About fifteen minutes into his talk to the civic group about America's dirty secret, the uniformed deputy sheriff says, "I've brought a guest and his name is Tom. He's a convicted child molester."
Tom molested his own daughter for several years, the deputy says. She's now in a foster home. Tom served a year in the county jail and is on probation, back home with his wife and going to counseling.
"He's a little nervous," Maricopa County Sheriff's Deputy Bob Mehlhouse says, "so please bear with him."
Tom takes over. He talks about his alcoholic parents and about his wife, who also was an incest victim. He says he loves his daughter and notes that he "didn't hurt her." He wants her back.
Tom was stressed out in those days. He explains what happened as "displaced love." Sometimes, when Tom talks about his mother and how much he loved her, he cries.
Tom's explanation basically goes like this: "Okay, I made a mistake. I've been in jail and I've found the Lord and He forgives me and why can't you? And my daughter, she's very good-looking and she's sexy and she went around in underwear and nightgowns that you could see through, and I was having problems with my wife and she was depressed because she was a victim. And nobody in my whole life wanted to help me, and I'm really not good at anything and so I made a mistake. Yeah, but my daughter was there and she loves me and what did I do so wrong because she loved me?"
The audience is well-behaved, even when the questions start. Some praise Tom for his honesty and tell him he's brave for talking about, you know, "what happened." After all, Tom's in therapy. Once, however, some guy got up and asked Tom, "Did you ever try Smith & Wesson therapy?"
WHEN THE TIME is right, maybe when somebody is getting really angry, Deputy Mehlhouse will break in on Tom the Molester and ask the audience, "How many of you feel that children are conned when an adult does this to them?"
People raise their hands.
Then he asks them: "How many of you feel children are manipulated?"
The hands go up again.
Then Mehlhouse says: "What I'd like to do now is reintroduce this man. He is not really a child molester."
Tom the Molester is actually Marc Okner, a 37-year-old counselor of sexually abused children. He definitely is not a child molester, although he's been fooling audiences in Arizona for more than three years.
But there's a twist to his act.
It's one thing to portray a molester, but what Okner does is portray a molester who is still denying responsibility for his acts. He wants his audiences to get angry at Tom's denial.
When the merry-go-round stops and Tom the Molester is unmasked, the mood of the audience can be thick.
"I'm telling you it's silent," Okner says. "I can't even describe the silence. You have taken somebody to the height of their emotions and just stopped them.
"What I've done to break the silence is use humor. I'll say, `I'm really an ax murderer.' And you hear many of the people go `Whew!' Then I ask, `How many of you are upset?' And some will raise their hands. And some will say, `You know I think it's pretty shitty that you get up there and fool us.' And then I tell them I'm not here to entertain.
"I want them to look and say, `Bullshit.' I want them to get angry, and I want them to get angry for a very specific reason. Because I don't want them to be fooled."
The object is to give these audiences of adults a jolt--a taste of the rationalizing, the con games that abusers practice with their victims, their families and themselves.
Okner and Mehlhouse manipulate their audiences the way molesters manipulate children.
This is not about strangers who lurk in the night. An estimated four of five sexual-abuse victims know their abusers, who often are their fathers, mothers, uncles, grandparents, clergy or family friends. Manipulation of the victims' emotions helps keep "what happened" a dirty secret.
Advocates for children say as many as one in three girls and one in four boys are victims of sexual abuse in the United States. Incest is the dominant virus found in this particular sick culture. The average age of victims, according to some studies, is seven. The specific acts range from voyeurism and exhibitionism to fondling to intercourse and beyond.
Physical force usually isn't required. Coercion and fear work well, especially if other family members help cover up the abuse, either actively or by saying and doing nothing. It's a control thing. Like the way Tom the Molester tries to control his audiences of well-meaning church groups, college kids, service clubs and cops.
