Sexuality on Campus

Sexuality on Campus

A eight years old school girl close to the schoolyards

By Mary E. Plouffe

Recent surveys indicate that between nineteen and twenty-three percent of women will experience sexual assault in college. That’s one in five of our daughters. Those assaults are rarely by criminals, or even strangers. They are by their classmates: the boyfriend they broke up with, the guy they just met at the frat party. They are our sons.

How did we get here?  So much has changed in the way we approach sex in our culture in the past few decades. We are more open and honest, more accepting and less judgmental. Yet despite our best intentions, I believe we have inadvertently made things more confusing for the young people we care about.

We have taken the shame out of sex. The average age of first marriage has risen by more than 7 years since 1950. Along with this shift, Americans now accept that most people will not postpone sex until marriage. Sex before marriage is less a “sin” and more a fact of adulthood, even to the majority of those sitting in pews every Sunday.

We have taken the ignorance out of sex as well, establishing early, accurate education about sexual function, emphasizing safe sex for disease and pregnancy prevention. Most fifth graders can tell you the biology of how sex works.

But I wonder if we have taken the emotion out of sex as well. I wonder if we’ve neglected intimacy and relationship and human emotion in the safe sex discussion. When and what are we teaching our kids about psychologically safe sex?

Too many times in the past ten years young women in high school or college have described their first sexual experience to me as “getting it over with,””losing my virginity so I could stop worrying about it” or even ” so I wouldn’t be embarrassed about being a virgin.” This implies that having sex is something you do for yourself, because your body is ready to have sex, because, like getting a driver’s license, it is a rite of passage.   Relationship is not an essential part of the experience, just the tool for accomplishing it. If you are lucky, they tell me, you have a boyfriend you want to have sex with, but if not, the pressure to be sexual overrides waiting for the right person, the one with whom sex is a logical step of intimacy that grows out of relationship.

Sex in college also has its own rules. The young women who educate me about this are often trying to digest the rules themselves, and struggling with their own reactions. So they try to explain to us both.

“Partying” I am told, is separate from dating. It’s more like a play group where sex is part of the party. Alcohol, and sometimes drugs, are part of the party, so that the sex is easier, and the experience heightened. Sexual contact with a boy at the party is not “cheating,” even for those with a boyfriend. To meet that boy for coffee and conversation the next day would be cheating.

But at some schools the party culture is also the entryway, the signal that you want to date.   “What if you choose not to party? I asked one.

“Then people think you don’t want a boyfriend, that you’re a nerd or not interested at all,” she answered. “I really don’t want that.”

“So, you’re hoping to meet someone special?” I asked.

” Yeah, it’s like, we get the sex part over with first, then maybe see if we like each other.” Girls who choose this entryway hoping to find relationship are often devastated if no one calls once the party is over.

“Hooking up” is slightly different. It can mean just needing sex and agreeing to satisfy that need contractually. Sort of like needing a dance partner, and taking whoever is available. Some boyfriend/ girlfriend bonds tolerate this, some do not. “It’s just sex, right?’ one asked hesitantly. “So, it shouldn’t matter.”

These young women are confused, and so am I. In the most formative period of their emotional lives, they are being asked to take the emotion out of sex. This is hard for mature adults to do. Even hard core proponents of open marriage can end up in therapists’ office wrestling with psyches that are not as “evolved” as they want them to be. Despite our logic, most of us care about the very personal act of sharing out bodies with someone else. Few of us can do it cavalierly, most of us cannot keep emotion out of the equation even when we want to.

College age women are particularly vulnerable. They are seeking relationship as much as sexuality, trying to define who they are, and who they want to bond with in friendships, in peer groups, and in loving relationships.   And the complicated rules of college sexuality do not help.

A few students are afraid to dip into the college sexual scene, but many more try to participate, and find themselves numb, or upset, or, as one student said ” not exactly guilty about it but just so uncomfortable with myself.” Most are relieved when I suggest that there is nothing wrong with them, nothing inherently superior about being able to separate sex from intimacy, sexuality from emotion.

There is probably a normal curve about this, like so many human variables. In thirty-five years of clinical practice, I have met people on the far ends. A few who saw sex as having no moral or emotional component. They felt free to be sexual with any interested partner, and were irritated and confused when others judged or felt hurt by their behavior. “Sex is like sneezing for me,” one man offered “Sometimes you want to, sometimes you need to and sometimes you just can’t stop yourself.”

