[Note especially the brief highlighted passages in the pages below.]
“Evil.” “Blasphemy.” “Vile.” These are just a few of the words that have been used to describe a new book about child and teen sexuality by New York writer Judith Levine. Her crime? Levine maintains that society has transformed such normal childhood acts as playing doctor into pathologies requiring treatment.
The opening line of Judith Levine’s book is prophetic. “In America today, it is nearly impossible to publish a book that says children and teenagers can have sexual pleasure and be safe, too.”
Although Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex has yet to hit bookstores, it has already unleashed a storm of debate on talk radio and network television and in Internet chat rooms. The words used to describe the book reflect the depth of discontent in certain circles: “evil,” “blasphemy,” “vile,” “subversive” and, most troubling, “an excuse for pedophilia.”
Levine, a New York-based writer, has indeed set out an ambitious task for herself, to persuade parents, educators and health care professionals that children and teens can enjoy sexual pleasure, and can do so in a safe way. The premise challenges North America’s cultural instinct to protect children from sex, which Levine argues is worse than ineffectual. “Indeed, the sexual politics of fear is harmful to minors,” Levine writes in the introduction.
The publisher, the University of Minnesota Press, bills the book as a “radical, refreshing and long-overdue reassessment of how we think and act about children’s and teens’ sexuality.”
The usual suspects beg to differ. They include such social conservatives as Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the talk show host, and Bill O’Reilly, the provocative personality on the Fox News Channel. Levine is painted by some of her critics as part of a clique of “academic pedophiles,” who is seeking, through her book, to lure children into the clutches of sexual predators.
The rancour has reached the corridors of power in Minnesota. Republican Tim Pawlenty, the majority leader of the House of Representatives, called Levine’s book an “endorsement of child molestation.” Pawlenty asked the university to cancel the book. In response, the university has just launched a formal review of how its press determines what to publish.
Levine began shopping her manuscript around to publishers in 1997. One publisher said it was “radioactive.” Another offered a more nuanced rejection—the book lacked the “comforting messages” of a parenting book.
Levine writes that the experience of sex—“touching, talking, fantasizing for bodily pleasure”—is, from early childhood, a valuable and crucial part of growing up. She says society has transformed such “perfectly normal” childhood acts as playing doctor into pathologies that warrant early childhood sex offender programs.
She assails social conservatives and “religious zealots” for their condemnation of sex-education programs that preach anything but abstinence. “The moral right believes children should not be sexual. They believe the only safe and healthy expression of sexuality is between two married partners in a heterosexual marriage. The idea that children and teens are sexual is itself a blasphemy,” she said.
“This subject—youth and sexuality—is extremely complex. What is a child, sex, consent, pleasure? What is touch? They attempt to boil down very rich, complicated cultural and historical and personal questions to some sort of slogans drawn from a narrow interpretation of the Christian Bible.”
Let the debate begin. ---->
When I met him at the end of 1996, Tony Diamond was an unhappy boy. Charming and tractable one minute, he might be flailing in rage or brooding in despair the next.
Tony’s schoolwork was out-standing; he read widely and wrote winningly. (He proudly showed me his report on Napoleon, whom he quoted as uttering, “Able was I ere I saw Elba.” Not coincidentally, he was a fan of palindromes.) Yet Tony had trouble at school—he got into fights and disobeyed teachers—and in his short life had attended several. Like other boys his age, 12 at the time, Tony liked Star Wars, baseball and animals. At home, there was a small menagerie: a hamster named Fidget, fish, a rabbit and a garrulous cockatiel.
Tony could be mean to his sister, Jessica, one year his junior, blonde and plump where he is dark and slender, slow in class where he excelled. Their relationship, it seemed, was fierce—fiercely affectionate and fiercely antagonistic. One evening, they sat touching, playing quietly. Another time, she climbed into the car and he slapped her, unprovoked.
In November, 1993, the San Diego County Child Protective Services pronounced Tony Diamond a grave danger to his sister. Jessica told someone at school that her brother had “touched her front and back.” Mandated by the 1974 Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act to report any suspicion of child abuse, even by a child, the school called the Child Abuse Hotline. The social worker who did the family’s intake interview elicited a record of Tony’s earlier offences: In elementary school, he used sexual language and looked under girls’ skirts. At four, he lay on top of Jessie in the bath.
