Someone I admire committed horrible crimes.
June 21, 2014 8:25 AM   Subscribe

This question is about a professor I had in college. The crime in question involves child porn.

I had this teacher about 7 years ago when I was in college. I was about 18-19 at the time, and everyone loved this prof. He always had a twisted sense of humour, but was one of those gems that really make you think critically, evaluate your own writing, and come to a greater understanding of whatever text you're studying.

His arrest took place some time in the past two weeks.

I really enjoyed his selection of texts, and I think he had an effect on my developing taste in terms of works of art. His courses helped me build the foundation for university studies and he put a lot of time and effort into providing individualized constructive criticism for each of our essays.

I hope it's not selfish of me to feel this way but I just... feel like this is such a mindfuck and I don't know what to do. It seems like all that I've learned from his is somehow a sham now and I feel almost disgusted to think that I may have been so influenced and affected by his choice of works and his interpretations.

At the same time, I can't deny that he was a fantastic teacher. When I first heard the news--- before it really sunk in-- my first thought was of sympathy that such a great man's life is now ruined. Before I came to my senses I considered writing to him to let him know how sorry I was that this was happening and to thank him for his good work at the school. This is crazy, right? Child porn/abuse is probably the one of the worst possible crimes a human being can commit.

I hope this question doesn't come across as selfish- I know I am only tangentially related to the situation and that the pain others closer are feeling must be enormous.

How do I fully digest this news? Should I be reevaluating all my memories of this guy and trying to change my view of him? Should I be throwing away all the essays I kept?
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't really understand the assumptions behind the question here. That someone committed a heinous crime need not imply that the person's interpretation of something wholly unrelated to the crime is suspect or invalid or morally questionable.

Absent any other relevant information--for example, perhaps Nabokov's Lolita was discussed in this class--this seems a question founded on mistaken assumptions.
posted by dfriedman at 8:29 AM on June 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

Unless this person influenced you in ways that led you to have a respect for child porn and/or works of art or literature that glorify the sexualization of children, or transferred views to you that allowed you to rationalize child sexual abuse, I wouldn't worry about it.

Also, needless to say, one thing that would be a big help in shutting down rape culture, one situation at a time, would be to refuse to play the "but he's such a great man!" role, or trying to justify to others why the accusations must be unfounded simply because you respect him, and it's unthinkable that someone you respect did something so monstrous. That said, it sounds like you have already realized the error of unthinkingly defending someone just because you happen to respect them in other ways. So it sounds like you're already handling this with a level head.
posted by Sara C. at 8:34 AM on June 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

Yeah, it's part of the human condition that we contain multitudes, and we all need to think critically about whether those multitudes are related. Had this guy advised you on moral issues, you would need to rethink things in a big way, but he didn't. He taught you writing and art history. You don't need to jettison any of that.

What you can do, is absorb another lesson to augment the others he taught you -- about how compartmentalized people are, and how great merit in one area doesn't indicate moral superiority or reliability in any other, and that you shouldn't automatically trust anyone just because they are smart and thoughtful.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:34 AM on June 21, 2014 [31 favorites]

Should I be reevaluating all my memories of this guy and trying to change my view of him?
No, you shouldn't do that. You can believe both things: that he was a great and inspiring teacher and that he participated in the exploitation of children, which is despicable. Those things aren't contradictory. You should not excuse or minimize his crime, assuming that he's guilty, and you shouldn't believe that he should be exempt from punishment because of his good qualities. But you don't have to lie about your positive experiences with him in order to be honest about his bad aspects.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:36 AM on June 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

I was friends with a club photographer, who it turned out, took pictures of 13 year old girls he was picking up on myspace. This guy was popular. He lived with 4 room-mates, and was friends or acquaintances with literally hundreds of people. He regularly threw house parties where 400 people showed up. Literally *no one* had a clue what he was doing. People like that can compartmentalize. They're able to live two separate lives, with one barely influencing the other. So I don't think that everything this guy did is necessarily tainted by association.
posted by empath at 8:40 AM on June 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Should I be reevaluating all my memories of this guy and trying to change my view of him?

