Lambert here: This post may be tough reading for some, but I do think it is in NC’s wheelhouse, partly because we do publish heart-wrenching stories from time to time, but also because a possible connection between loss of trust in public institutions, and sexual predation within the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, the entertainment industry, the media, and other major institutions — including the family — is too little remarked upon. I find the author’s idea of focusing on the social relations between predator and enabler very intriguing.
By Bob Goodwin
I knew my dad was a sexual predator.
I knew as a young man that my father was a serial sexual predator who looked for, and found, adolescent young men and boys in our community. The stories were not secret. I witnessed a certain amount with my own eyes. I did not stop him.
My father was Harvard-educated and a teacher and was mentally ill. Although difficult, he did many things of value during my childhood. But the predation had been apparent even in my childhood. He would take in troubled teens and once brought one into our home. They would always be his full focus. I had the room adjacent to my older brother, and when he reached adolescence, I could hear everything through the wall. I remember my mother ostracizing my brother because he was still pooping in his pants at night as a teenager.
A few years later my father tried to groom me. True to my personality I called him out on it, and it stopped – at least for me. None of this was a secret. But it continued.
Sexual predators will not stop. I believe the key to stopping them is for society to better engage would-be enablers. People like me. Our culture is going to need to take a far more nuanced view of enablers if we want to protect the vulnerable.
Hillary Clinton is accused of knowing that Harvey Weinstein was a sexual predator because she worked with him repeatedly in her career. Representative Jim Jordan is accused of turning a blind eye when he was an Ohio State coach who worked closely with team doctor Richard Strauss, who is believed to have raped 177 students.
Both Weinstein and Strauss are credibly believed to be sexual predators, and the level of damage they have done is immeasurable. Human lives have been destroyed. Our society is doing important work by vilifying these criminals.
But in neither case could the predation have been so widespread without enablers. I am certain that plenty of people (like me) both knew about what was happening and could have stopped it. Our society is doing important work by calling out enablers.
Despite that I have already told my story, I must offer some disclaimers and apologies. Read these carefully. The fact that I feel so compelled is evidence of the excruciating nature of this role.
My father has been dead almost 30 years. Most of my relatives agree with the narrative I am writing. If either of these statements were not true, I would not feel free to malign the reputation of my father. The damage done to my family and its bonds might otherwise be massive.
I am reluctant to share this story because of how it reflects on my reputation. Am I the son of a predator, or am I member of an extraordinarily talented and accomplished family? It turns out I am both. Still, I do not want my father to become the headline on my resume. I am in the later part of a very successful career, and I have little to lose, yet I still must manage my reputation. Earlier in my career I could not have risked it. What of my children? Am I harming their reputations?
Returning to my story: I eventual grew older and ceased to be a helpless child. Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I am fearless – perhaps reckless – in pursuit of righteous goals. At 24 I personally founded a venture capital-backed technology company that was sold to a conglomerate some years later.
And I hated my father.
My first inclination was self-destructive behavior. At 17 I woke up in the emergency room once after downing almost a full fifth of Southern Comfort, after which my brother rolled me over a snowbank to make sure I wasn’t caught. The psychiatrist who interviewed me (while I was still drunk) said that I was obsessed with making money and becoming independent. Shortly afterwards I switched my focus to stopping my father.
In the process I temporarily became homeless and slept in public places during the day while I was employed at my first computer programming job at night. My mom – long divorced and relocated – tracked me down to let me know that I had a trust fund that my father was hiding from me.
I approached the police. I approached the psychiatry department at Dartmouth to see if I could get my father committed. I even approached the parents of a boy my father was grooming.
I was rejected in all three cases. That was a defining experience in my life as a 17-year-old. I would be very surprised if it were any different today.
The dean of Tuck, the business school at Dartmouth, had a wife who worked for my father at a nonprofit focused on rural education. I heard an unsubstantiated rumor that their family was aware of my fathers’ predation and “wanted to see him run out of town.” Being an enabler is full of unsubstantiated rumors. Many of these rumors would probably turn out to be false, and virtually all of them would be denied.
