Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Today, out of the blue, I got a message from KIRO Radio in Seattle wanting to interview me about the sex offender registry. I went on shortly thereafter, the hosts John Curley and Rachel Belle were great, and I was able to get across a few good points. What I failed to relate, however, was what I did to get the label. Explaining how my drunken advances resulted in a lifetime registration would have taken a much longer show. Instead I referred listeners to the Stranger article on my blog sidebar for a critical interpretation. For the record: I did not molest a child, kidnap or rape anyone, as people often assume given my Level 3 classification.

Here's the Radio Show post and Audio Link on MY NORTHWEST.COM

Many thanks to KIRO Radio and the whole newsroom crew!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ex-Offender Mentorship: Level 3's Working Together

The seed was planted back in 2007, when my former probation officer asked if I could help a Level 3 Sex Offender under his watch. Was he kidding? The fact that he would look to me—after all the trouble I experienced under my own Level 3 designation—felt ironic beyond words.

Then again, it was also quite a testament to the successes I’d achieved since completing probation. And from that perspective, his request made perfect sense. Who better to help someone saddled with a monster’s label than one who had managed to rise above it? Unfortunately, I had so much on my plate at that time that I never followed up on this fascinating opportunity. But it was an idea I never forgot.

So when one of my employees told me about Christopher Gaylord—a likable young man trying to find work under a Level 3 label—I knew immediately that I wanted to meet him.

Chris smiled as I pulled up in my truck, looked directly in my eyes as we were introduced, and reached out to shake my hand. “Thank you for giving me this chance.”

During the drive to my property, where I had a few hours work for him—and more if things went well—Chris told me about himself. As he spoke, I began to see how forthright and sincere he is, remarkably unafraid to discuss his childhood and the mistakes he made.

He told me about being molested repeatedly when he was eleven, how he acted-out as a result, and how this led to him being convicted of two juvenile sex offenses by the time he was fifteen. He also described the ten years he spent growing up in various programs and institutions, including three years fighting a civil commitment sentence from McNeil Island, the Alcatraz of the Pacific Northwest.

Today, at age 22, despite having fulfilled his long sentences, as well as a victim empathy program in which he was made a mentor to others, he was nevertheless branded with an adult sex offender label and classified at the highest risk level. Dropped back into the community with no practical support from the system, a sex offender notification poster with his adult mugshot (and nothing more than his offenses) was published in local newspapers, hung on community bulletin boards, and posted in stores where he buys his food. "I guess I've been lucky so far," he said, meaning he hasn't yet been threatened "too seriously" or physically attacked. But over the last year Chris has been denied countless jobs and housing opportunities, and is now living in a campground because there is nowhere else to go. It is a hauntingly familiar story.

At my property I showed Chris the river running through the forest, the house I built with the help of my community, and various areas of the Zen Garden still in development. “This is exactly what I’d like to build for myself someday,” he said. It was a good sign that he used the term build instead of get, as I emphasized that achieving great things with a monster’s label is not for the faint of heart.

Chris worked hard throughout the afternoon, eager to take on any task I gave him. I was impressed by how well he listened to the details of my instructions, how he asked good questions, and by his ability to find creative solutions similar to my own thought process.

I also learned that Chris completed a high school education with honors during his incarceration, that he plays guitar, writes songs and sings, has a steady girlfriend, and enjoys very good relations with his family. But what impresses me most about Chris is his amazing attitude. Far from being depressed or bitter about the pervasive discrimination he faces, he manages to maintain a positive outlook on his past, present and future. One of my favorite quotes speaks to this:

Attitude to me is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than success, than what other people think or say or do….The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past...we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the string we have, and that is our attitude.

I wondered whether Chris’s remarkable attitude—or any of his admirable qualities—was considered when the Sheriff’s Department did his risk assessment. If my own Sheriff’s assessment is any indication, the answer is no. And I find this very sad.

