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Fallout…A Survivor Talks to Incest Offenders
WHY DID I DO IT?
The late Dr. William Glasser (1965) often began his lectures on
Reality Therapy with the following scenario: “The phone rings.
You answer it. Why do you answer it?”
None of the replies volunteered by the audience offers the response
he is looking for. “You answer it because you want to.” It is true
that the machinations of choice are at work. But why do you want
After the abuse began I puzzled over why my father was different
from the fathers of my cousins.
Groth states that the sexual offender is not committing his crimes
to achieve sexual pleasure “any more than the alcoholic is drinking
to quench a thirst” (1982, 227). He suggests that other needs being
met include but are not limited to loneliness, a sense of power, and
attention. At best, treatment can only reduce the risk of reoffending. Gaining or re-gaining control of the behavior is the goal, as
with treatment for alcoholism. Groth is aware of the perpetrator’s
emotional over-investment in his victim and refers to “the sense of
pleasure, comfort and safety he experiences in the relationship with
Sgroi, Blick, and Porter refer to incest offenders as “me-first” individuals for whom the sexual relationship with a child feels “safer,
less threatening, less demanding, less problematic than a relationship with an adult” (1982, 27).
A study of the childhood experiences of child sexual abuse perpetrators (Thomas et al. 2012, 195) revealed that
many participants never had an opportunity to grasp
the meaning of the concept of love, nor to differentiate
it from sex. Thus, they never evolved to more adult
sexual behavior but continued to seek the kind of sexual activity to which they were first introduced and
which, in some cases, had filled their early longings for
meaningful contact with another human being.
Other professionals warn against the tendency to view the offender’s behavior as a longing for human intimacy. Herman (1990, 183) suggests that reformulating the offending in this manner is to
detoxify it, to make it more acceptable. Aye, there’s the twist. Some
therapists, like surgeons who feel a need to keep their emotional
distance from patients, often struggle against the tendency to pity
the man who molests. I was aware of the fuzzy cognitive state I slid
into when experiencing empathy for the men in our program. Herman cautions, “In attempting to establish an empathic connection
with the offender, the would-be-therapist runs the risk of credulously accepting the offender’s rationalizations for his crimes” (ibid.).
Having the ability to corrupt a child, having the ability to steal her
innocence, having the ability to show her something about life she
didn’t know—all these are powerful rewards for the man whose
life is so unsatisfactory that it contains little more than a sexual
preference that may not even be sexual.
Four major factors that contribute to molestation have been proposed and widely accepted (Finkelhor 1984). They are sexual
arousal, preferring children emotionally, being blocked from an
adult relationship, and failure of the offender’s inhibitions. A reliable assessment of the offender’s dynamics is often difficult. Information is provided to the offender in treatment, however, and he is
invited to consider the information and share with his group which
dynamics he thinks apply to him. Similarly, this book can help any
unapprehended molester ferret out his own patterns. Survivors may
also use the material to make some sense of their experience.
In the prison program we utilized Finkelhor’s Four Factor conceptualization (Finkelhor, 1984), fitting it into a mnemonic device
(BEDS) in order to aid overlearning the material. (We re-arranged
his factors to enable the device):
B – Blockage
E – Emotional Congruence
D – Disinhibition
S – Sexual Arousal
A man can be blocked from consorting with another adult due to
internal or situational factors. A shy, socially awkward and insecure man may find sex with another adult too anxiety- producing.
Occasionally a man experiencing the breakup of a relationship or
separation from his partner may turn to a child instead of another
adult because in his mind molesting a child is not being unfaithful,
whereas he may consider sex with another adult to be adultery. It
is true that thinking errors are rampant in this population, and many
child molesters are overly moralistic. Some deny themselves the
sexual release of masturbation and maintain that molesting a child
is less sinful than masturbation or adultery. One of the men in our
program realized with surprise that he had felt molesting his niece
was morally preferable to having sex with another adult.
In Mrazek’s experience (1981, 105), “Of all the contributing factors mentioned in the literature, the most predictive are likely to be
the absence of a strong satisfying marital bond and prior incestuous
behavior somewhere in the family.”
