By DANIEL BERGNER
January 23, 2005, The New York Times Magazine
Not long ago, Roy became a type of monster. The transformation took a year and a half, and now, one morning each week, he sits in a room of similar cases.
The windowless room is plain, with a blue industrial carpet, a circle of brown cushioned office chairs, a blackboard, a pair of unused conference tables pushed to the rear wall and a faint hum from the air ducts. To reach it from the waiting area -- on the second floor of a probation building in Connecticut -- Roy and the other men walk down a series of corridors and around a series of turns that feel like a path through a maze. The room is wedged in a back corner.
Roy wonders constantly how he wound up in this place, in the circle of 10 or 12 chairs, a circle of child molesters.
His story begins on the beach and ends on the Internet. It seems to him that he was, only recently, a normal man, about 40, running a crew of technicians, repairing elaborate, computerized telecommunications equipment for Wall Street trading firms and in his off hours leading a wedding band, singing Frank Sinatra and Barry White at the Plaza.
For a hobby, he flew kites -- kites bigger than most living rooms, brilliantly striped, with rippling streamers and ''space socks'' trailing more than a hundred feet behind, kites that could perform ballets when he held the lines.
He recalls no history of longing for young girls. He had no criminal record of any kind. But then one summer, on vacation, his second wife pointed out her 11-year-old daughter's body. Roy and his wife were standing on the sand; his stepdaughter and her best friend played several yards in front of them at the edge of the surf.
Roy has a soft, smooth face and an easy, engaging smile. (At his request, I've shielded his identity by using a nickname some of his former band members gave him.) Now in his mid-40's, he's round in the middle and broad in the shoulders; there's something bearish about him, but in a way that's more panda-like and cheerful than threatening.
Nearby along the circle sits an elderly man with a graceful wave of white hair combed back from his forehead. There's a well-scrubbed blue-eyed man in his mid-30's, wearing a button-down shirt with a pleasant check of pale blue.
Like the rest, they're here by court mandate for group counseling as part of their probation. Most, including Roy, have served time in jail or prison, from a few weeks to several years. The man with the wave of white hair touched the vagina of his grandniece; he kissed her chest and had her hold his penis. This happened repeatedly when the girl was between 7 and 9 years old.
As an adult, the man in the checked shirt performed oral sex on his 11-year-old brother and later took his 6-year-old daughter to a motel room along with his brother, who was by then 16. Living out a fantasy he'd had for months, he persuaded them both to undress and urged his brother to have sex with his daughter, only desisting, only waking from the trance of his desire --
he has told me -- when his brother began to cry.
"Focus your awareness on your feet,'' Patrick Liddle, the group's therapist, its leader, instructs the men at the start of many sessions. They sit with their hands on their thighs, their eyes closed, as he teaches them a relaxation technique.
He speaks in a soothing monotone, the voice he maintains with them always no matter how disquieted their crimes make him feel. Part of his job is to give them methods to keep their lives under control, to keep themselves from molesting again. This technique is one way.
He wears fashionably tailored suits and shoes polished to a low gloss. The clothes are part of the program. Liddle's boss sets the dress code for his staff, an attempt to confer value on those in treatment, men who could hardly have fallen lower.
Roy and the others sit perfectly still. Their fingers curl gently. Their jaws are slack; their mouths, slightly open. They seem almost to be sleeping, and like sleeping men anywhere, they look almost like children.
They return from the field of tall grass to the faces of the other men. Liddle sometimes asks them for introductions, though the faces stay mostly the same.
They go around the circle.
Roy began during a session months ago. He managed not to mumble. Facing up to what he has done, he knows, is a requirement for graduating from treatment. And this might lead, he hopes, to a judge's reducing his term of probation.
The treatment theory is basic: to acknowledge both his crime and the anarchy of lust that lies within him is the first step toward his finding self-control. So the ability to confront himself -- and to be candid with Liddle about his sexual yearnings -- is a requirement, too, if he wants to do anything outside the bounds of his probation restrictions: visit his parents over the state line in New York or go to a bowling alley or a movie or a family function, anyplace where he might come in contact with children under 16. Any family gathering he attends must be adults only; he has to leave right away if kids show up.
