Choose Your Own Adventure

Hey everyone,

I’m spending this week on my own adventure at the NonFictionNOW conference, so there there won’t be any new posts this week. (Who has two thumbs and made a reservation for a 5:38 a.m. flight? This idiot.)

In the meanwhile, I hope you’ll choose your own FGP adventure, either by catching up on essays or getting your spooky on by reading some of my favorite Halloween ones: Jody Mace’s “Haunted Wedding” and William Bradley’s “Fear.”

If, by any chance, you’ll actually be at the conference, I hope we cross paths! I’ll be the zombie on east coast time, fretting about the high elevation and what time it is really.

xo,

Jennifer

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Intro to Soul Mate 101

petals hi-res
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jennifer Niesslein

I’m an unlikely editor for this anthology about love and sex among people well into adulthood. The only adult love and sex I’ve been wrapped up in started twenty-four years ago when two drunk nineteen-year-olds hooked up at a fraternity house. (If there are any younger readers here, a word of advice: We are what you call a statistical anomaly.)

So, outside of my own marriage, I live adult romance vicariously. I’ve edited many a Match profile, once saving my youngest sister from the possibility of suggesting that she’s all about the back door, if you catch my meaning. I’ve engaged in some Facebook-spying to catch evidence of a friend’s husband’s affair, my screen saves entered into their real-life divorce proceedings. I’ve read Biblical verse at my cousin’s wedding, winking at my own beloved sitting in the pew with our son.

And I’m a sucker for a love story because every love story is a story of risk, the plot already built in. The stakes are high, as they always are when you invite someone into your heart. You hope she’ll take her shoes off. You hope he’ll be mindful that some of the furniture is rickety—the End Table of Body Image with its one wobbly leg, the Curtains of Trust held up by a rod that someone else bent long ago, the Armchair of Hope slightly worn, but still pretty damned comfortable. You hope that she won’t care that it’s a little messy in there; hey, the music is still good.

When you look at your lover and growl, I want you inside of me, this is what you mean, this metaphor made into flesh. Well, that and an orgasm.

•••

The risk doesn’t go away. Brandon and I got married in our early twenties, much earlier than any of our friends. We’d been together four-and-a-half years at that point, and we’d already become linked to each other, which is what happens when you meet when you’re still forming your identities. We literally wouldn’t be the same people without each other, then or now.

Like everyone else, I didn’t know, on our wedding day, a lot about what could happen. I couldn’t have known then that someday, a few of my friends’ marriages would break under the weight of infertility. I didn’t know that, years from this day, my own brother-in-law would be dead at forty-two, leaving my sister with an implosion in her heart. I didn’t know that some marriages are subject to a gazillion paper cuts of resentment or that “for worse” includes some unimaginable shit. I didn’t know if we’d escape these and a thousand other fates.

But, as someone who lived through her parents’ divorce, I knew that people change. As two pragmatic romantics, Brandon and I chose Elizabeth Bishop’s “It Is Marvellous to Wake Up Together” as the reading on our clear, spring wedding day. Brandon stood there up front in his finery, our grandfathers both alive and healthy and beaming from the front row, my dad marching me down the aisle before the song even began. We looked into each other’s eyes as our friend read the poem that ends:

The world might change to something quite different,
As the air changes or the lightning comes without our blinking,
Change as our kisses are changing without our thinking.

•••

Why do we do it? Risk all this vulnerability and potential heartache? I think you already know what the answer is for you.

This anthology is the answer to why other people do it, whether they’re single, married, divorced, or widowed. The answers are universal and varied. Maybe you’ll see yourself in some of them. I didn’t arrange the essays by whether the relationships depicted therein worked out or not because it’s just not how life works.

I have to say that I’m blown away at how each writer depicts love-and-sex and all that it entails. These are some majorly talented people giving their takes on a subject that’s been tackled since time began. I hope it’s as good for you as it was for me. Hand me my water glass, would you, baby?

•••

JENNIFER NIESSLEIN is the founder and editor of Full Grown People.

This is the introduction to Soul Mate 101 and Other Essays on Love and Sex.

Reasons you probably want to pre-order it:

• It’s a fantastic read. Click on the link above to see the feedback from the likes of Jill Talbot and Sue William Silverman, and see who the writers are. I was damn lucky to get them for this book.

