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A Fork Stuck in the Road | 2017 | Dr. Susan


Not that I want to be a god or a hero. Just to change into a tree, grow for ages, not hurt anyone.  

-Czeslaw Milosz

The Presence of Predators

Little Me
Leave this little guy alone.

I met a predator first in elementary school.

I was best friend with a boy, in that we were in the same grade so we cleaved together. Outside of the Nintendo and playing in his swampy backyard, we didn't share any interests.

Over a video game, he told me that he had a neighbor who would give us toys and candy if we went to her house and let her try to teach us math. I recall only going once because the amount of candy and the quality of toys was not enough to endure extracurricular math. She as old, wizened. Her very appearance spoke of decay and dust, clothes hanger bones, a deeply lined face and a loose, pink dressing gown. (In truth, she could have been any age over forty. "Old" is a nebulous concept to a second grader.)

I knew I shouldn't be in a stranger's home, but I was too anxious and pacific to contradict my friend's edict that we go. Surely a stranger offering me candy was no threat if she were an old woman teaching me addition. Child molesters were only ever sweaty men in panel vans with patchy mustaches.

I was not touched or bothered, since many predators groom before striking and I wasn't around long enough. On some level, I sensed danger. I would never go to that house during subsequent bouts of trick-or-treating, even when someone else bought it.

I saw my friend months after my sole visit and, with sadness and confusion, he told me that she had been arrested. Even then, I took a cannier lesson. I knew vaguely what she meant to do, if she had not done it to him already. He knew only that he lost something. Despite his frequency, despite that she had him bring me and likely used him to entice others to her parlor, I can only hope this loss was only plastic and sugar. As far as I know now, he is a deeply religious, more deeply Trump-loving, and has a wife and children. Outside of his lashing out on mutual friends' statuses, we have not spoken in twenty years. If we did, his potential molestation would not be a topic I would broach. I cannot blame a na´ve child for putting me in harm's way, because I have put myself and others in peril when I was old enough to be cautious, when I should have known better.

The next encounter was once and uncertain. When I was barely older, I went to the gym with my father so I could splash about in the pool. Afterward, I went into the showers to rinse off. On the door of my stall was the same white towel the club provided, which I used to dry off. Suddenly, a naked man lunged out of his own stall across the room and started screaming at me about using "his" towel, trying to seize me by the arm and pull me I do not know where, not counting on the slipperiness of a terrified tyke fresh from a shower. I ran out of the bathroom, likely crying. In retrospect, I know that any man who jumps naked and wet from a shower to grab a strange boy isn't upset about a towel, just trying to find an excuse. At the time, I was so horrified that I refused to go swimming there again in case he should spot me.

There may have been other abusers in my proximity as a small child, those who tried to lure me but I was too wily or clueless for them, too nervous around strangers to go anywhere I didn't know to be safe. My memory doesn't summon up their attempts at crimes against me, which is for the best. There were no family friends with wandering hands, primary school teachers pulling me onto their knee.

When I was sixteen, I was cast in a production of Rocky Horror Picture Show. The director was an adult, as far as I was then concerned. She said she was twenty-five, but she said a lot of things that were false, such as that she had a fatal brain tumor and was not to blame for what she did and that I summoned a demon that threw her around a room. She failed to ever get treated for a brain tumor, though she convinced enough people to accept spectral evidence and thus hate me.

She did not take to me specifically as much as she tried to abuse anyone available. She slipped a naked picture of herself under my parents' front door. She took a Polaroid of my teenage friend in a state of undress, fooling around with his equally young girlfriend in the back of a car, and tried to show me. (She also made copies and had a lackey put it in lockers in the girl's school to shame her, but that might have only been one of her lies that filtered back to me.) She made constant sexual remarks to teenagers and attempted to get us into compromising positions, certainly leveraging Rocky Horror as a mean to do it. As point of fact, the production in which I starred as Brad was written up in a local free paper, not inaccurately, as child pornography.

I finally reached the end of my rope when she shoved me to the ground, leapt on top of me, and bit my neck. Given that she outweighed me by a factor of three, I panicked. The only reasons it did not escalate further were that I punched her in the head until her teeth released my skin and that she tried to sexually assault me around other people, who understood after a moment they were witnessing a sex crime and so pushed her off. I could have ended up with much worse than a bruised neck if she had attacked me somewhere secluded. Despite her mendacity and extremity, she had several people who followed her around and despised me that I cut her out of my life, spending years harassing me and spreading rumors. Some of my former friends flocked around her and I do not know if she tried to abuse them as well. I wouldn't be surprised. She even enlisted my younger brother to report my movements to her, a betrayal I put a stop to when I saw him, hand cupped over the mouthpiece of the cordless phone, whispering while spying on me from outside the door.