The group leaders and probation officers work in tandem, evaluating how well they can trust the men, and the therapists can be at least as wary as the probation officers.
Together, Liddle and Roy's probation officer set the limits on his life.
His voice quieted as he hurried on toward the end, toward the part of his story that holds echoes of recent, well-publicized cases -- like that of John Dexter, the headmaster for a quarter-century at the Trevor Day School in Manhattan, until his arrest in 2003 and guilty plea last year -- of apparently ordinary men going online to seek out sexual conversations and often to arrange to have sex with adolescents, with children.
With more detail than he gives in group, Roy has told his story as he and I have sat together at his home and at his job.
He is still a supervisor at the telecommunications repair company. In a bland suburban building just off a highway, at worktables in vast, orderly rooms, he and his team lean over high-tech consoles with exposed intricate wiring and microprocessors with multicolored flashing diodes. They fix circuitry or, if he deems it necessary, redesign it. With the permission of Liddle and the probation department, Roy is allowed to work around computers as long as he never goes online outside the watch of a colleague.
Everyone at his job is aware of his crime. He has made a point of answering everyone's questions. The company's owner, who has known Roy for five years, testified on his behalf at his sentencing.
At Roy's job, the element of personal forgiveness goes beyond employment. As I drove with him to work after
one of my first sessions with the group, he said that he was engaged to be married again -- to a bookkeeper
at the company, a colleague since before his offense.
No matter how common --
they have a serpent-like quality as he tries to sort out what followed. They were ''the first trigger,'' he has said. Before, he doesn't think he saw his stepdaughter in any erotic way. He had known her and her older brother from the time they were born; he had been with their mother since they were around 4 and 6. (He has no kids of his own.)
The children lived with their father, an executive, a man Roy grew up with. But they
spent a fair amount of time at the home Roy shared with their mother, and after that vacation at the
His marriage, at that point, was falling apart. Sometimes his wife was home, having shut herself in their bedroom for the evening. Sometimes she was out on her own. He raced after the girls through the house, through the colored beams. In ''Spider,'' each player had to sit motionless; if you moved at all you got pinched. The touching occurred during the games.
The confessional -- and dutiful -- introduction Roy delivers to the group implies that the touching was
blatantly, consciously sexual on his part, but though he is obsessively introspective about all that took
place, he can't seem to figure out whether this is true.
These kinds of questions reel through his memories. He can't settle on single answers.
The erotic became explicit, Roy said, when they were in separate rooms, at separate computers. The layout of the house mirrored the one he owns now, many towns away. There was a series of rooms along a narrow hall. The basement was crowded with his guitars and keyboards and recording equipment. His stepdaughter was 12 -- though he doesn't face up to reality easily on this point.
The first few times he came to this part of his story, he told me that she was by then 14,
maybe 13. During his introductions in group, he doesn't mention how old she was; for a short while I
didn't know her true age. When I read an old article from a local newspaper about the case and told him
that it put her age at 12, he insisted that the article was mistaken. Only after I had asked him
repeatedly did he call me one morning: he had just phoned his sister and ''found out'' that the newspaper
She wouldn't tell him what she meant, but he had been smitten with what he had seen as the wild streak in her mother, back when she had left her husband for Roy, and now, right away, his imagination ran along sexual lines.
Soon he loaded his computer with a software program that would allow him, because of the way his and his stepdaughter's computers were interlinked, to monitor her online conversations.
That day, alone in the house, he stepped back and forth along the hall,
between rooms, between PC's, making sure his system worked, that she wouldn't be able to detect his
lurking. And the next time she came over and logged on and started chatting with her best friend (the same
girl he had chased through the house), their words ran across his screen.
He didn't worry that she would walk down the hall and find him reading her words.
The direct instant-message exchange between him and his stepdaughter continued every so often during the period of his monitoring.
He would ask her to ''show me something.'' She would refuse. He asked her to have sex with him. She told him no. He wrote to her, in one of their final Internet conversations, months before her 13th birthday, that he was going to step out of his office and into the kitchen to get a soda. He wrote that if she wanted to see what he wished to do with her, she should walk into his office and click on a window that would be on his screen. She left her computer and walked to his. When the window opened, a video showed
A moment later, they passed in the hall. He remembers her calling him ''disgusting'' and each of them going quickly back to their own PC's.