It’s a great way to support Full Grown People. I don’t have any institutional support in the way of a university or a corporation or grants, so this and the tip jar are it, bebbies.

• Over half of the essays are brand-new. If you’re a sucker for work about truck-stop loving (Deesha Philyaw), a break-up and a brain injury (Louise Sloan), snapshots of people who seem indispensable to one’s life (Elissa Wald), or the allure of redheads and the mixed emotions it raises in a Black woman (Dionne Ford)—just to name a few—this is a book for you.

Happy Fourth of July

fireworks
By Mike Boening Photography/ Flickr

No new essay today since I bet a lot of you are scurrying around, getting ready for Independence Day, but for the rest of us, stuck inside with allergies or on hugging-the-shivering-dog duty or what have you, I thought I’d make a sort of FGP mixtape from the archives, on this, the summeriest weekend of the summer.

Nicole Walker’s “Persuasion” for those of us about to get our BBQ on.

Kate Haas’s “Out in the Woods, Away Out There” for campers and the people who love them (anyway).

Rebecca Altman’s “The Homes We Drove Past” for those of us feeling a little nostalgic for childhood memories. (For example, that one Fourth when a certain uncle who was in charge of the fireworks got a little, uh, tipsy and said, “This next one is Golden Flowers. Not Golden Showers, kids. Golden Flowers.”)

Zsofi McMullin’s “The Accidental Immigrant” for those of us thinking of immigration and how we, or the particular huddled masses that came before us, got here.

Carol Paik’s “Running Commentary” for those marathon-running folk out there and the rest of us who will be waiting with a watermelon mojito for them at home.

Jamie Passaro’s “A Mild Suspension of Effort” for the neighborhood potluckers and everyone who enjoys the nice quiet of a summer night.

Jenny Poore’s “I Will Put Your Poem on My Wall” for everyone out there who needs a little pick-me-up because this year in the United States, like every year, great things have happened and horrifying things have happened and it’s easy to feel powerless and small, but your actions matter. They really do.

•••

If you haven’t heard about the amazing new FGP anthology Soul Mate 101 and Other Essays on Love and Sex, read all about it. Hey, get a little crazy and pre-order it! I won’t stop you!

Soul Mate 101 and Other Essays on Love and Sex

Soul Mate 101 coverthumbnail

By Jennifer Niesslein

Hi everyone,

I’m working on the new anthology (pictured above, featuring a glorious photo by Gina Easley.) This time, I’m switching things up a bit.

The theme of Soul Mate 101 is love and sex, all done up in the FGP way. About half the essays are brand-spanking new work; the other half are some gems from the site. I’m already so thrilled about it that I can’t imagine the state I’ll be worked up into by the time the book actually is published—I’m shooting for mid-September.

Who are writers in this latest one?

Why, none other than Sara Bir, William Bradley, Gayle Brandeis, Glendaliz Camacho, Carolyn Edgar, Sarah Einstein, Reyna Eisenstark, Dionne Ford, McKel Jensen, Jean Kim, Antonia Malchik, Zsofi McMullin, Catherine Newman, Deesha Philyaw, Browning Porter, Susan Kushner Resnick, Natasha Saje, Tracy Sutton Schorn, Louise Sloan, Megan Stielstra, and Elissa Wald.

I’ll be introducing them in the notifications letter in the coming months. (Some of them have books coming out or out already. Some good, good stuff.)

I hope you’ll preorder now. I’m the only one who has read this whole collection so far, but all of these true tales of love in the time of adulthood have me swooning. I think you’re going to love the book—and, hey, I haven’t steered you wrong before, have I?

xxoo,

Jennifer

Gone Fishing (for new software)

I’m taking the week off to play catch-up. Replacing ancient versions of software, reading submissions, climbing Mount Laundry—that kind of scintillating stuff.

In the meanwhile, maybe you want to look at some essays that FGP ran earlier? I recommend the stuff from last December (those essays sometimes get overlooked with the holidays and all).

Thanks for being part of the community, peeps. See you next week, with fresh pants.

xo,

Jennifer

A Little Help from FGP Friends

I’ve taken the week off to catch up on reading submissions and to do a little book promotion. I’ve been getting some messages from many of you (okay, like, seven people), wondering how they can help with Full Grown People: Greatest Hits, Volume One. I’m extremely grateful for the offer (because, like a toddler, I’m weirdly averse to asking for help), and I brainstormed a few ways.

