Revealing more of the dark underbelly: Talking to my daughter about predators

The other morning my 8 year old daughter pleaded with me to stop talking. She pled in that 8 year old way, showing absolute disgust and embarrassment with any of my serious parental topics. “Eww, mom, stop! I’m eating breakfast, gross, can we pleaaseee change the subject?”.

I was about to uncover another layer of the “big one” to her, delve into one of those conversations that I’ve slithered around since she was two. This “teaching moment” was coming from me, this self-proclaimed “open, honest and lay it out” mother who had the balls to explain  body parts, to say “vagina and penis” with only a slight stutter and to explain with unwavering assurance that although “yes my breasts are interesting, and I have no honey, I have no idea how big yours will get”, that they “are just silly old things for feeding a baby, but mostly they are just silly no matter what the size” (as my attempt to underplay the excessive attention men and women give to these things). Just moments before, I read an article in the Orlando Sentinel about how our Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) is apparently “cracking down” to arrest pedophiles and sex offenders. Sadly, for all the fantasia of my Mickey Mouse town that  brims with our very own Cinderella and Shamu, my glorious city of escapism has a dark under-belly. It seems that Central Florida’s theme parks and outstanding weather offer a Mecca for these types. Years before at meeting, Missing Children advocates came to my mother’s group and did a talk. “Make your kids wear unusual, uncommon shoes to the theme parks. Many parks won’t sell shoes afterYet despite taking this gut punch, I tried to resist hysteria. I’m generally careful not to allow media-soaked child abduction reports to color my objectivity about the actual probabilities (stranger abductions are very rare). I do try and resist mental hysteria — but that morning, after I read this story, I lost my internal battle to stay calm. I lost because I knew that unlike child abductions, sex crimes against children are in fact, not rare, and in fact — I have a child.

I shut up. I had to.

I had already flipped the switch to the dark side, and sometimes a parent needs to know when to go — and when to stop. This wasn’t a pleasant, light, funny moment, or even something a mother gathers courage to do. I took the plunge because it simply had to be done. I dove into the muck, where to date I only dipped a toe in and wiped off the sludge. It was time.

The newspaper article described a victim, who at 8 years old, was the very same age as my daughter. The incident occurred while this little girl was under the care of a 50 year old male “friend” of the family.  Immediately, I shattered my own Golden Rule — the one where I never spite parents who lose a child to a drowning, fire, or other breech of safety. My sense of universal connection to mothers demands that I empathize with their pain rather than berate them for their carelessness. Yet that morning it was too late for me to feel any sympathy for the parents of this child. Too much garbage was already slung on my radar, and my maternal venom forcefully unleashed as I yelled, “What kind of idiot leaves their 8 year old daughter in the care of a 50 year old man?”.

The article also showed a picture of a 17 year old “boy”, scowling, tousled hair, pitiless  eyes. Like the 50 year old, this “child” had the face of the monster we’ve come to expect in our nightmares. He had an exterior that at one time probably looked human, then over time he molted the thin layer that made him appear harmless. This 17 year old was arrested because agents found his diary where he graphically described the violent horrors he wanted do to young children, and then proceeded to share his visions with his online pedophile club. It was then that my brain, in it’s own self-protection, reasoned that this wasn’t rampant, nor was it a trademark of my beloved city. I stifled my growing revulsion by reciting my own credo, my chant-lesson to my daughter: “Really honey, most people are good, only some are ‘yuk’. You’re too young to know who is good and who is ‘yuk’, but mommy and daddy know”.

But do we?

When I saw the teenager’s picture, I felt no empathy. My verdict was that he committed the acts of horror even if the thoughts only flickered for an instant. Nor did I reason from conversations with my attorney brother, who once dealt with such cases, that the boy was likely an abuse victim himself. I really didn’t care. Reason has no place when a mother senses evil is within the same universe as her child.

After reading these atrocities, I quickly sensed that I had to go against the grain of my nearly animalistic rage on such topics — to ensure that I came out from under the erosion it would surely do to my psyche.  Years before, my nearly manufactured faith in humanity sprung from a resolution that I would never feed my child my own brand of cynicism and simmering distrust. My daughter must accept the basic good within people, as a counter-balance to my cautionary tales. So as I finished the article, I regained a sense of justice. I noted that the faces on the page were in prison, each for a minimum of 20 years — decades after my daughter would leave her childhood.