Some men erroneously believe that there are limited alternatives
available to them if the penis is no longer functional. A man who
is unable to perform with women may turn to children, since children are less likely to criticize his performance or make unfavorable comparisons of his genitals. Becker and Coleman (1988, 200)
refer to the “sexual myth that an erect penis is necessary to satisfy
a sexual partner. The unfortunate equating of sex with penile-vaginal intercourse can result in considerable performance anxiety, a
major cause of sexual dysfunction.” In rare cases men with misshapen or micro-penises turn to children instead of other adults capable of making comparisons. Some offenders admit that they
chose children because they were easier to deal with than women.
Gaddini (1983, 358) sees incest as an early developmental failure.
She writes, “In no way is incest close to mature adult sexuality.”
She sees it as a very primitive sort of sensuality … a continuous
acting-out on the basis of needs.” The following letter from my father years ago would appear to illustrate such an early developmental failure:
MY FATHER’S STORY (by my father):
The Two Three Four Three Bears
Once upon a time, there were two bears, Mama Bear and Cubby
Bear. Now, Cubby Bear loved Mama Bear dearly, and Mama
Bear thought there just wasn’t anybody in the whole, wide
world like her Little Cubby Bear.
Cubby Bear would climb up on Mama Bear, and put his little
paws around her, and Mama Bear would say “M-mmmmmmm!”
and would squeeze little Cubby Bear real tight. And Mama Bear
would say, “What does Mama’s little Cubby Bear think he is doing up there?” And the little Cubby Bear would chortle with
glee, because he loved Mama Bear just like Mama Bear loved
One day, a package came down from heaven—or somewhere—
addressed to Mama Bear and the Cub Bear. They opened the
package, and found little Nancy Bear! And the three bears lived
happily ever after—or at least until—
One day, another package arrived—and, you guessed it—there
was little Mary Bear! “Uh-oh!” said Mama Bear, who had read
all the latest books. “The book says that ‘Once upon a time there
were three bears, and here we are with four. This will never do,”
and Mama Bear wouldn’t play any more with Cubby Bear. And
she would tell him, “You are not Cubby Bear. You are Grumpy
Bear. But the Cub Bear either could not, or would not, take the
hint and he kept on loving Mama Bear right on, and Mama Bear
didn’t know what to do!
Now, Nancy Bear, when she got older, began to read all the latest books. And she, too, found out that once there were three
bears, and she talked the matter over with Mama Bear. But, try
though they would, they could not make the Cub Bear understand that he was not the Cub Bear any longer, but that just
made him want to be the Cub Bear all the more, so Nancy Bear
and Mama Bear didn’t know what to do!
Then, one day Mama Bear and Nancy Bear saw Grumpy Bear
(because—let’s face it—he wasn’t a Cub Bear any longer, he was
Grumpy Bear) skipping rope. Nancy Bear said to Mama Bear,
“I know, Mama Bear! Let’s give Grumpy Bear more and more
rope, and maybe Grumpy Bear will hang himself!”
So they gave Grumpy Bear more and more rope, and still more
rope, and—sure enough—Grumpy Bear hung himself. Now,
when Grumpy Bear found out that he had hung himself, he
weeped and wailed, and begged for them all to let him get unhung again. And Mama Bear said, “No, Grumpy Bear. You
hung yourself, you can get unhung yourself.” And Grumpy Bear
said, “I am not Grumpy Bear, I am the Cub Bear.” But Mama
Bear had forgotten that there had ever been a Cub Bear, and
Nancy Bear didn’t care if there had ever been a Cub Bear. And
Mary Bear didn’t know what was a Cub Bear, so Grumpy Bear
hanged, and hanged, and hanged. And thereby hangs a tale, but
not like in the old days, when—
The tale itself was passing fair,
And it all belonged to the Cubby Bear.
Men for whom the blockage factor is significant may be more
likely to prefer and fantasize their victims as young versions of
adults. The growing tendency of parents to dress their young children in provocatively-cut “swinger” garb makes it easier for these
men to transfer their sexual desires onto children.
Sexual arousal is another of Finkelhor’s factors. A history of the
offender’s own sexual abuse as a child—possible imprinting—may
make the child a primary sexual object in the eyes of the offender,
in addition to the fact that he may have observed the adult-child
paradigm within the family. Developmental antecedents are a continuing area of research in this field. In rare cases a hormonal imbalance or neurological anomaly may tip the scales. Child pornography may also be a culprit, with the potential for sexual arousal in
predisposed individuals. Regarding the juryman discussed earlier,
perhaps he had been victimized as a child, either within or out of
memory, and viewing the child pornography was sufficient to
breach the dam of longstanding inhibitions. Sleeping in the same
bed with a child has also been known to precipitate sexual arousal
in some cases, leading to abuse. For information on treatment of
deviant sexual arousal see Chapter 4.
