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A mother's story

A mother discovers that the legal system's nightmarish "cure" for child sexual abuse can be worse than the disease.


SOHopeful Forum, Posted March 02, 2005; written Feb. 28, 1997

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Every Wednesday afternoon I find a seat in a windowless basement room, in a circle of 25 people. The chairs are metal, hard and cold, and the level of discomfort far more than physical. There are eight teenage boys and two therapists, and all the rest of us are parents and grandparents.

We are bewildered, we are depressed and we are all consigned to this room for months. I am sick for hours beforehand and a day or more afterwards, unable to sleep in peace, to eat, to hold a casual conversation.

These boys, including my son, are sex offenders. We, as their parents, are complicit in crimes hard to explain or define. Recently I asked my 14-year-old son what he's learned from the painful events of the last year, and he said, "I've learned sex is bad. I don't want to think about it anymore."

Several months ago, a school counselor called me at work and told me he needed to speak to me right away. When he arrived at my office I was braced for the worst, for injury, the unbearable. What he told me was more unexpected than sudden death -- that my son had confessed to molesting our other son, who is several years younger.

In the parlance of sexual abuse, he had "disclosed," begun the slow unraveling of detail and self-castigation. That moment began my own continuing nausea, like a backward somersault I can't control. I swing from feeling to feeling without warning, I swing between rage at my son and fury at the damage done by what are called good intentions.

The day after we found out, the police came to his school without warning and arrested him. I arrived just as they drove him away, a shriveled boy sitting behind two armed men in blue. And all that has happened since has been a duller and dirtier knife digging a deeper, nastier wound.

He was jailed for three weeks. I came to visit him that first evening, chill with shock, thinking I was done crying for a while. I brought him the book he was reading. I pressed door buzzers and intercoms, waited behind locked doors, spoke through thick glass windows to curt, distracted guards. The book was denied, without explanation, and the tears came again -- and I've found ever since that my tears serve only to shut doors and close faces. When I calmed down, I was given 20 minutes to speak to him.

He came out dressed in faded, ill-fitting work clothes, pale and embarrassed, and we huddled in a crowded room of other parents and other boys, some of them loud and strutting, others silent and withdrawn. I visited every day I was allowed -- which was not every day -- and each time I left he had to go through a strip search.

He told me about the other boys, the drive-by shootings, the rapes and the robberies about which they bragged. He told me about recreational drugs I'd never heard of before. He described several R- rated movies he'd seen in detention, violent films I'd refused to let him see because he was too young. He described the hours of mental health evaluations, the blood tests, the interviews. He complained about the food and the boredom, worried about his missed schoolwork, talked of everything but what had happened, his lawyers, the hearings to come.

I talked to lawyers, too. I wrote large checks. No one asked about the younger boy, the victim. Two armed and uniformed police asked him on the first day if the story was true. After that, no one mentioned him. No one suggested a doctor's exam or a counselor's interview. No one interviewed my husband and me, no one visited our home. So I arranged for a lawyer for us, and I took my other son to the doctor -- who found no physical evidence of abuse -- and to a counselor. We never spoke with the district attorney who prosecuted the case.

My older son stayed in jail. First one, then two custodial hearings were scheduled and abruptly canceled without explanation. I got lost in the unreliable labyrinth of voice mail, lost messages, messages never returned, authority changing hands. I grew skittish and paranoid, glancing out the window at every car slowing down near our house, at the ringing telephone, the doorbell -- wondering if men with guns and blue uniforms would come for our other son without warning, take him away as well.

I didn't know what to do or who to ask. I was afraid to tell any of my friends. We sat in the courthouse hallway before the third scheduled hearing, sat there in stark terror. I had asked the receptionist in the lobby what to expect. She looked at a schedule, at my son's name and the word "sodomy," and said casually, "He'll probably be locked up for a few years. That's typical." The juvenile advocate came out of his office and leaned over and told me that this hearing, too, had been canceled. The district attorney had a conflict. I started to cry. My husband sat motionless and silent.

"I don't know what to do," I whispered. "Tell me what to do."

He turned on his heel and walked away. "I can't talk to you when you're crying," he said.

The details of what my two sons did are not unlike the details of what I did out of furtive curiosity with my brother many years ago. But to many people, this is further proof of my ill fitness to judge the situation. From the beginning, several people voiced their belief that I "must be" a victim of repressed sexual abuse. Why? Because I chose to fight on my son's behalf instead of rejecting him entirely. Because I wanted to continue to be his parent. Because I protested the endless repetitions of "disclosure." Because I said the legal process was damaging.

In this particular world, no ambiguity is allowed. Either one is on the side of the victim or one is on the side of the offender; there is no place between. To question is to betray.

