Thursday, October 18, 2007

Good? Evil? Beats Me.

We've been having a discussion, or maybe a discussion-ette, on a message board we host. The topic is sex offenders.

Okay, let's start with the assumption that we're against it, okay? People should only have sexual contact with other people who want it from them, and are old enough to provide informed consent.

However...that is not always the case. So the country is chock full of convicted sex offenders that have been released from prison. In most states, they're on a registry, they're prevented from living near schools and/or playgrounds, and they're universally reviled.

Well, okay. But there's lots and lots of them. And you can register them until hell freezes over, but they still exist. But there's a huge range of offenders, from the most innocuous pornographers and Romeo Rule violators to the most vicious predators. Are they all the same? Should they all be treated the same?

I happen to know a guy who is a convicted sex offender. He was a police officer who raped a teenager in a drunken rage a decade ago. Her life was devastated by the experience, but was his. He lost his livelihood, obviously, and went to prison. Since his release he's spent years in therapy and anger management programs trying to get his demons at arm's length so he could look at them.

I didn't know him then, but I know him now. He's a good guy who struggles to always be honest about his actions and his motivations. I like him a lot. And THAT makes me uncomfortable more than anything. Should I like him? Or trust him? Are there rules of etiquette for this sort of thing?

Sex is a different way to violate people than, say, stealing their car. Stealing a person's relationship with her own body is a small step away from stealing her soul. I know this because, like many of the women I know, I was sexually abused as a child. I was raped one night when I was 9 years old, and was spending the night at a friend's house. Her father came into the room during the night, pulled down my pajama bottoms and raped the same room his daughters slept in. Years later, it occurred to me that their silence that night probably implied that it wasn't the first night they experienced that in their room. But it was my first night, and it changed my relationship with the world forever.

I stayed in that bed until dawn, and then got dressed and went home. I never told my mother, or for that matter anyone, until probably 20 years later when I told Robin on a long car trip full of disclosures.

So now I go back and forth between my own childhood violation and my friend the sex offender. I wonder if my friendship with him has anything to do with my own story. Am I more or less accepting of him than a person without my history would be?

Every time I stop and think about this, that almost every one of those convicted sex offenders have families and friends who struggle to make sense of them, my head reels. Is it bad to care about the people who don't care about the rest of us? If it is...what should you do with them?

It's hard to imagine the degree of anger that would make a person rape, and it's uncomfortable to wonder if everyone has the capacity for that much anger. Maybe they don't know how destructive it is to people's lives? Or maybe they don't care? And how bad must a person's own emotional dissonance be to inflict that much damage on another human being and not care?

And this is always the place where I get hung up. I know how damaged I was by the experience. I'm always curious about how damaged rapists must be to inflict that kind of pain on someone else.

I'm mostly a tabula rasa kind of person. I believe that people are mostly born without malice towards the world. So except for people who are biologically driven towards insanity or evil, most "bad" people were presumably like "good" people at some point. And so, presumably, bad people can make the decision to to good people again. And why wouldn't we encourage that? And is it naive to consider it?

Do you hear my confusion as much as I do? Every single person has things in their past that they're ashamed of. How horrible do those things have to be to not deserve forgiveness?

It would be nice if people would fit neatly into boxes. If bad people were bad, and good people were good, and there was none of the gray parts that happen when bad people do good things and good people do bad things. It would be nice, or at least easier, to be one of those "one strike" people who would be comfortable lining up everyone who does something bad against a wall and shooting them. But does that make that well-intentioned person become a bad person?

I sometimes wish I were a lot smarter than this.



This is pretty heavy for a Friday morning, but I think people all have to be taken as individuals. I don't think you can make a sweeping generalization like "all sex offenders should be forgiven if they've reformed." If you feel comfortable with the guy and like him, then why not be his friend? Personally, I think one can never be fully de-demonized and that once you have something nasty lurking within it's always there, but you can learn to control it and manage it. Sex offenders are probably all damaged from childhood, but not all damaged children become sex offenders. As an adult you have choices and options unless you have a serious mental illness.

Pedophiles are another kettle of fish. I'm very sorry to hear what happened to you as a child and I mourn for that wee one felt she had to keep that horrible secret for so long.

Anonymous said...

I share your feelings of ambiguity. I worked with (she's dead now), a wonderful, chronically mentally ill woman who told me with frank honesty (and no teeth, and hair like the wicked witch of the west - she looked like a stereotype but in some ways was a very enlightened being), that she was a child abuser. Her two children were taken from her, they are now adults who have abused their children, and on, and on, and on. I really liked her - she had one of the most horrid stories of childhood sexual/physical and emotional abuse and neglect I've heard (and I've heard a lot). She never used this for an excuse - she worked hard to "hold her demons at arms-length so she could look at them," was honest and unflinching when she looked in the mirror. And yet, she was unspeakable to her kids. And I liked her - but maybe I mentioned that. And yeah, I mourn for her, her kids, you, me, all the others of us who have been molested/assaulted. It ain't easy, but maybe it ain't spozed to be. Robin


I know you are an atheist, but your story and stories like it are the very reason I have to believe in a God. If I did not, I would go Mad and howl at the moon. Now I just kind of pull the covers over my head and whimper at the night light.

Anonymous said...

I think the worst thing about child molestation is the loss of faith. Try finding out a beloved brother or father is one and then feel the ambiguity. I hate the term, 'sex offender' which lumps everyone who's offense had some touch with a person's sex. Rape is different than statutory rape which is different than pediophilia and so on. Those convicted of it are on a registry, which I think does more harm than good IMO, but the greater number of those who haven't been convicted are not--they're all over the place and as early as I lost my innocence it's hard for me not to believe that there's a few in every handful of people in this world. I trust no one and never could.