Tell me a story

Don’t be jealous.

I got an invitation to go to a Moth storytelling workshop the other day. If a blog could squeal, you’d hear it right about now.

If you don’t know what the Moth is, and you love storytelling, you are in for a treat. I almost never listen to the Moth without choking up or laughing out loud.themoth

The pre-workshop instructions from the Moth organizers said to not overthink a story before the workshop. They assured us they’d teach us the techniques of creating a Moth-worthy story.

I have so many stories. If you know me, you know this. All the time. But don’t you know, when I got the email about the workshop, my mind went completely blank. Story? Do I know any stories?

In truth, I’ve had a long dramatic life with many story-worthy moments. My problem? Most of them are not things I would be wild about telling in front of an audience of strangers.

I finally picked a nice safe story about something that happened to me in high school. When I told the story to my partner (step one in story development) I put both of us to sleep. No good. I had to pick one of the risky stories, or flunk out of storytelling school.

So I took the plunge. I told the story of my childhood friend—and the deep relationship I had with his entire family. And something bad that happened.

I loved them all. They were my second family and I wished they were my first. Every night, they ate dinner together around a big table with a white tablecloth, real silver, nice plates and cloth napkins. They had an electric warming gadget to put the main dish on in case someone wanted seconds. And the conversation—oh, they read New Yorker magazine and newspapers and discussed important stuff in a civilized way. I was in heaven. They also had a summer “camp” in Maine—a creaky old house with a large screened-in porch—where the big dining table lived. The house was on a lake with the purest water where we swam and sailed. I loved all these people so much.

Time passed and all the kids grew up. I went away to college—3000 miles away. This was in the olden days, when people wrote letters—so I had a booming correspondence with several members of my adopted family. We all stayed tightly connected.

One year, when I was home for Thanksgiving, my friend and I got together and, as always, we talked and talked. I told him about my recent volunteer work at a Rape Relief in my new town, and about my particular interest in child victims. He asked me, bemused, if I didn’t think that the real problem with adults having sex with kids was the social taboo—that barring that, it really would be no big deal. Right? I remember thinking he was just yanking my chain, putting a theoretical thing out there to argue about. But the more we talked, the clearer it became that he was serious.

I knew he was close with a teenager whose mother was a tenant in an apartment he owned. So I remember insisting that he assure me that he was not having sex with this kid. The conversation went nowhere and I returned to college deeply troubled.

I wrote my friend a letter asking him once again to assure me that he would not have sex with kids, and he wrote back a 3 page, double-sided reiteration of what he already had told me about his rationale for why it’s okay for adults to have sex with kids.

I used to think that life was right and wrong, black and white. There was no time when I wouldn’t be dead sure about the right thing to do. But having my beloved friend wander down this terrible road left me stunned. And flat footed. Should I report? Or maintain my relationship so I could keep tabs and try to persuade or deter him?

It killed me to do it, but I turned him in. He was investigated and I guess the child he was in contact with didn’t disclose any abuse because my friend wasn’t arrested and I wasn’t called upon at that time to do anything more.

He and his entire family stopped talking to me. I felt phantom pains from that loss for years.

Fast forward a decade plus, and my phone rings one morning. I enter into a surreal conversation with a state patrol officer who is asking questions about my friend and what I know about him. Victims finally had come forward and the police were looking into prosecution. She knew something about a letter, and they’d tried to get this letter from the child protection agency, but they’d shredded their old files. Could I help?

Yes, I kept a copy from all those years ago because I knew this was not going to go away. The letter was entered into evidence and I was subpoenaed to testify at a trial. No trial took place because my friend came to a plea agreement. He went to prison.

People are always surprised by this, but I went to visit him there. Yes, I did. A couple of times. For those of you with friends or family in prison, you know about this. How you visit people even though they are not overjoyed to see you, and even though you are not overjoyed to see them. But because you are connected, and staying in touch is the only thing you can do.

My friend served his time. But when the date arrived for his release, it didn’t happen. He was civilly committed—the fate of many pedophiles. Civil commitment lives outside of most of our view and happens to people we are afraid of—and honestly, afraid for good reason. I completely understand why we want to lock up the bad guys. Forever. Period.

But I know this bad guy. For a whole bunch of reasons I don’t think he’s someone who should be in civil commitment. My friend was losing his freedom. All my hard edges defining right and wrong continued to crumble.

Years passed and my friend won a trial to secure his release. Every strand of my being, all my decades of work on behalf of victims strained as I went to testify on his behalf, for his release. There are many reasons I believed he was safe to be at large, and to the best of my knowledge he has not reoffended since he won that release.

I know this is hard for most people to understand but this is my world, where love and justice collide.

And this is the story I told at the Moth workshop.

The miracle of story-telling brought me others after the workshop who told me their own stories.

There are so many victims, which means there are so many perpetrators. And these rapists and batterers are people we know and in some cases people we love—in all the messy ways that happens. Even when we try to lock them up or throw them away, our loved ones return.