A Friend's Past
July 30, 2004 1:52 PM   Subscribe

A very good, close friend of mine for at least 16 years, recently revealed something to me . . .

He's a really nice person, professionally employed, very well-liked by a wide variety of people, well-educated, intelligent and articulate. From all I've ever known, his is an enviable life. Let's call him "Bob" for the purposes of this query.

I've seen Bob go through occasional bouts of depression, but he always seems to come around eventually. He's seemed a bit down and out lately, and this last weekend while mildly intoxicated, he completely shocked me with his revelation. I'll condense the story for you - it took a couple of hours of discussion and many interruptions with Bob crying and even puking once (not due to the alcohol either).

About eighteen years ago (yeah, 2 years before I met him), Bob was convicted of "sexual contact with a minor." When Bob was 18, he lived as a sort of foster-child with a family. They had an 8-year old son, and Bob and the son were close. But Bob received several hand-jobs from the 8-year old. He swears that he never achieved orgasm with the boy, and that nothing else ever happened besides the boy masturbating him.

Bob also states that he was convicted solely on the basis of his own testimony, resulting from a confession he made after a suicide attempt.

He assured me that he's done nothing like that since then.

Bob has never lied to me that I know, so I guess I have no reason to doubt these claims.

Bob said that he's always been plagued with guilt that is at times very debilitating (i.e., his apparent depression). He's occasionally sought counselling for it.

After his conviction, and prison time, Bob eventually went on to be very successful in college (where I met him) and a subsequent career. I think anybody who knows him would be shocked about his past.

He's been a good friend for a long time. What - if anything - do I do now? I don't feel like I can go on with our friendship as if I didn't know this.
posted by yesster to Human Relations (31 answers total)

He's been a good friend for a long time, and you met him after this all happened, so I don't see a problem with not doing anything at all. I mean, if you have a son or daughter, I would supervise any contact he has with them, just in case, but otherwise, I don't think you need to do anything. He opened up to you because he trusted you and felt secure enough with your friendship to tell you. To do anything about it now would betray the 18 years you've known him.
posted by crunchland at 2:02 PM on July 30, 2004

i guess it depends on what you feel. personally, i'd forgive the guy and let it drop. he's done his time and it's obviously been a hard ride. but i don't have kids and i know that changes peoples opinions on things children-related a little....
posted by andrew cooke at 2:03 PM on July 30, 2004

He's been a good friend for a long time. What - if anything - do I do now? I don't feel like I can go on with our friendship as if I didn't know this.

You're right about that - you can't go on as if you didn't know it. You might still be able to be friends, though, depending on how strong your friendship with Bob is. Right now, you might want to take a break from seeing him for a week or two, at least until you've worked things out in your head. Then, depending on how you feel, you can talk to him again.

Whatever you do, keep in mind that what he's told you doesn't change who he is. What happened has always been true, you just didn't know about it. So if Bob was a person worth having as a friend before you knew about this, he probably still is, providing your perception of him hasn't changed so much as to make that impossible.
posted by vorfeed at 2:08 PM on July 30, 2004

Go on with your friendship as if you didn't know that.

Seriously. Why on earth shouldn't you?
posted by ook at 2:09 PM on July 30, 2004

It sounds like a cry for help, to me.
posted by bshort at 2:10 PM on July 30, 2004

If you can still be his friend then do it. But there are some things that we never stop paying for, I've found. If I were Bob I would expect things to change with anyone I told this to.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 2:11 PM on July 30, 2004

I think your friend needs forgiveness.

While it's not exactly your place to "forgive" him, I think you should be supportive and understanding. He's obviously tortured by guilt. If you trust him, and believe that he hasn't done anything like this for nearly 20 years, and he's paid his debt to society, then there's no reason you should hold it against him.

People go through terrible times and suffer from horrible--often only temporary--mental illnesses. Sometimes, innocent people suffer because of it. But the damage he did to the child (if any) can't be undone. I think whatever jailtime the state saw fit to give him, plus 18 years of torturing himself, is probably enough. He (and you) should never forget, and he should be vigilant in exploring why he did what he did and in preventing it from ever happening again. But he'll never come to terms with it if he has to keep it buried, fearful that anyone he tells will hate him for it.

I don't know how I'd react if a close friend confessed something like this to me, but I'd like to think I'd be supportive.

Having said that, what I would do or what anyone here would do doesn't really matter. You need to work out your own thoughts and feelings. If you're not ready or able or willing to be understanding, my suggesting it isn't going to help.

Maybe more counselling is a good idea--for him and even for you.

