Memoir

How to Love Your Father When He’s in Prison for Child Porn

When my dad was arrested for possessing child pornography, my sisters and I wondered if we’d ever understand, let alone forgive. I couldn’t help but try.

How to Love Your Father When He’s in Prison for Child Porn

Two days after Christmas, my father pleads guilty to forty charges of possession and distribution of child pornography. The judge who sentences him to five years in prison makes a point of noting that my father is appearing in court alone. This judge, who has never talked to me or my sisters, tells the court that we are ashamed and embarrassed of our father.

Like many things around my father’s arrest and incarceration, we find this out through reading a story in the local newspaper. Sometimes we find these stories ourselves, other times a former neighbor or a high school friend sees them and passes them along.

I do not know how the judge made his guess about those feelings. I do not know what rhetorical purpose that claim served in court, or in a local paper’s story after court. I just know that I wasn’t asked — not by a judge or a lawyer, not by any small-town reporter, not by my father — about how I feel.

I never got to tell the judge that I feel numb and gutted. I feel startled. I feel angry. My heart feels like it’s the wrong size for my ribcage, feels tender and fierce.

If the judge had asked, I wonder if I could have told him that I was not sure how I feel at all. I wonder if I could have told him that this Christmas I had to learn myself how to cook all the special holiday dishes that Dad always made: the beignets and the latkes and the cranberry salsa. I wonder if I could have told him about how I spent two weeks packing my father’s house up when it was too hard for him to do it alone, or that I wrote my father a letter one day saying I had forgiven him, and then wondered if I really had, and then if it was my place to forgive him at all.

If he had asked, I wonder if I could have told the judge that there are days when I feel guilty myself, days when I feel disgusted, days when I just don’t want to care.

He spent two years at home in between his arrest and his incarceration, mostly watching TV and cooking intricate meals for one, although the truth is I don’t really know what he did, because I mostly didn’t call or visit. When he finally got his sentence — five years, with a chance for parole after four — he was able to convince the judge to allow him one last Christmas with my sisters and me. No one asked me to fly up to Massachusetts to help him pack up, and I can’t say I wanted to, but I went. I sorted and trashed and folded and taped and boxed, and then I left.

It took him longer to pack than any of us expected. The weekend before Christmas, when he was supposed to be driving his car down while movers followed with a packed truck, my sister talked to him six times. Every single time, he told her, “I’m just making a sandwich and then I’ll get on the road.”

The morning of Christmas Eve, the story hadn’t changed. We were furious with him, but wanted our father with us for one last holiday. I called the closest person I knew in town.

“Nate?” My high school boyfriend was finishing up breakfast with his family. “Would you mind just — just driving by Dad’s house?” I caught him up to speed on what had happened: the mess the house was in when I left, the truck that was supposed to be coming down, the ridiculous lies about the sandwiches. “Just look in the windows and tell us what you see.”

He called back fifteen minutes later, parked around the corner. “It’s still full of stuff.” I put my hand over the receiver, asked my sister what to do.

“Knock on the door and ask him if he needs any help. If he says no, you just need to walk right past and start putting things in the truck.” Nate stayed there for hours, called back when he had seen my father actually back out of the driveway. I felt relief and a fierce tenderness. He told me Dad was happy to see him, clearly overwhelmed and in need of the help. I promised to send him cookies, realizing as I say it how absurd of a transaction it is. He tells me, “Don’t worry about it.”

I found out about my father’s arrest during a breathless call on a public phone in the basement of my college’s student union.

Earlier that day, I received a Facebook message from a good friend: “I heard what happened with your dad. I’m so sorry, and let me know if there’s anything I can do. I’ll drive down to North Carolina if you need me.” I was baffled, but busy leading orientation at my college and figured that someone would have called me if something bad had happened.

At lunch, Marilyn who works at Student Services came up to me in the salad bar line: “Your mother wants you to call her. It’s not an emergency.” My cell phone had been dead for a couple months while I worked at a summer camp in the woods, and I hadn’t gotten it fixed, so there was no way for my family to call me directly.