In my late teens, I tried connecting with local Pagans and was startled to find a man in my town, though I couldn't understand why he would want anything to do with a teenager. We were not close, but I had a degree of respect for him. I attended his wedding and several parties at his house. He tried to exchange Reiki attunement for several sessions of babysitting, though I failed to ever meet that bargain. I was appalled when I found out years later that he had been arrested for raping teenagers and manufacturing kiddy porn. When I told this to female friends to whom I introduced him, a couple confessed that he had raped them. He was married to a wonderful and kind woman while he preyed on teens, living with her young daughter (whom he never touched, perhaps knowing how quickly that would get him caught, perhaps only because she fell beneath the age of his preferences). He is in prison for decades, where he immediately converted to Christianity and blamed all he did on Paganism and not his pedophilia.

Little Me
This one too.

Around then, because I had taken to napping on the guidance counselors' couch after my classes ended and before my mother would pick me up, my counselor told me that there was a woman looking for a boy to babysit her children every weekday. She specified that the woman had told her that it had to be a boy, because we would be more inclined toward getting dirty with the kids.

I accepted the job because I had babysat my neighbors' kids for years and liked the world. After this woman oriented me to her home and children, she stated that she worked from home and would always be present. I thought this strange, but the money didn't care how easily it was apparently acquired.

I tried to be a proper babysitter for the weeks I was in her employ, redirecting and entertaining her children whenever I could, but she made clear that this wasn't necessary. For the most part, she dealt with all the child care. I just stuck around until she drove me home or, once, to my girlfriend's house as she peppered me questions about my relationship.

Once, she had opted to take her children to a sprawling grocery store in Connecticut while I babysat. The children slept on the way there and back. Once we arrived, she kept trying to buy me things, though this made me uneasy. I eventually deigned to have a small bowl of mashed potatoes, which disappointed her as I quietly ate it and tried to focus on the children, who saw no use for me.

The last time she picked me up, she handed me a $20 bill and told me she could no longer employ me, offering a convoluted reason involving her husband "finding out" for why we could not "keep this up," sounding more like she was breaking up with me. I understood then I was never meant to be a babysitter. If the genders were reversed, a father paying a high school girl to be around him every weekday afternoon, let go because the wife realized what was going on, I would have understood the threat.

Would she have done anything to me? I can't know, though I think it was more a matter of when. How long would she have groomed me, if she expected a high school boy would have more hormones than sense? Would I have caught on that I was a high school gigolo and quit before this happened?

In college, in the wrong major, a teacher took a liking to me. I did not realize it at first because I was both guileless and myopic, which was why my dating strategy could be boiled down to "You like me? Then I like you." It was only after she gave me an A on a project absurd, rush, and shoddy that it occurred to me that her interest in me was other than strictly professional.

I cannot say what she saw in me. I had long, dry hair, a childish face, braces. I did not yet have glasses, which ended up more John Lennon than helped my image, so I may have squinted. I was a usually good student for her, but I was clever rather than hardworking. In sum, I was an unlovely choice for an opportunity to mar her career.

Had I been single when I realized and had she pressed the issue at the right moment, I may have succumbed. Had I been successfully victimized prior, I wouldn't have resisted it from her. She was pretty, I admired her, and (as I've covered) I found liking me an attractive quality. I was eighteen. It was maybe unethical, certainly unwise, but not illegal.

(In writing this, I searched for her. She is teaching elsewhere. The years have been kind to her. I don't know if there were other students whom she liked, others with whom she was less reserved. My ego and current professional ethics hope there weren't, but not every wide-eyed boy would be in relationships or as skittish as me when the attractive professor pressed her lips together as though about to welcome a kiss.)

She was not a predator. She had an imprudent crush and, aside from undue favoritism, did nothing untoward that I noticed. (I have well covered how I was not the most attentive boy, so I cannot wholly rule out that, during some of our long nights together, she made an overture that went over my head.) I want to forgive someone a temptation they know they shouldn't follow, who then has the strength to simply not. Many do not keep in the light when it is easy to waylay someone into the shadows.

Little Me
This one too.

In my dating experiences, most of the girls could share too familiar stories of adults who had taken advantage of them, getting them drunk, feeling them up in classrooms, or luring them away from parents. Or, sometimes, of parents who could not manage care that their daughters were not blow-up dolls.

If they had been left alone, they could have blossomed easily into vibrant women rather than fighting the world for every inch of sanctity and wholeness.