"Very few get angry," Okner says of the people he speaks to. "And it's because I have the control. I have control when I can take a group of up to 200 people and make them sit in their seats and control their feelings so I don't get this `You're lucky a goddam officer is here, because I'd come up and kick your ass.' That, to me, is control.
"I'm intimidating. I'm conning them. They don't know if they should get mad at me because I'm such a sad sack of shit or like me because I have the `guts' to get up there. In every case, they say, `Thank you, you're a brave person. I have to hold my hand out to you because you're so brave in getting up.' But what about Tom's daughter?
"This is not an indictment against the audience. That's not fair, because we're trying to get reactions out of them. But the questions are always about Tom. Very few, interestingly enough, about Tom's daughter. All they would have to do is ask Tom what he did to her, and he would tell them. Maybe they don't want to hear that. Maybe that's too hard."
Okner and Mehlhouse started doing this shock shtick after discovering that audiences simply tuned out a straight presentation on the topic of child sexual abuse. "It was very easy," says Okner, "to just eat your lunch and not look at us and feel very good when it ended because you could leave and forget about it."
Okner, who works full-time in the county's Human Resources Department, was already doing role-playing in his off-hours work with Valley East Counseling in Mesa. He often acts the part of the offender so the victims can expel their anger and hurt safely, with no danger of reprisal. He put together "Tom" as a composite of the molesters he had run into as a counselor.
"Not that we wanted to shove something down someone's throat, but we feel that because it is such a problem with children and because it's happening so much, we wanted to approach it a different way," Okner says. One of their goals was to make people remember what they saw and heard so they could protect other children--or their own children.
When Okner says he doesn't want his audiences to be fooled, he's talking about people's reactions to child sexual abuse. He mentions the mid-Eighties case of Mesa schoolteacher Ken Lamberton, who got twelve years in prison for running away with a young girl. "I don't want them, when they read a story about a teacher of the year and an upstanding citizen that takes a fourteen-year-old girl to Colorado--I don't want them to say what I heard: `Look how this girl ruined his life.' My comeback to that is: Who is the adult and who is the child?
"Isn't it the adult's responsibility to keep those boundaries? I don't care what you think. I can sit and I can think anything I want. But there's a difference between sitting and thinking about it and then actually crossing over that border. I'll give anybody the freedom to think about what they want. But once you cross the border, it's a different story. Acting out is different."
COURT RECORDS are bulging with cases of child sexual abuse, stuff that really did happen. Sometimes, though, it's tricky to get that information to the public. Splashing the names of victims across front pages or on TV screens can be just another assault on those victims.
Some local cases are well-known. Like the two boys who were molested and sent to Father George Bredemann for counseling. The Catholic priest played sex games with them at his desert hideaway and got caught. He got a flood of support from his bishop and his parish. The victims got squat. Father George's court file is full of letters from priests and parishioners defending his innocence. Only on the eve of his sentencing did Father George emerge from his cocoon of denial and express remorse and utter responsibility for his misdeeds. He wound up with a light sentence. The con games of a molester.
Another recent case in the Maricopa County Superior Court records tells the story of a stepfather who forced his wife to perform cunnilingus on her young daughter. The man also forced the girl to perform fellatio on him. He took pictures of her. The wife did not protect her daughter from what the authorities called her husband's "subtle threats" and "manipulation" and sometimes brutal intimidation. A cop described the case as one of the "most profound and classic intimidation cases" he'd ever seen. After four years of this sexual abuse, the girl somehow summoned the courage to go to the police, and the man was arrested. Was there denial? The man described his marriage as "excellent and loving." A psychologist reported that the man "continually indicated" that his intent was to "teach his stepdaughter about sexuality." The man also was found to have "a severe lack of accountability for his act." One thing he really was concerned about was the reaction of his co-workers. That drove him to drink after he was busted. He got a year in jail. The wife got probation. Their court files are full of great character references, including pleas from their friends and co-workers that the court "keep this family together."