Petrified that she would report him, he begged her over the Internet to meet him on the stairs to the
basement music room, promising that he would stay at the bottom. He pled his apology as she sat at the top
of the stairs. Then she was gone.
He was swiftly arrested. It had been about a year and a half since that trip to the beach. In court, he pled under the Alford Doctrine -- a legal acknowledgment that the evidence against him was sufficient to prove his guilt -- to the charges he lists each time he gives his introduction. He has been in treatment now for around 17 months.
Roy looks that way -- ill, aghast, mortified -- whenever he finishes his account. His full cheeks
It is to understand what the owner of the telecommunications repair company -- where Roy's existence can seem so ordinary as he goes about his work -- once told me about his wife's opinion of Roy: their own children are grown, but she would have him in their house even with kids around.
Yet to think back over Roy's shadings of his stepdaughter's age and to hear his explanation that he wasn't lying to me but somehow no longer knew that she had been 12 is to feel less confident. Whether he has tried to deceive me or himself, this is exactly the kind of evasion, the kind of diminishment of hard truth, that would worry Liddle; it's a sign that Roy may not be capable of self-confrontation and self-control. And then I discovered, in a statement his stepdaughter made to the police, that some of the troubling touches, through clothes, began when she was in second grade.
To have heard his consistent denials about this, his certainty that back then there had been only innocent games, is not only to wonder if she has imposed the taint of recent events on earlier moments but also to wonder if anything Roy says can be believed. And then when I learned, from the transcript of his sentencing hearing, that he used Freekypeephole as his Internet screen name, I could see him, simply, as a dangerous creep -- except that when I asked him about this, he recited the lyrics of a disco song he wrote and recorded back in the late 70's, a song called ''Freaky People,'' about the drug use he observed at Studio 54. (His father was an alcoholic, and Roy has never been much for drugs or alcohol.)
He recounted that the song got some airtime on a major radio station, that because of this he wanted ''Freaky People'' as his screen name, that it was already taken, and that his server supplied the alternative, Freekypeephole, which he accepted well before his crime as a joke.
My sense of Roy shifts back and forth ceaselessly, from perceptions of basic normality to those of extreme aberrance, from guarded trust to deep unease. But one constant is the reverberation of his words:
How did he get there?
What are the causes of child sexual molestation, which is committed against perhaps 20 percent of girls and 5 to 10 percent of boys under the age of consent in the United States, according to David Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
What parts are played by biology, by an abuser's own childhood, by aspects of isolation in his (for males make up around 90 percent of offenders) current life -- or by the powerful arrival of the Internet into the world of Eros?
Calling psychiatrists and psychologists, researchers and clinicians, who have been working in the field for decades and asking about origins and explanations, I have heard in response regret and laughter. The laughter came from Dr. Martin Kafka, senior clinical associate in psychiatry at the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., where he studies and treats sexual disorders.
A much longer answer followed, his words propelled at high speed by his fascination with the subject: studies of sexually deviant brains have scarcely been done; there is
The data show that sexual abusers of children are more likely than the general population to have been child sexual-abuse victims themselves but
Research indicates that ''social skills deficits'' can be a factor. Kafka's voice rushed on as he tried to construct for me some sense of coherence from what scattered scraps of knowledge exist.
''There is nothing coherent that's been established,'' Dr. Robert Prentky, a forensic psychologist at the graduate school of criminal justice at Northeastern University, told me.
And Dr. Fred Berlin, associate professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, talked about society's discomfort with any scientific inquiry into sexuality, let alone into the causes of pedophilia.
I asked about the Internet, whether it may bear any causal responsibility along the path toward offending.
''It's a fairly complicated issue,'' Berlin said, and one for which there appears to be, again, no solid research. ''I wouldn't go so far as to say that the Internet creates desire, but I do think it is creating significant difficulties.'' To some extent, he explained, it is merely a ''new and different vehicle'' for those who would offend against children anyway. But it ''provides temptation for some who might not otherwise have crossed the line.''
