Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
[Article]

Torch Song

Adjust

I can’t tell much from her silhouette. She’s sitting off to one side, her shoulders hunched, and toward the front is the box with the teddy bears. Or at least I think they’re teddy bears. Almost twenty years have passed, and I’ve avoided thinking about it. There are some things that float pretty free of time, chronology, the book of history, and the lies of the experts. In the early Eighties I went to a funeral as part of my entry into a world, a kind of border crossing.

It started as the golden light of afternoon poured through the high, slit windows of the newsroom. I had no background in the business and I’d lied to get the job. I was the fluff writer, the guy brought on to spin something out of nothing for the soft features and the easy pages about how people fucked up their marriages or made a quiche or found the strength to go on with their lives because of God, diet, or a new self-help book. Sometimes they wrote the book, sometimes they just believed the book. I interviewed Santa Claus, and he told me of the pain and awkwardness of having held a child on his fat lap in Florida as ants crawled up his legs and bit him. One afternoon the newsroom was empty, and the city desk looked out and beckoned me. I was told to go to a motel and see if I could find anything to say.

The rooms faced a courtyard on the old desert highway that came into town and were part of a strip of unhappy inns left to die after the interstate lanced Tucson’s flank. When I was twelve this belt still flourished, and my first night in this city was spent in a neighboring motel with a small pool. I remember swimming until late at night, intoxicated with the idea of warm air, cool water, and palm trees. My sister was fourteen, and the son of the owners, a couple from the East with the whiff of Mafia about them, dated her; later, I read a newspaper story that cited him as a local purveyor of pornography. But the row of motels had since lost prosperous travelers to other venues and drifted into new gambits, most renting by the day, week, or month, as old cars full of unemployed people lurched into town and parked next to sad rooms where the adults scanned the classifieds for a hint of employment. The children always had dirty faces and anxious eyes. The motel I was sent to was a hot-sheet joint, with rooms by the hour or day, and featured water beds (WA WA BEDS, in the language of the sign), in-room pornographic movies, and a flock of men and women jousting through nooners.

The man at the desk had a weasel face and the small frame of the angry, smiling rats that inhabit the byways of America; the wife was a woman of some heft, with polyester pants and short-cropped hair. They seemed almost delighted to have a reporter appear, and after a few murmured words in the office, where I took in the posters for the featured films of cock-sucking, butt-fucking, and love, ushered me across the courtyard, with its unkempt grass, to the room. As we entered, she apologized and said she was still cleaning up. The linoleum floor looked cool, and the small chamber offered a tiny kitchenette and a small lavatory with shower, the old plastic curtain stained by years of hard water. The water bed, stripped of its sheets, bulged like a blue whale, and as the woman and I talked—he was quiet, she seemed nice, they didn’t cause any fuss, the kid was a charmer—a dirty movie played soundlessly on the screen hanging off the wall and confronting the bed. I seem to remember a mirror of cheap streaked tiles on the ceiling.

I walked around aimlessly and popped open the door of the old refrigerator—shelves empty—and then the little door to the freezer, where two bottles of Budweiser, frozen solid, nestled as if someone with a powerful thirst had placed them to chill in a hurry and then been distracted. I heard the woman’s voice in my ear explaining how the mother had gone to work—she danced at a strip joint, one of the new gentlemen’s clubs that featured college-looking girls instead of aging women with bad habits—and so was gone when it happened. I nodded, purred soothing words, closed the freezer door, and strolled back by the water bed; the blue of its plastic had the gaiety of a flower in the tired room. I looked at a big splotch on the cinderblock wall, and she said, “I haven’t had time to clean that off yet.”

That’s where the head had hit, the skull of the toddler just shy of two years, as the man most likely held him by the legs and swung him like a baseball bat. He probably killed the kid out of boredom or frustration with the demands of a small child, or because he’d been bopped around himself as a child, or God knows why. The man had taken off, then been caught by the cops, and was sitting in jail as they figured out what level of murder he’d scored. The dancer they’d found wandering in the desert, and they’d flung some kind of charges at her. As I stared at the block wall, the proprietress bubbled up in my ear again and said, with that small, cooing voice American women sometimes favor when indicating feeling, “We kind of made a collection and customers chipped in and we bought him an outfit for the burial.” She told me they got the clothes at Kmart. I drove back to the paper, wrote an impressionistic piece pivoting on the frozen bottles and all the hopes and basic desires found in a beer chilling for a thirsty throat, and then phones started ringing at the city desk and I was hurled at the funeral.

So I sit through the service studying the mother’s profile. She has fine hair, a kind of faint red. I once knew a woman with hair like that, and as I stare I can smell this other woman and feel my hands tracing a path through the slender strands. I can smell the soap, the scent of the other woman; the small smile and fine bones and clean, even teeth. In my memory the coffin is open, the boy’s small face very pale and blank, and he is surrounded by donated teddy bears that came from a town that told itself these things are not supposed to happen, and if such things do happen they’re not supposed to happen in our town.

Just before the service ends, I have a hunch that the cops are going to take the mother out the back so that the press cannot snap her image and I cannot scan her face. So I get up and leave the chapel of the cheap mortuary and go to the back, and, sure enough, suddenly the metal door opens and two cops burst through with the lap dancer handcuffed and sagging between their grip. The light is brilliant at 1:15 P.M. and merciless as it glares off the woman. Her face is small, with tiny bones, and her age is no longer possible to peg—somewhere between nineteen and one thousand. She is wearing tight pants on slender, girlish hips and a black leather vest over her blouse. The waist is small, the hair falls to her shoulders, the lips are very thin. A moan comes off her, a deep moan, and I sense that she is unaware of the sound she is making, just as she is unaware of what has happened to her. The only thing she knows is what I know. There is a toddler in a box with teddy bears, and the box sits in a room full of strangers from this town where she has bagged a job dancing for other strangers.

