IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Forgave My Best Friend When He Was Convicted for Looking at Child Porn — and He Did It Again 13 Years Later

I have begun to re-examine my empathy, which leads me to endlessly defend and rationalize the actions of those in the wrong.
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Publish date:
February 21, 2015
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best friends, trauma, weekend, child abuse, Sex,

I pride myself on being a deeply empathetic person. Even as a child I was like this, rooting for the misunderstood villains in movies, asking my mother why murderers felt compelled to commit their crimes, befriending every unpopular oddball in the neighborhood. My mother thought this was a bad thing, as the people I befriended were often domineering, cruel, or abusive, but I thought it made up for some of the interpersonal qualities I lacked. I've never been a very caring person thanks to childhood trauma, and I struggle to give a shit when another person is in pain. I made up for this by accepting everyone, just as I longed to be accepted, warts and all, overemotional callous bitch or no. In recent years, though, I have begun to re-examine this empathy, which leads me to endlessly defend and rationalize the actions of those in the wrong, and I wonder if it is entirely healthy. Last year I was finally faced with actions that even I couldn't justify.

***

I am wrenched from sleep by insistent hammering on my front door at 7 a.m. I hear my best friend and flatmate's hushed tones and strange authoritative voices. My heart is pounding out of my chest, my limbs are buzzing with adrenaline. I know what has happened before the polite knock on my bedroom door comes. Two unthreatening, plainclothes female police officers are standing with my friend who looks down at his feet, unable to meet my eye, mumbling that he's sorry. They tell me what I knew they would — it's the same thing as before, they're taking him down to the station. As I sit there, still in bed, menstruating in my cutesy nightie, in an odd state of sleepy shock, the cops question me about which electronic devices in the house belong to me, whether I have allowed my friend to use them, how long we have had our living room sofa. I see male officers passing in the background wearing blue gloves and carrying plastic evidence bags full of our belongings. I cling on to how much this reminds me of trope-y TV stuff, CSI and all that, because it's easier than being here in this moment. This can't be happening. Not again.

***

I met Adam when I was 13 and he was 15, on the school field. We bonded over a mutual love of Ocean Colour Scene and fled to the library, pursued by a wasp, where our geography teacher ribbed us for using the place as a dating venue. Over the next three years we were friends, enemies, an on/off couple — it was high school. When I was 16 and he was 18 we had sex — my first time. His, too, but, pathological liar that he is, this did not come to light until later. Our romantic relationship ended amicably six months later, at my hand, but we remained the best of friends. I would rush from the school where my weirdness and queerness had made me a pariah to his nice, normal, two-car, two-parent household round the corner, to watch MTV2 and talk about my daddy issues.

By my seventeenth birthday, now the isolated weirdo of a new institution — sixth form college — he was the sole invitee to my pathetic “party.” When he never showed I sat and ate lemon cake with my mum and aunt, feeling all the angsty feels that sort of thing will prompt. I had no idea being jilted on my birthday was about to become completely insignificant. The phone rang, Adam's mother on the other end. The police had come in the night, burst right in without a single knock, and arrested his father. It had later become clear this was a case of mistaken identity — the real culprit was Adam. His mother said only that he had been “looking at things he wasn't supposed to” on the Internet. Even at 17, in 2001, I knew exactly what this meant. It meant illegal sexual stuff. Still, I was inexperienced enough to conclude that this sweet, kind boy who'd held my hand through so much drama couldn't be condemned. He had only just turned 19 himself, hardly a dirty old man, and he was probably just looking at barely legal stuff and it wasn't like he was hurting anyone. I needed to believe that. The only one who truly loved me, the harmless boy I let into my pants because I thought he was safe, couldn't be a pedophile.

