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Ordinary people: responding to comments on my previous post on Lawrence Lessig and the American BoyChoir School

May 27th, 2005 · 7 Comments

A few days ago I wrote a post describing my response to New York Metro’s article titled The Choir Boy

Since then, I’ve received comments on my blog. Also Lawrence Lessig has responded on his blog to the article that detailed his involvement with plaintiff John Hardwicke’s case against the American Boychoir School.

Lessig’s blog post

Lawrence Lessig (a must-read!) requested in his post (after I’d already written mine)

Three comments below, but first a plea: that we drop the H-word, and B-word from commentary about this. This is an important social issue because of how ordinary it is in fact; and we need it to be understood to be ordinary, so as to respond in ways that can check, and prevent it.

He later clarified that the h-word and b-word are hero and brave, two words I am guilty of using in my post. I think I see his point. Calling Lessig a hero implies that he is somehow inherently different from the many other men and women who have been abused. It could be easy to put him on a pedestal and thereby also qualify his behavior – his disclosure – as unique: he’s a hero while I’m not.

However, imagine a world where Lessig’s and Hardwicke’s honesty is not unique, not even meriting mention in the media. Imagine a world where everyone who has been abused feels free to talk about it. No shame, no secrets, no fears. Imagine a society without these taboos, a culture without repercussions for victims of molestation. Sometimes the only way to get to such a world is to begin to bring it into existence today with the words we choose.

On the one hand, it is clear that Lawrence Lessig has done something unusual and something that many people do not do. Use of the h-word and b-word can seem justified in describing his choices. He took a risk.

But what he says is true. It is ordinary. What happened to him can happen to anyone. It does happen to many. And the way he chose to respond, his openness and disclosure, is a way anyone can choose to respond.

Perhaps part of the pedestal in this situation is the fact of who Lessig is. He’s described in the article as a supernova, one of America’s most famous lawyers, with Harvard and Stanford on his resume, a graduate of private schools. This too is part of the fable, part of the taboos, and part of breaking the silence and stereotypes. Economic class, education, gender, none of these or other categories are accurate indicators. Anyone can be a victim of sexual abuse.

May we see the day soon when Lessig’s actions are not called courageous but instead seen as normal and ordinary.

Comments I received

Now I will respond to the excellent comments left on my post. I’ll publish them below, in the order which I received them.

Lisa Williams

Reading this made me wonder: How would I keep my own kids safe from something like this? The key to a pedophile’s success is getting the kid to keep the secret. How do you get a kid to be “secretproof”?

Kai Jones:

Lisa, you can’t. You can’t control everything; you can’t painproof your kids. Shit happens, then you deal with it somehow. Better to focus on good coping strategies, on flexibility, on learning to recover from hurtful experiences so they don’t define your life. Living well is the best revenge.

John Hardwicke

I am the plaintiff in the case against the American Boychoir.

Professor Lessig is truly very courageous and a real hero.

We’ve been fighting in New Jersey to be heard in the state’s courts, but New Jersey is one of three states that seems to protect non-profits from lawsuits by virtue of the state’s Charitable Immunity Act.

Victims have been waging a parallel battle in the legislature to have a bill posted that would end charitable immunity in cases of child sexual abuse, but we can’t get the Assembly Speaker, Albio Sires, to post the legislation.

It would be very helpful if we could flood Mr. Siries’ office with e-mails asking him to post the legislation for a vote. PLEASE e-mail the Assemblyman at:


For more information:




Larry Lessig is someone whom I greatly admire. One day, too, I would love to be able to stand before the Supreme Court and argue the Constitutional matters of my passions (which include Copyright law).

