Tuesday, March 2, 2010


A body was found this afternoon in the area where missing teen Chelsea King went jogging last week, and a registered sex offender has been arrested in connection with her disappearance.

I've been unexpectedly preoccupied and emotionally affected by this case, and I suspect I am not alone. It goes beyond how close to home this crime occurred, and beyond the facts that I work daily with adolescent girls and am a woman and a mother of daughters as well as a runner. Like others, I am thinking about my own exposures to sexual misconduct. I am reflecting on how we represent, talk about, and promote healthy sexual relations in our society. I am pondering our approach to apprehending, punishing, and rehabilitating sex offenders. And I am wondering about how best to raise and protect our children--from being both victims and offenders.

When I was in fourth grade I kept a secret from my parents. The secret was borne of shame: an awareness that I had participated in--perhaps even encouraged--the bad behavior of an adult.

There was a man who lived with his mother at the top of the T-intersection across from the end of my block. If I stepped out of my house and looked left, I invariably noticed his house first. My best friend in our tract-home neighborhood lived in the house next door to his.

One afternoon when I was playing in her room, my best friend told me that the man next door liked to shine mirrors into the upstairs window facing his house.

"Why does he do that?" I asked.

"So we will look over," she said.

The hair on my arms prickled. I knew this man walked out on the front walk to get the newspaper each morning with his robe barely closed. And I had seen him stand behind the screen door with his robe open, the door filtering his image just enough to make me unsure of what I’d seen. I developed the habit of riding my beige ten-speed bicycle by his house with my eyes locked forward, after the slightest surreptitious glance to the side to verify he really was there, aware of me, and being strange. But I still wasn’t convinced. There was still a chance I had made it up in my mind.

Another day, while we were in the backyard of my friend’s house, she pointed to a Frisbee on the ground.

"He throws that over our wall," she explained.

"Why does he do that?" I asked.

"So we will get up on the wall to throw it back," she replied. "Wanna see?"

And so, with that irresistible curiosity of a child, and a prescient knowledge that what were about to do would be regrettable, I scrambled up on the wall with my friend to toss the Frisbee over. I stood atop the cinder blocks just long enough to see, somewhere beyond the glare of the sliding glass doors facing the yard, the naked figure of the heavyset man, holding his penis as if to urinate against the glass.

I ran home, heart pounding. But I kept my secret for a long time, until a sense of guilt and foreboding overwhelmed me.

Fifteen years later, I walked home from my teaching job in Washington, D.C., admiring the row houses in my neighborhood. Scanning the facades of the homes across the street, I caught a glimpse, I thought, of a man's nude torso in a third-floor window. I was immediately embarrassed and enraged, but unwilling to confirm what I suddenly had doubts I had seen.

But I was even more unwilling to change my route to and from school. For months I walked those blocks stubbornly, refusing to look upward at the house from which I suspected a man might be exposing himself. I wouldn't give him the satisfaction, nor would I allow him to control my life.

Then one spring afternoon as I approached that block on my walk home from work, I noticed two young girls running toward me, giggling and pointing back at the offending house. When they got close, I stopped them and asked what they saw. Their eyes grew wide and they looked at each other.

"Was he naked?" I asked.

They nodded.

"Go home and tell your mom," I urged them. "And I will call the police."

I felt vindicated at that moment; what those girls witnessed provided the proof I needed to convince myself I wasn't crazy, and to report him to the authorities.

But here's what troubles me: In both cases I waited to tell someone what I experienced. I waited long enough for someone else to experience the violations too. And while these were only cases of indecent exposure, I know my feelings about myself and the men who flashed me were complicated and likely indicative of the range of emotions victims of sexual abuse experience: uncertainty, guilt, embarrassment, shame, denial, anger, self-reproach.

I imagine the secrets burrowed and silent in our midst, and their potential implications. How do we absolve ourselves of guilt and encourage honesty? How do we safeguard ourselves and our children? How do we determine the line between protectiveness and paranoia? How do we raise healthy people with healthy outlets for natural desires? How do we recognize the dangerous outliers, and how do we prevent them from harming others? How do we know when they're healed?

How do we conduct our daily lives, freely and independently, without fearing so much potential harm?

I have more questions than answers, and a heavy heart.

1 comment:

Mama Deb said...

Gosh, Jenny...I hear you on this. I'm so sorry you carried that all with you for so long.
We just got word that a registered sex offender is living 'temporarily' three doors up from us. We have his story---how it wasn't really 'forcible rape,' but consensual sex with another transient woman when he was homeless. I'm trying not to freak out about it, but you can't help but be a little bit on hyperalert. Sucks to live in a society with people like that.