Adam was prosecuted for “making indecent images of children” — the legal description for downloading child pornography. He pled guilty and his defense revolved around a confession of childhood rape. He received a two year suspended sentence, with probation, and was placed on the sex offenders register. It was in the local newspaper. His entire family had to move to the other end of the country, taking his younger brother out of school. I was left behind to answer the curious questions of kids at college and family members. “You don't know the full story,” I'd tell them, “The way it was reported made it sound worse than it is.” I tried not to think about the fact that he was routinely doing this stuff while we were a couple, during the time we were sleeping together. I didn't want to face the fact that the boy I lost my virginity to was having these kinds of thoughts — before, after, maybe during. I focused my attention on the abuse confession and felt guilty about listening to edgy grunge music full of rape references in his presence. We never spoke about the details of his illegal activities, though his refusal to talk about it or defend himself certainly suggested this was not a case of casually browsing barely legal stuff. I cast him in the role of unfortunate victim, abuse survivor, another misunderstood weirdo like me.

***

Adam and I remained close friends for over 13 years. Even though, over time he confessed to me that not only had he never had sex before me, but the girl he supposedly had slept with, a girlfriend who lived in London, had been entirely fabricated. Later he heavily implied that the abuse story was also fabricated. In fact, he lied a lot, always to protect his own ass and avoid facing situations he didn't like. I wish I could say any of this set off alarm bells. However, the whole sordid incident had by then become ancient history, just one of the many touchy periods we'd each been through, as outsiders with mental health issues. I assumed his fascination with not-altogether-legal porn was a thing of the past. This was a ridiculously naïve assumption considering how much porn he was torrenting, but we were all sex positive here and I guess it was out of sight, out of mind. Plus, he was one of the biggest feminist allies I knew, even making one of those “I Need Feminism Because” images to share on social media, holding up a sign about his outrage at my treatment by the patriarchy. I recently came across that picture again on Facebook and felt sick, because of course I now know that this whole thing went much deeper.

He and I moved in together four years ago, both freshly diagnosed with ASD and BPD respectively, both wanting to help each other find a stability we hadn't had before. In the time we lived together, I slowly improved my life and he slowly got much worse. He was constantly out-of-his-head stoned, out of work, and not looking for anything to do with his time. He spent almost all of his time in his room in the wee hours, downloading hours and hours of porn, obsessively hoarding it. I don't know how much of this was child porn, nor the nature of it. All I know is that the police came a-knocking again and this time I could not be so forgiving.

Adam is now being investigated on new “making indecent images of children” charges, 13 years after the first conviction. He and I had only one conversation when he came home after his arrest (they are still building their case, hence the taking of evidence), and tried to act like everything was normal. Before I told him to leave, I asked him to explain himself. He claimed he doesn't know why, making no attempt to defend himself beyond dubbing his actions “stupid.” I told him that what he did was not simply stupid — which would imply he was unaware of the possible consequences — but reckless and disgusting. It was an abuse of my trust and it was completely undefendable.

And yet, in the months since we went our separate ways, there are times when I wonder, Am I being unfair? I am so skilled at justifying bad behavior — for myself and others — that I could forgive almost anything. His strange compulsion to seek out these images, which he claims do not arouse him — perhaps it's a manifestation of autistic thinking, a routine his brain got stuck on at an early age and can't break out of. Maybe, to him, these images may as well be of trains or constellations of stars. Perhaps this does not mean what it appears to mean. That's what I want to believe, but I think what has become clear to me now, as a woman of 30, is that it does not matter. I have removed him from my life as an act of self-preservation. A person who constantly lies, has a secret addiction that goes against everything he leads people to believe he stands for, and involves you not once but twice in a legal situation that makes you feel unsafe — this is not a person to empathize with. This is a person to run away from.

My peers knew this, telling me they found him creepy and weird, something I never picked up on. I wonder about this now, my lack of an inbuilt alarm system to detect potential danger. In Adam I saw only a pathetic sort of vulnerability, a quality of being lost and out of place, a quality I've always been able to relate to. Besides, odd little bespectacled weirdos are my audience, they always have been since my early years playing Star Wars in the art cupboard with Theodore, play school nerd. I don't know why this kind of boy always goes for me but I do know why I like them. They are masculine like my father, who abandoned me. Yet they are also in a way not wholly masculine, unlike my father. They are comfortingly male and safely impotent. They will never hurt me. Like most false dichotomies, forged in the childhood unconscious, this is ludicrous and false. Anyone can be dangerous.

As my mum always warned me, beware wolves in sheep's clothing. Even if the wolves can't help it. Even if they're only human like us. Protect yourself.