Transcript

522:

Tarred and Feathered
Transcript

Originally aired 04.11.2014

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

Hey, everybody, Ira Glass here. So we've been working on today's episode of the radio show for a while, and the theme of the episode is "Tarred and Feathered." And initially, we just assumed we'd be using the phrase "tarred and feathered" as a metaphor for when somebody is shamed publicly.

But then we read a news report about a guy named Jock Nelson, who actually was tarred and feathered. Somebody poured tar on him and then stuck feathers to the tar, and not in the year 1850 or something. This was in 2007, seven years ago, in Belfast in Northern Ireland.

Jon Ronson

Where did it happen? Was it just around that corner?

Jackie Mcdonald

Just-- well-- 100 yards from here.

Jon Ronson

OK, so I'm looking over to where you're pointing. And there's a day nursery, the Scribbles Day Nursery.

Ira Glass

Jon Ronson, who appears on our show from time to time, happened to be going to Belfast this week and happens to be writing a book about public shaming. So we asked him to go check out where this happened, which, yes, was right in front of a daycare center.

Jon Ronson

He was tied to a post. Was it that post right there that he was tied to, that lamp post?

Jackie Mcdonald

Yup. The woman actually wanted to beat him. And people were saying, well, you can't very well beat him. He's tied to a lamp post, and he's tarred and feathered. We can't really add insult to injury. Or injury to the insult, maybe I should say.

Ira Glass

Jon is talking here to Jackie McDonald, who is one of the leaders of the UDA, the Ulster Defense Association, which is a paramilitary group. During all the years of troubles in Northern Ireland, the paramilitary groups were the ones who would beat people up. They'd shoot people on both sides of the conflict. And even though most of the violence ended with a ceasefire in the 1990s, those groups are still around. They still exist. Jon says that Jackie McDonald looks and dresses a lot like Pauly from The Sopranos.

Jon Ronson

Yeah, he had a big gold chain. He had thick, kind of Pauly hair. He had his shirt open, so you could see his chest hair. He had one of those leather jackets that tough guys wear.

Ira Glass

Did his organization do the tarring and feathering?

Jon Ronson

Well, he kept on saying the community did it. But then when I pressed him, he said, well, we are the community leaders, the UDA, so yeah.

Ira Glass

Was he there?

Jon Ronson

Yeah.

Jon Ronson

By the way, were you here the day that they--

Jackie Mcdonald

I just happened to be walking past.

Jon Ronson

Now when he said that, the woman who was standing with him--

Ira Glass

A local.

Jon Ronson

A local lady-- burst into silent laughter, which I found quite telling.

Ira Glass

Now, people do all kinds of things in this world that might tick off a paramilitary group. So what does it take to get tarred and feathered? Like what exactly did this guy do?

Jon Ronson

OK, well, according to the Daily Mail article that came out at the time, he'd been a bouncer in a city center bar. And he lost his job, and he was having marital difficulties. And so he started dealing drugs to children, according to the Daily Mail. And he was repeatedly told to stop, but he didn't stop. And then one day, word got around a local pub that he was dealing drugs to children in a park.

Jackie Mcdonald

And then he was caught, literally, with bags of coke in his pocket.

Ira Glass

Well, why not just go to the police, if they caught the guy with the cocaine?

Jon Ronson

Right, well, Jackie told me why.

Jackie Mcdonald

The police need evidence, and the police need-- there's technicalities out there. And too many times in the past when drug dealers have been reported, they go to court, and they're back doing the same thing the same night. So the community just thought it was more serious than that. It had to be dealt with in a different way.

Jon Ronson

Right.

Jackie Mcdonald

We actually talked about having somewhere in the park where we could put-- what do you call it?

Jon Ronson

Like the stocks?

Jackie Mcdonald

Exactly. The stocks. We were going to have them there as a deterrent.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait, wait. I'm just going to stop the tape. He's saying stocks, like in colonial America, like where people would have their hands sticking through wood things, and they would just bring in stocks?

Jon Ronson

Yep. They were seriously considering bringing in stocks.

Jackie Mcdonald

I'm going to talk this over with the police. When they say but if somebody was put in the stocks, and there was people throwing eggs or tomatoes at them, the police would have to intervene. And I says, well, if the police intervene, then the eggs and the tomatoes would be thrown at the police. So we didn't want to create that sort of situation.

Jon Ronson

And in the end, they decided, OK, well, we'll tar and feather him.

Ira Glass

So what exactly happens when you're tarred and feathered? Like, how does it go?

Jon Ronson

OK. So he was told to turn up at a certain hour. I think something like 11 o'clock in the morning on a Sunday morning.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait. They told him we're going to tar and feather you. Like you got to show up on time?

Jon Ronson

They didn't mention the words "tarring and feathering." They just said, you have to show up. You have to show up on Sunday morning at 11 o'clock. And so he did. Yeah, I know. He would have been pretty certain that something bad was going to happen to him. Nonetheless, he turned up on the dot of 11, because if you turn up late, something worse would happen to you.

Ira Glass

Back, during the troubles, this would happen all the time. People would be asked to show up like this, and then they would get beaten with iron bars or baseball bats. Or they would get shot through the knees or ankles or hands. The paramilitary groups administered all kinds of punishments. So the guy shows up, as requested.

Jon Ronson

And then what happened?

Jackie Mcdonald

He was tied up, and a placard put on him. And he was tarred and feathered.

