The Predator Within: How I Healed From Growing Up in a Community of Predators

In 2007, I was offered a teaching job at a prestigious art school in New York City. I declined, citing travel conflicts. That wasn’t the real reason though. My real concern was being in a position of power over young female art students. I was two years into therapy, which I began in the spring of 2005 when I heard that a child in my old neighborhood in Iowa had been murdered by a sexual predator. The horror of that event pushed me to examine the impact of growing up in environment where the young and vulnerable were sexually exploited by those in power. At that point in my progress, I knew I couldn’t trust myself to not try to start a secret, sexual relationship with a student.

The perpetrators in my neighborhood in the 1980’s were not adults, but babysitters, older siblings, and teenage neighbors sexually exploiting the younger children. I remember being molested by a babysitter under a blanket while watching a movie and being “humped” by an older boy in a basement. I also have small flashes of other memories, a painful slideshow that has been slowly coming together over time.

Another target of the same kind of abuse was one of my friends, a neighbor girl one year younger than me. The abuse stopped when she moved away from the neighborhood at age 9. After that I only saw her at school. Neither of us told anyone what had happened. The memories faded over time, except far-away flashes in my mind when I’d see her walk by in the hallway. We gradually drifted apart and fell out of contact.

About a year after I declined the art school position, I found her online and we met at a restaurant in Minneapolis. I was instructed by my counselor to use extreme caution in broaching the subject of abuse, only to discuss it if she wanted to. I didn’t need to wait long. As soon as the waiter left us alone, she began: “We grew up in a pretty messed up neighborhood, huh?”

At that point in therapy, I had been working through my reoccurring nightmares of being sexually attacked and seeing my childhood friends be exploited and prostituted. When my neighbor and I spoke, her memories lined up with my nightmares and it became more real for both of us. She told me her memories of both teenage boys and girls abusing her — being shown pornography then instructed to act it out, having several boys molest her in a sleeping bag in one night, and being traded to older teens in exchange for alcohol.

But there were two stories she didn’t bring up. Those were the stories where I was a part of her abuse.

One time I was instructed by older boys to go under an overturned boat in her backyard and “hump” her, the same thing that happened to me in the basement. I later learned they instructed a number of neighborhood boys to do the same. Another time a friend and I took nude photos of her pantomiming the Playboy magazines we found. There were no older boys that time, just us. I was learning how to be in control of the exploitation rather than the target of it.

It was tempting to say “We were just kids,” or “I was told to do that,” but as I discovered with my own wounds, when an abuser doesn’t take responsibility, the victim is left feeling at fault. From that perspective, the shame connected to those events was mine to bear, not hers.

I carefully brought these memories up with her, setting aside any excuses, and taking accountability now as an adult. I did these things. This really happened. My actions and participation in these events are my responsibility.

And with that, we began healing together.

We’ve been close ever since, calling each other when our minds get dark or the nightmares come back. We’ve helped each other defog obscure memories for each other, piecing together what happened, with who, and when. “Yes, that happened to you” became the benchmark for a reality where we could start trusting our own perceptions. Even having just one ally in a system of violence broke the secrecy and shame.

Coming from this environment, I have the predator imprint in me. We both do. But what is different for me is that as a male I’m generally provided more opportunities to be in power over the vulnerable and my narrative is given more credence than my female peers. Given this platform, predatory behavior can thrive.

When I act exploitively, I anesthetize the pain and powerlessness I felt when I was a victim, passing the shock and sexual humiliation I experienced on to others. If I hadn’t been shaken to consciousness by that 2005 murder, I would have kept recreating that exploitive power dynamic from my childhood.

With that awareness, the only thing to do was to heal — to feel the pain of what I experienced in my past, grieve the resulting losses in intimacy and damage to my sexuality, and most important, to be accountable for my behavior, past and present.

I don’t have to be the people who hurt me. I don’t have to corrupt the sacred vulnerability of sexuality for anyone else. The cycle of victim-to-predator can stop with me. Healing takes years and has taken me to the darkest parts of the human psyche, but for me, it’s the only path to freedom and dignity for myself and everyone I meet.