The cops look at me with anger, drag her slumping form away, and toss her into the back of a squad car. I stand still, make no notes. Then I go back to the newsroom and write up the funeral. That is when it begins. The toddler’s death probably didn’t have anything to do with child molestation, but for me this child became the entry point to rape and other categories of abuse. For the next three years I live in a world where the desire of people, almost always men, to touch and have their way with others makes them criminals. Gradually I began to lose the distinction between the desires of criminals and the desires of the rest of us. I am told I can’t get off this kind of beat, because most reporters won’t do it. This may be true, I don’t really know, because those three years are the only ones I ever spent working for a newspaper and practically the only ones I ever spent working for anyone besides myself. I would quit the paper twice, break down more often than I can remember, and have to go away for a week or two and kill, through violent exercise, the things that roamed my mind. It was during this period that I began taking one-hundred- or two-hundred-mile walks in the desert far from trails. I would write up these flights from myself, and people began to talk about me as a nature writer. The rest of my time was spent with another nature, the one we call, by common consent, deviate or marginal or unnatural.

I can still see the woman coming through the metal door, slumping between the paws of the cops. I am standing northwest of her and about twenty feet away. It is 1:15 P.M., the glare of the sun makes her squint, her hips are bound in impossible pants, her face has never seen anything brighter than the dim lights of a strip joint, and her wrists, in the chrome gleam of cuffs, are tiny. I can remember this with photographic detail, only I can’t remember what became of her or her lover. Just the boy, the splotch on the wall, the blue water bed, and the frozen Budweiser.

 Until this moment, I’ve avoided remembering what became of me.

Night, the warm night of early fall, and they form up in the park, the women and their supporters, with candles and flashlights, banners and the will to take back the night. The green pocket of trees and grass hugs the road. They go a few blocks and swing down one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Safety in numbers, group solidarity, sisterhood is powerful, protest, demands, anger, laughter, high spirits.

They find her later in a narrow slot between two buildings, more a gap in the strip of commercial facades than a planned path or walkway, the kind of slot that sees hard sun a few minutes a day and then returns to shadow. She is seven and dead. While the march to take back the night was passing through here, she apparently left her neighbor’s yard nearby and came over to see the spectacle. The police and press keep back one detail: she has been eviscerated. That is part of what a newsroom feeds off, the secret facts that others do not know or cannot be told, the sense of being where the action is and where the knowing people gather. So we say to one another: opened up from stem to stern that night.

I come in the next morning ignorant of all this and am called into a meeting. The city editor, the managing editor, and the publisher are agitated. They have children; they want to do something, but they don’t know what. I’m told to make a difference in the slaughter of our children. I nod and say, You’ll have to give me time. The exchange is very short; this paper has no long meetings. I go back to my desk and remember another night long ago: the man crying. And when I remember, I don’t want to take this assignment, but I do.

He speaks in a small voice as his hands cradle his face in the hospital waiting room, and he says, “My baby girl, my baby girl.” His wife looks on stoically. The call came in the middle of the night, and when I arrive there is the cool of fluorescent lights, the sterile scent of linoleum floors, and the memory of her going down the corridor on a gurney with her face pulverized into raw flesh. She had gone to visit a friend near campus and stepped out of her car onto the quiet street.

That is when he took her. He forced her back into her car, and they drove out of town into the open ground. He raped her, pistol-whipped her, pumped two rounds into her, and then left her for dead. She saw a house light and crawled toward it. The people inside feared her pounding in the night and did not want to open up. Somehow an ambulance came, and now she is in surgery as I sit with her weeping father and stoical mother. At the time, I am related by marriage. But that does not help. I am a man, but that does not help. I am not a rapist, and that does not help at all. Nothing really helps—not words, not anger, not reflection. For days afterward, as the hospital reports come in, as the visits to the room present a bandaged and shaved head, as the unthinkable becomes normal for all of us, nothing really helps. We have stepped over a line into a place we refuse to acknowledge, a place of violence and danger, where the sexual impulses that course through our veins have created carnage.

I was in my late twenties then, and I remember my male friends all coming to me with visions of violence, scripts about what should be done to the rapist, what they would do to him, how these instances should be handled. I would nod and say very little.

I’m over at a house where friends live, the kind of male dormitory that has a dirty skillet festering on the stove, clothes tossed here and there, and empty beer bottles on the coffee table giving off stale breath. It is precisely 10:00 A.M., and one guy is just getting up from the mattress on the floor of his room. He is a Nam vet with a cluster of medals and has two interests after his war: hunting and women. A stack of skin magazines two feet high towers over the mattress, and a fine .270 with a polished walnut stock leans in the corner. He tells me they should take those guys out and cut their dicks off, and then he staggers down the hall with his hangover to take a piss. I feel that I am watching something happening on a screen but that I am not really here.

Eventually, a red-faced detective comes by to placate the victim’s family and express his sense of urgency as we sit in the quiet kitchen. He explains all the things being done, but he convinces no one. How do you find a rapist when half the population is suspect? This is when I first hear the police read on rape: “Fifteen minutes for the guy, five years for the woman.”