Jon Ronson

I asked them where they got the tar from. And they said, B and Q, which is the local DIY superstore. What's the American version of--

Ira Glass

That's like Home Depot.

Jon Ronson

Yeah, Home Depot. Yeah, our Home Depot.

Jon Ronson

Were the feathers brought over in like a big bag? Or was it pillows?

Jackie Mcdonald

I think it was a pillow.

Jon Ronson

And would the pillow just have come from these houses just around here?

Jackie Mcdonald

Well, if they had asked for pillows, they would get 100.

Ira Glass

I don't know if you can tell what he just said. He said, if they asked for pillows, they would've gotten 100.

Jackie Mcdonald

You know, the local people were very annoyed at what this fellow had done.

Ira Glass

There are pictures of what this guy looked like, once he was tarred and feathered. And they are shocking. We put one on our website, if you're curious. He barely looks like a person, like he's just this blob of black tar and white feathers. You can't see his face at all. It's like his whole head is covered. He looks like the Abominable Snowman or something, with a placard hanging around his neck that says, I'm a drug-dealing scumbag.

Jon Ronson

So in the Daily Mail article that came out, that said that Jock Nelson screamed for mercy, as he was being tarred and feathered, that it was boiling tar, and that his shirt was pulled down over his shoulders so that it would burn. But Jackie says, it didn't happen quite that way and that Jock Nelson was fully clothed.

Jon Ronson

Was he making any kind of noise, as the tar went over him?

Jackie Mcdonald

No. No. Not that I could hear from a distance.

Jon Ronson

Right. OK. So he wasn't screaming or anything.

Jackie Mcdonald

No, no. I think he was happy enough that that's all that was happening to him.

Jon Ronson

But he must have some kind of-- it must have been terrible.

Jackie Mcdonald

Well, certainly, and it was meant to be. You have to remember, 10 years ago, this fellow would have been found, shot dead, [INAUDIBLE]. But because of the peace process and people moving on, things have been dealt with differently. And at the end of the day, tarring and feathering wasn't the worst thing could have happened. It could have been a lot worse.

Ira Glass

Although the original story that we saw about this in the Daily Mail said that the guy who was tarred and feathered had been selling drugs to children, Jon came out of his visit to Belfast not sure that's true at all, or anyway, if it's the whole truth. A former BBC reporter named Brian Rowan, who's reported on Northern Ireland for over 20 years, pointed out to Jon that a guy like this one who was allegedly selling drugs might have been seen by the paramilitary groups as competition for their own drug operations.

Brian Rowan

And while it is presented in this kind of Robin Hood fashion of defender of the community and helper of the community, these are paramilitary organizations who themselves are involved in drugs, are involved in crime. This is their way of presenting themselves in the light that they would like to present themselves in, that they're defenders of the community.

Ira Glass

Keep in mind, also, that the allegation that Jock Nelson sold drugs is coming only from the paramilitary groups, that he never got due process. He got no day in court. We did reach out to him, to Jock Nelson, the guy who got tarred and feathered to get his side of the story.

Jon Ronson

We tried. We contacted him on Twitter. And he just sent us a message saying he didn't want to talk to us. But good luck with our story.

Ira Glass

How's he doing?

Jon Ronson

He's left Belfast for a while, went to Scotland. And now he's back working as a traffic warden.

Ira Glass

A traffic warden gives out parking tickets.

Jon Ronson

And I said to Jackie McDonald, is he back selling drugs? And Jackie McDonald said, look, if he was back selling drugs, he wouldn't be a traffic warden right now. He'd be dead.

Jon Ronson

You've been in prison yourself. So you know from both sides. What is the best deterrent? Is it going to prison or is it being tarred and feathered?

Jackie Mcdonald

Oh, tarred and feathering, without a doubt. I think, with ordinary decent criminals, [INAUDIBLE], drug dealers, thieves, hoods, whatever, there's something like 47%, 48%, 49% re-offend. With tarring and feathering, it's only had to happen once. There's been no re-offending since.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our radio show, "Tarred and Feathered." Apparently, humiliating somebody in public is something lots of people enjoy. And it's also really effective. It gets results. People leave town. People change.

We have stories today of people who very much do not want public shaming. And they take action, dramatic action. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. The Hounds of Blairsville.

Ira Glass

Act One. The Hounds of Blairsville. There are all kinds of ways that you could be tarred and feathered, but the effects are pretty much the same, I think. People stop talking to you. You're a pariah. Stephanie Foo has this story from a small town in Georgia called Blairsville.

Stephanie Foo

Gene Cooley was planning his wedding. A second marriage for him and his fiancee Paulette. And one day he was at work cutting hair-- he's a hairstylist-- when he got a call from the police.

Gene Cooley

And starts asking me about a shooting, of course, I knew nothing about. And all of a sudden, then they mention about Paulette. And I just totally freaked out at that time. So, give me a minute?

Stephanie Foo

Yeah, yeah, of course.

Paulette's ex-husband had murdered Paulette and then killed himself. He'd been unhappy about her remarrying. She'd filed a restraining order against him. He'd been violent before. Police called it an open-and-shut case. Gene, of course, was completely wrecked. He flew to her parents' house for the funeral. Her family welcomed him into their home, cooked for him, comforted him. Until Gene's second day there, when Paulette's dad started acting strangely.

Gene Cooley

I'd kind of slept in a little bit or I stayed in the room a little bit. I think it was probably about 9:00. He made a comment about oh, you always sleep this late? And I said, no, sir. He was a little on the cold side. And we started to have a little bit of breakfast.

