“I guess his time just ran out. And he just—I don’t know how to put it—took advantage of being free.”
-Acquaintance of the accused
“On the level of historical insight and political thought there prevails an ill-defined, general agreement that the essential structure of all civilizations is at the breaking point.”
–Hannah Arendt, writing in the preface to the First Edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951
I live in the showroom of a Styrofoam distribution center on a county highway in the middle of rural America. I came here to write. Our front windows look at a dilapidated former motel where live the night-shift from the meat processing plant in town: immigrants, refugees, the white-working poor, and registered sex offenders. I remember when this story’s villain—I’ll call him ‘Victor’ in order to deny him the vain-glory his most recent crime partly intended to win— moved in: September of 2017. This was only a month before the sexual assault allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein broke, precipitating the global #metoo movement and increased scrutiny of sexual assault, harassment, and microaggressions in the daily lives of American and European professionals. This convergence requires note, but it is also ultimately irrelevant to the arbitrary horror of the story that follows, one that makes me fear for the state of the civilization that produced it.
Victor is white, fat, balding, wears sweatpants, and drives a little silver Chevy pickup with a Tonneau cover. He’s also a high-risk, violent, drug and sex offender who kidnapped and raped a woman in 2008, and she convinced him to let her go after he told her voices were telling him to kill her. Or, at least, that’s how local news agencies reported this, his most heinous crime, at least until recently.
I spoke with one of Victor’s co-workers at the local meat processing plant about the months of their acquaintance. He asked to remain anonymous to protect his safety, and described how Victor told a different version:
“He was saying that he had been dating this girl—I don’t really know how they got out into the country, but he said they ran out of gas. He said: ‘Oh, I gave her an option—we stay here and sleep in my pickup, or we could go to my uncle’s cabin.’ That’s what he told everyone. And then, they went to his ‘uncle’s cabin’ and I guess that’s where everything went down. And he was like, ‘Oh, she lied,’ and all this stuff. But, there was some, kind of, holes in his story. Which at the time I didn’t think of as big deal. But now, after hearing what he actually did, got me kind of scared.”
Although we don’t have curtains, I wasn’t nervous when Victor arrived and we were alerted by local authorities of the particular danger he posed as a level 3 registered sex offender. I’ve lived in transitional neighborhoods all my life, I thought. I’ve seen sex trafficking, fights, armed mobs, and sting operations. I’ve kicked drug dealers out of my home and talked with the homeless drunks living in the hall outside my childhood apartment. And I wasn’t nervous when, a few months ago, Victor was arrested (for parole violations related to alcohol and drug use, and for which he was released a few weeks later). While my family loaded our car for a Sunday outing he was cuffed and read his rights, his little eyes fixed on me. I raised my chin and didn’t adjust my short skirt. No, I thought: I will not be afraid.
Even through #metoo—and as I came to acknowledge the coercion at work in some of my own formative sexual experiences—I have remained cautiously critical of the regulations for sex offenders in the US, which are incredibly restrictive, as David Feige has argued in the New York Times opinion column and Op-Docs Season 6, and in the full-length documentary Untouchable (2016). Feige’s argument ultimately rests on what he describes as the faulty basis of Supreme Court rulings and US legislation that drastically restrict the movement, employment and residency options for registered sex offenders—from public urinators to violent rapists. The basis of these rulings are, he claims, a single, uncited statistic published in the 1986 issue of the popular magazine Psychology Today, which places sex-offender recidivism at as high as 80%. The statistics that Feige and his sources cite as the actual, scientifically verified rates of recidivism are dramatically, and qualitatively, lower—as low as 1.7% within two years in some US states. Neither statistic is in line with the findings of the nonprofit Center for Sex Offender Management, which works closely with the US government and currently lists recidivism rates at between 12 and 24%.
These numbers matter when it comes to the ways in which lawmakers, law enforcement, mental-health professionals, and the public perceive and respond to the presence of sex offenders and the threat of sex crimes in communities. The materials I have reviewed in preparing this essay all emphasize mental-health, law-enforcement, or both, with a nod to the fact that, as Keith Soothill puts it: “since the 1970s sex crime has increasingly been used to sell newspapers”. In his “Sex Offender Recidivism” (2010), Soothill goes on to argue that media conflation of sex crime and murder give the public a distorted view of sexual offenders, violence, and the risk that recidivism poses to public safety. As he notes, public concern with recidivism has increased dramatically since the 1970s, a trend he identifies as “complex”, but then problematically connects to feminist movements and an associated focus on sexual assault and violence against women, and the trauma that results.
