It was my own private Penn State scandal.
The bedroom was impossibly dark, so I didn’t see it happen. What I felt and heard was a hand quickly slipping out from under the elastic of my boxers, and the rustling of sheets. Then it was over. Back to total stillness inside the blackness. Though I had just woken up, it didn’t take me long to figure out what happened: Corey was up to something.
Although we didn’t go to school together, Corey was one my best friends during elementary school. On Friday afternoons, we’d pick up Corey in the same department store parking lot, and he’d spent the weekend at our home. We’d call girls and talk to them for hours, passing the phone back and forth. We fished in the creek. We went to dinner at Sizzler. We crashed together in a queen-size bed, in a room with no door.
Then one night, out of nowhere, he was up to something. And that first occurrence went from strange anomaly to repeat offense. I’d be sleeping on my stomach, and wake up with a hand wedged underneath my hip. During another stay, Corey made four or five moves over the course of the night. Each time I’d toss or turn or roll over, only to feel his hand swiftly recoil. That was the last time he stayed over, and we never spoke again.
More than two decades later, I see his profile picture on shared friends’ Facebook pages. He is married with children. He has an Important Job. He uses motivational quotes as status updates. He is everyone you know. Corey endures as the most puzzling, most embarrassing, least discussed part of my childhood. Before today, approximately eight people knew this story. My parents are not among them.
Jerry Sandusky and the rampant sexual abuse cases connected to the Catholic church have us on high alert for child predators. If asked to close our eyes and picture what a molester looks like, we’re trained to see an older white man with grey hair. But what happens when the offender isn’t that at all? What happens when the child predator is, well, a child?
Dana Dorfman is a psychotherapist and family counselor in New York City. She’s treated many, many, many Coreys. “It comes up so often in my practice when I’m working with kids,” she says.
“For young children, like preschoolers and kindergartners, sexual curiosity oftentimes comes out in play, like playing doctor or house,” says Dorfman. “As adults, we erroneously assign sexual implications to it. If a kid wants to a friend to pull their pants down, we impose an adult meaning to it. But that curiosity is absolutely normal.”
However, as children reach the prepubescent years, acting out in those ways becomes something else. I tell Dorfman about Corey, about the sneaky maneuvers, about the repeated, overt attempts. “If a kid that age crosses that line, it’s likely that he previously experienced an anxiety-provoking situation of a sexual nature.” Dorfman notes that an “anxiety-provoking situation” doesn’t necessarily mean physical contact or abuse. However, the National Juvenile Justice Network reports that 40 to 80 percent of juvenile sex offenders have been sexually abused as children.
“When you’ve been the passive recipient, the mind’s way of overcoming it is to become an active participant,” Dorfman explains. “I believe Corey’s actions were his attempt to own it.”
Okay, so we’re not dealing with sinister, devious grown men here. We’re dealing with Cartoon Network’s target demographic, with kids about the same age as my oldest son Jackson. Obviously our society doesn’t encourage charging and incarcerating an 11-year-old. When a family brings a Corey into your office, how do you handle it? “The last thing you want to do is perpetuate feelings of shame,” says Dorfman, who early in her career worked on sexual abuse investigations and interrogated alleged offenders. “You’re not trying to teach a lesson in morality. You’re trying to understand the child’s history, and how they’re processing the situation they’re in. These are children, not adults.”
According to Dorfman, Corey likely did not take this behavior with him into adulthood. The research underscores her point. In February 2010, the Florida Department of Children and Families released a report on child-on-child sexual abuse. It notes that children with sexual behavior problems and juvenile sex offenders have relatively low future sex offending rates, as low as 2 percent.
Corey is not Jerry Sandusky, and I am not Victim #1, #2, #3, or #10. There was no grey-haired boogeyman, no headlines, no grand jury, no chalky courtroom sketches, no prison time. He was a mixed-up fifth grader who alienated a buddy.
I’ve chalked up that experience as one of those weird childhood things, a nebulous blob of confusion you have no choice but to move on from. Obviously I can’t speak for Corey. I don’t know what that experience meant to him. As a boy evolves into a man, I don’t know if or how a Corey evolves into a Sandusky. I like to believe he’s the cheerful, optimistic family man he appears to be on Facebook.
I have moved on, and forgotten most of the good times we had together. (Maybe my mind did that on purpose.) Today, my memory of Corey is a taxidermied animal: a face that I clearly recognize, but nothing meaningful on the inside. Sadly, I’m okay with that.
What I’m worried about is being the father of two boys who will have friends and sleepovers, of having children who probably won’t tell me about the weird things that happen when I’m not around. But thanks to my past, I’m on high alert. In a strange way, I owe Corey a debt of gratitude. From the grave of our friendship, a heightened vigilance blooms.