And he started asking me about rehab. And I said whose rehab? And he said your rehab. And I told him I've never been in a rehab. What are you talking about? And he said, well, what about drug addictions? And I said, I don't have a drug addiction. I don't know what you're talking about.

Stephanie Foo

Of course, that's exactly what you'd say if you were a drug addict. So Paulette's dad didn't find that very persuasive.

Gene Cooley

And that's when they informed me that they wanted me out.

Stephanie Foo

Gene had no idea where this was coming from, and didn't know how to prove that he'd never been an addict. Finally, out of desperation, he offered to go to the police, ask them to run a background check, print it out, and bring it back to prove he had never been in trouble with the law for drugs. Paulette's father said, great. Here are directions. Go do it now.

On the way, he called his sister in Blairsville to tell her Paulette's parents were acting really weird. And she said, something crazy is happening over here. Things are being said about you, bad things, all over the internet on something called Topix.

Topix is a website. If you live in a big city, chances are you've never even heard of it. But if you live in a small town, you probably know exactly what I'm talking about. Topix was originally supposed to be a local news site. But in practice, it's just a big message board where anybody can create an account and post a news item. And so more often than not, in places like Blairsville, it's mostly gossip.

Blairsville's roughly a mile square. It's got a population of about 650. And that day, dozens of people were commenting on Gene's fiancee's murder. At first, the comments were sympathetic, people saying they felt sorry for Paulette and her children. And then the comments got ugly.

Gene Cooley

There was like five or seven, I believe, user names being real hateful, real derogative, real just nasty on there. Calling me a pervert, making me out like I was a child molester, making me out like I was some kind of big drug user. You know, just total filth.

Stephanie Foo

Someone with the user name Calvin asked, does anyone know the last name of Gene, the boyfriend hairstylist? I'm worried, because Gene is making his way down to Florida to meet with Paulette's side of the family. I'm truly fearful that this is not the end of this tragedy.

Someone named Mouth then said, keep that creep away from the children. He is trouble. What would you do if the perv was chasing your grandchildren? Calvin thanked Mouth for the warning.

And then someone who called himself Bugs added, Gene is not a nice guy. He cheated on his first wife. I know Paulette and Gene well, and they were both sickening out in public, kissing all over one another.

It continued on like this. People accused him of every kind of character flaw you could imagine, of getting fired from every job he had, of being a liar, a drunk.

Gene Cooley

And I mean, to make accusations like that? I was wondering who the hell it was.

Stephanie Foo

Did you have any guesses?

Gene Cooley

I had no idea who it could be. I've never been on a website like that. I don't really use a computer that much.

Stephanie Foo

That's a huge understatement. Gene didn't know what YouTube was, until I explained it to him. It might not seem like a big deal that a couple of idiots are gossiping about you on the internet. But in a small town, it's different. You almost definitely know the people who wrote these things about you. And you know, the moment you walk outside your house, everyone you see has read it and is talking about it. Because in Blairsville, news travels fast.

Gene Cooley

As a matter of fact, you being here for just a couple of hours before we met, I could almost tell you where you've been and what you even had for lunch.

Stephanie Foo

What do you mean? Like, just by asking other people?

Gene Cooley

You remember when you called me and said that you were about to have lunch? I'd already had two people call, and say, hey, did you know that there's a reporter over here in town?

Stephanie Foo

I didn't talk to anybody.

Stephanie Foo

Maybe somebody who was eating at the restaurant?

Gene Cooley

That's a big possibility.

Stephanie Foo

When I walked into the restaurant Gene was talking about, I had noticed that everyone turned and gave me the side eye. The big guys in hunting gear in the back, the tiny neat woman in the front. I sat there awkwardly, wondering whether it was because I was the only Chinese person in town. When the waitress came up and asked me for my order, the restaurant went silent to hear what it was.

And this sort of talk, it's mostly harmless. But when Topix came onto the scene, it took gossip between friends, gossip that people would ordinarily recognize as just gossip, and made it into something more serious.

This is Mark Cox. He's a friend of Gene's. He owns the hole-in-the-wall diner in town.

Mark Cox

You could tell somebody something and they'll kind of believe you. But if they see it in writing, they're going to believe it. Once you write it down, it's not gossip anymore. You know, that becomes truth for what people are concerned with.

Stephanie Foo

Other people told me the same thing. Like this woman I met in town. She'd heard a friend gossiping about Gene, saying that he was a pervert, a child molester. She thought, yeah, right.

Blairsville Neighbor

I remember. I mean, I can remember back things being said and I just brush it off and go on. But when it's written there, and for anybody, I mean, and if it's on the web, then you kind of like, oh my gosh, is this true? Could this happen, you know? It puts that seed of doubt in your head. Of course.

Stephanie Foo

Gene did manage to calm his fiancee's parents down. But he was happy to go back home to Blairsville. He'd lived there for 16 years at that point, knew everybody. So when he got back, he was floored by the way people were suddenly treating him. Like, as if everything online was true.

Gene Cooley

OK, there was a gentleman that he and I used to pal around a little bit. Our children used to play together. I walked into a local convenience store and acknowledged him, told him hi. And he looked down at that point in time and just walked on out of the convenience store, got in his car and left.

Stephanie Foo

Or there was a guy he'd known for a while, who he ran into at a park.

Gene Cooley

I just tried to have a little conversation with him. And he just told me pretty much get the F-word out of here. Get your perverted ass away from the kids. So I didn't know what to do at that point in time. I just left the-- I just had to go.