On the subject of “where was God?”, as an agnostic atheist, I don’t have much of an answer for you. However, my fiancée, a fairly devout Christian, who is a veteran of a childhood rape has a site where she has written about her experiences and also has a note from her pastor about the subject. You might be interested since it might address some of your questions: http://www.river-crossing.org/Jnote.php

John Hardwicke’s comment: connecting to the plaintiff

Mary Hodder read my post and noted how John Hardwicke, the plaintiff in the case, was able to comment and connect:

All of this connecting and pointing and commenting happened in 24 hours.. and it’s old hat for those who’ve blogged or played with RSS and link search for years. But remember. It’s amazing, and it’s never existed before, that people could connect in these ways we are now taking for granted. Taking things like this for granted is good, because we implictly build these practices into our social interactions, but don’t forget also that what is so valuable about the internet can be lost, if those who would regulate it and limit it have their way.

Mary is right; it is amazing and exciting to be able to connect. When I received the comment from John Hardwicke, I was surprised and not surprised at the same time. I’ve been blogging long enough to know anyone can stop by and read what I write. It’s also not surprising that John Hardwicke would be searching for posts. But as Mary noted, how long ago would this have happened, that I would read an article in New York magazine and then have a dialogue with one of the main subjects of the story? I noted that the website he left as a url is one that is similar to the school but a .com instead. When Googling for the school’s name, this alternate site comes up in the #2 position. I think this is a powerful way to use Google and the Internet in general to promote a message: what would parents and prospective students think? I’m curious – even though I am not a New Jersey resident, would my opinion matter if I sent an email for legislation?

Lisa William’s question: how can we keep our kids safe?

Lisa’s question is one that haunts parents. How can we help prevent our children from being abused? Kai has a point. It is true that we can’t prevent everything. Part of growing up, part of parenting and part of life as a whole is learning resilience and flexibility, finding grace and purpose to cope with what comes our way.

What makes kids
secretproof? There are a variety of reasons why children keep quiet about abuse. I won’t claim that this list is extensive or covers every circumstance but here are some that come to mind.

  1. The child is threatened with physical violence or other pain. errorlevel left a link to his fiancee’s page which contains her graphic story of rape at age 6.
  2. The child has a sense of shame that keeps it secret. This is also illustrated in errorlevel’s fiancee’s story.
  3. The child is too young, doesn’t understand what is happening or doesn’t know that abuse isn’t normal.
  4. The child forgets or blocks out the abuse. Ross Cheit, a professor at Brown who discovered his own abuse years later has started the Recovered Memory Project.
  5. There is distance, emotional or physical, or other, between the child and the adults who should be protectors (parents or others). Yes, sometimes the protectors are the abusers.
  6. The child enjoys the relationship with the abuser and is receiving some sense of worth and/or love (or other benefits, safety) from the person. In the New York magazing article, Lessig is quoted: For a kid cut off from everyone else in this weird universe, to have the most important person in the world give you love and approval is the greatest thing you can imagine.

While researching possible answers to Lisa’s question I looked around on Google and discovered dangerous stereotypes.
One site claimed that abusers were often older males who were popular in the community. However, I would be careful of accepting any profiles of pedophiles. Here in Washington state, the case of Mary Kay Letourneau, a teacher who started having sex with one of her former students when he was 12, has received attention, including the recent wedding of the two (he’s now 22 and she has served jail time for the relationship). Women as well as men can be abusers.

I can’t claim to be an expert on abuse prevention. And as Kai said, parents can’t prevent everything. One aspect that I meant to mention in my previous post in regards to responsibility was the fact that parents often blame themselves for their child’s abuse. It can be seen as a major failure and destroyer of identity, leading to deep depression. Parents as well as children may need counseling to work through the issues of guilt.

However, I do think that parents can be wise and cautious whenever they are able to choose their child’s schedule and companions. For many families, though, with both parents working and kids in school and activities it is difficult to know what is happening at all times.

One parenting book we have read recommended not allowing children to spend the night at someone else’s home. While this may be extreme, the authors of the book were concerned about pedophilia and other exposure to sexual activities (such as older siblings) that can happen when staying over night or for an extended time with others. This principle would also rule out summer camps and boarding schools. It may seem like throwing the baby out with the bath water, but it may also help prevent abuse by limiting opportunities.

