Keynote on Child Abuse

Keynote: Current THinking / New Directions Conference, Friday 18 June 2004, Sheraton Hyannis Resort, sponsored by Children’s Cove: Cape Cod Child Advocacy Center and Michael O’Keefe, Barnstable County District Attorney.

It is a great honor to address you this morning, to be included in this program with Lucy Berliner, with Dr. Goldberg, with Jim McLaughlin and Terry Thomas and Allison Turkel, and I want to thank Debbie Maier and the other members of the conference committee for giving me this opportunity to speak to you.

Because I am by trade a writer, a poet, I want to begin by reading you a recent poem, one that will make of my address this morning a dedication. This is called ELEGY, and it is written in memory of Patrick McSorley, who fought long and hard to bring the Archdiocese of Boston to justice and who succumbed in the struggle:

This man once,
call him Ash,
he went down.
This time none,
not one man,
not one pill,
not one hope
could stop him.
Not one cry.
Not one hand
could reach him.
Not one lie
could save him.
He went down.

Be kind, Death.
This man lived
where men fear
words, facts, truth;
where ghosts walk,
where men burn.
Call him Ash.
He went down.
We mourn him.

So. Here are my aims this morning:

I want to raise questions, challenge assumptions, and yes, rouse some righteous anger this morning. (Those who fear anger often confuse it with rage and violence. I am talking instead about a powerful ethical faculty we each possess and must never give up. I am talking about the anger that allows us to remain focused on what is wrong in order to do what is right. The alternatives are to create fictions about progress in order to feel better, to minimize the depth and scope of this terrible wrong, or to shrug, give up, and succumb to a depression so pervasive in our society today that few will notice anyway.) So let us not be afraid to be angry. (You may even go away from this talk angry with ME. That’s okay if I have made you think, even if you reject my views entirely.) Children need us, as adults, to be angry on their behalf, and to be angry in an adult way, i.e. to commit ourselves to working together to protect them.

Let me begin by saying that I believe we are being invited, by the “current thinking” to miniaturize the issue of child sexual abuse by seeing it as a kind of local problem that can be solved via local solutions. It is something like addressing homelessness by building more shelters, or hunger by opening soup kitchens, or poverty with clothing drives and food stamps. None of these approaches are wrong, of course, but none of them address root causes. One of the chief ways we miniaturize this issue is by separating a particular kind of child exploitation, child sexual abuse, from others, arguably just as hurtful and harmful — child slavery and sweatshop labor, beatings, the conscription of child soldiers, the trafficking of childrens’ body parts (yes, the UN has called this a growing problem), the cynical seduction of children as practiced by tobacco and alcohol companies, by fast food chains peddling what they know to be poison, by educational institutions teaching what they know to be falsehoods. By doing so, we are failing to do what needs to be done and done now: to build a broad political base that holds leaders accountable FIRST AND FOREMOST for the well-being of today’s children because that is the only reliable measure we have of what is good for the future of our communities, our nation, and indeed the world.

This is, to my mind, the “new direction” we must take, i.e. political action in concert with others on a global scale. The groundwork has already been laid for this effort. The United Nations High Commission on Human Rights has given us the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the first unanimous human rights treaty in the world. This potentially revolutionary document was signed in 1986 by UN ambassadors from 122 nations. Once ratified by the governments of these nations, exploitative offenses against children become, in fact, violations of international law insofar as the convention becomes grounds for extradition. Article 34 of this convention calls for State Parties to take all appropriate measures to prevent the inducement or coercion of a child to engage in unlawful sexual activity, as well as to prevent the exploitative use of children in prostitution, pornography, or other unlawful sexual activities.