But today she’s only 8.

The article also showed pictures of seasoned-looking FBI agents working hard to “crack down” on the web of child pornographers and pedophiles. “Cracking down” is a media-hyped term that seems to give citizens a sense of safety and well-spent tax dollars. Yet the phrase offered me an odd sense of paternal protection, that someone bigger and more vicious than my husband and I was watching out for our daughter. One FBI agent admitted that “It’s difficult work. You have to love this. You cannot work this and not be affected. If you’re not, then you need to be doing something else”.

His words seemed to echo the dictates of parenting. It also highlighted the brutal reality that forces parents to find new ways to keep their children safe on the sidewalks and in cyberspace. I suspect this sort of fear stabs every mother and father in the back of their head. News flashes of victimized children deeply hurt, then quickly we dilute the report and make it about “someone else’s child”, to allow us to digest the unimaginable, to move on, — to cook dinner. The knowledge that evil exists near our children can gradually peck away at our sensibilities. Yet if we keep these thoughts at arm’s distance, we somehow reason the impossibility of it all. And in truth, our rational self must know that our children will never become victims, because if we didn’t, we’d never let go of their hand.

The day before I read the article, a friend and I remarked that although we’re finally out of  the stage where we incessantly worry about our children choking or running in the street, we’ve now entered a new world of worry — predators. We briefly tackled the subject, dissecting our children’s predisposition to trust others – or not. We accepted our task of militant watchfulness of “the suspicious types”. We soothed our frayed nerves when we agreed that our regular dose of  “mother-lessons” to our children, combined with our honed instinct, would remain our best defense to keep them safe. Then — we changed the subject.  Yet I’ve learned that even when I consciously disregard, ignore or bury this  subject, it still finds me.

A few months before the talk with my daughter, every resident in our cozy, comfy sub-division received an apology letter from a neighbor. In the letter the couple stated that they were “horrified” to learn that their daughter’s boyfriend, who they trusted to stay with them for a few months, was a registered sex offender from Ohio, who re-registered in Florida. It seems one of our residents found his picture after they conducted an online FDLE search of known offender/predators in our surrounding zip code. Now the monster was no longer a distant image in our local newspaper. The monster was at one time, seven houses away from my daughter.

And then there was my friend’s story.

“My two boys were repeatedly molested when they were 7 and 8”, she quietly revealed, “by a 13 year old boy they knew from my ex-husband’s neighborhood.” Her current husband, her ex; they were all devastated.  More than a year later her children spoke up. She told me while I worked at a volunteer event — my smile draining away.  “I don’t know what to say,” I clumsily stammered, “I’m so sorry your boys were hurt.” My comfort felt sorely inadequate. As I processed her words, tears came to my eyes, tears that I usually saved for private moments. To absorb this reality while I watched her boys in front of me, playing out their childhood with basketball jumps and bounce houses, felt physically painful. She spoke of the months of watching her younger son’s violent outbursts and emotional swings, to the point where he once had to be taken away for his own safety. Finally his change in behavior had a name — residue from his destroyed innocence and brewing shame.

 

But that day — he smiled, his usual exuberance lighting up his Peter Pan-like face. His older brother, notably quieter in nature, peered tentatively out from under his hair. And in return for the help the family received from a crisis center, my friend and her older son speak out on the center’s behalf, for tragically there are too many who need the embrace that only another victim can offer.

 

I’ve recently questioned the source of my brewing, ferocious anger towards these monsters. I was never a victim, and until recently, nor was anyone I knew.  Beyond my maternal mantra of  “hell hath no fury as a mother’s child scorned”, I had no concrete reason to feel such imbedded rage. But then I remembered my friend’s sons, the letter from my neighbor, the Orlando Sentinel article, the news reports, the insidious and repetitive nature of this disease, the article’s mention that “victims are getting younger”, and the unrelentless outpouring of criminals. I felt helpless because I shared air with such creatures. But the real catalyst to my recent implosion happened in just one moment, the morning my daughter glimpsed for perhaps the first time, a corner of humanity’s dark under belly. It was the reason, I believe, she asked me to stop talking.

 

My talk began with my usual and customary reminder that “some, not many, but some people do bad things to children”, and so she must “always stick with an adult that we approve of”. After a few rounds of “I know mom, I know”, she asked what I meant by “doing bad things”.  I took a quick breath, somewhat unprepared for the words that had to hit her ears, and said “they touch young girls in private areas and hurt them.”

