[Paleopsych] NYT Mag: The Making of a Molester

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The Making of a Molester
New York Times Magazine, 5.1.23

Not long ago, Roy became a type of monster. The
transformation took a year and a half, and now, one morning
each week, he sits in a room of similar cases. The
windowless room is plain, with a blue industrial carpet, a
circle of brown cushioned office chairs, a blackboard, a
pair of unused conference tables pushed to the rear wall
and a faint hum from the air ducts. To reach it from the
waiting area -- on the second floor of a probation building
in Connecticut -- Roy and the other men walk down a series
of corridors and around a series of turns that feel like a
path through a maze. The room is wedged in a back corner.
''No one,'' a probation officer said, ''likes to think
about what's back there.''

Roy wonders constantly how he wound up in this place, in
the circle of 10 or 12 chairs, a circle of child molesters.
His story begins on the beach and ends on the Internet. It
seems to him that he was, only recently, a normal man,
about 40, running a crew of technicians, repairing
elaborate, computerized telecommunications equipment for
Wall Street trading firms and in his off hours leading a
wedding band, singing Frank Sinatra and Barry White at the
Plaza. For a hobby, he flew kites -- kites bigger than most
living rooms, brilliantly striped, with rippling streamers
and ''space socks'' trailing more than a hundred feet
behind, kites that could perform ballets when he held the
lines. He recalls no history of longing for young girls. He
had no criminal record of any kind. But then one summer, on
vacation, his second wife pointed out her 11-year-old
daughter's body. Roy and his wife were standing on the
sand; his stepdaughter and her best friend played several
yards in front of them at the edge of the surf. ''Look at
those girls,'' Roy remembers his wife saying. ''They're
changing already. You can see their bodies changing.''

Roy has a soft, smooth face and an easy, engaging smile.
(At his request, I've shielded his identity by using a
nickname some of his former band members gave him.) Now in
his mid-40's, he's round in the middle and broad in the
shoulders; there's something bearish about him, but in a
way that's more pandalike and cheerful than threatening.
Nearby along the circle sits an elderly man with a graceful
wave of white hair combed back from his forehead. There's a
well-scrubbed blue-eyed man in his mid-30's, wearing a
button-down shirt with a pleasant check of pale blue. Like
the rest, they're here by court mandate for group
counseling as part of their probation. Most, including Roy,
have served time in jail or prison, from a few weeks to
several years. The man with the wave of white hair touched
the vagina of his grandniece; he kissed her chest and had
her hold his penis. This happened repeatedly when the girl
was between 7 and 9 years old. As an adult, the man in the
checked shirt performed oral sex on his 11-year-old brother
and later took his 6-year-old daughter to a motel room
along with his brother, who was by then 16. Living out a
fantasy he'd had for months, he persuaded them both to
undress and urged his brother to have sex with his
daughter, only desisting, only waking from the trance of
his desire -- ''seconds away from something really, really
bad happening,'' he has told me -- when his brother began
to cry.

''What possessed me?'' Roy asks in one form or another in
the group sessions that I've been observing for close to a
year, in conversation with me and, it is clear, alone with
himself. It's a question that seems to churn through the
thinking of most of the men. The one who longed to watch
his brother and daughter, and who is a published poet, has
talked to me about feeling like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In
group one morning, another convict made reference to ''Dr.
Jekyll and Mr. Heinz.''

How does a man enter the realm of the monstrous? How broad
or thin is the border between the normal and that realm?
''Could anybody end up getting into this mess?'' Roy once
asked me plaintively.

Focus your awareness on your feet,'' Patrick Liddle, the
group's therapist, its leader, instructs the men at the
start of many sessions. They sit with their hands on their
thighs, their eyes closed, as he teaches them a relaxation
technique. ''Now allow your awareness to move up to the
center of your chest.'' He speaks in a soothing monotone,
the voice he maintains with them always no matter how
disquieted their crimes make him feel. Part of his job is
to give them methods to keep their lives under control, to
keep themselves from molesting again. This technique is one
way. ''Center your attention on the steady beating of your
heart.'' He wears fashionably tailored suits and shoes
polished to a low gloss. The clothes are part of the
program. Liddle's boss sets the dress code for his staff,
an attempt to confer value on those in treatment, men who
could hardly have fallen lower. ''Picture in your mind a
large open field covered in deep grass up to your waist.''
Roy and the others sit perfectly still. Their fingers curl
gently. Their jaws are slack; their mouths, slightly open.
They seem almost to be sleeping, and like sleeping men
anywhere, they look almost like children. ''Now slowly open
your eyes.''

