The Grooming

By AfroDad/ Flickr
By AfroDad/ Flickr

By Carolyn Edgar

When I was fourteen, I was what guys now call “thick.” In 1979 terms, though, I was just “fat.” I developed early and had boobs and butt galore, but I also had linebacker arms and thighs to go along with them.

In my family, my sisters were the beauties. My oldest sister Cheryl was fair-skinned with deep green eyes. My second oldest sister Caroletta had naturally wavy hair that required no heat straightening to cascade over her shoulders and down her back. I had neither. My eyes were hazel, more brown than green, and my hair, according to my mother, was “nappy” and had to be pressed. Both my sisters were slimmer than me: my oldest sister was short and curvy, and my second oldest sister was thin and muscular, with a tiny waist and large breasts. With my brown hair, brown skin, brown eyes and thick thighs, I most closely resembled a piece of well-done fried chicken.

Since I wasn’t considered a beauty in my family, I tried to content myself with being the smart girl, the good girl, the girl who never got into trouble, and I told on my siblings who did. When I reached my teens, I didn’t just want to be smart anymore—I wanted to be cute, too. But my weight kept getting in the way.

At Precious Blood, the small Catholic school I attended for eighth grade, the fine boys in my class either ignored me or teased me. It was always good sport to make fun of the fat girl. The only other male attention that I regularly received was the street harassment that I endured nearly every day as I walked home after school. Men would drive slowly alongside me, shouting, “Hey baby, can I talk to you?” I would ignore them and continue walking, acting if I didn’t hear the comments they made about my ass and what they’d like to do with it. Eventually, they would scream, “Fuck you then, you fat bitch!” when I kept my eyes focused ahead and refused to acknowledge them.

All throughout eighth grade, I had watched couples sneak across the parking lot at recess and go behind the nursing home adjacent to Precious Blood to make out. High school, I hoped, would mean a wider variety of boys, some of whom might appreciate my ass like the men who followed me in cars, but hopefully without the “fuck you, fat bitch” part. Unlike all the schools I’d gone to before, my high school—Cass Technical High School, Detroit’s largest and most prestigious high school—was huge. With over five thousand students, the school was filled with good-looking boys everywhere I turned. My second oldest sister, a senior, was friends with all the hot senior guys, but to them, I was just her little freshman sis.

Along with the multitude of hot guys, there were girls at my school who were bona fide glamour queens. Every day, these daughters of doctors, lawyers, and judges came to school with their slim bodies dressed in the latest fashions. I envied their tight Calvin Klein jeans, their fresh-from-the-salon hairstyles, their Fashion Fair and Clinique makeup, and their Coach purses. With so many beautiful girls around, no matter how many boys I had crushes on—and the crushes felt like legion at that point—the guys I wanted to notice me were paying no attention to the shy nerdy fat girl.

A few other boys took notice. There was the senior boy at my school who, one day during swim class, took me down to the deep end of the pool—I couldn’t swim—and stuck his tongue in my mouth and his fingers in my vagina. I hadn’t much cared for either intrusion, but I held onto him for dear life so that I wouldn’t drown. He was a senior, and he was light-skinned with curly hair, so I was even momentarily excited that I’d been singled out to be assaulted by him. One day, I asked Caroletta, as casually as I could, if she knew him.

“Ugh,” she responded. “He’s a creep. How do you know him?”

“He’s on the swim team, and they practice in the deep end during my swim class.”

She frowned in disgust. “Stay away from him. He’s a weirdo.”

Caroletta didn’t elaborate, and I didn’t ask what that statement meant. But her words forced me to stop thinking of what that guy had done to me in the terms of the romance novels I loved—as a seduction. I began to see what he had done to me as something that was wrong and that shouldn’t have happened. I didn’t tell my sister or anybody else what he had done to me, but I avoided him after that.

There was the boy I met at a football game—a boy from one of our rival schools, King High School. He wasn’t even remotely cute, but he approached me like I was, and convinced me to go over to his house one day after school. As we lay on his sofa that day—him on top of me, his enormous lips completely encircling mine, covering the lower half of my face with spit—I could only think about washing my face and getting home. Fortunately, he was as afraid of his mother as I was of mine, so he hustled me out before his mama got home from work, and I managed to get home early enough to avoid getting in trouble with my own mother. I had no desire to repeat the experience, so although I made the mistake of giving him my phone number, I luckily answered the phone every time he called, and each time, I would hang up like it was a wrong number. Soon afterwards, he took the hint and stopped calling.