At the other end of the spectrum are those whose sense of intimacy holds sex in a unique place. “I don’t think it’s a sin,” one young woman who remained a virgin into her late twenties explained her choice, “I just think of sex as God’s wedding gift to me and my husband, and I don’t want to open it early.”

Most of us fall somewhere in between. A place where sexual need and emotional connection meet, where sex is not only about physical desire, but about psyche: the experience, sometimes unexpectedly powerful, that a relationship is special, and that adding sexuality to that connection feels safe and right.

Morality is a component of this, but that word needs to be used carefully with today’s young people. “Oh I’m not religious” is often the quick response I get when I use it. And my follow up, “But you are not amoral, right?” usually takes them by surprise.   Most are relieved to engaged in a discussion that assumes that that developing an ethical self, a personal right and wrong, is part of becoming an adult, whether guided by a church or not. So I help them discover their own intuitive reactions to questions that push their boundaries. “If it’s ok for you to have sex with your boyfriend, is it ok if two of his roommates want to join in?

Fear of being judgmental of others is sometimes paralyzing, and keeps them from embracing their own good judgment for themselves. It short circuits finding the place where temperament, personality and morality meet. They do not want to be accused of “slut-shaming” their classmates who seem to participate in the recreational sex culture without difficulty. But there is no need to judge others in order to find what works for you, to find the freedom that comes from setting boundaries because you know yourself well, and you accept what feels right and what does not.

We can teach fifth graders the biology of safe sex. They can understand how condoms work, and how conception happens. But you cannot teach fifth graders the psychology of safe sex. How do you talk about trust, and vulnerability and self-respect and shame? How do you explain intimacy and emotional connection and commitment? You cannot address these constructs with minds that do not yet have the capacity for self- reflexive thought, do not understand a world where motivation comes from multiple sources, and do not have the experience of powerful emotional urges that complicate and defy logic.

Somewhere between the” birds and bees” lesson, and the freedom of college, we need to have much deeper discussions about the truth that sexual safety is not just about avoiding pregnancy and disease. It is about ensuring that we are ready for the powerful emotional feelings that come with sexuality. It is about putting intimacy back into the equation, and validating that it belongs there.

What message do we give when we pretend that casual sex is for everyone? Young men and women both feel the expectation to comply when this is the atmosphere the rest of the culture accepts, even idealizes, as normal college experience. When we offer no guidance about sexual decision making, and turn a blind eye to a culture of promiscuity, it is easy for “permission” to become “expectation” to become “entitlement”.   From there it is a very short distance to rape.

Sex can be for recreation or for intimacy. Most of us, ultimately, choose the latter. We crave the deeper emotional closeness that real relationship offers, and we imbed sexuality into that. That is not only because we want family, or children, or security. It is because our psyches find it so much more satisfying.

That is the truth that we need to talk to our children about. That casual sex is not always casual. It is not a stage of development that everyone must go through, or feels the same about trying. And that even when it does not cause pain, it can lead to confusion and misperceptions and feelings no one expected. Delaying sex, and choosing partners carefully is not only about avoiding disease and pregnancy. It is also about valuing the intimate emotional component that comes with the experience, and understanding what that means for you.

Prep schools and colleges must take responsibility for the interpersonal learning environment as much as they do the academic one. Social clubs and fraternities that become alcohol saturated brothels on the weekends are not unlike locker rooms, where bravado and testosterone- fueled “group think” overpower sensitivity and good communication. Real solutions must go beyond teaching students to ask more “affirmative consent” questions in the heat of alcohol fueled arousal. Schools need to set standards, provide healthier social alternatives, and crack down on those that consistently cause harm.

Public policy seems focused on prosecutorial responsibility once rape has happened. Yet, at a congressional hearing in August 2015, a victim’s advocate reported that nine out of ten women who have been assaulted on campus do not want law enforcement involved. This seemed to surprise our legislators but it does not surprise me. Because, for every case in which violence or surreptitious drugging provide a clear cut division between victim and perpetrator, there are many more where the story reflects a more complicated truth. Men and women participated willingly in the college social scene. They wanted something they knew might or would become sexual. The results were terrifying, or tragic, or not at all what they expected. They are not merely looking for someone to blame. They are looking to understand how this all went so terribly, terribly wrong.

