Note: Details of the investigation into Gorman have come to light since I posted this. I have included links to those at the bottom. The first part of these reflections are largely specific to an experience I had after a friend took his own life a few years back, and relate to some specific insights that came out of that experience. The last paragraph gets to the meat of who this piece ultimately recognizes, which is the community of those finding themselves in the position of complicated mourning.
Further, on March 25th, 2015, I wrote a followup post about creating safe space for victims, which can be found here.
The news of the Jeremiah Gorman’s suicide took me back a handful of years. A friend of mine killed himself while he was being served a search warrant related to an investigation into possession of child pornography. It is such an odd an excruciating experience to love and mourn someone investigated for something so understandably unnerving and controversial. I was used to hearing of those caught up in child pornography charges—facing jail time or worse—and thinking them scum deserving of whatever would come their way. Then your friend gets wrapped up in it—whatever it is—and he kills himself and you never saw it coming because he didn’t strike you as a vicious, vile monster.
A lot of us who were friends with him sat around and openly wondered, “Why didn’t he come to us? We could have—we would have—been there for him.” But we also considered, “Is that really true? Would we have been? Could he have come to us with this without scaring us off? Without putting distance between us? Could he have pursued therapy without fear of some sort of legal recourse that would have branded him a monster before he even had a chance to pursue rehabilitation?” I imagine him having asked himself those questions thousands of times over and always settling upon a resounding “No.”
Related to my work at the time, I had been in touch with a group that advocates on behalf of victims of sexual abuse and molestation and illustrated this Catch 22 to its Director. Assuming they hope to get better, how is one haunted by compulsion to seek out unthinkable imagery expected to pursue help without fearing legal recourse? Without fearing being branded and undone before finding the help they need? The recipient of my email agreed the scenario was bleak—that this is part of the problem when it comes to these issues. Worse, politicians are highly unlikely to go to bat for more nuanced approaches. “Soft on child pornographers” and “friend of pedophiles” does not serve one well come Election Day.
Positing these questions is not meant as an apology for so much of what we know to be attached to the horrors of child pornography. The mere thought of exploited, violated and brutalized children is enough to haunt a person. It is a gut-wrenchingly atrocious concept. You can’t even get within a mile of imagining your kin being victimized in this way without getting blind with rage. Thinking of the predators that keep this black market industry alive overwhelms me with vicious hate. But when I think of those who find themselves compelled and addicted to this—those aware that it’s terrible but are for whatever reason unable to stop—I imagine many to feel sick, haunted, and with absolutely nowhere to go. Or at least I hope that to be true, particularly of my friend who did not outwardly exhibited signs of being a soulless monster.
To reiterate, I make no excuse for child pornography itself, and am ever-less tolerant of gross violations of innocence, especially since I became a father. But while our gut approach of “kill the monsters!” may feel righteous, it is clearly doing little by way of making an avenue for those who hope to seek help.
In 2014, Luke Malone reported on this conundrum on This American Life:
Right now, if a pedophile shows up in a therapist’s office wanting treatment, it puts a therapist in a difficult situation. First, there are no guidelines on how to treat pedophiles who haven’t offended. There’s a lot of confusion in the field about how to handle them. Also, they’re in a tough legal position.
If a therapist thinks someone poses a threat to a child, they’re legally obligated to turn them in, because of mandatory reporting laws. They can lose their license if they don’t. So when it comes to counseling a pedophile, therapists have to gauge how likely that person is to act. They’re in a sticky situation where they have to make a judgment call about how dangerous someone is.
Professor Elizabeth Letourneau is one of the top researchers on child sexual abuse in the world. She’s done this work for 25 years. She says the great thing about mandatory reporting laws are that they’ve brought to light lots of crimes against children. But as they got more popular, she saw it affect the number of people reaching out for help.
We don’t know many of the details related to Gorman’s case and resultant suicide. What, specifically, was he was being investigated for? There are factors that strike nervous chords with the community, particularly his proximity to children. There remains a good deal up in the air. [Note: We do now. See the update below.] But while I always strive to be there for children—the most vulnerable victims of crime—and while I understand it imperative to be supportive of those victimized by sexual exploitation, I feel for those who were close to him. It’s been years since I lost my friend, and while I love and miss him, I am still exploring my feelings about the circumstances surrounding his death. I feel for those who find themselves confused because maybe he didn’t show any signs of this compulsion. I know the conflict that accompanies losing someone daunted by these circumstances, where you feel incapable of mourning as openly as you might otherwise. I feel for those who lost a friend, and now have to reconcile this other dark, amorphous thing. I feel for those who are for the first time, perhaps, confronted with an such an abstract scenario in such a devastating time.
UPDATE [March 23, 2015. 9:00 PM]: According to this paper, “A local high school teacher who died of apparent suicide Saturday in the wake of a police investigation solicited nude photographs from one of his female students, according to court documents.”
Allow me to double down on how terribly I feel for the alleged victim and everyone close to this undoubtedly confusing situation.
UPDATE [March 24, 2015. 4:45 AM]: It came to my attention this morning that some have taken to shaming the 16-year-old involved in this case. If you’re guilty of that, or thinking that way, stop.
UPDATE [March 25, 2015. 6:05 AM]: I wrote a followup post about creating safe space for victims, which can be found here.