Of course, abuse can happen at any time in any place from a restroom to a playground; it only takes a moment, minutes, to change a life. As Kai said, things happen and despite our culture of parents who are consumed with preventing anything bad from possibility, beginning with ultrasounds and Mozart music in the womb, we moms and dads learn quickly how little we can control.

So often we focus on success and perfection. These are noble goals. But as Kai pointed out, learning how to deal with hardship, how to respond when bad things happen, is an important process of life. Life won’t always be what we want or hope. I wish I knew how to handle difficulties with more strength. Teaching our children at a young age how to respond to stress and pain is valuable.

I believe the best preparation we can do as parents is to build strong relationships with our children. We should educate them from an early age about sexuality and protecting themselves, not out of fear and angst but from a holistic perspective and the organic ways questions and opportunities arise with inquisitive young children. Whether our kids go to camp and boarding school or stay in the neighborhood, we should try to build strong bridges of communication, being careful to cultivate listening and understanding, gentleness and grace. We want to be our children’s confidantes, as much as possible, as much as they let us, while also allowing other relationships in their lives. I hope my kids would come to me if anything happened and know I wouldn’t blame them or shame them, that I would welcome them with open arms and hugs. I hope that they will share their lives with us, and that we can have honest and open relationships in our family, real and raw as life is.

God forbid something should happen, but if it does, our kids would not be alone. There are many who have been molested, and many who have discovered grace and healing to go forward. Many who have used the brokenness in their lives to help others put pieces together. Many who have emerged from despair to hand out hope. Many who have been shaped by their oppression to bring freedom to a world enslaved.

Yes, there are many ordinary people.


As Robert Scoble said, there’s been lots of raw human stuff to read in the aggregator. It’s been an intense week, hard to know how to process at times, but also good.

Thanks again to Lawrence Lessig, to John Hardwicke, and to everyone who has commented, linked and responded.

Tags: Uncategorized

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bill Riski // May 27, 2005 at 9:54 am


    As always, your writing is enthralling and insightful. I wrote a bit on my blog about Mr. Lessig, and have to take issue with him and you on one point. You opined,

    “He later clarified that the h-word and b-word are hero and brave, two words I am guilty of using in my post. I think I see his point. Calling Lessig a hero implies that he is somehow inherently different from the many other men and women who have been abused. It could be easy to put him on a pedestal and thereby also qualify his behavior – his disclosure – as unique: he’s a hero while I’m not. ”

    I still hope for the day when, through the efforts of many, our children will not be subject to such abuses. When fewer and fewer incidences occur. When the unfortunate few are able to get the help they need and rise above it like Lessig has, rather than be broken for life by the awful experience.

    Here’s hoping for no more child abuse, but when it happens, I want more brave survivors; more hero’s like Lawrence Lessig. I appreciate that he would like us not to use the H-word or B-word. But he has no choice in the matter. It is an honor that someone bestows on you; you don’t take it. Lawrence Lessig is a hero in my book for many reasons.

    Again – great blog Julie,


  • 2 Bill Riski // May 27, 2005 at 10:17 am

    And one more thing… You may be guilty of labeling Lessig a brave person and a hero, but he’s guilty of actions that warrant the labels. IMHO.

  • 3 DrErnie // May 27, 2005 at 10:56 am

    As usual, I think the “problem” is that we misunderstand the term ‘hero’ (like we do the term ‘saint’). To me, a hero — a term I’ve recently re-discovered — is someone who manifests those qualities I *seek* to emulate, not those I cannot. In fact, honoring heroes is how communities make such behavior ‘normative’, as well as exemplary. Perhaps even more relevantly, I believe honor is essential to expiate shame:


  • 4 Robert Scoble // May 27, 2005 at 11:00 pm

    Julie, I’ve studied sexual abuse quite a bit and it almost always is someone who is close to the family and trusted. Or, someone who is in a trusted position (priest, teacher, coach).