 

At 7 that answer would have satisfied her curious mind. At 8 — it did not. She yelled “eww, gross!”, paused for a moment, then asked the question I dreaded, “But why do they do that?”. I knew in that instant that neither of us were ready or able to unfold the question that even adults can’t possibly wrap their minds around. I said “I don’t know honey, I think it’s because their brain is broken, they have hate in their heart, and they don’t think right. So, are you done with your breakfast?”.

 

Although I knew there was more I could offer, perhaps small bits of information that would clear more of her fog; I chose not to — not at that moment.

 

When my child asks me to explain why we do — what we do, especially when she wants me to help her sort out of the darker shades of life, I can only remind her that the world is full of mostly kind people, but that evil sometimes presents faces that fool even our keenest senses. And I believe, whether through our faith or our preservation of belief in humanity, we must retain a layer of purity for our children; we must absorb the awful truth on their behalf. I think to some degree, we all want a small part of Disney World, because we love the make-believe it offers for a moment in time. There’s simply no ugly in Disney, and if it’s lurking behind the Crystal Castle, we won’t ever know. For every Disney “Cast Member” (employee) is imprinted with the doctrine that guests are never to see the dirty, the ugly or the flawed. There is no real scary, only facades and fantasy. But yet, when guests drive out of those Magic Kingdom gates, they know they’ve entered the world of reality.

 

Each year as I’m forced to rub off another layer of my daughter’s innocence, I’ll show her only a small corner of society’s dark under belly — just enough to keep her increasingly safe. Soon enough she’ll sense that, outside the walls of her home, outside her protected facade, hides something dirty, ugly and flawed.  She’ll grasp by her owndeveloping instinct, that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are a hoax, and that sometimes, things are terribly, terribly wrong in the world. Yet despite her inevitable disillusionment, my daughter can still maintain a hopeful belief in humanity. My husband and I can help her grasp what she needs to secure her personal safety, while she holds onto the knowledge that most people are good, and only a few — are “yuk”. And in the process I can re-shape my wavering beliefs, reassuring myself that like the movies, good nearly always overshadows evil.

The other morning my 8 year old daughter pleaded with me to stop talking. She pled in that 8 year old way, showing absolute disgust and embarrassment with any of my serious parental topics. “Eww, mom, stop! I’m eating breakfast, gross, can we pleaaseee change the subject?”.

 

I was about to uncover another layer of the “big one” to her, delve into one of those conversations that I’ve slithered around since she was two. This “teaching moment” was coming from me, this self-proclaimed “open, honest and lay it out” mother who had the balls to explain  body parts, to say “vagina and penis” with only a slight stutter and to explain with unwavering assurance that although “yes my breasts are interesting, and I have no honey, I have no idea how big yours will get”, that they “are just silly old things for feeding a baby, but mostly they are just silly no matter what the size” (as my attempt to underplay the excessive attention men and women give to these things). Just moments before, I read an article in the Orlando Sentinel about how our Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) is apparently “cracking down” to arrest pedophiles and sex offenders. Sadly, for all the fantasia of my Mickey Mouse town that  brims with our very own Cinderella and Shamu, my glorious city of escapism has a dark under-belly. It seems that Central Florida’s theme parks and outstanding weather offer a Mecca for these types. Years before at meeting, Missing Children advocates came to my mother’s group and did a talk. “Make your kids wear unusual, uncommon shoes to the theme parks. Many parks won’t sell shoes afterYet despite taking this gut punch, I tried to resist hysteria. I’m generally careful not to allow media-soaked child abduction reports to color my objectivity about the actual probabilities (stranger abductions are very rare). I do try and resist mental hysteria — but that morning, after I read this story, I lost my internal battle to stay calm. I lost because I knew that unlike child abductions, sex crimes against children are in fact, not rare, and in fact — I have a child.

 

I shut up. I had to.

I had already flipped the switch to the dark side, and sometimes a parent needs to know when to go — and when to stop. This wasn’t a pleasant, light, funny moment, or even something a mother gathers courage to do. I took the plunge because it simply had to be done. I dove into the muck, where to date I only dipped a toe in and wiped off the sludge. It was time.