Then, a question over the bathroom stall door during intermission from my college’s safe-sex-and-consent sketch comedy presentation, from another girl who worked in Student Services: “Did you call your mom yet?”

Startled, I called her. She started out just chatting, telling me what she cooked that morning and asking what the gardens looked like at school, until I pressed her: “What’s going on?”

She told me I needed to call my father.

Still hoping for someone else to explain, I called my sister, who told me that I needed to call Dad myself. “Then call me right back,” she said.

I was on a public phone attached to the wall with a twisting cord that I spun around my finger. When my dad picked up, he told me he had been arrested a few days earlier for possession and distribution of child pornography.

I didn’t want to listen too much, but I got the basics: chatroom sharing of photos, a sting operation, detectives at the door, a confession at the dining room table. Thousands of images, still and moving. It had been a slow slide — unintentional at first, then purposeful — from porn with adults to porn with teens and kids. Children as young as a year old. Strangers, people he didn’t know. Someone’s kids.

I still had fading sunburns on my shoulders from the summer camp where I’d spent eighteen hours a day keeping little girls safe, holding them up in the water so they didn’t drown, practicing feeling like a fierce mother hen towards these vulnerable little ones.

As I returned to my room, I slowly puzzled together the pieces. I plugged my cell phone back into the wall and it started working — a merciful sort of common miracle — and I leaned against half-unpacked boxes, listening to the stored-up voice messages.

Geneva, a hometown friend who worked at camp with me, got a call from her mother, who had seen a note in the local paper about my father’s arrest and called Geneva immediately: “Is Lindsay OK? Where’s Lindsay?” Having left for school a couple of days earlier, Geneva asked a couple of my closest friends to call me. No one could get in touch with me, so they left gentle and concerned messages on my phone, and then they sat in a small circle and prayed for me, far away, unaware.

My father recently told me that this was the hardest moment: when we all found out that he had been arrested, when the write-ups appeared in the local papers, when he had to make the hard phone calls. This, he says, is when everything changed: our opinions of him, our relationship, our future and our past.

For all of the crying of those first days, for all of the difficult conversations and the unsettling shaking feeling, the hardest moment for me would come two years later, a few days before Christmas, when he and I were alone in my sister’s house.

I was butchering a chicken when he told me he’d only just realized that the children in the pictures were real children.

A week earlier, a friend at my college had been culling roosters. He was teaching anyone who wanted to learn how to slaughter a chicken, and I went down. I brought the bird — throat slit, plucked and gutted — to my sister’s house to cook for Christmas dinner, and was butchering it in her kitchen, one bloody hand on the carcass and another trying to hold the page of the cookbook open, showing where to place the knife point to separate the tendons, where to cut through the wing.

My father was talking to me from the other room, speaking over the TV on which he was watching another episode of “Law & Order,” telling me about the past year. It had been a long and lonely year: he was jobless and not allowed to go anywhere where he would be in contact with children. He wasn’t allowed to use the Internet. He went to therapy a couple of times a week, and every Saturday, he had lunch with the father of my high school best friend, who’d befriended him after his arrest.

I was holding the chicken carcass tightly, scraping a heavy knife between bone and sinew, brows furrowed, listening absently.

“One of the things I worked through in therapy this year,” he says, “one of the things I figured out that I guess I hadn’t realized yet, was that the kids in the picture were somebody’s kids. Real people.”

I swallowed hard. I set the chef knife down, braced my bloody hands against the counter, closed my eyes. “Excuse me?”

It is common for people to assume that viewing and distributing child pornography is a victimless crime, that someone like my father is somehow less culpable than someone who rapes a woman on a street, or murders her husband. When I was visiting him at home once — post-arrest but pre-incarceration — he had to make a court appearance. He told me on our way to the courthouse about how the last time his hearing came right after that of a Catholic priest who was accused of molesting altar boys. He called the priest scum. “Can you even imagine someone doing that?” he asked. “Willingly abusing those kids? When he was supposed to be protecting them?”