And then there was the boy I liked the most at the time, a sophomore who was friends with my best friend Melinda’s boyfriend. He kissed me once during study hall, apparently out of boredom, and then forgot I was alive. Even though my crush ignored me afterwards, I replayed that kiss over and over in my head every day, multiple times each day, each time daydreaming that the kiss led him to realize that I was The One.

Since the boys I liked showed no real interest in me, and the ones who did show interest were creeps, I turned to the worlds of sports and entertainment for fantasy boyfriends. I had crushes on both of the Brothers Johnson, Prince, Paul Newman, Billy Dee Williams, Bjorn Borg, Detroit Tigers right-fielder Ron LeFlore, and NFL quarterbacks Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, just to name a few. I had so many celebrity crushes, I could have founded a fantasy boyfriend league.

I also lived vicariously through the exploits of my best friend Melinda. Melinda was dating the boy of her choice, a cute guy on the football team. Melinda was in love, and her stories of skipping school to spend afternoons at her boyfriend’s house while his mom was at work sounded like true romance to my virgin ears. Since I couldn’t have a boyfriend of my own, I lived for her stories about hers. When Melinda wasn’t skipping class with her boyfriend, we would skip class and walk downtown to Hart Plaza, sit by the Detroit River, and talk about her real love and my imagined ones.

Most of what I knew about boys, men, and sex came from reading my three older brothers’ porn books and magazines, along with Harlequin, Silhouette, Harold Robbins, and Jackie Collins novels. I had been reading my brothers’ porn since I was eight, and racy romance novels since I was ten. From time to time, Planned Parenthood pamphlets would appear, randomly and without explanation, on our dining room table. This was my mother’s way of giving us sex ed information without actually having to talk about sex. I read those, too, under my mother’s watchful, approving eye. Reading about sex was fine, as long as I didn’t ask my mother any questions.

Between the porn and Planned Parenthood, I felt pretty well-informed. But I was still missing the one thing I wanted most—a boyfriend. Of course, I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend, but that detail didn’t much matter. I’d never had a boy ask me to be his girlfriend. I’d never even had an in-school-only relationship, the kind of boyfriend who was only your boyfriend during school hours because you couldn’t see or talk to him any other time.

So when Melinda told me she knew a boy who liked me, I was excited to hear more.

“My cousin Rob thinks you’re cute,” she said.

Melinda’s cousin Rob was gorgeous. His neatly groomed Afro, velvet-smooth caramel skin, and faint mustache over full, lush lips reminded me of my fantasy celebrity boyfriends, like Prince. I was sure he would know how to kiss a girl without putting her whole face in his mouth.

Melinda’s cousin wasn’t a boy, though. He was twenty-eight.

“He wants me to give him your number,” Melinda told me.

“You know I’m not supposed to have boys calling me,” I told her. “What if he calls and my mother answers the phone?”

Melinda shrugged. “Have him call when you know she’s not going to answer.”

On one level, I knew to avoid older men. There was one teacher at Cass who grossed us all out. He would leer at the attractive girls in his class and tell them he would give them a higher grade if they would set him up with an older sister, cousin, or aunt. To us, he was one step away from being a pedophile, and everyone knew to stay away from him.

But at fourteen, I didn’t put Melinda’s twenty-eight-year-old cousin in that same creeper category. He was about the same age as some of the R&B and sports stars I dreamed about. I’d met him a few times at Melinda’s house and was flattered by the way he talked to us like we were people, not just kids. I had never noticed him paying particular attention to me at all, so to hear that he thought I was cute and wanted my number was both surprising and thrilling. Having a handsome, adult man I knew—not some random dude in a car—ask for my number made me feel attractive, desired and valued.

“I don’t know how I’m going to manage it, but give him my number,” I told Melinda.

We had one house phone—the heavy, indestructible black rotary dial phone that was Ma Bell’s trademark. The phone sat on the buffet that separated our living room and dining rooms, and although my mother eventually relented and allowed us to buy a longer phone cord from Radio Shack, we weren’t allowed to move the phone too far off the buffet. The phone’s location ensured that my mother heard the phone every time it rang, heard one of us answer it, and could detect from our response whether the caller was appropriate or inappropriate.