We owe our children more. Much more than a wink and a nod, an implied permission to be sexual so long as they do not get pregnant or get a disease. We owe them the truth about real human sexuality. That it is a complicated and emotionally powerful part of human experience. And that one’s values and personality must guide our choices if we are to be comfortable with them.

Exploring sexuality means more than finding out how your body works. It means accepting that humans are uniquely created: we are both animal and spiritual. Sexuality bridges those two selves, and in the best moments, unites them. When we find the person who knows and loves us emotionally, physically, and spiritually, we call them Soulmate.

If we want our young people to aspire to that, we need to show them how.

Mary E. Plouffe Ph.D. is a clinical  psychologist and author of I Know it in My Heart: Walking through Grief with a Child to be published in May 2017. She is currently writing a book of essays on the art of listening.







By Alicia Chadbourne

Recollection is a curious buffet. My mother’s memories are deep fried and sugar-dusted. Like a churro, their only bite is a smattering of cinnamon. If hers are confection, mine are curtido, shredded and pickled greens in bitter brine. On their own, either sets a stomach churning.

I left home at 17, the day my father, a Vietnam vet, choked me for opening my bedroom curtains. He said “they” were watching us. Because of “them” I was never allowed a sleepover or guest. Most children learned phonics from Dick and Jane. My father clipped stories of heinous crimes to read over breakfast. For years I wondered who these mystery monsters were. Over time I came to realize that for him, the enemy was anyone outside the house. Nadie te va querer como tu familia. “No one will ever love you like your family,” he chanted. But his love required darkness and I needed sunlight.

“No!” I said, refusing to close the curtains.

“Exhibitionist! Slut!” he snarled, his face contorted and eyes hollow. I reached for the phone to call 911, but he ripped it out of the wall. “No one’s coming,” he whispered with a smile and wrapped his hands tightly around my neck. “I’ll kill you, little bitch.” He squeezed tighter. I couldn’t breathe.

I couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t hit me. He said I “never did listen.” That’s why my pudgy legs were covered in welts even as a young child. But this was more than hitting. I feared he would kill me. I wanted to live and so for the first time, I didn’t float away and wait for the calm. I fought back. I thrashed and kicked. I clawed. But my struggle was futile as he outweighed me by 200 pounds. There was nowhere left to go but down, so I let my body fall, boneless as a toddler’s. He lost his balance and his grip loosened. I rolled away and ran.

I could hear his heavy footsteps behind me, the jangle of keys dangling on his dungarees, his jagged breath. Outside, the day was oddly sunny. I looked back as he slammed the front door and peered at me through the glass. He retreated into the dark house, never to catch me again.

We made it to Colma, a strip mall and cemetery wasteland, a town where the dead outnumber the living by a thousand to one. Colma’s motto is “It’s great to be alive in Colma.” I called my mother from a pay phone. I had spent years begging her to leave him. When that failed, I prayed he would die. Still nothing changed. Now this horror would be the impetus. She would save us all. It took several tries before I reached her. She was away at a union conference. My mother: professional advocate.

“Go home,” she said from her hotel room 500 miles away. “Your father would never do anything to hurt you.”

“He tried to kill me,” I said.

“If he really wanted to kill you, he would have.”

I started to cry, knowing then that my father was right. No one was coming.

I hung up and moved into my boyfriend’s walk-in closet, the first of many homes to come. It was cozy enough, but I cried incessantly. “Do you want to talk about it?” Daniel asked. I shook my head and sobbed.

Years passed, and Daniel remained the constant in my life. My mother cut me off financially when I refused to return home, so I nearly dropped out of college. Daniel and I both found jobs to pay my tuition. When I graduated, we married. I refused to invite my father to the wedding. My mother was appalled.

“You know,” she said, shaking her head, “Your uncle chased your cousin around the house with a knife and she still lives there.” My mother had a collection of stories starring families more dysfunctional than ours who miraculously stayed together. She called me exajerada, literally, she who exaggerates. When that didn’t work, she resorted to Jesus-speak mixed with psychobabble. “Pray. You need to forgive him for yourself. It’s not healthy to hold grudges.”

“I never knew how to be a mother,” she whimpered, tears streaming down her face. “I did the best I could.” My mother had been abandoned by her mother as an infant, so in her mind, simply by sticking around she had done better. Everything is relative. Still, I yearned for more than she would give.