''There are three areas of concern.
Over the past decade, with the surge in Internet use, there has been no spike in the overall number of cases of sexual abuse against children.
But Berlin's concern was echoed by Prentky when he described the Internet as
And by David D'Amora, Patrick Liddle's boss and the head of the Center for the Treatment of Problem Sexual Behavior, who has about 800 child sexual abusers under his watch in Connecticut, when he talked about the Net's abundant porn and disembodied chat-room conversation as a ''disinhibitor.''
And by Liddle himself, whose normally tempered voice nearly rose to a yell when I asked whether online porn might provide a safe outlet for otherwise destructive erotic drives: a man masturbates; the craving subsides. ''No!'' he replied. He was thinking of the men in that back room at the probation building.
And then he was thinking of everyone when he said that pornography
When Roy tells his story, he insists that he never
visited any Web sites of child porn. He doesn't think
there is much relevance in the mainstream porn that he
did view -- and it doesn't seem to have had, for him,
the erotic impact of his stepdaughter's conversations
with her best friend. But he claims (perhaps too
self-servingly) that he would never have propositioned
his stepdaughter had it not been for the Internet's
unique, oddly dehumanized form of communication. In
the ultimate moments, he beckoned her to his computer.
He beckoned her, physically, into his space. But
before then, his lust gained much of its unbearable
power, and found its most intense expression, screen
There are children of 2 to 4, children between 8 and
10, adolescents between 14 and 17 and adults at least
22. But some of the 8-to-10's looked to me almost like
young adolescents. And some of the adolescents
appeared more like young fresh-faced adults, with the
kinds of faces and bodies you might see on billboards
selling underwear, before I reminded myself about the
likely ages of the models in some of those ads. Still,
the Abel Assessment is widely considered a strong
diagnostic tool, and when Roy came to Kardol's office
door a half-hour later to say that he was finished, he
looked faintly shellshocked, like a patient who had
been through an arduous diagnostic exam. The
information was sent down to the Abel offices in
Atlanta, Ga., and Kardol soon got the results. Roy's
attractions were for adult females and -- very
slightly more so -- for females in the adolescent
He doesn't mean that he's on the edge of doing what they have done, only that the potential may lie within all of us.
David D'Amora has said, summarizing society's thinking about the men in groups like Liddle's, men D'Amora has been watching over for the state since 1986. Before that, he was a therapist for adult and child victims of sexual assault.
What research has been done seems to back this up.
Dr. Richard Green, a psychiatrist at the Imperial College School of Medicine in London and professor emeritus of psychiatry at U.C.L.A., wrote two years ago in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior about a 1989 study: the psychologists John Briere and Marsha Runtz found that
Green wrote as well of the work done in 1970 by the researchers Kurt Freund and R. Costell. Forty-eight Czech soldiers were hooked to a ''penile responsivity'' meter known as a plethysmograph. Viewing a series of slides,
And to count Web sites or consider legal history is to sense that the results of these studies may represent an unspeakable reality. Type in ''preteen porn'' on AOL's search engine and the list of sites covers thousands of pages. Until the late 19th century in England, the legal age of sexual consent was 10.
Tabachnick is the director of public education for Stop It Now!, which was founded by a sexual-abuse survivor and which is among the most prominent national organizations devoted to the prevention of child sexual abuse.
But they're also not, she pointed out, the typical offender. They are the rare extreme.
She was not excusing molestation; she was calling for a complex understanding of a widespread and often devastating crime, because without it, she said, efforts at prevention are crippled. She drew a comparison with adults' acknowledging their wish to hit their children in moments of rage -- mere acknowledgment can make the impulse easier to quell, and those drawn hard to such violence can seek help.
she said, and so it's far more difficult for
those on the edge of offending -- those for whom
cultural taboos, legal prohibitions and empathy for
the child aren't powerful enough to keep desire deeply
submerged or to choke it off if it rises to the
surface -- to find a way to stop themselves.