As I think I’ve said before, it’s still a little experiment for me to see if this is a viable business model. Full Grown People is a little more than halfway sold out of the first edition of the first anthology. I hope to come out with another anthology, tentatively titled Soul Mate 101 and Other True Tales of Love and Sex, next spring. It’ll include both work from the site and new essays.

If you’ve ever read anything on FGP that made you think, Boy howdy, I’m glad I read that essay, or love the site, or want to see the next book come to fruition, maybe you want to help. Here are some ways:

Buy the book. If not for yourself, as a gift. You know those times when you’re never quite sure if someone’s going to give you a present over the holidays or not? Buy a small stack, stuff them into gift bags, and, boom, insta-gift. If it doesn’t happen, hey, birthday presents! Teacher gift! Raffle giveaway! (The book is a beauty to behold, thanks to the design work of Anne Hilton and the photography of Gina Easley.)

• If you’re a Goodreads participant, consider reviewing the book. It’s hard out there for indie publishers to get a rep, and I’d be ever so grateful.

• Tell your friends. Good taste runs in flocks.

• Ask your library to stock it and give your librarian our website. Librarians are some of the smartest cookies around.

And if all you’re equipped to do is wish FGP well, I’ll take that, too! Thanks to all of you wonderful people who have supported us so far by reading, sharing the word, buying the book, and generally being awesome members of this community. It means a lot to me.

xo,

Jennifer

Sneak Peek

FGP GH1 coverthumb
The back cover is really cool, too.

So, maybe you’ve seen something announcing the first FGP anthology? (Oh, like the huge purple banner above?) The book is at the printer right now. Thanks to the graphic design of Anne Hilton and the cover photo by Gina Easley, it’s a beautiful thing to behold. And thanks to the writers, it’s an amazing book to read. I’m extremely grateful for all of you who ordered it, and your faith and support. Fingers crossed that this anthology will be the first of many. What follows is my introduction to Full Grown People: Greatest Hits, Volume 1. —Jennifer Niesslein, ed.

The book you’re about to read grew out of the Full Grown People website, which grew out of my own existential crisis. This is something of a professional pattern for me.

When I was in my late twenties, my friend Stephanie Wilkinson and I started a literary magazine about motherhood, in part, because I was freaked out about motherhood culture at the time. (These were the olden days, when magazines aimed at mothers were still the kingdom of professional nags.)

When I was in my thirties, I worried that I wasn’t as happy as I might be. I wrote a book about it.

And the year I was to turn forty, Stephanie and I decided to shut down that literary magazine that had become part of my identity. I realized, after the fact, that I’d done something kind of stupid: I linked my personal life (the new motherhood crisis) to my professional life (the magazine about motherhood). By 2012, I was adrift. My kiddo was beyond the age where he needed me in the intensive way he had when he was younger, and I no longer had a job.

I wasn’t alone. I looked around at my friends, and I saw that so many of them were going through some life-changing stuff. A couple of them were going back to school for new careers. A couple of others were either divorcing or getting into new romances. Plenty of them began shouldering responsibility for their own parents. Others, like my own sister, found themselves wondering what the hell to do now that the children were off on their own.

Perhaps like Chaka Khan before me, I’m every woman. In any case, I yearned for stories about how other people weathered this awkward age. And, boom: this is it.

•••

Full Grown People is about transitional moments in adulthood. You might think that this is a coy way of saying “mid-life crisis,” but it isn’t. I don’t ask the writers how old they are, but I know that some essays on the site have been penned by people twenty years younger than I am, others by people twenty years older, give or take. That’s the thing about awkward ages—they can blow up on you at any time.

And yet. Sometime after the site launched, I was driving my teenage son somewhere—another awkward age, when the boy has so many commitments but no license—and I was listening to a story on the radio. It was about a woman named Pia Farrenkopf, who was found mummified in her Jeep, after dying some years before. No one suspected a thing until the bills that she’d been paying automatically ran her account dry. I’m paraphrasing the soothing voice of the commentator, but he said something like, “It was astounding to find out who she was. You’d think she was elderly, a recluse, but here Farrenkopf was, in the thick of life.” She’d traveled the world; she’d created a career in finance; she was from a big family, although she was often out of the country. When she was found, it was the year she would have turned fifty.