I mean, the feeling was atrocious. I felt like I was a ghost. When your friends aren't talking to you, when people aren't even looking at you, I mean, it's at your bottom's end, right there. I mean, you feel worse than the manure laying on the damn ground. Because people at least step in manure, but they want to walk around you like crazy.

Stephanie Foo

Gene tried to get back to work at his hair salon, but all his clients canceled their appointments. Here's Gene's boss, Tony Smelt.

Tony Smelt

There were rumors going around that Gene may have done some drugs in his past, and that we were supplying him, and that my wife and I were drug-dealing pagans. I don't know where the information came from. I mean, we just certainly don't do drugs, and we're not pagans. We eat organic food, so--

Stephanie Foo

Tony is obviously not a local. He's from England. And he was new to town at that point. His business had only been around a year, and he couldn't afford trouble. Tony said people had even called the salon, asking if Gene was there, and saying they wouldn't come in anymore if he was. One woman said she was afraid that Gene might shoot her. So Tony asked Gene not to come into work anymore.

Tony Smelt

Topix is like a virus. People are scared of that website. I am, that's for sure.

Stephanie Foo

Gene couldn't find another job in town. 2 and 1/2 months after his fiancee's death, he decided he'd had enough. Gene packed up to move to Augusta, 3 and 1/2 hours away. But he made one last stop on the way out of town, the office of Russell Stookey.

Stephanie Foo

Hi, Mr. Stookey.

Russell Stookey

Hi, are you Jennifer?

Stephanie Foo

Stephanie.

Russell Stookey

Stephanie, I'm sorry.

Stephanie Foo

Close enough.

Russell Stookey

Come on. You're the first China lady I've ever met.

Stephanie Foo

China lady?

Russell Stookey

China lady.

Stephanie Foo

OK.

Russell's a sweet guy. But he does say exactly what's on his mind, which actually made him the perfect man to take Gene's case, because when Russell heard Gene's story, he despised the whole idea of anonymous posters. And all he wanted to do is give them hell.

Russell Stookey

They have no character. That means they have no guts. They have no guts, no character. They lack courage, no balls at all. (WHISPERED) Should I say balls? Anyway, I'm old school. If I've got something to say, I'll say it to your damn face. [GUFFAWS] That's just the way it is. You see these scars on my face? A lot of times, people don't like that. And they'll punch you. But that's their opportunity. And that's the way you do business in this life. You say it to their face.

Stephanie Foo

The case was tricky. Topix isn't liable for what its users post. And they wouldn't tell Russell the true identities of the posters. It took a year and a half, but eventually a case in Texas went through. A federal judge ruled that Topix had to give up the true identities of any slanderous posters. So Russell used that ruling to find out who the anonymous posters really were. And what he found shocked him.

The nastiest posters were actually just one person. Calvin, Mouth, Bugs, who were all going back and forth on Topix, talking about Gene and thanking each other for their warnings about him-- they were all the same woman, a woman who had gone to the trouble of making multiple accounts and then having fake conversations between those accounts. Her name was Sybil Denise Ballew. And when Gene heard her name--

Gene Cooley

I had no idea who it was.

Stephanie Foo

Gene was totally baffled. It wasn't until much later that he learned that over 10 years ago, he and Sybil Ballew had both worked at a department store in town called Alexander's. Most people in town call it the Hillbilly Walmart, though it's more like a general store. Gene says he only worked there for three months, mostly in the warehouse. He barely remembers it. But Sybil says she remembers him perfectly.

Sybil Ballew

I don't like the way he looked at the younger girls in staff where we worked together. Looking them up and down, lusty look. You know what I'm saying? There's a difference in looking, and there is a difference in (ELONGATING) "looooking."

Stephanie Foo

Sybil talked to me on the phone. She refused to see me when I was in Blairsville. And to this day, she believes Gene had it coming.

Sybil Ballew

He's the reason the woman's dead. He is the very reason that woman is dead. He knew how her (EMPHASIS) "husband" was. But yet, he kept doing what he was doing. He'd come in there with her on numerous times. Sit in the corner, and that woman couldn't even eat for him pawing at her, being gross. You know what I'm saying? You don't do stuff like that out in public, for God's sake. People went back and told the ex-husband to get the ex-husband riled up and disturbed enough about it to kill the woman.

Stephanie Foo

What business is it of yours, though? I mean, it seems like you're making a lot of assumptions.

Sybil Ballew

Did you not understand or listen to what I said? He brought it upon himself in my opinion.

Stephanie Foo

Are you proud of what you did?

Sybil Ballew

[SCOFFS] Am I proud of what I did? I'm proud of standing up for what I believe in, for what I know. I'm proud of telling the truth.

Stephanie Foo

Gene sued Sybil Ballew for libel and defamation of character. Again, here's Gene's lawyer, Russell Stookey.

Russell Stookey

So I had Mrs. Ballew on the stand. And to show what kind of legal scholar she is, I said-- she kept telling us about the First Amendment protected her. And I said, Ms. Ballew, you mentioned the First Amendment. Do you know what the First Amendment says? What is the first word in the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America? She didn't know that. Here's a flash for you, morons. The First Amendment does not cover all speech. Defamation is not ever protected speech.

Stephanie Foo

Russell's right. Libel is against the law. And if the lies hurt the victim financially, that person is entitled to receive payback. The jury ruled that Sybil Denise Ballew owed Gene $404,000, with $250,000 in punitive damages. It was the first successful lawsuit lodged against an anonymous Topix poster.

