“One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision and told him, ‘Don’t be afraid! Speak out! Don’t be silent!’” – Acts 18:1 NLT
“Each of us bears his own hell.” – Virgil
On any given day, millions of young people in this country balance precariously on that fulcrum separating the presumed carefree innocence of their childhood from the looming responsibilities of their futures as adults.
Even though each new crop of blossoming futures denies it vehemently, many of the core challenges of growing up are the same with each new generation as they were with the previous one: first love, peer pressure, bullies, hormonal changes, parental issues. Every growing child struggles to escape the control of his or her parents and every parent struggles to retain that control out of a natural urge to protect the child. But a part of this trait lies in a subconscious resentment of their youth. After all, the passage from childhood to adulthood for those whom we bring into the world also represents an inescapable passage of the parents as well as they become painfully aware of the fact that a child becoming a man or a woman signifies that those parents are now approaching middle age.
In the very natural course of events it is a tough time all around, but our demands for more individual freedoms, our obsession with things sexual, our desensitizing of the acts of intimacy between a man and a woman and the mind-boggling advances in technology have all conspired to present new and formidable challenges to young people and parents alike; challenges that could not possibly have been imagined or properly provided for when our nation was in its infancy and our constitution was first written.
I am in my 60th year and it has taken me all of this time to learn some very important lessons about life in general and my life in particular.
It has taken tragedy, self-degradation, the embarrassment of myself and my family, loss of respect from others and from myself, a nearly successful suicide attempt, arrest and imprisonment for me to find answers for myself.
To find the answers, I needed to discover certain truths about how a life – my life – became so completely and disastrously derailed. I point the finger of blame at no one for anything I have ever done. I hold no one responsible for the multitude of bad decisions I have made in my life, nor do I hold anyone accountable for me being where I am today instead of where I could have been. No one, that is, except for myself.
But now, finally, I can see clearly some of the things that were broken early on in my life that could have been fixed and probably would have resulted in my train staying on the track. Oh, I probably would have still been rerouted a time or two, or paused in a siding temporarily, but I quite possibly could have avoided the complete derailment that caused so much damage, created so much havoc and endangered – and cost – so many lives.
It is my fervent hope that I will somehow be able to use what I have learned for the betterment of others. Perhaps this new found knowledge and clarity can be turned into something that can be useful to others.
As a convicted sex offender, my access to young people will be severely limited by the requirements of sex offender registration and the terms of my release from prison.
Be that as it may, if I could stand before a group of high school students for about thirty minutes, I would tell them a story. It is a story of pain and self-loathing left unattended and allowed to grow until it blossomed into the behavior that delivered me to the prison in which I write these words.
Would my story make a difference? Certainly not to all of those I would speak to, but I believe that it would help at least a few to avoid some of the mistakes I made when I was their age; mistakes that prevented me from growing; mistakes that I believe kept me isolated and out of touch with life and with people around me; mistakes that kept me from maturing and promoted self-destructive behavior.
This belief that I could impact a few young lives in a positive manner would help me to find the courage to stand publicly and tell the story that follows. For now, however, it is simply my hope that you will all take the time to read a “speech” written to be given to a high school-aged audience after I am released from prison. It will most likely never be given. Despite that almost certain knowledge, I would like to share with you those words that will likely go “unspoken.”
“The Words I Would Speak”
I cannot help all of you. I may not even be able to help most of you. But it is my sincerest hope that my words will reach at least some of you and that they will help you to help yourselves and, possibly, each other.
My name is Tony Casson and I am 60 years old. I have recently been released from a federal prison where I was incarcerated for a little over four years for possession of child pornography. I am a convicted felon. But worse than that, I am a convicted sex offender, which means I have to register as such, severely limiting where I may live, work or seek entertainment. As a condition of my release, I will be under the supervision of a federal probation officer for the rest of my life. Furthermore, I will not be permitted to be around anyone under the age of 18 – including my own grandchildren – unless I am supervised.
I will always be viewed with suspicion and disdain by many, outright hatred by some and I will be judged to be someone to fear and avoid by anyone who doesn’t know me, particularly those who have children.
Many people will look at me and see a monster. I will look in the mirror and see someone who is profoundly sorry for the mistakes he has made in life, but now realizes that we can never go back and undo what we have done. We can only move forward. So I stand here today, reaching out to all of you who have your lives stretched out before you. I would like to tell you all about some of the mistakes that I made, the reasons behind them and the steps I could have taken to avoid them.
I would like to help. That is all I have left.
You see a big part of growing up, for every single person who has done it, is making mistakes and learning from them. Sometimes we fail to learn these lessons and that failure hurts us later on in life. But I am here today to try to impress upon you that there are also some mistakes that you simply do not want to make at all. Sometimes that first-hand experience we all crave is not a good thing to have. In some instances, it really is best to learn from the mistakes of others… so I will offer you mine.
The road to the place I am now was not one that I consciously selected when I was your age. I certainly did not set out in life with this destination in mind. But the very first steps taken in my long journey to what became my own personal hell on earth were taken when I was not so very different from all of you.
Hard to believe, I know. But it’s true. I once had hair – a large afro, in fact. I was fifty pounds lighter and I had all my teeth.
