Very Bad Thoughts

Jonathan Weiner

Derek doesn't like to let his mind wander he's been fighting his thoughts for nearly two decades yet it wanders every day. Usually he can hold off his reflections until he's safely alone in his room with the door shut. That's when the darkness seeps in, sexual arousal triumphs over morality and he can at last be alone with young boys, if only in his head. When it happens, this is where his fantasies take him:

It's a typical Saturday afternoon. Parents and children swarm the mall shopping for running shoes, or pencil boxes, or taking in a movie. The air swirls with chirpy conversation as smells of corn dogs mingle with perfume samples from the department store.

Derek, six-feet-plus and 300 pounds, lurks in the background, watching and waiting under the artificial shade of a potted ficus. His features are soft handsome even and surprisingly unfettered by the extra weight he carries. He looks harmless, like the geeky uncle who prefers chess to Nintendo and answers your science questions in way too much detail. He might as well be invisible.

Not far from where he waits, a mother lingers too long in a dress shop, and her 10-year-old son is bored. Fair-skinned and blue-eyed, the boy is still dressed in his Cub Scout uniform, a red neckerchief carefully tied at his throat.

Derek spots him immediately and feels his pulse and breathing quicken as he identifies his target. He watches the boy with a steadfast gaze, a film reel of scenarios flickering in his head. Dark thoughts of rape and violence superimpose themselves over the boy, who bends down to double-knot his shoes.

The restless youth straightens up, paces and yawns, then announces to his distracted mother that he needs to use the rest room and saunters off to the public facilities down the mall. He pauses for a moment in front of a toy store to examine the window display, proudly straightening the knot on his neckerchief as he catches his reflection in the glass.

Derek is close behind, toying with the length of rope he has stashed in his pocket. The way the fibers feel rough one way and smooth the other under his large fingers arouses him, and he strokes the rope a little faster. He begins to sweat.

Derek closes the distance between them as the boy nears the rest room and follows him inside.

Alone, the brutal ritual begins. Derek grabs the startled child and quickly binds his hands behind his back with the white clothesline he has brought for just this purpose. The boy is afraid, and his fear only adds to Derek's thrill.

The boy begins to cry as Derek tears off his blue Cub Scout pants and white cotton briefs, forcing him to his knees. Derek opens his fly angrily and shoves his penis into the boy's quivering mouth. The boy struggles and gags for a few minutes, but Derek is not yet satisfied. He pulls his penis out of the child's mouth, flips him over onto the cold tile of the rest-room floor and anally rapes him, driving himself in a furious rhythm punctuated by the child's muffled screams.

Other fantasies might be at a school bus stop, or in a movie theater, or at a Little League game. Though the settings change, the end result is always the violent rape of a young boy.

Such reflections of sexually molesting children have assaulted Derek's mind for years, yet these dark urges thoughts that at once arouse and disgust him remain just that.

Derek says he has never acted upon his urges.

He's never raped a boy in a shopping mall, or anywhere else for that matter. But a part of him wants to.

What keeps him from harming children is his own resolve bolstered by a support system of weekly therapy sessions that he fears he will soon be forced to abandon. His money is running out, he says, and as it dwindles, so do his hopes of successfully repressing his urges although he swears he'd sooner put a bullet in his head than perpetuate the cycle.

Pedophilia is a condition Derek likens to cancer, a death sentence imposed on him when he was a 10-year-old Cub Scout, like the boys that inhabit his fantasies. "With [pedophilia] you know how you are going to die," he says, making his hand into a pistol and pulling the imaginary trigger at his temple.

"I mean, really, can you imagine living like this?"

Derek sits at a sidewalk cafe in central Phoenix and talks in hushed tones about the price of living responsibly with pedophilia. It has cost him a small fortune in therapy sessions. It has cost him friends, careers, the possibility of ever having a family.  

His social life is virtually nonexistent. Working the night shift from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. as a truck driver, Derek follows a schedule that, by design, has him out on the streets at hours when most children are safely tucked into bed. His is a life more safely led in shadows.

In conversation, Derek is pleasantly analytical. Having grown up surrounded by encyclopedias instead of friends, he's awkward socially, more comfortable with logic than emotions. He says he's smart enough to belong to MENSA. His attempts at humor seem well-rehearsed. He says he's a pro-choice Mormon, "which, next to being a pedophile and a Mormon, has got to be one of the hardest things."

He carries his ACLU membership card proudly in his wallet, and a stash of emergency ammonia capsules in the glove compartment of his car. The capsules are part of his aversion therapy, he explains. He'll pop one and smell the acrid fumes should he find himself unexpectedly aroused by a child. "That's where therapy is at for people like me these days," he says.