And a subsequent amendment, in 2001, rededicates the signatories to committed action, particularly in cases of child sex-trafficking and child pornography. Only two nations, Somalia, and the United States of America, have not ratified this treaty, nor its more recent amendments. What does this mean? Could it be that our government is simply less hypocritical than others? After all, some of the nations who ratified this agreement are ravaged at the moment by civil wars largely waged by child conscripts — Congo comes to mind, and child slavery in Sudan is crying out for international attention. But somehow, I doubt that is the reason we haven’t ratified this treaty. You may have noticed, as I have, that our government, no matter whose administration heads it, has never been reluctant to wrap itself in high-minded rhetoric. Or maybe our government has had its fill of international treaties, called conventions — the Geneva Convention for example — that it seems to be unable to adhere to. In any case, if we’re serious about childrens’ welfare, let’s ask our leaders for an answer about that one — why does the first unanimous human rights treaty in the history of the world remain unratified by our government? It may be the beginning of taking back our power from those who, rather than making the world safe for children, are busy making the world safe for their profits at childrens’ expense.

As you already know, I am a survivor of sexual violence in childhood. I am also a father, a husband, a teacher, and a writer. When my memoir, Half the House, was published in 1995, it became instrumental in the arrest, conviction, and incarceration of the man who raped me when I was ten, a revered youth sports figure who, it turns out, victimized nearly 500 boys over a forty year period. He died in prison. It is likely that he was murdered by other inmates.

The whole experience of the arrest, the court proceedings, the media attention, the meaning my book came to have for others, has been an incredible education for me. Although I haven’t used the word since the sixties, I would have to say it “radicalized’ me; that is, it made me begin to think about the deep roots of sexual violence against children in our culture. This morning I want to try to share some of those thoughts.

Like many of us here, I have been trying to understand the enormity of this evil for a long time now. First as a stunned and reeling young person trying to understand what it MEANT that this had happened to me, and later, and now, as a writer and teacher and father and activist. I feel certain that Lucy Berliner will be addressing aspects of this issue in her workshop, but let me say — as a survivor who remembers how “hit in the head” I felt, how clobbered — to clinicians working with kids in the aftermath of trauma: Please — Deconstruct the MEANING of the event as the child has absorbed it from the perpetrator AND from the culture. Kids are consumers of meaning. They have no other choice because they are not yet capable of critical or analytical thought. So please help keep them from embracing the “junk” meanings of a perpetrator culture that tells them that the significance of their experience is 1. NIL, or 2. that they are bad (“delinquent” is the word,) or 3. that now they are “twisted” in some way, corrupted, damaged.

In any case, I have continued to grapple with the depth and scope of this crime, this human rights violation, and I have come to few conclusions except that we have to begin with a different set of terms if we are to avoid the same fear, helplessness, and despair that have incapacitated us so far and continued to place children at risk.

Rape, we have come to understand, is a crime of power and control; it is NOT simply some other kind of sex. It objectifies a human being and tells the victim that her own will, or his, her own autonomy, or his, is worthless. It robs a victim of dignity. It is humiliating. In fact — as we have seen in conflict after conflict, and recently in the conduct of our own government in the prison at Abu Ghraib — this sexual humiliation is a weapon used to subjugate and control others. Though we are horrified by the bestial nature of this abuse, we understand it for what it is and we call it torture.

Except when the victims are children. Rape is a crime of power and control — except when the victims are children. Then we resort to an entirely different way of conceptualizing it. Then we call it by other names. We study the torturers’ history, psychology, sexual appetite. We locate the violence in the mind, the heart, or even in the phallus, of the perpetrator, not in the politics and power dynamics of the abusive encounter. We make the child victim disappear. This maneuver is worse than even the obvious revictimization it enacts. It keeps us from seeing the true situation of children in our society and in the world. And we end up, despite ourselves, treating a crime of abusive power as if it were, in fact, a different kind of sex.

Just after the news broke of the lawsuits being brought against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, I was listening to my local NPR station when a Dr. Fred Berlin of the Johns Hopkins University Center for the Study of Sexual Deviancy —and one of the first named to Cardinal Law’s hand-picked Commission — said that the accused priests were good men and good priests who unfortunately had a weakness for children. He said that they ought simply to be reassigned to a place where there are no children, for example as chaplains in nursing homes. That was his expert opinion. Want to hear mine? I’d give you 48 hours before the first Alzheimer’s patient is raped, i.e. before the first vulnerable person who cannot articulate what has happened or whose word can be deemed less than credible is attacked.