Good luck to you and your friend.
posted by jpoulos at 2:13 PM on July 30, 2004

Response by poster: Of all the people in the world, I should be open to looking past this. I have my own shady history, and I wouldn't want to be judged today for what I did 20 years ago. But this just seems different.

Thanks for the responses. I'll be seeing him again this weekend.
posted by yesster at 2:15 PM on July 30, 2004

My off the top of my head answer was, Why can't you go on with your friendship like before?

But then I tried to imagine what my reaction would be if a good friend of mine came out with some piece of news that jolted my view of him/her. And it was hard to imagine.

Even though we all know that everyone has secrets that they're not particularly proud of, I think we all make certain assumptions about the people we know. It seems to me that there are certain acts that are so beyond the scope of normal, that it's bound to shake-up your view of someone. And if I had known someone for a long time, that shake-up might be really disorienting. Like I'd probably be going back over the years we've known each other and wondering if I should re-interpret this or that moment in light of what I now know ( That time we did ... and he did... I wonder if he acted like that because of this thing he did all those years ago....) And the thought of that act would certainly affect how I viewed him now. I guess the question I'd have for myself was whether I would be big enough to continue being his friend even knowing this secret.

I would hope I'd be the kind of person who was big enough, and could end up following vorfeed's and jpoulos' wisdom. But until I've actually had the experience, I guess I'm not sure how I'd fare on this particular test.
posted by jasper411 at 2:20 PM on July 30, 2004

I don't see how you can just go on and pretend that nothing has changed - something like this just has to change the relationship between you. The fact that Bob has told you about this shows that he has an extremely high level of trust in you and it sounds like he is looking for help. I would suggest that you talk to him further to try and find out if there is any way you can help him come to terms with his past and move on (which his confession indicates that he has been unable to do so far). On the other hand, he may have just wanted to confess to someone in an attempt to "get it off his chest" and may be unwilling to discuss it any further.

As PinkStainlessTail says, some things in your past never go away, but that doesn't mean you have to punish him for it - he seems to have done that plenty himself. Just because someone has done something bad in the past, doesn't mean he is not a worthy friend now. Let he who is without sin etc.

If you have children, the situation is a little different, though. You have to make decisions that affect them as well as you if this is the case and you need to ask yourself if you are willing to take the risk of them being hurt. It would be a real shame if you had to lose a friendship because you didn't feel comfortable having someone around your kids, but life is full of tough decisions like that and your priority has to be your children.
posted by dg at 2:36 PM on July 30, 2004

I had a similar situation happen. The guy was convicted of sex with a minor. I'm not sure what the "acts" were, but I know that it occured over a few years. This guy is on probation for 10 years. He was in medical school when he was convicted and has lost his chance to ever work in the medical profession. I know that he went to treatment and is thankful for it. Whenever he hits a stressful point in his life he meets with his therapist.

It sounds your friend needs to seek out therapy for sex offenders, both individual and group. Truthfully, he's trying to minimize his actions by saying that he didn't have an orgasm. So what if he didn't come? He sexually assaulted at least one child. Period. He has to deal with the demons inside of himself before he hurts himself or another child.

Interestly, the guy that I know also confessed to a friend of mine when he was drunk too.
posted by Juicylicious at 3:08 PM on July 30, 2004

Your friend is filled with a self-loathing so deep he needs to share the truth with someone, even if it means risking that relationship. It would probably help him tremendously to know that someone would be his friend despite his past. So... try and be his friend on whatever terms you can. He's not his past. He is the person you have known for sixteen years.
posted by xammerboy at 3:29 PM on July 30, 2004

Everyone's got skeletons in their closet, he was probably a victim himself at one point. SIXTEEN YEARS is an eternity - I saw let bygones be bygones.
posted by ac at 3:29 PM on July 30, 2004

Everybody seems to have some crap in their closet that they keep secret forever, but letting things like this go is healthy and sometimes it just feels awesome to get a secret out, especially if you were afraid of the secret coming out for a long time. I've had a couple of secrets come out at strange times, and it felt awesome.

Another thing I'd mention - just because he was 18 and an adult at the time doesn't mean he was an adult mentally and he obviously had some serious issues between what was and wasn't ok and right. I think most people would be surprised by the people around them in this respect - everybody has a lot of growing to do, even at 18, and those that learn from others' mistakes are the ones that luck out. The ones that screwed up are the date-rapists and drunk-drivers that we are good friends with that we'd never have suspected.
posted by crazy finger at 3:33 PM on July 30, 2004

crazy finger makes an excellent point. Clearly, what this guy did was wrong wrong wrong (and yes, the whole "I never came to orgasm" thing is classic denial). But, this is also something that happened to someone in a very abnormal family situation at a highly sexually charged age. It's not clear to what extent it's assault vs. sexual confusion and experimentation gone horribly horribly wrong.