At the end of the day, I told Chris I wanted to employ him on a regular basis. By doing this, I could offer him an informal education in gardening and landscaping techniques, skills that he could apply to creating his own business soon if he so chooses. I could also share more of what I’ve learned about self-advocacy, the lessons of my substance abuse recovery, and the ways in which I manifested my own dreams against the odds. In return, I would get the pleasure of Chris’s enthusiastic assistance with my ambitious garden plans—hard and dirty work that scares many workers away. I would also enjoy the deeper satisfaction of helping a person that too many in our judgmental and fearful society would rather see thrown away.

Some people might wonder: “Won't it look bad on you if he offends again?” To them I would say that nobody is without risk, and I would rather have helped out of compassion than to have turned away out of fear. It’s incomprehensible to me that our courts are regularly trying children as adults, and branding adults for offenses they committed as children. The sex offender registry was supposedly established to protect children but now, tragically, so many children are its victims.

I believe in chances. Not only second chances, but third and fourth and as many as it takes. If human beings are not worth fighting for, then what is? I will never forget how meaningful real friendship and support was when I was in Chris’s position, and it feels so good and right to give it back.

Note: As this story went to post I learned that Chris was told by a Parks official that he cannot continue living in any Jefferson County campgrounds.

I look forward to the day when the mindset that developed these wonderful programs described in Yes Magazine is applied to ex-sex offenders...for the benefit of everyone.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Sex Offender Speaker: California Outreach

A few months back I was contacted by a woman writing about sex offenders for her new book. She said she was impressed by the quality and candidness of the blogs she’d read on MonsterMart, and wondered if I would answer some questions. Gladly!

Turns out I was speaking with Dr. Nandi Crosby, author, feminist, former corrections officer, and Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at California State University, Chico. Here’s a fascinating article about her life and work. And a link to Dr. Nandi's first book, If My Soul Be Lost.

When Dr. Nandi asked me to be a guest speaker in her classes I was honored and excited to accept. For several years I’ve wanted to begin speaking publicly about my crimes and the label I was given as a result. Dr. Nandi’s invitation was a great opportunity to educate students about the severe consequences sex offenders experience today through sharing my own story, especially how being on the registry has affected my life.

Was I nervous? No doubt. Speaking about any subject for hours would be challenging enough, let alone one as sensitive as sexual offense. Add in the shame that still arises from my childhood incest, as well as the behavior that put me on the registry as an adult, and the prospect of "baring it all" seemed all the more daunting.

At the same time I’ve come to understand how powerfully healing walking through this kind of vulnerability can be, for victim or offender alike. And having been on both ends of the spectrum means I can speak from experience.

Since all that most people ever know about a sex offender is a description of his crimes and a mugshot, I passed out copies of my own public notification poster early on. This led to discussion of how badly communities can react to an offender's presence, what limited information the notice contains, and the confusion that can result from the use of terms that seem violent or threatening to children even when the crimes were not.

The context of each class was slightly different, but in all of them I detailed my crimes, jail sentences, court-ordered treatment, and some of the many problems that came with being classified at the highest level of the registry for life. I also talked about the broader implications of the registry in our society, dispelled some of the pervading myths about sex offenders, and tried to illustrate how emotionally-driven sex offender laws can (and often do) cause more harm than good.

Not all the students were sympathetic. Some directly challenged my opinions, and some asked questions that could not be answered simply. But overall the students seemed eager to learn, their questions were insightful and intelligent, and there were even a few laughs.

Dr. Nandi offered helpful feedback along the way, the most meaningful being that my presentations were so authentic. Equally moving to me were the many handshakes I got from students afterwards, thanks for appearing, and congratulations on my work.

