At the start of this week, I reflected upon the suicide of Jeremiah Gorman and the investigation into what was then broadly classified as child porn possession. In particular, I discussed a friend I had lost to somewhat similar circumstances, and expressed how badly I felt for those in Gorman’s life who are now faced with the difficulty and awkwardness of mourning when the circumstances surrounding a person’s death are messy and, at best, morally ambiguous.
I felt it an important time and opportunity to express something I have been thinking for a long time—about how our extreme reaction to pedophilia and suspected consumers of child pornography are understandable but problematic. Being shut off to conversation that goes beyond “kill the bastards” leads to a limitation of outlets and avenues for help and treatment, which further pushes these behaviors underground. This is likely why we often come to find that people we thought were totally “normal” and upstanding members of society have a dark side of which we were not aware. We refuse to create a space in which one can acknowledge faults such as these, which makes it nearly impossible to pursue treatment until after a transgression has been made.
I have received heartfelt and gratitude-filled responses from people in Bangor who were close to Gorman and others with whom it resonated. As someone who could write about how amazing a beautiful, sunny Fourth of July parade was and receive 10 – 15 messages or comments from trolls telling me to pull my head out of my ass, I was expecting a much, much different response. I am happy that my words could help to soothe the situation for some of those close to the situation at John Bapst, or similar situations.
Beyond almost anyone else, my heart goes out to Gorman’s wife and son—him for having lost his father, and for having to come of age in the shadow of this and her for everything she has gone through, is going through, and will go through while also being expected to keep it together for the sake of their boy.
Everything I said about the ambiguity of mourning a person in difficult circumstances, and how I get it and have gone through similar circumstances stands. (A friend who works in the field of sexual assault response pointed out that the concept I was referring to is called disenfranchised grief.) Almost immediately after publishing my thoughts on the scenario, the details of which were then still murky, some specifics came into focus. According to court documents, Gorman is accused of having requested nude photos from a student. So there is likely at least one victim who is faced with dealing with the nature of what has happened to her—what she has been involved in—for whom a layer of difficulty has been added to that process because the community is scrambling to remember what a good guy Gorman was.
I know many who have suffered the abuse of charismatic assailants, and who have had their experiences and voices marginalized because it is difficult for many to reconcile that otherwise good people can do bad things. When I was in high school, there were several incidents in which inappropriate relationships between students and teachers took place. One of them, a particularly notorious case between a beloved 50-something male teacher and 15-year-old female led to a great deal of shaming and silencing of the student. On the national stage, we saw a similar phenomenon when those desperate to preserve the legacy of Penn State coach Joe Paterno turned their backs on victims of horrendous sex crimes he looked the other way of. While I hope that does not become the case in John Bapst, I have already become aware of a few exchanges in which the potential victimhood of students has been diminished or denied in an attempt to preserve the sterling memory of the teacher.
While I hope minds remain open to the ambiguities and complexities of those haunted by taboo and unhealthy compulsions, it is important to keep in mind that yes, Gorman was a well-liked member of the community, yes, he built a spaceship for his son, and yes, evidence points to his being predatory toward at least one of his students. While difficult, it is possible to acknowledge all of this at once. More importantly, it is imperative to acknowledge the last piece when considering that children are supposed to have been victimized by him. Right now, they need our attention and compassion more than does the preservation of positive memories about Gorman. It still drives my young daughter crazy when she asks me who “the bad guys” are and I tell her that there are a lot of otherwise good people who do bad things and there are otherwise bad people who do good things. It can be maddening to reconcile varying realities at any given time, but essential as a means of not keeping alive singular narratives that alienate those victimized by abuses of power.
This is especially imperative if there are more victims who have not come forward, and feel uneasy about discussing their experiences out of fear that they will be met with disdain for spoiling the pot, so-to-speak. It is those who have been victimized, ultimately, who need for us to create a safe space for them to come forward.
UPDATE: On several occasions, I used the term “victim” and several readers took issue with its employment over the term “survivor.” I have linked below a few meditations on the “victim” versus “survivor,” which, in her criticism of the concept, Feministing blogger Dana Bolger summarizes the rationale for here:
The idea of the victim-survivor transformation is linear, and directional. You’re a victim until one day, you “speak up,” you report, you go to therapy […] you blossom into a survivor.
Other meditations worth exploring:
- Why words matter: Victim v. Survivor by Akhila K.
- “Hurry up and heal”: Pain, productivity, and the inadequacy of ‘victim vs. survivor’ by Dana Bolger
- ‘Victim’ vs ‘Survivor’: feminism and language by Rahila Gupta
Also, my original draft suggested that Penn State’s Joe Paterno helped in some way to conceal Jerry Sandusky’s sex abuse. “Look the other way” appears to be a more accurate description of Paterno’s involvement (or lack thereof).