I’ve lived a long life… I won’t be home Wednesday so had to post this today (9/28/2021)
HOW COULD I DO IT! FALLOUT — A Survivor Talks to Incest Offenders
HOW COULD I DO IT?
“How can they do it?” is a question in the minds of most non-offenders confronted with a case of incest.
Even after we understand why some men molest children, the question of how they can do it remains unanswered. How can they bring
themselves to destroy a child’s trusting innocence? (For some offenders, being innocent is the major attraction.) This question really should be directed at the first time rather than the most recent
time, which may be the one that brought a man to prison. Too many
offenders maintain that “this” time is the first time, and so that distinction is a lost opportunity for insight.
The incest offender has developed the ability to break taboos
through the use of contorted thoughts and beliefs variously called
thinking errors, cognitive distortions, deviant thinking or just stinking thinking, as discussed below. Core beliefs about self, others,
and the world have been found to underlie behavior patterns and
instances of thinking errors, and are known as schemas.
Most men who commit incest, especially those who were abused
themselves as children, continue in denial of its effects. Neither
survivors nor victims-turned-perpetrators let themselves realize
how destructive their own molestation is likely to have been. One
imprisoned incest offender in our program, when told during treatment that incest was destructive for the victim, denied it, saying,
“What about me? I was molested and I turned out okay.”
Initially I had trouble understanding how anyone, especially any
victim of child sexual abuse, could grow up to become a perpetrator himself, much less deny that it is harmful. As if the situation
were not sufficiently complex, an exploration of mindreading in
sex offenders has raised questions about their capacity for empathy. (Mindreading in this sense is a “theory of mind” and refers to
how well an individual can understand the motivations and feelings
of others.) Castellino et al. (2011, 1621) concluded that their findings supported the hypothesis that “sexual offenders suffer from a
deficit in their ability to understand and attribute mental states both
to themselves and to others.” As a group, the sexual offenders performed worse than non-offenders on each of four scales assessing
aspects of empathy. Moreover, the findings indicated that “the
worse is the score on the theory of mind task, the higher the risk of
Since behavior is largely a product of thinking, the deviant
thoughts of sex offenders are of utmost importance. Incest offenders in one study were found to possess deviant attitudes in three
domains: sexual entitlement; perceiving children to be sexually attractive and sexually motivated; and minimizing the harm caused
by sexual abuse of children (Hanson, Gizzarelli, and Scott 1994).
My father had deviant thinking errors in all three domains.
Pollock and Hashmall analyzed over 250 justificatory statements
from 86 child molesters and divided them into an “excuse syntax”
useful in the formalization of judgments about the extent to which
an individual accepts or denies responsibility for his actions, his
degree of defensiveness, and the logical consistency of his justifications.
1. Denial of fact (“Nothing happened.”)
2. Denial of responsibility (“Something happened
but it wasn’t my idea.”)
3. Denial of sexual intent (“Something happened and
it was my idea but it wasn’t sexual.”)
4. Denial of wrongfulness (“Something happened
and it was my idea, and it was sexual but it wasn’t
5. Denial of self-determination (“Something happened and it was my idea and it was sexual and it
was wrong, but there were extenuating factors.”) (Pollock and Hashmall 1991, 57).
Their study was conducted to aid clinicians who routinely determine the probability of reoffending based on the perpetrator’s excuses.
I see that the only statement that would apply to my father is the
denial of wrongfulness, as evidenced by his statement when my sister was stricken with polio, described later in this chapter.
As Maltz and Holman (1987, 18) observed,
It is this distorted thinking that encourages an offender
to victimize the most vulnerable person available—a
child who depends on him.
Perpetrators make their behavior acceptable in their own eyes by
their twisted thinking. As Salter (1988, 124) has pointed out, “Their
motivated self-deception acts as a ‘releaser’ which allows the offender’s destructive urges to be acted on. Without such rationalizations the offender may have some capacity to resist his deviant
attraction and to seek help when his own coping mechanisms fail.”
The victim may not say “no.” Many child molesters interpret silence as permission, oblivious to the unreality of the incestuous situation for the child. Mistaking the physical response for the ego’s
response appears to be a common error. (Just because the body responds does not mean the child understands what is happening and
consents to it.)
I recall several years ago when a man brought suit against some
women who had raped him. There were disbelieving jokes about
the incident, but our bodies are built so that stimulation of the genitals, even forced, can be pleasurable in the genitals. But we are
more than our genitals, and much of mankind’s anguish and nightmares reflect the struggle between right and wrong. What could be
more hauntingly “wrong” to a child than “doing the nasty with
Daddy” and coming back for more?
The defense mechanism of projection is involved when individuals
block their own urges, behaviors or feelings from awareness and
instead imagine that they exist in another person or persons. A not
uncommon thinking error in our society, that women “really want
it” even though they say “no,” is an example. This thinking error
may even trace back to the influence of genetic differences between males and females (Buss 1985, 314). How easy, then, for sex
offenders to convince themselves that their victim “wanted it” and
therefore wasn’t damaged by the abuse.
A sexual offender needs to internalize the information on correcting thinking errors and apply it to himself. In our prison program
one man retained glaring thinking errors but made a perfect score
on a lengthy True and False test of these errors. We had him take
the test a second time, by himself, because we could not believe he
had such a good intellectual comprehension of thinking errors, yet
failed to see how they applied to him.
EXAMPLES OF THINKING ERRORS
BLAMING THE VICTIM
Devaluing and attributing blame to the victim covers dehumanization (“she was a whore, anyway”) and attribution of blame (“most
women want to be raped.”)
CHILDREN CAN BENEFIT FROM INCEST
She loves special attention, she’ll really love this;
I have to show my grandson how to masturbate—how else would he find out?