Years later, after going through the sex offender training program at his prison, my father will explain to me how he has come to realize that the kids are real kids, that consuming and distributing child pornography means giving a nod of approval to people to abuse and exploit children. Sharing those images means keeping the victims in a state of perpetual exposure; it is a constant and unshakable violation.

It will take him years to see how what he did extended far past the borders of his lonely living room, how what seemed to be just him and a computer screen was actually a whole network of bodies, people scattered all across the world: the children in the pictures, the parents and family members who subject them to the abuse, the future friends and lovers of these victims.

My sister — the oldest one, the one who unloaded his storage truck when it arrived, who sorted through the mess of his bank accounts and credit cards and outstanding debt, the one who has talked to him every Saturday for the last four years — lets me know he’s up for parole later this year. She calls to ask me if I would write a letter to the sex offender registry board, talking about his progress. Based on their assessment of his danger to society, the SORB will assign him a number between one and three. A level-three sex offender poses the highest risk to society, while a level-one sex offender is deemed at low risk of re-offense. A level-one rating would help my father at his parole hearing, would increase his chances of being able to move down south to live with my sister after release.

She sends me a long document explaining what the letter should say: what I know about his character, how I felt when I found out about the offense, how I’ve seen him grow since completing the sex offender training program. She sends me other samples — letters by her mother (my father’s first wife) and by my sister’s best friend, who’s been around for years. I open up a blank document on my computer, start an outline:

“finding out in NC (shocked, sad, surprised); growing up with him (distant, bad at relationships, never abused us); growth in SOTP (makes friends, see other people having feelings); risk of reoffending? (no); where after prison? (w/ sister, not in MA).” From my porch in Boston, I write, honestly: “my father does not have any community or support system in Massachusetts.”

I also tell the registry board what I have told my friends when they ask: that, over the course of his treatment in prison, my father has developed emotionally.

While incarcerated, he has taken a class called “Empathy,” a class called “Boundaries” and others called “Emotional Tolerance,” “Sexual Interests” and “Communication Skills.” He goes to group therapy classes, meets with support teams, attends self-help groups.

He learns further that the children in the pictures — the pictures he stored on his computer, downloaded, shared in chat rooms, received from people who were creating the images themselves, sometimes of their own children — he realizes that they are really humans, someone’s children. He realizes that they are growing up, feeling the effects of having pictures of them out in the world.

The empathy party will be effortful for him, newly learned. It will be the most striking thing for me of the whole several-year ordeal. When friends ask me how my father is doing, I will tell them, “He’s learning about how other people have feelings.” It is a startling development. It will take me a while to get used to.

I tell this story over and over to people: the rooster, the knife, the disbelief at how hard my father had let his heart get. “They call it suspended empathy,” my dad tells me, “when you block yourself from feeling what the victim of your crime feels. It allows you to not realize what you’re doing, to do something really horrible without having to reckon with what it’s doing to other people.”

There are limited visiting hours at the prison. Half of the days are reserved for people like my father — state prison inmates — while the other are reserved for people who are civilly committed: men who have served their sentence but are deemed too much of a risk to be released to the world. When I make the trek out—a scant handful of times a year — I stay for a few hours, eating snacks from the vending machine and working to find things to talk about.

My father has made friends at prison, and he tells me stories about them. He explains their crimes, often in more brutal detail than I need, and I nod understandingly, even though I don’t understand.

When my oldest sister flew up from the South to visit him, he told us a story about the community meetings they have in the prison, how people can publicly hold each other accountable. “For example, there are these days-long Monopoly tournaments,” he explains — also Yahtzee, and dominos, and Sorry! — “and it’s a big point of pride to win. A few weeks ago, someone lost and threw the whole board across the room, and someone stood up at the community meeting to hold him accountable for unsportsmanlike behavior.”

He explains about the people he’s tutoring (he used to work in higher education, first as a professor and then as the dean of a handful of business schools). He tells us how he’s helping them with their business plans, how sad it makes him that it’ll be so hard for them to find jobs when they get out.