A third factor which can contribute to molestation of children has
been termed “emotional congruence,” which refers to the degree of
comfort with, emotional attraction to, or identification with, children among men who molest. Those who deny their culpability will
say without batting an eye, “I would never molest a child; I love
children!” And they often do, demonstrating by their statement the
presence of marked thinking errors. Children can also be seen as
attractive because they are passive, enabling the offender to experience a degree of dominance that he lacks with other adults.
Groth (1982, 230) speaks of the incest offender’s
emotional overinvestment in his victim; his monopolization of her time; his restriction of her outside interests, activities and relationships; his sexual preoccupation with her; the role-reversal in their relationship
with her being regarded more as a peer than as a child;
the identification he forms with his victim, the narcissistic sense of entitlement to her, and his projection of
his own needs and desires on her; his preoccupation
with fantasies about the victim, and the sense of pleasure, comfort, and safety he experiences in the relationship with her.
Some child molesters who are emotionally attracted to children feel
childlike themselves, and thus prefer the company of other children. I recall one inmate who, upon being paroled for a non-sexual
offense, began telling me enthusiastically how much he preferred
the company of children, and that “they are the only ones you can
trust.” Needless to say, I had my suspicions about him.
Before a sex offense can occur, the potential perpetrator must have
the desire to offend, he must have physical access to the victim,
and he must be able to overcome the victim’s resistance. However,
even in the presence of all these conditions, sexual abuse will not
occur if the would-be perpetrator’s inhibitions against offending
are in place. Therefore, instilling inhibitions against sexual abuse
is one of the primary goals of treatment, and effective techniques
must be overlearned and strengthened. Unfortunately, after the inhibitions have failed once, they are easier to breach. A man may go
thirty years without giving in to his illegal desires, but it may not
be another thirty years before he does so again. It may be the next
Besides alcohol, disinhibiting factors include abuse of drugs, an
acute negative mood change, and child pornography or other
source of sexual arousal. Anger and the seeking of revenge are
other disinhibitors, as demonstrated by sexual assaults on children
during visitations with an estranged parent. Thinking errors can
also be a powerful disinhibiting factor, as delineated in Chapter 3.
Like silently rising water against a dam, one pressure added to another can overcome the barriers of inhibition, and once breached
the resistance is greatly decreased, or non-existent. It becomes easier and easier to break the law and ignore one’s own values. Occasionally an individual’s inhibitions will be immediately dissolved
upon his own victimization, and he will respond by identifying
with his or her abuser and acting out against others, in an attempt
to regain a sense of power.
I find it remarkable that I remember the day I became aware of
“floaters” in my eye. I must have been nine years old, and told my
mother I saw things but wasn’t sure they were really there. To her
credit, she did take me to our pediatrician. His first question was
whether my father was still drinking, whereupon I said ecstatically,
“Oh no! He’s quit drinking! He hasn’t had a drink in a week, has
he, Mother?” (I assume it was their exchange of glances that
flagged the incident in my memory.)
Now I’m recalling that Daddy did have a chance to change, via
attending Alcoholics Anonymous. At some point (early 1946?) he
ran into a parked car while drinking. The judge must have sentenced him to attend AA, at least once, because I seem to remember
attending one of his meetings. I don’t recall the content of the meeting, only the room it was in.
At the time he first molested me my father had been an alcoholic
for twenty-five years, but he was not drunk that evening. He never
drank without eventually passing out, but that night he was sober.
It is my memory that my father lived in bed, except when he went
to work as a bookkeeper five days a week. (Three years later he
would be fired for passing out on the floor at his work.)
What disinhibited my father? That night I had bounced boisterously on his bed, in a rare fit of exuberance, while my mother fixed
dinner. I suspect my roughhousing with him while he was in bed
that day was a primary immediate disinhibitor for him. Apparently
he became aroused and when I settled under the covers with him
to listen to our only radio, he touched me. My first thought was
what would my cousins think if they knew Daddy was like our
grandfather? He later told me that when Mother brought in supper
that night she reached under the covers and found his penis erect
but made no comment.