But I had much more than that. Like all of you I, too, had my life stretching endlessly before me. I was adventurous, energetic, optimistic, invincible and I was indestructible. There was no past to be sorry for; only a vast sea of infinite possibilities to come. I had no sense of my own mortality because we simply do not consider how a life will end at a time when it is just beginning to unfold before us.
I was blessed with intelligence and was always told that I could do anything I wanted to do; that I could be anything I wanted to be. I thought I had all the time in the world to figure out what I wanted out of life and all the time I needed to get it.
Ultimately, what I discovered is that life is a whole lot shorter than we think or care to admit.
By the time it dawned on me that I was out of time; by the time I woke up to the fact that I had committed grievous errors that could not be corrected; by the time I looked in the mirror and realized that the man I had once hoped to become was nowhere to be found; by the time I admitted to myself that I had failed as a husband, a father, a friend and as a member of society, I was 55 years old and I was hovering near death, lying on a cold tile floor in the bathroom of a cheap motel in South Florida, covered in my own blood with the FBI standing outside my door waiting to arrest me for possession of child pornography.
As my blood circled the drain of that shower, so did everything I ever thought life could – or would – be when I was your age. My dreams, my hopes – all of my potential was flooding away in the torrent of pain that I had released with my own hands.
The FBI had taken my computer from me almost a year and a half prior to that day and because I knew what that computer contained, I knew that they would one day return for me. That knowledge did nothing to lessen the shock of the reality that morning in August of 2009 when I stepped out of my motel room and saw the blue nylon windbreakers with the big yellow letters on the back that sent currents of fear and panic coursing through my body. “FBI” the letters screamed at me.
They had come to that rundown motel in South Florida where I lived and worked, but they had gone to the office first, where I was supposed to be. Moments before they arrived, I had walked to my room to get something, enabling me to see them before they saw me. I turned and darted back into the “safety” of my room.
To say that I completely panicked would be a gross understatement. The journey that I had begun forty years before, when I was the same age as many of you, was about to come to an inglorious end in a lonely room in a seedy motel in South Florida.
I was so angry with myself, and so very, very tired of the simple act of being me that I ran into the bathroom, broke apart a disposable razor and took a blade between the fingers of each hand.
I stood in front of the mirror with tears in my eyes, staring with hatred and loathing into the face of a man that I simply did not know. As my age had climbed steadily higher, my morality, my honesty, my decency and my sense of humanity had descended lower and lower.
I was tired of doing battle with myself and losing and I set out to “win” just this once. Unfortunately, the only way my frightened, battered, drug, alcohol and demon-affected mind could conceive of victory was by striking angrily and repeatedly at both sides of my neck with the razor blades until I sliced through the veins that ran down each side. I felt my blood – the essence of life itself – released with startling force from both sides at the same time.
Thinking I would find my peace and finally escape the failure I had made of myself, I stepped into the shower stall and lay down on that cool yellow tile to allow the blood to drain from my body and to welcome my peace.
I cannot describe to you how tired I was.
I cannot describe to you how alone I felt.
I can tell you that the lightning bolt of fear that jolted me when I first saw the FBI in the parking lot was gone. It was replaced by a quiet sadness and acceptance of what I believed to be the irreversible permanence of the sin I had just committed against myself and those who had always loved me more than I was capable of loving myself.
And that day, having just committed an unspeakable act of violence against my own person, I proved that I was just as capable of hating myself as I was incapable of loving myself.
As I lay there covered in my own blood, I thought about those I loved the most; those I would miss the most; those who would be the most disappointed in me; those I felt the saddest at leaving in such a horrible, sudden, unexpected and violent manner: my two children. My thoughts also turned to my mother whom I loved very much and who had passed away a couple of months after the FBI had taken my computer.
The thought crossed my mind to write “forgive me” on the wall of the shower in my blood, but I didn’t know if they would get the message. Then I wanted to cry out to them and ask for that forgiveness, but I knew that none of them could hear me and I was convinced that they would turn away from me if they could. So I turned to God, whom I had rejected and ignored for almost forty years and I asked Him to help them forgive me.
And then I asked God Himself for His forgiveness.
Very shortly after that, the FBI agents, who were now standing outside my door, decided to enter my room even though doing so went against all official FBI procedure and protocol. They found me and called for an ambulance with not a lot of time to spare.
I apologize to them now for exposing them to the bloody scene that greeted them and I am indebted to them for saving my life.
So now I stand before all of you, obviously very much alive, and while the act of standing here and speaking of these things is embarrassing and indescribably difficult, I am grateful to God that I am able to do it and I pray that I can somehow reach a place inside some of you that will help you alter the course you are on for the better.
The question looms: How did I get to that point where I deemed death by my own hand to be the only solution to the problem I had created?
In order to better understand the ending of my story, we will need to take some time and examine the beginning, for I discovered while in prison that the complexities that make up the later years of our existence begin to form during the seemingly simple act of growing up.
As small children, when we cried out in pain or in need, there was usually someone close at hand to offer us comfort. When we skinned our knees or fell off our bikes, when a sibling hit us or called us a name, no matter the insult or the injury, most of us let the world know when we hurt and where we hurt. After all, how could anyone help us if they didn’t know we needed it?