I hear you. In our society, we have a tendency to equate the person with the crime, and this tendency is especially prevalent with child sex crimes. When talking about a convicted felon's past, you will more commonly hear the phrase (for instance) "robbed a bank" than "bank robber." But in the context of child sex crimes, it's "monster" and "predator." We have created registries for them. We restrict where they may live. At this moment in history we believe—as a society, and to large degree on a scientific level—they cannot be rehabilitated.

This is simple enough for strangers at home reading the newspaper. "Oh, so this guy Mark Brown in Cincinnati is a sex offender. Okay." It's more problematic for Mark's friends and family and colleagues and what not. He is not a monster, to them. He is the cousin who always brought the fruitcake at Christmas, or the guy who always tipped 30 percent, or as in your case, the inspiring teacher.

I'm a criminal attorney. Even the worst defendants are people. They are often quiet, polite, scared, even despite being guilty as sin. It's unfortunate there is this larger tendency among society to write-off human beings for certain acts—or equally, to canonize them for different acts—and I have seen, and totally understand, why this is difficult for people on the outskirts of defendants' lives. You hear a constant drumbeat of, "This person is a MONSTER," and it begins to feel like it's not societally okay for you to have your fond memories or feelings.

It is okay. The world is a complex place. Society's oversimplifications are its own problem, and not something that you should allow to cause you anxiety.
posted by cribcage at 8:46 AM on June 21, 2014 [62 favorites]

Not sure if my observation is going to make you feel any better about your teacher, but I'm reminded of the fact that serial killer Ted Bundy used to staff a suicide-prevention hotline. His co-worker later a wrote a book about him. She saw nothing disturbing or unusual about his behavior and described him as being "kind, solicitous, and empathetic".

People are complicated and contradictory.
posted by alex1965 at 8:47 AM on June 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

How do you know he's guilty?
posted by LonnieK at 8:48 AM on June 21, 2014 [8 favorites]

I was formulating a response to this, then read fingersandtoes' response - they nailed it, utterly. This is a perfect example of how people are so very rarely black-and-white good guys or bad guys, but a mixture thereof. In dealing with this - which is absolutely a shock, and I don't think you should feel selfish for recognizing that, while no crime was committed against you or someone you love, it does affect the feelings you have for a teacher to whom you've been so grateful and found so foundational for so long - you do have to process the vastly disparate sides of his personality. This is never an easy thing, made even moreso here in light of the fact that this man has committed a particularly heinous crime. I don't envy you this, and as someone who has looked up to my own teachers for many, many years, I can imagine how you must be feeling. My advice for your situation specifically, on top of fingersandtoes' excellent advice, is to give your own feelings time. Learn about the situation and how it develops. Don't make any rash decisions about throwing out your essays, books, or anything else he taught you just yet. Once you have more information and more space from the news, you'll have a better idea of how you want to sit with the things he taught you about this unrelated (I hope) subject area. This is a complicated situation and it's many, many levels will take some time to process, but don't feel you have to dismiss everything he taught you because of who he is as a human being. If you find you can take the good he did in the world as separate from the bad, then you're likely helping to make the best of this situation that can be.
posted by AthenaPolias at 8:49 AM on June 21, 2014

He hasn't been convicted in court. You don't know that he committed any "heinous" crimes.

Unless you attend the trial or pull transcripts from when this man goes to court, you can refrain from judgement. I would not even trust newspaper accounts after what I've read about myself in the press (positive things!) over the past 10 years because the lack of accuracy regarding facts is appalling.

I think that you can donate time or money to an organization that works directly with populations effected by crimes like the one your former professor was accused of, someplace where the money actually goes to the work, not into someone's pocket...

You can educate yourself about the victims and perpetraitors of this type of crime.

But, no. I don't think you should indulge in all the rest of what you described.

He's been arrested, not convicted. You have not personally seen the evidence.

I think you can develop some awareness about the issue, generally, as this might help you understand. But no, you should not pick apart your memories looking for clues he was a monster. He's not yet been convicted. He's only been accused.

If you do a good job of informing yourself about the crime of child pornography, by the time he might be convicted, all of the hand wringing you describe won't be an appealing way if digesting this event.