He doesn't go to the mall or to the movies anymore. He avoids parks. He has mapped out the schools in the areas he frequents and says he doesn't drive down those streets if he can help it. "If I stumble upon a school I wasn't aware of, it just hits me. I panic. I could drive by and target 10 or 15 kids in an instant." He knows where to find children if he wants them. "It would be so easy," he says, "so easy for me to do something. People don't watch their kids." Certainly not as closely as Derek does.

He takes another sip of his coffee and leans forward with measured satisfaction at his own heightened sense of awareness. "You know, three kids have walked by while we've been talking, and you haven't even noticed." He seems proud of himself, smug even. He wears his pedophilia and his success at resisting it like a perverse merit badge.

Psychiatrists concur that although pedophilia can be controlled through therapy, it can never be cured. Derek has long since resigned himself to his disorder because he has no choice. But he wishes there were more social structures in place to encourage and aid pedophiles as they seek treatment, before they harm children. He admits he's a walking time bomb. "It's just a matter of time, really, before I get tired of fighting this. People need to realize that there are many, many of us out there, and we're not going away." Pedophilia, he says, is treated more like the Scarlet Letter of modern society than a pressing public health problem.

"We do nothing to prevent child abuse. You have to treat the cause, not just the end result. All these laws are only good if someone gets hurt, and then it's too late."

Derek would like to see pedophilia protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, mainly so he could file an insurance claim for his $120-a-week therapy sessions without fear of losing his job. He's been writing letters to Senator John McCain, the ACLU and the National Association of the Mentally Ill trying to drum up support since last fall.

(McCain, he says, has never responded. The ACLU and NAMI both informed him that the language of the ADA is specific in its exclusion of sexual deviancies it also excludes transvestitism, voyeurism, bestiality and sadomasochism and wished him well.)

Despite rejections, Derek would like to see help for the families of pedophiles; he'd like to see hot lines where those contemplating abusing a child can call for support without fear of arrest. But getting someone to listen to a man who dreams of raping children is nearly impossible.

Pedophilia, he points out, is a disorder he did not choose. The sexual abuse of a child is a crime he chooses not to commit. Child molesters and pedophiles are not necessarily one and the same. He is not a criminal, he says, and wishes he weren't treated like one preemptively.

"Homosexuality was treated like an illness until the '80s," he points out. "I would hope that [pedophilia] can be accepted the way homosexuality is now accepted."

Derek is a pedophile, and he's also a victim. He lives not only with the fear of what he might do to others, but must still contend with the anxiety that besieged him as a 10-year-old boy. Even today, at 37, he's afraid his molester will find him and make good on his promise to kill him if he ever speaks out. Even this story will have him looking over his shoulder.  

Derek says his life turned dark on a blustery mid-October day in fifth grade. He had missed the bus home. He had a Cub Scout meeting later that afternoon and was debating whether he had time to walk the mile or so back to his house and retrieve his forgotten neckerchief when his teacher walked out of the building and asked Derek if he would like a ride home.

Derek climbed into the teacher's car. He remembers that conversation was minimal, and then the teacher asked him if he would like to go see the house he was having built. Derek said no, preoccupied with scouts and the neckerchief, but the teacher took him there anyway.

The teacher was a sullen man Derek would have otherwise remembered mostly for his volatile temper, straight black hair and the tacky plaid pants he fancied. When they pulled up to the building site, the teacher coaxed Derek out of the car, promising him it would be fun. They approached the shell of a house together and entered through the makeshift doorway.

"Once we got inside, his whole demeanor changed. He made me take off my shirt, tied my hands behind my back with some clothesline and tied me to a post. He pulled down my pants, pushed me to my knees, grabbed my hair and said open up."

Derek gagged on the teacher's penis, and vomited a little on his pants leg. At that point, the teacher turned him over and raped him for 20 minutes, then set him free with a warning. "He said, if I told anyone, he'd kill my family and burn down my house."

Derek went home and wet the bed that night for the first time since he was a toddler, as he would do most every night for the next two years. He told no one about the rape, and he would keep silent for eight more years.

"The next morning, [the teacher] almost acted like nothing had happened," Derek recalls. "He didn't pick on me as much anymore. Instead he patted me on the back. He became nicer in a weird way."