As we get older, for some reason we transition into private individuals who feel as if we need to deal with things ourselves. We still seek help with external injuries like cuts, bruises and broken bones. But many of us keep all to ourselves the pain from things that hurt inside – pain that can be much worse than that of the most severe physical injury that we can imagine.
We keep this internal pain hidden possibly because we feel that it is not “grown up” to do otherwise. Perhaps our silence grows out of embarrassment or a sense of shame. Sometimes we feel that we will be viewed as “babies” if we talk about things that hurt us inside, especially when we are male. And finally, we feel as if no adult could ever understand the pain of youth or that our friends and peers would just make fun of us or think us silly.
It never seems to occur to us that our friends may feel the same things or that our parents endured the same pain when they were young.
No matter. We do what we do because we are young and sometimes there simply is no explanation. Fortunately, most of the time the effects of keeping things inside do not have long-term or far-reaching consequences.
But some pain, left unattended, can work silently within us, destroying the framework of our development, crippling our ability to mature, to grow, to feel, to love.
Quite possibly, in your own minds, some of you are beginning to reflect on what I have said and you are already identifying pain within yourselves. Perhaps your pain has names associated with it. I know mine did. Those names are Mark, John and Tommy and I can honestly tell you that the pain from knowing each one of the boys who answered to those names was as instrumental in opening up the wounds on the sides of my neck almost forty years later as those razorblades I used to slice into my flesh.
I was twelve when I met Mark.
Hard though it may be to comprehend now, when I was in the sixth grade I was very, very cute. I had an impish smile, curly brown hair, an outgoing personality and supreme confidence. The girls loved me. Laugh if you must but it’s true. I was irresistible, in demand and in control. The top dresser drawer in my bedroom was full of notes from girls as testimony to that fact.
(In this age of texting, many of you may not know what a “note” is. It is a small piece of paper with a secret message on it which was passed when the teacher wasn’t looking. The embarrassment of having the occasional note intercepted and read out loud to the class is a pain we’ll reserve for another story.)
The truth is, I owned that sixth grade classroom as far as the opposite sex was concerned – that is, until the day in the second half of the school year when this new kid’s family moved to town and he walked through the classroom door. His name was Mark and he destroyed my life.
At least that’s the way I viewed it when I was twelve. Mark also had brown eyes but his hair was soft and wavy where mine was coarse and curly. He, too, had a cute smile and an outgoing personality. But he also was something that I was not – he was fresh meat!
Mark was brand spanking new and every girl in the class primped, preened, posed and paraded for his attention, leaving me sitting there alone, tossed in the corner like an old pair of shoes, getting my first sample of the unpleasant taste of rejection. I was spurned. I was forgotten. I was yesterday’s news.
And I was never the same again. As humorous as I may have made it all sound and as silly as it might sound to you now or actually have been at the time, I never got over it. I never addressed it, cried about it or talked about it. I felt somehow responsible and I guess my mind convinced me that it was permanent. It shook me to my core and from that point forward, I always feared rejection. I always tried to avoid placing myself in situations where I might be rejected and I dealt with it badly when it did occur.
A bit of an overreaction? Possibly. But I was twelve and that is sometimes how it works when we are twelve. I’m sure some of you know what I’m talking about.
One of the things that is critical for young people to learn is how to deal properly with rejection. Rejection will occur in every person’s life and while we must all be taught to do our best to always go for a “yes,” we must also learn that “yes” will not always be the answer. Therefore knowing how to process “no” correctly and in a healthy manner is very important to our development early on.
There is simply no way to calculate the number of dances, dates or other personal and professional opportunities that have passed me by because of the low self-esteem that grew out of that “silly” little incident. But silly or not, I would spend a lifetime convinced that “no” was more likely than “yes” to be the answer I would receive to whatever the question was that I might ask. So I simply never asked.
If Mark was the only pain I experienced that had a name, things might have turned out differently for me. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case, for in the 9th grade, along came John.
We have all heard the little rhyme that goes like this: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” I have no idea what idiot came up with that but that certainly isn’t the message anyone should want their children to receive. While working on a book of devotionals when I was in prison, I rewrote that rhyme:
Sticks and stones can hurt someone,
But words can do the same.
People hurt deep down inside,
When they are called a name.
John was a bully who specialized in taunting me with “pet” names that were embarrassing, humiliating and degrading.
After escaping from the sixth grade, I went on to junior high school and muddled through seventh and eighth grades, struggling to reinvent myself. No longer convinced that I was a “ladies” man, I ran with a rougher, meaner crowd. I took up cigarettes to help me look cooler and tougher than I really was. I played down the fact that I was smart because I didn’t want to hang out with “them” – you know, geeks, nerds, bookworms – whatever the name, I didn’t want it attached to me.
I survived that experience but actually managed to come away with lower self-esteem and less of an idea of who I was than when I had started. Upon entering ninth grade – high school, baby! The big time! – I was a skinny outcast with thick-framed glasses and coarse, wiry, very curly – kinky actually – hair. I didn’t fit in anywhere really but I tried to blend with the “cool” guys who snuck outside a back door before and between classes to smoke cigarettes.