 

The newspaper article described a victim, who at 8 years old, was the very same age as my daughter. The incident occurred while this little girl was under the care of a 50 year old male “friend” of the family.  Immediately, I shattered my own Golden Rule — the one where I never spite parents who lose a child to a drowning, fire, or other breech of safety. My sense of universal connection to mothers demands that I empathize with their pain rather than berate them for their carelessness. Yet that morning it was too late for me to feel any sympathy for the parents of this child. Too much garbage was already slung on my radar, and my maternal venom forcefully unleashed as I yelled, “What kind of idiot leaves their 8 year old daughter in the care of a 50 year old man?”.

 

The article also showed a picture of a 17 year old “boy”, scowling, tousled hair, pitiless  eyes. Like the 50 year old, this “child” had the face of the monster we’ve come to expect in our nightmares. He had an exterior that at one time probably looked human, then over time he molted the thin layer that made him appear harmless. This 17 year old was arrested because agents found his diary where he graphically described the violent horrors he wanted do to young children, and then proceeded to share his visions with his online pedophile club. It was then that my brain, in it’s own self-protection, reasoned that this wasn’t rampant, nor was it a trademark of my beloved city. I stifled my growing revulsion by reciting my own credo, my chant-lesson to my daughter: “Really honey, most people are good, only some are ‘yuk’. You’re too young to know who is good and who is ‘yuk’, but mommy and daddy know”.

 

But do we?

 

When I saw the teenager’s picture, I felt no empathy. My verdict was that he committed the acts of horror even if the thoughts only flickered for an instant. Nor did I reason from conversations with my attorney brother, who once dealt with such cases, that the boy was likely an abuse victim himself. I really didn’t care. Reason has no place when a mother senses evil is within the same universe as her child.

 

After reading these atrocities, I quickly sensed that I had to go against the grain of my nearly animalistic rage on such topics — to ensure that I came out from under the erosion it would surely do to my psyche.  Years before, my nearly manufactured faith in humanity sprung from a resolution that I would never feed my child my own brand of cynicism and simmering distrust. My daughter must accept the basic good within people, as a counter-balance to my cautionary tales. So as I finished the article, I regained a sense of justice. I noted that the faces on the page were in prison, each for a minimum of 20 years — decades after my daughter would leave her childhood.

 

But today she’s only 8.

 

The article also showed pictures of seasoned-looking FBI agents working hard to “crack down” on the web of child pornographers and pedophiles. “Cracking down” is a media-hyped term that seems to give citizens a sense of safety and well-spent tax dollars. Yet the phrase offered me an odd sense of paternal protection, that someone bigger and more vicious than my husband and I was watching out for our daughter. One FBI agent admitted that “It’s difficult work. You have to love this. You cannot work this and not be affected. If you’re not, then you need to be doing something else”.

 

His words seemed to echo the dictates of parenting. It also highlighted the brutal reality that forces parents to find new ways to keep their children safe on the sidewalks and in cyberspace. I suspect this sort of fear stabs every mother and father in the back of their head. News flashes of victimized children deeply hurt, then quickly we dilute the report and make it about “someone else’s child”, to allow us to digest the unimaginable, to move on, — to cook dinner. The knowledge that evil exists near our children can gradually peck away at our sensibilities. Yet if we keep these thoughts at arm’s distance, we somehow reason the impossibility of it all. And in truth, our rational self must know that our children will never become victims, because if we didn’t, we’d never let go of their hand.

 

The day before I read the article, a friend and I remarked that although we’re finally out of  the stage where we incessantly worry about our children choking or running in the street, we’ve now entered a new world of worry — predators. We briefly tackled the subject, dissecting our children’s predisposition to trust others – or not. We accepted our task of militant watchfulness of “the suspicious types”. We soothed our frayed nerves when we agreed that our regular dose of  “mother-lessons” to our children, combined with our honed instinct, would remain our best defense to keep them safe. Then — we changed the subject.  Yet I’ve learned that even when I consciously disregard, ignore or bury this  subject, it still finds me.

 

A few months before the talk with my daughter, every resident in our cozy, comfy sub-division received an apology letter from a neighbor. In the letter the couple stated that they were “horrified” to learn that their daughter’s boyfriend, who they trusted to stay with them for a few months, was a registered sex offender from Ohio, who re-registered in Florida. It seems one of our residents found his picture after they conducted an online FDLE search of known offender/predators in our surrounding zip code. Now the monster was no longer a distant image in our local newspaper. The monster was at one time, seven houses away from my daughter.

