Sympathy for the Devil (2)

I have known monsters.

I have known, and loved, people who have committed egregious offenses against humanity, against any notion of decency.

I could tell you stories that would make your blood boil, your spine shudder.

But I can’t.

There is a mantra in twelve-step programs:  “And what we say here, let it stay here!” to which the crowd always assents, “Hear hear!”  (It varies slightly from program to program, but it’s pretty standard.)  Similarly, there is a tradition of not identifying the particular twelve-step program(s) in which one participates, or has participated.  There are good reasons for this, and it is for these reasons that I’m generally very generic about what I say about the programs in which I’ve participated.  Suffice it to say, there’s no S-fellowship in which I did not participate, although some, more than others, and one, more than all the others.

But with all that said, let me come back to my first point.  I have known people whom the world generally would agree are monsters, people who have done horrible things to helpless people (and animals) – children, pets, people in subordinate positions of powerlessness, the elderly, the comatose, the dead.

I have sat at a table with these people, and have tried to console myself with the notion that somehow I’m different than they are, that I would never do those things.  But you know what?  The only reason I wouldn’t do those things is that, for reasons entirely beyond my control, having nothing to do with my character, and only with my good fortune, those things repulse me.

I know myself:  I didn’t choose the things that appeal to me, and for many years, I didn’t experience myself as choosing whether or not to pursue them.  There, I found myself saying, but for the grace of God (or whatever) go I.  The only reason I didn’t molest dead dogs is because, well, because that’s gross to me.  I had the great good fortune only to fantasize about being desired – not about where my dick might find itself.  But had I had some other set of fantasies, some other set of desires?  Who knows.

And another thing:  the “monsters” I have known aren’t monsters.  They’re good, decent, kind, loving people afflicted by demons beyond their control, striving desperately to control them – doing so courageously, and at great personal risk.

Yet another reason all the talk about “sex addiction” so miffs me:  many would have you believe that “sex addiction” is gobbledy-gook that monsters use to evade responsibility for their actions.  But no addict, no one who seriously participates in a twelve-step program for more than a week, ever would claim that they – and they alone – aren’t responsible for their actions.  What they would claim is that – at the same time that they’re responsible, they’re also powerless.  This is a paradox that a non-addict has a hard time with – in the way that non-Christians have a hard time with the simultaneous belief in the Trinity and in the idea that “God is one.”  It simply doesn’t make logical sense.

But as with most truths, its truth lies not in logic, but in felt, embodied reality.  Everyone is powerless over something, has some habit they wish were otherwise.  They simultaneously wish they didn’t have the habit and still engage in the undesirable behavior – biting fingernails, stuttering, smoking, interrupting, gossiping, leaving the toilet seat up, whatever.  Most of us are lucky enough that our zones of powerlessness don’t involve the victimization of others. But some of us are not so lucky.

One quick story, with details changed, but central meaning intact, to illustrate:  a guy I know, call him Tom, had been in the program for years, but had never gotten more than a few weeks of “sobriety.”  He had a variety of “M.O.’s” – compulsive masturbation, indecent exposure, targeting weak individuals for seduction, pederasty, and flat-out rape.  He spent his every waking moment seeking to avoid any of these behaviors.  Perhaps the most courageous thing for him to do would have been simply to present himself to an institution and say, “Lock me up.”  I don’t know if this is possible, or if he could have afforded it.  But it seems to me genuinely unreasonable to expect anyone to do such a thing.

Well, Tom was married – to a long-suffering woman who clearly loved him.  She had a friend visiting from out of town with her three pre-pubescent boys.  Her friend asked if they could stay with her and Tom.  “Of course,” she said.

Tom, knowing himself, said to his wife, “NO!”  “I can’t have those boys in my house,” he protested, knowing himself.  His wife, sensitive to the social consequences of saying “no” to her friend, and ashamed of her husband’s “weakness,” said to him, “Honey, I can’t say no.  You just need to control yourself.”

He pleaded, he begged.  He told her he wanted to move out of the house for the few days they’d be there.  He knew what he would do left to his own devices, and he despaired of the harm he could cause.  But his wife was, for all her love for him, not having it.  Not only would she not say “no” to her friend; she wouldn’t hear of her husband’s disappearing for a few days.  She gave him an ultimatum:  if you’re not here, then don’t come back.

I don’t mean to excuse anyone’s behavior – only to paint a picture of complexity.  None of us lives in a world as simple as the one in which we might like to live.

Tom was faced with an impossible choice.

If you were him, what would you do?

One comment

  1. That’s a really good question! And I don’t have an answer to it… I guess what he wanted to do and what he managed to do all depend on a variety of things, like where he felt in himself at the time, whether he was strong enough to do “the right thing” and go away if he really believed he would harm the boys, knowing that if he did, his wife probably wouldn’t forgive him either, and not only would he be outcast, but so would his wife, by her friend. Or whether he managed to control himself for the few days. I hope he managed to make the best decision based on his own circumstances. But no one should ever put that much pressure on anyone : it was great of Tom to know his limitations and offer an escape (let me go away). If he did stay and did act out, I wonder whether his wife can see her share of responsibility in this. Or maybe it was just her way of trying to find an escape from a life married to someone she loved but couldn’t live with anymore, without having to make the decision herself…

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