Trigger warning: This post contains a personal account related to sexual abuse and pedophilia, If you are sensitive to such material, please consider not reading this or reading it with support.
April was National Sexual Assault Awareness month and I've been reflecting on what I would write about a topic that has taken up so much of my life's energy and focus. This contemplation and my desire to do this well for all involved became so daunting that I missed completing this blog in April. I have never publicly shared this aspect of my story, yet feel inspired to do so at this time. I continue to be deeply encouraged by all the brave sexual assault survivors I have worked with over the last decade.
Over the past few years, the world has watched in shock (and disbelief) as two of our nation's beloved celebrities - Bill Cosby and Woody Allen - have been accused of sexual assault: drugging and raping women (more than 50 allegations to date) and sexually assaulting his daughter, respectively. The Cosby Show was a late childhood favorite and when I discovered Woody Allen as a teenager, I was an instant fan. I've seen Annie Hall so many times I could recite the lines...and I "luuurrrrv" Interior, Manhattan Murder Mystery, and Husbands and Wives to name a few. Watching his movies made me feel cool, subversive, and worldly. But ever since his daughter, Dylan Farrow, had the courage to break her silence, I haven't watched even one. And Bill Cosby's joke about childbirth, which I used to share and laugh about frequently, now brings me pain as I imagine the long line of women he's accused of violating.
But let me go back. Before and during the early years of The Cosby Show and before my Woody Allen discovery, I was a girl being sexually abused by one family member and sexually harassed by many others, including, my uncle, my pastor, our family dentist and countless strangers on the streets of Chicago. I remember the men who twice attempted to lure me into cars with candy at age six as I walked to school, who flashed me when I was walking to a friend's house four blocks away or who felt it their right to comment about my body when I was a teenager. And I remember later, when I told my mother, my good mother, about the abuse, her saying through her sobs the words I would hear again and again, "This couldn't have happened. He's not a monster." Even at the time, I knew both were true: I was sexually abused by a close relative and he was certainly not a monster. In fact, I loved him immensely; he is and was a wonderful person. But why did my mother need to keep saying it: He's not a monster. He's not a monster. He's not a monster.
Fast forward to a year after my daughter was born. I had a dear friend who was kind, gentle and well-loved in the community who came by now and again for dinner, walks in the neighborhood, and the occasional political conversation. As my daughter grew from infant to toddler I started noticing little things: how he didn't move her when they were playing on the floor and she crawled over his genital area, how uncomfortable he became with where to put his gaze when I was breastfeeding, and my increasing discomfort whenever my daughter was near him. I didn't totally trust my perception, so I decided to talk to him about it. We had planned to go for a walk, but instead I asked him to come in. "I have something to say that isn't easy," I said, "and you know I was sexually abused as a child so that might be part of why I feel this way...."
"It's okay, Rainbow," he said, encouraging me, "just tell me." So I did:
"Whenever you're around my child, I feel uncomfortable...scared..like I need to protect her from you. Do you know why I feel this way?" Now having known this gentle soul, I was prepared for a thoughtful conversation about my triggers and how to support me or some defensiveness. I wasn't prepared for what happened. He opened his mouth, and calmly shared of his lifelong attraction to children. He told me that whenever he sees a pedophile being hauled off to jail, some part of him knows it could be him. He explained while he's never abused a child, he has been afraid of "coming close." He seemed relieved to be talking about it and his angst over his condition was so palpable that my shock was cushioned somewhat by my empathy. As I listened to him go on and on, my therapist brain started searching, "I need to refer him somewhere. He needs help." I could not easily think of a referral. After awhile, he got up, thanked me for the conversation and left.
The next day I told my supervisor at the time, a 25-year veteran in helping families affected by sexual abuse, what had happened. She was amazed by our conversation, as rarely do pedophiles talk openly about their condition. We agreed he needed help, yet neither of us knew where exactly to refer him. I wrote him a kind but firm email reflecting back what he said to me, encouraging him to seek help and ultimately ending our friendship. What followed was a hand-written letter denying everything he had said and again I was given the familiar line, "I am not a monster."
At the time of this event, despite my own healing, forgiveness and reconnection with both my abuser and my parents (for not protecting me), I was still pretty polarized in my view of sex offenders and pedophiles. I was working with children and families affected by sexual abuse and saw again and again caregivers and family members struggling with how to believe their loved one was capable of the crimes they were accused of. I, myself, couldn't believe how, in some cases, the perpetrator could have led such a successful life all the while abusing his daughter, his neighbor, or his niece. Case after case, it started to become very obvious the split that so many of us, my mom included, couldn't reconcile: if my loved one is good and sex offenders are bad, then how could my loved one have possibly committed this act? How could this successful business owner, committed husband, well-loved coach or talented artist be responsible for such atrocities? I needed to understand.
I started attending the *open meetings for Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) at a local church in Madison. For those unfamiliar with SAA, their website describes them as "a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength, and hope with each other so they may overcome their sexual addiction and help others recover from sexual addiction and dependency. [Their] common goals are to become sexually healthy and to help other sex addicts achieve freedom from compulsive sexual behavior."
Walking alone into that room of men was terrifying the first time. I cried the entire hour, and not quiet tears, but deep sobs that I couldn't control. In my mind, I was sitting with the enemy, with men who were unsafe and scary, and indeed, **many of them had harmed people they loved as well as strangers. But they welcomed me, despite my fear and judgment. They patiently paused when my sobs were too loud for them to conduct their meeting. As the hour came to a close, they simply said, "We hope you come back." And I did. Every week for over a year.
What I learned during that time was life-altering. Behind every sex offender is a story, a series of life conditions and mental health issues that led that person to decide to harm someone; and make no mistake, they are 100% responsible for that. And by painting sex offenders and pedophiles as "monsters" we, as a society, contribute to the continuation of the sexual abuse of our children. That's right. We are responsible for the revolving door of children who make their way into treatment centers all across the country. Think for a moment how we treat sex offenders: we shame them, we publicly humiliate them, and we give them no pathway to redemption. We want sex offenders to just magically stop harming people, yet we provide no safe place to openly address their issues before they commit a crime. And afterwards, we cast them out of society, leaving them further isolated and ashamed. Do you know that, in most states, if a pedophile tells a therapist of their inappropriate sexual attraction to children and that person is around children in any capacity, the therapist is mandated by law to report him to the police and Child Protective Services, even if no crime has occurred? This system was designed to protect children, and it serves it's purpose in part, but it also creates fear for the prospective perpetrator to openly share, thereby eliminating a major prevention strategy: being able to tell someone you need help before acting out.
So, really, we put the burden on our children, the most vulnerable among us, to "Say no" and to "Tell someone if this happens to you." But, where is our responsibility as a society to prevent this from happening in the first place? It is magical thinking to believe our children are safe by ignoring sex offenders and then ostracizing them from society once a crime has been committed. It's not working for anyone involved. Call any Child Advocacy Center in the country and ask them if they have enough business. I promise you they do.
You can read my recommendations in What if They're Not Monsters? (part two).
*An "open meeting" in SAA means that the meetings are open to everyone, including those who want to learn more about SAA.
**It is important to note, that most people who attend SAA are not sex offenders. Many are seeking help for non-criminal sexually addictive behaviors like, addiction to pornography and/or masturbation, infidelity, or even distracting sexual thoughts. For more information, please visit: the Madison chapter of SAA or the national SAA website.
Rainbow A. Marifrog