Your friend is clearly reaching out to you, and clearly values your friendship and trust. You need to take a moment to check your feelings about it, but absolutely, your next interaction with him needs to address this directly, and how you feel about it. It's out there, and it's the elephant in the room. Acknowledge it, and move on, but acknowledge it.
posted by mkultra at 3:59 PM on July 30, 2004

[echoes what others have said]

You should be honoured, yesster, that your friendship with Bob is such that he can confide in you. He has a stunning degree of trust in you.

I wager that he needs someone he values to value him back. I submit that a suicide attempt and sixteen years of self-loathing are enough punishment for the guy. You are his opportunity for him to accept his past, recognize that he is no longer that person, and move on with life.

Probably all it will take is active listening and acceptance of him.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:38 PM on July 30, 2004

Fifteenthing what others said, I don't think it should automatically terminate the relationship, but given that you do/did have a solid foundation of friendship, I would suggest one thing--that you be open with him about how this affects the relationship with you.

That doesn't mean that you have to keep him up to date on every twist and turn of your thinking, but that after your gut has stabilized on what this really means for your relationship, I think you should make sure to share that with him. Whether it's positive or negative, I think you owe him that much as a function of your past friendship. If it's really damaged your friendship, he should know, and not be under any false illusions. If you end up deciding it's something you can deal with, then he shouldn't have to spend the next 10 years guessing whether you're really still his friend, or just being nice to him.
posted by LairBob at 5:21 PM on July 30, 2004

Doesn't anyone believe in the idea that a person can change? That no matter how badly one has acted in the past, it is possible (for some people, anyway) to change and become a person who would never do those things? If you do, then 16 years seems like a pretty long time to judge the extent of the change.
posted by epimorph at 6:16 PM on July 30, 2004

Doesn't anyone believe in the idea that a person can change?

In my experience, people rarely change and when they do, it's almost always for the worse.

I think you have to rely on your ability to judge people, yesster, just as you did in assessing this person before you had this particular piece of information in your possession. Now you have to reassess, including the new info, but no one (certainly none of us) can tell you what result to arrive at. But definitely you have to reconsider since the facts as you know them have changed.
posted by rushmc at 7:17 PM on July 30, 2004

I'm kind of afraid to read the other responses before I post this, but...

What - if anything - do I do now?

Be a normal friend. If this guy has been around the block, done the crime, done the time, searched his soul and is trying to move on as a human being, then the best thing you can do is just accept him as one and treat him normally.

I'd imagine that in his position, he's got nothing but condemnation from society, because we generally believe that once you commit that crime *whatever the age / time / circumstance / evidence* then basically you are a monster for life.

I'm not going to argue against that point of view. I'm sure there are people in the room here who have children and would rather you simply killed Bob in his sleep. But if you think he's okay (and I'm trusting your judgement here) then just don't treat him like a freak. That will probably be a unique thing for him in this culture.

There's a difference between things we do and things we are. Those who don't believe in people's ability to change may be right, but they're ignoring another concept, called "the mistake," which is when you do something that doesn't represent who/what you are, and regret it forever.

No one here ever made one of those? No, I didn't think so. Nothing bur perfect parents in this room.
posted by scarabic at 7:48 PM on July 30, 2004

what five fresh fish and others said. He trusts you; now see if you can repay his trust with your continued friendship.
posted by amberglow at 8:05 PM on July 30, 2004

There's a difference between things we do and things we are. Those who don't believe in people's ability to change may be right, but they're ignoring another concept, called "the mistake," which is when you do something that doesn't represent who/what you are, and regret it forever.

Keep your eyes open, but from the little information we've gleaned from you, it seems he is rehabilitated... Although it could just as well be a cry for help. Does he have these feelings again? Is it coming back? This may sound like it's not your place, but you should recommend he should see someone so he can be absolutely sure its not a part of who he is.
posted by Keyser Soze at 9:23 PM on July 30, 2004

It sounds to me like he already has the "cry for help" bit figured out: he goes to therapy and all that.

Treat him as you would a recovering any number of recovering alcoholics. At the core of their being, they are alcoholics. Their ability to control their behaviour makes them humans who are worthy of a peaceful, productive, and happy life.

We only slam the door on people when they have proven themselves incapable of controlling their antisocial behaviours.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:53 PM on July 30, 2004

"I don't feel like I can go on with our friendship as if I didn't know this."

If you value the friendship, and from everything you say it seems you do, that is exactly what you do. It never happened.