Don't gossip (even with yourself.) Fight the urge to engage in drama over this by doing something concrete.
posted by jbenben at 8:50 AM on June 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think in some ways the human mind has a very hard time reconciling horrific acts with having benefited from them in some way by consuming the social offerings of the person who did the horrific acts. I think it's like finding out that you were fed food prepared out of some horrific act-- it wasn't your fault-- you had no idea-- but still you feel that sense of those crimes being inside you, part of you. When you think about how relationships can boost health-- abusers and criminals could literally be deriving strength from their crimes, and then when you partake of the gifts of the criminal you are participating in some way.

We have all eaten such "food", accepted friendship from toxic people, bought products and services associated with abuses whether knowingly or unknowingly.

I think feeling awful about it is a strength of character that drives us to seek fair trade and relationships with people who are doing good in the world. That's all good.

Then there's reality where most people have done at least some harmful things, many products especially if you're low income, are associated with harmful practices--- it's very hard to avoid participating in harmful behavior.

In some ways the concept of "born into sin" makes sense to me in that humans are so very harmful to each other and the environment and part of being a happy person means ignoring that and enabling people to harm each other while looking the other way so you can feel more comfortable. It's kind of gross really, because we should really side with the favor of those who are vulnerable and get harmed, but it's much easier to not.

You might find it difficult to have your memories of him without thinking through what he did and that's ok. He made a choice and that WILL effect the feelings of people around him. You can withdraw from your memories with him a bit if it's less painful, but I would recommend you not excuse him within your mind to make yourself feel better. If you have to choose between continuing your fond opinion of him and acknowledging the horrors of his crimes I would choose the later and then distance myself from thinking as fondly of him because it's very hard to think of both at once. If you can think of both at once you can definitely do that, but as someone who really wants to see a more survivor friendly culture, I think we need to ask ourselves whether a great class is really enough to make up for that kind of abuse in determining ones positive feelings about a person.

On the other hand I think when we have in tact empathy all of us love all of us. People who do these kinds of crimes literally shatter the ease with which we can let ourselves feel such feelings because unfortunately not everyone is connected to or interested in feeling kind feelings with others or acting on them. For the sake of preserving the self or other vulnerable people, we have to let people who have done this level of harm live a different life, where we don't protect or care for them in the same way-- the way we want to for anyone we care about. (I.e. promote their social standing, ensure they are involved in social activities and given positions of trust, protect their freedom). It's really sad. I happen to care about everyone's feeling, even those who have done wrong, so I sympathize deeply with the mixed feelings you have. These are just some idea I have from knowing many such people who have done horrible things, and you'll have to find your own ways to grapple with it. The crimes affect more than even the people they are carried out on, they really do often effect entire communities of people.
posted by xarnop at 9:02 AM on June 21, 2014 [7 favorites]

A great man ruining his life is no contradiction at all. There's no vile act that great men don't commit more often than mediocre men, as mediocre men aren't prone to the hubris, nor cushioned by the flattery and indulgence, that lead great men down the path to evil.
posted by MattD at 9:09 AM on June 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

He is a human being, struggling with his demons. So are you, by the way, and so am I.

Assuming he is guilty, he is going to have to come to terms with his compulsions and his past actions. However, you do not have to hate or reject him for his deficiencies or crimes. Society will punish him. And hopefully he will eventually have the opportunity to move past this, make amends and contribute again in the ways that you yourself have benefited from.

We can tell someone that they did something wrong, and even punish them for it, without making them bad.

In other words, if we can hold and enforce our standards, and at the same time forgo all our judgements, the world will be a much better place. I am not a Christian, but I really dig the line "let he who is without sin cast the first stone".
posted by elf27 at 9:12 AM on June 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I will add I think caring about someone even after they commit a harmful crime is a strength and not a weakness. However in our society this tendency to value forgiveness of violent behavior and sexual abuse and reinstatement of power/social ties tends to harm survivors, and often survivors are painted as even worse than the abusers for feeling hurt that everyone around them moves on from their injuries and shares this happy forgiveness and redemption with the abuser while they live with in some cases, lifelong injuries to their psychological and often physical well being.