Shortly before initiation of the incest, my mother had confessed to
a single act of infidelity years earlier. He now threw it back in her
face, although he had promised not to mention it again. (How do I
know? We lived in a very small duplex with thin walls.) Experiencing what must have been for him a blow to his manhood may therefore have been a disinhibitor, in addition to his sexual arousal and
significantly warped thinking.
About a week after he first touched me, my father referred to it. He
said my mother had asked him to educate me about sex. He also
said he thought he was in love with me, that incest was a capital
crime in our state and that I was not to tell anyone, ever. I promised. He told me experts say incest is harmful, but that he didn’t
believe it. He pointed out that Errol Flynn had sex with a minor
and wasn’t convicted for it.
Looking back now I realize that an additional disinhibiting factor
was that he knew that his father had molested within the family. He
also suspected (correctly) that his father had molested me, much
“EVERYBODY’S DOIN’ IT!”
All right, I will admit this is not one of Finkelhor’s Factors leading
to sexual abuse, but I believe it was a strong motivator in my being
molested within the family.
As Courtois (1988, 40) observes,
Multiple incest in one family may be the norm. It appears that in many families, the breakdown of the incest taboo allows for its continuance either within one
generation (horizontally) and/or across generations
(vertically). … Incest is now believed to be transmitted
from one generation to the next through several such
This remains a controversial topic, however, as reported earlier.
IN SUMMARY: MY FATHER’S MOTIVATIONS
How should we categorize the influence of knowledge of incest
within the family? Modeling? Certainly at the very least it contributed to my father’s disinhibition to commit incest. Other disinhibitors included whatever lifelong alcoholism had done to his brain
and self-esteem; whatever internal wound had resulted from my
mother’s confession; and perhaps a desire to get even with her,
added to her request that he teach me about sex. Some pretty weird
thinking errors had also been established, as revealed by his discussion of earlier reading on the subject of incest.
I believe that Blockage was a factor, in that he was too fearful to
seek sex with an adult outside the family, being unable to deal with
the specter of rejection and/or exposure. Probably his concept of
“adultery” also kept him homebound. In addition, he was blocked
from a meaningful adult relationship by an apparent developmental
failure (see above). In later years, upon visiting my grandparent’s
house where he then lived, I was shocked to find a maudlin tribute
to mothers, framed and on the wall in the entranceway.
Emotional Congruence came into play after he had elicited my admiration for his intellect and tennis playing abilities and my willingness to pay court to him by listening, and listening. He was hungry for attention, I now realize. I did enjoy his sense of humor.
His Sexual Arousal in response to my bouncing on the bed was an
“accident waiting to happen,” as suggested by the fact that he had
already taken me to two square dances as his partner. (My mother
“had nothing to wear.”)
THE PATHWAYS MODEL
As noted, more than one of Finkelhor’s Four Factors must be present in order for child molestation to occur. (The Disinhibition factor is always present.) A complementary model has been introduced in which all of four—other—distinct and interacting psychological conditions must be present in order for the sexual transgression to occur. This Pathways Model, proposed by Ward and
Siegert (2002), highlights offender deficits and consists of deficits
with intimacy and social skills, distorted sexual scripts, emotional
dysregulation, and cognitive distortion. Incidentally, all four of
these deficits were present in my father.
HARDWIRING OR OTHER ANOMALIES
Physiological abnormalities occasionally contribute to offending.
One elderly man became increasingly jealous of his teenage granddaughter’s boyfriends; six months later he was dead of a brain tumor. In addition, several studies have found evidence that some
child molesters may be “hardwired” differently than others. For instance, two out of three pedophiles show temporal lobe dysfunction
in the left lobe of the brain, as measured by CT scans (Langevin
1990, 109). It is unclear, however, what the differences reflect.
I believe my paternal grandfather was neurologically impaired. I
sensed he was somehow different, but I did not (and still do not)
know in what way. I also do not know what abuse, if any, he experienced as the youngest of six boys in his family of origin. Once I
was told he had hardening of the arteries, and in recent years a
family member said he had Tourette’s— which my father also
had—but I do not recall ever witnessing any Tourette’s symptoms
in my grandfather. I can recall at least one marked episode of my
father grunting and ticcing, however, but I must have grown to ignore the signs. I never puzzled about them, apparently just accepted the behavior. Perhaps that could have been an issue in my
father’s blockage from others.