In his new novel Lost Memory of Skin, Russell Banks wants to disturb us, and with a disturbing subject: sex offenders. No attempt is made to exculpate these men, but Russell does want his readers to do what many in society today refuse to do. He wants us to see these offenders as men—failed, sinful, even criminal human beings—but nevertheless men, not monsters.

At the end of the novel, its protagonist, a young man simply called the Kid returns to a causeway connecting a Florida barrier island with the coast. It’s where the Kid lives, in a small tent city underneath a causeway overpass, because he can’t legally dwell within five hundred feet of any children. Banks writes:

He will make his home here among the other men. He is after all like them: a convicted sex offender. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. He has nine years to wait in darkness out of sight deep beneath the city before he is no longer on parole. No longer guilty. Nine years before he can remove the electronic shackle from his ankle and can emerge from under the Causeway and mingle freely again with people he believes to be mostly normal people with mostly normal sex lives; nine years before he can live among others in a building aboveground that’s less than 2,500 feet from a school or playground and circulate inside the city walls without fear of being rearrested, buy a one-way ticket on a bus bound for a distant city and live there if he want to and not be breaking the law; nine years before he can stroll into a public library and legally use the computer to go online and check out the job listings and apartments for rent on craigslist.org — a website that may not even exist by then (416).

The Kid didn’t actually have sex with anyone. In his early twenties, he almost had sex with a girl, whom he thought was eighteen, but that’s not the point.  Many of the other men living underneath the causeway did commit heinous crimes, and yet their expulsion from our communities isn’t completely explained by a desire to keep our children safe.  When we banish humans from our society, we set them beyond the pale of our own humanity.  We refuse to acknowledge the human nature that we still share with these men.

The problem with turning men like Osama bin Laden, Hitler, or Stalin into monsters is that it absolves the rest of us from trying to understand them, from trying to comprehend the humanity that we encounter in them.  The monster doesn’t have to be understood.  He’s the outsider, the outcast, the mutant incarnation of evil.

But no man is the incarnation of evil, and the problem with making monsters is that it allows us to turn away from our own humanity, to turn away from a part of ourselves. We don’t have to comprehend what we’ve declared to be inhuman. 

Making monsters doesn’t confront evil. It excuses us from comprehending it, and sadly, sometimes we make monsters of ourselves.  We take parts of our own lives, our own histories, and surreptitiously, even to ourselves, declare them to be monstrous.  We refuse to speak of them, think of them, pray over them. We consign them to darkness, thinking that we thus rob those parts of us of power, but that only gives them an ever larger domain within our lives, the dark side.

Advent is a wonderful time to reclaim ourselves. The Letter of St. James tells us, not to banish, but to cultivate our wayward selves, to be patient, “until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand” (5:7-8)

Confronting evil doesn’t mean running from monsters. It means accepting and confessing our own weaknesses, our shortcomings, our sins. Calling them our own, recognizing them for what they are, rather than banishing them into darkness, is the first movement of grace. “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful” (5:16)

Society likes to make monsters, because monsters stand beyond comprehension or compassion. But, on the cross of Christ, nothing stands beyond compassion; God chooses to touch and to heal the uttermost depth of human depravity. Oh Advent Bethlehem, in your dark poverty, the great humbling of our God is foreshadowed. In thy dark streets shineth, an everlasting light.

Terrance W. Klein

 

Comments

Rory Connor | 1/28/2012 - 5:28pm
Patrick O'Malley ''That monster is then supported by the largest church in the world that will defend the monster, lie for the monster, and hide the monster.''

That is really a grotesque account of how the Catholic Church behaves today. The following is a quote from my website re Archbishop Diarmuid Martin who is a hero to ''liberal'' journalists in Ireland because of his denunciations of clerical child abuse:
http://irishsalem.com/individuals/Politicians%20and%20Others/archbishop-martin/index.php

The Archbishop and Mob Hysteria
In June/July 2010 in Co. Wicklow, a family comprising parents and four children were driven out of their homes on four occassions by mobs. On the last occassion the mob burned down their home in Ashford. The reason for the hyteria was that 18 years previously (in 1992) the husband had been convicted of a sex offence against a minor and got a suspended sentence of six months. There was a discussion on the Politics.ie website entitled ''Labour Councillors Join Mob Harrassment of Innocent Family'' and I wrote (among other things}:
http://www.politics.ie/current-affairs/133155-labour-councillors-join-mob-harrassment-innocent-family-18.html
The family have been hounded out of Kilcoole, Redcross, Rathnew and Ashford. I think they are all in the Archdiocese of Dublin which covers most of Co. Wicklow as well. Ashford certainlly is and that is where their house was burned down. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has become a great hero of the liberal media because of the way he has dealt with allegations of child sexual abuse. He cannot make a speech without denouncing the evils of abuse and apologising for the way the Church dealt with them in the past. He even put pressure on Bishop Martin Drennan to resign even though NO criticism had been made of him in the Murphy Report. (Like the Wicklow mob, the Archbishop seems to believe in guilt by association.) ......