John was out there. He was sort of the leader, I guess. The leader of the pack – the cigarette pack, you might say. John decided instantly that I was a good target and his meanness zoomed in on me and on my hair immediately. He began a mean-spirited “game” in which he would think up names for me and my hair. The game started mildly with “Brillo Pad,” which was met with resounding success, laughter all around; snickering and finger-pointing, even I joined in. He soon got bored with that and it became “Pubic Head,” which greeted me when I stepped out to light up. I must have liked it, right? After all, I kept going out there even after it got even uglier and he started calling me “Nigger Knots.” Over time, it degenerated still further and he called me names that combined the word “hair” with the vulgar terms for the male or female genitalia attached to the front of it. And I still kept going back.
I learned that the message of that nursery rhyme was wrong. I learned that names do hurt; that the pain they could cause was as real as that caused by any physical injury. I learned to believe that I was unlikeable and I learned to crawl further inside myself.
I convinced myself that I was a coward who would not stand up for himself, nor would I take my pain or my complaint to an adult. After all, what would I say? “Every time I go out back to smoke….” Well, you can see how that would have gone over.
It is important to learn when we are young that the pain other people can inflict upon us can change the very essence of who we are. The anger that we justifiably feel toward the one causing us pain somehow gets turned around. We direct it at ourselves for not doing something to stop the other person from hurting us. In other words, we wind up being angry at ourselves because we have already made ourselves easy targets by accepting abuse in silence.
The combined effects of knowing Mark and John were beginning to create serious problems that, in and of themselves, could prove to be a considerable detriment to my ability to develop and mature normally. Still, if Mark and John had been the only pain I had known with names, I could have altered the course I seemed to be on in my life and quite possibly I might have arrived at a different destination.
But that was not to be. There was still more pain out there for me and its name was Tommy. The pain of knowing Tommy would combine with the pain of knowing Mark and John. Collectively, that pain would overwhelm my ability to live happily and in anything resembling an orderly purposeful existence.
Unlike the other two, however, Tommy would grow up to be my best friend and provide me with my best chance at overcoming the pain of knowing the other two. That possibility existed until the night that I killed him.
At least, that is the belief that Tommy’s father carried to his grave, and it was a guilt that almost accompanied me to mine.
Each new generation is determined to distinguish itself from the last one and mine was no exception. However, the new one does not replace what came before; it simply adds to it. My generation added to the alcohol made popular by my parents’ generation by introducing marijuana, LSD, and an assortment of other drugs and pills designed to lift you up or knock you down. Our search for distinction included rebellion against anything and everything that was ‘establishment’. We kick-started America’s moral decline by promoting ‘free love’ and sought to establish that each person’s individual rights to self-gratification outweighed the rights of society as a whole.
I latched onto the drugs and alcohol as if they were a life-preserver thrown to me to save me from drowning in the ocean of self-pity that I had created for myself.
As a means of fortifying my damaged self-confidence and to bolster my collapsed self-esteem, when I turned 16 I sought the comfort and the courage of all that my generation had to offer. Drugs and alcohol were easy friends to make, comfortable to be with, and they didn’t call you names that hurt you terribly or dump you for the new guy.
By now, John had run out of names to call me or had simply become bored with me. Either way, he had moved on. Like the girls of 6th grade, I suppose he sought ‘fresh meat’.
As I pursued my relationship with drugs and alcohol I discovered that they could do for me what I couldn’t do for myself: They made me recklessly uninhibited, wildly entertaining, and perhaps even interesting. I still lacked true friends, and I know now that those I hung around with at that time viewed me as a source of amusement more than anything else. But I had convinced myself that the fool I made of myself when ‘under the influence’ was voluntary and I no longer looked at it as if people were laughing AT me. After all, we were all laughing together, weren’t we?
No one really did anything TO me anymore. They didn’t need to, as I did it all myself. I sacrificed my dignity for what I foolishly believed was their acceptance. All I ever really needed to do was to be myself. That’s all ANYONE really needs to do. But I was rapidly losing any sense of who I really was. In any event, it would take me decades to find out who that person was and to discover that the person I had tried to change into something decadent and demeaning was someone who IS, after all, a really decent person. I like him.
At this point, in the story however, I am still decades away from that revelation. The need for drugs and alcohol – that need to ‘fortify’ myself in order to have courage and to make myself more interesting – would stay with me, and haunt me, until the morning I wound up on the floor of that shower wanting so desperately to be dead.
I met Tommy around the time I turned 17. He was a year younger than me, came from a financially comfortable family, was a very nice person, and was well-liked by almost everyone. For whatever reason, we hit it off and rapidly became best friends. Where Tommy was popular, I was simply well-known. Where Tommy was well-liked, I was simply tolerated. No matter – our friendship grew and if Tommy was not with his girlfriend, we could be found together riding around in his green Ford Econoline Van.
By this time, because of the unaddressed pain of knowing Mark and John, I was pretty lost as a person, but I was not consciously aware of that fact. For me, life had become a party because parties were fun and my life had not been fun for a long time. I had no goals – unless one could characterize as a goal the desire to deaden the pain of feeling inferior; I had no dreams – unless you could call seeking to erase the memory of being the butt of others’ jokes a dream; I had no vision – unless trying to hide the pain of feeling that I was less than everyone else could be classified as such.