I had a vegetable garden then, and this was the only place where things made sense and fell into some kind of order. So I sit on the dirt amid the rows of bell peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, marigolds, and squash, sip red wine, and let my mind flow. I wonder if there is a monster lurking in all of us. I never cease, I realize, scanning faces when I prowl the city, and what I wonder is, Are you the one? I look over at the other cars when I am at a stoplight. This becomes an unconscious habit. Sometimes I think I have adopted the consciousness of a woman. Now I think like prey.

Later, a year or two later, a guy goes to a party near the campus, drinks and whoops it up, and leaves with a woman he meets there. He takes her out and rapes her and tries to kill her. Turns out he is the one, and they send him off to prison. By then, it hardly matters to me. I know he will be back and he will be older, and that that will be the only change. I bury the memories and go on pretty much as if nothing had ever happened. As does the woman who was raped, pistol-whipped, shot, and left for dead. You can know some things and the knowing seems to help you not at all.

“My baby girl, my baby girl.” These memories resurface as I leave the editorial meeting with my instructions to figure out something for the paper to do about the slaughter of a seven-year-old girl during a march to take back the night. I sit at my gray desk and stare at the clock on the east wall. It is early in the morning, 7:00 or 8:00 A.M. I have no delusions that I will magically crack the case. But I decide to look into the world where such acts come from, though I do not consciously know what such a desire means in practical terms. I have no plan, just this sensation of powerlessness and corruption and violation and grief. I can feel my eyes welling with tears, and I know instantly that this feeling will do nothing for me or anyone else. After that I follow my instincts, which is what the predators do also.

There are five things I know to be true. These rules come to me out of my explorations.

1. No one can handle the children.

2. Get out after two years.

3. Always walk a woman to her car, regardless of the hour of the day or the night.

4.  Don’t talk about it; no one wants to hear these things.

5. No one can handle the children.

The fourth lesson is the iron law. We lie about sex crimes because we lie about sex. We lie about sex because we fear what we feel within ourselves and recoil when others act out our feelings. American society has always been more candid about murder (“I felt like killing him,” we can say out loud) than about the designs we have on each other’s bodies. What destroys people who have to deal with sex crimes is very simple: you lose the ability to lie to yourself about your feelings, and if you are not careful you fail to lie appropriately to others. When we are in bed with each other we find it difficult to say what we want, and when we brush up against sex crimes we find it difficult to stomach what we see and even more difficult to acknowledge the tug of our fantasies. In the core of our being live impulses, and these impulses are not all bright and not all as comfortable as an old shoe.

Soon after I embark on this assignment, I am at the home of a friend, a very learned man who is elderly. When we sit and drink he is open to any topic—the machinations of the Federal Reserve, the mutilation of young girls in Africa, male menopause, or the guilt/innocence of Alger Hiss. I have just written a story for the newspaper on child molestation that runs four solid pages without one advertisement because no merchant wants products next to such a story. I vaguely remember the lead. I must do this from memory, because regardless of the passage of years, with their gentle soothing effect, I cannot look at the clips yet: “The polite term is child molestation. The father said he had done nothing but fondle his son. The boy had gonorrhea of the mouth. The polite term is child molestation.”

As I sit with my friend and we ponder the intricacies of the world and swap lifetimes of reading, he suddenly turns to me and says, “I want you to know I didn’t read your story. I don’t read things like that.”

I am not surprised. After the story hits the press, women at the newspaper come up to me for soft conversations and want to have lunch or drinks. They murmur that they are part of the sisterhood or secret society of the maimed. The men avoid me, and I can sense their displeasure with what I have written and the endless and relentless nature of the piece. I realize that if I had not written it, I would avoid reading it, too.

Another revelation comes from having drinks with a retired cop. We are kind of friends: cops and reporters are natural adversaries and yet, in some matters, have no one else to talk with (see rule number four). I ask him how the local police handled rape during his time.

He says, “Well, the first thing we’d do is take the suspect out of the house and into the carport, and then we’d beat the shit out of him with our saps. Then we’d take him downtown and book him for assault.” He does not read the piece either.

Then there is the woman who is passionately into nonviolence and vegetarianism and speaks softly as if she embodied a state of grace. She comes to my door one night after a couple of my stories have run, and we make love on the cement floor. Afterward, she tells me that when she was a girl her father, who was rich and successful, would sit around with his male friends and they would take turns fucking her in the ass. I walk her to her car.

I am sitting on the north end of a back row facing the west wall. The room is institutional and full of therapists, counselors, and other merchants of grief who have gathered to share their experiences treating victims of sex crimes. I scan the crowd, mainly women without makeup wearing sensible shoes. I listen for hours as they outline play therapy, describe predators (with children, usually someone close and accepted by the family; with rape, often as not the mysterious stranger), call for a heightened public consciousness about the size of this plague. Their statistics vary but basically suggest that everyone is either a victim of a sexual crime or the perpetrator of a sexual crime or a therapist treating sexual crimes. They all agree that children do not lie and that more attention must be paid.

Late in the day a woman walks to the podium. I have been noticing her for hours, because she does not fit in with the group. Her lips are lacquered, her hair perfect, and she wears a tasteful lavender dress—one I sense she has bought just for this occasion—and high heels. She is the only woman wearing high heels. She speaks with a southern accent and tells the group that she is not a professional person. She is a mother, and a neighbor molested her daughter, her very young daughter. And she wants something done about it. In her case, she continues, nothing was done. The neighbor still lives a few doors down, and her daughter still lives in terror—they have had to seal her window with duct tape so “he can’t look in.”

