He writes that he’s still having problems. “The current manifestation of the molest is in how I have sex and what I fantasize about while having it. Sex for me is still best when I feel overpowered and humiliated.” In addition, David believes “male victims of sexual abuse are treated differently than women, primarily because men never view sex as a bad thing. Women are generally the protected sex, and when a woman complains about being sexually abused or molested, there is a general societal response to protect her. Women are generally the ones who choose if and when sex will occur, and whether valid or not, the consensus is that a man is always ready and eager for sex.”
Of course this is not true for a five-year-old boy. But the man who molested that boy practiced the male posture of sexual aggression and emotional sterility perhaps as intensely as any man ever has. The father communicated via the abuse the overwhelming power of men’s aggression and secretiveness. And this may be part of what manifests itself in David’s stare, something about his maleness that is central to his tragedy. David’s life seems most conflicted around this issue of just how fully genderized he is as a male. Assaulted by a male and made to keep quiet about his emotions by a male. And yet I feel from him that such extremes are folded into each other. The extremes merely balance his public and private selves.
From years of group therapy with other male survivors, David’s knows that faced with the Sisyphean task of long-term treatment the majority of men do not follow through. They go in and out, “never get started, just touch the surface.” Indeed, millions of male survivors continue to suffer alone. Few people believe that men sexually abuse boys; it’s only beginning to dawn on us that many fathers molest their daughters. As David writes, “When I was a child, no one ever thought that a father would sexually abuse his own son. And when this was discovered, no one ever considered the possible affects on that male child. Both my mother and everyone around her swept it under the carpet, as if talking about it would only continue the negative thoughts and effects of it. Back then,” during the 1960s, “no one thought about a child growing up and having problems interacting with other males, or having difficulty with his own sexual maturity.”
To better educate victim and non-victim about what he calls the “general understanding of child sexual abuse and the potential effects on individuals,” David has begun speaking publicly to families of incest survivors. He tells his story, hoping to articulate the effect molestation has had on his life. In closing, he urges his listeners—they are mostly women; the men, of course, are scarce—to talk about their abuse or the abuse in their families. To get into counseling. To enlist their families in recovery. To expose the abuser. To break the silence. To talk about how an individual’s life has been shamed and damaged by molestation. And to talk about a life not totally ruined.
Women are, as David says, largely the “protected sex.” Our society has aided and comforted them (and they have aided and comforted themselves) with regard to surviving sexual abuse. But what of men? What would it take for our society to recognize the loss molested men have suffered? What would it take for men to be as well-nurtured and well-supported as women have been? David’s story I think shows that he has made progress in dealing with sexual abuse. His partial anonymity cut with a discreet facility to describe what happened proves the hatchling can get a good ways away from the egg. Will we understand the difficulty other male victims face in trying to come out and show themselves? After all, there’s always the assumption when we see them staring into the distance that there’s nothing wrong, they’re being good men, they’re working it through on their own.