Ive been shocked and disgusted by what some men have done. Ive also seen how complicated atonement and forgiveness are
Warning: This story contains discussion and description of sexual abuse, assault and trauma.
When Jay first came into the program, he was asked as all members were to share his offense with the group. He said hed had sex with his teenage stepdaughter.
She was very attractive, he said. Mature for her age. We kind of fell into it.
One night several months into his treatment, I had a dream. We were in the middle of group therapy. Jay got up, strode across the middle of the group and picked me up with my arms pinned to my sides. I fought with him as he unflinchingly overpowered me and tore off my clothes. I woke up in the dark with my heart pounding, shaken. The rest of the night I tossed and turned, the experience too real to shake.
The next day at the office I went directly to Jays file and read carefully through the police reports. I was stunned, yet somehow not surprised, to find that he had raped his stepdaughter. The case had been reduced to sex with a minor as part of a plea agreement.
The shock wasnt that he had lied, it was more that we hadnt questioned it sooner. His story had been believable, and his manner seductive. But a quiet part of me, my unconscious mind, had paid attention. It refused to be seduced by him. I will always listen to that part of myself now.
I started my career working with victims of sexual abuse but eventually began working directly with the perpetrators. Later I started evaluating violent sex offenders in California prisons for potential release. Its a world in which a routine day has me confronted with the darkest and most twisted acts imaginable. And my decisions could mean an offender is indefinitely committed to a mental institution or that they get released back into society.
Im often asked how I can stand to face these men. They should be imprisoned for life, publicly identified, barred from common spaces and participation in civic life, right? They should be tarred and feathered, stoned, segregated into a special zone far, far away from our children and loved ones. Even in prison, they inhabit the lowest rung of a brutal hierarchy.
Ive spent hundreds upon hundreds of hours interviewing these men about their childhoods, their frustrations, their demons and their drives, and the terrible crimes they have committed. Sometimes these interviews are brutal. Sometimes they are tinged with unexpected moments of understanding and compassion. But the truth of my experience is that not all sex offenders are monsters. They are humans people we may even know and see every day.
And yet, of course, I feel deeply protective of my own family a paradox I confront again and again as my work uncomfortably collides with my life as a woman, wife, and mother of three.
Im interviewing James, whose long rap sheet started as a middle schooler and encompasses pimping, stealing, and several sexual assaults. During the interview, hes a smooth operator; its obvious hes able to talk his way out of trouble most of the time. He gazes at me through lids halfway down, a smile playing on his face. He makes everything an inside joke and laughs easily. But almost nothing he says is funny to me.
Throughout the interview I remain neutral. I want him to talk as openly as possible, so I appear open enough to form a connection, then knock him off balance every now and then with a question he doesnt expect. I ask him about high school. He says he was pimping by the time he was 16; his cousin initiated him into the business.
Yeah, I was good, he brags. I would bend em and send em.
I take this to mean that he had sex with the women who worked for him whenever he wanted. I refrain from making a face. I ask him just to be sure. What exactly does that mean?