I lived up to my generation’s billing and I rebelled with the best of them. The difference was that many of the others were rebelling against social injustice and the war in Viet Nam. I was simply rebelling against my pain.
Throughout these difficult years, my father was out of town working most of the time, leaving my mother to deal with me and my 4 brothers and sisters. She worked full time as well, making life difficult for her in ways children can never appreciate or understand. Fortunately for them, my siblings created fewer problems collectively and required less attention than I did on my own.
I know that my mother saw the pain in me that I refused to acknowledge or seek help for, but I have since learned that sometimes parents simply do not know the correct steps to take to save a child who is drowning. It is almost as if they are frozen at first by what is the seeming impossibility of what they are witnessing. Sometimes they spring into action and jump right in to save the child, but as many of us know, drowning people are often their own worst enemies and they struggle violently against their would-be rescuers, putting THEM at risk as well. Sadly, at other times they remain frozen in inaction too long and by the time they snap out of their reverie, it is too late and the child has slipped irretrievably below the surface and is lost forever.
My mother tried to rescue me but I fought too hard and she was forced to stand by and watch me slip below the surface. I caused my mother an immeasurable amount of pain and that knowledge has been difficult to contend with. But I do know that she, like God, always loved me, even when I could not love myself. Perhaps ESPECIALLY when I could not love myself.
While I was still in my 17th year, Tommy and I were arrested for felony possession of marijuana, and we were both sentenced to 5 years probation. Neither set of parents was particularly pleased with us, but nothing was done to separate us. In fact, Tommy’s father bought him a Pontiac GTO. Perhaps he thought that would keep us out of trouble. It didn’t of course, but we did arrive at the trouble a little faster, with a little more noise, and a lot more style.
My father died when I was 18, and not too long after that my mother decided to buy a house that turned out to be only about a mile from where Tommy lived with his parents. My family was originally from Maine and my mother had been under pressure since my father died to move back there. She finally gave in and went there with my two sisters to look for a place to live and check out schools, work and things of that nature. My two brothers were off in the service, leaving me alone, creating the perfect party opportunity.
The city we lived in was on Lake Erie and as it was summertime, Tommy’s family spent most of the time at a lake house they owned about 10 miles outside of town. His family owned a construction company and Tommy worked for them in the summer, but we made full use of the evenings drinking, smoking pot, and consuming cough syrup that contained codeine, which was very popular at that time, and was Tommy’s personal favorite.
On about the 4th night, at around 11 PM, Tommy stood up to go home. Those of us who were still there tried to talk him into staying at my house, but he was set on going home because he had to work in the morning. We settled for extracting a promise from him that he would not attempt to drive out to the lake house, and would just drive the short distance to his home in town.
I was awakened by the ringing of the telephone at around 4 or 5 AM by another friend who worked at night and had heard on a police scanner that Tommy was dead. He had decided after all to drive out to the lake house and had fallen asleep at the wheel of his GTO and drifted across the road into the path of an oncoming semi hauling US mail.
MY decision to not take his keys, and HIS decision to drive ten miles instead of one, combined to forever change countless lives and to cost my best friend his.
The next day, it was made known to me by Tommy’s girlfriend that his father did not want me anywhere near his son’s funeral because I was “the one who killed him”. In the end, Tommy’s older brother interceded on my behalf and I was allowed to go say goodbye to my best friend. I stood with his girlfriend and cried tears that I never knew were inside of me.
Did I kill him? Of course not, but it took a very, very long time, my own brush with death at my own hand, and prison for me to finally put it all in its proper perspective. Could those of us who let him leave have done a better job of looking out for him? Sure. We definitely could have. Do we think about these things before it’s too late? Not usually, especially when we are young and indestructible.
When a tragedy such as this strikes the young, we tend to prevent people from getting close to us and helping us deal with the loss and understand the pain. In the end, we wind up adding to the burdens we sometimes already carry unless we are prepared to ask for help.
So when it was all over and everyone tried to move on with their lives, I added to my collection of pain that carried the names of boys I had known. From Tommy, I added the pain of loss. But I also added the worst pain of them all – the pain of guilt for causing his death.
I was eighteen years old and I should have been looking at a future with unlimited potential and possibilities. Instead, I was staring at rejection, humiliation, loss, and guilt.
It was like staring at the Four Horseman of my own personal apocalypse.
It would be almost 40 years before the weight of knowing those three boys would finally crush me. While in prison, I resolved to fix what was broken within me, so I turned to God and asked for His help. I examined my life and I was led to the truth that I had struggled under that weight for all those years. I discovered that I had never really allowed myself to be completely ALIVE during that time; I had merely occupied space in my body.
Because I allowed myself to carry those unnecessary burdens, I was never able to grow or mature much beyond the point I was at when I was 18. I never seemed to grasp the need to take life seriously, and I never understood the necessity of accepting responsibility for it. My problems were never addressed, and I never embraced the notion that at ANY point along the way, I could have sought the help that I was unwilling, or unable, to admit that I so desperately needed.
A leaky roof that is left unattended will slowly continue to get worse, until what might have taken a couple of hours to repair results in replacing the entire roof, as well as repairing whatever damage was caused INSIDE as a result.