With only Jessica’s testimony to go on, the juvenile court charged Tony with “sexual abuse” of “the minor” Jessica, “including, but not limited to touching her vaginal and anal areas ... placing a pencil in her buttocks” (that is, he poked the flesh of her buttocks with a pencil), and threatening to hurt her if she “disclosed the molest.” Jessica’s story would change over the weeks and months, and none of what transpired between them is clear.
Nevertheless, the interviewer made this confident assessment: “It would appear from a review of the case that Tony is a budding sex offender.” Tony was nine years old.
Tony was to become one case in a new “epidemic,” the “sexualization” of children; a new class of patient, “children with sexual behaviour problems,” and a new category of sexual criminal perpetrator: “children who molest.” Although some youngsters, particularly teen boys, do commit real sexual intrusions, even rape of other kids, “children who molest” are of another order. As young as two, they are diagnosed and treated, and sometimes prosecuted, for “inappropriate” behaviours like fondling, putting things inside genitals, or even flashing, mooning or masturbating “compulsively.”
Although the events that befell Tony and his family may seem extreme, they are not unique.
What Tony’s story represents is the gradual pathologizing of normative children’s sexuality, that is, behaviour that most kids do. This has consequences not just for the behaviour deemed “deviant” but for all children’s sexual behaviour.
Each time a new category of sexual deviance is identified—or, you might say, invented—the entire scale of so-called normal behaviour is calibrated a few notches to the right. Professionals’ and lay-people’s idea of what is OK for children, teens, or families slides in a more conservative, more frightened, and more prohibitive direction, away from tolerance, humour, and trust.
Normal is not an exact scientific term. It can mean what most people do or what some people consider healthy, moral, regular, or natural, as opposed to sick, sinful, weird, or unnatural.
It can mean what my mother, my priest, or the psychologist on Oprah Winfrey says is okay. Or it can mean what I think is OK. Normal is enormously susceptible to swinging with the gusts of politics and history. Disguised as scientific and fixed, it is subjective and protean. That is why I used the word normative above, a term derived from statistics, simply meaning what most people do. It’s why I do not resort to the common liberal defense of kids’sexuality: that it is “normal and natural.” Normal is problematic, because you can’t have normal without abnormal. Acceptable behaviour needs “unacceptable” (or “inappropriate”) behaviour to find its place in the world. To have an in-crowd, you have to have outcasts.
When Diane Diamond invited a caseworker into her house, cluttered with angels and Buddhas, kids’ trophies, and plants, she had a naive faith in the helping professions. The small, quick woman had undergone plenty of healing herself, of both the traditional and the New Age varieties, and she poured out her family’s history in sentences studded with psychologisms. She told the caseworker she’d fled, pregnant with Jessica, from a husband who beat and raped her and choked one-year-old Tony; she said she’d been “drug and alcohol free” for 15 years; she reported that a man had exposed himself to Jessica in the park when she was little, and she’d brought charges against him. Diane told Child Protective Services (CPS) she was concerned about her son’s volatility and depression; she thought he might be suicidal and was hoping they’d help find him therapy.
But from this story, her interrogators built a case of family pathology. A psychologist wrote that Tony had “witnessed” his mother’s rape, though he was only months old; thus, he had a history of abuse. Jessica’s unwanted glimpse of a penis was added to her list of victimizations.
One evaluator wondered whether Diane had a propensity for substance abuse. And because at the time Diane was more worried about Tony than about Jessica, who seemed OK, CPS decided Diane was “minimizing” the “molest” and judged her incapable of protecting her daughter. Tony was made a ward of the dependency court and removed from his mother’s custody.
What Diane hadn’t realized was that panic over child abuse sprouted from the desert soil of San Diego as abundantly as the neon-fuchsia succulents and deep-red bougainvillea. The county had been the scene of a string of highly publicized false allegations of abuse, including satanic ritual abuse, going back to the 1980s. In 1992, a major grand jury investigation found the county’s child welfare agencies and juvenile courts to be “a system out of control,” so keen on protecting children from abuse that it took hundreds from their parents on what turned out to be unfounded charges. When Tony’s case came into the system, many of the same people indicted in that report were still working in the agencies, courts, and police department.
Diane didn’t know southern California was also the epicentre of a national movement. San Diego Times Union reporter Mark Sauer had seen the hysteria coming. In the early 1990s, he watched psychologist Toni Cavanagh Johnson and social worker Kee MacFarlane presenting their work on children who molest at a sex-abuse conference in the city. He was astonished. “First they state that there is no research, that we really don’t know anything about normal children’s sexual behavior,” he recalled in a 1996 interview. “Then out come the pie charts and graphs, and they go on for an hour defining this new abnormality. And everybody is madly taking notes.”