Russell Stookey

[EXHALES] God almighty. He went home that night, feeling like a man.

Stephanie Foo

It wasn't a complete triumph. The case was expensive, and Gene will probably never see any sort of reimbursement for that. To this day, Sybil has not paid any of the $404,000 to Gene. Russell says she just does not have that kind of money.

But Gene got what was most important to him. He moved back to Blairsville after the case, back to his family, his friends, his kids. And, of course, everyone had heard about the verdict by the time he got back. And people started talking to him again like nothing had happened, like that guy in the convenience store, the guy who walked out when Gene tried to talk to him?

Gene Cooley

I saw him the other day at a convenience store. And he greeted me. Hi Gene, how are you doing? It's good seeing you. We shook hands, and I'll talk to you later. I'll see you around.

Stephanie Foo

You must have some sort of feeling like, oh, now you want to talk to me?

Gene Cooley

Yes. [RUEFUL LAUGH] Yeah, that is kind of how I did feel, to be honest with you. I see everybody a lot differently now that I've been through all this. I just look at different people more cautious, instead of letting them into my life, letting them into my heart. I never thought that people could be so cruel.

Stephanie Foo

I asked around town to see if stories like Gene's were common. And almost everyone knew someone who'd been hurt by posts on Topix. One woman told me that someone wrote a post saying her coworker was having an affair. She said her co-worker's marriage fell apart because of it. And her kids were teased at school. Another said her husband was slandered, which hurt the family business.

But after Gene's case, after people found out they could sue for slander, lots of people started to call up lawyers. Russell Stookey says he probably gets a call every month.

Russell Stookey

Normally, you're talking about bored housewives who are just gossip-mongers, basically. But it is an epidemic. I have caught lawyers. I caught a judge. I've caught doctors, a dentist, a state representative. I found out in a heartbeat who these people were. I sued them. And you ought to hear them scream and cry. Let me go. Let me out of this. You did it.

Stephanie Foo

If you go on to Blairsville's Topix page today, there are only a dozen or so regular posters left. It's considered an embarrassment now. And nobody really reads the gossip anymore. Or anyway, if they do, nobody wants to admit it.

Ira Glass

Stephanie Foo is one of the producers of our program. Coming up, we move from a story where the internet is causing huge problems in somebody's life to a story where the internet is actually helping somebody solve a huge problem. That's in a minute. From Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Help Wanted.

Ira Glass

We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, Help Wanted. So this story is about a group that's pretty universally reviled. I think if there ever was a group that people would want to tar and feather, this would be the group. And that's pedophiles. Though I have to say, before we start, this is not the story you usually hear about pedophiles.

Reporter Luke Malone met somebody who has those feelings for young children and definitely does not want to act on them, and has to cobble together his own way to deal with the problem which raises the question is there a way to treat pedophiles. Could there be a way to treat pedophiles?

A warning, before we start, this story is definitely not for kids. Most of the names have been changed and two of the people in this story have asked to have their voices altered. Also, though there's nothing graphic in this story at all, victims of child sexual abuse should consider this a trigger warning.

Everybody else, I will say, I have never heard anybody talk about these issues the way that the people in this story talk about them. I feel like I came out of hearing this story understanding something I really did not know before. So here's Luke Malone.

Luke Malone

My interest in pedophiles began in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky trial. He had just been sentenced on 45 counts related to child sex abuse. It got me thinking about how all this starts and if there's a way to prevent it. I mean, Sandusky wasn't born a 68-year-old child molester. How old are pedophiles when they start thinking about kids this way? Do they ever want to do something to stop themselves? And if they do, who can they turn to?

I spoke to experts and dug around online. I came across a site, a group of people who acknowledged their attraction, but want help dealing with it. Most of the men I spoke with first noticed an interest in children when they were about 13 or 14. I had no idea. I asked how they reacted when they first knew something was up.

For most of them, this was going back 40 or 50 years. And I realized that I needed to speak with younger guys, ones who were going through this right now. I asked the men if they knew anyone like that. And a week or so later, I got an email.

My name is Adam, it read. I'm 18, and I'm the leader of a support group for pedophiles around my age. I'll be very happy to talk with you. Adam is now 19. Just to remind you, Adam isn't his real name. And his voice has been altered to protect his identity. But even knowing he'd be anonymous, he was uncomfortable.

Adam

You know, nervous.

Luke Malone

Why?

Adam

Just don't think I'm a very vulgar person. It's even weird for me to say it out loud. You know, it's something I type, probably 50 times a day, just chatting with some people online, but actually saying it out loud is not very easy for me.

Luke Malone

Do you see yourself as a pedophile?

Adam

Uh, yes.

Luke Malone

And have you ever acted on your attraction?

Adam

No.

Luke Malone

Here's the first of many distinctions, I wasn't clear on when I first met Adam. And it's an important one to make. Technically, you don't have to act on your desires to be a pedophile. Pedophilia marks the attraction, not the behavior. Adam doesn't want to act on his attractions.

Adam is self-diagnosed, as is everyone in his online support group. They go by the medical definition of pedophilia found in the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, basically the Bible of the American Psychiatric Association, which says that in order to be a pedophile, you have to harbor sexual fantasies about or engage sexually with a prepubescent child for six months or more, and you have to be 16 or above and more than five years older than the child. You also need to have either acted on these urges, or the fantasies must cause distress or difficulty.

