A few years ago, I was thrilled that my book Lolita in the Lion’s Den or Pre-teen Juxtaposition got its first positive review from a reader. One after another was pretty good. Then I noticed that the reviews were coming from some former sex offenders. My heart sank. So much for sales.
The agents were right. I was told that the book was good, but they did not know who the audience was. Neither did I. I self-published. I broke the rules for good writers, as I do in journalism. I break rules that need to be broken.
Big media would not touch the book: about a young man growing up with harsh abuse that is attracted to girls and women. We cannot humanize such a monster, whether he offends or not. He is a monster.
But monsters don’t have families, and they cannot be forgiven. Often, in porn, younger-looking girls are “motherless” because if they don’t have parents, they are fair game. Not even a mother loves them.
Survivors end up wearing masks, masks the society places on them. These, mostly girls, are tentatively but feverishly propped up while being torn down. Their abuse becomes their legacy, as with JonBenét Ramsey.
Such is not empowerment.
“This is a Good Book Because … I, Too, was Abused”
The real audience would come to me after my class, young women, child sex abuse survivors, and would completely get my book. The administration dismissed my efforts, not fond of my book and say, “Such may be appropriate for graduate students” without understanding that more than graduate students offend and get abused. Are graduate students any more privileged in processing the complexity of sexual trauma and abuse?
It’s simply what a good critical-thinking teacher must do. I raise the bar. My students meet the bar. I create a safe space with no demands. No one is below being educated and empowered.
There was the one that, abused at 10, would try and kill herself five times before her 22nd birthday. The other one walked up three flights of stairs to give me donuts and a card. It read, “Don’t ever stop teaching what you do.” The 22-year old asked me, “It never goes away, does it?”
No, it does not, but the sun still rises, and some days are still wonderful. You are still a strong and beautiful human being.
It’s not easy to get a book that provides crass truth, often alienating the reader, nor does it sugar coat a thing. What’s hidden is a message of cautious hope. It is something that we often hear but are not present for: One has to take the bad things in life and make them work for the better. How could I make my abuse, the trauma I faced, my thoughts and make them work for the greater good?
I could choose to be my late father, an abuser of young girls. Or I could slow, not stop, many from abuse by acknowledging my feelings while pursuing lifelong education. I could use vulnerability as strength. I chose prevention for altruistic and selfish reasons.
What was the common thread? What would make an offender and a survivor identify with the same book?
Both are destroyed for life, not because they want to be but because society wants them both to suffer.
Survivor Really Means Forever Victim
Empowerment never comes from a signifier or word. Empowerment comes from knowing one’s self, understanding the context. It comes from not blaming oneself and from forgiving, from understanding those that harmed us. Forgiveness is not about selflessness. It is about empowerment.
Society believes that if a survivor forgives the abuser that the survivor’s forgiveness somehow made her abuse okay. She minimized her abuse, but, in reality, forgiveness is a pathway forward that says, “You may have hurt me, but I will not be defined by your shortcomings and destructive nature.” There is no survivor if there is no forgiveness. There can be no healing while anger is still controlling her. In such a case, survivor really means “forever a victim.”
Once and Offender Always an Offender
As a young man, I walked a tightrope. On one side, forgiveness loomed below; the other, a path of anger and destruction. These gulfs were not so clear to me then. I still struggle with anger. As an abuse survivor myself, I was told a few times that I will only end up being an offender. “Why did I not have a girlfriend at 19?” I must be a monster.
I could have been, if I listened to the message so many troubled boys hear. It’s more important, I find, to fulfill a mean prophecy than supporting those that wish to choose a better path.
Offenders are your responsibility. Yes, you. When communities push them out, when self-righteous sheriffs mischaracterize the danger such men pose to the community, where do they go? Why, another community. Is that fair to that community? If it’s wrong for us to ship our trash to Malaysia than deal with it responsibly, then what makes it right to throw away human beings and push them on someone else? They cannot be fixed and must be thrown away. They are human nuclear waste.
They are your problem, and, yes, there is a solution that has nothing to do with law enforcement.
A medical director that I previously interviewed discussed the panic around the AIDS scare in the 1980s. She said people were willing to throw little kids in ditches. She said that when she went to speak with people about AIDS she learned that she had to let them yell at her. If they were still standing there after they yelled, she could then have a conversation.
This is how we can stop the “sex offender” trend. Have a civil town hall meeting. Call in parents and former offenders. Tell stories, share fears, and plan community goals: what do we all want?
Everyone wants the same thing: to be happy. This means to have a meaningful job, a place to live, and some dignity. We don’t solve problems by running away from monsters, monsters that rarely re-offend. We do by facing them and finding out that there are no monsters, just people that made bad choices, just like you and me.
As for survivors of abuse becoming real survivors, I found it was a mixed therapy group that had a profound impact. In it were child solicitation and pornography offenders as well as child sex abuse survivors. The survivors saw the pain, shame, guilt, and suffering the offenders were going through. It helped them feel that their hurt and suffering was not in vain. They heard how these men lost their jobs, families, and lives after abusing someone. The former offenders saw the pain, the human being, behind the offense and how so many lived life-long effects. In a short time, both came together and helped one another. Both were empowered through forgiveness.
The stories we seldom hear from survivors of abuse is that once they feel their abuser is sincerely sorry, they do not wish for any harm or retribution. They want their abuser’s life to get better.
With our current legal structure, where mandatory reporting does more to perpetuate abuse than stop it, where fiction rules over facts, where lifelong civil commitment and registries loom, it’s not only those that offended that we wish would go away. Also, we often ignore what would make child sex abuse victims empowered survivors: forgiveness and a non-destructive path forward.
Earl Yarington (LMSW) is a social worker and school bus driver. He taught literature and writing for nearly 20 years and spent 3 years working in forensic social work internships with offending populations, including work at Delaware Correctional facilities and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He has a PhD in literature and criticism (feminism/women writers) from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Master of Social Work from Louisiana State University, and an interdisciplinary Master of Liberal Arts from Arizona State University, where he studied the impact of visual image and girlhood in media/social media. He also has an MA and BS in English from SUNY College at Brockport. The opinions and analyses that Earl writes are his own and are not necessarily the positions or views of his employers, the agencies he supports, or that of his colleagues. Reach out with comments or questions.