Part I: Introduction
I had the opportunity to share my story recently as a speaker at a Restorative Justice conference. It was the first time outside of treatment that I’ve shared this much of my story and the first time sharing it with an audience in a safe but public environment. By all accounts, it was well received, so I thought perhaps others might benefit from hearing it.
It is the personal struggle of my family and me in and through the pain of darkness and abuse out the other side into the sunshine of love and forgiveness. It is the story of abusers, victims, and, most importantly, those who triumphed over it all.
I hope that it brings encouragement to a long-suffering community of registered citizens, their family and friends, and all those who struggle alongside us in one of the most under-appreciated civil rights movements in modern-time.
In order to protect myself and my family, both past and present, the name Joe Smith is a pseudonym.
I’m Joe Smith, and I’m a child rapist.
This statement was the state’s idea of what was needed for restorative justice. It was not what was needed by those who needed restoring the most – my family, especially my stepdaughter, and myself.
I’m a child rapist; this is what offenders had to stand up and say in front of their spouses and other group members weekly while attending group therapy sessions mandated by the state and child protective services (CPS), and neither the introductory statement nor attendance were optional. If you wanted to reunite your family, you had to attend, introduce yourself this way, and comply with a host of other requirements. Proclaiming I’m a child rapist over and over is not restorative. It is rather the epitome of shame and labeling.
I am many things. I wear many labels; foremost among them is “convicted sex offender” and “pedophile.” I was originally clinically diagnosed with pedophilia, but after several years of real and honest treatment, I was assessed again using the Abel Test and certified free from all inappropriate predilections. Unfortunately, the label remains. In today’s vernacular or conversation, it seems “pedophile” is used as a descriptor or label for almost everyone convicted or accused of a sexual offense, whether or not a minor was involved. It’s used as a derogatory statement meant to isolate, push people away, and belittle. I have thick skin and don’t pay it much attention, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt.
I am so much more than just those labels:
- I’m a retired Navy chief petty officer with 20 years of honorable service;
- I’m a college graduate with an associate in finance, a bachelors in business management, and currently working on an MBA;
- At work, I’m a director of product operations with a six-figure income (I mention my income not to brag but rather to offer hope that financial success is possible);
- I’m a husband to a wife of almost 30 years;
- I’m a father to a son and stepfather to a daughter;
- I’m a grandfather to my daughter’s two children, my grandchildren;
- I’m the son of a sexual abuser, my father;
- I’m the brother of a sexual abuser sister and a sexual abuser brother;
- I’m the child of an untreated, closeted, incestuous family with a taboo upbringing;
- And lastly, I’m a sexual abuse survivor as well as a sexual abuser.
Part II: The seeds of the man are planted in the child
We would all love for life to be simple. You’re a this, and he’s a that. She is white, and he is black. Up is up, and down is down. But it just isn’t that simple, that clear, that black and white. People are not just this or that; they are many things. Rather than being good or bad people, they are people who do good and bad things. I tell people all the time that we all suffer from the same condition — the human condition. All have fallen short, not just some. And as soon as we can all agree that we don’t need to put people in a box, label them, lock them up out of sight, and make it all a them or us scenario, the better off we will be.
The sooner that we have conversations about sexual abuse, from the perspectives of both victims and abusers, the sooner we will all heal. The sooner we can learn to lean into these messy conversations, the much better off we all will be. And this is where restorative justice can help; it comes with a built-in framework for leaning into the messy, hard conversations. Accepting the principles of restorative justice establishes a cornerstone on which to build.
My story is unique, yes, but truthfully probably not so much different from many others and perhaps not so different from the story of some of you who are reading this. I can’t, and I won’t, be defined by just one label, one act, one diagnosis, one upbringing, or any single terrible act or acts. I believe you must look at the totality of life, the movie if you will, rather than a single snapshot, to take the measurement of a man.
When I die my gravestone will bear three indicators: The year I was born, the year I die, and a dash to separate them. The dates are only snapshots; the dash is the movie. It represents the entirety of the life for which I want to be known.
I believe that every life has value, no matter how far it has fallen, and if we are not restorative in our justice, then we condemn those who offend without hope and, in doing so, lower our collective humanity.
I was born in 1962 in the south but grew up mostly in the north; I’ll be 57 this year.
I was the middle child of eight; there were four boys and four girls. With my mom, dad, and my maternal grandmother, that made eleven of us living together.
My father was an alcoholic; he verbally, physically, and psychologically abused my mother, myself, and all my siblings.