Between my two sons, there was kissing, there was touching, there was oral contact ("sodomy"). There was a lot of looking. There was no penetration, no force, no threats. They are several years apart in age and the contacts occurred over several weeks. My youngest son confessed in tears that he'd enjoyed it, and was very sorry he'd gotten his brother in so much trouble. I have finally confided in a few friends this past year, and each one has asked me to explain, as though I knew, the difference between molestation and childhood sex play.

"Lord, my brother and I did more than that," one friend said, and went on to describe it.

"What's the fuss about?" asked another. "Too bad you don't live in Europe," a well-traveled friend said in sympathy.

I don't know if I am reassured or not -- because I still don't know how I feel about what happened, how I really feel as a parent, outside the Kafka-esque legal forum. The boys are too many years apart for it to be simple childhood sex play in my mind. It went on too long, for weeks. I am not sure it was abuse, I am certainly not sure it was a crime, but neither am I sure how I would define it. I wish fervently that it had never happened, but I'm not convinced it is the worst thing that could have happened, that it is anywhere near as terrible as many people think.

I could not voice these doubts to the Wednesday afternoon group, to the judge, to anyone, without threatening my entire family. Although I secretly believe the cure has been much worse than the disease, I am careful not to say so out loud. I know that half the people who make their living in the "childhood sex abuse field," as they call it, would then be convinced I was either a victim, a molester or both.

Each of the boys in our therapy program must "disclose," again and again, to all of us. Public confession is believed to be more than a good -- it's considered necessary to healing, a sign of responsibility, the willingness to take one's crimes upon oneself.

Certain stories are almost unbearable to hear; they are thick with coercion and deception and denial. These boys, with their pimples and sparse beards and baby fat, are all different, and some are capable of hard things. I know why the boy who raped is here, I know why the boy who penetrated a baby is here. I'm not sure why the boy who touched his sister's genitals once, one single afternoon, is here -- but I see that all are tarred with the same brush. All are child molesters in the world's eyes now, and it's an unforgivable sin, an irrevocable name.

I read a lot about incest now. I read about suddenly retrieved memories and role-playing and hypnotherapy. I read about incest fantasies and the "incest complex," all those emotions that are exactly like the emotions created by incest, even when nothing like incest occurs.

More often, lately, I read about people whose lives are destroyed not by sexual abuse but by the fear of it, by accusations of it, shifting and un-provable. I wonder where all this is coming from, what the hell is going on around me, when it seems as though we've lost our minds over sex.

There is a letter to the editor in the local newspaper, complaining of an art show using condoms as material:

"No wonder our women and children aren't safe in the streets." I get into a discussion of the death penalty with a friend of mine, a friend who loves both my children and knows nothing of what has happened to us in the past year. "But surely, some people should die," she says, with great heat. "Child molesters should die, don't you think?"

Maybe I don't know anything anymore. The center doesn't hold for me now. For months I've woken at night and felt myself sink into a swamp of guilt and shame, wondering how we could have not known, how it could have happened here, in the house, while we suspected nothing.

My husband is almost paralyzed with remorse, convinced somehow his tame and well-hidden collection of naked-lady pictures is at fault. We seem unable to even consider making love anymore. Neither of us knows how to talk to our children now. I don't know the line between minimizing the hurt and making it worse, between fueling the fears and guilt and hiding them.

There is more to our son's therapy than the Wednesday group. There are polygraphs and psychological tests and questionnaires. He is in peer group therapy, where he learns a new vocabulary. He speaks off- handedly about "offending" people in a whole new way than that phrase is usually meant. He's learning about "ownership" and "restitution" and "errors of thought." My own focus is on Wednesdays, when the other parents sometimes stammer the same concerns, the same shames. ("How could we have not known?")

One father blames his son's collection of rap music. A grandmother complains of the "plague of sex" on television. All the boys are from heterosexual families, all but our case involved heterosexual abuse, but one parent still insists the cause is "homosexuality."

+ + + + + + + + +

After he spent three weeks in detention, we had a trial on the issue of custody, attended by social workers, a psychiatrist and a bevy of lawyers arguing on our behalf. With their help, our son was allowed to return home.

Three months later, we had a trial on the criminal charges, the felony charges that cannot ever be expunged from his record, that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Several lawyers had warned us about the district attorney. "He's a maniac on sex charges," one told us.

We were never even introduced to him. We had not been interviewed. He knew nothing of our backgrounds, educations, professions, our philosophy of parenting, religious beliefs or lifestyle. None of this was deemed relevant. At the trial he was vehement, emotional, personal. He spoke passionately to the judge about our "conflicts of loyalty," that our efforts to regain custody of the one child made it clear we couldn't care for the other. I sat there in shock and disbelief (yes, at that late date) and scribbled notes at our own lawyer, tearing into the paper with the point of my pencil.