It's really hard to not swing either direction, I think we can find ways to ensure ex criminal abusers can have jobs and there are programs to help them have social support without giving them the same power they once had and without celebrating them in the same way one otherwise would. There's a huge spectrum of ideas about this, but your reaction is probably more normal than the anger you hear on the internet which is usually for famous people who it's safe to hate because you don't have a real relationship with them that you lose when you hate them. In real life people tend to be very protective of abusers, and unfortunately often enable them wanting to protect them from their lives being ruined by being caught.
posted by xarnop at 9:37 AM on June 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think a think that we often struggle with when it comes to sex offenders is that the very thing that allows many of them to offend is the trait that makes it hard for us to believe they are guilty. While of course I don't know that he's guilty, and I don't know that even if he's guilty of the child porn charge that he also is someone who has molested children, I do know that many men who offend against children fit this profile-and your reaction is completely appropriate!

They are often engaging, charismatic, charming, disarming, likeable, friendly. They are these things partly because being this way helps them gain access to children. Their entire focus is on fooling you-fooling protective people and those around them-to maintain that access and avoid suspicion. I'm not suggesting that socially-inept, creepy, and odd folks don't commit child sex crimes, just that they aren't going to be the most successful at doing so-the key to maintaining your status in the community while also maintaining access to victims is fitting in and always being above suspicion. And, of course, if you do this successfully, no one wants to believe the truth when a victim comes forward.

I've linked to this before, I think, but the information here is great: protecting your children (advice from child molesters).

I appreciate your struggle and your perspective-this is devastating when it happens and it makes us question our judgment (I work in child protection-and I've had the awful experience of learning a much loved foster parent is a child molester, so I sure feel for you). I think two points are most helpful here: what previous posters have mentioned about people being complicated beings, and understanding that his job was fooling you and everyone else in his life; his success at doing so is not about a weakness in you.
posted by purenitrous at 9:46 AM on June 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

You're heading toward trouble when you idolize someone for their best behaviors or demonize someone for their worst.

Your relationship was a professional one where he excelled. If you found out something similar about the contractor who worked on your home would your tear down the house?

You can appreciate his professional expertise while being horrified at the crime he's accused of committing.
posted by 26.2 at 10:01 AM on June 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

There's not really a how-to manual for how to digest devastating news or how to manage heartbreak correctly. It's not like there's a sequence of steps you take and then it's been handled neatly like a spill on aisle 3.

Wrestle with the fact that someone you deeply admired was capable of something deeply evil. And that that happens in life and that it's confusing and sort of just part of the gig (not heinous crimes, but having to encounter morally challenging situations).
posted by mermily at 10:16 AM on June 21, 2014

Their entire focus is on fooling you-fooling protective people and those around them-to maintain that access and avoid suspicion.

In my experience—not as a psychologist, I'll grant—this is a common conception, and it's understandable to hear from someone who works frequently with direct victims. (Direct as opposed to indirect, the latter being family members on both sides, society at large, etc.) But it's troublesome. Sex offenders are not apex predators roaming the savanna whose every behavioral twitch is carefully evolved to trap prey. They are depressed people turning to dark corners of the Internet instead of alcohol or heroin; or they are former victims who act out certain roles when in certain situations because that's what they learned; or they are impulsives who act on an unexpected opportunity because their selfish and short-minded stupidity doesn't perceive a reason not to; or any one of four dozen other scenarios.

This is exactly the point pertinent to OP's question. People who commit these crimes are not singular-minded creatures whose "entire focus" is on building normal-looking lives for sake of those few hours where they can drop the charade. They are (mostly) fully rounded people just like us whose evils happen to be worse than ours, just like other people's charities are better than ours. Mark the Sex Offender really did love his wife; she wasn't a beard. He really did love designing architecture; it wasn't a cover. And the reason the misbelief otherwise is troublesome isn't that it's unfair to perpetrators, but that it's unfair to indirect victims like the OP, who end up—as the OP reports—experiencing guilt, anxiety, and shame because their lived experiences and consequent emotions do not match the oversimplistic fiction that's being hammered on them by society. It does, as you say, make the OP question his or her judgment. "If only I had seen through the charade." In all likelihood you didn't not because he was skilled or you were blind, but because it wasn't a charade.
posted by cribcage at 10:42 AM on June 21, 2014 [25 favorites]

I'm not sure apex predators was what I was attempting to describe, and as I mentioned, my words may not fit your situation at all. But I've worked with sex offenders and predators for over 20 years, and I think my description is fair when applied to a certain offender type-those whose presentation is designed to protect their behavior, often in order to ensure ongoing access to victims. And while this guy might not be that guy, really understanding that concept helped me understand why I had been fooled before-not to excuse my lack of vigilance but to develop better filters.