Ultimately, whether students agreed with my perspectives or not, I hope they left with a better understanding of the issues involved, and a greater willingness to think and talk openly about matters that are usually avoided. After this valuable first experience at Chico State I'll be looking for my next opportunity to speak and teach, wherever that may be. University of Paris anyone?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Living Beyond the Label Part II: A Level 3’s Housewarming

Never have I felt a greater kinship with the online community of ex-sex offenders than when I wrote about my dream of building my own home (see part one below). The heartfelt messages I received showed me just how important personal dreams and accomplishments are for so many on the registry. For all those who wrote, and anyone struggling to live beyond the label, I wanted to post this special update.

Last September I had the pleasure of welcoming a crowd of guests from near and far—family, friends, craftsmen and many of my neighbors. A housewarming was a great way to bring together the many people involved in my life and creative ambitions over the last 3 years, to show my appreciation with a delicious outdoor feast, and to proudly present the final results.

All the compliments and loving hugs I got that day felt amazing. And the talk about submissions to architectural magazines was especially meaningful to me since I had designed every element myself. But as I told my guests, it was the help I got from local craftsmen that turned my visions into reality. This got me thinking again about how much my relationship with the community had changed since I arrived.

While creative expression has always come naturally to me, expressing my higher self in this community with a sex offender label was not so easy. Every time people reacted badly to my label--and there were plenty of disturbing incidents--it was a challenge not to feel depressed, angry or afraid. For quite some time I felt like getting as far away from this place as possible!

But once I decided to stay I saw that, for better or worse, this was the only local community I had. Was I going to isolate myself because of my label, avoid interactions, and live in a perpetual state of anxiety and fear? I never wanted a hermit’s life. And I sure didn’t want to give my label any more power than it deserved. I wanted to be a good neighbor and friend to the people around me. I wanted to be involved. And the fact was I needed help bringing my plans to fruition.

Eventually I understood that people weren’t reacting to me as I am, or as I could be, but to projections of their own fears. And if I reacted to them in the same ways—with fear, anger and condemnation—then nothing was going to change. How would they know there was more to me than a label if I wasn't willing to show them? Regardless of how I had been treated, or what I imagined people thought of me, I could choose to approach anyone I met with respect, openness and trust. I could be the change I wanted to see.

When Stan and Linda first heard about my label they feared it could cause problems with their rental property next door. But they’ve since told me the passion and dedication I revealed was more important than their doubts. Stan spent countless hours working on my property with his tractor and his engineering expertise. And Linda visited often with encouragement and praise for the progress she saw. Today they treat me with the warmth of an adopted son, and I am invited to all their family gatherings.

Ray had seen my sex offender poster on a visit to the sheriff’s office, and spread this information around town to people who didn’t yet know. But Ray also owned a lumber mill, and was one of Stan’s friends. So I put my fears aside and approached him about materials for my house. It was he who supplied all the old-growth cedar siding that was ideal for my cabin exterior, at a price that would have been double anywhere else.

Deborah was the detective who interrogated me when I first came to the area and was charged with failure to register. Since then she has retired from the Sheriff’s Department and opened a business as a professional seamstress. Today we have a friendship that would have seemed impossible before, and it was Deborah who made the curtains for my closets and the cushion for my living room couch.

Adam is the sheriff’s deputy assigned to make official checks on me. I used to feel resentful when he showed up unannounced. But showing him a grumpy face not only felt unnatural, it seemed unfair to the man forced to carry out this uncomfortable duty. So I began to invite Adam inside, show him my progress, and talk about whatever might come up. When I asked him if attending my housewarming presented a conflict of interest for him considering our “official” roles, he said: “We’re also neighbors.”

Do I still get rejected for my label? Yes. I’ve met people that had great potential as friends, only to watch them vanish from my life when they discovered my label. But by choosing to act out of compassion rather than fear, I just let them go without resentment and move on.

Four hundred years ago, poet John Donne wrote, "No man is an island, entire of itself...." Today his words are as meaningful as ever. I need my friends and supporters of the online community who are striving to fulfill their own dreams against the odds. And I also need my local friends and neighbors that bring richness and joy to my daily life.