The woman at the podium is on fire and very angry. Her words slap the audience in the face. She has no theory, she says, and no program. She simply wants her government, her police, and her city to pay attention to the problem. And she will not rest. She reads her words off sheets of yellow legal paper, and her articulation is harsh, as if she were drumming her fingers on a Formica kitchen table.

Afterward, I cut through the crowd and find her. I say I am a reporter and would like to talk more. She is flustered. She is not used to talking to audiences and not used to talking to the press. She gives me her number, and we agree to meet. I notice her eye makeup and the sensual nature of her lips.

When I turn, another woman comes up to me. I vaguely noticed her enter when the woman whose child was molested was speaking. She is about thirty and wears leather pants and a motorcycle jacket. Her eyes are very intelligent, and she tells me she is a therapist. Her smile is generous. We walk out and go to a nearby café, which is empty and half-lit in the late afternoon, and sit at a round table with a dark top. We both sip longnecks.

Her life has not been simple lately. She is distancing herself, she explains, from a bad relationship. She has been living with a man, and he is very successful. He came home a few days ago and they made love. He told her she was the sixth woman he had had that day but that he liked her the best. He never comes, she says; anything else, but he never comes. He withholds, don’t you see? she asks.

When I go to her place she is in shorts and a shirt and is roller-skating in her driveway. She tells me she wanted me to see her that way, free and skating with delight. We lie on the floor. She says, “Squeeze my nipples hard, squeeze my titties as hard as you can.” Later, we are in the bathroom, because she wants to watch us in the mirror. We go back to the bedroom and she rolls over on her stomach.

She says very softly, “Yes.”

Somewhere in those hours my second marriage ends. I know why. I, too, tend to say yes. The marriage ends because I do not want to live with her anymore, because she is a good and proper person and this now feels like a cage. I do not want to leave my work at the office. I do not want to leave my work at all. I have entered a world that is black, sordid, vicious. And actual. And I do not care what price I must pay to be in this world.

The therapist has a lot of patients who are fat women, and they fascinate her. She herself has not an extra ounce of fat; she is all curves and muscle, her calves look like sculpture, her stomach is flat, her features are cute. She is very limber. Once at a party, she casually picked up one of her legs while talking to a couple and touched her ear with her foot. She was not wearing panties when she performed this feat. She runs daily, has been part of a female rock and roll band, takes showers three or four times a day, and is proudly bisexual. She tells me one of her best tactics for keeping boyfriends is to seduce and fuck their girlfriends. She smiles relentlessly.

What fascinates her about the fat women is their behavior. Not the eating. She cannot even fathom the eating part, since she never gains weight and eats whatever she wishes. Her place is always cluttered with bowls of macadamia nuts for guests. No, it’s their sexual lives she is interested in. Their sexual lives are very simple: they will do anything. That, she tells me, is why men like fat women. They will do anything; name your fantasy, try out your imagined humiliation.

She tells me how she became a therapist. She went to visit her own therapist once and he questioned her openness, and she wound up doing golden showers in his office. After that she fled to an analytic center on the West Coast and studied very hard. No, she says, she is not bitter about it. She learned he was right; she was not open enough.

I find her smile addictive. We sit in her kitchen and she makes a Greek salad. She becomes a blur cutting up the feta cheese and dicing olives. And then we go to the bedroom. She tells me I have green blood and smiles with the promise that she will make it red.

Here is how play therapy goes. You look through one-way glass at very small children on the floor. The child holds anatomically correct dolls, ones with actual sexual organs, and acts out what has happened in the past. It is something to see. The dolls look like Raggedy Ann. And do pretty much exactly what adults do with each other. My guide in this place is a gray-haired woman who is very well-spoken and has the quiet calm of a Quaker lady. She used to work in a ward with terminally ill children. She tells me this work is harder. Ah, now the child is moving the two dolls.

We talk for twenty-two hours. Not all at once, no one can do that, but for very long stretches at a time. That is how the lady in the lavender dress with the hard words, the lady who stunned the seminar audience, begins. With talk.

We sit across from each other with the coffee table and a patch of rug between our chairs. She is cautious. This is her story and, like most people, she wishes to tell her story but only to the right person—the person who listens. I have no tape recorder, just a pen and a notebook, and we begin spiraling into the tale. It is night, her daughter is in the tub, she mentions pain and points. The mother hides her alarm, asks gentle questions, and it slowly comes out as the minutes crawl past. He is the older man, the pal of neighborhood kids. Always a smile, perfectly normal, you never would have guessed.

As she talks, her daughter, so very young and small, plays out in the yard, and from time to time I catch a glimpse of her as I look up from my notepad or glance away from the woman, her monologue flowing from her full lips. The child is in sunlight, gamboling about without a worry in the world. For a second, none of it ever happened. I see this apparition through the sliding glass doors, and then the woman’s words pull me back to the night, the aftermath, the weeks and now months of coaxing the child back first from terror and then from a sense of betraying her special friend by telling—and, of course, she was warned not to tell, they always make sure to stress this warning.

When I am with the woman I enter, as she does, a kind of trance. When I am away the trance still holds to a degree, and I talk with no one about what I am doing. I make a point of filing other stories to disguise the hours I spend listening. I live in worlds within worlds, since the child’s identity must not be revealed, and so for me things become generic and universal and yet at the same time, looking into one woman’s face and taking down one woman’s words, specific, exact, and full of color, scent, and feel.