I became sullen and withdrawn, angry and confused, storming around the house for days after a visit. Daniel begged me to distance myself from her. I severed ties for good when I was pregnant with my first child. I would do anything for my baby and I couldn’t be fully present while living in the past. It was time to stop trying to find a mother, so that I could become one. I changed my phone number and we moved.

I revisited my childhood in nightmares. It was always the same one: me trapped in my childhood home, cradling my son, running around searching desperately for an exit, up and down the winding stairs, my father in pursuit. I’d wake up wheezing, the asthma of my youth perched on my chest like a leaden ghost.

With time, the nightmares stopped and when my son was one, I became pregnant with a girl. At first, I was terrified. How could mother/daughter ever mean anything good? Then I saw her. She was red and puckered, like most newborns, but had the alert brown eyes of someone far older.

I named her Aria, which means lioness in Hebrew. It proved to be the perfect name. Bright and quick-witted, Aria’s cherubic face belied her ferocity.  If anyone dared hit her or her brother, she was quick to hit back harder. “I have a right to defend myself,” she insisted. It was an impulse I would never squelch. Neither would I stymie her curiosity.

“The kids at school have two grandmas,” she said.

“Really?” I replied. She nodded.

“Is your mom dead?”

I hesitated, tempted for a moment to lie. “No.”

“Why don’t we see her?”

“She and I don’t get along.”


“My father hit me when I was a kid.”

“That’s mean.”


“And she didn’t stop him?”



“I don’t know.”

“You should ask her.”


“What does she look like?”

“I have a picture.”

“Can we meet her?”

“Do you want to?”


I paused again. “Then…. yes.”

My voice faltered.

“Stop it, Aria,” my son said. “You’re making Mom sad.”

“I can ask Mom anything I want,” said Aria.

“That’s right,” I replied.

I knew what it was like to grow up in mystery. My father had enlisted in the navy at 18 and never saw his family or the Bronx again. But fleeing never gave him the distance he sought. He carried the past locked tight inside him. There were no pictures, just stories that painted everyone, except his sainted father and beautiful sister, as demons. As a child, I was curious about his family. Who were they? Did I look like them? The unanswered questions plagued me. Cutting ties with my own mother had been an act of rage, desperation and self-preservation. Seeing her again would be an act of love—for my daughter.

My father never gave me the choice to know his family. But choices are power, and Aria would have it. She would not spend her life tiptoeing around the past. She would know our history, even if the path traversed shadows.

I was pregnant a third time when my mother and I met again at a playground in San Francisco. The children complained during the forty-minute drive, but I would not meet my mother in Oakland. It was important to me that we keep a bay between us. Seven years had passed, but she looked immeasurably older. She was obese, stooped, with deep furrows in her brow. Her hair was an unnatural shade of orange that clashed with her yellowing skin. It pained me to look at her.

“I am your grandma,” she announced, before demanding hugs from her grandchildren. My son, ever the pleaser, acquiesced, but Aria refused. She simply met my mother’s eyes, shook her head and walked off.

“That one’s a handful,” said my mother.

“Like me,” I replied.

We sat there side-by-side for a long while, silently watching the children play, my past and present coming together again.

We met sporadically after that, always in public places and never for more than two hours. She bought the children Christmas presents and I texted photos of their smiling faces. She called to make idle chitchat and sometimes I answered the phone.

Recently, I baked a quesadilla for my mother’s birthday. It is a homely Salvadoran cake made of Parmesan, sour cream and rice flour, the top freckled with sesame seeds. Let’s just say, it’s no churro. Still, I think she liked it. I can only speculate because she is not prone to smiles or praise.  It is a tendency, along with my father’s temper, that I battle.

“There is something I’ve been wanting to ask you,” she said.

“What is it?” I replied, curious.

“Why did you stop talking to us for all those years?” Embedded in her question was one of the very reasons—she viewed herself and my father as one, never “I” but “us.” She had stayed married to him for more than half her life. When he died, she canonized him in her mind.

I answered my mother the only way I knew how. “I know we have differing opinions on the past. I feel dad was abusive. I could never forgive him for it. I feel you should have protected me. I could never forgive you for that.”

“Oh,” replied my mother.

Once upon a time, her response would have sent me spinning, back when I still held out hope of apologies and Sunday teas. But that dream exists in a world where monsters abound and darkness is sanctuary. Now maternal has a new meaning.