They return from the field of tall grass to the faces of
the other men. Liddle sometimes asks them for
introductions, though the faces stay mostly the same. They
go around the circle. ''I was convicted of two counts of
sexual assault four and three counts of risk of injury to a
minor and enticing a minor over the Internet,'' Roy began
during a session months ago. He managed not to mumble.
Facing up to what he has done, he knows, is a requirement
for graduating from treatment. And this might lead, he
hopes, to a judge's reducing his term of probation. The
treatment theory is basic: to acknowledge both his crime
and the anarchy of lust that lies within him is the first
step toward his finding self-control. So the ability to
confront himself -- and to be candid with Liddle about his
sexual yearnings -- is a requirement, too, if he wants to
do anything outside the bounds of his probation
restrictions: visit his parents over the state line in New
York or go to a bowling alley or a movie or a family
function, anyplace where he might come in contact with
children under 16. Any family gathering he attends must be
adults only; he has to leave right away if kids show up.
The group leaders and probation officers work in tandem,
evaluating how well they can trust the men, and the
therapists can be at least as wary as the probation
officers. (In Connecticut, counseling is ordered for almost
all sex offenders on probation, and the state-financed
organization Liddle works for, the Center for the Treatment
of Problem Sexual Behavior, handles nearly all of it.)
Together, Liddle and Roy's probation officer set the limits
on his life.

''I was sentenced,'' Roy continued with his introduction,
''to 20 years suspended after 30 days, with 35 years
probation. My offense behaviors I engaged in were touching
my wife's daughter and her best friend sexually, touching
them through their clothing between their legs, around
their waist, moving my hand into the top of their
waistband. I also moved my hand under their shorts up to
their panty lines. I used games that were called 'Chase'
and 'Spider' to manipulate them into feeling safe with
me.'' His voice quieted as he hurried on toward the end,
toward the part of his story that holds echoes of recent,
well-publicized cases -- like that of John Dexter, the
headmaster for a quarter-century at the Trevor Day School
in Manhattan, until his arrest in 2003 and guilty plea last
year -- of apparently ordinary men going online to seek out
sexual conversations and often to arrange to have sex with
adolescents, with children.

With more detail than he gives in group, Roy has told his
story as he and I have sat together at his home and at his
job. He is still a supervisor at the telecommunications
repair company. In a bland suburban building just off a
highway, at worktables in vast, orderly rooms, he and his
team lean over high-tech consoles with exposed intricate
wiring and microprocessors with multicolored flashing
diodes. They fix circuitry or, if he deems it necessary,
redesign it. With the permission of Liddle and the
probation department, Roy is allowed to work around
computers as long as he never goes online outside the watch
of a colleague. Everyone at his job is aware of his crime.
He has made a point of answering everyone's questions. The
company's owner, who has known Roy for five years,
testified on his behalf at his sentencing. ''You're talking
about a person I know,'' the owner said to me. ''If you
told me about a stranger I would write them off, I wouldn't
talk to them, I wouldn't see them -- if they did one-tenth
of what he did.'' At Roy's job, the element of personal
forgiveness goes beyond employment. As I drove with him to
work after one of my first sessions with the group, he said
that he was engaged to be married again -- to a bookkeeper
at the company, a colleague since before his offense.

When Roy has spoken with me about his crime at the
well-burnished kitchen table in his small, neatly kept
wooden house or in an empty conference room across from the
repair stations at work, he starts with the words of his
stepdaughter's mother at the beach. No matter how common --
''Look at my daughter, how pretty she's going to be when
she grows up; I'm going to have problems with her when she
grows up''- they have a serpentlike quality as he tries to
sort out what followed. They were ''the first trigger,'' he
has said. Before, he doesn't think he saw his stepdaughter
in any erotic way. He had known her and her older brother
from the time they were born; he had been with their mother
since they were around 4 and 6. (He has no kids of his
own.) The children lived with their father, an executive, a
man Roy grew up with. But they spent a fair amount of time
at the home Roy shared with their mother, and after that
vacation at the shore, the games Roy played with his
stepdaughter, and frequently with her best friend, grew
sexualized -- at some level -- in his mind.

During ''Chase,'' they would turn off most of the lights.
Often they plugged in a strobe light from his band
equipment or a lamp that cast the shapes of moons on the
walls, in blues and yellows and greens. His marriage, at
that point, was falling apart. Sometimes his wife was home,
having shut herself in their bedroom for the evening.
Sometimes she was out on her own. He raced after the girls
through the house, through the colored beams. In
''Spider,'' each player had to sit motionless; if you moved
at all you got pinched. The touching occurred during the
games. The confessional -- and dutiful -- introduction Roy
delivers to the group implies that the touching was
blatantly, consciously sexual on his part, but though he is
obsessively introspective about all that took place, he
can't seem to figure out whether this is true.