A few days later, though, Derek remembers that he was summoned into the teacher's storage room to help retrieve some workbooks. It was a glorified closet, brick walls with white speckled tile and a lingering smell of mimeograph ink. "He locked the door and told me to get down on my knees, opened my pants and forced me to perform oral sex on him. A few minutes passed, he didn't finish, then he asked me to carry some boxes full of notebooks back to the classroom with him."

The abuse continued through the spring, Derek says. Over time, Derek admits, some of the experiences became pleasurable to him a young boy's introduction to sex forever linked to violence.

"Have you ever seen somebody so enraged, so furious, that you are actually afraid of them? That's what made him do it, I think. He was angrier than anything else, and I just happened to be around to take his anger out on."

The effect on Derek was marked. Seemingly overnight, his parents say, he withdrew from everything. "We lost a loving, hugging, smiling child, and it devastated us, and we didn't know what to do," his mother says, tearfully.

Derek's mother and father are sitting tensely at the kitchen table in their Mesa home, where Derek lives with them in a gated, adult community. She flips open a worn photo album and walks her fingers through the pages of her son's life. She pauses with a pained expression as a diapered Derek smiles out from under his father's too large policeman's cap, then continues to Derek's fifth-grade class picture taken shortly after he was raped.

"Here you can see it, look. He has a completely different expression. In his eyes there was no more light, just hurt."

She closes the book angrily. "He looked like he'd lost his soul."

What happened to Derek that day in 1975 had an effect on the entire family. Derek's younger brother is estranged from him after finding a closet full of clippings from department-store catalogues showing boys in briefs pasted into scrapbooks, and pairs of young boys' underwear.

"He called me every name in the book," Derek says.

Derek's parents are still caring for a child that by all rights should have been on his own 20 years ago.

"The actions of one person have disrupted four lives," Derek's mother says. "It means the loss of your kid and all [his] future prospects; it prevents the child from realizing [his] full potential.

"He lives with torture every day, and so do we," she continues. "They should have a village for them, where the guys can all live together and nobody bothers them."  

She says she is proud of her son for not hurting anyone, and is confident that one day he will be cured. But her anger at what she has lost consumes her. "I think they should kill child molesters and burn their bodies," she spits. "I know that's a horrible thing to say, but it's how I feel."

Her anger is, in part, with herself for not only her inability to prevent what happened to her son, but not recognizing the signs. In those days, kids roamed their neighborhoods fearlessly, she says. The biggest danger a park presented should have been a skinned knee. "He had nightmares where he was kicking the walls and screaming, three to four times a night. I had no idea what was happening."

And Derek wasn't telling.

Derek says he developed traumatic amnesia, blocking the events of that fifth-grade year out of his mind. "I was aware that something bad had happened, but I didn't know what."

In junior high and high school, his weight increased and his sexuality began to demonstrate itself in ways that Derek says he couldn't understand. In ninth grade he became sexually obsessed with a 10-year-old neighbor boy. They wrestled together and Derek became aroused. Derek crept into the neighbor's room and stole his underwear, which he would use as a masturbation prop.

Derek joined the Navy after high school and served from January 1984 through March 1986. His nightmares returned with a vengeance, and the initial thoughts of molesting young boys began creeping into his dreams, then dominating his waking fantasies. In December 1985, he was playing miniature golf and found himself fixated on a young boy, entertaining thoughts of tying him up and raping him. The disgust he felt was matched by his arousal. Soon, the turmoil in his mind would break him.

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.

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."

Derek says he regularly reports any child pornography he comes across to law enforcement agencies. (Viewing or possessing child pornography is considered sexual exploitation of a minor and a Class 2 felony. Like other sexual offenses in Arizona, conviction carries with it a sentence of five years to life.)

Instead, he relies on therapeutic devices, such as the ammonia capsules and an "intimacy script" a written recipe for what a proper, healthy, adult sexual relationship entails that he developed in conjunction with his therapist. Although the intimacy script can't compete with the power of his deviant script, as much as he'd like it to, he'll try everything he can to keep himself in line.

However, therapy will soon be out of his reach financially, and he'll be left to fight his inner battles alone.

The prospect is bleak that any politician or activist group will advocate to expand the rights of pedophiles, Derek concedes.

Dr. Fred Berlin agrees. Berlin is a psychiatrist and leading expert on pedophilia and one of the founders of the National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Disorders at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Society, Berlin says, would sooner banish pedophiles from our midst than address the root of what he calls a serious public health problem. "There's a whole part of this story that we as a society haven't stopped to think about because of all the passion and angst about children being harmed."

Berlin compares the current pariah status of pedophiles to what alcoholics went through pre-Betty Ford. "People make moral judgments," he says. "But there are people who are beginning to try to see these [pedophiles] as human beings who, if afforded help, will come out and get it."