This past Halloween, Aria decided we would both dress up as tigers. Her father wanted in on the act and declared himself ringmaster.

Aria shook her head. “No, daddy. Mama and I are not circus tigers. We are free tigers.”

Free indeed. And together, we make our way.

Author’s Note: Aria is putting her spunk and loveliness to good use as an actress, but there are certain perils involved when you mix a bouncy six-year-old and a curling iron. Last week, I singed her forehead.  Racked with guilt and regret, I tearfully apologized. Aria touched my cheek. “You’re my mama,” she said. “I’d forgive you anything.” I am working toward the day when I might feel the same way.

Alicia Chadbourne is a writer, actress and mother of three from Oakland, California.




WO Scream Art

“NOOOOOOOO!!!” My oldest daughter screamed as loud as she could. She was the third one to yell at the dinner table.

First was my 4-year-old daughter. Then me. Then my oldest daughter. Then my 9-year-old son. And finally, my husband.

After each scream we cheered. Big, real cheers. Around the table. Half-eaten plates in front of us, darkness outside, the baby in his high chair. He wasn’t used to all that noise. I wonder what he thought.

“Let’s do it again!” We all took turns, louder and louder, wilder and wilder. If you walked by our house that evening you might have pounded on the door, worried, asking, “Is everything okay in there?”

“Not really.” I would have answered, if answering honestly.

When my husband screamed, I felt uncomfortable, even a little scared. His was a roar that echoed from the depths of him, from a part we know exists but see rarely, the frightening, intimidating rage of a father whose child had been harmed.

Mine, perhaps, cracked as it passed my lips.

Not because my rage was less than his. Rather mine had come already.

It had come in waves, pushing to destroy, annihilate, torture. It wanted to burn, break, kill. My screams had already moved into the air, into nothing.

I did it when nobody was around, a couple times while driving alone—the few moments I had alone—screaming out loud, envisioning what I’d do to the trash who had hurt my daughter, if I could, and if he weren’t a child himself, one who’d spent his first years in foster homes, unattached, broken, disturbed, dangerous, old enough to know better, manipulative, terrifying, with parents who preferred the depths of sand over actual air.


The one I’m in now. The one I didn’t ask for. The one created by two hours at a house with a sick child, and a powerless one, mine. Mine was the powerless one. By trust in parents who didn’t deserve it. By “friends” who came in the back door, quickly, casually, quietly, with a smile that overwhelmed my mother’s instinct.

“You must empower her. Her agency was removed. She needs to have her power rebuilt.”

So we yell, loud. We scream. We wail. We throw our hands out and kick. She beat the shit out of a giant stuffed puppy in her therapist’s office. Then she stood up triumphantly and declared, “He’s dead.”

We sat silently as she walked over to the dollhouse, to play again.

Later, she pulled the puppy up and said, “He’s not dead anymore.”

I felt sad. I wanted him to bleed forever there on the soft carpet.


I don’t want to teach her to protect herself. I don’t want that to be her reality. I don’t want her to know that people who are stronger can do things to her if they please.

I want the puppy dead. And her, I want her to not even notice.

I want to go back to a month ago when she didn’t even notice. When there wasn’t even a puppy to decimate.

When I told the other kids, they banded together in support of you, their little sister. When I told the older kids, they too were launched unwillingly here. We don’t keep secrets in this family and we can’t be separated because the assault was on one body. It was on us all.

A friend said we are a soft place to land, this home. Our house. The people in it.

Come in, child, we have you.

Your older sister reads you stories on the floor more than she used to. Your brother plays games with you and lets you win sometimes, or overlooks your cheating, even though he’s young enough that it’s still hard for him. And at dinner, oh, at dinner, the thousand times we’ve sat together, meaninglessly, and talked, fought, chatted, flailed, we fight over who gets to sit by you.

You smile. Laugh. Throw your head back.

Your dad and I probably have tears in our eyes. We glance at each other, at each child, but mostly at you these days. You were stolen from us, for mere moments. You were taken and changed against our knowing. Our greatest fear and agony was that your spirit would break, that you would change somehow (your light, your power, your joy), move beyond the reach of the arms we thought were long enough, just inches beyond our fingers. You were torn from the fabric of our bodies and minds and left alone in a room for mere moments with evil. But that was all it needed.

It is not the evil you suspect. It is the evil you refuse to suspect.

We can only bring you home.

