Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What I Learned from... Unknowingly Befriending a Sex Offender

Author's Note: I decided to start a series titled "What I Learned from..." This will be a series on life lessons and experiences I've had. Some, like this first installment, will be more serious. Others may be more lighthearted depending on the nature of the content. All are true, and therefore, I ask readers to use discretion when reading. If the subject matter may bother you, or you are a younger reader, you may want to skip the serious ones. I will always give forewarning when topics are weighty. With that, welcome to What I Learned from... Unknowingly Befriending a Sex Offender.

I met Steve* on Labor Day of 2009 while living in Denver. I was going through one of the most difficult periods in my life to date, and was struggling with feelings of loneliness and uncertainty of my future. At that point I was welcoming anyone who would be a friend.

My good friends, Dan* and Marie*, had decided to throw a little Labor Day party, and knowing that I was spending the day by myself, had invited me. They had also invited Dan's long-time friend Steve, who was older, a little awkward, but seemed nice. Later, some neighbors and family members of Dan and Marie joined us. We had a fun time playing games and grilling out.

After that day, Steve started hanging out with us more. He started going to church where I attended with Dan and Marie, started coming to events, and the four of us would plan activities together. He was always on time, and always showed up for everything. When Thanksgiving rolled around, Marie's parents invited Steve and I to spend the day with their family up in the mountains. Steve and I road tripped out together.

Steve was single and lived alone in a little apartment. He sometimes talked about his family, but I never met them. Steve worked full time, and spent his spare time, from what I could tell, playing PlayStation games and reading. He only had a few friends, so he was almost always available to hang out.

At first I was a little worried that people may try to set us up, or that there would be some sort of expectation. But he was older and didn't seem interested, so I soon let that worry go. We hung out pretty regularly, and though I always felt like something was a bit off, I decided he was just socially awkward and I focused on being a good friend.

I always saw Steve as this nice, old soul that had lost his one love in an airplane accident when they were in the Air Force Academy. I assumed he had never totally gotten over that, and that relationships were difficult for him. I decided I would be the best female friend I could be for someone who really needed it. I never shared my deepest, darkest secrets, but I tried to be as open as possible, knowing he needed someone to connect with. And in my lonely times, he was there to be a friend to me.

Then one day, just like people say, everything changed.

I had asked Steve to give me a ride to the airport one December afternoon in 2010. I was flying home for a friend's party and to spend the weekend with my parents. He was supposed to pick me up at my place at 2 and take me to catch my flight at 5. I texted him that day to confirm and didn't hear back. I thought it was a little odd, but I tried to brush it off as him being busy.

Then 2 p.m. came and went, and there was no sign of him. I started to panic a little because it wasn't like him to be late. I called a couple friends, including Marie, but no one had seen him or knew where he was. I ended up driving myself to the airport, letting Marie know that Steve was essentially missing. By that evening, he still hadn't shown up anywhere and his car was gone. Marie and I were both worried, thinking he might have been in an accident, but Dan didn't think anything was wrong. In my mind I pictured him in a hospital bed on life support, or maybe even dead someplace where no one could find him.

The next day I got a call from Marie. She said Steve didn't come to pick me up because he was in jail. He had gotten into trouble in the past, and now it was happening again. He had been caught having a sexual relationship with a teenage boy, and had been picked up by the cops the day before. Steve, my friend, was a registered sex offender.

* * * * *

Even now, I wonder what people do when they get information like that. How are you supposed to respond when that happens? Is there something you're supposed to say or do? Because seven months later, I still don't know.

At the time, the shock was so huge, I remember I didn't feel a thing. I wasn't sad or angry, I felt nothing. In the five minutes it took her to tell me, I didn't have time to process or to think really. The first thought I consciously remember thinking was that I wished he had been in a car accident. That would have been better than this.

Later, over the next few days and weeks, I had plenty of time to think, to feel emotion, and to decide what to do.

My first reaction was to think back over our friendship and look for clues that this was going on. I think most people would have the same reaction. You start questioning how in the world you missed something so huge, how it could have gone on without you at least suspecting something.

Little things I had noticed started making sense. The disconnect in our friendship was the biggest. What I wrote off as awkwardness was his inability to connect due to his hidden behavior. His subtle interest in young men that occasionally surfaced (like how his favorite singer in the group Celtic Thunder was the 17-year-old that he knew so much about), suddenly became so much more obvious.

