What He Saw, What I Saw

Warning: This post may be very triggering for childhood abuse survivors, and is not suitable for children. It was very uncomfortable to write, and I’m sure it will be equally uncomfortable to read.

A friend and I went to the YMCA to do aqua aerobics. It’s great exercise. The Y limits attendance by appointment only and there are very few people in the building, all of whom wear masks until they enter the pool. We are definitely socially distanced, and they are constantly cleaning all surfaces.

We weren’t attending a class. We have worked out our own routine based on classes we attended pre-pandemic. It’s usually a wonderful experience, and I leave there feeling refreshed, relaxed, and very glad that I had made the effort. But not on this day. Oh, no.

My friend and I were sharing a pool lane, and in the next lane was a boy, about 12 years old, with a man that one assumes was his father, although they looked nothing alike. That is all my friend and I can agree on about the situation. We both were looking at it through our very own lenses, based on past experience and a general trust (or lack thereof) of humanity. My friend never experienced sexual abuse. I did, at right about the same age as this boy. I had a visceral reaction, and to be fair, I’ve seen several father/son swimmers in this pool, and I didn’t have that reaction with any of them.

What my friend saw: A father and son, rough-housing in the pool. Both seemed to be laughing and having a wonderful time. The father was most likely trying to get the kid comfortable with swimming.

What I saw: A pedophile grooming a child. He kept chasing the kid around the shallow end of the pool, growling, with a little plastic shark in his hand. The child was nervously screaming and laughing the whole time. It lasted 45 exhausting minutes. Occasionally, the father would playfully use the shark to bite the son’s thighs. Then he would come up behind the boy, wrap his arms around his torso, and pull him back against his chest, as he rested his chin on the boy’s shoulder. He’d tickle him, and the kid would scream and laugh nervously, and struggle. Once, while pressing the kid against his chest, he lifted up the boy’s legs so that he was almost in the fetal position, with the boy’s feet against the edge of the pool, all while the man growled in his ear. That was the only time the boy was quiet. Sometimes he would throw the kid in the air, and then pull him back toward him.

I wanted to scream. I wanted to punch the guy in the throat. I wanted to call child protective services. I was losing my mind. But did I do anything? No. Because I couldn’t be sure how much of what I was seeing was through the very biased lens of my past.

I kept thinking, “Yeah, great idea, man. Train the kid to think that if he screams, no one will come to help. Train him to get used to this nervous, uncomfortable feeling. Teach him that this is all a game and he’s supposed to think it’s fun. Do this in front of strangers so that he can believe that if other adults are seeing it and doing nothing about it, it must be okay. Make us all complicit. It takes a village to abuse a child. Get him all used to being in the fetal position with you behind him, your head on his shoulder. That’s how it’s done. That’s how it’s always done.”

Maybe, like my mother once told me (to my horror), I was “making too much of it.” Maybe I was imagining things. Maybe it’s my fault for thinking that a lot of people in this world are creepy and don’t have people’s best interests at heart. Maybe I was crazy. After all, sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar.

I didn’t know what to do. I could intervene and humiliate the child with no concrete proof. I could beat the hell out of the man, further traumatizing the kid and winding up with an arrest record. I could tell the staff, but what could they do about it? I could try really hard to see things the way my friend did, but I was having no luck there.

I cried a little. I swam to the other end of the pool and stayed there as much as possible. But the child’s screams (of delight? of fear?) were echoing off the ceiling. I wanted to rescue that kid. But I didn’t know how. I thought of all the adults (and there were many) who didn’t rescue me. Did they feel similarly conflicted, or were they just incompetent and indifferent? It had never occurred to me before this that they might have been conflicted.

I felt guilty. I felt angry that I was being made to feel guilty. I felt envious of the people around me who didn’t seem to think this was a big deal. I felt victimized all over again. I felt an insane desire to protect my genital area at all costs. No. You have no right to touch me. NO!

Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. I probably should have kept this to myself. But I can’t be the only one who goes through this. Thank God it doesn’t happen often. I felt alone at that moment, but I doubt I am. Maybe this will make someone else feel less alone. The bottom line is I hope that I’m wrong and that that child has a loving, decent, protective father who makes him feel safe and that they create a lifetime of happy memories together.

This was definitely not my best swimming experience. Ugh. Excuse me while I go boil myself in bleach.

If you are an adult survivor of sexual abuse, please know that it was not your fault, and visit the RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) website for support and information, or call them 24/7 at 800-656-HOPE.

6 thoughts on “What He Saw, What I Saw

  1. Lyn

    1st, that kind of play is not appropriate for a 12 year old. That’s something a 5 year old might be comfortable with but would be demeaning for a child that old. 2nd, how’s chasing someone with a toy shark, while growling, suppose to make them feel comfortable with swimming?
    Pedophilia is about control and what’s more controlling than grooming a victim publicly and getting away with it? Victims of child sexual abuse have an instinctual sensitivity to pedophile vibes. Hit’s us in the gut but, because of our grooming by the perpetrator and societal denial and blame, we fight that feeling and doubt our instincts. If you had such a visceral reaction, trust it, don’t blame yourself. You’ve already suffered at the hands of your abusers and doubters. Don’t give them anymore of your control by doubting yourself. You’re a strong, capable, intelligent, caring and giving human being in spite of their abuse. You’ve survived and are on the cusp of thriving. Self doubt will hold you back. I hope, next time, you can process such an encounter without self-doubt or blame. My bluntness, here, is born from personal experiences as a victim and one who went through hell, at the hands of the judicial system, trying to protect loved ones from the same fate. Speaking out was turned against me to protect the perpetrator and the system damaged us all further. It took a long time to realize it wasn’t I that failed them, it was the silence of a fearful society that clings to denial. Maybe, one day we won’t have to justify or apologize for calling this abuse out publicly. This is far more pervasive and damaging than society acknowledges, so, you are hardly alone and always have an empathetic ear in me.