He remembered, with me, his anger at his wife, the fleeting
thought that if she was going to leave him taking care of
her kids, then he was ''going to get something out of this,
too.'' Yet he recalled that there was no real sexual intent
at that stage, not even any dalliance with fantasy, that
often he didn't want to deal with the girls and their
demands that he try to catch them; he didn't want to be
bothered. ''I don't think I ever touched them in their
private areas,'' he said, making a distinction between
those areas and the edges of underwear. ''Grabbing them,
pulling them, knocking them down. Them jumping on me. It
was still just teasing and playing with them. It wasn't
like I wanted to have sex with them. Is there a
difference?'' How much of the touching was errant,
inadvertent, amid playful mauling? To what degree do normal
games of chase played with 11- or 12-year-old girls hold an
erotic element? How far beyond the normal did things go, at
that stage? These kinds of questions reel through his
memories. He can't settle on single answers. ''But was
there sexuality behind it?'' he asked once while we talked.
He replied immediately, ''Yes.''

The erotic became explicit, Roy said, when they were in
separate rooms, at separate computers. The layout of the
house mirrored the one he owns now, many towns away. There
was a series of rooms along a narrow hall. The basement was
crowded with his guitars and keyboards and recording
equipment. His stepdaughter was 12 -- though he doesn't
face up to reality easily on this point. The first few
times he came to this part of his story, he told me that
she was by then 14, maybe 13. During his introductions in
group, he doesn't mention how old she was; for a short
while I didn't know her true age. When I read an old
article from a local newspaper about the case and told him
that it put her age at 12, he insisted that the article was
mistaken. Only after I had asked him repeatedly did he call
me one morning: he had just phoned his sister and ''found
out'' that the newspaper was right.

When she was 12, then, one evening she sent him an instant
message. She asked what he was doing. He was in his office;
she was in her bedroom down the hall. He told her he was
working on band contracts. She wrote that she was bored,
that none of her friends were online. He responded that her
brother had been giving their mother trouble, that she was
completely different, that she was ''a really good little
girl.'' According to Roy, ''she came right back to me and
said: 'Roy, you don't know me. I'm not a good girl, I'm a
bad girl.'''

She wouldn't tell him what she meant, but he had been
smitten with what he had seen as the wild streak in her
mother, back when she had left her husband for Roy, and
now, right away, his imagination ran along sexual lines.
''Oh, God, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree,'' he
recalls thinking; he told me, regarding the effect of that
instant-message exchange with his stepdaughter: ''You
couldn't have drawn me in any faster. I still remember it.
Not excited as arousal excited, but excited as I gotta know
more. Major adrenaline rush. I felt myself go flush. I was
already overloaded. I finished the contracts I was doing,
but I got off the computer right after that, and I went
immediately downstairs and started playing. That's what I
always do when something's really got me; I need to shut it
off. I had to shut that off at that moment. I had to calm
it down. Put my headphones on. Had my guitar. I have this
jazz routine I like doing. I do a jazz version of 'Blue
Skies.' 'Polka Dots and Moonbeams' -- it's a slow jazz
tune. I have about an hour's worth of music, and I just
have to concentrate on the chord changes and the
progressions, and it clears my mind. The only problem is,''
he raised his voice, almost shouting to me across the
kitchen table, ''it didn't help.''

Soon he loaded his computer with a software program that
would allow him, because of the way his and his
stepdaughter's computers were interlinked, to monitor her
online conversations. That day, alone in the house, he
stepped back and forth along the hall, between rooms,
between PC's, making sure his system worked, that she
wouldn't be able to detect his lurking. And the next time
she came over and logged on and started chatting with her
best friend (the same girl he had chased through the
house), their words ran across his screen.

His stepdaughter's romantic explorations, confided to her
friend, became his pornography. Each time he monitored her
conversations (about 7 to 10 times over several months, he
thinks), he would have a soda and popcorn and ''put my feet
up on the desk, and I watched this thing unfold. 'Cause you
have to understand, it's not something I would masturbate
to while she was on the Internet. It would almost be like
an aftermath of it. 'Cause it had your mind so cranked you
had to have some relief. At any point I thought this girl
was going to have sex with this boy. That's how intense
this was.''

He didn't worry that she would walk down the hall and find
him reading her words. ''Impossible, because my computer
didn't face the door, and it would have taken a split
second to shut it off, literally,'' he said. ''Nobody could
catch me, nobody. I'm too good. I'm too good with
computers, trust me. I set up that PC so that when I shut
the computer off everything was erased. So there was no
trackable record on those PC's. It was wrong. So wrong. I
put myself in such a bad situation, and I just fell into
it. I guess that's how a drug addict gets. Once you've
fallen into that, and you've gone in, it's almost like
that's it: now you've got it in your head, and it's not
going to go away.''

The direct instant-message exchange between him and his
stepdaughter continued every so often during the period of
his monitoring. ''She would sign on and say something to
me, and that's when the conversation started. And I would
flip it. She didn't start it sexually. I always flipped it.
Just so you know. She didn't do it. She was a kid.''