I write the story in one long fury, and the printout runs about twenty feet. I crawl along my floor, reading it and making changes. Sometimes my therapist roller skater drops by and finds me crawling on the floor with my felt pen, and she does not approve of this act. It is too involved, not suitable for things that should be done at a desk with a good lamp and a sound chair. I sense I am failing her by falling into myself, and our sex grows more heated and yet more empty. This goes on for weeks. I don’t know what to do with the story, and then finally I turn it in and they print it. Fifty subscribers cancel in less than an hour, I am told.

I prowl through the police blotter, savoring the rapes of the night: The woman who leaves the bar at 1:00 A.M. with the stranger. No, can’t sell her. The woman who decides at 3:00 A.M. to take a walk in short shorts and a halter to the all-night market for a pack of cigarettes and then gets bagged. She’s out, too. The girl who goes into the men’s room with her boyfriend to give him head and then his friends follow and gang-bang her. No sale. I course through the dull sheets of pain, hunting for the right one—the one I can sell, the one to which readers cannot say, “Well, that could never happen to me,” the one they can’t run away from so easily.

A woman rides the freights into town and then hooks up with two guys at a café, and they say if you need a place to crash come with us. She does. She decides she needs a shower, and they say go ahead. When she comes out of what she calls “the rain closet” they’re on her. She later goes to the cops, describes herself as a motorcycle mechanic, and tells them of the rape. The paper takes one look at my story and says forget it. And, of course, they’re right. Rape, like many things, is kind of a class matter. You have to not deserve it for the world to care even a little bit. This I learn.

Sometimes for a break I drop in on a small bookstore where a heavy woman with a British accent sells used volumes. A gray cat is always nestled inside, and the place has the feel of afternoon tea in someone’s living room. Then she is attacked and held hostage in her home one night. The store closes; I don’t know what happens to the cat. Eventually, she leaves town and settles in a somewhat distant city. Finally, I hear she kills herself.

I keep hunting, talking with fewer and fewer people. Except for those who live in this world or at least understand its dimensions. I’ll be somewhere, maybe kicking back, feet up on the coffee table, glass of wine in hand, and someone will play, say, the Stones’ “Midnight Rambler,” and my mood will sink and go black. Best not to visit people.

The days of the week cease to have meaning, as do the weeks of the month and the months of the year. My life went by clocks and dates and deadlines, but the order implied in paychecks, withholding taxes, dinner at six, and Sunday-morning brunch vanished with my consent. I did not lose control of my life; I gave up the pretense of normal life, and followed crime and appetite. I learned things on the run and without intention. Knowledge came like stab wounds, and pleasure came with the surprise of a downpour from a blue sky in the desert. I remember sitting with some women who had been raped after I wrote a profile of the rapist. Turns out all the guy’s co-workers, mainly women, found him to be a polite, nice person.

One woman looked at me and said flatly, “He wasn’t that way when I was with him.”

Stab wounds.

I have become furious, but mainly with myself. Certain protocols in writing about such matters anger me. I decide never to write the phrase “child molestation” or “sexual assault” except in a context of deliberate mockery. I am angry at the pain I witness and listen to each day as I make my appointed rounds, and I am angry at the hypocrisy of it all. We want to believe that the intersection between sex and crime happens only in an alien country, one that does not touch our lives or feelings or lusts of the midnight hours.

A woman is at the door and she has three balls on a string she wishes to insert in my ass, and then she will pull the string at the moment of orgasm.

A woman is at the door and she says she has cuffs.

A woman is at the door late at night and we make love, and as she leaves she says she can’t see me again because she is getting married in the morning.

Two women are at the door…

We like to call things that disturb us a jungle, to wall them off from our sense of order and self. But we all inhabit that forest, a dense thicket of desire and dread, both burning bright. We want to categorize: victims or studs, seduced or seducers. And we can hardly look at people who we agree are criminals and admit we feel some of their passions and fantasies within ourselves. My life in those days erased boundaries and paid no attention to whether I was a predator or a victim or a newspaper savior with a byline. I was attractive to women because what I knew made me somehow safe. Ruined people were telling me things they never told anyone else, and the women dealing with ruined people were sharing secrets as well, and some of those secrets were fantasies they wished to act out. There is a way to go so deep into the secrets and hungers of your culture that you live without concern for the mores and with a keen sense of your own needs. I have seen this state most often in the old, who finally realize that the rules of conduct are optional and read what they wish, say what they think, and live in sin without a qualm. I didn’t feel guilt. Then or now. I didn’t feel love. I didn’t seek a cure. Getting in bed with women was a pleasure but not the center of my life. The center of my life was crime. And sex was also an attempt to redeem or exorcise what I saw. As the crimes piled up and corroded my energy and will, I ceased to find even cold comfort in women, and everything in my life became perfunctory except for the crimes. I have hard memories of my life then but not bad memories. But of the work, I still have nightmares. I still drive by commonplace haunts and see weeping women, bodies, a terrified child, an eviscerated girl. There are accepted ways of dealing with such experiences: the secular renunciation of a clinical visit to all the Betty Ford centers out there; the religious rebirth of being born again. I did neither. I simply continued plowing my way into that night.

She sits up in bed and asks, “Aren’t my breasts beautiful? Aren’t they the best you’ve ever seen?”

I nuzzle her hair. Time has passed, the story long gone, the woman in the lavender dress with the hard words and the maimed child is now the woman here.