I’m in love with her—this is a way to show it;
she needs sex education by a loving partner;
she looks sad—I’ll make her feel good.
“I was only teaching her what she should keep her boy friends from doing” (reported by Frisbie 1969, 168).
BLAMING AND MISATTRIBUTIONS
She runs around in her nighties so she must want it;
she’s seven going on seventeen;
she dances sexy, like on MTV;
she likes to sit in my lap, so she must want it.
CHANCES OF BEING APPREHENDED
Nobody will believe her if she tells; she wouldn’t turn me in—she
loves me too much.
My wife has been unfaithful—I’ll get even;
my wife cut me off—I’ll show her I don’t need her;
I didn’t want to go outside the family
for sex; it’s not like I’m committing adultery.
SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT
I’m oversexed and have to have it—my wife isn’t interested;
I’m her father so I’m entitled to check on how she’s developing physically;
I’m just breaking her in for her husband;
I brought her into the world, so I own her body.
CHILDREN AREN’T HURT BY INCEST
It isn’t harmful—
Errol Flynn did it;
she can’t get pregnant yet, so there can be no harm;
it happened to me and it didn’t hurt me.
It’s not like it was really sex;
it’s not like it was her first time;
we were only playing around; we were just playing the tickling game.
The judge proved I didn’t touch her;
the doctor proved I didn’t touch her;
when I woke up she was unzipping my fly—what could
I do? Groth’s response to the latter, as widely quoted, is “What would he
do if she had been going through his wallet when he woke up?” He
suggests that if the child is behaving in a sexually explicit fashion,
“a responsible adult will not encourage or promote such behavior,
but instead will correct it and try to determine why the child is behaving in this manner” (Groth 1982, 234).
When my sister had been taken to the emergency room with what
turned out to be polio, my father started touching me sexually and
I said, “How can you do that at a time like this?” He said: “If it’s
not wrong other times, why is it wrong now?”
I should have said, “It is wrong, all the time!” (Why didn’t I say
that? But I was speechless.) Besides, I was afraid he would punish
me if I admitted engaging in something I knew was wrong.
I received the following letter from my father after he had molested
me for some time. I had succeeded in escaping from the home, and
my mother had succeeded in separating from him due to his longterm abusive alcoholismk
June 2, 1953
I hope that you get to go to Berea, or otherwise get to go to college. But, whether you go to college, or work, or get married, or
all three, you are still, in a very real sense, about to go out into
the world, and whether, as I say, your world is to be the business
or social or college world, I do not think that you are prepared
for it; to wit, you do not have a personal code of ethics that will
permit you to fit into it. It has appeared to me that your code
consists of doing whatever seems to suit your convenience, comfort or pleasure, then trying to justify it by appealing, when possible, to someone else’s code, failing which you justify it with “I
don’t consider it wrong.” The only fly in the ointment is that I
am not sure that you consider anything wrong, because you
have no code to govern yourself by. You scorn both religious
teachings and parental counsel, and you consider one’s conscience not only unreliable, but an imposter.
For instance, here is how your code will run counter with the
normal code that you will come in contact with in the near future. Your mother tells me that you and Carole came to her
apartment fuming. “I have always behaved myself,” said you.
“And I am not going to stay home and sleep.” By the normal
code of ethics, you were not behaving yourself when you made
that statement. For one thing, you were expressing an intention
to disobey your mother’s injunction to sleep at home. You were
not violating your code there, of course, because there is nothing
in your code that suggests that you should obey your parents.
But what is your code? …
Here, I think, is where your lack of a code of ethics may have
done, or may yet do, irreparable harm. No matter how much you
felt constrained to justify yourself to your mother—no matter
how much you felt constrained to defend Carole—you knew that
I am fighting with my life to save my tottering home, the destruction of which will mean the culmination of a twenty-year
romance that, incidentally, brought you into the world. If you
had a code of ethics worth a tinker’s dam, you would never have
brought Carole into your mother’s apartment. Here is what you
would have told Carole: “Carole, you know that I am your
friend. But you know, too, that my father is trying right now,
with might and main, to win back my mother for his wife. You
know that you want him to lose in that attempt. You know that
you have an antipathy for my father, and your mother knows
that you have an antipathy for my father. If you come into our
apartment at this time, the antipathy that you have for my father might affect my mother subconsciously, and my father
might therefore lose his fight to restore his home.”
Nancy, ten years from now I do not believe that you will be
happy that your mother and father are divorced. And I do not
believe that you will be happy that you gave Carole aid and comfort in her efforts to bring it about. If she divorces me, I forgive
you for your part in bringing it about, or in not doing more to
discourage it. And, since you don’t believe in God, I suppose it
doesn’t much matter to you whether He forgives you or not. But
I have a feeling that, just a few years from now, you will be finding it difficult to forgive yourself. At any rate, however you may
regard me, I remain with truly best wishes for your greatest happiness,
Your Old Pop.
What was most surprising was the fact that he seemed to forget
who he was writing to. He must have known that I knew about his
own ethical limitations, and yet he was so successful in projecting
and compartmentalizing them that he could write the above “with
a straight face.”
I remember that about this time he asked me if I had ever “told”
my mother, whereupon I replied in the negative. According to him,
my mother had said, “I know what you’ve been up to.” He didn’t
know what she was referring to, and I presume was too afraid to
It is just now, only a few weeks before submitting this book for publication, that I remember having told Carole about the incest. I’m
sure elsewhere in this book I have stated that I never told anyone
until years later, but I forgot. Did my father not guess why Carole
had such antipathy for him? How did he explain her antipathy to
himself? At the time all this was going on, Carole and I were not even “girlfriends.”