I believe we have been misled by the language we use, by the way we talk about those who would harm our children. We speak of them as “sick”. We use names that accept their denial and distortion. Our words are important. Words are how we think. Too often we become tangled in language that does not reflect reality, but hides it until, over and over, child after child, it is too late.

Until we understand that the rape of a child is the most elemental instance of the strong taking advantage of the weak, we are on very shaky ethical ground. Until we understand that the sexual gratification of an adult at a child’s expense is rape, and that a rape is a rape is a rape, we will remain lost in a terminology that is all too often a hall of mirrors.

For example, and for starters, I would like us to retire the word “pedophile.” The word comes from Greek and means, at its root, “one who loves children.” What an Orwellian inversion! To use this word to describe those who violate children, and in many instances kill to silence them, is to help the wolf into his wooly disguise.

This term, pedophile, is more than a poor word choice; a clinical—that is, pseudo-medical—term, it asks us to see such evil as arising from disease or illness, evil in its effect, perhaps, but no more intentional than other natural misfortunes such as diabetes or muscular dystrophy. This makes the violation of children a part of the natural order and the perpetrator one who cannot help himself.

In place of the term pedophile, then, let me offer an alternative: pedoscele, from Latin scelus, meaning “evil deed.” Try it. Pedoscele: one who does evil to children.

Now we have reset the switch. Now we can begin to think about this violence with our feet on the ground and in a way that honors the experience and the hard-won understanding of those who have been victimized.

Okay, watch out — digression comin’ through here…!

One of the reasons I’m especially grateful for the chance to speak to you today is that for far too long survivors of sexual assault, both women and men, have been absent from the discourse — and, frankly, it shows. One of my great heroes was a man whose analysis of abusive power grew from his own experience of institutionalized violence, Frederick Douglass. Douglass was a powerful political thinker, but his thinking was often at odds with the white abolitionist movement who relied on him as a speaker. “Give us the facts” they told him. “We’ll take care of the philosophy.” In the second revised edition of his autobiography (there were three), Douglass wrote of sharing a podium, for the umpteenth time, with the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, “Tell your story, Frederick,” would whisper my revered friend, Mr. Garrison, as I stepped upon the platform. I could not always follow the injunction, for I was now reading and thinking.”

Reading and thinking about what? About abusive power, and about how that power is hidden and disguised by language, and by ritualized ways of speaking and writing.

So maybe that wasn’t such a digression after all.

Here is an example of a ritualized and counterproductive use of language: we use the term “sex offenders,” to describe those who violate others to gratify their need for — again — power and control, as if their crimes had anything to do with sex. Every time those words appear in a headline the public gets exactly the wrong message, has its collective misunderstanding reinforced. If a man assaults me with a baseball bat, we are not playing baseball. If I am stabbed with a bread knife, it is not a”baked goods” crime. (Perhaps we should refer to the cannibals Jeffrey Dahmer and Nathaniel Bar-Jonah as “food offenders.”) As the poet Linda McCarriston once pointed out, “Saying ‘the man had sex with the child’ is like saying, ‘The man had dinner with the pork chop.'”

The rape of a child is a violent act of contempt, not an expression of sexuality or affection. Pedosceles want us to believe otherwise. This is why they talk of “love” between men and boys. This is why, after Nabokov’s Lolita, pubescent girls are called, winkingly, “nymphets.” All too often we fall for it. For example, in a newscast about the man who had devastated the childhoods of several generations in my hometown, including mine, a TV commentator said that the defendant had “admitted that he is overly fond of young boys.” (The word “pedophile” is there, in the shadows.) At that pre-trial hearing, one boy said the man had threatened to cut off his genitals if he told. Another boy testified that the man threatened to shoot his little brother. Clearly he was “overly fond” of these boys.