She tells me her husband has been suspicious of me. I ask her what she told him.

“Don’t worry.” She smiles. “I told him you were a queer.”

Then she slides over, gets up, and rolls a joint.

Rule Number One: No One Can Handle the Children.

I’ll tell you something that although not a trade secret is not generally said to others outside the work. The rapes are bad but not that bad. The mind is protected from what adults do to adults. There is a squeamishness about the rapes, an embarrassment among the men who investigate them, and an anger among the women who treat the casualties. But the rapes can be handled to a degree. Of course, it’s not as easy as homicide; people stay in homicide forever and never lose pleasure in their work. Sex crimes generally cycle people out in two years. And it is the kids who do it. No one can handle the kids. But then the highway patrol always dreads the car wreck with kids. It goes against nature as we know it.

Once I was helping a guy move—him, his wife, their two young daughters—and a box I was carrying out broke open and small paperbacks spilled to the ground in the bright sunshine. I gathered them up and then idly flipped through one, and then another and another. They were all cheap things from no-name presses about men—daddies, uncles, whoever—fucking kids. I was stunned and did not know what to do. I felt oddly violated, like it was wrong for me to have to know this. So I put them back in the box and put the box in the truck and said nothing and did nothing.

That is part of what I feel as I enter the gray police station and go to the offices where the sex-crimes unit works. They’ve got a treasure trove of child pornography seized from perps, and in my memory the stack rises six or seven feet. They leave me at a table with it, and what they want is for me to look at it and come out with an article recommending that people who possess such materials go to prison.

The collection mainly features boys, seven, eight, nine from the looks of them, and they are sucking off men, taking it in the ass, being perfect pals about everything. I am struck not by what I feel but by how little I feel. It is like handling the treasured and sacred icons of a dead religion. I have careful constitutional qualms filed in my mind—basically, that to think something is not a crime. Fucking kids and taking pictures—that is already against the law. So I stand firmly on the Constitution of the United States and look at photographs I do not believe should exist made by and for people I do not believe should exist. I look for hours and still feel nothing. I am in a place beyond the power of empathy.

A few months later I get a thick packet of fifty or sixty typed pages. The writer is facing a long prison sentence for having had sex with Scouts, as I recall. He writes with courtesy, clarity, and an almost obsessive sense of detail. Essentially, nothing ever happened except that he tried to comfort and love his charges. I doubt him on his details but come to sense that he means his general thesis about love. He loves children, totally, and locks on them with the same feeling I have for adult women.

That is what I take away from the photos the police want outlawed and the autobiography of the man they eventually send away to be raped and possibly murdered by fellow convicts for being a child molester. A crime is being committed by people who see themselves as the perfect friend. Other things are being committed by people who see themselves as lovers. And, of course, a lot of things are being done by people who have no romantic delusions about their desires but are full of hate, who drag women off into the bushes or a corner because they hate them and are going to get even by causing pain, humiliation, and, at times, death. Cycles of abuse, the role of pornography, the denigration of women by Hollywood and glossy magazines—there is no single, simple explanation for sex crimes. But in the case of the men who use children for sex there is often this fixation, this sense of love, which always leads them to betray the very idea of love itself by using children for their own selfish ends.

During this period of my life my musical taste changes and slowly, without my awareness, starts sliding backward through the decades. One day I decide to look up a style of music I’ve been listening to in a big Merriam-Webster dictionary. Torch song: from the phrase “to carry a torch for” (to be in love); first appeared 1930; a  popular sentimental song of unrequited love.

The walls are block, humming fluorescent lights replace windows, and we sit in rows forming a semicircle as the woman teaching the class speaks. She is very nicely done up in a sedate professional suit, tasteful hair, low-key makeup; she has a serious and clear voice. The prisoners mark time as I go through rape therapy in the joint. I am not here because of a story. I’ve come to find something beneath the stories or deep within myself. The boundaries between normal, accepted sexual appetite and crime are blurring for me. People get an erotic charge out of playing with consent—holding each other down, tying each other up—indulging in ritualized dominance. Rape is an eerie parody of accepted life, an experience using the same wardrobe but scratching the word “consent” from the script. I am obeying the law and the rules of consent, but I am losing a sense of distance between my obedient self and those who break the law. When I listen to women tell of the horrors they’ve experienced, the acts they recount are usually familiar to me, and what they recount as true terror, the sense of powerlessness, strikes chords within me also. I can’t abide being in the joint even for this class. I can’t take the bars, guards, walls.

The men, struggling to earn good time, feign attention. They answer questions appropriately and wear masks of serious thought. I don’t believe them for an instant, and I think that this class is a farce and that nothing will deter my colleagues from their appointed rounds when they leave this place. The woman herself, from a good family and with sound religious values, has been attacked—“I am part of the sisterhood,” she once told me shyly—and she has brought me here so that I will see hope and share her hope. So I sit with the current crop of convicted rapists—“There are no first-time offenders,” a cop once snarled at me, “just sons of bitches that finally get caught”—and feel no hope. Of course, prison is rape culture—“just need a bunk and a punk,” one local heroin dealer offered in explaining his lack of concern about doing time.

