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Coming to Terms

By Richard Hoffman


Mic Hunter's editorial "Does NOMSV Speak for Those Who Have Offended?" written in reaction to an essay of mine, took issue with my use of the word evil. After my essay appeared in the Boston Globe, Ken Singer wrote to ask me if NOMSV could reprint it, and I replied that I'd be honored. I wish I'd been forewarned, however, that my discussion of evil would be removed from its context. I wrote that piece in response to the rape and murder of a ten–year–old boy in my home town by two "offenders." If one cannot call such an act evil, if one cannot decry the use of the word love in connection with such an act, then I fear we've lost our ethical bearings completely.

As to the question Hunter uses for his title, I can only say: I hope not. Why would they need anyone to speak for them? We need them to speak for themselves, we need them to say, "I'm sorry." We need them to offer reparations not excuses. We need them to tell us that they understand the enormity of the suffering they have caused. We need them to hear our anger at what they have done.

Why does Hunter argue on their behalf? Why does he cast them as the underdog in his editorial, poor guys who want to do the right thing (now) but can't catch a break from those of us who "hate" them? Pardon me for saying so, but I think he is wearing his ethics inside–out.

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.

I am wary of "experts" who assume a quasi–scientific mantel of moral neutrality, as if they can run between the ethical raindrops by calling everyone a "client." I guess when you live in such a little paperweight village, where the normal weather is amorality, it's frightening when someone who lives in the real world gives your domed enclosure a good snowy shake. Meanwhile, out here in the real world, physicians in ERs are sewing up babies' rectums; 10–year–old boys are raped and murdered and their bodies found at the bottom of rivers; toddlers are lured with puppies, sodomized, then strangled with their own underwear; judges decline to sentence child rapists because they hold important posts in the community; and years after the fact, victims choose suicide over the pain they feel at being unheard, at being told from all quarters that there is no justice, that they must forgive and move on, and that what happened to them was not evil but a kind of existential accident, a no–fault fender–bender caused by some kind of human brake failure. Forgive me, but in this real world, designations like "client" are a little hard to stomach.

I was asking, in my essay, that we rethink entirely the way we have framed our view of a heinous crime. Dostoevsky once wrote that the rape of a single child would be enough to bring about the destruction of the world. Leonard Shengold called it "soul murder." I believe we are not served, in our efforts to protect children, by euphemisms, obfuscations, and minimization.

With NAMBLA on the one hand crying out "we're gay too, and persecuted for our sexual preference," and, on the other, rightist 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, 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 to say, unequivocally, 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. Through his efforts, and in the face of accusations of fanaticism and, yes, "hatred," the entire north finally came round to his position.

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.

As for the question of abusers who were themselves victimized I am not sympathetic to those who have violated children even though they were violated themselves. Please note that I say "even though," and not because. I know too many decent honorable men whose boyhoods, if we were to adopt this mechanistic theory, would qualify them to be axe-murderers.

Neither do I condemn anyone who is willing to look hard at the consequences of his actions, and make the penitential journey to restored wholeness. One would be a fool to do so; the literature of every land provides stories that attest to the possibility of redemption, and to the fact that even the most horrible torturers can once again find their place in the human community. But no one can make that journey while they are minimizing the horror they have inflicted, and I think it the very worst kind of "help" to offer them the debased and distorted language that allows them to do so.

For what shall they feel remorse? For doing evil? Or for "being inappropriate?" For "fondling" a child? (Most of us like being fondled!) For "offending?" Mic Hunter's misreading of my essay and his misrepresentation of my position "offended" me. When I was ten my coach raped me. I have been bitten by both dogs and fleas, and I know the difference. But then I am not invested in softening the language to accommodate some new pseudo–enlightened view that dispenses with evil as a category to describe the selfish exploitation of the vulnerable.

After distorting my use of the word evil, Hunter ignores the main point of my essay: that the sexual assault or exploitation of a child is a crime of abusive power. In order for me to believe that it is about sexual desire for children, I would have to take the self–reporting of those who abuse children at face value. Consider that, with some regularity, one comes across newspaper reports of hospital or nursing home staff raping comatose or developmentally disabled patients in their care. Are the perpetrators of these crimes turned on by coma or mental retardation? Do you see? It is about rapaciousness finding an easy target, period. The turn–on is vulnerability. It is about dominance. Unless you are prepared to believe from the hospital worker that he has a "thing" for comatose women. Maybe we should come up with a new term for his misunderstood love: comaphilia. A whole new subspecialty might open up for study.

The whole line of questioning in Hunter's editorial (including the ridiculous "Shall the 16 year old boy who has sexual intercourse with his 15 year old girlfriend, and is thereby committing statutory rape, be thought of as evil?") is beside the point since even the short excerpt from my essay makes it clear that I am arguing that we not see these as "sexual offenses." The violation of a child is the antithesis of eros because the essence of eros is mutuality. It is, once again, a human rights violation. In fact it is a hate crime against an entire class of people: children. My essay is not an invitation to hatred, but an exposure of it, especially in this case when it mocks reason by calling itself love.