My whole life, I cannot remember my father having a friend. My oldest sister says she thinks she remembers one person, a man named Richard or Jerry or something equally generic.

As he talks about these men, as I block out the difficult stories about the violent crimes, as my mind starts to drift while he’s using business terms I don’t understand, I repeat, over and over again, trying to help myself understand: He has a friend. He has friends.

In one of his classes, my father is asked to write an essay about how his offense affected his family. He writes me a letter asking me what I think. Like every other letter I get from him, it sits on my desk for days before I have the courage to open it up.

I am not sure I have an answer, or that I have words for an answer. I cry in my therapist’s office, on my bike, in the colored sunlight through a stained glass window, at my friend’s kitchen table, fat tears hitting the glass and pooling there.

I am bewildered to be asked, ambivalent about it being part of an assignment, both comforted and disturbed that he is taking classes about empathy, learning how to see the world through someone else’s eyes, learning that other people have feelings.

I remember writing a response, but I do not remember what I wrote. I do not remember sending it.

One year, when his birthday falls in the same week as Thanksgiving, I make up my mind to go see him. I am getting used to the truth of it. I have the holiday week off from my graduate school classes, and cancel the afternoon of work. I arrange to borrow a friend’s car and check that everything I’m wearing meets the prison dress code.

Of my two sisters, I am geographically the closest to him by a long shot. We have responded to my father in radically different ways: the eldest sister has dealt with all of the details, has answered his calls every weekend and kept all of his things in her house and a storage unit down the road. My other sister has found it difficult to even talk to him or to read his letters. I fall somewhere in between. It wrenches all of us in different places.

It is his birthday, and I am driving through rush-hour traffic. I am angry at him, and I am heartbroken. I told my friend Ryan I’d miss a meeting that night, and explained why. “How do you feel about seeing him, Linds?”

I shrug, tearing up. “It’s his birthday. I don’t want anyone alone on their birthday.”

I listen to news radio to distract myself, turn down the wooded road to the prison complex, park the car. I get the registration out of the glovebox, pull the bobby pins out of my hair, take one last deep breath. It has taken a lot of work to bring myself here, to be ready to see him, to open up the deep well of confused feelings inside of me.

I walk up the concrete steps to the prison as the sun is setting, and notice the lobby is darker than usual. There is a small notice, typed up and taped to the window. “The prison is CLOSED to visitors until further notice because of an OUTBREAK OF NOROVIRUS.”

I stare at it for a few minutes. I try the door anyway, and of course it is locked. I look up towards a barred window. I do not know where his unit is, or the room that he shares with five roommates.

I walk back to the car, sobs heaving out of my chest, and drive bleary eyed back towards the city, sorry for him, sorry for me, sorry for all the ways I tried and didn’t, all the ways we’ve all failed. The NPR announcer is still on in the background, and I resent her for whatever her easy life is, and then sob louder because I’m sure she also has some secret pain.

I am sitting on my girlfriend’s porch, hands dirty from planting a garden, when my father calls. I wait through the long automated introduction “This is a Global Tel Link pre-paid call from an inmate at a Massachusetts correctional facility…” He rarely calls, and when he does, I usually let it go to voicemail. When I pick up, I know to just start talking, offering what’s new in my life.

I tell my father about the gardening, the raised beds we built.

“That’s what I miss the most,” he sighs. “I can’t wait to eat a good salad.”

“We planted arugula, and baby lettuce mix and spinach, and—”

“Oh, great — I tell you I miss eating vegetables and you just give me more details.”

I tell him about my upcoming graduation from a master’s program, my high-school boyfriend’s wedding, which I’m going to this weekend. I am still trying to let him know who I am, still trying to figure out who he is, still trying to get my arms around what it is he did. I am learning how to listen to him, and let him finally listen to me.

It is years after I asked him this question the first time, and the answers are still unfolding: “why did you do it?”

I know the old reasons: My stepmother had finally divorced him after years of a difficult and dysfunctional marriage. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was desperately lonely.