He would ask her to ''show me something.'' She would
refuse. He asked her to have sex with him. She told him no.
He wrote to her, in one of their final Internet
conversations, months before her 13th birthday, that he was
going to step out of his office and into the kitchen to get
a soda. He wrote that if she wanted to see what he wished
to do with her, she should walk into his office and click
on a window that would be on his screen. She left her
computer and walked to his. When the window opened, a video
showed ''a man rubbing his penis on a girl's vagina that's
been shaved,'' he said. A moment later, they passed in the
hall. He remembers her calling him ''disgusting'' and each
of them going quickly back to their own PC's. Petrified
that she would report him, he begged her over the Internet
to meet him on the stairs to the basement music room,
promising that he would stay at the bottom. He pled his
apology as she sat at the top of the stairs. Then she was

Soon afterward, I learned recently from her father, she
told her stepmother for the first time about Roy's ongoing
solicitations. (Her father had just left on a business
trip.) Her stepmother then sent her to Roy's house so that,
assuming he would proposition her yet again, she could
print out his words for evidence. She did. He was swiftly
arrested. It had been about a year and a half since that
trip to the beach. In court, he pled under the Alford
Doctrine -- a legal acknowledgment that the evidence
against him was sufficient to prove his guilt -- to the
charges he lists each time he gives his introduction. He
has been in treatment now for around 17 months. ''I'm so
embarrassed,'' he said to me at the kitchen table. ''I
can't believe I did this. You know, I just don't know how I
got myself there, I really don't. It makes me sick.''

Roy looks that way -- ill, aghast, mortified -- whenever he
finishes his account. His full cheeks appear almost gaunt,
as though he has just emerged, barely, from the siege of
some terrible infection. To see him like this is to feel
that he would never allow himself to come anywhere close to
repeating his crime. It is to understand what the owner of
the telecommunications repair company -- where Roy's
existence can seem so ordinary as he goes about his work --
once told me about his wife's opinion of Roy: their own
children are grown, but she would have him in their house
even with kids around. ''That,'' the owner said, ''is the
confidence that he gives you.''

Yet to think back over Roy's shadings of his stepdaughter's
age and to hear his explanation that he wasn't lying to me
but somehow no longer knew that she had been 12 is to feel
less confident. Whether he has tried to deceive me or
himself, this is exactly the kind of evasion, the kind of
diminishment of hard truth, that would worry Liddle; it's a
sign that Roy may not be capable of self-confrontation and
self-control. And then I discovered, in a statement his
stepdaughter made to the police, that some of the troubling
touches, through clothes, began when she was in second
grade. To have heard his consistent denials about this, his
certainty that back then there had been only innocent
games, is not only to wonder if she has imposed the taint
of recent events on earlier moments but also to wonder if
anything Roy says can be believed. And then when I learned,
from the transcript of his sentencing hearing, that he used
Freekypeephole as his Internet screen name, I could see
him, simply, as a dangerous creep -- except that when I
asked him about this, he recited the lyrics of a disco song
he wrote and recorded back in the late 70's, a song called
''Freaky People,'' about the drug use he observed at Studio
54. (His father was an alcoholic, and Roy has never been
much for drugs or alcohol.) He recounted that the song got
some airtime on a major radio station, that because of this
he wanted ''Freaky People'' as his screen name, that it was
already taken, and that his server supplied the
alternative, Freekypeephole, which he accepted well before
his crime as a joke. My sense of Roy shifts back and forth
ceaselessly, from perceptions of basic normality to those
of extreme aberrance, from guarded trust to deep unease.
But one constant is the reverberation of his words: ''I
just don't know how I got myself there.''

How did he get there? What are the causes of child sexual
molestation, which is committed against perhaps 20 percent
of girls and 5 to 10 percent of boys under the age of
consent in the United States, according to David Finkelhor,
the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center
at the University of New Hampshire. (Finkelhor, who has
examined the studies extensively, added that the numbers
range widely from 10 to 40 percent for girls and 2 to 15
percent for boys, depending on definitions and methods. The
victims are preadolescents about as frequently as they are
older. Most are abused by someone they know, often by a
member of their family.) What parts are played by biology,
by an abuser's own childhood, by aspects of isolation in
his (for males make up around 90 percent of offenders)
current life -- or by the powerful arrival of the Internet
into the world of Eros? Calling psychiatrists and
psychologists, researchers and clinicians, who have been
working in the field for decades and asking about origins
and explanations, I have heard in response regret and
laughter. The laughter came from Dr. Martin Kafka, senior
clinical associate in psychiatry at the Harvard-affiliated
McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., where he studies and
treats sexual disorders. ''I'll give you a quick answer,''
he said, cutting me off at the word ''causes.'' ''We don't

A much longer answer followed, his words propelled at high
speed by his fascination with the subject: studies of
sexually deviant brains have scarcely been done; there is
''one suggesting hypothalamus abnormality, but really, the
research is in infancy.'' The data show that sexual abusers
of children are more likely than the general population to
have been child sexual-abuse victims themselves but ''most
pedophiles have not,'' he emphasized, ''been sexually
abused.'' (And here I thought of Roy talking about the men
in group who were ''abused as kids something fierce, so I
must be a real piece of crap, because I was never
abused.'') Research indicates that ''social skills
deficits'' can be a factor. Kafka's voice rushed on as he
tried to construct for me some sense of coherence from what
scattered scraps of knowledge exist.

