On 1/27/18, I participated in Writers for Biss, an event to support Illinois gubernatorial candidate Daniel Biss, along with Martha Bayne, Julia Sweeney Blum, Christine Sneed, Rick Perlstein, and Claire Zulkey. This is what I read.
I have two kids, a nine year old and a sixteen year old, and obviously they’re growing up in a very particular political moment. It’s what we talk about at the dinner table. It’s what they talk about with their friends. My nine year old has joined me knocking on doors to campaign, and she’s come with me to protests or helped me make my signs. My son, on the other hand, has said no to all that. The only issue that’s moved him to concrete action is Net Neutrality. He wrote to his representatives and signed every petition and lectured anyone within earshot on why it was crucial. He was crushed when it was overturned, and walked around for a couple days as if he’d suffered a physical blow. Then one evening at dinner he perked up. He’d figured out something to hope for: Maybe a billionaire will come along and start an internet provider that made equal access its calling card, and all our problems would be solved.
My heart sank, that this was his solution. A billionaire coming to save the day. Our billionaire against their billionaires. Yet I understand why he this is what he envisioned. It’s one of our strongest narratives, not just in current politics, but in our culture at large. The great man will fix it. I mean, usually it’s a man, this past year they threw us a bone with Wonder Woman. Don’t worry. She’ll conquer the god of war!
It sure is easier to sit on the benches and wait for your billionaire, and to jeer at the other team, than it is to brick-by-brick lay the foundation for sensible legislation to pass. Individual, every day people coming together seems hopeless to my son right now. He and his friends can’t even agree on whether voting at all is what’s best for the civic good.
Another thing I’ve tried to bring to the dinner table is the topic of sexual abuse and assault. I know, good times. But for the past, um, ten years now, I’ve been immersed in the topic as I’ve been writing about my own childhood sexual abuse and researching it generally, and all research says, this is something we should be talking about early and often with both boys and girls. #metoo has exploded recently, but it’s been percolating. I can’t remember now which celebrity figure had been accused of sexual misconduct—I think it might have been Ben Roesthersberger—but while talking about it a lightning bolt of worry struck my son: How can we know what really happened? No one but the two of them were there?
I said, we can’t know, for absolutely sure. So when you’re doing anything sexual you better be really confident their into it.
My son seems a gentle soul, but for all I know Ben Rothersberger’s mom thinks the same about her child. I didn’t mind striking a little fear into him on this issue.
I know the potential for false accusations to be taken too seriously strikes fear into the hearts of a lot of people. They worry that there’s nothing to stop women from making what they see as life-wrecking claims. But I’m here to tell you that disclosing is hard, okay? It’s really hard, to be an individual speaking out. Your character is questioned. You’re disbelieved and disparaged. More often than not you might suffer more consequences than the person accused.
But, that’s when you’re standing alone. What we’re seeing right now with #metoo and #timesup is the power of the collective voice.
One thing that drove me to write a memoir about my own sexual abuse is the guilt I felt when I learned that the person who did this to me when I was really small went on to abuse other girls the same age. I had just given birth to my son, and he’d finally landed in jail. For years, I fretted about what I could have done differently to prevent those other girls from harm. I should have told sooner. I should have told better. I’m going to read a short section from my book The Telling that describes some of my thinking:
“So, what if I would have waited until I was an adult? What would have happened if I or either of my parents—my father, it would have had to have been—had urged some more definitive action in the face of my mid-twenties announcement that this abuse had occurred? Perhaps he could have created a forum for some sort of restorative justice.
In my case, in the 1990s my family was all spread out. No two of us in the relevant quartet—cousin, mother, father, me— lived in the same state. I hadn’t seen Toshi in five years. But imagine if a rendezvous could have been possible. My throat constricts at the thought of it. Would I have been able to speak? To say something like: “You molested me starting when I was four years old. It’s been a stone in my shoe all these years. I think you owe me an apology. Please don’t do it again.”
If he had looked at me and said “I’m sorry,”, instinctively, I might have said, “That’s OK.” And I imagine I might have felt something lifting.
But even in my imaginings, it’s hard to believe a request from me would have made him keep his hands to himself, his mouth above board, his dick in his pants.