Marc Okner can't understand this. "Why does the system work toward trying to get these families back together?" he says. "Why don't they try to get bank robbers or arsonists and their families back together? Why is there this push to get molesters and their families back together?"
He notes that people often minimize the trauma of incest out of shame. That could explain the determination by families to circle the wagons when allegations of sexual abuse rain down on them. Other sexual abuse, like that of boys, could be downplayed by families and victims because of society's macho BS propaganda. Like the sly winks and the "attaboys" you may have heard from people when a female schoolteacher was discovered to have seduced a teenage male pupil. And in the case of incest, some experts contend it may be more of a taboo to talk about it than it is to perform it. For centuries, children were portrayed in European child-rearing manuals (which influenced many of our ancestors' upbringing) as wicked, sly creatures who naturally needed to be controlled and stifled and who were at the absolute mercy and disposal of their parents. Physical and psychological abuse of children was encouraged, as Swiss psychiatrist Alice Miller points out in her chilling book For Your Own Good.
It was nearly a hundred years ago that Sigmund Freud promoted the theory about children's unconscious lust toward their parents. But Miller and others point out that at a slightly earlier point, in 1896, Freud actually believed that the sexual nightmares he plucked from his patients' unconscious really happened to them, that they really were molested. Freud, however, abandoned that idea in favor of his "Oedipus complex," which is based on the story of the guy who killed his dad and married his mom and then gouged out his own eyes when he found out what he had done. Miller and others take the view that Oedipus, as a child, was actually a victim, not a perpetrator. His dad had abandoned him with the intention of killing him. And Oedipus, after all, unwittingly wound up killing his dad and marrying his mom. Was the abused child Oedipus to blame for all this?
There's a growing awareness at the end of this century that sexual abuse of children is no fantasy--it's a horrendously huge and very real problem that cuts across economic and class lines.
Marc Okner has never even heard of Alice Miller, but he doesn't need psychology books to understand the pain of molested children. There are other advocates for children who agree with him, but aren't crazy about his unorthodox methods.
Given a description of Okner's masquerade as a sex offender in denial, Parents United spokeswoman Terri Muessig is skeptical, saying, "If the purpose is to fan anger against the offender and the purpose is to stop incest, I don't think it will help. I don't see where the hope is. If it makes people afraid to get help, there's no hope. If we just throw away the offenders, write them all off, there goes our hope for the entire world. Our society is in deep, deep trouble. Ninety percent of the prison population are people who were abused as children."
Okner has a different slant on that statistic.
"I had a problem because I couldn't quite explain to somebody when they said, `You know, 90 percent of offenders have been abused. Don't you feel sorry for them?' I finally realized what the answer is: I feel sorry for that child having gotten abused. I don't condone the actions of the adult.
"Because when we tell children in therapy that the reason he molested you was because he was abused, we're telling that child, `You're going to grow up to be a child molester.' And we're taking people's accountability away from them."
Muessig says Parents United, a nationwide group that advocates therapy for the whole family--including the abusers, listens to children's expressed desire for a reunified family, but she acknowledges that "Yes, we do get a lot of criticism. It's easier not to treat the offender."
"We don't fight for reunification," she insists. "But if we can offer help and hope and treatment, we do it. There are some offenders who are not amenable to treatment. We work within the system and try to get parents to take responsibility."
Okner and Muessig both agree, however, with other advocates for children that this society does not protect children. "I'd like to see one celebrity," says Okner, "get on the television and talk about sexual abuse the way they talk about other afflictions and handicaps. No way. Not today."
Okner, who is married and has children, reaches a peak of intensity when he talks about children's rights: "I think children have the right to a safe, healthy environment while growing up. I think they have the right to be listened to. I think they have the right to depend on an adult for nurturing. They have the right to be loved. They have the right to be protected. They have the right to an education. They have the right to medical treatment. They have the right to grow up as healthy individuals, both physically and mentally. They have the right to lead healthy, adult lives. That's the bottom line.