“The thick of life” stuck with me. Because that’s really what those decades between being truly young and truly old are, aren’t they? They’re not the thin broth of youth, waiting for ingredients; yet our lives aren’t solidified, either. We’re getting more acquainted with the hard stuff—the deaths, the limitations, the realizations that we can’t make people be who we want them to be—but we also have the hope, the smarts, and the gumption to take what we’ve created of our lives so far and evolve.

•••

This collection of essays is a sampling from the website, fullgrownpeople.com. (You can sign up for updates at the site that come with little intros that I write.) There are way more gems on the site than I could fit in here, but I have to say that this anthology just straight-up delights me. The writers here bring all the stuff that gets my heart pounding: the funny, the smart, the poignant.

The topics here run the whole gamut: romance, family, health, career, dealing with aging loved ones, and more. But what draws everything together is the sense that we’re all feeling our way along.

And we’ll continue to feel our way along because, hey, that’s life, right? No matter where we are, we’re going to keep encountering stuff that we know, intellectually, others have dealt with already, but it still doesn’t mitigate the feeling that we’re winging it. “Oh, Jenny,” my gram said when we talked last week, “how did I get to be old?” We laughed, but if I had my guess, I’d say the answer is just like this: one new befuddling, challenging, soul-stretching experience at a time.

Sounds good? If you’d like to get your very own, you can order here.

Big News

Today is Full Grown People’s one-year anniversary, and I have to say, it’s only because of the awesome community you’ve established here. I wish so very much that I could go around and thank each of you. But please pat yourself on the back. No—hug yourself. No—kiss your own shoulder.

That was from me.

There are no new essays up this week because I took last week off to work on the first FGP anthology. It should be out in October, and it’s amazing. You can pre-order it now, and I hope you do so that I can figure out how many copies I should print.

Why would you want it?

•  You can’t keep up with the twice-a-week essays.

•  You’ve discovered the site in the past six months and want a big old gulp of the goodness here.

•  You like FGP and hope that it succeeds financially so that you can keep getting your fix.

•  You’re a hard copy person, damn it!

I’m planning on publishing more—both Greatest Hits and themed issues with new content. But this one will knock some socks off, with writing by Marcia Aldrich, Shaun Anzaldua, Sara Bir, William Bradley, Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser, Michele Coppola, Zahie El Kouri, Jessica Handler, Karrie Higgins, Sonya Huber, Jennifer James, Kim Kankiewicz, Kristin Kovacic, Meredith Fein Lichtenberg, Jody Mace, Jon Magidsohn, Antonia Malchik, Jennifer Maher, Catherine Newman, Randy Osborne, Carol Paik, Sarah Pape, Katy Read, Robin Schoenthaler, Amber Stevens, Dina Strasser, Jill Talbot, Suzanne Van Atten, Rebecca Stetson Werner, and Susan Rebecca White, plus cover photography by Gina Easley.

Thank you again, lovelies. As someone wise once said, you make-a my dreams come true.

xo,

Jennifer

Extra Reads for You

Hey there!

I’m taking the week off to work on the very first FGP book. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, if you’re hankering for some more reads from the FGP writers, I’ve made a handy-dandy list.

Happy reading and happy 4th!

xo,

Jennifer

Sara Bir, “Canning Is Bullshit”

Angel Sands Gunn, “Underwater”

Kate Haas, “Strangers on a Plane: Overcoming My Fear of Flying”

Jessica Handler, “How to Write the Tough Stuff”

Sonya Huber, “How the ‘Trophy for Just Showing Up’ Is Earned”

Jim Krosschell, “Trash”

Nicole Matos, “Broken Collarbone? Just Roll with It”

Susan McCulley, “Part of the Practice (Or The Time I Became Naked in Yoga)”

Zsofi McMullian, “My Complicated Relationship with My Jewishness”

Tamiko Nimura, “Celebrating the Child: Kodomo no Hi in Seattle”

Randy Osborne, “The Mad Years”

Robin Schoenthaler, “On Set with Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin: My Son’s ‘Labor Day’ Adventure” and “Closing Up the Cabin”

The Prince and the Perv

laptop
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Jennifer Niesslein

A word association game: Pick up the robocall, and hear the name “John Smith.*”

John Smith means a prince of a man—a beloved elementary-school teacher who your fifteen-year-old son adores. Gifted and popular. Merry eyes, short, kind of a goofball.

