WAYNE BOWERS GREW UP in what we used to call a "fine family" middle-class, educated, churchgoing, affectionate. An upbeat, gregarious man, he turned to journalism after graduating from college, eventually buying and becoming the publisher-editor of a community newspaper in Kansas that was voted the best of its size in the state. He threw himself into community activities and local governmental affairs elected president of the Chamber of Commerce, named high school sports writer of the year and coach, for 14 seasons, of a well-organized and tightly disciplined Little League club that fielded teams in state tournaments. During much of this time, about 20 years, Bowers was an out-of-control pedophile.
First arrested for indecent exposure during the 1960s while still in college, Bowers was directed to get counseling (charges were dropped) a totally ineffectual therapeutic foray during which he was never directly asked why he was driven to offend. Arrested again in the early '70s and jailed for 20 months, he was convicted a third time in 1983. This time, he spent about five years in prison, but before his incarceration, the judge allowed him to spend four months at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Sexual Disorders Clinic in Baltimore, Maryland, then directed by psychiatrist Fred Berlin and sex researcher John Money. Once in jail to carry out his sentence, he continued treatment in a new sex-offender program in the Kansas prison and then returned to the Johns Hopkins program after his release.
Bowers remembers waiting nervously in a public lobby for his first group therapy session at the Sexual Disorders Clinic in 1983. He was approached by a stranger, who asked him, "Why are you here?"
Bowers shifted in his chair and said, "I've been in prison."
"You don't say," was the genial response. "Why?"
Bowers mumbled, as quietly as possible, "I had sex with kids."
"Oh? Boys or girls?" boomed the man. "Well, boys," said Bowers. "What were their ages?" "Eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen," muttered Bowers, deeply embarrassed. The man eyed Bowers steadily for a few seconds, then said, 'You'll fit." Recounting this story, Bowers says, "It was as if a 500-pound gorilla had fallen off my shoulders. I had never said that to anyone."
Some may find Bowers's story, the odyssey of a pedophile in search of a group of people who understand him as more than the sum total of his offenses, deeply jarring. Virtually everyone views the sexual abuse of children with such abhorrence and our natural protective instinct toward children is so strong that it is extremely difficult to create any kind of emotional demilitarized zone for considering the kind of psychological worlds offenders inhabit. Indeed, having only lately discovered our society's sorry failure to deal adequately with the problem of sexual abuse, much of the recent public discussion seeks to declare all offenders nonpersons, sending them into our own versions of domestic exile. It is not a climate that encourages us to imagine these debauchers of innocents as connected by ties of obligation, good will and even love to other people.
But what if, guided by Harry Stack Sullivan's much-quoted phrase, we attempt to view the sex offender as "more human than not" while, at the same time, never minimizing the devastation his actions may cause? What if, after careful examination, we conclude that our Manichaean attitudes and policies, intended to root out the twisted perverts in our midst, actually do not help in the long run, neither protecting children nor helping victims experience the kind of resolution they need?
ON A LATE SUMMER EVENING, IN THE basement of an old Baltimore townhouse, 10 men all sex offenders gather for a weekly group therapy session. The group includes several pedophiles, an exhibitionist, a voyeur, a couple of rapists and an incest perpetrator. These men are patients at the National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma, the clinical and research center directed my psychiatrist Fred Berlin. …