For the record, concerning evil, I do not believe in evil as an entity; to do so is superstition, literally diabolism. It locates agency and responsibility outside the individual. As Flip Wilson used to say, "The devil made me do it!" Psychology's secular version of this diabolism is the "cycle of violence." Nor do I believe that evil is a personal, constitutional feature. Evil is, however, a category into which certain acts fall because of their unalloyed selfishness and the terrible suffering they cause.

The idea that people perform evil deeds because they are sick is the keystone idea of utopianism. It used to be understood that they did so because they were not in a "state of grace," and this allowed churchmen to extort money from them in order to restore their souls to blamelessness, a kind of metaphysical protection racket; these days they are "sick" and ... well, I'll refrain from filing the analogy's point too sharply. Suffice to say that while I am no cynic, I am also no utopian.

Some 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 yes, "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, but that I also refuse to be "amnesthetized" by bogus versions of forgiveness based on crackpot explanations for egregious behavior.

It is easy to demonize others, and we must be careful not to do so. I understand that. At the end of a century of atrocities fueled by demonizing various groups, we need to be vigilant about any form of scapegoating behavior. But to flinch from demonizing those who have shown themselves by their actions and not by virtue of being part of a group or lifestyle with which the majority is uncomfortable to be, well, demonic, that is an ethical lapse for which many daily pay the price.

Unless, of course, you see those who prey on children as a group like, say, Jews, for example, or ethnic Albanians, or homosexuals, in which case you are already inside the door of the NAMBLA meeting (that self–declared oppressed minority) so you might as well pull up a chair and sit down.

I reject Hunter's comparison to the way the dominant culture views homosexuality unless we are willing to say that sex with children is wrong only because it is against current morés. (This, of course, is the position of those who call themselves "boy–lovers.") Let's look at this clearly: the majority of people are repulsed by adults exploiting children for sex because it is wrong (i.e. harmful to children). It is not wrong simply because a majority of people find it repugnant.

By the way, I must say that I do NOT see evidence that our society finds it "easy" to demonize child abusers, as Hunter maintains. Lolita's back in the theaters, Happiness, too. How I learned to Drive, which the Village Voice, with no irony at all, called "the sweetest, most forgiving play about child abuse ever written," won the Pulitzer last year and is soon to be released as a film. Serial pederasts are still quietly moved from one parish, school district, boy scout troop to another, the public is told not to become "hysterical" or "fanatical," and parents are discouraged from bringing charges by threats of defamation suits if the jury acquits the abuser. What I see is the whole culture accommodating child abuse and theatrically wringing its hands only when it must, and that is usually when the child has been not "merely" raped but also murdered.

I am an alcoholic, 13 years sober, and I also reject outright Hunter's use of the addiction paradigm when it comes to the serial violation of children. The serial violation of children may be a compulsive behavior, but there's clearly an ethical difference between emptying bottles and emptying childrens' souls. When I hear psychiatrists and forensic psychologists talk of the inner workings of serial rapists, I wonder if it isn't possible, after all, to be able to take apart a clock and reassemble it and still not know how to tell time.

I want to educate people about the nature of this crime, why most communities are blind to it, and how to stop it. 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.

We still respond to instances of child sexual abuse as if each were an exception from the way things are, generally; no doubt the vast majority of people find such acts repugnant in the extreme and so believe that their incidence is exaggerated, probably by well–meaning but overly zealous, and terribly damaged people. This position allows one who takes it to feel a mildly patronizing compassion, not unpleasant for being so "reasonable" in the face of potential "hysteria." The sexual abuse of children is, however, not only commonplace, but lodged at the intersection of certain cultural assumptions that, taken together, shield its prevalence from view:

  1. sexual abuse of children is rare
  2. sexual abuse of children is something only "those people" do
  3. sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by a few sick, mentally ill persons
  4. if a child is sexually abused by a priest, coach, caregiver, it's the parents' fault
  5. children wish to be sexual with adults
  6. most adults are focused on making the world a better place for kids

The necessary 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. This myth bodies forth in the form 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.

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, or post–holocaust Europe; 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. Psychology that uses terms like "the incest family," "inappropriate touch," and "the cycle of violence," plays its part in that snowballing untruth. Psychotherapy that restores victims to the truth of what happened and helps them to regain their power to make change in the world is part of the solution. Psychotherapy that pretends neutrality, that offers palatable euphemisms for what is a great evil, is part of the problem.

I was not "fondled." I was not "loved." America was neither "discovered," nor "settled." Guatemalan peasants were not "pacified." Kosovo was not "cleansed."

Orwell had it right about language. It's always first of all about language. That's 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. 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.


Richard Hoffman is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist. The publication of his memoir, Half the House, resulted in the arrest and conviction of a pedoscele with a 40–year history of violating young boys.

Half the House is available in a paperback edition from Harvest Books.

For more information about Mr. Hoffman, visit his website at: http://richardhoffman.org/



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