There’s not a night that goes by that I don’t lie awake in bed and pray to a God I don’t believe in that my life could somehow reverse itself back to when I first moved into this place.
This was my first apartment and first time living away from home. When I moved here a little over two years ago, the place was bare except for some boxes of books, a blowup mattress, clothes still on their hangers, and a laptop. When I took my shoes off and placed my bare feet on the wood floors for the first time, it felt as if I had crossed the threshold into adulthood. I had just graduated college, landed the job of my dreams, moved into my first apartment, and was newly single and looking for love. I was 22-years-old then and had a promising future ahead of me.
A little over a year ago, I turned on my computer at work and saw an email from the receptionist telling me there was a woman downstairs wanting to meet with me. I wasn’t aware of any meeting.
I went downstairs to the lobby and saw not one but two women in suits standing beside the receptionist’s desk with heavy briefcases in hand.
The women, both in their mid-forties, stared at me, their faces unreadable. The short blonde in a hounds tooth jacket asked if there was a conference room available where we could talk. I glanced around the lobby confused, and the secretary, noticing my confusion, suggested the conference room near her desk.
The two women quietly followed me into the room. I wondered if maybe I had won some sort of contest and these women were official spokespeople who had come to award me with my cash prize. I tried to recall if I had put my name into any hats.
As soon as we sat down, the other woman, much taller and with a mass of dark curly hair, announced that she and her partner were with the FBI.
My heart seized in my chest and my head felt as if I were under water. This was no contest, and there was no cash prize.
“Before we go any further,” the dark-haired woman said, “We issued a search warrant for your apartment this morning and seized your computer. We already know the answers to everything we’re going to ask you here, so the best thing for you to do is to cooperate with us and tell us the truth.”
My lawyer would later go on to tell me that most people choose to cooperate erroneously. It is human nature to feel compelled to relieve a guilty conscious when confronted by an authority figure. Legally, however, the best thing to do is not say anything.
Incidentally, and maybe intentionally, these two middle-aged women seemed to appeal to my inner child. I had been caught lying, and they were the mother who promised I wouldn’t get into too much trouble with Dad if I simply fessed up and told the truth. And so for the next hour, we sat in the conference room and I answered their questions.
Yes, I find underage boys sexually attractive.
Yes, I downloaded pornographic images of boys I knew to be underage.
And yes, I masturbated to these images and shared them with other strangers over the peer-to-peer network in which I received them.
They asked me how many images I had; where I saved the images; how often I looked at the images; how many people I shared them with; was I ever molested when I was younger. They asked if I had ever chatted explicitly with underage boys online or if I had ever touched or molested a minor—both of which I answered, “No.”
The agents jotted everything down on their legal pads. From where I sat, I could see little notes scrawled in the margins that read things like “attracted to boys ages 12 to 16” and “masturbates about once every other day.”
Sitting on the conference table in front of me throughout the interview was a green file so packed full of papers that it looked as if it would literally split at any moment. Written on the outside of the folder in thick, black permanent marker was my last name in capital letters. The sight of my last name and the faint smell of permanent marker seemed at the time so startlingly vivid, it served as tangible proof that I wasn’t dreaming.
During the course of the interview, the agents pulled about a dozen or so sheets of paper from the green file, each printed with an image from my computer blown up to fit the entire sheet. Of all the images I had downloaded, they seemed to have cherry-picked the most heinous and graphic of them all. They showed me each image one at a time and asked me to initial and date the ones that looked familiar. They asked if I knew how old the boy was in the pictures, and I guessed nine.
The woman with dark curls asked me why I did it and whether I thought it was appropriate. I struggled to form an answer, some way of articulating that I didn’t think I was hurting anybody at the time and that I would never dream of hurting a child. I tried to explain that I think it’s common and even normal to be sexually attracted to minors despite society’s reluctance to accept or even discuss it. But I understand the difference between finding a minor attractive and hurting a child—I would never hurt anybody.
The humiliation, fear, and shame I had first felt when the interview began seemed to dissolve away over the course of the hour. I had grown numb to the questioning, my mouth dry from talking, and my only concern by the end of the interview was what my punishment would be. Would I be immediately hauled off to jail in front of my coworkers? Does my boss know I’m being questioned? Will I be fired? How will I tell my family and new boyfriend?
At the end of the interview, I asked what comes next. The woman in the hounds tooth jacket explained that their investigation would take several months, the time needed for their specialists to analyze my computer, after which they’d contact me. She pulled out her wallet and fished out a business card to give to me. I glanced inside and saw a picture of her children, a boy and a girl.
I walked with the two women back to their cars, and we made small talk about the weather and holiday plans. When we got to their cars, one of them pulled some paperwork from her trunk.
After the papers were signed, they thanked me for my cooperation, told me not to leave the country, and they got in their cars and drove away.