Not long ago, in 1998 I believe, a pedoscele named Thomas Hamilton massacred a kindergarten class in Dunblane, Scotland. He had been driven, unwelcome, from one community to another for decades, it seems, but police were not able to find parents unashamed to take a case to court. Instead, he was shooed along, referred to as a “misfit,” and became, each time, the next community’s problem. The subsequent slaughter, like the murder of Jeffrey Curley in my home town of Cambridge, unmasks the real nature of sexual child abuse. At its core is a hatred of that naivete and vulnerability we call innocence. Men like Thomas Hamilton, or Jesse Timmendequas who killed Megan Kanka, or Salvatore Sicari and Charles Jaynes, the murderers of Jeffrey Curley, cannot stand that quality and must defile it. Failing that, they must kill the child who represents it.

While we’re at it, let’s retire the word “molest.” Look it up. It means to bother. Excuse me, sir, you’re bothering my child. Just yesterday, in the Boston Globe, there was a story about the army suing the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston for sending them a priest who had a record of abuse allegations which they had suppressed. The language of the church’s memos is revealing. The memos recorded that Rev. Scanlon “fools around with kids” and that he may be “overindulgent with boys.”

Even speaking informally we communicate mostly ignorance, discomfort, and confusion. I have heard the word diddle used to describe (and dismiss) the violation of children, as in “He likes to diddle little boys.” It is a word that seems made to order, silly sounding, sniggering, naughty, childish, innocent: Hey diddle, diddle/ The cat and the fiddle… Diddling, fondling, fooling around—great foggy euphemisms into which real children vanish.

I want to ask a question: if this is the level of adult discourse on the subject — so that even adult survivors are left shaking their heads and feeling as if they are from another planet — HOW IS A CHILD TO ENTER THIS CONVERSATION?

There is language that sheds light, and language that hides reality in fog. Honoring the truth means matching words to things as honestly as we can so the listener or reader sees what we are referring to, not an abstraction that has taken its place. Honoring the truth means not using language to evade responsibility.

Honoring the truth is a political issue, just as it is everywhere else in the world, whether it is in Chile, Cambodia, Guatemala, South Africa, El Salvador, Iraq, orthe Balkans; in fact it is THE political issue of our time since we live in such a mediadrome that reality can be processed, denatured, distorted, polished, and recycled almost as soon as something has happened.

So let’s get this straight: America was not “discovered.” Guatemalan peasants were not “pacified.” Kosovo was not “cleansed.” I was not “fondled.” I was not “loved.” I was also not corrupted. I was hurt. I was injured. I was raped.

Orwell had it right about language. It’s always first of all about language. I think about a time when I was helping a friend lay pipe during a rehab of his bathroom. We started on one side of the room, fitting the lengths of pipe together as we went, and when we got to the other side of the room we were about four or five feet “off” — because we were about 3 degrees “off” when we began. This is precisely what I worry about when I look at the language we are using to describe violence against children. If we do not take care to strip our vocabulary of terms that are inaccurate and inexact, we will become further and further “off”, further and further from where we need to be to be effective, no matter how much well-intentioned effort we expend along the way. This is what it means to “come to terms” with something. Some people use euphemisms to make the intolerable tolerable, others to sow confusion and rationalize their actions. We have to be on guard against these manipulations. I understand that, for many, calling anything evil in our psychocratic age is blasphemy; nevertheless, when language masks reality, instead of revealing it, then we traffic in delusion and create suffering.

As you can see, I am reluctant to talk about the sexual abuse of children as if it were in each case a private tragedy, a kind of accident, something for individuals to survive and “move on” from, tucking themselves tidily back into the world as it is, keeping silent, behaving themselves decorously so as not to upset anyone.

Much of the time, when we talk about recovering from the trauma of childhood sexual abuse, we talk about healing. The metaphor of healing a wound is only so useful, however – the truth is even simpler and more terrible: the sexual violation of a child is a violation of the child’s history, not merely the child’s psyche. It is a lie told to the child about his or her worth, a lie that disrupts the story as it had been unfolding and establishes new premises that engender a different narrative or make a coherent individual story nearly impossible unless it is congruent with the master narrative, the story of power over others.