Problems left unattended only get worse over time as well, but it was impossible for me to see this. As a young person, I had not learned to respect myself so I was unable to use self-respect to motivate me to seek solutions to my problems. Nor had I learned to love myself, so I could not use that either.
When self-respect and self-love are missing, so is our ability to truly respect or love others. And when these things are missing from who we are, we can never hope to fully understand, enjoy, or appreciate all that life holds out to us.
By holding on to the pain of rejection, humiliation, loss, and guilt, and by seeking comfort and escape from that pain with drugs and alcohol, I essentially sentenced myself to prison almost 40 years before the cell door actually clanged shut behind me.
Many things transpired in those decades that passed. I had the unique privilege to meet, fall in love with, and marry two lovely and intelligent women, each of whom blessed me – and the world – with a beautiful child. Unfortunately, it was impossible for me to fully engage with anyone, and I probably had no business depriving anyone of THEIR happiness just because I could not – WOULD not – allow my own happiness to exist.
But they married me anyway. In doing so, they created beautiful moments in the self-imposed ugliness of my world. Unfortunately, it is impossible to punish oneself, as I seemed to always be doing, without punishing those who love us as well. Both marriages ended in divorce and both of my children suffered as a result, for even in the best of circumstances, our children always suffer the most as the result of a divorce.
The erosion of the decency and morality of an individual – or an entire society, for that matter – takes place much like the erosion of a mountainside, a riverbank, or a shoreline. It occurs slowly, over time, and in little pieces that are barely discernible as they wash away, until one day when we look up and notice all at once that what had been familiar to us had changed in dramatic ways.
That is how it was for me and my unfortunate relationship with pornography. It crept into my life in bits and pieces, occupying an ever-growing space inside me. It’s progress was silent, but my constantly increased NEED for it added to the burdens I was already carrying. I never saw it as a burden, of course. Much the opposite, in fact. It was welcomed to fill the void within me – real OR imagined – and eventually further affected my ability to establish, and maintain, mature, loving relationships.
Pornography, like drugs and alcohol, became my friend. As I continued to pull further and further into myself, this seemed like a natural fit for me. After all, PEOPLE argue with us; PEOPLE hurt us; PEOPLE disappoint us. Pictures do not.
The individuals who allowed themselves to be photographed alone, or with others, in sexual situations and scenarios were not real to me. When the pictures became boring, they could be replaced with new ones. There was never any complaint or argument about it and no one’s feelings were ever hurt.
Real-life people were much more complicated and harbored expectations of permanence. The Four Horsemen who surrounded – and kept vigil – over me had taught me that there was no such thing. ALL relationships ended, and ended badly, and ALL relationships caused pain in one way or another.
With pornography, I could surround myself with friends and lovers who accepted me unconditionally, never disappointed me, and never caused me any pain.
Is it not easy to see that the problems of my youth that were born with such simplicity had now grown very complex?
I now had drugs, alcohol, and pornography as my most trusted friends and whenever REAL life got to be too demanding or posed too many problems, I could always surround myself with the safety, comfort, and pleasures that these friends offered.
Here I was a young man who had never learned how to live one life in a normal, healthy manner, and now I seemed to be trying to live TWO. One of those lives would remain unfulfilled through the years and would overflow with pain and sadness. The other would slowly work to destroy everything good that entered the other one and would eventually make me want to take my own life.
Even though I seemed perpetually determined to self-destruct, good people, wonderful opportunities, and good things presented themselves to me throughout the last 40 years. Unfortunately, each time I accepted something of value into my life, it seemed as if I ultimately needed to destroy it myself. You see, knowing Mark, John, and Tommy had taught me that it was better to reject someone or something rather than to BE rejected. If I could give it up first, it could never be taken from me and there could never be a sense of loss.
The next few decades became a constant cycle of happiness, disillusionment, followed by condemnation and self-destruction, then redemption. It was a cycle that was to be repeated over, and over, and over until that day in August of 2009.
When I was in my forties; when it was beyond comprehension that my life could become MORE complex or that I could find NEW and more destructive ways to live my life, along came the internet.
The day I slipped that “Try AOL Free” disc into my computer was the day I made that final wrong turn onto the road that almost delivered me to my death.
I had been divorced the second time for about a year when this new ‘phenomenon’ swept the nation and captured the attention of millions of individuals like myself. We all flocked to AOL and many of us fell in love with AOL ‘chat rooms’.
My ‘relationship’ with those chat rooms quickly became an obsession. I had gone from being a single dad who pretty much stayed at home and out of touch, to being someone who could ‘socialize’ with others from around the country, and ‘socialize’ I did.
I ‘met’ women from everywhere and fell in and out of ‘love’ with rapidly increasing frequency. I soon learned that the novelty of truthfulness wore off for many people quite quickly. Many found it much easier to be someone else rather than to simply be themselves. After all, our profiles told people who we were, and we could write anything we wanted in them. We could all become more interesting, more attractive, and much more desirable than we actually were when we turned the computer off and had to face the realities of our lives and look at ourselves in the mirror.