Guys like Adam hit puberty and discover they're attracted to little kids. And what's remarkable is that they have to navigate that all on their own, with no frame of reference. Everything they're going through, they have to figure out for themselves at, like, 11. I was surprised when Adam first told me the specifics of his attraction. It was hard to relate to, and so you're prepared, difficult to hear.

He's most attracted to kids between the ages of eight and three. He was 14 when he started watching porn, porn involving children. For privacy, he found a way to connect an old computer that he had in his room. Before long, he was downloading it on a daily basis. He couldn't believe how easy it was.

Adam

It was exhilarating. That's the most accurate thing I could say about it.

Luke Malone

I think for people who are listening to this show, when they hear that, it's going to be kind of hard for them to understand what you're feeling. And I really want them to. So can you tell me, did you have any concerns for the kid in the videos at this time? Did it occur that someone else was abusing them by making these videos?

Adam

No. First off, the first [? child ?] pornography I came across I don't think it even involved adults. What I thought as, I'd like to do these types of things. So it's great that I can watch other people who are closer to my age range do these types of things. I just see two kids doing something that I fantasized about doing. So, you know, I'm one of the kids.

Luke Malone

Remember, he was 14.

Adam

And it was a little while later, as I started watching this stuff more and more, when I kind of realized that I was getting older, and it wasn't some phase I was going through, but the children I was interested in weren't getting older, you know, to follow along with me, but they were actually getting younger.

Luke Malone

Did it strike you as wrong?

Adam

At that age, no. I knew it was illegal. I knew it was considered wrong. But I did not know why it was considered wrong. I figured it was something that wasn't allowed. I'd been using it for two years, before I started to think these children are real people. And they could potentially be hurt with this.

Luke Malone

The way Adam figured it out was particularly brutal. He was 16, and he came across a video he wanted to unsee. There's no easy way to say this. It involved a very small child. An 18-month-old.

Adam

I remember thinking that I wanted to reach through the computer screen and kill the person. I was just so horrified at what I saw. At that point, I knew something was really wrong.

Luke Malone

He began reading up on child abuse and was upset at what he learned. He decided he wanted to stop watching child porn, and he needed help if he was going to do that. For that help, Adam turned back to the internet. He posted on a mental health forum, explaining his situation and asking for advice. Two women who were child abuse survivors befriended him. With their help, Adam says he stopped watching porn. But in its place grew a deep depression.

It wasn't like he'd stopped having sexual thoughts about kids. He says he felt like a monster for having viewed the videos, but also just for having the attractions. Some days, he thought about killing himself. He didn't know what else to do. He was 16. He wanted to talk to someone. So he started with a cautious letter to his mum.

Dear Mummy, it begins, I'm writing this letter to you, as I cannot bring myself to say what I need to say to you to your face. It would simply be too painful for me. I am always overshadowed with feelings of depression, guilt, and shame. I'm really sick and tired of covering these feelings up. I want you to let me see a psychologist. I understand you probably have a lot to ask me. But I need some time to get my head wrapped around things. Love, Adam.

He didn't explain the source of the problem, and his mother never asked. Instead, she made him an appointment at a local therapist for a week or so later.

Adam

I remember it was a Friday morning, very early in the day. I was her first patient. We got there, even before she got there. And I was just very nervous. I knew exactly what was coming. I'd known for so long that I was going to walk in there and what I was going to say. And I'd rehearsed it in my head.

Luke Malone

And what was the script you'd been playing over and over in your head?

Adam

I'm a pedophile, and I'm addicted to child pornography. And I remember I walked in there, and we started talking. And then she kind of said, so what are you here for? And I said, well, I'm very anxious. And she said, well, why are you anxious? And my heart was beating. I'd never been so terrified in my life.

But I uttered the words. I said, well, this is difficult to say, but I'm a pedophile, and I'm addicted to child pornography. And I saw kind of a look of horror on her face, and she asked me to repeat that. She must have thought that she misheard me for something like that. But I repeated it. Then, immediately, she went from being this very nice, gentle person to very harsh and critical.

Luke Malone

What did she say to you?

Adam

Well, she raised her voice, telling me this isn't OK. And we talked about it a bit. I mentioned that at that point, I'd been, I think, 11 weeks clean of child pornography. But I was terrified the whole time. And I remember she tried talking with me about why I have these attractions.

And she was obviously convinced that I had trouble talking with people my own age, so I felt less judged by younger kids, and that's why I was interested in them. And that's apparently a very common thing for therapists who aren't at all trained in this area to think.

Luke Malone

So she didn't even believe that you were a pedophile. Just that you couldn't kind of make it with kids your own age, essentially, yeah? Is that what you're saying?

Adam

Yes, yes.

Luke Malone

And what did you say to her in response?

Adam

Oh, well, I disagreed. I said, no, I really firmly believe that's not the case. I know what I'm attracted to. And it's not like I'm-- I had friends. It's not like I didn't have a single friend. I said, look, these attractions are more intense than they are towards any adult I've ever met or seen. And I'm really confident that it's not just being scared to talk to people my own age.

Luke Malone

Was it kind of weird or frustrating kind of disclosing this massive thing about yourself and then having to kind of just really drive it on home and prove it to her?

Adam

Yeah, it was definitely-- it was annoying. But I'll tell you the feeling that overcame me most the whole time was that I was being judged. That's definitely what I felt most when I left later. I considered writing an email to her, apologizing for dropping such a bombshell on her. And I saw her again.

