If you’re following my story, you know that in the spring of 2010, I herniated a disk in my back. The effect that the chronic pain that ensued had on my disposition was not pretty. I couldn’t sleep and so was perennially exhausted. I had a hard time thinking beyond myself, I had no patience for others, I was unintentionally contrary. It seemed I was suddenly picking fights with people I’d worked with congenially literally for years. Even as I was apologizing and explaining that “I’m just not myself with this pain,” I continued to be difficult by thinking that everyone else was just being difficult. Why I’m reiterating this now I’m not sure, as it has no bearing on today’s post, but it seems important to stress it. I knew I was being awful yet I couldn’t stop myself. But all the while, there was the sense that when the summer was over, things would get better. Fall, however, was a long way off.
Late in the summer, I got an email from my younger sister with the subject line “You need to go look at this” and a link. (Even typing that now, I’m flabbergasted that she thought this was a good way to share the news she had.) The link took me to a website that featured a mugshot of an old friend of mine, along with an article about how he had just turned himself in for molesting underage boys. Without the name in the headline, I might not have recognized him immediately because in the photo he looked like sexual predators always do in the photos they show on television – unshaved face, greasy hair, hollow eyes. But it was clearly him, the baby-faced little brother of a once-close friend of mine, a fellow whose pool I had lounged in only the previous summer, a Facebook friend. Moreover, a member of a prominent philanthropic family from my hometown, a political activist, a fellow who was involved locally and beyond with good causes, a doer of good. Were I Jewish, I’d call him a mensch.
I’m not going to share his name because this is really not my story to tell beyond the fact that I knew and liked this guy, his sisters, his mother, many of his friends. Everyone did. And though “everyone” (the folks from my hometown who started calling and emailing me, all reeling, reeling, from this news) was shocked and appalled by his arrest – by his frank admission that, yes, he had done what he was being accused of – we also felt we understood how it might have happened, how his intentions were probably good but that inclinations that he had to suppress as a member of a prominent family etc might have gotten the better of him. We all wanted to try to explain away what had happened, to make it fit into our personal experiences with this man, who we knew to be generous, smart, and funny. We all agreed that it changed our conception of sex criminals, our knee-jerk reaction to that term. Knowing this man and knowing all he had to lose, we could conclude only that if he had been able to stop himself, he would have. But he couldn’t.
When I wasn’t on the phone or emailing with old friends about this case, I was thinking about it. Vague, hazy worries about the molested boys. How would this affect them in the long term? Would they have to testify? Did their friends know? Things I had absolutely no answers to. And I mourned for the family, one of trust funds and political legacies but tempered with a surprising amount of down-to-earthness. I knew that his older sister, a friend of my since high school but who I'd not seen in a few years, would be devastated but also angry, very angry -- just furious that her brother would do such a thing. And who could blame her? It’s a crime that has a tremendous stigma and enormous ripple effects.
Most often, I thought about the man at the center of this story. I wished simply that this crime had not happened. That my friend had sought help. That things in his privileged, looks-perfect-from-the-outside life had been different in whatever way they needed to be so that he could have stopped himself when he was tempted. I thought about his face in that mugshot and how I barely recognized him, about how different he must be already. I worried about his future, whatever punishment it holds, and I hoped that he could be rehabilitated and someday have a normal life that did not hurt anyone else. That his family could forgive him.
Finally, I was sad about the effect that his absence would have on my changing hometown, where he had volunteered design work, had fought a WalMart that wanted to put a superstore on what is now a cornfield, and had generally been an asset.
It was just one more thing. This was not at all how my summer was supposed to go.