We can only sit here and scream in unison on your behalf and watch your eyes light up at the power of our sound. We can only scream the wails of a hundred thousand hurt children today, yesterday. One of our own. You. The scream crushed and crawling half-dead across the floor, bleeding and pathetic and hopeless, wracked with the knowledge of powerlessness, of children just out of reach, of our own baby’s body violated.

But the scream of the power of moving on, up, forward, tiny fists held in the air, triumphant and shaking, unruly blonde locks held in the hands of a brother, sister, mother, father and the ever-widening circle of people beneath you, around you, holding, cradling and rocking you, as you fall softly, kick, scream, wail and rise again.

Note: The author of this piece prefers to stay anonymous.

A Predator In The House

A Predator In The House

computer_2738337bBy Elizabeth Cohen

He was our friend.

We went out to eat, to the movies. We traipsed around our little town together. We talked several times a week on the phone. We texted back and forth about this and that and nothing at all. We laughed about the same things. We were on the same page politically. He hated gossips. He was mad about cuts in social services. He loved Shakespeare. He was appalled by the idea of fracking.

I will call him Tim.

Tim and I did each other favors. When my ceiling sprouted a slow leak in the shape of Australia, Tim came to the rescue with a sander, spackle, drywall and tape. When his car was being fixed, I lent him mine. He housesat for us and fed our cats when we were away. We lent him a little money when he was between jobs. He paid it back. We ate a lot of Chinese food.

When I say “we,” I am talking about my 15-year-old daughter, Ava, and I. Tim was a local drama instructor and Ava took every class he offered. She played the lead roles in plays and short films he directed and learned the nursemaid’s monologue from “Romeo and Juliet,” which she performed with such passion my heart plomp-plomped in my chest and landed somewhere in my throat.

She was nuts about him, asked him for advice and accepted it when he gave it. She thought of him as a father. Her own father is far away and sick, waiting for a heart transplant, and had not given her as much attention in years as Tim did in a single day. Tim played stand in.

Families in our community signed up their daughters for classes he taught in babysitting at the Red Cross. When Ava completed the course, she received an official certificate and a card she could put in her wallet. “I am ready to work now, Mama,” she told me proudly.

Once, I let Tim take her along with another girl for a day in Burlington, Vermont, as a reward for their hard work on a particular play. They went out to eat and to an amusement park.

I want to say here that it wasn’t just Ava and I who loved Tim, it was our whole town. You might say he was considered something of a small town cultural treasure. Like a spring that has healthy and delicious water, we discussed his presence as fortuitous, lucky. We felt sorry for other towns that had nobody like him.

But then came a warning, a text to me from another mother, stating that Tim “wasn’t what he seemed.” She couldn’t tell me the origin of the information or even the details, but it was bad, she said, “really bad.” She was pulling her daughter out of Tim’s acting class and said, “I suggest you do, too.”

I went on the defensive. The unfairness! The audacity! This was the kind of gossip that could destroy lives! With a cadre of a few other moms, I fought back, defending Tim to anyone who would listen.

Then I confronted Tim. Did he know about these rumors? Was he worried or concerned? He shook his head. “Whenever you do good things or are good at something, people get jealous,” he told me. “There’s always a backlash.”

Indeed there is, I thought. History is full of examples of talented, beautiful people taken down by innuendo. And although whispers were flying about Tim, they were vague. I thought of the words of the King James Bible: And withal they learn to be idle, wandering from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not.

In the midst of this firestorm, Ava and I packed up suddenly to leave town and travel out west to help care for her father, who had by this time become extremely ill, his sick heart failing. We decided that Ava would attend the high school there and I would help out with his care as best I could, changing out oxygen canisters, shopping, cooking, making glass after glass of fresh veggie juice, hoping that the blood of beets, mixed with apple, ginger and celery might contain just the right curative properties. We knew that time was running out and we were going to make the most of it.

My husband, Shane, and I had lived apart for years, he preferring the west and I employed and active in the east. Now his illness was forcing us all back together. It was a deeply emotional time for our family, which had been limping along for years. We brought minimal belongings and Ava’s cat Carder, of course, her best friend, who seemed skittish and rattled by the long journey. Carder’s mood mirrored our own. We were nervous all the time, wondering what fresh blast of bad news each day would bring. I put Tim and the controversy surrounding him out of my mind.