Melinda acted as the go-between for that first call. I told her exactly what time Rob had to call so that I could be right there to answer when the phone rang. I had to position myself by the phone, yet act as if I wasn’t standing by the phone because I was expecting a call. When the phone rang, I had to move quickly to answer it but not leap to answer on the first ring. My mother saw and picked up on everything, and she would have definitely noticed that. When I answered, I had to move far enough away from her so that she couldn’t hear a male voice coming through the handset, but I had to stay close enough to her that it didn’t look like I was trying to have a conversation that was so private that I couldn’t have it in front of her.

The actual call was even trickier to manage than I’d anticipated. Rob had one of those panty-dropper phone voices, sonorous and bass-filled, the kind of voice that teenage boys, no matter how cute, just don’t have. As he spoke, I imagined his lips brushing my earlobe.

“Who was that?” my mother said when I got off the phone.

“Melinda,” I lied.

“Hmmph. That didn’t sound like no Melinda.”

“She has a cold.”

I told Rob—through Melinda—that calling on school days wouldn’t work because my mother was watching too hard. We settled on Saturday mornings as a good time for us to talk without interruption. My mother slept late, my father would be out grocery shopping, and no one else would be awake, either.

During our conversations, Rob told me I was beautiful. He said I was mature beyond my age. He told me I was too smart and too good for those boys who didn’t want me. He never said, “If only you were eighteen, I’d love to date you.” He said he wanted to take me out—now.

I protested. “I told you: I can’t go out with you. I can’t go out with anybody.”

“We can pick a place to meet.”

“Nope. My mother would never go for that. The only place I can go is to school and over Melinda’s house.”

“Then I’ll come pick you up.”

“You can’t come to my house!”

“What if I shave?”

“Then you’ll look like a grown man without facial hair. You don’t understand, I can’t go out with boys until I’m sixteen. And even if I were sixteen, I couldn’t go out with you, because you would have to pick me up at my front door, and there’s no way my mother would let me leave the house with some man.”

He would laugh and offer up other schemes. He suggested picking me up from school, but I knew Caroletta would eventually get wind of that. I had gotten away once with sneaking off after school with the boy from King, but there was little chance I’d ever get away with that again. I wondered to myself—never suggesting it—why he couldn’t meet me at Melinda’s house. It never occurred to me that his aunt, Melinda’s mom, wouldn’t stand for it if her adult nephew started being too obvious in his attentions towards her teenage daughter’s best friend.

Still, I was pleased with my little secret rebellion. Rob and I had found a sliver of time on Saturday mornings where I could consistently talk to him on the phone without being bothered by anyone. We never used the words “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” but those phone conversations—even if they were only once weekly—felt special. In my head, he was my boyfriend for fifteen minutes every Saturday morning. Talking to him on the phone was enough for me.

But it wasn’t enough for him.

During one of those Saturday morning conversations, things changed. Rob’s voice acquired more bass than usual, and he became insistent that I find a way for us to meet. He was so determined that I was nearly ready to agree—until he said something that startled me. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was sexual, in tone if not in content; the kind of ridiculous bullshit a man says to clarify that his intentions are not platonic.

I knew something had changed, but in my inexperience, I couldn’t fully process what happened. So I asked:

“What are you doing?”

Rob chuckled. “I’m making love to your mind.”

In one of my brothers’ porn magazines—Penthouse or Hustler, I can’t be certain—there was a cartoon that fascinated and horrified me. It was a drawing of a girl with crossed eyes and a stupid grin. A guy had his penis shoved in her ear, his balls squished against the side of her face. The tip of his penis extended out her other ear and dripped with cum. The caption was equally crude and extremely offensive: “How to Fuck a Retarded Girl.”

When Rob told me he was making love to my mind, I immediately recalled that image. My still-kid brain took the words “making love to your mind” literally. And although, intellectually, I knew he didn’t mean he wanted to stick it in my ear—and that if he did, it wouldn’t penetrate my ear canal and come out the other side—emotionally, I blanched. What I fully understood in that moment was that nice Rob, who said I was smart and pretty and mature for my age, wasn’t my Saturday morning fantasy phone boyfriend. He was a grown, adult man who wanted to fuck fourteen-year-old me.