THIS is the curriculum, this is the training, this is the redefinition of power that must take place in order to maintain institutions of social control. There, I’ve said it: it is the curriculum, the doctrine — with which children are indoctrinated in order to hide the illegitimacy of abusive power, wrapping itself in rhetoric: in flags, uniforms, robes, rituals, and rationalizations. This curriculum must be hidden and must be able to be easily denied, attributed instead, as we have seen over and over, to “a few bad apples.” Institutions that wield abusive power and control REQUIRE the kind of extreme bullying that rapists and torturers provide in order to humiliate and subjugate, shame and silence, those whose helplessness and obedience is needed to preserve that abusive power. What I am saying is that those who perpetrate crimes of abusive power against children — whether that abuse is sexual, physical, or intellectual (call it, pardon me, but the expression is apt: “fucking with their heads”) — are so seldom brought to justice because they are performing a societal function. They are performing an induction ritual into a world of hierarchical abusive power, a world of victors and victims, winners and losers, maintained by shame and fear: THEY ARE DOING THEIR JOB. Only when it becomes impossible to look away — when there are pictures, when the crime is public, or when the child is not only raped but abducted and murdered — do these institutions act, and when they do, they predictably scapegoat the lowest ranking perpetrators as we have seen in both the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the Roman Catholic Church.

What I’m suggesting is that this induction into a culture of abusive, hierarchical power, a world of winners and losers, victors and victims, is accomplished in large part through sexual violence. It is not necessary that every child experience this violence explicitly and directly for it to be a constant feature of childhood. We are learning, as disclosures mount, that somewhere between a quarter and a third of all children, girls and boys, are explicitly violated by a trusted adult.

Most of us live believing or at least accepting the myth is that our society exists in order to sustain its members and to create health and abundance for coming generations, beginning with our children and grandchildren. This may indeed have been the function of pre-industrial, agrarian cultures, but it is emphatically not the purpose of our late capitalist consumer society. Ask any primary school teacher how much of their time is spent debriefing their charges, trying to countermand the toxic messages about their self-worth that indoctrinate entry-level consumers.

Now consider the corollary myth: that those who prey upon children are different in kind from the good middle-class souls who work hard to keep the wheels of commerce, religion, and politics turning. This myth insists that predators are out of alignment with society’s values regarding children. We’ve been sold the idea that because we are disgusted by the kind of abuse perpetrated by sexual predators their crimes are essentially different from the crimes of others who exploit children for their own gain in other ways. What is the difference between the predator who uses pornography and alcohol to get what he wants from a young boy or girl and the company that uses advertising to market cigarettes, junk foods, and violent behavior to them for profit? What is the difference between, on the one hand, the pedoscele who steals from a child what that child cannot understand until much later and, on the other, a corporate state that, for its own immediate profit, leaves to the next two generations of children a mountain of debt under which they must labor?

This myth, that our society’s values match its rhetoric and that its institutions are essentially benevolent, except for a few rotten apples, sometimes relies for support on the cartoon figure of the wild-eyed deviant in a trenchcoat lurking in the suburban shrubbery. (In the service of this myth, every child abuser who owns a trenchcoat will be photographed in it a thousand times, preferably with playground equipment in the background.)

It was Freud, of course, who helped supply this myth because he gave way to his own quite human need, and that of his colleagues, to make something safely “other” of what he rightly saw as vile and criminal. He decided, under pressure from his colleagues, that of course the good burghers of Vienna couldn’t be exploiting their daughters and nieces in this unconscionable manner (let alone their sons and nephews.) We have been living with the consequences of that evasion for a century now, and we are accustomed to a conceptual framework, or at least a phraseological one, that cannot allow the truth, that in fact reflexively dismisses it whenever it appears. Unless, of course, it involves a guy in a trenchcoat.

With the North American Man-Boy Love Association crying out, wrongly, “we’re gay too, and persecuted for our sexual preference,” and, on the other, right wing homophobes busily scapegoating gay men for crimes against children, it becomes difficult to get anyone to see that these violations are first of all crimes of abusive, oppressive, exploitative power, and that they are a human rights issue. Add to that such psychobabble as “the incest family,” “the cycle of violence,” and statistically inaccurate representations that suggest to the public that those who are violated as children go on to violate children, all that “kiss of the vampire” crap, a canard that the recent novel and film Mystic River deftly exploited for its plot resolution, and you have a paralyzing confusion about who is responsible and what, if anything, can be done.