Those online relationships soon became complicated and were invariably disappointing, even hurtful. As disillusionment set in, I turned instead to another ‘marvelous’ feature of AOL: Internet pornography. This ‘discovery’ led me into the world which would complete the dehumanizing of myself and would ultimately lead me to the behavior which would ultimately destroy me. This behavior, of course, was my involvement with child pornography which grew out of my larger obsession with that which is termed ‘adult’ pornography. It never was about children. It was just another way to validate the negative feelings I had nurtured about myself since the days that I had known Mark, John, and Tommy.
In a strange twist of fate, that which almost killed me actually saved my life. I can very honestly say that I am pleased with the new path that God has shown me, but it does not alter the fact that I wish I had arrived here in a less painful manner – painful to myself and so many others.
Not all who travel the road I arrived here on wind up thankful for the way things turned out for THEM. I know this because I have met many individuals while in prison whose stories have saddened me and made me more determined to find a way to help SOMEONE avoid what we have gone through and what we must face in the future.
For those who think that child pornography is something that is reserved for the exclusive viewing by a bunch of dirty old men, I am witness to the fact that this is simply not true. The longer I spent in prison, the more young men – men in their early and mid-twenties – entered the compound to pay the price for THEIR indiscretion.
Not everyone chooses to speak freely about their situation, but one young man in particular told me his story and I wish to briefly share it with all of you. His name is Albert (not his real name) and he came from Florida. Albert was 20 years old when I met him and had been sentenced to 6 years for possession of child pornography.
Albert’s story really began when he was just 8 years old. At that time, Albert’s brother, who was 12, started sexually molesting him. This activity continued until Albert was 13, at which time their activities were discovered and counseling was obtained for Albert’s brother. There was no money for counseling for Albert, however. He felt abandoned by not just his parents, but also by his brother. He had his own computer and the skills to use it, as do most young people in this day and age, so he turned to internet pornography for comfort, consolation, and companionship.
He rapidly shifted his focus to child pornography, but to someone 13 years old, this was more like ‘just hanging out with people my own age’, he said. When I asked how – at 13 – he even FOUND child pornography, he just looked at me and laughed and said, “You’re kidding, right?” Of course…silly me. It is frighteningly and readily available.
By the time he was arrested he was 19. The judge who sentenced him didn’t seem to be interested in HOW he came to be doing what he was doing. He was not interested in the fact that something was broken within Albert that PRISON was never going to fix. He seemed to be sending the message that this is how we deal with this problem, and that was the end of it.
Albert is lost, this much I can tell you. Without help, he will be even more lost when he is released. His life will have been altered in ways that would be difficult for someone WITH social skills to adjust to. Albert has none at all, will certainly not develop any useful ones in there, and he will find it almost impossible to find his way when he is released. He is not unique in this and our prisons today are beginning to fill up with Alberts.
It is a fact that people like Albert go to prison every day and it has got to STOP.
Guess who has to stop it? Yes…YOU. There is no one who can prevent another Albert from happening except for each and every one of YOU.
There are some basic facts about pornography that you all need to be made aware of, or reminded of.
There is no such thing as ‘adult’ pornography. No matter what anyone tries to tell you, there is NOTHING mature or ‘adult’ about pornography. It serves no purpose beyond making money for those who do not have the intelligence, skills, or morality to make it any other way.
Pornography contributes nothing positive to humanity, and is simply an immature, insensitive, and immoral display of the depths that people will go to degrade, diminish, demoralize, and demean humanity.
In this country, pornography used to be classified as ‘obscene’ until our Supreme Court, in one of its more glaring examples of just how fallible it CAN be, declared that it was protected by our constitution as a form of ‘free speech’.
I am here to tell you all that if pornography is free speech, it is a conversation you do NOT need to be engaged in. It does NOT enhance your life at ANY age. It does NOT make you a grown up. It does NOT glorify the beauty of a relationship between two people. Instead, it demeans and degrades all involved, but women in particular, and it desensitizes us to the beauty that intimacy can hold. Looking at pornography not only does not make one more mature, it is actually a sign of IMMATURITY to engage in it at all.
Besides all of that, no amount of glorification, or claims of freedom of speech or artistic expression can negate the fact that MANY, MANY of the ‘willing’ participants in the production of pornography are drug and alcohol dependent, many of the females in pornographic pictures and films are the victims of earlier child sexual abuse, and many of them are forced into it.
And what about child pornography itself? Will everyone who indulges in internet pornography explore child pornography as well? Of course not, but do not kid yourselves. MILLIONS have, and many more millions WILL, and tens of thousands of people will spend years in prison and be required to register as sex offenders as a result. Many MORE tens of thousands of family members will be affected as someone close to them spends time behind bars for contributing to a problem that has a stranglehold on this country.
It now falls upon all of YOU to be the ones who will distinguish YOUR generation from all others by standing up and saying, “Enough is enough!”
It is now up to YOU to draw the line in the sand and refuse to cross it.
It is now up to YOU to look to people MY age and say, “You have done enough damage, and things must change!”
We have left you a legacy of incomprehensible debt and mismanagement of this nation’s finances. We have left you a government that is too large to manage effectively and too concerned with partisan squabbling to govern in a manner that is responsible. We have left you a legacy of immorality, indecency, and personal freedoms that far outstrip what our founders could have possibly envisioned when they formed this country.