I went on to attend a different Ivy League school. At the time I had no interest in getting a bad name in the academies, so I left well enough alone after that.
I have had a lifetime to think about why I acted (unsuccessfully) and so many others do not.
I remember once reading about inner city police corruption which seems to come and go in cycles. The article proposed credibly that 90% of policemen were essentially followers and would follow the existing culture of their institutions. The key to eliminating corruption is in the other 10%. People like me.
10% will act according to their own perception of right and wrong. 90% will imitate the culture that surrounds them. Those ten percent can be as easily agents for bad as agents for good. I would not make the claim that some of us are intrinsically good or bad. I have made many bad choices in my life, despite appearing to make myself the hero of this story. I could easily see myself as one of the mavericks who turned a police force corrupt.
But even among the 10%, I think I am part of an even smaller group. I think only 1% are fearless enough to buck the dominant culture. When a police force goes bad, 9% are leading the bad behavior, and 1% are trying to reverse it. Similarly, when a police force is good, 9% are leading the good behavior, and 1% are trying to reverse it. Often the key to protecting an institution is crushing people like me by “hammering the nail that is sticking out.”
Throughout my life I have been the rare person trying to change the culture wherever I go. Usually I am unsuccessful. When I am successful, I sometimes do more harm than good. We should be glad there are not more mavericks in the world. It would be anarchy. We should be glad that 90% of people fundamentally work to protect their institutions, even if those institutions are flawed.
Returning to the role of the enabler, let’s talk about Hillary and Jim Jordan. Of course, both people are part of the 90%. Of course, the Secretary of State, and a coach at a major university, have primary responsibility to protect their institutions. Protecting the institution is the very definition of those roles. Despite the significant power that they could have used to thwart evil, doing so would have undermined their primary roles. And like the Tuck Dean in my story, I am not even convinced they had anywhere near enough insight (if any) to have taken credible action.
In my case I may have done some good, even though it did not feel like it at the time. Although the parents I approached vociferously defended my father, I do know that my fathers’ access to him decreased, and had the situation continued there was less likelihood of those parents remaining enablers. I also know that word got back to my father, and although we broke off any further relationship, he had to be aware that people were watching him.
Years later I discovered that there was open communication amongst our family about my fathers’ predation, which surprised me. I always thought it remained a hidden secret. Maybe my actions had something to do with this. The life lesson for me is that speaking out is effective for would-be enablers despite the violent push-back and self-doubt. It sets the tone for everyone else in your system.
One of the problems with the #MeToo movement is that we ask people to believe accusers unconditionally. It is only a matter of time, and maybe this is happening already, when we find that some accusers are genuinely not credible. Despite all the evidence I had at the time, I did not even find myself that credible, and still question my evidence to this day.
Sexual assault accusations do horrible damage to the accused, and even more damage to the family (or institution) of the accused. It is the nature of our criminal justice system to require proof, and to tolerate that most guilty people are never prosecuted. We should not change this simply because sexual crimes are so difficult to prosecute.
Although criminal prosecution is a useful tool, we must accept that it not the only tool, and perhaps not even the best tool. Again, I believe that predators need enablers. If we can deny predators enablers even when we cannot prosecute them, this can make a large difference. My father was never going to be prosecuted. But that did not mean that we should not try to stop him.
Vilifying enablers, like we are doing with Hillary and Jim Jordan, may be valuable in bringing visibility to the importance of enablers, but it also does harm by forcing would-be enablers further into the shadows. We want people inside institutions and families to call out bad behavior within their system, and without having to pay too high a price. And we need to accept that not everyone is able to do this. We want to de-stigmatize whistle-blowers within our families and institutions. We want the mavericks to survive the ordeal, so that others will follow, when they can. A predator needs many enablers. We only need to turn one.
I am not sure exactly how to accomplish this. But I think my story gives some guidance.