"That," the DA said, pointing at me, "is a parent who blames the victim."

How in the world, I wondered blankly, do other families manage? How do the other people mingling in the lobby manage? The single mothers with toddlers, the less skilled and educated, the ones with no savings account to pay for lawyers? The other parents seem resigned to long waits and confusion; they seem to have used up thei assertiveness long ago.

Our son was sentenced to "time served," a closely supervised probation until he reaches the age of 18, and two years of therapy. He was given dire warnings of what would happen if he made any mistakes at all. The DA vowed to appeal, a vow he has kept, and we still wait our last turn in court.

"Thank you, your honor," mumbled our son, when his lawyer prodded him.

"Thank you," I said.

+ + + + + + + + +

Everything has changed. Our family looks the same. Only a few people know what has happened. But we are bruised and lost, and this town I've loved living in feels corrupt to me now.

The victim has at last been noticed, and is also in therapy -- not a group or therapist of our choice, but one chosen by the court. He has been interviewed over and over and over, and has offered no new memories, no new disclosures, no new details. He openly worries about being "taken away." Has this helped him, this disclosing, this chaos? I have the terrible knowledge that he has permanently changed.

He believes now, somewhere deep, that his pleasure in being touched was itself bad, that because that touch was forbidden, he himself is bad, that the disruptions and upsets of the last year are somehow his fault, the fault of his finding pleasure. It doesn't matter how many times we or anyone tell him different.

Now I'm afraid to caress him, afraid to go to the bathroom at night because he might waken and see me in a state of half-dress, afraid to tuck him in and kiss him when he's asleep, lest he have a dreamy memory of being touched in bed. He has been asked now, over and over, by many strangers, if his father or mother ever did a "bad touch."

He wakes up on the weekend and runs into our room and jumps in bed to cuddle as he always has, and we recoil, afraid.

I'm not afraid of our older son. He has also been examined and prodded and interviewed and tested at great length and expense. He shows no signs of a compulsion, or being predatory, no signs of anything except a deep-seated shame and remorse, and the desire to suppress his own blossoming sexual nature. I am supposed to fear him, of course.

But what I fear is the impenetrable idiot system, the hugely tentacled and punitive system that treats all of us as the same kind of monster. I'm afraid of unreliable memories and long looks and loaded questions. I know I would lie to protect my children now. I would say anything not to have them taken from my care. Perjury is nothing to the amputation of our relationship.

+ + + + + + + + +

"Sex offenders can't be cured," I read. "Victims of sexual abuse are damaged forever." The world of therapy cultivates this dark vision, relishes the notion of mortal wounds and permanent crimes and, always, hidden details yet to be revealed. I watch the boys in my Wednesday afternoon group, their lost, bewildered looks, their struggles to find a way through, their ineffectual efforts to hide anddeny. I feel repulsed sometimes, horrified by the images that some of them describe, horrified also by the salacious intensity in the therapists' extraction of detail.

"What else, Kevin? What else did you get in trouble for?" And Kevin glances away, distressed. Finally, he whispers, "I had dirty books." "That's right, Kevin," nods the therapist. He is satisfied. I keep my careful poker face. Does he seriously believe that this is an answer to the puzzle of how we've come to be here?

There are rules in this peculiar world. Givens. Paramount is that a victim always tells the truth, with one exception. When a victim tells the same story as the offender, then the victim is wrong -- because also paramount is the rule that an offender always lies.

For many months we've been warned to expect more -- more confession, more disclosure, more details, more victims, to accept the fact that he must be holding something back. No confession is ever considered complete. With each repetition of what has already been told, the boys are told to give us a little bit more.

"Secrets are bad." So say the therapists. "Secrets hurt people." Our son tells the same story over and over again, to one stranger after another, on command. For many months, nothing has changed, nothing new has come forth. For this reason he is perceived as being more recalcitrant than the other boys, "frozen" in his denial.

Because I believe him, I am in denial, too. Finally, in a private session, he is walked through his story in excruciating detail: What was he wearing, what was his brother wearing, what was said, when did he take his pants off, what happened next, and next, and next. What did his brother's face look like? What does he think his brother was thinking? And then the young, attractive, female therapist makes him tell her -- and us, who don't want to know -- his sexual fantasies, how often he masturbates, whether he ejaculates when he does, what he thinks about when he touches himself.

He stares at the floor and whispers his answers. And I am outraged. What has happened, I want to scream. What has happened to him?