I have either first hand knowledge or very strong evidence that I, my father, two brothers – one older and one younger — and three sisters — two older and one younger — were all either sexually abused, sexual abusers, or both. I am sure of these seven of the eleven and would be surprised if more were not also.
Only one incident ever came to family light, and that was me abusing my younger sister, for which I was beaten by my father so badly that I wet myself in fear, was battered and bruised, and suffered a dislocated tail bone from being viciously kicked by my father. This incident never came to public light, and neither my sister nor I were ever offered help, presumably due to fear of exposure for the entire family.
My first love in life was my four-years-older brother, and this was not brotherly love but romantic love. My brother started as my abuser and introduced me to the abuse of two of our sisters, one younger and the other one year older than I. I still have a very difficult time talking about my brother; he committed suicide in June of 1991, due to, I am sure, the physical and sexual abuse he received at the hands of our father and his inability to overcome his demons. He was an addict as well which certainly contributed to his desperation.
I was sexualized at a very young age, approximately six to eight years old. I learned very early on that love meant sex and that being sexual was synonymous with love.
I’ve struggled with drugs and alcohol most of my life but don’t have an addictive nature so have never been seriously addicted. I no longer do drugs and drink only very seldom socially.
As an adult, I’ve had a very hard time not sexualizing my relationships because to me sex and love were the same thing. And yes, I have this difficulty with both my adult relationships and relationships with the children that I love.
Part III: In and through the pain
It was almost 20 years ago, when I was 38, that my stepdaughter reported our sexualized relationship that had been ongoing for several years. She told a teacher at school; it was both the worst and best day of my life. It was the worst because it meant I was facing jail, the collapse of my family, embarrassment, and all the other terrible things you can imagine and that many of you have experienced. It was the best because it meant I no longer had to lead a double life, my daughter was safe, and my family and I could finally get the help we needed.
Why hadn’t we reached out and gotten help earlier? My family and my family of origin could have always stopped, broken the cycle of abuse, and sought help at any point, but the taboo and social shaming aspects are very strong deterrents and a good example of how criminalization justice rather than restoration justice isn’t the answer. There has to be restorative hope to break these cycles of abuse; yes, punishment and accountability are important, but neither of these is restorative, and neither offers hope, and there must be hope.
I was determined to get help and stop the cycle of abuse as soon as my daughter set me free by telling the truth. I had a young son; I didn’t want him or my stepdaughter to go out into life ill-equipped as I was. The system, however, wasn’t designed to help. It was, and in many respects still is today, designed only to separate, criminalize, and punish. There was nothing like restorative justice then for sure.
I sought out and started individual therapy with a certified sexual offender therapist before I was even convicted. I stayed with this doctor for five years. He was beyond helpful, his compassion immeasurable, and I shall be forever grateful to him and all he did for me and consequently for my family.
On intake, I took the Abel Assessment Test and was determined to have a mixed attraction to both male and female adults and prepubescent minors and was clinically diagnosed with pedophilia.
Most of my therapy over the years was cognitive; however, I also had some aversion therapy with ammonia. But since mine was truly a learned behavior, the cognitive therapy helped me the most.
On my discharge, I retook the Able Assessment Test and was determined to be free from any attraction to minors and given a clean bill of health.
During our ordeal, the state and child protective services (CPS) did everything in their power to do two things: (1) break up our family, and (2) cover their asses. Working with families to ensure everyone is safe and everyone gets needed help might have been in CPS’s mission statement, but it certainly wasn’t in their actions.
To have any hope of reuniting my family, my wife and I were forced by CPS to attend a local group for “family therapy.” The group was made up of offenders, their partners, and other sexual abuse survivors and is the group I mentioned earlier that made all offenders introduce themselves as “child rapists.” Honestly, the only benefit we received from attending that group was the strength to stay together, the strength, despite all the pressure for my wife and kids to jettison me, to fight on.
I was convicted of taking indecent liberties with a minor and given five years of prison, all suspended, so all of my time was served on probation. Parole and probation were, like CPS, interested in nothing other than absolute control and covering their collective asses. Nothing close to restorative justice was in their vocabulary, much less practiced.
At the time of my conviction, I was in the process of retiring from the service, and by the grace of God, I was allowed to retire at a reduced rank and keep my benefits and retirement, which was a blessing to my family.
I had a top-secret security clearance and had secured post-service employment as a consultant on the Theater Ballistic Missile Program at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Both the job and the clearance quickly evaporated upon my conviction.