''There is nothing coherent that's been established,'' Dr.
Robert Prentky, a forensic psychologist at the graduate
school of criminal justice at Northeastern University, told
me. ''Frankly, in my opinion, there has been very, very
little progress in the area of etiology.'' And Dr. Fred
Berlin, associate professor of psychiatry at the Johns
Hopkins University School of Medicine, talked about
society's discomfort with any scientific inquiry into
sexuality, let alone into the causes of pedophilia. ''There
is inadequate funding, too little support for this kind of
research,'' he said. ''We can't get beyond the moral to the
scientific. These are considered vile people. There is an
aversion to studying them.''

I asked about the Internet, whether it may bear any causal
responsibility along the path toward offending. ''It's a
fairly complicated issue,'' Berlin said, and one for which
there appears to be, again, no solid research. ''I wouldn't
go so far as to say that the Internet creates desire, but I
do think it is creating significant difficulties.'' To some
extent, he explained, it is merely a ''new and different
vehicle'' for those who would offend against children
anyway. But it ''provides temptation for some who might not
otherwise have crossed the line.'' He added: ''There are
three areas of concern. First, the illusion of anonymity --
an illusion because Internet use can be easily tracked --
leads to disinhibition. Second, there's a blurring of
fantasy and reality. There's someone at the other end of
the Internet conversation, but it's not quite a real
person; there's a feeling of playing a game that can lead
to actually doing what one otherwise wouldn't. Third, the
easy accessibility can facilitate'' moving over boundaries.

Over the past decade, with the surge in Internet use, there
has been no spike in the overall number of cases of sexual
abuse against children. (There has been, it appears, a
significant decrease, attributed by some to the success of
harsher sentences and offender registries and by others, in
part, to the possibility that those sentences and
registries discourage victims, who tend to know their
abusers, from reporting the crimes.) But Berlin's concern
was echoed by Prentky when he described the Internet as ''a
catalyst for fantasy and dangerous if the control over
behavior is markedly impaired.'' And by David D'Amora,
Patrick Liddle's boss and the head of the Center for the
Treatment of Problem Sexual Behavior, who has about 800
child sexual abusers under his watch in Connecticut, when
he talked about the Net's abundant porn and disembodied
chat-room conversation as a ''disinhibitor.'' And by Liddle
himself, whose normally tempered voice nearly rose to a
yell when I asked whether online porn might provide a safe
outlet for otherwise destructive erotic drives: a man
masturbates; the craving subsides. ''No!'' he replied. He
was thinking of the men in that back room at the probation
building. ''That's like an alcoholic saying I'll only have
a couple of drinks, I'll only have low-alcohol beer.'' And
then he was thinking of everyone when he said that
pornography ''desensitizes people so extraordinarily.''

When Roy tells his story, he insists that he never visited
any Web sites of child porn. He doesn't think there is much
relevance in the mainstream porn that he did view -- and it
doesn't seem to have had, for him, the erotic impact of his
stepdaughter's conversations with her best friend. But he
claims (perhaps too self-servingly) that he would never
have propositioned his stepdaughter had it not been for the
Internet's unique, oddly dehumanized form of communication.
In the ultimate moments, he beckoned her to his computer.
He beckoned her, physically, into his space. But before
then, his lust gained much of its unbearable power, and
found its most intense expression, screen to screen.

One day this fall, Roy sat behind a gray laptop that rested
on a metal desk. Martina Kardol, one of Liddle's
colleagues, stood over him in a small office in the
probation building, reading aloud from a set of
instructions. He would be shown 160 images on the laptop
screen, she informed him. Her voice stayed level; her face,
expressionless. She has long blond hair and wore a loose
sweater with black stretch pants. (Not all the therapists
adhere to D'Amora's dress code.) ''You will see people of
varying ages.'' Roy had on a black blazer, a tie and
sharply pressed khakis. From here he was headed straight to
an important meeting at work. ''Imagine being sexual with
the models in the slides.''