    Things to look for: is your child getting gifts? Is he spending time alone with this adult? A lot of times the kid is getting rewarded with nice trips, concert tickets, or maybe even smaller things (letting him/her drive a car, for instance).

    Usually the parents just ignore the signs, or don’t know what to look for (or trust this person so much that any signs that are out there are rationalized away).

  • 5 Robert Scoble // May 27, 2005 at 11:05 pm

    By the way, your advice is right on. Unfortunately many parents make sexuality something that is impossible to talk about. In fact, many make sex something “dirty.”

    How many parents hide their children’s eyes when there is sexual behavior on TV, for instance? I know many parents who do that. It increases many kids’ curiousity about such things, which increases their risk for being a victim.

    It also decreases greatly the ability for the child to talk once they have been victimized, because such behavior is “dirty” and “not to be discussed.”

    In my experience very few kids have parents who really are open to talking to them about such things.

  • 6 Koan Bremner // May 29, 2005 at 8:09 am

    Your posts (this one, the original, and the subsequent comments on both) have made me rethink, once again, at least one firmly belief of mine. For reasons unconnected with child abuse, I’ve had labels like “heroic”, “brave” or “courageous” pinned on my chest. For me, they sit as uncomfortably as they seem to for Lawrence.

    My response up to now has always been to express my opinion that it is the combination of personal risk *and* the option of avoiding that risk that are preconditions for the b-, h- (and, I suggest, c-) words. In other words, doing something for which you see no alternative is not brave; even if it is hazardous, even life-threatening.

    Doing something hazardous when you *have* the choice not to; that’s something else. I remeber the images of firemen and others entering the twin towers (*especially* those who went into the second tower after the first had just collapsed) as examples of what I consider worthy use of the b-, h- and c- words. They didn’t have to; they almost knew they were risking almost certain death; yet they went in anyway.

    So, on that basis, do I consider Lawrence Lessig a hero? Actually, I do. *Not* for surviving the abuse, awful though that was. But for taking an open, public stand when he didn’t *need* to. That takes courage. To take such a stand when not motivated by personal gain, but rather with the intent to try to correct a wrong suffered by others, or to try to prevent such a wrong happening to others in the future? And to take such a stand when the possible personal consequences are high? Those, to me, are hallmarks of actions worthy of the words. In my opinion.

  • 7 Julie // May 30, 2005 at 10:38 am

    Thanks, everyone!

    Thanks, Bill and Ernie for your insights into the h-word. I think we all agree. I do admire what Lawrence Lessig did. However if Lessig doesn’t want to be called a hero, I respect his request, understand his perspective and want to promote the potential for change. I’m not as optimistic as you, Bill: I suspect that we will always have abuse. But we can encourage better ways to respond and heal. I agree with that the word “saint” is also misunderstood; thanks, Ernie, as always, for your experience and wisdom.

    Thanks, Robert, for pointing out the issue of trust. Sexual abuse and assault can happen anywhere. What makes the wound especially painful though is the fact that the abuser was usually someone trusted: a parent, coach, teacher, relative or other authority figure. Abuse not only damages ones body but also the emotions: how to know when and whom to trust again once trust has been broken and devastated? For many, relationships are changed forever. Thanks for listing questions and signs for parents to see.

    I agree that few families are able to discuss sexuality in healthy ways. Raising children with a holistic perspective, beyond just do’s and don’ts or fears and facts, is crucial. Sex involves all of who we are, I believe, body and soul, emotions and mind, and we need to teach kids through our lives day to day of the power, purpose and beauty of sexuality.

    Koan, thank you for sharing from your perspective, how it feels to be called a hero. It’s interesting to hear a piece of your story. I agree that Lessig’s choice to take a stand and risk the consequences was indeed a choice and courageous too.

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