“A sad acknowledgement.”

Oh, no. Did he die? He’s married with two daughters—sweet, smart kids, one in your son’s grade, one in your best friend’s daughter’s grade.

“…arrested yesterday on charges related to child pornography.”

Game over.

•••

I’d last seen Mr. Smith a few weekends before. Our kids had arrived at the age when they had many commitments, both social and academic, and no driver’s license. It had been the third weekend in a row where my husband, Brandon, and I had listened to another of their musical performances.

Brandon and I waited in the lobby with the rest of the parents while the kids took off their uniforms and packed up their instruments. We chitchatted with the parents of our son’s closest friends, but it’s a small community—just one high school for the whole city—and we were familiar with many other parents. I called the other parents by their first names, but Mr. Smith would always be Mr. Smith to me; I’d already mentally filed him away as “teacher,” an identity that requires a certain amount of respect.

He was standing near the door. “Hey, there,” I said to him, smiling.

He smiled back. “Hi,” he might have said. “How’s it going?” maybe. I actually don’t remember. He wasn’t clean-shaven, but it was a weekend after all; I looked kind of schlubby myself. He was just Mr. Smith, a known quantity. He was friendly with the other parents, joked with the kids, and carried that particular kind of teacher celebrity—the teacher who every parent wants their child to get—with grace.

When his mug shot was posted on every news outlet in our small city, I could see that, to a lot of people, he would look like a perv. No crinkly eyes, no smile. Just a bald, white man with a grimly set mouth. He was charged with two counts of possession of child pornography and one count of using a communications device to solicit child pornography. I Googled those words as if they could mean something other than what they mean. They don’t.

I don’t know what kind of story this is yet. Is it about sympathy for the devil? Is it about confronting a monster? Is it about a decent man with a terrible fetish? Is it about my own stupidity?

•••

It should go without saying, but without children, there would be no child pornography. Every child porn video or image out there shows a kid experiencing abuse at best, rape at worst, on film.

It’s tough to find numbers on the victims. In December 2012, a Congressional report on child pornography was released. It’s book-length and covers everything from sentencing suggestions to behaviors of users of child pornographer to data on the victims themselves. “It is unknown how many victims of child pornography exist worldwide,” the chapter on the victims begins. A Canadian governmental report estimates that there are more than five million unique images of child porn on the internet.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has a special task force that looks closely at child pornography. In fact, the Congressional report, as well as federal law enforcement, relies on the Center’s work. “The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (‘NCMEC’) has reviewed over 57 million images and videos of child pornography (many of them duplicates)” according to the report, “and has assisted law enforcement in the identification over 4,103 individual victims.”

(Two things to note: First, those 4,103 kids are just a small fraction of the whole. Also, Reviewer for NCMEC has just shot to the top of my list of Worst Jobs Ever.)

Some numbers, from NCMEC’s own intake program, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the makeup of child pornography as a whole:

• Girls make up 57% of the victims; boys make up the other 43%.

• Twenty-four percent of the children are pubescent. Seventy-six percent are pre-pubescent; of those kids, 10% are infants or toddlers.

• Most of the victims are abused by someone close to them. It’s a fairly rare occurrence for the children (or the adults they become) to speak out.

But when they do, this is some of what they say:

From “Amy,” as reported by the NCMEC, at a judicial proceeding against her uncle: “I am still discovering all the ways that the abuse and exploitation I suffer has hurt me, has set my life on the wrong course, and destroyed the normal childhood, teenage years, and early adulthood that everyone deserves.”

From Masha Allen, on Nancy Grace, who was adopted from a Russian orphanage by an American man: “My pictures that are on the Internet disturb me more than what Matthew did because I know that the abuse stopped but those pictures are still on the Internet.”

From an anonymous male victim originally from Kentucky, in the Tampa Bay Times: “It’s taken my happiness, my peace of mind. It’s taken everything. I can’t get it back. I can’t pretend it didn’t happen.”

