In Defense of the Offender

My father is a registered sex offender.

When I was first living in Los Angeles a decade ago, I went the Megan’s Law sex offender registry in Ohio and typed his name into the search. There it was: his picture, his crimes, his photograph, his address. Gender: M. DOB: 1953-11-8. Race/Ethnicity: White. Hair color: brown. Eye color: hazel. Offense: Gross Sexual Imposition. Risk level: High. Seeing it sent a charge down my spine, an immediate visceral reaction, which then moved from that electric tingle in my back to a gut punch crumple in my stomach. Shame spread like a stain, dark and unsalvageable. I closed the browser window.

I am a victim of sexual abuse.

I spent most of my adult life living out the consequences of that sexual abuse, living in the shadow of who that meant that I was supposed to be. According to “The Long Term Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse: Counseling Implications,” by Melissa Hall and Joshua Hall:

Childhood sexual abuse has been correlated with higher levels of depression, guilt, shame, self-blame, eating disorders, somatic concerns, anxiety, dissociative patterns, repression, denial, sexual problems, and relationship problems... Common relationship difficulties that survivors may experience are difficulties with trust, fear of intimacy, fear of being different or weird, difficulty establishing interpersonal boundaries, passive behaviors, and getting involved in abusive relationships.

I, personally, have experienced guilt, shame, self-blame, anxiety, dissociative patterns, sexual problems and relationship problems. They didn’t necessarily occur for me in such clinical terms, but occur for me they did. There was a special place reserved for the messy puddle of emotions that came with dealing with these long-term effects, which included, but was not limited to: blow out arguments with my mother in which I sobbed and threw things at walls, nights curled in the fetal position, clutching my knees into my heaving chest and heaving in and out of the ever-flowing current of tears, nightmares in which a man in black entered my room and forced himself on me and I, inconceivably, could not move or scream or protest, self-indulgent fights with boyfriends (ask them, they’ll confirm this) where I blamed everyone but myself for my own emotions and felt as if I would never, ever be understood, not ever, fuck, and slammed doors against anyone’s help as I kneeled into myself on the harsh bathroom floor, nails dragging across my inbent knees as if physical pain could numb the intangible emotional pain, and harmless white lies presented to a rotating expensive round of psychologists to both remain in some familiar cloak of secrecy and also to prove to myself and them that I am doing really fucking well, all things considered. To list a few.

What was not included in this examination of the long-term effects of child abuse was the long-term effects of child abuse on the abuser himself. He was, in my mind, for a long time, manipulative, creepy, awkward, deflective, and pathetic. When I wasn’t coming up with ways to make him wrong – manipulating my mother into inconceivably staying married to him, distorting his own illness to compare himself to the likes of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, sending me elaborate photo albums of my elementary school drawings and pictures of him holding me when I was a baby not out of love but out of some evil master plan to falsify the sneaky grip of a nostalgic happy family – I was feeling sorry for him, alone with the latent legacy of his crimes, pitiful and dismissible.

What I have encountered in more recent years and months, however, is a different picture of my father, the sex offender. It is less black and white, and not even shades of gray, but ranging across all colors, a full spectrum of Pantone codes; he is less monster, and more human. I have, in some ways, abandoned the stereotypes of judging, and begun to simply listen.

There was, for instance, the time when he was sitting in his living room, a decade after his arrest, reading a book on Nelson Mandela I presume, and several police officers burst into his home, self-righteous preconceptions already firing at him as they slam him onto the coffee table, wrench his arms behind his back and proceed to handcuff him. My father, a researcher, an intellectual, soft-spoken and prone to discussion over violence, and also inheriting his British father’s proclivity for propriety above all else, I imagine protested politely from the vulnerable position of being held, cuffed, by two officers.

“Excuse me,” he must have questioned diffidently, “but could you please tell me why you are arresting me?”

The officers proceed to tell him that he has not registered as a sex offender at his address. He had just moved, apparently, to a place in Norwood, a suburb of Cincinnati. Officers, if we could hold one moment, there must be some mistake. It was the first thing he did, registering. I remember him recounting the story for me on the phone.

“But it was the first thing I did. It was the first thing I did.”

It was the first thing he did, of course. He recalled it for me with the concrete authority of truth, not the slippery sincerity of hazy conviction. It was the first thing because it had to be the first thing. It is the thing. He may be many other things, but this has been, and is now, the first thing he must consider, when moving, when talking to his daughter, when applying for a job, when finding a psychologist, when logging onto the internet.

As the police officers began to escort him to the car, he insisted they go to his wallet on the counter, where they would see his paperwork with the correct address. And indeed, they did. Because, it was the first thing he did. As it turns out, there was a man with the same name, but different middle initial, living in Norwood, who had failed to register. The officers had also failed, in their case, to fully check the names. I have no idea what it feels like to be arrested for a crime once, and then arrested again, a decade later, for a crime I didn’t commit. I have no idea what it feels like to live a life where that is a possibility, where the putrid residue of a shameful and horrific crime is the first thing I have to do, and the first thing someone else thinks.

Like what the woman at the cat shelter must have thought, when she saw my father’s application to adopt a cat. Our family dog – the only part of our family he got to keep, really – had recently died. He was lonely. A friend said she knew a great cat shelter, he could get a cat, he would really like having a cat, a cat would be good for him. Yes, he thought. A cat would be good for him. So he went to the shelter, he found a cat, a darling one, the perfect one for him, and he went to fill out the application and there was his crime again, in black serif font on a photocopied cat-adoption application xeroxed form: Have you ever been convicted of a felony? Please explain. And then the aftershock of his crime, its tremors still reverberating in his life when he gets the call from the woman at the cat shelter: “We can’t possibly give a cat to someone with your history.”

I think about my father again, alone in his apartment, without a cat, alone, alone, alone. How lonely the life of a sex offender, or at least, this sex offender. I am sure it is not always lonely, but I am also sure that it is a lonelier life than most. It is in this line of thinking that I start to make an argument, first with myself, and then outwards, in this writing, to the world: what if we looked at sex offenders as not the limitations of their past but the possibility in the future? What if they were not, as we have so often thought, monsters? We tend to paint the picture that’s easiest to look at in these uncomfortable subjects: to sand out the imperfections, to mold it to our understandings, to varnish it to a sheen. It seems, somehow, less complicated, more comprehendible. If they are not like us, we do not have to confront the less likable, the easily hidea-ble, the more shameful aspects of ourselves. My father, however, must live an unvarnished life. In order to survive, he has to accept and deal with his own crimes and the future that it gives him.

When I began to see him not for the myth of who he was supposed to be, but simply who he is, and what he experiences, I began to also see myself as who I can be, not who I ended up being. Myself, unvarnished. Full of potential to be designed and created according to my will, not my past, and certainly not society’s. Guilt, shame, depression, anxiety, relationship problems, those weighty long-term effects of child abuse, felt less unavoidable, and more controllable. When I saw my father as less of a monster, all of a sudden, my life occurred less as a victim. The defense of the sex offender then, becomes also a defense of the victim. Empathy has two sides, and when I see life through his eyes, I also, in part, can see myself not through mine.

I, then, if not quite on his side, am at least seeing his side. It is, arguably, the less popular view. However, it is also, perhaps, the more human view. If we all took the more human view, and the less binary one, the one that allows for people to neither hero nor villain but all the shades inbetween, we all come out at the other end as imperfectly alive, three-dimensional, whole, and, I argue, exactly as we are: human. This is not in defense of his crimes, but potentially more in defense of his life. Could but we see the whole world this way, with empathy in our eyes, what a life could be possible for not just my father, but for all of us.

Lauren Smith