MacFarlane was practiced at routing out abuse that might not have happened. At Children’s Institute International in Los Angeles, where she still worked, MacFarlane headed the team that interrogated 400 children for the prosecution of the infamous McMartin Preschool trials and found 369 to have been victimized in bizarre rituals of “satanic abuse,” including anal rape, animal mutilation, and kidnapping through secret tunnels, none of which was substantiated. Johnson first coined the term “children who molest” in 1988, while working with MacFarlane at the institute’s Support Program for Abusive Reactive Kids, or SPARK, which continues to treat juvenile “abusers.”
As they did during that last plague, the prophets of this one claimed the problem was enormous, but that we didn’t see it be cause we weren’t looking. “[Children who molest] make all of us uncomfortable,” wrote MacFarlane in When Children Abuse, “so uncomfortable we’ve had to deny their existence and/or minimize their behavior until now. We’ve called their behaviour ‘exploration’ or ‘curiosity’ until they were old enough for us to comfortably call it what it is: sexual abuse of other children. Who are they?” she continued. “So far, relatively few have come to our attention.” One LA Weekly article said professionals in the field claimed that 80 to 90% of such crimes go unreported. Neither the “professionals” nor the reporter cited any evidence of this allegation. Soon they’d have it, generated by the perpetual motion machine of expanded definitions of sexual abuse, which lead to changed criminal codes, which lead to increased arrests, which lead to more “proof” of epidemic sexual abuse.
The discursive hyperbole—and invigorated police activity—was good for business. In the mid-1990s, catalogues of child-abuse literature devoted more and more pages to this young deviant, much of it, like much of Johnson’s, self-published, meaning it did not undergo the peer review of a university press or professional journal.
In 1984, there were no treatment programs for such kids. MacFarlane’s SPARK was founded in 1985. A dozen years later, Vermont’s Safer Society Foundation database listed 50 residential and 394 non-residential programs for kids under 12 with “sexual behavior problems” and over 800 programs for teens.’ Asked why his 90-year-old Massachusetts residence for troubled adolescents had recently initiated such a program, one exhibitor at a large conference on sex abuse told me, “Frankly, it was a business decision.”
All this activity was based on a near vacuum of empirical data about what young children actually do sexually (I used the word normative above, but to be honest, given the paucity of real information, normative is almost as null a term as normal). The therapists relied heavily on a few studies, particularly one by psychologist William Friedrich of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, who asked some 880 midwestern mothers what sexual behaviors they observed in their two- to 12-year-old kids. Paul Okami, a University of Southern California psychology post-doctoral fellow who wrote the first critiques of this diagnosis in the professional literature, dryly noted that for information on children’s sex, a less reliable source than mothers could hardly be found. For the details of diagnosis, most of these new specialists turned to Johnson’s checklist of child sexual behaviors, divided between those that are “natural,” those that an observer should worry about, and those that require rushing the child to the doctor. For kindergarten to fourth-grade children, for instance, “looks at the genitals, buttocks, breasts of adults” was in the “Natural and Expected” column, but “touches/stares at the genitals, etc.” was listed under “Of Concern,” and “sneakily or forcibly touches genitals ...” was under “Seek Professional Help.” These determinations, beyond being arbitrary, were based on conclusions reached from observations in the 1980s that were so tenuous and tautological that they might have been reported in Wonderland: “While norms do not presently exist for what is normal sexual behavior of children,” wrote Johnson in 1988, “the behaviors exhibited ... led us to label the behaviors as being outside the normal range of sexual activity for their age group.”
Nonetheless, as the diagnosis of “sexual behavior problems” gained currency in sex-abuse circles, it also was on its way to wider ratification, which in turn boosted media attention, funding, and business. A five-year study that provided and evaluated therapy for hundreds of “sexualized” children under age 12 in Oklahoma, Vermont, and Washington State was funded with $2-million from the government’s National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, the largest and longest-running single appropriation on its rosters during that time.