And just as my sister’s calling the guy on the swim team a creep had stopped me from romanticizing his sexual assault, Rob’s claim that he was “making love to my mind” didn’t feel sexy and romantic, but icky and wrong.

I didn’t know what to say, so I laughed.

“What’s funny?” he said.

“Oh, is that what that was?” I replied, buying myself time.

“Yes. How do you feel?”

I guess this was the point where I was supposed to tell him he was making me wet and I wanted to kiss him and, yes, I would find a way to sneak out of my mother’s house and see him. But I could only think about getting off the phone before anyone caught me, and telling him I couldn’t ever talk to him again.

“I have to go,” I said. “My mom is going to get up soon.” And I hung up.

I don’t remember if I told Melinda to tell Rob he couldn’t call me anymore or if I told him myself. However the message was conveyed, he obliged. And when I saw him at Melinda’s house, he stayed away from me.

Although Melinda and I remained friends throughout high school, Rob showed no further interest in me once I reached the age of consent. He came by Melinda’s house less and less often when I was there. Melinda would casually mention, “Oh, my cousin Rob asked about you,” but with no indication that he wanted any further contact. That was a relief, because I didn’t want any further contact with him, either.

Over the years, I told my story about Rob, to different audiences and for various purposes. In my late teens and early twenties, it was almost a point of honor to show that, like other girls, I’d had grown men chasing after when I was very young, despite my weight. Sometimes, I told the story as part of a longer narrative about the benefits of having strict parents who kept me from doing stupid things I wasn’t smart enough to keep myself from doing.

But it wasn’t until I told the Rob story to one of my law school friends that I understood its true significance.

As I described the compliments Rob bestowed upon me—that I was beautiful, smart, and mature beyond my years—my law school friend shook her head.

“He was grooming you,” she said.

Grooming? Until then, I’d never heard that term. I hadn’t realized that what happened to me was a thing that adults who prey on children do as part of their twisted seduction game. I’d been groomed by a pedophile—and I had no idea. Technically, the term for a man like Rob who desires to have sex with teens is ephebophile, not pedophile—but to me, that’s a distinction without a difference. No matter what term you choose, it means a grown man who wants to have sex with a child—and at fourteen, I was definitely still a child.

Rob had other issues and later wound up in prison for murder. He asked Melinda to ask me to write to him in prison. I told her I would think about it, but I never did write to him, because I had nothing to say to him.

I am thankful for my mother and her strict rules, because they helped prevent me from putting myself into an untenable situation with Rob. But now that I’m a mom, I wish I could have gone to my mother and talked to her about what was happening. I wish I’d had not just rules to keep me safe, but guidance on how to deal with sex and my burgeoning sexuality. If I’d gone to my mother, she would have forbidden me from going to Melinda’s house ever again, and that would have been devastating. I needed an adult to talk to about Rob—and I didn’t have one. My own daughter is now seventeen, which is the age of consent in New York State—but even now, I hope she would come talk to me if she found herself being pressured into a sexual relationship that she wasn’t ready for, something I was unable to do with my own mother.

As I learned from being groomed by Rob, an adult need not be in a position of authority over a child to wield unequal power. Rob preyed on my teenage insecurities, and were it not for that gross porn magazine cartoon, I might have allowed him to “make love” to more than just my mind. I wasn’t mature enough to handle a telephone relationship with a twenty-eight-year-old man that turned overtly sexual only once. I certainly wasn’t mature enough to handle an actual physical relationship with him. While I’m sure exceptional cases do exist, my experience with Rob taught me that the idea of a teenager under the age of seventeen truly consenting to sex with an adult is nothing more than a dangerous illusion. When I think about Rob, those weeks I spent as his Saturday morning telephone girlfriend feels less like a sweet young romance, and more like a near miss. I was lucky to escape unharmed.

A couple of names have been changed. —ed.

•••

CAROLYN EDGAR is an attorney and writer who lives in New York City. She is a regular contributor to Salon and on her own blog, Carolyn Edgar – Notes of a Writer, Lawyer and Single Mom (www.carolynedgar.com).

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The Prince and the Perv

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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.

•••

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.