By Michael’s description, his family doesn’t fit the profile of the violent home that’s most likely to produce a rapist. He depicts his childhood as “happy;” his family as “normal, middle-class.” His stepfather was a lawyer who raised Michael and his sister as his own; Michael has lived with his mother since his release from prison, and describes their relationship as “good.” When I asked if there was anything in his childhood that might have contributed to his abusive treatment of women, he answered with the rote self-awareness of an inmate facing the parole board. “It’s up to the individual, not the mother,” he told me. “You have accountability in your life. Everybody knows right from wrong. I chose to cross that line, and I paid for it.”
But Michael’s chart tells a darker story. When he was arrested for rape, Michael’s mother submitted a letter to the court explaining what she believed to be the cause of his crime. “Michael always adored his stepfather,” she wrote, “but he challenged every word I said. He complained that all the other kids’ fathers were the boss of their house, but that I was the boss of ours. I thought his attitude would change as he matured, but that never happened.
“When Michael was twelve years old, I discovered that my husband had been molesting Michael’s little sister. Our doctor told me to keep silent so my husband wouldn’t be run out of town; I decided not to press charges because we needed him at home. I took Michael for a ride in the car and told him. He left the car, crying. Even then, he couldn’t find fault with his step-dad; he pointed the finger at me. I hated my husband but we all stayed together under one roof…I realize now how damaging this environment was to Michael. I believe that Michael generalized his resentment toward me to his relationship with all women.”
Whatever the causes of Michael’s predatory behavior, they remained unaddressed throughout his prison term, during which he received no therapy. Upon his release, though, Michael was court-ordered to attend one individual assessment session with Dr. Choy, followed by bi-monthly sessions of a sex-offender rehabilitation group—one of many held in this office, which also houses the Department of Youth Authority and the Gang Services Project. It is a building full of men gone wrong, and as I stand uneasily waiting for Dr. Choy in the crowded reception area, I recoil, then politely decline, when one of the men jumps up to offer me his seat. Following Dr. Choy through the locked door that leads to the therapists’ offices, I read a sign on the wall: “Please do not allow others to enter when you bring your patient in. BEWARE OF CLIENTS WHO SNEAK IN.” If Michael wants to stay out of prison, he will follow Dr. Choy and the other rapists in his group down this hall twice a month every month for the next three years, the duration of his parole.
“Two hours a month of group therapy? Is that enough to cure a man like Michael?” I ask Dr. Choy.
“I would never say that a rapist is cured,” he answers. Rather, Dr. Choy says, the aim of the group he leads is to help each rapist first understand what led him to rape, then to create “a personalized relapse prevention plan:” a repertoire of interventions that can interrupt the progression of emotions that might otherwise cause him to rape again.
“There are certain thinking errors commonly associated with sexual offenders,” Dr. Choy explains. “These distortions are rampant throughout society: in the plots of movies, in men’s magazines, in advertising, in boys’ upbringings. One such distortion would be: ‘When she said, No, she really meant, Yes.’ Another is, ‘After experiencing the pleasure of my sexual prowess, she will come to enjoy the experience of rape.’ Or, ‘A man is entitled to receive sex from a woman who is seductively dressed or who he has spent a lot of money on’.”
Given all that is known—and unknown—about what makes a rapist, what do the experts say about how women can protect themselves?