And if this major financial endorsement did not serve to institutionalize the new deviance, some psychologists, frustrated that they could not officially diagnose a child who has sex with a younger child as a “pedophile,” were promoting the inclusion of “sexual misconduct/abuser disorder” in the psychiatrists’ bible, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Before the DSM made the move, the National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, the U.S. government’s official count of family-inflicted harm to children, in 1996 added a category of “other or unknown sexual abuse:” “inadequate or inappropriate supervision of a child’s voluntary sexual activities.” All children, in other words, need to be protected from their own errant sexuality. And parents who take a laissez-faire stance regarding sex play are, by their failure to intervene, “abusers.”
Jessie was identified as the victim from the start, although it will probably never be known how much of the sex play between the siblings was consensual. Later, a state-employed social worker would deem her unable to “differentiate between imagination and reality.” Still, in May, 1994, Jessie told the social worker that her mother had lain on top of her in bed. (She also said a social worker “wanted to molest” her, but this charge was not followed up.) Diane, whose criminal record consisted of one unpaid fine for a broken taillight, explained that she’d reached across her daughter to turn off the electric blanket. Nevertheless, a “true finding” of abuse was made, and Jessie was sent to a foster home inhabited by two disturbed teenage girls—an odd choice for a child at risk for “oversexualization.” The foster mother ran a tight ship, complaining to the social worker that during family visits, Diane touched her children’s knees and necks, and put her arm around Jessica’s waist.
Indeed, the records comprised, along with a narrative of the family’s life under surveillance, what looked like an extended effort to justify the decision to separate Diane’s children from her. In spite of frequent descriptions of smooth and happy visits and the family’s mutual love and concern, Diane was called “defensive and histrionic,” mistrustful and resistant, “sabotaging” the so-called reunification plan, ironically, by insisting that she be allowed to spend more time with her children. There was no suggestion that any of her maladies might have been iatrogenic, caused by the state’s “cure” itself. Reading these several thousand pages, one finds it hard not to infer that the child-protective agents felt they knew what was going on in the Diamond family before looking into it.
“For eight years, I have been talking about sex on a continuum,” said Toni Cavanagh Johnson when I interviewed her in 1996 at her office in Pasadena, California.
Perhaps suspecting I was among her detractors, she had cancelled two interview appointments, which themselves took a dozen phone messages and several faxes each to set up, and when I arrived, she spent the first twenty minutes of a scheduled hour-long session interrogating me on how I was going to represent her work. The woman who built a healthy business on extremity was now determined to be represented as a friend of moderation.
“Normal, healthy sexuality is what we need in children,” she insisted (not defining her terms). She added, “It’s the negative pairing of sex with aggression that is a problem.”
Of course, kids should be taught to stop sticking their fingers where others don’t want them to be. Like Johnson, most observers on all sides of the sex debates (including me) are appalled by the “negative pairing” evinced by preteen boys who get their jollies assaulting girls in city pools and high school football players who gang-rape their classmates. Even the Supreme Court, in a 1999 ruling in favour of a girl who sued her school for failure to protect her from repeated hostile and unwanted sexual advances by male classmates, declared that sexual harassment should not be accepted as the normal course of events in adolescent life. Johnson is right to place the question of consent at the heart of her theories.
But where does the “pairing” of sex with aggression become “negative” and when is it “abnormal” enough to be treated as a disorder or a crime? Just like the word “abuse,” the word “consent” is subject to multiple meanings. Negotiation is part of children’s sex play. It may involve bribes and trickery, conflict, trade-offs and power imbalances, like all other interactions between children. Older and bigger does not necessarily add up to more powerful, though. And a wide spectrum of behaviour involving power differences between children seems to be normative (or if I’ve soured you on normative, then apparently harmless). Psychologists Sharon Lamb and Mary Coakley surveyed 300 psychologically healthy Bryn Mawr students about their childhood sexual experiences. The young women wrote about thrilling games of porn star, prostitute, rape, and slave girl, all at ages in the single digits, indicating that the pairing of sex and aggression or sex and power differences, too, may be “normal.” And sexologist Leonore Tiefer suggested that even if coercion ought to be corrected, it shouldn’t be pathologized. “Kids push and hit and demand, until they’re socialized,” she said. “Aggression is normal in children.” Given contemporary American culture, it should surprise nobody that when a child acts out aggressively, he might use the lingua franca of sexuality to express himself.
Harm also exists on a continuum, and it can come from different sources. As for “sexual behaviour problems,” the trauma inflicted by the “cure” may be far worse than the “disease” itself.
In the summer of 1994, when psychologist Phillip Kaushall began supervising the Diamonds’ family visits, he was shocked that the children were in foster care. He recognized troubles among mother and children, but nothing warranting separation. In September, he began recommending to the authorities that the kids go home.