While Shane and I watched back to back episodes of “Game of Thrones”—a show so violent and brutal it could make you forget, for fifty-minute intervals at least, that you were dying—Ava stayed in her room posting updates on Facebook and occasionally texting Tim with news of her days. He would write back with advice (“love your father as best you can, while you can”; “don’t do drugs”).

By the end of the summer, we had to return home; my job was in jeopardy if we stayed away longer and Shane was being moved to the Mayo Clinic where he would wait for a heart. I charted our course across the country along Route 66. No diversions, no time for exploring or vacation fun. I knew if I stayed on this one straight road I would not get lost and Ava and I could find lodging and food along the interstate. Three highways would bring us home, much of it through flat brown expanses that melded with the horizon like a single seam in a shirt.

The world was changing—I couldn’t help but notice. The chugging oil wells from my childhood vacations, softly yet constantly pumping up crude, had been replaced with wind turbines, silent sentries twirling en masse. But it was in Tennessee, where the flatness broke down into gentle valleys and hills and the pervasive brown melted into green, that our lives would change, in a tectonic way, no less monumental it seemed than the larger world’s shifts.

A text came in with a soft ding as Ava and I walked into a Waffle House. Every town seemed blessed with these small, squat waffle manufactories that promised buttery, crunchy distraction from the miles and eating at one had become a priority for Ava since we had seen the first one somewhere in Texas.

“Maybe they’ll have strawberry or blueberry,” Ava said hopefully as we walked to the counter. “Or chocolate!”

The Waffle House of our choosing, a plain rectangular building that smelled of grease trap and mud-caked boots, the friendly chatter pierced by the buzz of flies, had neither chocolate, strawberry nor blueberry, only plain waffles served in plain rectangles. I placed my phone on the counter and we ordered. Whatever missive was there could wait, I thought, and I had a foreboding feeling about it. Had something happened to Shane? Is this how people find out someone has died?

When we got back into the car, I flipped open the screen to read it.

“Tim arrested,” it read. “Child pornography.”

It was from my friend at home, the other mother, the one who had warned me many months before. Attached was a copy of the FBI report. I clicked and read on.

FBI? Pornography? My tongue, still thick with the taste of bad waffles, throbbed as my brain sizzled with shock.

“What is it?” Ava asked. “Why are we stopping? Is Dad O.K.?”

She pulled Carder to her chest, her practice whenever she was really scared or upset about something.

“Dad’s fine,” I said. “It’s Tim.”

“What about Tim? Is he O.K.?”

“Not really, I said. “He’s been arrested.”

“For what?” she asked.

For what.

I read the report silently to myself. “Read it to me, read me what it says,” she insisted. And then I decided. It was a split-second decision, instinct really. She was fifteen. She was no longer a little kid. And this was something in her life, too. In her life big time. So I read her the affidavit. And as I did I could see her begin to tremble. And then shiver all over. And then I realized, despite the hot August sun pounding down on us on the side of the road, I was shivering, too.

Tim had been caught, red-handed, with a child, and on his phone was an image of the child he had uploaded and traded with other child pornographers in exchange for photos of other children in all sorts of poses, naked, doing unspeakable things. The picture on Tim’s phone was of the child’s vagina in clearly manipulated poses. I realized he had to have touched her in ways no man should ever touch a child. The trembling which became the shivering had become a full scale shaking. The hand holding the phone seemed to be under the influence of a beam of electrical current. My stomach lurched and I felt a sudden desire to throw up as I continued to read aloud.

Tim had an online moniker—I will call it here “TTTREAT”—and using it he had hung around in a chat room of incest aficionados pretending to be this child’s brother. But there had been a sting and he had been caught. As I read I saw Ava sort of cave over Carder, collapse in on her, and then, after several minutes she spoke.

“Mom,” she said, “I have something to tell you.”

I looked at her. She was clicking away on her cell phone, looking for something. Then she found the thing she was looking for. Some months earlier, she told me, she had received texts from a kid at her school, who used the name, I shall say here, “TTNEAT.” And this kid had told her he “had dirt on her,” pictures of her with her first boyfriend. He threatened to upload these pictures on Instagram, send them around via Snapchat and Twitter, perhaps, or maybe write things about her on Facebook if she didn’t send him some pictures of herself. Her reputation and personhood would be destroyed in our small town.