 

And then there was my friend’s story.

 

“My two boys were repeatedly molested when they were 7 and 8”, she quietly revealed, “by a 13 year old boy they knew from my ex-husband’s neighborhood.” Her current husband, her ex; they were all devastated.  More than a year later her children spoke up. She told me while I worked at a volunteer event — my smile draining away.  “I don’t know what to say,” I clumsily stammered, “I’m so sorry your boys were hurt.” My comfort felt sorely inadequate. As I processed her words, tears came to my eyes, tears that I usually saved for private moments. To absorb this reality while I watched her boys in front of me, playing out their childhood with basketball jumps and bounce houses, felt physically painful. She spoke of the months of watching her younger son’s violent outbursts and emotional swings, to the point where he once had to be taken away for his own safety. Finally his change in behavior had a name — residue from his destroyed innocence and brewing shame.

 

But that day — he smiled, his usual exuberance lighting up his Peter Pan-like face. His older brother, notably quieter in nature, peered tentatively out from under his hair. And in return for the help the family received from a crisis center, my friend and her older son speak out on the center’s behalf, for tragically there are too many who need the embrace that only another victim can offer.

 

I’ve recently questioned the source of my brewing, ferocious anger towards these monsters. I was never a victim, and until recently, nor was anyone I knew.  Beyond my maternal mantra of  “hell hath no fury as a mother’s child scorned”, I had no concrete reason to feel such imbedded rage. But then I remembered my friend’s sons, the letter from my neighbor, the Orlando Sentinel article, the news reports, the insidious and repetitive nature of this disease, the article’s mention that “victims are getting younger”, and the unrelentless outpouring of criminals. I felt helpless because I shared air with such creatures. But the real catalyst to my recent implosion happened in just one moment, the morning my daughter glimpsed for perhaps the first time, a corner of humanity’s dark under belly. It was the reason, I believe, she asked me to stop talking.

 

My talk began with my usual and customary reminder that “some, not many, but some people do bad things to children”, and so she must “always stick with an adult that we approve of”. After a few rounds of “I know mom, I know”, she asked what I meant by “doing bad things”.  I took a quick breath, somewhat unprepared for the words that had to hit her ears, and said “they touch young girls in private areas and hurt them.”

 

At 7 that answer would have satisfied her curious mind. At 8 — it did not. She yelled “eww, gross!”, paused for a moment, then asked the question I dreaded, “But why do they do that?”. I knew in that instant that neither of us were ready or able to unfold the question that even adults can’t possibly wrap their minds around. I said “I don’t know honey, I think it’s because their brain is broken, they have hate in their heart, and they don’t think right. So, are you done with your breakfast?”.

 

Although I knew there was more I could offer, perhaps small bits of information that would clear more of her fog; I chose not to — not at that moment.

 

When my child asks me to explain why we do — what we do, especially when she wants me to help her sort out of the darker shades of life, I can only remind her that the world is full of mostly kind people, but that evil sometimes presents faces that fool even our keenest senses. And I believe, whether through our faith or our preservation of belief in humanity, we must retain a layer of purity for our children; we must absorb the awful truth on their behalf. I think to some degree, we all want a small part of Disney World, because we love the make-believe it offers for a moment in time. There’s simply no ugly in Disney, and if it’s lurking behind the Crystal Castle, we won’t ever know. For every Disney “Cast Member” (employee) is imprinted with the doctrine that guests are never to see the dirty, the ugly or the flawed. There is no real scary, only facades and fantasy. But yet, when guests drive out of those Magic Kingdom gates, they know they’ve entered the world of reality.

 

Each year as I’m forced to rub off another layer of my daughter’s innocence, I’ll show her only a small corner of society’s dark under belly — just enough to keep her increasingly safe. Soon enough she’ll sense that, outside the walls of her home, outside her protected facade, hides something dirty, ugly and flawed.  She’ll grasp by her own developing instinct, that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are a hoax, and that sometimes, things are terribly, terribly wrong in the world. Yet despite her inevitable disillusionment, my daughter can still maintain a hopeful belief in humanity. My husband and I can help her grasp what she needs to secure her personal safety, while she holds onto the knowledge that most people are good, and only a few — are “yuk”. And in the process I can re-shape my wavering beliefs, reassuring myself that like the movies, good nearly always overshadows evil.

 

 

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