The session finally ends, and we bleed out the door of the room into the prison corridor. I am ambling along in a throng of convicts, the woman walking just ahead in her prim suit with her skirt snug on her hips. The guy next to me is singing some kind of blues about what he’s gonna do to that bad bitch. I’ve blotted out the actual song. I can remember the corridor (we are strolling east), see her up ahead, hear him singing next to me, his lips barely moving as he floats his protest against the class and her fucking control and all that shit, but not the lyrics themselves. They’re gone, erased by my mind, I suspect in self-defense. Afterward, she and I go to a truck stop and eat apple pie, and I can still see the whiteness of her teeth as she smiles and speaks brightly about her work.

Later, I taste child-molestation therapy, a regimen where men who have fucked their own children sit in a circle and talk while their wives run the show. It’s either show up at such sessions or the joint—so attendance is rather good. Afterward, I go off with the boys and we have beers. In recounting his lapse from accepted behavior, each and every one of them describes the act itself as fondling. Apparently, there are hordes of diligently caressed children out there. I nurse my beer and say little, pretending to try to understand. But I understand nothing at all. I have seen the end result of fondling, and it does not look at all like fondling to me. I cannot put myself in their place. I cannot see children as sexual objects; it does not seem to be in me. I fixate, I realize, on women. And my fixation is sanctioned, as long as I toe the line. Such thoughts lead to a place without clear light. We all share a biology and deep drives, and what we have created—civilization, courtesy, decency—is a mesh that comes from these drives and also contains and tames them. Whatever feels good is not necessarily good. But what I learn is that whatever is bad is not necessarily alien to me. Or to you.

She loves pornography. It’s around midnight, and she is standing in the motel room clutching a bottle of champagne against her black garter belt and peering intently into the screen of the television as fornicating couples, powered by the handyman of American fantasy, the telephone man, frolic. This is one of the seedy motels that cultivate hourly rates, water beds, and hard-core cinema, a place much like the room where my life in this world began with the splotch on the wall left by the toddler’s head. She is a counselor, one of the many I now deal with, and she likes sex and is fascinated by pornography. This is not unusual; another woman, a professional woman I deal with, has several hundred pornographic tapes. But the interests of the woman in the black garter belt are kept off the table at her work and left to the night hours and random bouts with me. Days are for the maimed—in her case, children with cigarette burns and sore orifices. Some nights are like this.

I glance at her naked ass, see the serene concentration of her face as she tracks the movie, and I am empty. She and I share the same country, and there is a big hole in us, so we come here. We live in a place past the moral strictures of sin and lust; we run on empty. For us, sex has been drained of its usual charge, delight is beyond our reach. This is a fact. As the months roll past, I feel this slippage within me. I will have lunch or dinner or a drink or coffee with someone and wind up in a place like this. Romance is not a consideration. There is seldom anyone to talk with, and when there is someone, a person like the woman in the black garter belt watching the porn movie, a person stumbling across the same terrain, there is nothing to say, since we both know. So we come here. A proper distance from our appetites has been denied us, so we seek moments of obliteration. I have never regretted those moments or fully understood them. I just knew then, and know now, that they come with the territory.

But the slippage bothers me. I seem to drift, and the drift is downward. Not into sin and the pit but into that emptiness. I am losing all desire and mechanically go through the motions of life. Food also does not tempt me. I flee into the wild country with my backpack, flee again and again for days and days, but increasingly this tactic does not work. Once I am lying by a water hole in July and it is 104 degrees at 1:00 A.M. (I get up with my flashlight and check my thermometer.) I am crawling with crabs. When I go back I buy twelve bottles of the recommended cure and for a day have coffee or drinks with a succession of women, handing each a bottle. I take this in stride, as do they. One woman is briefly anxious because she fears I have called her only to deliver the medicine, but this feeling passes when I assure her that this is not true, that I really wanted to see her. I think we then go to bed. It turns out that this mini-epidemic has come from the therapist who showers three or four times a day. She also is quite calm about it and prefers to talk about her new favorite movie, something entitled Little Oral Annie. She tells me she resents the smirks of the male clerks when she rents it at the video store, and I politely sympathize.

The moments of my impotence increase. I am not alarmed by this fact but clinically engaged. I sense that I am walling off everything, all appetites, and have room for nothing but this torrent of pain and squalor that pours through me from the daily and weekly harvest of rapes and killings and molestations. I remember once reading a statement allegedly made by Sophocles in his old age, when sexual desire had left his loins; he said he was glad to be free of the mad master. So I am becoming classic and care not at all. I repeatedly try to leave the work, but the city desk always wins because a part of me feels bound to the crimes. So I protest, and then return. I tell myself it is a duty, but what I feel is the desire to run out my string, to see how much I can stomach and learn. And yet then, and now, I cannot really say what this knowing entails. I can just feel its burden as I lie with caring women in countless cheap motels, the movies rolling on the screen.

The end begins in the bright light of afternoon on a quiet street lined with safe houses. One moment an eight-year-old girl is riding her bicycle on the sidewalk near her home; the next moment the bicycle is lying on the ground and the girl is gone with no one the wiser.

This one is my torch song. The rudiments are simple. The alleged perpetrator is a man in his twenties from a very good home in another city, a man whose life has been a torment of drugs, molestation of himself by others and of others by himself, a man who has slipped from his station in life into dissipation and wound up roaming the skid rows of our nation. None of this concerns me, and I leave ruin in my wake. I fly to that distant city, talk my way through a stout door, and gut his mother like a fish. When I leave she is a wreck, and later that night her husband goes to the hospital for perturbations of his heart. I get into files—legal, psychiatric—that I should not have had access to, and I print them fulsomely. The child favored a certain doll, and I buy one and prowl the city with it on the truck seat beside me, a touchstone. I am standing in the back yard as the mother of the missing girl makes a plea to whoever took her daughter to bring her home safe and sound. The woman’s face is grief made flesh, and I note its every tic and sag. It turns out that the alleged perpetrator stayed for a time with a couple in a trailer court. I visit; the man is facing child-molestation charges himself, the woman is a hooker with a coke habit. “Do I have to tell you that?” she whines. I remember leaving them, driving to a saloon, setting my small computer on the bar, and begging a phone for the modem. I sip my drink and write in one quick take. The story flits through the wires and descends into the next edition. The following night a local PTA meeting takes a recess, walks over to the trailer, and then it goes up in flames.