Would it be too much to ask the Archbishop to condemn the behaviour of the people who hound an innocent mother and her four children? The mob are abusing these innocents. Moreover the hysteria and fanaticism generated by the mob will rebound on real victims of child sexual abuse in the future. Cynicism is what normally follows after Hysteria.   
ENDQUOTE

You will note that neither the mob nor the Archbishop gave a ticker's curse about the four children or the man's wife. The man was a ''Monster'' and that justified anything!
C Walter Mattingly | 12/28/2011 - 11:57am
This essay by Father Klein was a hard one for me to confront. Over the days since my first reading I have returned to it. I have considered the actions of Saddam Hussein, such as sarin gassing a village of his own people, cutting off a water supply to one of his populations to starve out a very people, extracting the molars of a countryman because of a perceived failure without sedation (anyone unfortunate enough to have had an undeadened nerve touched by his dentist can only be horrified by this prospect) and have concluded, and publicly stated in this space, that Saddam was a monster.  And indeed, that may be so for the atheistic existentialist, the Sartrian humanist, for whom you are what you do. But it is a false conclusion for the Christian, who must forgive seventy times seven, who must hate the sin, but love the sinner. While Saddam's actions were monstrous, he was a man, not a monster.  A hard thing for me, harder still perhaps for those dealing with not only the pederast and his monstrous actions but those whose failure to act enabled rather than stopped him. Nonetheless, Terrance Klein's heart-felt and effective short essay is to my mind clear and convincing, and the corrective action called for unavoidable.  I'll not call Saddam, or anyone else, a monster again. Perhaps at some point I will be able to remember him sincerely in prayer.
Patrick OMalley | 12/20/2011 - 3:01pm
Pedophiles are monsters.  They ruin children’s lives.  The Catholic church tries to minimize that in every way possible because they harbored, hidden, and moved so many of these monsters, but that doesn't mean they aren't monsters. When a 12 year old boy is raped by a priest, who he is told is "Christ on earth", he has nightmares for the rest of his life.  There is now a real boogey man, a real monster with a real face.  The child never has a normal day, and seldom a normal moment.  The potential of that poor, young, innocent child is shattered forever.
 
Then it gets worse.  That monster is then supported by the largest church in the world that will defend the monster, lie for the monster, and hide the monster.  They also forgive and enable the monster, as you did here.  Of course, you make no reference to helping that child, and tens of thousands of others like him.
 
You focused on God's message that we should forgive, but God meant that we should forgive those who sinned and tried to atone and fix the results of their sins. God never meant that it was ok to sin and then leave the victim to a life of horror while we focus on forgiving the sinner.  Forgiving a sinner for something they didn't do to you is the easy part.  Helping that poor child to recover his life is the real test of one of God's servants.
 
Instead, the Catholic church fights every victim that comes forward, denigrating them, using the most powerful lawyers to fight and humiliate them.  The victims see monsters everywhere.
 
God is inside every single one of those victims.  That is unquestioned.  We don't know if He is in the pedophile, or if the pedophile is the embodiment of the anti-christ, and this is a test for the Catholic church and congregation.
 
Anyone in the church that didn’t help the victims will answer before God, as He is surrounded by them on your judgment day.
 
What did you do?  Did you forgive the anti-christ or help the victim?  Which choice was harder?  Which choice was What Jesus Would Do?

Jennifer Kane | 12/19/2011 - 11:00pm
@ Fr. Klein-Fair enough.
Terrance Klein | 12/18/2011 - 12:38pm
Nowhere in the piece do I argue against segregating offenders from their victims. As a young priest, I stopped a protracted incident of sexual abuse immediately upon discovery, but I had to do so, first, by convincing my bishop to turn the matter over to law enforcement without delay and, secondly, by persuading the local sherif that legal proceedings needed to begin immediately to protect the boy, not after the sherif had returned from a fishing trip. This was long before the bishops had mandated any policy. Unlike some Church leaders, I have no record of failing to protect. The perpetrator was a young man himself; what he did was profoundly evil, but that didn’t negate his own fractured humanity.
Treating the matter as only criminal and not spiritual is as wrong as was its converse. I’ve not argued against the effectiveness, or the necessity, of restricting access. It’s a bit more subtle than that. I questioned whether banishment, legal and personal, is completely explained by a desire to protect. We need to examine ourselves, looking for the Madame Defarge within, the one who joins the mob, convinced that justice sanctions hatred of ''the monster.'' Denying the humanity of others, or of ourselves when we do wrong — the thrust of my piece — is not a movement of grace.
Jennifer Kane | 12/18/2011 - 2:34am
 Your remarks amount to apologetics for the bishops' practice of placing sexual predator priests among our children.  
What legal courts and the public around the world have tried to impress upon apologists for child molesters is this: the issue is not about forgiveness or "comprehending" evil. It is about child protection-a laudable goal you attempt to trivialize by placing the perpetrator's right to certain freedoms on par with his victim's. Bishops all over the world have fallen into that trap, and it is precisely why Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn has been indicted. Fr. Klein, sex offenders are APPROPRIATELY segregated from children due to their overwhelming propensity to reoffend. It is the same rationale behind orders of protection courts issue for women in abusive relationships. This is the result of the offenders' actions; it is not the result of some sort of intolerance on the part of a public attempting to protect the innocent. Catholic parishes conduct background checks on prospective employees. The rest of the world considers this a prudent measure. Your arguments, however, shamefully wag a finger at victims and a public conscience bent on defending the innocent in our midst. 
If you want to challenge us to not judge others given our common sinful nature, fine. But please separate prudent efforts of protection from objective sin. Confronting evil is effected through prayer, not trying to "comprehend" it or make it appear less of a "monster." 
Patrick OMalley | 5/10/2012 - 6:35pm
Who are bigger bullies than the Catholic church:

- thousands and thousands of their priests raped 10,000+ children, making those children think they were being stabbed to death by Christ on earth
- then bishops moved the known bullies to places where they bullied other children
- then they all lied about it
- then they hid documents about it in their "secret archives"
- then when the victims come forward, priests say the victims are liars, knowing full well that these priests raped these children
- the congregation then follows their leaders, calling all the victims liars
- in the ultimate show of cowardice and heartlessness, the Catholic League calls victims "crybabys"

Bullying is largely about power and psychological trauma, and no one in history has done it like the Catholic church.