Around that time, Jessie started attending Daughters & Sons United, a victims support group, where she reported learning about “good and bad guilt,” the latter of which she understood as “when you tell on somebody about something and you feel bad about it.”
“She’d come out of those meetings angry and excited,” recalls Diane. “And she’d go, ‘I’m gonna report you, Mother,’ every time she got mad.”
Both the children’s therapy continued with Kaushall, but what went on in his cozy office full of toys did not fulfill Tony’s requirement to undergo “offender treatment.” In October, 1995, almost two years after the “offense,” the court put him in a “sexually re active children’s” (SRC) group with social worker David McWhirter, an original and important researcher on gay couples who later became San Diego County’s czar of juvenile offender treatment. Kaushall encouraged Tony and Diane to cooperate; he hoped it would be the last hoop the family had to jump through before they were reunited. But McWhirter, who described the SRC group work as “soft confrontation,” wrote Kaushall to inform him that Tony was disruptive. The boy didn’t want to call himself an offender, the first required step to “recovery,” and was intimating that the other kids shouldn’t either. It was clear to Kaushall and to Diane that Tony regarded the charge as inaccurate and unjust. “Mom,” he reported one afternoon, “there’s one kid in there for mooning!”
Privately, Kaushall felt McWhirter’s approach might be a failure from the get-go. “There may be a need for therapy,” said Kaushall, whose intervention in the family’s case may have prevented the children from being put up for adoption. “But if you treat somebody specifically for a ‘sex offense,’ you are undercutting the treatment automatically, because you give them an identity as a sex offender, which is precisely what you don’t want them to have.”
Still, the doctor considered Tony lucky that he got off with “soft confrontation,” because as hard as defense attorneys try to get their young clients into treatment instead of incarceration in tougher juvenile-detention facilities, the distinction between punishment and treatment is becoming more difficult to discern. A great deal of what passes for sex-offender treatment (such as an increasing number of “emotional growth” and other behaviour- modification programs for misbehaving and violent youths) has been challenged as dubiously therapeutic and even abusive in itself. Moreover, those who become entangled in the mechanisms of “cure” are denied the legal protections afforded even adult perpetrators of the most heinous crimes.
When I visited it, the regime at McWhirter’s STEPS, or Sexual Treatment Education Program and Services, in San Diego, was surely not the worst. But it was typical of youth sex-offender “therapy” today: steeped in conservative sexual values, behaviourist in approach and employing classic “good cop/bad cop” manipulations by staff. Its stated intentions sounded like children’s rights propaganda: promote self-esteem and empathy, consent and equality. But the practice was anything but consensual, and the rights of both children and parents were all but disregarded. The minute a child touched his neighbor’s penis or buttocks, he had been assumed devoid of moral faculties; there was simply no debating whether what he did was wrong. A patient received no due process: as long as he protested his innocence, he was “in denial” (the psychotherapeutic equivalent of “in contempt”) and could be dropped from the program that was a prerequisite of reunification with his family.
Or worse: His treatment, unlike a jail sentence, could go on for years, during which he relinquished his own and his friends’ rights to privacy. Anything he said could be reported to the authorities, and in many programs he was required to furnish the names of everyone he’d had sex with.
Using a cognitive-behavioural approach common to many prison- based sex-offender treatment programs, programs like STEPS aim to change the boys’ actions by teaching them to think differently. As Barnett explained, the boys at STEPS were instructed to write down a “cycle” of every thought, feeling, and sensation leading up to, during, and after a sexual “offense.” They then developed “back up plans”—thought processes free of “thinking errors”—to be used to prevent “reoffending.” When he started dreaming about sex with a younger kid, for instance, a boy might substitute a picture of himself behind bars. The inmates were required to report on their masturbation in detail, confessing whatever fantasies were left in their strip-searched imaginations. For eight hours a day, five days a week, with about two hours off for schoolwork, they were under surveillance, earning points for good behaviour, losing them for, say, uttering “f--- off.” Touching, whether aggressive or affectionate, by staff or inmates was prohibited, because, Barnett said, “these boys don’t know their boundaries.”
Even outside the building, STEPS was watching. The boys were not allowed contact with their “victims” without program permission or ever to be alone with anybody considered “victim age.” They were required to submit to random drug tests, avoid being alone, and inform all potential romantic interests of licit age that they were sex offenders. “I will always lock the bathroom door when ever I am using the bathroom and when there is anyone else on the premises,” read the contract.