Pedophilia is a recognized psychological disorder, he says, and not a lifestyle choice. "It's not present because someone decided this was how they wanted to be. None of us as children sit around thinking that when we grow up we want to be a pedophile. No one would decide to grow up and be attracted to children."

Research into pedophilia's cause is inconclusive. Whether sexually deviant behavior is present from birth or a product of environmental factors is unknown. Berlin concedes it is probably a combination of both. "Being a boy who was sexually abused certainly is a risk factor, not that most abused boys will become pedophiles," Berlin says. "It's like smoking. Most smokers don't get lung cancer, but many do. A very significant number of adults with pedophilia were damaged as children."  

Berlin says pedophilia can be managed, though not cured. He does not advocate the use of ammonia capsules or other attempts at reconditioning sexual response. Instead, he suggests cognitive behavioral techniques. "Like a drug addict or an alcoholic," he says, "we try to identify what their triggers are and what strategies to put into place so they can remain in control." Berlin says he tries to emphasize the difference between having a thought and acting on it, and encourages his patients to be "proud of maintaining proper controls."

For those patients for whom therapy is not enough, there is the option of chemical castration to lower the sex drive. Berlin prescribes androgen therapy, injections of what he calls "sexual appetite suppressants," such as Depo Provera (also used for birth control in women), which decreases testosterone levels.

Berlin's success rate is impressive. In a five-year study conducted on 600 sex offenders treated at his clinic, the recidivism rate was less than 8 percent. But before things can change, a sympathetic human face will have to be put on the vilified disorder. Finding an appropriate representative, a Betty Ford of pedophiles to soften views, is a difficult task in an age when everyone from priests to pop stars can't seem to keep their hands off children.

Lester Welch, a former patient of Berlin's, is one of the few who has been willing to speak out in his own name on the subject of pedophilia. He will be featured on Fox News' Pulse news magazine in a special next month regarding Megan's Law, which requires sex offenders to register with local law enforcement when moving into a new community.

At 62, Welch is a retired nuclear physicist who is comfortable financially and has retained the support of his family through his arrest, incarceration and rehabilitation. "I have relatively little to lose," he says. He hopes to make a "positive impact" by speaking out.

But even his appearance of respectability belies a chilling undercurrent of deviancy. His frank descriptions of the seduction of girls he met when they were 1 and 5 years old as well as his subtle implication that his victims sought molestation is unsettling.

Welch was arrested in October 1997 for fondling two young girls, ages 5 and 9. He served 17 months in prison and is on probation. "I'm not a pedophile," he's quick to claim. "I'm a human who yielded to temptation."

Welch says he first met the girls through volunteer work, befriending them and their foster family. The friendship grew to the point where Welch would watch the girls while the rest of the family was in therapy.

He says he began fondling the girls four years after he met them.

"It was my job to get the girls ready for bed," he explains, "and I noticed I was becoming sexually interested, having sexual thoughts." Welch soon sought the advice of a therapist. "I wanted to see if this was a problem or not." Welch says the therapist was cautionary. "'Stop right there. You can tell me things that will make me have to go to Child Protective Services,' the therapist told me. That's as far as I got. We've created a situation in our society where, if you want to seek help, you have to be very careful about what you say."

He thought, he says now, that this was a problem he could handle himself. It wasn't, and he describes the subtle progression. "First you put your hand on their knee, so next time you put your hand on their thigh, then a little higher on the thigh. It's easy to think that by placing your hand on their thigh you haven't done anything wrong, but you've taken the next step."

His victims, he claims, were easily seduced. Welch says he preyed upon their innate curiosity about sexuality and their innocence, rather than using the violence and intimidation that so often makes the news in molestation cases. "Oftentimes, I would say, Should we stay here in the living room and play a game or go down to the basement?' Which was where fondling took place. They chose the basement."

Derek is outraged when he hears of men like Welch. "I'm angered by the fact that they give in to such things when I can't; I have to be the responsible one. I'm angry at them, and I'm angry at society for letting this happen."

He wonders why those who commit crimes are offered therapy, albeit after a prison sentence, when those who don't those who manage the disorder responsibly aren't encouraged or even supported.  

It's child molesters like Welch, Derek believes, who give pedophiles a bad name. And Derek dreads the day when he, too, will transition from pedophile to a "human yielding to temptation." The inevitable day when without further therapy all the years of ammonia capsules, intimacy scripts and alternate sexual fantasies fail him and two decades of repressed sexual deviancies propel him to the mall.

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