Kardol told him to score each picture for sexual interest,
hitting 1 for ''disgusting'' up through 7 for ''highly
sexually arousing.'' He should advance through the images
by clicking the return key. He was shown a practice set. A
blond woman in somewhat prim white lingerie; then a
clean-cut man in a plaid shirt and khakis; then a boy, who
looked to me around 12, straddling a bicycle with a book
bag over his shoulder; then a girl around the same age
wearing a straw hat and eating strawberries; then a pudgy
little girl of maybe 4 in a blue one-piece swimsuit. Kardol
asked Roy if he was ready. Sitting upright, ever compliant,
he said that he was. We left him alone with the

He was taking the Abel Assessment for Sexual Interest, as
all the men do at some point during their treatment. It
offers a gauge of erotic preference measured not by the 1
to 7 ratings but by the length of time a man lets his eyes
linger on each image. The photos are fairly demure.
Legally, the test can't show pornographic images of minors,
so to keep things balanced, even the adult pictures are
less than revealing. And when, later, I clicked through a
sampling, the distinction between age categories sometimes
eluded me. The subjects in the pictures are supposed to
represent four plainly separate age groups so that areas of
attraction can be clearly measured. There are children of 2
to 4, children between 8 and 10, adolescents between 14 and
17 and adults at least 22. But some of the 8-to-10's looked
to me almost like young adolescents. And some of the
adolescents appeared more like young fresh-faced adults,
with the kinds of faces and bodies you might see on
billboards selling underwear, before I reminded myself
about the likely ages of the models in some of those ads.
Still, the Abel Assessment is widely considered a strong
diagnostic tool, and when Roy came to Kardol's office door
a half-hour later to say that he was finished, he looked
faintly shellshocked, like a patient who had been through
an arduous diagnostic exam. The information was sent down
to the Abel offices in Atlanta, Ga., and Kardol soon got
the results. Roy's attractions were for adult females and
-- very slightly more so -- for females in the adolescent

This put him, Liddle explained to me, within the realm of
ordinary male sexuality. The minimal preference for
adolescents over adults was, he said, a cause for some
worry, given Roy's crime. But in itself the strong erotic
response to adolescents was entirely normal.

Along the circle, during my time with Roy's group, there
have been a few whose Abel results were plainly aberrant:
men drawn above all to preadolescent boys and men drawn
powerfully and almost equally to disparate categories,
adults and young children, boys and girls. Until his term
of probation ended, there was a retired accountant who met
the psychiatric definition of a ''fixated,'' or exclusive,
pedophile. He had coached sports and built a clubhouse on
his property in order to lure the neighborhood boys; he had
spanked and groped many over a period of many years.

Yet most of the group tends to fall somewhere closer to the
middle of a continuum -- a continuum on which normal
occupies a broad and blurry sector. With most of the men he
has worked with over the past 14 years, Liddle says, ''the
difference between me and my guys is a very thin line.'' He
doesn't mean that he's on the edge of doing what they have
done, only that the potential may lie within all of us.

''We want there to be the clear line; we want there to be
the sloped forehead,'' David D'Amora has said, summarizing
society's thinking about the men in groups like Liddle's,
men D'Amora has been watching over for the state since
1986. Before that, he was a therapist for adult and child
victims of sexual assault. ''It just doesn't exist. We want
them to be the few, the perverted, the far away. Most are

What research has been done seems to back this up. Dr.
Richard Green, a psychiatrist at the Imperial College
School of Medicine in London and professor emeritus of
psychiatry at U.C.L.A., wrote two years ago in the journal
Archives of Sexual Behavior about a 1989 study: the
psychologists John Briere and Marsha Runtz found that ''in
a sample of nearly 200 university males, 21 percent
reported some sexual attraction to small children.''
Specifically, ''9 percent described sexual fantasies
involving children, 5 percent admitted to having
masturbated to sexual fantasies of children and 7 percent
indicated they might have sex with a child if not caught.
Briere and Runtz remarked that 'given the probable social
undesirability of such admissions, we may hypothesize that
the actual rates were even higher.''' Green wrote as well
of the work done in 1970 by the researchers Kurt Freund and
R. Costell. Forty-eight Czech soldiers were hooked to a
''penile responsivity'' meter known as a plethysmograph.
Viewing a series of slides, ''28 of 48 showed penile
response to the female children age 4-10.'' And to count
Web sites or consider legal history is to sense that the
results of these studies may represent an unspeakable
reality. Type in ''preteen porn'' on AOL's search engine
and the list of sites covers thousands of pages. Until the
late 19th century in England, the legal age of sexual
consent was 10.

''They are not monsters,'' Joan Tabachnick told me. ''They
are us.'' Tabachnick is the director of public education
for Stop It Now!, which was founded by a sexual-abuse
survivor and which is among the most prominent national
organizations devoted to the prevention of child sexual
abuse. ''It's so much easier,'' she said about the
prevailing public vision, ''to think only of the most
sadistic, most dangerous pedophile,'' the predator who
kidnaps and abuses and kills. ''It's very comfortable. We
can say, They're not who we are.'' But they're also not,
she pointed out, the typical offender. They are the rare
extreme. ''It's very uncomfortable,'' she went on, ''to
say, I know what it means to look at my child as a sexual
being -- I know what it means to want to touch my child.''
She was not excusing molestation; she was calling for a
complex understanding of a widespread and often devastating
crime, because without it, she said, efforts at prevention
are crippled. She drew a comparison with adults'
acknowledging their wish to hit their children in moments
of rage -- mere acknowledgment can make the impulse easier
to quell, and those drawn hard to such violence can seek
help. ''It's far more difficult to be candid about sexual
urges,'' she said, and so it's far more difficult for those
on the edge of offending -- those for whom cultural taboos,
legal prohibitions and empathy for the child aren't
powerful enough to keep desire deeply submerged or to choke
it off if it rises to the surface -- to find a way to stop

