I worked as a volunteer with grieving kids under age twelve for 20 years. In that time I never abused a single one of them. But that is not to say that I never had a wayward thought or impulse. I truly believe that the fact I was never traumatically abused as a kid myself enabled me to never act on such feelings. I also think it’s a valuable exercise to unpack such thoughts and impulses, particularly in the context of social neuroscience research.
Child abuse research suggests that 25 percent of girls and 17 percent of boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. Because of fear and shame and the stress of filing reports with the authorities, I suspect many cases go unreported and the actual numbers are much, much higher than that. Think for a moment: do you know someone in your personal circle who was abused and never reported it? I know several dozen such people. Just as the secret, high incidence of abuse baffled Freud and made him fearfully withdraw a paper he originally wrote documenting it, I suspect incidents still go massively under-reported today. It wouldn’t surprise me if the 90,000 cases reported annually were actually closer to 900,000. If so, parents might want to pay closer attention to their kids.
The Abused Becoming Abusers
Some percentage of those who were abused go on to become offenders themselves. To the extent that developing brain structures were significantly disorganized by the abuse, much as it is with many illnesses or injuries the brain’s natural impulse is in the direction of healing. Neurons holding recorded memories of the traumatic offense(s) in isolated “dissociation capsules” in the brain are shut off by other inhibitory neurons. Think of this collection of encapsulated, inhibited neurons as a butterfly in a chrysalis. The ongoing impulse for these neurons is to open the capsule, spread their wings and try to find their way back and reintegrate into the network. But in order to do that, they have to be firing, that is, the memory of the offense has to be active in conscious awareness. Often panic attacks, outsized emotional upsets and nightmares are triggered by neurons firing which hold the recordings of such memories. Once triggered, such memories can take a person back to the original experience, not as the person being acted upon, but sometimes as the actor instead.
A Yearning for Innocence
In the presence of young children, I would argue that something stirs in potential offenders that triggers memories of their own healthy, innocent time, a time before they were sexually abused. The yearning to reclaim and recapture that time of innocence becomes distorted as memories of their own abuse become active and energized. One reason I make this argument is that I feel the yearning toward openness and innocence reverberating in myself in the presence of young children. Because I don’t have sexual trauma in my personal history distorting and driving those impulses, any impulse to unconsciously act out in this way is pretty easily controlled. I’m also profoundly aware of the chain reaction of neural inhibiting actions that shame and blame and secrets often produce in the wake of such abuse. My greatest wish is to contribute as little as possible to that cycle of suffering.
An Offender in Our Midst
According to the Island County Sheriff’s Sex Offenders Registry, there are zero offenders living within a two mile radius of my house. But there was a time when an offender married into and lived within my extended family, although we didn’t know it at the time. We only discovered it when he was arrested and his picture was broadcast on national television for molesting the Police Chief’s six year old daughter! We also didn’t know that William was a victim of sexual abuse himself. What we knew about him was that he was a kind, gentle, hardworking young guy who seemed a little socially uncomfortable and was sometimes difficult to make emotional contact with. In other words, a human being like all of us, with his own unfortunate, unique form of trauma history. Just like all of us. He’s in prison in a State that gave him 25 years to life for his crimes. I’m pretty certain he’s going to die in prison. Unlike all the rest of us. Which really serves no one in the end. Better would be to put William into a program that heals his trauma and then put him to work serving other offenders and helping them heal theirs. Even if it has to be in prison. Who knows a sex offender better than a reformed sex offender?