When I substitute taught early in my career, there were a couple of instances where I instinctively zigged where an immoral man would zag. When I was playing a movie the teacher had left, I did not notice that the bell dismissed all but one student, who lingered until we were the only two people in the room. I told her that she ought to get to her next class. She said she did not have one and she thought we could talk a little while. I told her that I was not comfortable with that. She retorted she was eighteen and I saw my career ending at once. I all but screamed for her to get out. Pushing her out the door without laying a hand on her, locking the door behind me, and feeling the panic drip icicles down my back. I couldn't tell you now what she looked like, since all I saw was red flashing lights.

I have encountered students with crushes - even to the extent that they formed into a gang they called the Quack Pack - which I have always joked away because the kids don't really mean anything by it. I don't want to embarrass them by drawing attention to these ephemeral crushes, sure to be embarrassing only a little while after passing. These girls are vulnerable and trust the adults around them to do what is right to let them grow out of it, but some adults do not. Every other story I have heard about a teacher-turned-rapist starts with a student's misplaced trust in a snake, someone groomed through afterschool study sessions until they could manipulate and attack.

I have followed in the wake of sexual offenders. The position of English teacher at the boarding school for learning disabled students was open only because the former teacher was found in her apartment, on her knees in front of a student.

While there, I had a timorous and eager to please student who had, as a preschooler, been a kiddy porn star. Her parents plastered pictures of her repeated violation all over their house. Child Protective Services caught wind, rescued her, and put her up for adoption. The fact that she was at all functional with that as her earliest memories is a testament to her incredible fortitude. When I tutored in Newburgh, a second grader tried to cuddle into me as we worked on her math homework. Before this, there was something almost flirty about how she behaved toward me, the sole man employed there. With almost no preamble, she off-handedly whispered that her uncle sometimes took off her clothes and touched her. I kept my manner even, seeing no reason to traumatize her further by pulling her to the police. Following established protocol, I told my supervisor, who all but rolled her eyes, because it was Newburgh and of course our students were raped by family members. She said she would "do something" about it, but I doubt in retrospect she did. Having been victimized by an adult she trusted, being so young, she wanted to reenact what was done and, without intervention, would surely find someone who would hurt her again. At that age, it is too easy to have the wrong lesson imprinted on you, one you will have to spend years of your adulthood trying to correct.

Of course, working in a juvenile detention facility, a sizeable percentage of my boys were sexually abused. It goes with the territory of being underprivileged, of getting involved with gangs, of survival sex on the street. So many of them have been raped that my unconscious assumption is that they all potentially have, so I need to be especially mindful about their unspoken traumas.

Aside from the Pagan pedophile and the Rocky Horror, I have personally known a few other sex offenders. Dan Jurow, whom the judge called "one sick individual," who hit on Amber in front of me, to her obvious revulsion, and followed suit by trying to chat up half the people at my wedding. He seemed to have a mental disconnection where he couldn't notice that other people saw him for what he was. I was unsurprised that he boldly cheated on Holly, because he was amoral and appetitive. I admit to having been startled when he was arrested in a sting operation, soliciting a fake teenager for sex. I gather from the length of his sentence that child pornography was found on his computer, or something worse. I don't think he was an exclusive pedophile, but he was a predator of anyone he saw as weak enough to be susceptible. I believe he would have thought nothing of raping a twelve-year-old any more than he would an unconscious woman.

There is a saying that the person who is nice to you but is a bastard to the waitress is not a nice person. To this, is an extreme coda I've witnessed among my associates: the person who is cool to you but who sexually victimizes children is not worth defending. However, when an acquaintance from high school was arrested for child pornography (technically, inducing a barely pubescent girl to perform on video chat, then having his computer seized, where more child pornography was found), several erstwhile decent people leapt to silencing anyone reporting on his arrest, snarling I was morally in the wrong for doing so. Since it was not their children he was victimizing, since they had tapped a keg or two with him, he was all right by them. They tacitly permit this molestation to occur. They provided the safe grounds for predators to lurk.

What does it mean that I can rattle off a handful of people who abused children? My gut reaction is that I used to know and be known by hundreds of people, before people could claim that by dint of social media. Statistically, I would be more likely to know someone who was a pedophile because I would simply be more likely to know someone. It is nevertheless unnerving to mull over their commonalities as though these might point out a schema by which I might recognize them next time, knowing there will always be a next time.

There is no easy lesson. Adults are usually trustworthy until they are not at all. Some will prioritize some appetitive urge over the sanctity of a child. And those good adults will come up short. We won't realize because the child will feel guilty or scared, because their culture looks the other way, because they don't realize until it is too late.

Soon in Xenology: Apocalypse.

last watched: Death Note
reading: 13 Minutes
listening: Ani DiFranco

A Fork Stuck in the Road | 2017 | Dr. Susan

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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