After the relaxation exercise and after the introductions
on days when they are given, the men lift their loose-leaf
binders from the floor beside their chairs. The books are
filled with the homework they've done and the handouts
they've been given, with ''feelings journals'' and
instructional sheets on methods like ''Thought
Broadcasting'': ''If you get a deviant thought, imagine
that your thought is being broadcast from your mind over a
loudspeaker system.''

Roy's binder is the thickest of all. He tries to think of
treatment like ''a normal college class,'' as if to
convince himself that diligence will guarantee graduation.
Not only does he have a jumbo white plastic binder with
labeled dividers that he brings to group; he has another
that he keeps at home. He throws away nothing. His homework
and ''action plans'' -- his applications to do what his
basic restrictions don't allow -- are composed at length
and always neatly typed out. But lately, for Roy, things
have not been going well.

The counseling takes what is known as a
cognitive-behavioral approach. Back in the early to
mid-1970's, D'Amora has recounted to me, when the field of
child-molester treatment was just developing, the typical
strategy was more psychoanalytic and individualized --
profound insight into the disinterred past was supposed to
change behavior and reduce recidivism. It didn't, and by
the early 80's, therapy shifted toward behavior
modification, with offenders instructed to inhale noxious
odors during deviant fantasies. Here there were signs of
''fair success,'' D'Amora said, followed by signs that the
effect was often short-lived. The method has mostly faded
from the field. Meanwhile, the cognitive-behavioral model
began to be used more and more -- Liddle's sessions can
seem as much like classes in coping skills as anything that
might be called treatment. With a creased, stoic face and a
manner that is habitually restrained, he keeps the
fluorescently lighted room sedate. He asks the men to open
their binders to a handout on ''dynamic risk factors,'' and
they go over a list, from ''victim access'' to ''intimacy
deficits,'' of things they need to avoid or try to
overcome. Or he asks what deviant thoughts they've had over
the previous week. To Liddle's question, I have never heard
the men speak more than a very few words about children.
Roy has told me that he's fantasized about his stepdaughter
a good deal since his arrest, but he has never brought it
up in group. (By court order, he hasn't seen her since
then.) One man has said to me, ''If we talked in there
about what was really going through our minds, we'd all be
wearing ankle bracelets.'' Liddle takes what modest
fantasies the men are willing to mention -- one morning,
it's about a young-looking gas-station attendant someone
has glimpsed -- and he reviews ''Thought Broadcasting.''

Liddle never presses hard toward the darkest truths. His
approach is full of paradox. He explained to me that he
aims to elicit candor -- but candor that is delicately
calibrated. Detailed and wrenching confessions of illegal
acts or illicit desire could destroy the composure and
dignity he wants to instill in the men, partly through the
air of unbreachable calm in the room. (Too much communal
honesty could also stoke their fantasies. For this reason,
the men are forbidden to talk with one another outside the
meetings.) Liddle hopes to ''build up their sense of
decency.'' He wants them to leave the program, which they
usually do after about three years, believing in their own
capacity for restraint.

This kind of treatment may work. The recidivism rate for
child molesters is around 17 percent, according to Dr. Karl
Hanson, a psychologist with the Office of Public Safety and
Emergency Preparedness in Canada and a leading researcher
in the field. Already far lower than the public tends to
think, the rate may drop by as much as seven points with
the completion of a cognitive-behavioral program like
D'Amora's. Yet Liddle knows enough to feel uneasy, almost
always, as the men move on.

He is uneasy about Roy -- and Roy is nowhere close to
moving on. For a time, all looked positive. Roy's diligence
seemed to signify honesty and control. The privileges he
applied for were steadily granted. He could drive over the
state line to visit his parents; he could fly his kites on
his town beach. He was told that he might eventually be
allowed to play music at a local bar. But not long ago Roy
and his new bride, the bookkeeper from work, put in a
request with Liddle that she be allowed to take a special
training course the next time it is offered and that she
then be appointed an ancillary, probation-approved
supervisor so that the couple could have more freedom. Yet
it turned out that Roy and his wife haven't told her
parents about his crime. And Roy didn't make this clear to
Liddle. Hiding his past from his in-laws may be entirely
understandable: should he be expected to tell them? Have
any of us constructed our lives without concealing portions
of ourselves? But his not coming clean about this to Liddle
is considered unacceptable. If Roy's wife wants to be in a
supervisory role, her first concern has to be with keeping
him away from trouble, like family situations that might
involve contact with girls; to do that she needs to tell
her parents the truth. When his in-laws' ignorance emerged,
indirectly, during a later discussion in group, Liddle
started to worry about the way Roy had deceived him.

