Very Bad Thoughts

A pedophile who labors to keep his desire to rape little boys a figment of his imagination admits he's a walking time bomb

It happened one afternoon when he was assigned to paint the hull of a ship, and was dangling over the bow in a harness. Suddenly, he says, a flood of memories came rushing back to him. He was hauled back onto the deck raving and crying. Derek was hospitalized, and treated for dysthymic and schizoid personality disorder, and later honorably discharged for medical reasons.

"I got a call on the phone when he was in the Navy," his mother says in a fragile voice, recalling when she first discovered that Derek had been raped. "His psychiatrist told me very specifically what had happened to him, and it hit me so hard it almost broke my ribs."

A couple of years after he was discharged, Derek entered into therapy and successfully sued the school district where his abuse had occurred. In a landmark move that was prompted by his suit, the Minnesota state government amended the wording of the law on the statute of limitations for civil cases involving abuse of children to read six years after the abuse was discovered, rather than six years after the abuse occurred. Derek's case was allowed to benefit from this change retroactively.

Jonathan Weiner
Jonathan Weiner

His was one of the first cases in a wave of repressed-memory lawsuits that made the rounds of talk shows in the mid-'80s. Derek did, as well, speaking to the print media, before the state legislature, and appearing on several talk shows advocating for the rights of abuse victims.

But advocacy took a back seat to getting his life back on track. He had trouble holding a job, depression moved in, he threatened suicide four times and he was hospitalized for depression twice during the years his lawsuit dragged on.

Notes from his psychological records during and after the suit show frustration and often desperation as Derek tried to come to terms with the compulsions that haunt him. In December 1988, his psychologist wrote: "He said that he thinks about acting out sexually at least six hours a day and that the only thing that keeps him from doing so is his sense that he would go to hell."

Derek was walking a tightrope, and stumbled often in the early days. He coached Peewee hockey for a while, and although he insists he was never aroused by the 12- to 14-year-old boys in his care, a therapist finally persuaded him to give that up. He even went so far as to target a victim 16 years ago. He planned his approach meticulously, and eventually made contact with the boy. "I couldn't go through with it, though," Derek says, "and I checked myself into a hospital."

Therapy has helped him over the years, and he had experimented with a variety of approaches to treatment. Often the only option available was group therapy with convicted sex offenders, whose inability to resist angered him. One therapist urged him to embrace his pedophilia privately and indulge in fantasies while masturbating, just not to ever act on them. Derek says he soon grew too disgusted to continue. (Today, he combines cognitive behavioral therapy, which works much like a 12-step program, with aversion therapy designed to recondition his sex drive.)

Morally, he says, "that just seemed wrong to me. Pedophilia is wrong."

In December 1991, another psychiatrist wrote: "He said he has made what is, in effect, an anatomically correct dummy as a substitute for the boys that he can't have. He has remodeled it several times, and now it has assumed the role of a real person. He named it Matt after the son of a hockey coach he found attractive. He has bought clothes for this dummy and has quite a wardrobe. He sleeps with it, hugs it, comforts it and has it hug him. Occasionally he does 'stuff' to it."

Derek says, "Looking back, I guess I've come a long way since then." He says he no longer has "Matt," or scrapbooks. He had an extensive collection of pornographic novels featuring children that he purchased from European publishers, but he vows that they are gone now, too.

For one thing, he's afraid of getting caught. Raping a boy in a mall could net him a sentence of life in prison, and any sexual-assault conviction involving children would mean at least five years behind bars, followed by strict probation monitored by plethysmographs (sensors that measure blood flow to the penis in reaction to specific visual stimuli) and lie-detector tests, and registration as a sex offender for life.

But the way things are going these days, says Derek, thoughts may be enough to convict a person preemptively. In Ohio, Brian Dalton, who had been convicted of downloading child pornography in 1998, was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2001 after his mother turned over his diary to police. The diary documented Dalton's fantasies of locking young girls in cages and raping them.

Derek calls this a "Thoughtcrime." He wrote in his letter to McCain, "I live in constant fear of the day that, like in Orwell's 1984, the government will come for me merely because of the mental illness I have."

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