Eighteen isn't very old and people (especially immature horny adolescents) do dumb shit. Okay, what he did was *really* dumb, but from what you say Bob isn't a predator, he's a nitwit who has been beating himself up for sixteen years. He's paid his debt.
posted by cedar at 10:46 PM on July 30, 2004

I wasn't going to respond to this, but having read all the responses I'll do so for the purpose of providing an opposing view.

Drop this guy, do it now, do it fast, and don't look back. I've known people who've done similar things. They are absolute masters of manipulation and bullshit; they can look you in the eye and tell you whatever lies you want to hear, because they can make themselves believe it for the moment, and they can cast any event in a self-serving light. (Because of this chameleon ability to be whatever you want them to be, people like this are often very well-liked.) Aside from what he's done in the past, you don't want someone with these personality traits as your friend anyway.

Seriously, all of my bullshit detectors are going off hearing this story -- the attempts to minimize his actions, the oh-poor-me-and-my-debilitating-guilt line, etc.

Of course, you've known him for 16 years and you should certainly trust your assessment of him over that of a stranger on the Internet -- but keep your eyes open.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 11:27 PM on July 30, 2004

Clay Shaw/Bertrand
posted by ac at 2:00 AM on July 31, 2004

I don't think you should cut off the friendship as some have suggested. Nor do I think you should go on as if he never told you. He told you, and he told you for a reason. Find out what that reason is and deal with the question once you know. 16 years of not telling you and suddenly telling you? Something's up. He needs or wants something and has come to you to get it. Maybe he's going through a rough time and wants the knowledge that someone is watching over his behaviour closely to keep him in line. Maybe you have kids and he wants you to be able to protect them. Maybe a lot of things. You're going to have to ask him - quite probably several times - why he brought it up now.

I'm concerned by his attempts to minimize it to you, it's a sign to me that he hasn't come to grips with it, or at the very least that this isn't a full, heartfelt confession.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:12 AM on July 31, 2004

They are absolute masters of manipulation and bullshit

In which case he would never have brought it up in the first place. It wasn't like he needed to cover it up: it wasn't known in the first place. What on earth could he be gaining, other than perhaps some self-forgiveness, from revealing such a shocking bit of information?
posted by five fresh fish at 11:11 AM on July 31, 2004

I'm concerned by his attempts to minimize it to you

I don't think that is a concern at this point.

It was the first time he's admitted an extremely high-risk secret. Of course he was going to try to soften it, make it easier to accept.

If he continues to minimize it, instead of accepting full personal responsibility for his actions (while, I hope, simultaneously accepting that he is a different person now and will not allow himself to make the same mistake again), then it's cause for concern.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:15 AM on July 31, 2004

IANARP [i am not a religious person] but you might consider going by his house some sunday morning and waking him up and taking him to church, and tell him as you drive him up there that "from what they tell me about these places, the basic idea is, we are all sinners, and there's a creator who made the world, and this is one of his buildings. so, when you're inside one of these buildings, you sit or sing or what have you, and wait until you're given permission to ask his forgiveness, and if you fully repent, you'll be forgiven, forever, amen. i'm not sure what to think of it, but it's a pretty big deal in our culture, you got it off your chest to me and i'm glad, and i want you to get it off your chest fully, and then i don't really want to hear about it anymore, ok? i want you to go in here with me and we'll sit and sing and what have you, and you try to make peace with yourself."

afterwards if necessary you can explain the basic idea behind this which is, whether or not there is a god forgiving him, it's one of the basic concepts of our culture that he will be forgiven. this means that, after he's rendered unto caeser his debt [jail time], and then he repents in his heart, our society says, that's pretty much all you can ask for. so even if there isn't a god / even if he doesn't believe, our society forgives him too. you render your debt to society, then you repent [make the change in your heart], that's the two-part process.
posted by mitchel at 1:54 PM on July 31, 2004

something that struck me after reading IshmaelGraves's response - it might make sense now to decide where to draw your lines. if this person is being manipulative or deceitful, and things develop in an unpleasant way, it might help to have already decided what you would do in various situations. for example, if he confesses to a later act that he hasn't been caught for, what do you do?

i know i'm not the most normal person in the world, but for me that kind of thing would be a comfort. i'd be happy to continue, knowing that i already had things clear and, if i was unlucky enough to find that a line was crossed, i'd give my previous decision a lot of weight, no matter what had happened in the intervening time (excuses, deeper friendship, etc).

(i don't know anything about child abuse, so this was thinking more along the lines of if it was an alcoholic - i'm not at all sure it's a fair comparison, especially in this case, but nor do i see any harm in making such plans).
posted by andrew cooke at 2:11 PM on July 31, 2004

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