"There's nothing that makes me feel worse than seeing a child who's had a terrible childhood grow up and have a terrible adulthood and then pass it on. And the cycle just keeps going."
Muessig is more blunt: "You hear over and over again that `Children are our most precious resource.' Bull!"
NO MATTER WHAT KIND of adult group Tom the Molester speaks to, there are similarities.
"We do have people that stand in the back of the room because inevitably in every group it is so painful that people get up and walk out," says Okner. "They have to be told this is a role-play. So we'll send somebody out to tell them, `Listen, calm down, this is a role-play. Please go back to understand why we're doing this.' We also tell people at the beginning that this subject is very sensitive, it's about child sexual abuse, it will touch some buttons. We give them some warning. I don't think we could go, boom! That could be very, very high-risk for them. I also feel more secure when Bob Mehlhouse is in a uniform."
Usually, the first questions are: Do you ever see your child? Tom usually tells them, "No, I can't see her until she's eighteen." Why did you do this? "Lots of reasons." Did drugs and alcohol help cause this? "Yeah, I think so."
That's not what Okner tells the victims he helps counsel. "What we tell the children," he says, "is that the offender is using drugs and alcohol as an excuse. That's not the reason. If I get repulsed about having sexual intercourse with my daughter, I'm certainly not going to do it if I get drunk. The first thing a hypnotist tells you is you're not going to do anything under hypnotism that you wouldn't do otherwise."
Although he does role-playing with victims, he doesn't play this particular charade with younger audiences. "I know that one out of three girls and one out of four boys have been victimized," he says, "and I want to very clearly tell these kids, `It's not your fault.' I don't want them to be more confused if they're going through it now."
With the adults, some will be angry and some will be crying. "I can always tell who I feel were victims," he says. "There will be a number of women crying. We always have a number of women crying. The women are more vocal than the men. Always. That's an indictment against men."
Age also has something to do with a group's reaction to Tom the Molester. "The most open groups are the youngest and oldest," Okner says. "There are more similarities, with the questions and the feelings. I find that the younger groups--the youngest are seventeen or eighteen--are more open for exchange. They ask more personal questions. And the groups that do the same are women in their seventies and eighties, often in church groups. Very open. More wanting to get the information. But the dynamics of the groups--the emotions are the same, the questions are the same and a lot of times, in most all the groups they'll say, `Thank you for coming. we know this is very brave of you and you're doing a good job.' Okner laughs. "And I'm saying to myself, `I don't want you to love me!'"
Okner relishes his role-playing ability--he lapses into it often during conversation--but Tom the Molester is no pal of his. He got into this work in the first place because someone close to him suffered through this tragedy.
"I don't do it to entertain--it's not a skit," he says. "I become, as much as I can, something that I detest. It's a very hard thing to do. I actually have to convince these people that I am a child molester who is in denial and who is going to ask for their forgiveness because `Hey, the cards dealt me a dirty hand.' What I do is take a composite, depending on my audience, of the offenders I've come into contact with, and every word, everything I say to my audience, is planned in my head, very quickly, to get reactions, to solicit responses and feelings."
Once the tension is broken by Okner's joke about being an "ax murderer," the audience members may be a little surly, but they're all ears, and Okner and Mehlhouse talk about what sexual abuse does to children.
"We've seen kids in counseling from age three to near-adult. These kids come in, all of them without exception, feeling guilty," Okner says. "That they did something to cause this. They may have been told by the offender that they did something to cause this. They all feel guilty. They all think it was their fault. And when they don't get the secret out, when you don't get the counseling, they feel like shit. They feel like sluts. Most of these kids are high-risk for suicide. A lot of these kids use drugs. A lot of kids we're seeing have no motivation to go on. They're severely traumatized. A lot of kids are very promiscuous. They're looking for that love. They're looking for that relationship. They were taught that's what they're good for. A lot of these kids are in foster homes, taking the blame for breaking up their families. And a lot of times they're told that. A lot of these kids go through the justice system and feel like they're being prosecuted."