+ + + + + + + + +

A convicted child molester comes to speak to us one Wednesday. He is 32 years old.

He was a teacher, and he tells us he has had dozens of victims. "Kids loved me," he says, simply. There is something odd about him, the way he holds himself, the redness in his face as he explains. He cries off and on, describing his own parents' grief, his prison term, his suicidal fantasies. This compulsion to touch children haunts him, constantly tugging at his thoughts. His honesty is like a slap, an unexpected needle, and I find that I'm a little afraid of him.

He looks at the teenage boys in the room. "You're all about the age of my victims," he says. The boys shuffle their feet and look at the floor. I'm glad he's not my neighbor. I would worry about both my children.

Another week, a male therapist who works with adult women sex abuse victims comes, and for an hour he plays a game with the people in the room, an emotional manipulation designed to make us all feel like victims. To be without control. I think I know this feeling already, and his glee at our discomfiture seems sadistic. When one of the mothers cracks under his dark murmurings about the lifelong nightmare of the victim, and begins to cry, begging him to give her a little hope, he refuses. He is brooding, suave, playful.

"I invite you," he says, with a sweep of his hand around the room, "to blame these boys for how you feel. Make them take the full measure of the responsibility."

So I've learned another rule. I should give my son all my anger. I should direct this undying rage at him -- rage for the fear, the guilt, the lost privacy, the exposure and grief. It is his fault, and I must not forgive. It doesn't matter that he's a child, too, that he's not fully formed, that he is at odds with his future.

I don't believe that it is his fault that the system is so cruel, the therapy so shallow, the philosophy so unintelligent.

But he's the only one I'm allowed to blame. I have emotions I can barely glance at, geysers of pain, shame, guilt and grief from which I shy like a horse from a bed of snakes. I have dreams on the edge of sense that I can't remember, don't want to remember. I am to give all this to a boy, who is not allowed to have any goodness in him anymore.

"And what happened then, Philip?" asks one therapist, in a soft, murmuring voice.

Philip whispers back, "I touched her vagina." And the therapist smiles slowly and says, "Yeeaaahhh. Yes, that's it, Philip." These are the voices of lovers. Through the constant repetition the therapists and lawyers arouse the story to the surface, feed it, turn the confessions into fantasies, the details into the texture of myth.

I write to a friend with several children: "If this ever happens in your family, don't tell anyone, don't tell a teacher or a nurse or a counselor. Don't let them into your house.

You can handle it alone, as we could have -- but we can't handle this."

+ + + + + + + + +

My every attempt to put what happened in a social context, a context of human sexuality and relationship, is averted. My every effort to discuss the preoccupying sexual nature of teenagers is met with discomfort and evasion. Real sex is never mentioned here. Sexual curiosity, sexual pleasure, is irrelevant.

How can they find their way through the maze without our help? I don't know why one of my children convinced himself he had the right to use the body of someone several years younger. I don't know why my little boy didn't tell, after all these years of being taught to tell, to say no. But the explanations I'm given are intellectually bankrupt and laced with blame.

The sources of abuse, any abuse, are complex and ambiguous. The very definition of abuse is, too. We come home on Wednesday evening, drained, and my son collapses on the couch with a newsmagazine. I look over his shoulder and see a clothing ad, the model a half- naked, wet-lipped girl, beckoning and seductive. In a world of erotic and suppressed sexuality, I wouldn't dream of simple explanations for sexual behavior of any kind.

One Wednesday we separate into two groups, boys and parents, and go to different rooms. One by one the adults describe their particular fears, and at last I hear anger like my own, a powerful need to know why this hard thing has been made so much harder.

One couple describes the late night phone calls, the taunts, the insults that prompted them to move and change jobs. Another says her son's teacher told the whole school staff what had happened. One man says both he and his son have received death threats. People speak of lingering depression, broken marriages, rejection by their own parents and families. Several boys have been in foster homes for months, even years, while their parents struggle to have them returned.

"Am I the only one who is paranoid?" asks a young mother. "I never take my eyes off my other children now."

"I'll tell you this," says an older man who rarely speaks. "My wife died in a car wreck. This has been worse."

What I wish I could do is somehow find a way to tell these boys they have a future. Sometimes I wonder if they do, if they'll be allowed redemption, or if they'll just go through life in the stocks of societal rejection, our new lepers. Me, I hope to find redemption in my own held counsel, my moving forward and through and beyond this, bringing both my children and my marriage with me. We plan to move, change neighborhoods, schools, our lives. And if one more paid professional says to me, as I tremble on my cold, hard chair on Wednesday afternoon, "I know what you're feeling,"

I swear I'll throttle him. I'll holler with all my strength: You don't know. You don't. You don't.

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