Luke Malone

And what happened in that second session?

Adam

So she was a little calmer. She'd obviously had some time to think about it. She basically told me, pretty much instantly, that she couldn't help me. And she said that she'd looked around, but she couldn't really find much.

And then within a few minutes, she asks, how I'd feel if she told my mother about what was going on. So first, my heart obviously started beating much faster, and I became incredibly anxious. And I said, I really don't want to do that. So she left the room for a minute, and then came back in with my mother.

Adam's Mother

And I sat down. And the first thing that I recall the therapist saying is we've got a problem.

Luke Malone

This is Adam's mum. Her voice has also been altered.

Adam's Mother

The therapist looked at me, and I can't remember her exact words, but it was something like--

Adam

Adam is addicted to pornography. And then she paused for a little bit, and then she said, a very specific type of pornography. Then she said it's child pornography.

Adam's Mother

And she continued to say that she couldn't see him. We then talked a little bit, not details, about what had been going on. And Adam did not contribute at all. He sat there just shaking and looking at the floor. And I do remember that she then turned to Adam and said, how do you feel? And he said, I feel like I'm going to throw up.

Adam

You know, my mother, I'm sure, reacted the best I really could have hoped for. She kind of put her arm on my shoulder and squeezed a little bit. She seemed to be supportive. I'm sure she was in shock, probably kind of horrified, but at least she was able to hide that. And the fact that she was able to do that, it meant so much to me.

Adam's Mother

And I looked at him, although he wouldn't give me eye contact. I looked at him, and I said, Adam, we're going to help with this. Whatever it is, we can help with it. And don't worry, I'm with you.

Luke Malone

On the car ride home, Adam told her that he wasn't just attracted to children, but also to adults.

Adam

You know, and I explained that I'd never done anything to hurt someone before and that I never would do something to hurt someone.

Adam's Mother

When I had moments to be alone afterwards, I was very devastated in realizing the enormity of what we were dealing with. I was shocked. It was the last thing that I could have fathomed that was a problem for him. There were absolutely no signs. I have no earthly idea how Adam may have developed his attraction to children.

Luke Malone

She and Adam both say he wasn't abused. His home life was stable. He had good relationships with his siblings. Adam's mum did find him a new therapist, one who specialized in porn addiction. This one didn't normally treat minors, and he was reluctant to take Adam on. She had to plead with him to accept her son as a client. He eventually agreed.

She says until our interview, his two therapists are the only people she's spoken to about Adam's attractions. She hasn't told a friend, not a therapist of her own, not her husband.

Right now, if a pedophile shows up in a therapist's office wanting treatment, it puts a therapist in a difficult situation. First, there are no guidelines on how to treat pedophiles who haven't offended. There's a lot of confusion in the field about how to handle them. Also, they're in a tough legal position.

If a therapist thinks someone poses a threat to a child, they're legally obligated to turn them in, because of mandatory reporting laws. They can lose their license if they don't. So when it comes to counseling a pedophile, therapists have to gauge how likely that person is to act. They're in a sticky situation where they have to make a judgment call about how dangerous someone is.

Professor Elizabeth Letourneau is one of the top researchers on child sexual abuse in the world. She's done this work for 25 years. She says the great thing about mandatory reporting laws are that they've brought to light lots of crimes against children. But as they got more popular, she saw it affect the number of people reaching out for help.

Elizabeth Letourneau

Self-referrals for help really dried up. And people watched helplines just go silent, because folks are too afraid to reach out for help. The consequences are too high.

Luke Malone

Professor Letourneau is the director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins University. And it's with that mandate, the prevention of child sexual abuse, that she's pushing hard for research into people like Adam. Amazingly, there's very little research on pedophilia. We don't know much about the sexuality of adolescents, let alone what might make someone a pedophile.

Elizabeth Letourneau

It is a gigantic black hole in science.

Luke Malone

Among things we don't know, we don't know that there's a connection between being abused and developing an attraction to kids. Crazy, right? We don't know what's normal, when it comes to the sexual development of children. It might be normal for a 12 year old to be attracted to a six or eight year old.

Another thing that has not been researched in-depth is if having an attraction to kids makes it more dangerous to be around them. On its face, it seems obvious. But there is no evidence to support it.

The research that we do have, and this is from a very small sample size, suggests that pedophiles are more lucky to be shorter, left-handed, and have a lower IQ. Another study says that being knocked unconscious before the age of 13 may be a factor. It shows just how little we've scratched the surface.

For years, Letourneau has been trying to change all this, to get money for research, and for prevention programs. But there's not much money for that. Funders don't want to be associated with pedophilia research. The stigma is too great. Even someone like Letourneau, who wants to do this research in order to prevent children from being abused, has been called a pedophile sympathizer, simply for advocating these programs.

Elizabeth Letourneau

If we can prevent this, we can prevent a lot of harm and a lot of cost. And we just don't. It's nuanced. It's difficult to wrap your head around. It's a lot easier to say these guys are monsters. Let's put them in prison. Let's put them on a registry. Let's put them in civil commitment facilities. And forget about them.

Luke Malone

The place that research is most solid is the numbers. Studies suggest that an astonishingly large number of men are pedophiles. A respected survey by Michael Seto, director of the Forensic Research Unit at the University of Ottawa, found that 3% of all men have sexually offended against a prepubescent child. Though not all these men would be considered pedophiles.