What might have given him the ability to have stopped with me? What if I’d have pressed charges in my twenties, when many changes to the legal system had been made and I was still young enough to fit inside the statute of limitations? We’re just imagining, here, let’s not get bogged down with the scant evidence of the crime, the logistical difficulty, the financial drain, the emotional toll on myself and my family. Let’s just pretend I did it and I won. Then he would have had to don the label of child sex offender a handful of years earlier. Might this notice to family, friends, neighbors, potential employers, and the public at large have spared someone from him, have spared him from himself? Maybe.
The year I told my parents that Toshi had molested me was the same year Congress passed the Sexual Offender Act of 1994, commonly referred to as Megan’s Law, because it was created in response to the murder of seven-year old Megan Kanka by a convicted sex offender who lived across the street from her. The law mandates harsh sentencing for repeat offenders and requires that states share with the public information about anyone who has been convicted of felony sex assault—often including the offender’s residential address, photograph, and crime along with their name. Internet usage has become ubiquitous in the years since the law’s passage, and today information about offenders is almost as easy to obtain as the weather forecast or yesterday’s sport’s scores. One consequence is that the men can be publicly harassed and pressured to leave their communities.
Another consequence is that people who are made particularly uneasy by the existence of sex offenders can stoke their anxiety. I’ve gone through periods where I’ve sought these registries out, stared at the photos lined up in rows, squinted into the eyes of these men—the ones who live in my community, the one who is related to me. His hair is more gray now than black, and two deep lines are drawn down from his cheekbones to his jaw, but he’s trim, his face is not sagging or swollen, like so many of the others. He’s recognizable to me as the strange, taciturn, handsome hippy boy whose stride through the dining room could rattle the plates in the built-in cabinets while I sat in the adjoining room playing with my plastic animals or my brother’s army men. He was my family member, my father’s charge. What righteous certitude I would have had to muster to press the issue, what conviction that the court-defined punishment would match and not supersede the crime. What proof of injury I would have had to display. I didn’t have any of those things.
It feels grandiose—and I know it’s inaccurate—to lump myself in with the many now infamous people on sports staffs and school administrations and in the Catholic hierarchy who have turned away uncomfortably from glanced, sensed, intimated, complicated suggestions and blunt accusations that children are being sexually abused within their esteemed institutions. But though reading about instances where child sexual assault is downplayed can make me so angry I breathe in a pant, I also understand how it happens. When something is both horrible and commonplace, especially when it’s caught in the web of loyalty and blood, it’s easy to look away, make the bet that it won’t happen again. assume if it’s really of great consequence, someone else will force it to stop.”
In 2008, a study conducted in New Jersey concluded that Megan’s Law has not been effective in preventing repeat offense or reducing the number of child sex assault victims in that state. Critics have noted that among the law’s inadvertent adverse effects is the difficulty it can create for the victims. Since so many offenders are convicted for crimes against a family member, and since they often return to the family’s home or proximity when released, the attention they garner when their residence and crimes are made public affects the whole clan, makes it difficult to move on. But the law, though expensive to implement, is politically popular. It’s a definitive sign that society doesn’t tolerate child sexual abuse, a distraction from the reality that, despite the near hysteria over the issue, so many of us—perpetrators, protectors, victims, witnesses or potential ones—are bumbling through a fog when we confront the issue under our own noses, under our own covers, stuffed under our beds.
Unlike my son, I don’t put much stock in billionaires. I’m prejudiced against them, actually. I’m really glad we have a middle class candidate for governor. But I got excited about Daniel Biss before I knew he wasn’t rich. It was right after the 2016 election, when I attended a meeting in which he addressed constituents. He spoke in such clear, concrete terms about the changes we could make to increase equity in our state—his evident passion on the issue combined with his practicality and rationality gave me my first glimmer of hope. I went to see him speak again, and I learned about the retirement savings bill he had passed, solid legislation that makes a real difference. It has nothing to do with the kind of showboating that gets us laws like Megan’s Law, that sooth people’s anger while potentially making the actual problem worse or doing nothing to alter the conditions that created it.
There is no billionaire coming to save us. But those of us who are horrified about the direction of the country, the seemingly intractable problems in our state, can try. It will take collective effort. Require pitching in money and time. Learning enough about property tax reform and retirement funding so that we can talk about it with others in a way that goes beyond slogans on glossy flyers that show up in my mailbox sometimes two per day. I don’t know if my son is convinced to give his effort—or I do know. He’s not. He’s too busy on the internet. But my daughter has asked me when we’re going door-to-door again.