According to the Congressional report, both the Supreme Court and Congress have acknowledged that the children abused in pornography experience a unique form of victimization since the record of their abuse lives on and provides fodder for yet another someone to get his rocks off. If that’s not enough, some victims have reported that it haunts them that the images of them could be used to “groom” new victims. Worse yet, some victims become revictimized when porn users stalk them, online, at school, or, in one documented case, at a softball game.

•••

Mr. Smith was being held at the jail without bond. The judge said that he would reconsider if Mr. Smith’s attorney and wife could prove that he had no access to the internet or smart phones.

We, the community, still had no idea what he’d been looking at. Somehow, it would make a difference, we thought. “Barely legal” or something.

•••

It’s a rare scandal that doesn’t start with a secret. Ask Bill “That Woman” Clinton. Ask Larry “Wide Stance” Craig. Ask John “You’re So Hot” Edwards. Ask Mark “Hiking Trip” Sanford.

Like a lot of reasonable people, I believe that people can be extremely gifted in their work and still screw up royally in their personal lives. I know a guy who’s super-smart and creative with tech stuff, yet he has fucked over his family in a major way. I recently read of a wonderful actor with a terrific family who died of a heroin overdose. If I can believe what I hear, I’m a damn good editor, but I know that I’m also a terrible custodian of my own health.

I believe that people can compartmentalize, that the good and the ugly can stay separate and sometimes even work in tandem to make a better, stronger person. When I think of Mr. Smith, my first impulse is good guy, quickly followed by or maybe not.

Can a person have a terrible secret but still be a decent human being? This isn’t so much a question as a desperately wished-for hope. (So desperately wished-for, in fact, that my own online search history has become riddled with the phrase “child pornography.”)

The research shows that there isn’t a definite link between pedophilia and child pornography. “[N]ot all child pornography offenders are pedophiles, and not all child pornography offenders engage in other sex offending,” that 2012 Congressional report states. “While there is overlap in these categories, each is separate and none is a predicate to any other.”

In some ways, this is exactly what I wanted to know: that it’s possible for a person to harbor a horrible sexual fantasy and still keep it in the fantasy realm. This is the best-case scenario, other than Mr. Smith’s arrest being a case of mistaken identity. This is the scenario that lets a parent feel okay about her child having been under Mr. Smith’s care.

In other ways, it doesn’t help at all. In the chapter on child pornography offender behavior, the Congressional report slices and dices all the studies that have been conducted on child pornography offenders. There is a correlation—although not causation—between someone owning child pornography and committing sexual contact with minors. Most child pornography offenders have a certain type of image that they like—a certain gender, certain age of child. Other times, though, some of the data contradicts other data. Some of the data introduced me to a world I had no idea even existed, like online communities where “collectors” trade images and form social bonds with each other. And it occurred to me that all of it is based on the offenders who got caught, which skews the sample.

None of it, really, though, helps me understand what Mr. Smith allegedly did when he thought no one was looking.

•••

Mr. Smith was denied bond at his hearing until, the judge said, a forensic psychologist could determine that he wasn’t a danger to himself or others.

According to local media, some details emerged about what Mr. Smith allegedly did. The defense attorney said that Mr. Smith had had some explicit sexual contact with a fifteen-year-old girl living in Northern Virginia, albeit via web cam. The prosecutor insisted that the judge needed to look at the images and the chats and the hundred-plus pages that would show that Mr. Smith had done this sort of thing with other girls in the past two years. It was implied that this was some raw stuff.

Mr. Smith had also submitted to a lie detector test. He admitted to “the essence” of the allegations, but insisted that he has never, ever had physical contact.

When the first judge denied bond, Mr. Smith’s attorney immediately appealed, leading to a second hearing in one day. The second judge also said that Mr. Smith could only be released before trial after a meeting with a forensic psychologist and with the caveat that he could have no internet or smart phone access.

The media also reported that Mr. Smith’s supporters were in force at the hearings. This, in spite of everything, made me happy.

•••

Fifteen years old. For some people, that detail will exhonerate the alleged crime, maybe just a little, especially in this culture that equates youth with sexiness. If she can bleed, she can breed, I heard a friend’s brother say once when I was younger. At the time, this didn’t chill me; I grew up in boy culture, all football and heavy metal and talk dirty to me. Girls were ornaments: the cheerleaders, the trophies, the afterthought.