“Once they’ve developed enough empathy,” Barnett told me, “we start looking at atonement,” which involves a 20-step process from Exposing the Offense to Learning to Forgive Oneself, with Preventing Suicide and Finding Meaning in Life in between.
Step seven was Apologizing on the Knees to the victim, the victim’s family, and the boy’s own family. Such sessions tend to alarm and anger the inmate’s family, Barnett told me. “Sometimes the parents will be saying, ‘I will send you to court!’ The mother is shouting, ‘I’ll kill you!’ It’s very emotional.” She continued, her voice becoming smoother, “As soon as that kid’s knees hit the floor, most often, he will be sobbing. To the parents, it will look like I am being mean. But I will tell them, ‘When this is all over, you will have your own boy back.’ ” Their own boy, obedient, broken, expiated of deviant fantasy. Or maybe of sexual fantasy altogether.
I asked Vern Bullough, a sexologist who spent more than half a century studying childhood sexuality, what he thought of the “sexual behaviour problem” theories and treatments. He sniffed in disgust. “This all reminds me of heroic gynecology [during the early 20th century], which regarded the birth process itself as a pathological thing” and gave women drugs to make pregnancy more “normal.” Said Bullough, “What we’ve got now is heroic intervention in childhood sexuality by people who don’t know what they are talking about.”
In the state’s eyes, Diane Diamond’s increasing desperation as the months and years dragged on only proved the case that she was an unfit mother and damned her to longer separation. After she made a particularly angry call to one social worker’s office, followed by a calmer, apologetic one, the worker recorded: “I have grave concerns about what just happened. I wonder if she is having some sort of breakdown.”
Once the narrative was inscribed—crazy mother makes boy a molester, victimizes girl—no alternative story could be told. When Jessie confessed, almost immediately after her first testimony, that she had “told lies” about her mother the child was presumed to be exhibiting ‘accommodation syndrome,” that is, suffering the consequences of being removed from the life she knew and thus lying to put things back as they were. Only Kaushall and one case worker believed Jessie’s retraction or evinced any sympathy for Diane. This worker chronicled excited gift-giving and calm vegetable-planting and endorsed the children’s entreaties to go home. But her advice, which Kaushall echoed, was ignored, and she was inexplicably removed from the case. Near the end of 1994, Diane sold her car in order to hire a private lawyer to contest the court’s dispositions. She spent Christmas without her children, waiting for the trial, which would be delayed eight months. In February, 1995, she lost her appeal without comment.
Tony was at yet another foster home, losing weight and losing hope. “There are allegations that Ms. Diamond has been rude” to the foster mother, Child Protective Services reported in a court filing during this time. Kaushall wrote report after report to CPS that institutionalized life and separation from their mother were damaging the children.
After two years of holding a child in state custody, California law requires that the dependency court decide whether to place him in long-term foster care, terminate the parent’s rights and refer him for adoption, or send him home. In what appears to be a combination of bureaucratic fatigue, a null case for adoption, and the knowledge that Diane would not give up her children without a savage fight, CPS made arrangements to move Tony and Jessica back home. The ragged family was reunited in early 1996.
“There is no doubt in my mind that what was done was a hundred times worse than any problem [the Diamonds] had to begin with,” said an angry and disgusted Kaushall. “It was handled with a lethal combination of zealotry and incompetence.” Jessica, he believed, “has learned that when she talks about sex, everyone will drop their forks and knives and listen. She knows sex is a powerful weapon.” Tony suffered harshness and betrayal from adults; he remained depressed and mistrustful. For both kids, Kaushall said, “the developmental harm of breaking a bond with the parent is tremendous.”
But when I visited them on a bright Sunday in March, 1997, things seemed almost uneventful. Jessie went off to an “ugly-dog show” with a church volunteer and the rest of us drove to La Jolla to wade in the tide pools. Tony hugged his mom frequently, demanded to be taken to McDonald’s and moped when that didn’t happen, all eminently normal behavior from my untrained perspective. “I’m a survivor,” Diane told me, estimating that her ordeal had cost more than $30,000. She chatted about “our plans” to move to Arizona, or maybe Oregon because “we love the beach.” She used the first-person plural often, as if to repossess that fragile pronoun.
Tony and l peeled snails from a rock as Diane explained to him that I was writing about their family. His eyes became serious. “Are you writing about cruelty to children in California?” [Back]