A Sacred Trust
Copyright © 2014 by
Ralph F. Couey
It was early in the school year, and the young lady decided to go out and meet some friends at a local beer bistro. After imbibing, she apparently tried to walk back to campus but got lost, not unusual for a student new to the area. On footage from a security camera, she was seen walking through a downtown shopping mall, apparently befriended by a man. It would be the last time anyone saw Heather Graham.
On a fall day, an 11-year-old got on his bike and started the familiar ride to his friend's house. He never made it. Four agonizing years later, he was found with his abductor when the man tried to kidnap another young boy, who police were able to find four days after his abduction.
A mother went into the department store with her 6-year-old in tow. Passing a video game, he begged her to play it. Since she was only going to be a few aisles away, she consented. The boy disappeared. His severed head was later found in a ditch.
At a large amusement park, a young mother suddenly lost track of her 5-year-old, as he had wandered off as they will do. Frantically she searched and notified park security. Armed with a photo, a sharp-eyed guard caught the child as he was leaving the park with his kidnapper -- after the criminal had cut the boy's hair and changed his clothes.
A parent's worst nightmare. Your child has vanished, and you have no idea where they are. No matter how careful, or cautious, or paranoid, it will happen at least once.
The fear has gotten worse. Recently a journalist summarized recent events by intoning, "It is a dark and dangerous world." Now parents not only have to be hyper-vigilant in public places, but also must closely monitor their child's internet activity. And smart phone activity.
Our children are grown, most with kids of their own. And yes, we worry about their safety as well. So I understand the fear, having executed The Big Search on three separate occasions successfully, Thank God. It would seem, however, that most pedophiles seem to occupy one particular demographic, white males. This has the effect of chastening our interactions with children we don't know or are members of our family. It also has the effect of making any white male, in the eyes of some, a potential abuser.
Monday is a day off shared by both my wife and myself. Over the summer, we used that day to go to a movie, taking advantage of the lower prices of the late morning - early afternoon shows. Also, we found that if we go in the evening, we usually fall asleep during the movie. This week, we went to see the Robert Duvall - Robert Downey, Jr vehicle, "The Judge." Great show, by the way. We highly recommend it. It was a great spot for Ironman and Michael's Consiglieri.
After the show, we made the trip to the restrooms, necessitated by the shared consumption of a huge diet soda. Cheryl went in, and I turned to enter the Men's side.
There was a mother with a pre-teen son also heading for the door. As they got there, she cracked open the door, peered in, and asked, "Anyone in there?" Getting no reply, she opened the door and let him in. I headed for the door, intending to go about my business, but she turned towards me. She wasn't necessarily blocking the door, but it was obvious from her body language she wasn't going to let me by if she could help it. Her face was concerned, but gentle. But I have become a student of the eyes, and hers stared me down, glinting in a way instantly understood by any son. Or husband.
I wasn't the only one affected. Two other men arrived during this time. Puzzled, one of them asked me, "What's up?" I nodded in her direction. "Her kid's in there." He nodded, understanding immediately. "Oh. Okay." The other guy, younger than us headed towards the door like a man on a mission, which he undoubtedly was, if he had also consumed a large drink. As he drew near, she shifted her position ever so slightly, interposing herself between him and the door. It looked like he was going to maneuver around her, but then she turned those glinty mother-on-duty eyes on him, and he stopped dead in his tracks.
So there we stood. Three adult males, barred from entry to the restroom by this diminutive, but nevertheless very imposing mother.
After a few minutes, her son came out and they left. With him and her out of the way, we three went in, sighing in relief.
In another context, this would be humorous, perhaps worthy of a anecdote told and repeated far and wide. But in this context, it was a sobering and disturbing incident.
One of the basic tenets of American law is the idea that all are innocent until proven guilty. And that proof must be strong and unimpeachable. This is especially true in sex crimes. But society has decided, en masse, to convict those accused of such crimes without the benefit of a trial. Simply stated, if the accusation appears in the news, it must be true.
In her protective zeal, this mother had convicted all three of us of being at least potential pedophiles. This bothers me. And part of that bother is the moral quandary. I don't want to be in a position to criticize a mother's care and concern, but does that mean you can keep people out of a public restroom in order to indulge your fears?
Parenting is a sacred trust. Of that there can be no denying. It means a lifetime of entertaining at times our worst fears; living our worst nightmares.
Clearly, this woman was reacting to the dangers she has perceived through the media. And maybe, just maybe, there's a backstory to her life as well.
This raises a compelling possibility. Have we, as a society, as a culture, surrendered to our fears to the degree that we can't treat anyone with the semblance of normality? Has society become so dangerous, so risky, that we all feel we need to convict every stranger with a laundry list of criminal activity just on the basis of seeing them on the street?
Have we lost our grip? Or do we need to get a grip?
We can all be safe if we stay in our bedrooms with the covers pulled over our heads. But that's not living. That's not life. Yes there are risks out there. But the moment we let those risks change our behavior, change who and what we are, then we have surrendered.