I believe this is similar to the confusion that reigned in our culture right up to the latter half of the 19th century on the question of slavery. People walked around wringing their hands and saying they were of course against it but what could they do? It was “too complex,” “too politicized;” its opponents were “too fanatical.” Many debates were held to discuss whether in fact slavery was “evil” or just an unfortunate economic and historical development. Some maintained that blacks were better off than they would have been in Africa. Others, saying they shared the same goals, but saw no reason to call good Christian gentlemen of the south “evil,” created “African Colonization societies” that did nothing to interrupt the slave trade, but bought up slaves, mostly the sick and elderly, and resettled them in places like Liberia.

Those who argued on behalf of slaveholders contended that the Greeks had slaves. They argued that not all slaveholders treated their slaves violently. They argued that some slaves were thankful to their masters for educating them. They argued that truly sadistic masters were a tiny minority. I have heard every one of these arguments applied to the latter day “peculiar institution” of child sexual exploitation.

It took William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, and others to finally convince people that slavery was evil, and that while a man held slaves, there was nothing that could be placed in the other pan of the moral scale that would balance it out.

Those who violate children are slave-masters, tyrants, especially when the child can make no escape from their sphere of influence. And while a person continues to harm children, there is nothing that can be placed in the other pan of the scale — nothing — that can balance it. It doesn’t matter if you are a winning coach, an inspiring teacher, a great provider for your family, a beloved priest, a pop star, or a poet. And to condemn the actions of tyrants is not hatred, but love.

I suppose that here is the part where I should talk about forgiveness. Over and over again, I am asked if I forgavethe man who raped me. The answer is yes — I forgave him for thirty years; that was the word I used: forgiveness. I knew nothing about denial during those years while it was having its corrosive effect on my life. Forgiveness had a nice virtuous ring to it. And during the thirty years that Feifel enjoyed my virtuous amnesty, over three hundred more little boys were raped.

Those of us who were victimized by this ongoing atrocity, this pervasive secret institution in our culture, have only recently found the strength to claim, understand, and come to terms with what was done to us when we were at our most vulnerable. I am not alone when I say that not only do I refuse to be anesthetized any longer by the culture’s prescribed anodynes of booze, drugs, constant entertainment and distraction, but that I also refuse to be “amnesthetized” by bogus versions of forgiveness based on a no-fault ethical system.

If a man burns down my house, I do not owe him anything — certainly not the chance to do it again after I’ve rebuilt, and least of all forgiveness. On the contrary, he owes me. He owes me a house, along with a great deal more for the trauma and devastating interruption of my life his act has caused. He also owes the community for infecting it with fear and mistrust.

Some days I see hope in the actions of brave truth tellers who refuse to pipe down in the face of sneers and threats. Other days I feel that asking this culture to fight for the protection of children and against their exploitation is like asking a tree to uproot itself, a stone to lift itself, a bomb to defuse itself.

I began by saying I think our new direction is political action. This is the real revolution, and it is a narrow and demanding way. But followed, it can lead not only to real safety for our children, but to the reestablishment and strengthening of a community, a body politic, a nation, torn apart by deep moral divisions in other matters. Surely we all agree, across those divides, that adult sexual exploitation of children is wrong. (By the way, contrary to what some people would like us to believe, there is no nation on this planet where the sexual violation of a child is legally permissible. None.) So why not begin there, where we agree?

If we cannot come together across the barriers of race, class, religion, and politics — including the politics of sexual orientation, abortion, and capital punishment — to search for a way to protect our children from this scourge, then truly all is lost. Then we will have failed as a people no matter what else we may accomplish.

We will have to rethink things, rename things, reconsider positions with which we’ve become comfortable. We will have to be willing to admit ignorance, feel foolish, relinquish worn pieties. We will have to be fearless.

Which of our children doesn’t deserve this? And what kind of society are we if our first goal is not to protect our children — not your children or my children, but our children? Who are we if we turn our backs?


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