Soothill goes on to claim that, in these early years of increased public scrutiny, few experts were available to provide explanation of, and treatment to, sex offenders. Into this void stepped psychology, “as the pivotal discipline [which] has sharpened up questions in the specific field of sex offender recidivism”. It has also given the discipline of psychology the responsibility for reducing sex offender recidivism, largely through treatment programs that include individual and group therapy with a mental-health professional. One nonviolent sex offender I spoke with, who asked to remain anonymous given the stigma he faces, described his treatment to me and said “it’s kind of nice sometimes to just talk with a counsellor, or someone about what has happened. To talk about your childhood and what has maybe caused this. It’s pretty useful, I would say.” Jill S. Levenson and her colleagues would likely take this young man’s words seriously, given their rigorous study “Sex Offender Treatment: Consumer Satisfaction and Engagement in Therapy” (2010). While Levenson et. al acknowledge that “the effectiveness of sex offender treatment including recidivism remains unclear” they go on to suggest that “the views of sex offenders can inform our quest to improve treatment effectiveness”. I am heartened by the optimism displayed by Levenson et. al, and I would hope that, in the long run, they integrate a piece of Soothill’s position into their model.
I would be interested to hear a more thorough description of what Soothill means when he suggests that the public’s increased interest in sex crime is “complex”. I don’t agree with his insinuation that feminism is to blame for the inital, fear-based “concern” with the “crime of rape”, but I do agree with his argument that social, cultural, and political “systems” are just as essential as discretely psychological ones when it comes to the potential for a sex offender to reoffend, and that simplistic legislation and treatment may have negative consequences for some. For a truly comprehensive view of the issue, a broad and more actively multidisciplinary approach is essential. A traditional psychological treatment approach, perhaps one that takes the satisfaction of sex offenders into account, can help reduce the incidence of sex crime in communities, and so can law-enforcement. But they can’t do it all, alone. There needs to be a more rigorous, and radical, critical analysis of all the social, political, and cultural forces that combine when someone commits a (violent sex) crime. This element of Soothill’s argument is also particularly relevant in relation to the dark turn the story of Victor took, the day after my husband departed for a week-long vacation out of the country, leaving me home alone with our two young children.
It was Saturday night. I had all the lights on, so anyone outside would have easily been able to watch my every move. I was pacing with a glass of wine in my hand. The kids were in bed and I had the Rolling Stones “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” at full blast. I was wishing my husband hadn’t left, and casually wondering if anyone was watching, as I do every night. Still, I eventually went to bed without checking to make sure the doors were locked. And the next day, I loaded my husband’s blue 1997 Toyota T-100 pickup for a work-trip to Minneapolis. It was about the time I realized the air conditioning on that old jalopy was broken when I saw the first police officer.
And then another, and another. And another.
Without sirens, but with their lights flashing. That first officer came up behind me fast. He passed, going at least 90, pulled a u-turn and sped back in the other direction. All this official urgency was unfamiliar in the surrounds: rolling green hills, placid blue lakes, hobby farms. And then, the friendly radio announcer’s voice pierced my calm curiosity: A woman had been abducted. 5’4, blue eyes, blonde, around 130 pounds, taken at gunpoint in front of her children while her husband was out. The vehicle in question is a silver Chevy pickup with a Tonneau cover. My first thought was my sister-in-law. I immediately picked up the phone. But as the details began to sink in, and the perpetrator was identified as my neighbor, Victor, my next thought was myself.
Not for some perverted vanity, but for the similarities: I am 5’4, blue-eyed, blonde, weigh-in at 127, and am the mother of small children. The victim’s initials, even, are the same as mine and her name is the name inattentive listeners often think I say when I introduce myself. Some, if not all, of these coincidences must be only that: coincidence. And yet, there were the 355 days I spent in plain sight of Victor, and in a curtainless showroom: dancing, eating, laughing, reading, kissing my husband—all lit up by an array of lamps each night. Was I, with my obstinate fearlessness, my inattention, responsible for the horror and suffering of this other woman and her family—given all that our bodies fundamentally share? Had my mere presence inadvertently spun a certain fantasy into what I learned later was a methamphetamine-induced psychosis? Or, had I narrowly escaped the same fate as she: to be awoken from the sweetest, most delicate sleep of motherhood (in the afternoon, holding a child blooming from infancy to youth) by the sight of a fat man with a semi-automatic shotgun in a camoflauge face mask, threatening to kill my family if I didn’t obey?
They say she struggled.
And they say much more than that, the news reports detail every violent, salacious detail. They even spell out, with almost pornographic precision, the steps of the rape, in an abandoned farm house, adorning each story with his terrifying, ugly mug shot (blotchy and red, his head shaved, his maw toothless and agape) and her sweet selfie (blonde and smiling, her eyes shining forth a well of contentment and innocence). And they go on to describe the way the police punctured the tires of the little Chevy pickup and pursued Victor into a field, where he eventually stopped, and started shooting. Nobody was hit. While these news stories elaborately detail the shoot-em-up car chase and this woman’s trauma, apparently with no regard for her privacy, they make no steps to understand or interpret the event in any meaningful way. As citizens of all stripes try daily to respond to suicide bombings and mass shootings, chemical attacks and the authoritarian turn, lethal wildfires and unprecedented flooding, what we in ’Trump Country’, in these ‘United’ States, and in nations worldwide are desperately seeking is interpretation and understanding of events, large and small.