Back when the internet and smart phones didn’t exist, I was a fifteen-year-old girl living in Northern Virginia.

I was researching something for school at the library connected to the community center when a tall guy with curly, dark hair started flirting with me. Italian looking and muscular, he’d been playing basketball in the courts in the building. We struck up a conversation. His name was Mike. He was twenty years old.

We went on a date that I cleared with my mother by pointing out that I was mature for my age and he was immature for his. Which was true enough, I suppose. (By the time I was twenty, I’d be in college, living with Brandon, and would have been seriously creeped out by any of my contemporaries dating a high schooler.)

At an ice cream shop, Mike bought us sundaes. All I can remember of our conversation is that he pointed out that our waitress looked like Broom Hilda, the comic strip character. Afterwards, we made out in his car.

We went on a couple more ice cream/ make out dates. I think I liked the idea of him more than I actually liked him. It was probably mutual. I was an honor roll student; I never asked him what he did for a living but suspected it was something sketchy, involving a cousin of his whom I’d met once. I never had sex with Mike, and I think he finally figured out that I never would. The last time I spoke to him was on the phone, when he arranged another date.

He stood me up.

I got dressed and waited for him to pick me up. I waited longer. My mother looked at me sympathetically, but she wisely didn’t say a word, not calling attention the fool that I was being made. By the time I conceded that he wasn’t coming and I took off my makeup and jewelry, I was seething. I hatched a plan.

In the next month or so, I got a friend who had a driver’s license to drive me to the grocery store. They sold raw chicken livers in plastic vats filled with chicken blood. I wanted the blood.

We drove to Mike’s neighborhood and found his car.

I poured the blood all over the car. I hoped it would ruin the paint job. I realize now that it probably seeped into the vents and created the ungodliest of stenches.

So, an exhibit: the emotional maturity of one fifteen-year-old.

•••

In December 2013, a Congressional aide named Jesse Ryan Loskarn was charged on counts of possession and distribution of child pornography. Thirty-five years old, Loskarn was allowed to post bond and stay at home until his trial. He hanged himself on January 23.

In a letter he left behind, he wrote, in part:

The first time I saw child pornography was during a search for music on a peer-to-peer network. I wasn’t seeking it but I didn’t turn away when I saw it. Until that moment, the only place I’d seen these sorts of images was in my mind.

I found myself drawn to videos that matched my own childhood abuse. It’s painful and humiliating to admit to myself, let alone the whole world, but I pictured myself as a child in the image or video. The more an image mirrored some element of my memories and took me back, the more I felt a connection.

This is my deepest, darkest secret.

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How to make sense of Mr. Smith’s deepest, darkest secret? It’s a lot to ask of anyone, to open your heart and your mind to encompass this big, gray mess: that Mr. Smith has done an amazing amount of good in his teaching career and that Mr. Smith might have victimized minors. It’s an almost impossible thing to ask of his nine-year-old students.

When my son was a year older than them, he joined Google Groups (the precursor to Google Plus). I was nervous about his foray online, and I monitored his account. I noticed an unfamiliar name following—and attempting to interact with—him and many of his fifth-grade friends. Through some sleuthing, I found that this person was an adult man who lived in an Atlanta suburb with his parents. I notified the other parents. I notified the guidance counselors at the upper elementary school. I notified the local police’s task force on internet crimes, who asked if my son would let them take over his online identity. (My son declined.) In the end, the kids kind of took care of it themselves, calling the guy out as a “creeper” and blocking him.

I think now that this is a story about loss. Children have lost a certain kind of innocence: the victim in obvious ways, those who knew Mr. Smith as an educator in subtler ways. The city has lost a teacher who makes kids excited about learning. Mr. Smith has, at the very least, lost his reputation and almost certainly his career, no matter what the result of his trial. His family has lost so much, on so many heart-breaking levels.

I’ve lost a little bit of faith in my own moral compass. I wish I could go back to being able to categorize people as creepers or not, worthy of blood on their cars or not. I can’t.

* John Smith isn’t the teacher’s real name. There’s plenty of media coverage of the story, and out of concern for his family, I elected not to go there.

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JENNIFER NIESSLEIN is the founder and editor of Full Grown People. Her website is jenniferniesslein.com.