And we have abandoned you to find your own way through a morass of filth and degeneracy that some idiots have claimed is free speech and artistic expression. In the process, hundreds of thousands of you are sexually, physically, and emotionally abused each and every day.
It is up to YOU all to seek help to fix things that are broken with yourselves and then seek to fix what is broken with this country.
It is up to YOU to be willing to do whatever it takes to restore some self-respect to this nation and to insist that the moral values of the majority NOT be driven by the selfish, self-indulgent desires of a few.
YOU must establish for the NEXT generation that Freedom is not about the RIGHTS we have as individuals. Rather, Freedom should be about the OBLIGATIONS that we have for each OTHER.
Something that stands out prominently from my youth is that I was always WILLING. I think being willing is one of the most important requirements in the process of growing up. Unfortunately, I was always willing to do the WRONG things, to respond in the WRONG way, and I was certainly willing to give people more power over me than they were entitled to have.
I was NOT willing to turn to friends, family, teachers, or God for help at a time in my young life when I needed it the most and when being willing to do just that could have altered the course of my future, and I hope some of the things I have spoken about will help you to avoid making the same mistake.
I will pray that you are all willing to use your energy, your intelligence, and your youth to create for yourselves better, happier lives than I created for myself and those around me.
I will pray that you are all WILLING to love and respect yourselves and others.
If you can each be WILLING, then you will be ABLE to stand up, not just for yourselves, but for each other. You will be ABLE to reach out for help to stop someone from abusing you physically, sexually, or emotionally. You have to be willing NOW to have the courage to face those who would deprive you of your youth, thereby condemning your adulthood to being something less than it can be. You have to be willing to fix little things that are broken BEFORE they grow into bigger things that steal your identity and your ability to be YOU.
You must be willing to THINK before you act, because decisions that we make can – in a fraction of a second – completely change the direction of our lives. Take a moment to think about what you are about to DO so you don’t need to spend the rest of your life trying to FORGET what it was you did.
I will pray that you will be BETTER than those who have come before you. Be willing to be better than me, and millions like me, and USE the power of the internet to develop a social conscience and then resolve to act positively upon that conscience.
Distinguish yourselves by being willing to use the internet to HELP humanity rather than hurt each other; to use it to contribute to the greatness of mankind rather than to use it to degrade, diminish, and demean it.
Make a resolution with yourselves, and with each other, to be willing to use the technology that is available today, and that which will be available tomorrow, in a mature, responsible manner that enhances your life and contributes to your growth rather than in a manner that causes you, or those you know, unnecessary pain, a broken heart, or much, much worse.
Work to replace society’s growing obsession with recording, and sharing, images of our bodies and our most intimate sexual acts with the world, with a reclaimed morality and sense of decency, distinguishing yourselves from previous generations by proving that you are BETTER, and not just different. Rediscover the words ‘integrity’, ‘decency’, and ‘honor’.
Finally, I will pray that you are all willing to do all of those things, and to protect yourselves and those around you by being responsible in the way you treat others, and that you all stand up for your right to distinguish YOUR generation as the BEST of all generations.
For MY role in the degradation of the human spirit and the corrosion of human dignity, I am profoundly sorry. For my irresponsible and thoughtless contribution to the loss of innocence of children everywhere through my inexcusable and reprehensible willingness to allow child pornography to enter my life, I will be haunted for the rest of my life.
I cannot go back and make the experience of being married to me a better one for the mother’s of my children. I cannot go back and be for my children all of the things that I should have been as a father while they were growing up. I cannot undo the pain I have caused for myself and those around me. I cannot change who I WAS.
These are things that I accept as unchangeable, and we must all accept those things we cannot change.
What I will NOT accept as unchangeable are the things that stand in the way of young people everywhere that would deprive them of the adventure, pleasure, and rite of passage that all young people have a right to expect as a part of growing up. Nor will I accept as unchangeable the things that trouble many of you today. These things can be fixed, and I will pray that those who are troubled will be willing to seek assistance now, rather than suffer the inevitable consequences of neglecting them that will definitely arise later in life.
I cannot change my past, but I can seek God’s help to use what is left of my future to put to work the lessons I have finally learned to try to help those of you who are willing to listen in order that you may avoid my mistakes.
It is important to know that it is NEVER too late to fix broken things. It is, however, much easier, and better for all concerned to attend to problems when they are small, and not give them a chance to grow into something that consumes you and makes you become a person you do not recognize when you look in a mirror, or worse – to turn you into someone you DESPISE when you look there.
For me, each new day is a gift from God that I am grateful for. It is another day of life that I tried to steal from myself and from those who did, and still do, love me.
I cannot waste a moment thinking about how wonderful things COULD have been had I fixed the broken things when I was your age.
But YOU can, and I pray that you are all willing to do just that.
And if I have helped in some small way, then I thank God for giving me the opportunity, and if there is anything else that I can do, then I am WILLING to do it.
Thank you, God bless you, and good luck to all of you.
Well, that is what I would say. As for the ‘speech’ itself, I will leave you with this little poem:
these thoughts may languish here unspoken
the words, perhaps, not even read
but in writing of that which was broken
at least the words have all been said
I thank all of you who have come this far with me. May God bless you.