Last week, an impassioned letter from a sexual abuse survivor surfaced online. Its author had been at the center a scandal that attracted national media attention. The letter's vulnerability, and its bravery, gave me chills.
Dylan Farrow didn't write it. It was the suicide note of Jesse Ryan Loskarn, a Republican congressional aide arrested last year on charges of distributing child pornography. Loskarn wrote it before hanging himself in his parents' basement while awaiting trial. It made no excuses for his decision to view and distribute child pornography, and told his own history of sexual abuse.
Loskarn's letter is a painful account of life within the hermetically sealed world of a child sexual abuse survivor, as well as a shocking illustration of how most pedophiles reproduce in our culture. In his alienation, Loskarn discovered images that externalized the very memories that he had worked for decades to push out of his consciousness. And then he got hooked, as if the images were some sort of talisman of his fractured self made whole again.
I understand this. I have never viewed child pornography in my life, but I recall telling my therapist several years ago that part of me desperately wanted to see it, not out of any prurience or titillation, but a deep desire to see a world into which I had been forced at a young age.
I have extremely disturbing drawings I made as a kindergartner, a story I wrote when I was six years old carefully trying to tell my mother I had been molested, and a clinical history that could have easily been extracted from a child psychology textbook. But the sort of forensic evidence that some strident folks are demanding of Dylan Farrow eludes me, too.
On a clear blue Saturday afternoon in the summer of 2006, I confronted my father for sexually abusing me, and for the years of quiet emotional abuse that followed. I had been staying in my parents' home for several months after breaking up with a girlfriend in New Haven, Connecticut. I like to think that, in the days leading up to my attack, he knew what was about to happen. That he was almost proud of me for having the balls to finally stand up for myself. I pictured him like a man on the lam, peeking through filthy venetian blinds, half-hoping the cops will just hurry up and break down the door.
The confrontation is a blur now. But I remember saying, "If you hurt my mother, I will have you prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law." And then his tone grows more rapid, more furtive – trying to contain all of this, as it happens in the front yard of his house, before it spills over into the neighborhood, risking witnesses. He spits: "This is what you do, you blame other people for your problems." In my dissociated state, he may as well be a serpent, and I a wounded mouse. I am fighting for my life.
When I was seventeen, my mother sent me on a service retreat to Costa Rica. Myself and some of the other boys on the trip brought home machetes as souvenirs. My parents confiscated mine immediately. On this day with the perfect blue sky, some fifteen years later, having confronted my father, I run to his closet to retrieve that machete from the place where it has been perched, at eye level, staring him in the face for nearly fifteen years. It is the first thing he sees each morning and the last thing he sees at night. It is in the same closet where he hides his pornography, tucked behind a heavy corded L.L. Bean sweater.
Earlier that week, I had disclosed my abuse, for the first time in my life, to my therapist. The world didn't end, as I genuinely feared it might. "It's like reality is right where I left it," I told him, intoxicated with the vivid feeling of finally being alive again. I left his office to walk back to my parents' house, and the full vibrancy of the world rushed back to me, like a time lapse of the twenty five years I had largely missed.
Not long after I confronted my father, I left the house. Forever. The machete came with me. It was eventually offered to the gods of rust, thrown into a river in rural Vermont.
There are a number of popular tropes around child sexual abuse inour culture. Two are preeminent: One calls us liars when we come forward, another calls us crazy. There is a notion that we should be skeptical when an adult comes forward and names their abuser, that we should carefully question their motivations lest we be duped by someone who is manufacturing, or at least strategically re-crafting, a story of abuse to shirk responsibility for their own transgressions. There is also the popular notion that "false memories" of child abuse are common.
When an abuse survivor's memories are fragmentary, as they so often are, they will often turn to Google for help—perhaps fearing that they're going mad, or at risk of wrongly accusing someone of child abuse. When they do, they are likely to stumble upon the website of a little group called the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, which has been operating since the early 1990s. In fairness, they're a pretty ridiculous bunch.
Their story begins something like this: A young woman suffering from deep depression spontaneously remembers that her father sexually molested her. She withdraws from her parents, who ask her partner what is going on. He tells them what she recalls. All of this happens privately in the family home. Her father is an admitted alcoholic who reports that he quit drinking because he was having memory problems and is, himself, a self-described survivor of sexual abuse.
So the mother then does what any honorable, clear-seeing mother would: She writes an anonymous letter to her daughter's colleagues telling them that the daughter, a Ph.D. candidate at the time, is deluded and suffering from a neurological disorder. She goes on to found an organization offering camaraderie and community to anyone claiming to have been wrongly accused of sexual abuse.
So, what screening process do they use to ensure that those who come to them are not simply pedophiles who doth protest too much, you ask? Why, none, of course.
Early on in the group's history, an odd bird of a guy named Ralph Underwager is appointed to the board. A short time later, he is asked to resign after giving an interview to a Scandinavian magazine for pedophiles in which he encourages its readers to boldly proclaim that man-boy love, as it were, is a reflection of God's will.
A few days after confronting my father, I asked my still-stunned mother what he said when I left. She told me: "I knew it, I knew someone planted those memories in his head." This is a predictable dime-store script of a defense these days, and it's available to all.
In America, we are prone to theatrics. Fox News loves a good sociopathic pedophile story. Nancy Grace goes rabid Bride of Frankenstein for it, snarling updates every five minutes until some ghastly fucking shell of a man lays dead in a hailstorm of Amber Alerts and SWAT team bullets. The kids survive, and I imagine Nancy sighing with relief, stroking her ego to sleep, reassuring it there will be follow-up stories and voyeuristic interviews for years to come.
