Below the Fold: Pedophilia – The Avatars of Evil and Me

Nobody loves a pedophile. No one. Not even their mothers.

American society prefers them dead – done in by fellow inmates incarcerated in some human inferno of a prison. If that doesn’t work, it’s perpetual ankle bracelets or indefinite incarceration. Out of shackles and out of prison, a registry of their names is kept, their houses noted, their neighbors notified.

I knew some pedophiles, or presumptive pedophiles, when I was 15. They are likely dead now, as the events I describe here happened forty years ago. I was a lonely, depressed gay kid. I knew what a homosexual was because my parents, to their embarrassment, took me to Gore Vidal’s play, The Best Man, in 1960. The play is Washington-based melodrama in which a presidential candidate’s homosexual past becomes a weapon used in blackmail against him. Though I never used the word, I knew what it meant all the same. I knew I was a homosexual too, but I only told it to myself. Moreover, to escape imagined annihilation at the hands of the male heterosexual mob, I worked hard to leave no traces of my true identity in any part of the world I inhabited.

Well, I suppose, almost. I found a sympathetic listener in my drama teacher. He was a remarkably self-assured man of about 45, I would guess. I might even say he was flamboyant, given that flamboyant in a drab suburban high school in 1963 meant dressing a couple notches above Robert Hall’s, wearing fashionable glasses, and using a very fine fountain pen instead of a cheap Papermate. He walked on his heels with his head held high. He had a wonderfully full voice, and yes, a high-pitched bit of a cackle. When he got mad, whether in class or in a rehearsal, he would slam the papers or the clipboard down, and walk away rather than at us, which I find all the more remarkable now having realized how many bullies I have faced in classrooms. He was a passionate man, full of spirit. You never would have known that he had gone to a small Methodist college.

He would drive me home after school. I would hang around his office with several others, or stop by to chat after the activity period that followed the regular school day. He would offer me a lift home, and in the confines of his big white Pontiac convertible, we would talk. I lived only a mile and a half away from school, so he would circle block after block as we talked, or I talked about me, for a very long time. I remember little of what we talked about, except for one time when I solicited his support for my decision not to ask a girl to the prom. It had been put about that she wanted me to ask her, but I didn’t want to, and he said it was okay not to invite her and not to go.

I loved talking with him. I never talked with him about being gay. It never occurred to me, as I felt so comfortable just being with him. Sometimes, he would laugh and grab and squeeze my knee very hard, like how I would tickle some one now with whom I had some degree of physical intimacy.

It only occurred to me that he was gay after his roommate made a pass at me, and I met my first pedophile. My drama teacher had taken a job in California and had gone on ahead to find a house, and his roommate was to follow. Meanwhile, the two of them had a friend who worked for the Educational Testing Service and knew a lot about colleges. My teacher left it that his roommate would be in touch with me over the summer to set up a meeting between their friend and me, so that I could get some sense of what schools would be best for me.

It was a good meeting. I realized later that I had met my first lesbian couple, and they were living in respectable suburban circumstances. I learned a lot, and he drove me home. On the way, we were stopped by a very long freight train passing. His hand found my knee, not in the jolly way of his lover, my drama teacher, but in a caress that gave his intention away immediately. I turned away and simply ignored him, feeling scornful. How odd, I think now: to be scornful instead of so many other things. I suppose scorn was not a feeling, but a defensive reaction – a pose to counter his move. The train moved on, and so did we, the caress withdrawn without comment.

Two days later, he called me at home. “What about dinner and a swim?” he asked. It was so easy to say no. I knew what he wanted, and I didn’t want it. My mother overheard the conversation, and wanted to know what it was about. I was certainly not going to tell her what was really going on, that I was gay and my drama teacher’s lover was hitting on me, but I didn’t feel the need to confess or plead for protection either. I told her my teacher’s friend had invited me out, but I didn’t want to go. I ignored her interest in knowing more, and walked out of the room.