Roy's binder is the thickest of all. He tries to think
of treatment like ''a normal college class,'' as if to
convince himself that diligence will guarantee
graduation. Not only does he have a jumbo white
plastic binder with labeled dividers that he brings to
group; he has another that he keeps at home. He throws
away nothing. His homework and ''action plans'' -- his
applications to do what his basic restrictions don't
allow -- are composed at length and always neatly
typed out. But lately, for Roy, things have not been
Here there were signs of ''fair success,'' D'Amora said, followed by signs that the effect was often short-lived. The method has mostly faded from the field. Meanwhile, the cognitive-behavioral model began to be used more and more -- Liddle's sessions can seem as much like classes in coping skills as anything that might be called treatment. With a creased, stoic face and a manner that is habitually restrained, he keeps the fluorescently lighted room sedate. He asks the men to open their binders to a handout on ''dynamic risk factors,'' and they go over a list, from ''victim access'' to ''intimacy deficits,'' of things they need to avoid or try to overcome. Or he asks what deviant thoughts they've had over the previous week.
To Liddle's question, I have never heard the men speak more than a very few words about children. Roy has told me that he's fantasized about his stepdaughter a good deal since his arrest, but he has never brought it up in group. (By court order, he hasn't seen her since then.)
One man has said to me,
what modest fantasies the men are willing to mention
-- one morning, it's about a young-looking gas-station
attendant someone has glimpsed -- and he reviews
Liddle hopes to ''build up their sense of
decency.'' He wants them to leave the program, which
they usually do after about three years, believing in
their own capacity for restraint.
The recidivism rate
for child molesters is around 17 percent, according to
Dr. Karl Hanson, a psychologist with the Office of
Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness in Canada and
a leading researcher in the field. Already far lower
than the public tends to think, the rate may drop by
as much as seven points with the completion of a
cognitive-behavioral program like D'Amora's. Yet
Liddle knows enough to feel uneasy, almost always, as
the men move on.
turned out that Roy and his wife haven't told her
parents about his crime. And Roy didn't make this
clear to Liddle. Hiding his past from his in-laws may
be entirely understandable: should he be expected to
tell them? Have any of us constructed our lives
without concealing portions of ourselves? But his not
coming clean about this to Liddle is considered
unacceptable. If Roy's wife wants to be in a
supervisory role, her first concern has to be with
keeping him away from trouble, like family situations
that might involve contact with girls; to do that she
needs to tell her parents the truth. When his in-laws'
ignorance emerged, indirectly, during a later
discussion in group, Liddle started to worry about the
way Roy had deceived him.
Liddle didn't see it that way. He saw a man in denial,
a man trying to deflect responsibility for the force
of his lust, a man who should have delivered, in
group, a simple acknowledgment of his desires, just as
he should have been clear about his in-laws. Other
deceptions glimmered. In the evasion of truth Liddle
saw the threat of chaos. He saw a man unable to
confront himself or ask for help, a man who might
unravel and repeat the past, if for example, his
marriage were to deteriorate, if he were to have
access to girls.
On the couch, they reminisced about the purple-and-aqua stunt kite that she flew and couldn't manage on their first date. They laughed about the way it tugged her down the beach. He remembered her once saying to him, '
Her voice was sweet yet scarcely gave way to emotion. She could seem keenly realistic, as if she had thought everything through. But Roy had spoken in group about the meeting the two of them had with her family priest, who was about to marry them. They told the priest about his crime. When the priest asked her whether she was really prepared for a life with a convicted child molester serving 35 years probation, suddenly ''she cried hysterically.''
She talked of hoping still to take the course for family members who wish to act as supervisors, so she could learn how to be on guard, how to save him.
Then, for a few seconds, her voice sharpened severely.
One night, shortly before his privileges were taken
away, Roy and his wife launched a vast, luminous
gold-and-red kite at the town beach. Usually after
dusk the beach was empty. But a group of kids came
running toward them, boys and girls who looked, in his
eyes, to be between 4 and 12. By his agreement with
Liddle and the probation department, he was simply
supposed to tell the kids to keep their distance, to
tell them they might get tangled in the heavy lines.
The mere presence of minors didn't mean he had to
leave the waterfront. But he panicked, and whether
fleeing some imagined legal transgression or terrified
by something within himself, he left the unwieldy
lines to his wife. He raced away.