But I do think it's dangerous to think of sex offenders, including those who use child porn, as people who turned to their behavior because they are "depressed" or "impulsive"; it's like saying if only they had more friends or a girlfriend they wouldn't be molesting children. That's not accurate and it gives people a false sense of safety.

And this is getting the threat off track, for which I apologize; my goal was to just give the OP some perspective about their situation.
posted by purenitrous at 11:29 AM on June 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

"If only I had seen through the charade." In all likelihood you didn't not because he was skilled or you were blind, but because it wasn't a charade.


I've had similar things happen twice in my life, and it is a mindfuck. My chiropractor, who I thought was awesome, was found guilty of sexually assaulting a number of female patients (I'm a woman), and a friend I had when I was in high school killed 3 people in a way that could only be described as cold and calculating (while we were still in high school). My first instinct was to revise my memories and declare that I never liked nor trusted neither of them, which I did for years.

Now, years later, I feel like part of the challenge in dealing with it was our (meaning humans') tendency to divide people up into the categories of good people and bad people, and even really evil people, but at the end of the day, we are all just people, and we are capable of doing good and bad things. I'm not saying any one of us would do things as bad as what your prof did, but I am saying that it's okay that you didn't identify him as 'an evil person' or someone you should dislike, because when you knew him, he was a person doing good things.

Honestly, it took me years to come to terms with the fact that I actually really liked these two people who did these horrible things, and to be okay with the fact that they were both good and horrible. And if you continue to really struggle with it, I would encourage you to talk to a professional about it to help you reach a place where you're okay - just because you weren't directly involved in the crime doesn't mean that you weren't affected, or that you shouldn't need help in processing it.
posted by scrute at 2:23 PM on June 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I hope it's not selfish of me to feel this way but I just... feel like this is such a mindfuck and I don't know what to do. It seems like all that I've learned from his is somehow a sham now and I feel almost disgusted to think that I may have been so influenced and affected by his choice of works and his interpretations.

I don't think your reaction is selfish -- look at how many of us had a similar response over in the Marion Zimmer Bradley thread on learning of all the horrible sexual abuses she and her husband committed against children. Look at the threads about Jerry Sandusky and see people losing their love & respect for Coach Paterno for his actions (or inaction).

How do I fully digest this news? Should I be reevaluating all my memories of this guy and trying to change my view of him? Should I be throwing away all the essays I kept?

Your essays are your own, I don't see any reason to nuke them from orbit, I would just put them out of sight for now and give yourself time to process this. As far as reevaluating your memories - you probably will see things in a different light now; maybe his "twisted sense of humor" won't seem so funny in retrospect. But, I don't think that's something you need to actively search through your memories for, it will probably just happen.
posted by oh yeah! at 2:45 PM on June 21, 2014

There was an episode of This American Life recently that interviewed someone tempted by minors who works very hard at not participating in any way. A lot of what he talks about is the internal struggle, and how a one dimensional view of sex offenders is what keeps many from seeking help. People contain multitudes.
posted by jrobin276 at 4:02 PM on June 21, 2014

I agree with others above that this is a painful situation and that you seem to be handling it in a thoughtful way. It may help to think that the works that he taught are not tainted by his possible guilt; all great works of art are admired by a great many people, good, evil and in-between. His interpretations are probably not unique, either, but are shared by multiple critics. Your understanding of the works may have been assisted by him but your own insight into the works played the major part.

You are spared having to evaluate a unique work of art created by him and therefore inseparable from the knowledge of his possible guilt. Unless you published in conjunction with his name, this is unlikely to affect your professional future.

Your pain at this turn of events, and your concern for his possible victims, is a credit to you.
posted by Morrigan at 4:37 PM on June 21, 2014

How do you know he's guilty?

I feel this is important too. We have a legal system that presumes innocence for a reason.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:47 PM on June 22, 2014

"If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being." — Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:19 AM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

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