This works on television because it reinforces the notion that the sociopath pedophile is not like you or me. We watch and wonder who would be so obtuse as to let him anywhere near so much as a pet rock, let alone a child. Without fail, there is a curious aspect of elitism in the spectacle. I can't say Rupert Murdoch calls in the script himself, but I've noticed how effectively these tabloid abuse stories often provoke the smug pity of the educated urban intelligentsia as they watch the catastrophically bad judgment of their poor under-educated brethren.
The problem is, this has next to nothing to do with the sexual abuse that happens in homes.
Those of us who were abused by a family member, or a family friend, have shared banal time and space with the sort of people who molest kids. We have sat in their cars in traffic and gone to diners with them, watched them scarf cheeseburgers or try to quit smoking, need an aspirin. And mostly, they are not utter sociopaths or sadists.
We are in the paradoxical situation of being subject to pure evil and knowing from experience that its representatives are rarely pure evil themselves. No one is. We have almost certainly seen at least a flicker of innocent joy or generosity in their face. We have puzzled over this person who hurt us, and considered the fact that they too were children once. And we know that many of them were also sexually abused as children. At some point in healing, we just know that there will never be, could never be enough jails to contain this – that it would never work anyway.
We are left with a problem: The greater the tenor of condemnation against these perps, the higher the stakes in telling our own stories, and the higher their own stakes in defending themselves.
If Woody Allen is now written into history as a monstrous child molester, child abuse is more likely to continue. Because if we are unable to stomach the fact that Woody is not a monster but a human being who did something monstrous, we will continue to stoke the fires of archetype, perpetuating the notion of the picture-perfect pedophile, the one whose evil shines through like a 100-watt black lightbulb.
I admire Woody for rejecting Hollywood awards culture and consistently churning out reasonably watchable films. (Though I didn't care much for Blue Jasmine; I prefer Match Point, which I suspect is closer to a darkness of which Woody is a part.)
Yet I know too that Dylan Farrow is telling the truth. And it makes me sick to witness the vile double standard by which our society measures abuse survivors – questioning their credibility based on their behavior, when that behavior is likely the result of the trauma they have endured. Who in the world finds it plausible that Dylan was an emotionally disturbed kid who concocted a false memory from her inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, rather than a kid who had been systematically traumatized within the sanctity of an otherwise reasonably stable home and so could not fully integrate the experience?
We don't really just condemn the sexualization of children. Instead, we condemn the very existence of child abuse altogether. It's as if the crime includes being victimized by it, or responsible for bringing it into the light. We take an ontological roach spray to the whole event, either denying its status in reality altogether, or competing with one another to proclaim the most exquisite forms of torture for the perpetrators. I can't count how many times I've seen the most strident liberal break character to loudly call for the prison rape of perpetrators.
That this darkness is actually woven into and throughout the fabric of our society—that these abusers are among us—is simply too much to bear. So the darkness is ignored except for the most distilled, theatrical, and viscerally repellent cases.
This is why agnosticism reigns in the land of child abuse allegations. It is why a raging blowhard like Alec Baldwin can respond to Dylan Farrow as though this were simply a private family matter, effectively telling her to shut up and step back into the private family quarters where she was violated.
The loudest voices questioning Dylan's veracity sound uncannily like the same bloodthirsty mobs who seek the sadistic annihilation of confirmed, unambiguously guilty perpetrators. As though, were she able to proffer the forensic evidence they demand, they would swap out their moral subroutines and swarm Woody's doorsteps bearing torches, toting copies of Bananas and the Curse of the Jade Scorpion to fuel the bonfires.
There is an in-between, and it's where life is lived, for better and worse. The appropriate response toward someone who has molested a kid is not violence. And the primary concern when confronted with allegations of abuse shouldn't be to make sure that they justify the sacred level of condemnation we reserve for those we know for certain, without doubt, are wolves in sheep's clothing. Monsters.
Does it make sense to discard an entire oeuvre of work? Or does it simply reflect an inability to live with messiness and ambiguity? To chalk it up as nothing more than the work of a monster, to cast it out of the village, is to senselessly re-affirm the same basic strategy of denial and dehumanization that, ultimately, allows abuse to continue.
My own father is a reasonably distinguished medical researcher. Neither of us is in the public eye, yet even if we were, there would be little risk of his contributions being marred by any of it. I can't picture a terminal cancer patient refusing an experimental therapy on the grounds that its inventor molested a child.
Years later, my father broke down on the phone, crying, and acknowledged what he had done. That, the simplest truth, was all I ever wanted.
Not long after I disclosed my abuse to my now largely estranged sister, she explained her own cold response to me, saying, "I know those memories are real for you but it's a bit like you telling me you lived on a boat for several years as a child." The eye-roll that seizes me as I recall, and repeat, this sentence is lunar in scope. Picture the moon with a pupil, picture it rolling and I will have shared with you some sense of the utter humiliation involved in having your most formative experiences treated as imaginary.
Most of us would sooner discard all parties who have been tainted by this event than we would look at how tenuous the sanctity of children really is, how commonplace abuse is, or see the capacity for the mostly good to do periodic evil. We live in the same universe as those who abuse kids. We walk among them. If we want to end the sexual abuse of children, it will begin with the recognition that we are simply not that different from them.
William Warwick (the name is a pseudonym) is a sculptor and writer in Los Angeles. He believes Dylan Farrow entirely. Stardust Memories is his favorite Woody Allen film.
[Image by Jim Cooke, photo via Getty]