Then Roy took a polygraph test, as the men generally do
twice a year. One of the most powerful parts comes not when
the machine is running but, beforehand, when the nervous
offender fills out a wide-ranging questionnaire. Here Roy
admitted, for the first time to anyone in the program, that
he fantasized about his stepdaughter. Earlier, telling me
about these erotic thoughts, which he seemed desperate to
exorcise, he said that his treatment prevented him from
putting them in the past. The thoughts were ''burned'' into
his mind because he had to sit every week in that circle,
and he could not bring himself to confess them in the
carefully subdued atmosphere of the back room. Liddle, he
said, ''asks for deviant fantasy but he doesn't really want

Liddle didn't see it that way. He saw a man in denial, a
man trying to deflect responsibility for the force of his
lust, a man who should have delivered, in group, a simple
acknowledgment of his desires, just as he should have been
clear about his in-laws. Other deceptions glimmered. In the
evasion of truth Liddle saw the threat of chaos. He saw a
man unable to confront himself or ask for help, a man who
might unravel and repeat the past, if for example, his
marriage were to deteriorate, if he were to have access to

In mid-January, he moved Roy to a newly created group for
higher-risk offenders. He had already taken away all Roy's
privileges -- the kite flying, the visits to his parents.
Roy has to start from scratch. Except for work, he is more
or less housebound.

At his house, one recent evening, I met the woman who has
married him. She is a few years older than Roy, but
young-looking and trim, with brown bangs and a kind of
Caroline Kennedy smile. This is her first marriage; she has
no children. She and Roy sat side by side on a new couch
with matching end tables. Outside, there were cute wooden
shutters on the windows. She wore white socks on her
shoeless feet. They had just finished their ritual
Friday-night meal of pizza and eggplant sandwiches. In
certain ways, the domestic scene couldn't have been more

They started dating a few months after his arrest but
before his plea; probation's rules hadn't yet defined what
he could and could not do. They went to the movies and
bowled and flew his gigantic kites. He confided in her
about his crime. ''In my heart I didn't think he was this
monster that he was portrayed as in the paper,'' she told
me, referring to the articles in the small newspaper of his
suburban town at the time of his arrest. ''I didn't know
what to believe.''

On the couch, they reminisced about the purple-and-aqua
stunt kite that she flew and couldn't manage on their first
date. They laughed about the way it tugged her down the
beach. He remembered her once saying to him, ''When we go
out flying, it's like an entire new day.'' She recalled,
''One of the nicest things he ever said to me was that when
he met me, God was giving him a second chance.'' Her voice
was sweet yet scarcely gave way to emotion. She could seem
keenly realistic, as if she had thought everything through.
But Roy had spoken in group about the meeting the two of
them had with her family priest, who was about to marry
them. They told the priest about his crime. When the priest
asked her whether she was really prepared for a life with a
convicted child molester serving 35 years probation,
suddenly ''she cried hysterically.''

''I think,'' she said on the couch, ''I know Roy well
enough'' to be sure that he won't ever do again what he
did. ''I think with Roy things just got out of hand.'' She
talked of hoping still to take the course for family
members who wish to act as supervisors, so she could learn
how to be on guard, how to save him. ''People can
stumble,'' she said. ''I want to be able to recognize the
signs, to know what to look for.''

Then, for a few seconds, her voice sharpened severely. ''To
this day'' -- she spoke partly to me but partly to her
husband -- ''I can't understand how he could write crap
like that to a little girl.'' She said she told him this
frequently. ''She does,'' he mumbled, looking stricken.

One night, shortly before his privileges were taken away,
Roy and his wife launched a vast, luminous gold-and-red
kite at the town beach. Usually after dusk the beach was
empty. But a group of kids came running toward them, boys
and girls who looked, in his eyes, to be between 4 and 12.
By his agreement with Liddle and the probation department,
he was simply supposed to tell the kids to keep their
distance, to tell them they might get tangled in the heavy
lines. The mere presence of minors didn't mean he had to
leave the waterfront. But he panicked, and whether fleeing
some imagined legal transgression or terrified by something
within himself, he left the unwieldy lines to his wife. He
raced away.

He rushed for the waist-high fence that divides the sand
from the parking lot. He couldn't get his bearlike body
over it cleanly; he wound up stuck, sitting on it and
crushing it. Sometime later he showed me the place of his
flight, where the fence remained bent. It wasn't hard for
me to picture him caught there, between the safe and the

Daniel Bergner is the author of ''In the Land of Magic
Soldiers: A Story of White and Black in West Africa.'' His
last article for the magazine was about cannibalism during
the civil war in the Congo.


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