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Molested: A Mother discovers the Legal System
After reading the article, you'll understand why the author wishes to remain anonymous.
m o l e s t e d
A mother discovers that the legal system's nightmarish
"cure" for child sexual abuse can be worse than the disease.
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 unprovable.
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
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
+ + + + + + + + +
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
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 their 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
+ + + + + + + + +
"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 and
deny. 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,
"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
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
+ + + + + + + + +
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
"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
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.
Feb. 28, 1997