With my drama teacher confessor gone, I felt very lonely my senior year. I had sung in the school choir for four years, and was invited to join the music honor society. I was no Caruso, especially after my voice changed, and the audition was to be a trial. The assistant choir director stayed after school to help me prepare a solo piece, and he coached me with a kind of friendly dismay. He wore red socks, he was roly-poly, he made mistakes on the piano when he was nervous (which was often given that our director was a tyrant), and students made fun of him.

He offered me a ride home. As we stopped in front of my house, he asked if I wouldn’t mind answering a few questions. A friend of his was doing a study on the onset of male puberty, and my responses would be useful. He began to sweat heavily, and his upper lip trembled. I looked right at him, though he looked straight ahead. Where on your body do you have hair now? Under your arms? Your chest? Your genitals? With each of his questions, what I thought was his unease grew. I suppose now it was his arousal that grew.

I answered his questions, though I didn’t really like them. Once more, though, I knew I was in contact with a man who wanted something sexual from me, even if in this case, hearing rather than touching was enough.

I think I was just a cubby to my drama teacher, somebody he wanted to squeeze and tickle and make happy. I suppose, on the other hand, that his roommate/boyfriend liked boys. Perhaps this makes him a candidate pedophile like the music teacher. They were in their forties, and I was 16 by my senior year. Do the math.

I would hardly call myself a model of self-possession in those days. It took another six years and some pretty big hard knocks to come out. But I had felt sufficiently self-possessed, it seems in retrospect, to understand what my teacher’s boyfriend and my music teacher wanted, and to do what I wanted. Or at least to head off what I didn’t want.

Others were not so lucky. Over the years, I have heard many accounts from friends and acquaintances, women and men, about fathers, step-fathers, uncles, cousins, and big brothers who took them sexually, mostly against their wills. There must be mothers involved too, but I have never heard anything of the sort first hand.

I have often wondered: Did I in fact get a free pass? Were these more near misses than they seemed to me at the time? Was this pedophilia lite? The teacher’s boyfriend and the music teacher surely were no avatars of evil, deserving mean justice in a prison cell. Though they were surely interested in boys, I will never know where these experiences fit into their lives, and whether they had any meaning for them at all. Likely not much, to judge from a distance now.

(The music teacher might be glad he lived in another age, I might add. Just this year at my old high school, a teacher was convicted of molesting a student, and my nephew gave testimony at the trial.)

Where evil is so often imputed, I offer a cautionary tale. It is only one story, so take it for what it is worth. My story, however, makes me wary of how easily we adjudge pedophiles evil, and of how quickly we consider them less than human. When they commit crimes, they should be punished. In our time, have they ever as a class gone unpunished or been under-punished? The bar marking the age of consent has been raised and lowered from time to time, and from place to place, but it seems likely to me that an adult having sex with an under-age person, if discovered, would be punished. Rape adds violence, and adds penalties. As a lay person, it seems to me that the law is getting clearer on adult sex with minors and on sexual violence against persons of any age.

What lies beneath the clarities of law are these particular facts of life, the near misses, the halting gestures of perhaps a candidate pedophile or two, and the resolve of a gay teenager who wanted to be near older gay men, but not have sex with them. I think it would be naïve still to believe that my choice alone was the deciding factor. The two men came near, one nearer than the other, but both pulled back of their volition too.

One might say that in each of these cases a line was crossed, especially from our vantage point today. Yet one might just as easily say that a line was drawn by me or by them – and observed by both sides. Is the would-be pedophile who draws back an avatar? Is he touched by evil too?

For me, the path from judgment to justice is less secure, though perhaps it is because I got off lightly. Exactly so. These events and the lack of distress they caused then and now have awakened in me, given these times, the need to urge more careful examination of the facts in cases of pedophilia. To recover reason and proportion and to see this part of the world more clearly would be best for all.

It helps to me to think of Dante. Having reached the eighth circle of hell, and thus have practically imagined all the horror that evil can throw up at him, writes the following:

“The crowds, the countless, different mutilations,
had stunned my eyes and left them so confused
they wanted to keep looking and to weep,

But Virgil said: ‘What are you staring at?
Why do your eyes insist on drowning there
Below, among those wretched, broken shades?”
(Inferno, XXIX, 1-6)