    1. Thanks Lyn. As for the shark thing, maybe “playing” in the pool is supposed to make the kid think it’s fun. No idea. But yes, you get it. But I still don’t know what the proper thing would have been to do in that situation. What do you think? What would you do? This type of thing still paralyzes me, except when it comes to my blogging muscles.

  2. Lyn

    I might have tried to catch the child’s eye and see if he was truly comfortable and happy. See if micro expressions are in synch with outward behavior. Let the father see that his own behavior was drawing my inquisitive attention. If my suspicions seem warranted I might have calmly alerted the staff that they should keep an eye on them. I’d assure them I wasn’t making a formal complaint but couldn’t ignore a gut feeling and I’d trust them to have the child’s best interests in mind by discretely monitoring the activity. I’m sure they have protocols in place for just such incidents. It’s not something I could have done if my body was in p.t.s.d. mode, though, and they wouldn’t have listened to my heighted emotions. You did the right thing and the best you could while reliving your past trauma. (You can’t rescue someone else while you’re drowning yourself.) And you didn’t walk away in denial. You posted your honest feelings and concerns here once the panic passed. If it helps, you can call the Y and let them know how conflicted you felt and ask what their policy is in such instances. Maybe find classes that teach survivors when and how to intervene in suspected child abuse cases. I’m sure most teachers have this training nowadays but, I didn’t get it when I taught preschoolers. We were just told to report signs of physical abuse. Sexual abuse wasn’t even addressed. While the trauma of these abuses live with us for life, we can reach a point where they no longer control us. It takes a lot of patient, conscious effort and self love, but, we deserve it and are worth it.

    1. He didn’t seem comfortable and happy to me, but he seemed perfectly comfortable and happy to my friend. My lens is a little bent, so I question what I see. But I think it’s a good idea to have a discussion with the folks at the Y. Thanks for that. And you’re very right, Lyn, we’re most definitely worth it.

  3. Ian

    Hi Barb,

    That is a very very tough situation.

    My father just passed a few days ago, and I am avoiding that grief by feeling someone else’s pain. My apologies for writing that is messy and unclear, but there is something here if you have the patience to read thru.

    It’s coincidental that my father and I had spoken just about three weeks prior about a neighbor, Evan Brewster, who lead the neighborhood board and prevented our Catholic-seeming family from moving in (three kids moving into a “Catholic Ghetto” with a Catholic Church and School in the neighborhood). Anyway, the board called my family back when it started to seem like a gay couple was going to succeed in buying the house and they obviously would prefer “Catholics” to gays. My Dad had a good chuckle about that and how petty people can be.

    Evan Brewster started grooming me when I was about 12, first putting me on his riding tractor then giving treats and excessive money for snow removal, then getting me to take my shirt off and put on boxing gloves in the basement for some rough-housing. He didn’t hurt me, and never struck me as mean, just off and very touchy. I guess I was old enough or experienced enough to intuit that it was getting icky. He ended up in prison for child molestation. I felt sorry for him when I heard this. He wasn’t necessarily or purely evil, he was ill and I never got the details of what he did. I remember watching a show of imprisoned child molesters, and how some honestly seemed that they knew it was wrong and felt horribly about it but “could not control it” One of them could have gone free from a psych ward after many years, but chose not too because of his sense that he would re-offend. I wonder now if this was a part of why Evan Brewster didn’t want more kids moving into the neighborhood.

    Getting to the point, yes, people stand by and watch trainwrecks unfold.Sometimes they live with that guilt. But false accusations in an unclear situation can cause problems too. No easy solution for you there. But I suppose I would have asked the kid if he was ok or if he needed help. Perhaps one could take a video of the interaction in order to get another perspective. Was it play or was it grooming. Both ARE possible. Look at how animals play. Sometimes it is skills training and toughening, sometimes it is predation, sometimes it is hard to tell. But if the guy was grooming, perhaps filming him would be preventative. Perhaps asking the kid –

    ALL THAT SAID – Not every adult male is a molester if he plays with kids. As a single dad from when my son was two, I got mighty sick of women at playgrounds assuming shit like that and keeping their kids from playing with mine, because, you know, single dads are creepy. The molested are the most vocal and seem to be (justifyiably) driving SOME divisive false judgements – myself included. I was pretty badly abused in different ways/by others – Evan was a non-event for me.

    Truth is helpful –

    gotta go – hope I didn’t offend anyone, but I am sure I did. Fuck it.

    Jack- ass at the pool should have cut it out – tickle torture is not play. Roughhousing in an environment of rivalry/PLAY, includes rivals of roughly equal power, not bullies. Sexual or not, sounds like he was a bully.

    1. Hi Ian, First of all, I’m so very sorry about the loss of your father. I hate that you’re having to experience that. Having said that, I’m definitely NOT offended by your comment, and glad you chose to speak up. I’m very glad that Evan was a non-event for you. I’m also glad he got caught. And you’re absolutely right, not every adult male is a molester if he plays with kids. But some of them need to be learned what’s appropriate and what’s not, and at a bare minimum, that was the case here. In fact, I just spoke with the staff at the pool, and apparently I’m not the only one who gets a creepy feeling from the guy, so they’re keeping an eye on him until they can determine something one way or another. The pool has been designated as an official Safe Place, so they’ve been trained. So I’ll leave it to the experts, and speak to the staff if I ever have a gut feeling again. He was definitely a bully. Not cool. Thanks for weighing in, and be gentle with yourself. Grieving takes a lot out of a person.

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