It's a litany of misery. "A lot of these kids become pregnant," Okner says. "They want babies, which will give them unconditional love. And we deal with boys. And boys have a very difficult problem, because most times they were molested by men. So they have issues of homosexuality. They had an erection. They think they did it, they wanted it. They go through a lot of the behaviors that the girls go through."
A lot of these kids are primed by their abuse to pass their hatred on to the next generation. Okner says: "We never tell a kid, `Hate your father.' We just want them to deal with what he did. But a lot of these kids minimize. There's nothing that says these kids have to molest. But we do deal with a number of children who are molesting--down to four years old, molesting siblings. There's no quick answer to this. This is very new. The therapy is new; the counseling is new. It's the first generation of kids that have been in counseling for this.
"Seven out of ten prostitutes come from abusive families. Our kids are runaways. Our kids are the shoplifters. A lot of these kids set fires. Is there hope? Depending on the severity of the trauma, the frequency, the age that this kid got into counseling. We have more success with the younger ones than we do with the teenagers. But we do have some real strong kids in there. Not a whole lot. But we do have kids who do make it, who are able to have loving families. The counseling process is really long-term. It is not easy."
Will a shock tactic like Tom the Molester have an impact on adults? "After every presentation," he says, "we have at least someone, if not more, come up and say, `I've never said anything to anyone, but I'm going to get some help and I'm going to deal with it.' And that, to me, is one less person carrying the secret. Because that's what it is. It's a secret."
If he didn't take a shock approach, Okner says, he thinks his audience would respond "just like they're watching a news show."
BUT IT IS a show. And the adults--most of them--will leave the room and resume their lives as before. The kids whom Okner and the slew of other mental-health counselors work with haven't even started to live their own lives--and in most cases aren't prepared to. Why portray Tom the Molester as someone who's justifying, rationalizing and denying responsibility for abusing children? "Because they all do," says Okner. "That's what counseling does for abusers. It tries to get them out of denial. And the best thing they could say, not only for themselves but to the children, is: `You are not to blame. I'm sorry. I'm sick. You didn't do it.'"
Incredibly, the victims also suffer from their own denial of what happened to them. Why? "Because it's painful," Okner says. "We have a kid whose father raped her. But she'll say it's not a big deal because `I love my daddy and I want to go back.' And they're willing to sacrifice themselves. And I'm telling you, nothing pisses me off more than seeing that. Because that is this con that this adult did to that girl to make her minimize herself where not even rape affected her."
Okner says he doesn't teach "stranger-danger" because most kids know their offenders: "And I have a real hard time with all the emphasis that was placed on `stranger-danger.' I teach `inappropriate behavior,' because then it could come from anybody." Okner reverts to role-playing: "If my grandpa molests me, geez, he's not a stranger. He loves me, I love him. It must be okay."
The crust of denial can be like granite, and that calls for a blast of dynamite. Sometimes, though, even that's not enough. When Marc Okner plays the role of The Offender in the kids' therapy group, this is what he says frequently happens:
"Hi," the child nervously says. "Well . . . "
The offender: "What do you want to say to me?"
"Well . . . why did you do this?"
"You mean what you lied about?"
"I didn't lie."
"And then," says Okner, "the children turn their heads and cry. That's control. I've won. And there's a lot of winning going on."
"The questions are always about Tom. Very few, interestingly enough, about Tom's daughter."
"Why is there this push to get molesters and their families back together?"
"There's nothing that makes me feel worse than seeing a child who's had a terrible childhood grow up and have a terrible adulthood, then pass it on."
"I can always tell who I feel were victims."
"I become, as much as I can, something that I detest."
"A lot of these kids go through the justice system and feel like they're being prosecuted."
Will a shock tactic like Tom the Molester have an impact on adults?
"The best thing they could say, not only for themselves but to the children, is: `You are not to blame. I'm sorry. I'm sick. You didn't do it.'