m o l e s t e d

A mother discovers that the legal system's nightmarish
"cure" for child sexual abuse can be worse than the disease.

Illustration by Melinda Beck

every Wednesday afternoon I find a seat in a windowless basement room, in a circle of 25 people. The chairs are metal, hard and cold, and the level of discomfort far more than physical. There are eight teenage boys and two therapists, and all the rest of us are parents and grandparents. We are bewildered, we are depressed and we are all consigned to this room for months. I am sick for hours beforehand and a day or more afterwards, unable to sleep in peace, to eat, to hold a casual conversation. These boys, including my son, are sex offenders. We, as their parents, are complicit in crimes hard to explain or define. Recently I asked my 14-year-old son what he's learned from the painful events of the last year, and he said, "I've learned sex is bad. I don't want to think about it anymore."

Several months ago, a school counselor called me at work and told me he needed to speak to me right away. When he arrived at my office I was braced for the worst, for injury, the unbearable. What he told me was more unexpected than sudden death -- that my son had confessed to molesting our other son, who is several years younger. In the parlance of sexual abuse, he had "disclosed," begun the slow unraveling of detail and self-castigation. That moment began my own continuing nausea, like a backward somersault I can't control. I swing from feeling to feeling without warning, I swing between rage at my son and fury at the damage done by what are called good intentions.

The day after we found out, the police came to his school without warning and arrested him. I arrived just as they drove him away, a shriveled boy sitting behind two armed men in blue. And all that has happened since has been a duller and dirtier knife digging a deeper, nastier wound.

Next: My son in prison