But today he explains about the chatrooms. Like many other parts of this story, I have only heard about them secondhand — a news article describing how a detective posed as a mother with young children, offered pictures of her own in return for pictures he had.

He explains the gist of the sites: places where people exchange images and videos they have, and form strange but very real bonds with one another. “The thing about the chatrooms, Linds, is that they have a rating system for people: acquaintance, friend, family. You start out acquaintance and move up, as you share images and people get to know you.”

Our family was always unstable: My father was on his third marriage by the time I graduated kindergarten. When the fighting and the bitterness in my house turned unbearable in high school, I would spend whole weeks at my best friend’s house, her parents leaving out things for me to pack a lunch.

My father tells me how good it felt to get moved up in those chatrooms with people — to be rated by someone as family.

I am sitting on a porch thirty miles away from him. When the twenty pre-paid minutes are up, I will water the plants and go about my day: dinner with my sweetheart, two different parties for friends, turning in early enough to wake up well-rested for work in the morning.

I have not visited in months, have not written, have accepted calls only a handful of times, and only when it was convenient for me.

Back when I graduated from high school, I left home without a look back. During those two years between when I left and when he was arrested, he got cancer, went through a divorce, and began looking at child pornography. I did not return his calls, and would not stay for a visit, content to leave him in his loneliness while I sought out other families, while I worked on being my own person separate from him.

As he tells me about the chatrooms, I am stuck between feeling disgusted, feeling somehow culpable, and wishing he had just learned how to go out to lunch with people.

There are no easy answers.

There are just the birthday cards my father has sent me from prison, just the stories about the children who are haunted every day by the ghost of my father looking at their abuse from the safety of his own home, too callous to even realize he has their blood on his hands. There is my high school boyfriend who came at the last minute to help my father pack a moving truck days before he went to prison, and there are the extended family members I’ve never talked about the arrest with because I don’t know how to explain it.

There is no road map for a life like this. There is just a pendulum swinging back and forth between days when it all feels normal, and days when the truth of it is a sucker punch to the gut.

There were times when I couldn’t bring myself to go and see him, or didn’t want to, and the complicated shame that came with that. There was no one I could look to for answers about how to proceed.

The Massachusetts Treatment Center — part of a complex of four state prisons — sits at the end of a long wooded road, the kind of road you would drive down to get to a swimming hole or a summer camp. My father has been here for four years; he was moved to this unit to keep him safe from the violence he’d face in a general population prison, where sex offenders — especially ones whose offenses are against children — are at a higher risk.

I am still not used to driving down this road, and still not quite able to name what it is that keeps me from coming here — an hour away from my house — more than once or twice a year.

There is a tired attempt at art hanging in the prison’s lobby: faded textiles stretched over a wire frame. The clock on the wall is broken, and has been for the last few years. I hear that there are murals — an underwater scene, an airport, a cloud-filled sky — lining the halls of the units, but I haven’t seen them myself.

After I fill out the yellow form correctly — yes, this is my father, yes, my valuables are locked up in my car, no, I am not a minor who was a victim of his offenses, etc etc… — a corrections officer runs my license and calls me through a metal detector. I have learned the rules, slowly: no jewelry, no hair clips or hair elastics, no blue jeans. (One time, a woman who had driven 100 miles from work to visit her husband was turned away for wearing scrubs; we stormed across the parking lot together and she changed into a rainbow plaid flannel shirt I had in the car).

The visiting room, with its rows of seats, looks eerily like an airport departure gate. I find an empty orange vinyl chair and wait. A guard chastises me for tucking my legs up under myself and I straighten them. I look around at the other visitors in the room: a mother with a young toddler who is exploring the children’s play corner, the wispy-haired grandmothers, the woman who borrowed my shirt years before nodding hello.

My father will come through the door against the opposite wall. His teeth are getting bad, his hair getting lighter and thinner. I am still angry, still tender, still seasick.

And my heart, which never has any choice in the matter, is wide open.