It was really hard not to mentally give myself a hard time for not noticing such minute details for what they were. How could I not have picked up on that, I wanted to ask myself. But you can't berate yourself for not noticing something you didn't know existed. And that was the first thing I learned.

The next thing I had to come to terms with was the fact that our friendship essentially never existed. I like to think that even though he lied to me the entire time I knew him, there was a shred of truth in there somewhere. But honestly, if someone can lie that much and that well, how can you believe anything they ever said?

The truth is, our entire friendship was null and void, simply for the fact that it was built on a lie. The person that Steve said he was, the person he pretended to be for the year and a half that I knew him, was a figment of his imagination. That person did not exist. Therefore, my friendship with the imaginary Steve didn't exist.

This was perhaps the harshest reality, but it was the one thing I decided on very quickly and very firmly. That also led me to my second decision, which was, no matter what happened with his trial and sentencing and after, we would never be friends. It just was not possible.

Since he deceived me, and used me to help construct his "normal life" lie, I knew we were never really friends. How can you be true friends with someone who isn't honest about who they are as a person. Just like the line in Batman Begins, "It's what you do that defines you." What he did that defined him was not equal to who he pretended to be when I was around. I knew I couldn't even try to be his friend after that.

That was the second thing I learned, that sometimes you just have to let things go.

What probably hurt the most was the knowledge that other people who knew the truth about Steve helped keep it a secret. Dan, Marie, and other mutual friends never did anything to attempt to disclose the truth. They helped feed a lie that festered for over a year before it blew up in everyone's faces. That fact left me feeling uncertain as to who I could trust, and who my real friends were.

After the truth came out, we talked about what could've been done differently. My suggestion was that they give Steve a set amount of time to disclose the truth to me, otherwise they would do it. Part of keeping it a secret was out of respect for Steve's wishes. He didn't want Dan and Marie to tell me about his past, so they didn't. However, once someone becomes a registered sex offender, they don't have the luxury of privacy. Therefore, secrecy for Steve was just an illusion, not a right.

For all the time I had spent with him, something that monumental should've been disclosed. Whether by an ultimatum or not, something should have been done.

Finally, I learned that there are too many ways for predators, like Steve, to contact and prey upon innocent kids. And parents should be aware of the dangers because they are their child's first line of defense.

Steve had contact with kids not only via the internet and his home computer, but also via the PlayStation Network. I'm not exactly sure how he met the boy he was abusing, but allegations stated that they met on the internet. However, I remember him mentioning the types of kids he talked to while playing war games on PSN, so I realize that can be a medium for predators as well.

After everything came to light and I found out the truth about Steve, the first thing I did was inform my parents of the dangers of gaming networks. My teen-age brother plays on an Xbox, which offers a program similar to PSN. Features of these gaming networks include the ability to hear and speak with other gamers, random individuals who are playing the same game you are. And by that point, if your kids are communicating with strangers, it may already be too late.

I want to encourage parents to be proactive. Know what your child is doing on the internet and web-based programs where contact with strangers is possible. Social networking sites, chat rooms and messaging programs, and gaming networks are all ways for predators to contact children.

The good news is that parental controls and privacy settings do exist. Make sure to put these features to good use. And if you're not sure how to activate them, talk to a techy friend who can set them up with you.

Finally, keeping lines of communication open with your kids is key. Not only should you warn your kids about strangers, but also help them to feel comfortable discussing issues with you. I would say one of the biggest ways to do this is to be open yourself and to not treat anything as taboo.

And if you don't have kids, you can help keep parents informed of the risks and potential dangers of predators. If you see anything suspicious, please do what you can to fight it. You never know how many kids you may be helping by one tiny action.

*Name has been changed.


jessewhitten said...

another great blog. i think i will have my 10 year old son read this just so we can have an open dialog about the internet and it's traps. my son spends quite a bit of time on the computer, and like you said"it may already be too late" if i wait to have this conversation. great reading, keep up the good work elise!

LizDunham said...

I'm proud of you. You captured what you felt so accurately even though its been 7 months. I'm not as strong as you are and cant be as open and therefore I am proud of who you are. :)

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