But he goes on to estimate that 1% to 3% of men would meet the diagnostic criteria for pedophilia, which equates to anywhere between 1.2 million and 3.4 million pedophiles in the US alone. That means there are lots of people out there who presumably try not to offend, with nowhere to turn to for help. There's almost no research to explain why they are the way they are, and no known treatment. Which is how a teenager might conclude that his best option is to invent his own way forward.

At 17, Adam started searching online for other guys like himself, young men struggling to deal with their attraction to kids. And some responded. They got to talking online. And soon there were a bunch of them, communicating on a daily basis. Before long, Adam realized that he had inadvertently formed a support group for young pedophiles.

There are currently nine members, ranging in age from 16 to 22, eight men and one woman. They communicate in the same way that any bunch of teenagers do-- Gchat, text, email, the odd phone call, or video chat. And there's usually at least a few people online each night. I've talked to five of them, and met three of those in person. They all said they're glad to have found the group. And for most, it's the only outlet they have. Everyone I've spoken to has a story about how the group saved them. A 22-year-old college student told me this one.

Anonymous College Student

There was a time when I was really running out of hope for the future. I was unemployed, and I felt like no one was going to give me a shot. And I felt like I had literally no shot in life. And I kind of wanted to kill myself. I didn't do it. The first thing I thought of was especially Adam, in specific, but the rest of them as well, that I couldn't let them down like that.

Luke Malone

The governing principle of the group is that you can only be a part of it if you agree that it's wrong to have sex with kids. There are other pedophile support groups online who feel the opposite, who advocate for the abolishment of age of consent laws. Others suggest that molesting children is wrong because it's illegal, but stop short of taking a moral stand.

Adam's group absolutely takes a moral stand. A few times, he's found himself trying to convince potential members of the group that having sex with children is wrong. And occasionally, Adam has to turn someone away.

Adam

There was one time someone came in, and he admitted to me pretty much right away that he'd done some sexual things with a five-year-old kid. And right then and there, I said we can't have you. First off, they're a risk. But what's more is I think, that I'll admit, I have a bias. I think we are better people than those who go out and hurt kids.

Luke Malone

Did you tell him that?

Adam

I explained to him, you know, to the best of my ability, that what he did was very wrong. And that the most noble thing he could possibly do would be to tell the kid's parents so that at least that kid could get the help he might need.

Luke Malone

And what was his response?

Adam

Something like maybe.

Luke Malone

In a different world, this person would be talking to a professional, not a 19-year-old with no training at all. Or maybe this person would just be in prison.

Here's another important distinction. Eight out of the nine in Adam's group say they are nonexclusive pedophiles, which means they are also attracted to their peers or adults, in addition to kids. That's important because researchers like Elizabeth Letourneau think it might be possible to push people like that to become more attracted to people their own age, if you start young.

Elizabeth Letourneau

Yeah, so through hanging out with peers more often, engaging in fun things with peers more often, really increasing that, I really believe, at least for some kids, some portion of kids who are sexually attracted to children, it's changeable. I don't want to start with the premise that it's impossible.

Luke Malone

When I first started talking to Letourneau a year and a half ago, she told me that in her 25 years in the field, she'd talked to lots of young guys who've abused children. But she'd never spoken to a pedophile who hasn't, which I found pretty incredible. I told her about Adam's group, and she asked if I could put them in touch. She's since spoken to several of them and has been talking to Adam regularly. And she's started to notice patterns, pattens that she can use to inform a treatment plan that she's getting off the ground.

Elizabeth Letourneau

You know, before talking to Adam and the other young men, I didn't know when it really crystallized for them that this wasn't going away. I didn't know what the experiences were. I had no idea about the deep depression and the self-loathing and the fear that really characterized all of their adolescence.

Luke Malone

While Letourneau is just starting to learn about what causes pedophilia and develop methods for treatment, Adam doesn't agree that he can be fixed. He doesn't hold out hope for the possibility of becoming something other than a pedophile. It took him years to figure it out in the first place.

Adam

The truth is, I know what my attractions are. I know they're there. By every definition of the medical term, I am one. Sometimes, you really just know these things.

Luke Malone

Adam says being a pedophile is something he'll spend the rest of his life battling. But he's committed to managing it. He's thought ahead to his future in a way that most 19-year-olds don't.

Adam

You know, I'd like a partner, obviously. The thought of having a kid is very scary. I'm not convinced I could ever allow myself to do that, as much as I may want it. I think, most people want kids at some point in their lives. And that's something that while I'm not saying I never will have, it's something I don't think I will have, I guess, for both of our safeties.

Luke Malone

Imagine being a teenager and being told never to act on your sexual feelings ever for the rest of your life. That's what we're asking of these people. At the moment, there is no clear plan for how to do that. But maybe there should be.

Ira Glass

Luke Malone. More of his reporting on this topic will appear next month on Medium.com.

[MUSIC - "FEEL LIKE A MONSTER" BY DEEPEST DARKEST]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program is produced today by Brian Reed with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sean Cole, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffee-Walt, Sarah Koenig, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Allison Davis. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our administrative assistant. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Research help from Michelle Harris and Julie Beer. Music help from Damien Graef, Rob Geddis, and Anthony Roman.

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org, where, just a reminder, we have the photo of the man who was tarred and feathered this week. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. Thanks, as always to our program's co-founder, Torey Malatia. He used to own an antique store, but it just didn't work out. Because he would say things to the customers like--

"There's a difference in looking, and there is a difference in 'looooking.'"

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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