My temper is short, my blood cold. A young mother who works in the newsroom comes over to my desk and asks me what I think the chances are of the girl being alive. I snap, “Fucked, strangled, and rotting out there.” And keep typing. The sheriff leaps into the public wound and starts leading marches of citizens holding candles and decrying violence and the rape of children. It is much like the time so long ago when things began for me with a seven-year-old eviscerated while people marched to take back the night. I pay no notice to these marches; they are for others. The reporters on the story all speculate about the girl—even when the arrest comes and still the girl is missing. I do not. I know. Bones bleach out there. It is months and months before her remains turn up, but this hardly matters to me. I know. This is my country.

It ends several times, but at last it finally ends. The city desk asks my help to find a woman whose son, a famous local rapist, has just escaped. I leave, chat up some neighbors, and within an hour I am in a state office, a bullpen of women toiling over desks and processing forms. She has done everything she can—changed her name, told no one of her son, gone on and tried to fashion a life. I approach her desk and tell her my errand. She pleads with me, Don’t do this to me. She leans forward and whispers that no one typing away at the other desks, none of them knows anything about this. Leave me in peace, she says. I look into her careworn eyes and I say yes. I tell her I will now leave and she will never read a word of my visit in the newspaper. Nor will I tell anyone of her identity.

When I enter the newsroom, the editor comes over and asks, “Did you find her?”

I say, “Yes.”

“When can I have the story?”

“I’m never writing the story.”

He looks at me, says nothing, then turns and walks away.

That is when one part of me is finished. I know I must quit. I cannot take the money and decide what goes into the newspaper. I do not believe in myself as censor and gatekeeper. And yet I know I will never write this story, because I have hit some kind of limit in pain. The phone rings. It is a woman’s voice. She says, “Thanks to you she has had to go to the hospital. I hope you are happy.”

I tell her I am not writing the story. I tell her I told the mother I would not write the story. She does not believe me. This does not matter to me. My hands are cold, and I know from past experience this means I can take no more. I am righteously empty.

The other ending is more important, because it does not involve the work, the little credos and dos and don’ts of journalism. It involves myself. It happens the night the arrests come down for the missing eight-year-old snatched off her bicycle on that safe side street. Around three in the morning, I wrap the story and reach into my desk drawer, where I stashed a fifth of Jack Daniel’s bought earlier in the day. I do not drink hard liquor, and I bought the bottle without questioning myself and without conscious intent. So I finish the story, open the drawer, take the bottle, and go home. I sit in my back yard in the dark of the night, those absolutely lonely hours before dawn. I drink, the bite of the whiskey snapping against my tongue, and drink in the blackness.

After a while I feel a wetness and realize that I am weeping, weeping silently and unconsciously, weeping for reasons I do not understand. I know this is a sign that I am breaking down, this weeping without a moan or a sound. I feel the tears trickle, and step outside myself and watch myself clinically in a whiskey-soaked out-of-body experience. That is the other ending.

I quit the paper, never again set foot in a newsroom, and go into the mountains off and on for months and write a book about them. That helps but not enough. I sit down and in twenty-one days write another book about the land, the people, and the city. That helps, but although I barely touch on the world of sex and crimes in this book, it broods beneath the sentences about Indians and antelope and bats and city streets. Nothing really helps.

That is what I am trying to say. Theories don’t help, therapies don’t help, knowing doesn’t help. The experts say they have therapies that are cutting recidivism, and maybe they do, but I doubt it. I live with what I am and what I saw and what I felt—a residue that will linger to the end of my days in the cells of my body. I have never been in an adult bookstore. Two years ago I was at a bachelor party in a lap-dancing place and lasted fifteen minutes before I hailed a cab and fled. This is not a virtue or a position. I have no desire to outlaw pornography, strip joints, blue movies, or much of anything my fellow citizens find entertaining. Nor have I led an orderly life since my time in sex crimes. I write for men’s magazines and pass over without comment their leering tone and arch expressions about the flesh. I am not a reformer. So what am I?

A man who has visited a country where impulses we all feel become horrible things. A man who can bury such knowledge but not disown it, and a man who can no longer so glibly talk of perverts or rapists or cretins or scum. A man who knows there is a line within each of us that we cannot accurately define, that shifts with the hour and the mood but is still real. And if we cross that line we betray ourselves and everyone else and become outcasts from our own souls. A man who can be an animal but can no longer be a voyeur. A man weeping silently in the back yard with a bottle of whiskey who knows he must leave and go to another country and yet never forget what he has seen and felt. Just keep under control. And try not to lie too much.

Just before I quit, I am in a bar in a distant city with a district attorney. He shouts to the barkeep, “Hey, give this guy a drink. One of our perverts whacked a kid in his town.”

The bartender pours and says, “Way to go.”

 And I drink without a word. Nobody wants to hear these things.


More from