After being unable to obtain any gainful employment in a suitable field or comparable level, I was forced to take the only work I could find as a part-time, minimum-wage ticket seller for a major entertainment ticketing company, a company where I have remained for the past 18 years. I worked myself up from my initial part-time, minimum-wage employment to the position of director of product operations with a six-figure income.
My status as a registrant came up only once during my 18 years with the company. That was approximately nine years into my employment when the office where I worked was being closed and consolidated. During this transition, the company was trying to decide to whom they would offer reassignment and relocation. By this time, I had worked up to a management position and was being considered for relocation when my status as a registrant was ‘”re-discovered.” The VP of Human Resources interviewed me and indicated that since I had not lied on my initial employment application, had great annual reviews, had no incident reports, and had high recommendations that I would not be terminated and would be offered relocation. Had this happened during the first five years of my employment, I would have certainly been dismissed and would have to restart from the bottom again.
Part IV: Heroes
My story has many heroes. First is my daughter who made this all possible. Without her courage to speak up and report my abuse, we would not be here today. She was 13 years old when she spoke up, and I cannot say often enough how very courageous she was in doing so. She has worked hard and long on her recovery and our family’s recovery, and I’m happy and proud to say that she didn’t give up on us, or on me. Today we are reconciled; she and her two children, my grandchildren, live with us in our shared home.
Then there is my wife of almost 30 years. At the beginning, she asked me three questions: (1) Did you do this? (2) Do you want/will you get help? and (3) Do you want to keep our family together? I answered yes to all three, and she was all in from that point forward. Through thick and thin, high and low, come hell or high water — and there were plenty of both — she stood by me, us, and our family. Over the years many have tried to tear us apart, many have looked down their noses at her, asking how in God’s name could she stand by me. She believed in us, and as long as I continued to answer the three questions yes, she promised to try – no guarantees of course, but try and try she did.
Next, there is my son, who was six years old at the time of my conviction. During my probation, he lost his father living with him for five important, formative years until he was eleven years old. Afterward, he spent his middle and high school years, traumatic enough by themselves, the son of a convicted sex offender. There were many school occasions and parties where he didn’t receive invitations, and many times where friends suddenly couldn’t be his friends any longer.
My extended family and friends never abandoned my family or me and were there for us all the way.
The final heroes are our trusted therapists; we were able to find both individual and family counseling that was tremendously helpful. They came alongside and offered us help, inspiration, and hope throughout our family’s restoration journey. My therapist was a lifesaver in this story. Without one-on-one counseling, accountability, and his edifying relationship, I would still be lost today. Mere words cannot express my appreciation enough.
I can say honestly at the time, going through this, for all of us, it felt like it would never end, that we would never survive, couldn’t survive. The cost was just too much, the guilt and shame too much to bear; we just couldn’t. Looking back now some 18 years later, with us all being back together and reconciled, I think to myself, “Hell yeah, we could! We did!” And if we made it, so can you, but there has to be a better way. There has to be a more nurturing, edifying, restorative way!
Throughout this journey, I’ve learned many things; one of the most important, however, is the difference between justice, mercy, and grace. Along the way, I learned a succinct way to describe the difference.
- Justice is when you get what you deserve;
- Mercy is when you don’t get what you deserve,
- and Grace is when you get what you don’t deserve.
My life and that of my family have been full of equal parts of all three, and for this, I’m ever so grateful; however, I feel like we may be the exception rather than the rule. I feel like there are so many more families out there who wish for mercy, pray for grace but see only justice. And while justice is important, the nature of justice is more important. Should justice be only a basal, normative response to a complex issue, rooted in doling out the most punishment possible to satisfy the victims and condemning offenders to ostracism, endless punishment, and dehumanizing public shaming? There is nothing restorative in our justice system today, and unfortunately, everyone loses, and not just the offenders but the victims as well, and certainly the families.
As for my family and me, we will continue to embrace the restorative justice way. We will, where possible, focus on the harm caused on all sides rather than just what the criminal statute demands. We will continue to stand up, speak out, and lean into the hard and messy conversations. We will strive to make the topic of sexual violence and victimization less taboo and give all, both offenders and those who are offended against, the opportunity to share, grow, and survive together.
NARSOL is a group that opposes dehumanizing registries and works to eliminate discrimination, banishment, and vigilantism against persons accused or convicted of sexual offenses through the use of impact litigation, public education, legislative advocacy, and media outreach in order to reintegrate and reconcile affected individuals and restore their constitutional rights.
This article was originally published on narsol.org on April 18, 2019, part I; April 26, 2019, part II; May 3, 2019, part III and May 10, 2019, part IV; reprinted with permission. Copyright, NARSOL 2019
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