The scholarly and journalistic sources I discuss above are all concerned with one type of criminal: sex offenders. But this category is both too broad and too narrow to sufficiently categorize this particular offender and crime. What I learned from speaking with Victor’s coworker was that the entire crew working the nightshift at the meat processing plant had become afraid of his erratic, violent, and paranoid behavior, which they connected to drug-use, most likely methamphetamines, which, as Jennifer Hsieh and colleagues show, often cause psychosis, even at low doses.
“I would say he was acting tweaky, I guess that would be the best word for it. He just had some ridiculous stories, about like: the government was after him, gangs… something to do with his son dying or something. Oh man, he had stories. Which, you know, you would listen to, and you’d be like ‘okay’. But then, he would keep telling you, and keep telling you, and keep telling you…”
Eventually, about 6 weeks before the kidnapping, Victor’s co-workers became increasingly troubled by his paranoia and anger. He was “doing drugs and just kind of acting weird—you know—getting mad at people. Not hostile, but still getting mad. We pretty much just said, you know, ‘Hey, we’re going to give you a piss test.’” When he failed it, and was fired, he raged at the crew, screaming and cursing.
I was surprised to learn from this co-worker that, unlike me, the men in Victor’s life were the ones feeling directly threatened in the weeks and months leading up to the crime. Though it’s worth noting that, as far as I could tell, there were no women in his life, save for his mother, who visited occasionally, and for me. Still, this revelation began to indicate to me that Victor’s crime—the kidnapping and rape of a stranger—could not be simply categorized “a sex crime” and explained away with proposals for harsher legislation and sentencing, lumping Victor together with other types of offenders. Such an approach may assuage fears in the short-term, but in the long-term—if the goal is really to reduce the recidivism of horrific acts of violence and cruelty—simplicity is not the answer. Victor’s crime—as the non-sexual threat he apparently posed to everyone around him hints—was something much more sinister and much more complex than a single category can encapsulate, and it was something that requires a much more radical form of ‘treatment’.
Victor’s crime was, ultimately, a convergence of social, cultural, political, economic, legal and psychological factors, manifesting and festering in the fat body of a weak man. It was a convergence of drug-induced psychosis; paranoia directed at institutions and individuals; of violent masculinity; distorted sexuality; rural, post-industrial poverty and isolation; easy access to firearms; and more. These are all powerful forces and trends with a variety of causes in society, and a variety of expressions: from the mass killings in Sutherland Springs, Texas and Las Vegas, Nevada, to the white nationalist rallies last summer, to the countless violent attacks against women and people of color that continue every day. And they are trends that require wide-ranging, serious analysis that is far beyond the scope of this short essay.
It is tempting to take a sensational and salacious story like Victor’s as symbolic, as mythic, and to act with all the fervor, passion, and irrationality that symbols and myths inspire. Instead, I suggest we take it not as mythic, symbolic, or as the result of Victor’s free will and agency as an autonomous Cartesian subject (which can be sufficiently punished, or rehabilitated in a prison cell or treatment group) but as symptomatic, as the expression of a social disease that must be diagnosed, and cured—not with the singular, closed, blind and violent rationality of what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer famously call the “false Enlightenment”, but with its hidden sister: the rationality that accepts the non-rational as an essential part of itself—the open, intimate, creative, feeling, expressive, multiple, hidden, sudden, bodily, mutual, and so on. This story describes the congealing into human form of a darkness infecting America, a darkness I see all too clearly every time I look out of my front windows, a darkness that swelled up and almost engulfed me, and my children. Instead, for now, it chose someone else. But it is gathering in strength and intensity, and it will be back. Unless, that is, we too gather all our strength, and step out to name and defeat it.
-Anne Marie Spidahl
Adorno, Theodor and Horkheimer, Max. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2002.
Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York, Harcourt, 1973.
Feige, David. “When Junk Science About Sex Offenders Infects the Supreme Court.” The New York Times, 12 September 2017.
Hsieh, Jennifer; Stein, Dan; Howells, Fleur. “The neurobiology of methamphetamine induced psychosis.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Volume 8, Article 537, 2014, p. 1-12.
Levenson, Jill; Prescott, David; D’Amora, David. “Sex Offender Treatment: Consumer Satisfaction and Engagement in Therapy.” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, Volume 54, Number 3, 2010, p. 307-326.
Soothill, Keith. “Sex Offender Recidivism.” Crime and Justice, Volume 39, Number 1, 2010, p. 145-211).