“Mom, I think it might have been from him,” she said, disbelieving. We looked at one another. We could no longer say his name; Tim had become a nameless being, someone whose name could wield evil just by saying it.

“But you didn’t do it…you didn’t do it.. you didn’t do it, you didn’t send…” I couldn’t finish the sentence.

Silence. Shaking hands. More clicking on her phone.

“I did, Mama,” she said, now fully buried in Carder. But the picture she sent wasn’t what he wanted, because in it she was wearing underwear. He became angry. She read me all the texts from “TTNEAT, and as she did, we both began to cry. To cry and shake and cry and bend over, she into her cat and me into the steering wheel. “Oh honey, oh honey,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me about this?”

“I thought it was some weird kid at my school,” she said.

And then: “I thought you would get mad.”

For a long time we were silent, sitting by the road side. Then my hand crept toward hers, and hers toward mine. And we just sat there, off I-66, in the shadow of the Waffle House, our hands entwined in the horror of the deception. In the sadness of what had come between us and no doubt scared her beyond speech, beyond telling. And now had become even more horrible. The lie that had revealed the truth.

“I love you,” I whispered, “and nothing you ever do will ever change that.”

“I love you, too, Mama,” she said.


A month later I sat, shaking again, in a chair at the office of the local FBI agents in my town, facing two grown men in suits.

“Grooming is what predators do,” the lead agent on Tim’s case was telling me. “They take their time, moving slowly into your life to achieve your trust. They will wait a long time to get what they want.”

It was so hard to grasp, that Tim wasn’t really our friend at all. He wasn’t a drama teacher or a certifier of babysitters at the Red Cross. He wasn’t a man who took care of cats, fixed ceiling leaks, ate Chinese food. That was all a mirage, a ghost image of who he really was. He was a shapeshifter. A thief of images of children, a seller of innocence. And he was the thief of my daughter’s heart. In the aftermath of his arrest, Ava retreated into a silence so deafening I could hear it beat. It had a pulse, like another living thing in our house. This silence.

If the FBI were right, and I had to gather they were—though there was a small part of me that still wanted to protest, “You have the wrong man!”—Tim had been after my daughter. Mine and everyone else’s. And we single mothers, or women without our daughter’s fathers in our homes, were his chief hunting grounds. He saw us as vulnerable, demilitarized countries where his evil intentions could go unchecked. And he was right. We were vulnerable. I was. I had made him chicken dinners with homemade mashed potatoes—lumpy, with extra garlic, the way he liked them.

The things he did shocked and appalled our whole community. We were all damaged. In early September, one month after his arrest, we had a parent’s meeting in the tall grass behind the Unitarian Church in our town, where we compared notes and talked about what had happened. A few people cried. Everyone seemed horrified. And once we compared and contrasted our myriad “Tims,” we came to see, in the light of day, with cicadas buzzing and a breeze tapping about the tree branches, that Tim was not Tim. And somehow, we were not us anymore. We were a different us. A stained and wiser us.

As for Ava, she seemed to harden somehow, as if the soft candy in the double boiler of her childhood had been removed from heat and was stiffening. One day, I noticed she had moved her American Girl Dolls outside her room. They lay side by side in their homemade beds, the covers pulled up to their chins. I stopped in my tracks. She was fifteen after all, it was probably time. But the way they lay there, their glass eyes staring at the ceiling, arms by their sides, seemed to make a statement about the exile of innocence.

My grief and shock slowly transformed into rage and guilt. How had I let this happen? What had made me trust Tim and even defend him when the rumors began to emerge? Was I also guilty here? I thought about the way he had tiptoed into our lives. A class party, a trip to the local pool, activities for kids in his drama program, a “premiere” at a real theater for the homemade films from his film class. He had been so nice and caring and after years of single motherhood and a husband who remained far away by choice, whose health was collapsing, I was hungry for it. I realized I carried some responsibility here as well. I had wanted our little family to have support, to have another leg. That leg, in the end, was not a leg. It was a hand holding a camera, waiting to snap pictures.


Postscript: Today, Tim awaits sentencing at a Federal prison in New York State. He faces eleven counts of the production of child pornography and one count of possession of child pornography. The texts he sent to Ava, using blackmail to get her to send more images, may become an additional charge. For each charge he faces up to ten years.

Elizabeth Cohen is an assistant professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh. She is the author of the memoir The Family on Beartown Road and the short story collection The Hypothetical Girl, among other books.