Grisham’s statements demonstrate how insidious and effective defensive strategies employed by abusers can be.
Trigger warning for depictions of sexual abuse of children.
Last week, best-selling author John Grisham provided us a wonderful opportunity to learn about the strategies that abusers and their allies use to defend against warranted condemnation and even justice.
It all started with an interview that he gave the British newspaper The Telegraph to promote his new book. Grisham began by attacking our staggeringly high rate of incarceration, and criticizing our policy of incarcerating white collar criminals, “black teenagers on minor drug charges,” and consumers of child pornography.
He was careful to make it clear that he has “no sympathy for real pedophiles.” (As opposed to the knock-off pedophiles sold in flea markets?) However, he seemed exasperated if not outraged that our justice system labels consumers of child pornography as sex-offenders and sometimes sentences them to prison terms of up to a decade.
Grisham offered the example of a “good buddy” of his from law school who had been through a period when his consumption of alcohol “was out of control.” Apparently, while Grisham’s friend was stumbling around the Internet in a drunken stupor, he tripped and fell into a website that Grisham described as being “labeled 16-year-old wannabee hookers or something like that.” He clarified that these were not 16-year-old girls pretending to be younger. They were actually “dressed up” so that they looked 30. And wouldn’t you know it? A week later the FBI showed up, and Grisham’s poor buddy went to prison for three years.
Grisham has received a great deal of criticism for his remarks. On Friday, he issued an apology and a clarification that he does not support the production or consumption of child pornography.
But the story does not end there.
Grisham’s “good buddy” was identified as Michael Holleman. And journalists found a very different version of the story in court records pertaining to Holleman’s disbarment, prosecution, and sentencing.
In that version of the story, Holleman did considerably more than take a drunken joyride through the Internet’s seediest neighborhood. Law enforcement was able to document at least two incidents in which he acted as a supplier of child pornography.
One of the times he supplied child pornography was to a Canadian law-enforcement agent. The agent requested images of children being sexually abused and Holleman obliged, dipping into the files he had saved on the computer in his law office. He sent images of “children under 18, some under 12” that depicted them “during sexually explicit conduct, including intercourse.”
Prosecutors agreed to drop one of the cases in which Holleman had allegedly trafficked child pornography if he would plead guilty to charges stemming from the Canadian sting. Holleman was released from prison after serving just 15 months, and successfully applied for reinstatement to the Mississippi bar with the help of his good buddy, John Grisham.
The story didn’t end there, either. In an interview, Holleman told his own side of the story. His account differs from Grisham’s and the court records in some pretty big and important ways. According to him, it was a mistake that took “five minutes of his life” and was “like looking at the pictures of a horrible murder scene.”
When compared with the court records and police reports of Holleman’s crime, it becomes very easy to see how Grisham and Holleman have reconstructed the narrative into something more palatable. They are using techniques meant to neutralize shame and deflect condemnation.
Social scientists who study how criminals explain their crimes to themselves and others have noticed that most employ variations of a few basic techniques, and that these are generally also employed by their defenders. While doing research for an upcoming book, I compiled and synthesized the theories of a number of researchers into a list of 12 defense strategies, a dirty dozen, if you will. They fall into three basic categories: Denial, Contextualization, and Distraction.
Holloman and Grisham used the most popular of the five denial strategies: denial of responsibility. They try to claim that it wasn’t really his fault that he received and transmitted child pornography because he was drinking heavily at the time. David Adams, who researches domestic violence and treats offenders, has found that alcohol abuse is the third most common excuse employed by people who abuse their partners. But as he points out, we “hold drunk drivers responsible for their actions while intoxicated.” Why should we afford those who receive and send child pornography a greater privilege?
Grisham and Holleman also use one of the more popular contextualization strategies: contextualizing by contrast. Users of this technique admit that the person did something wrong, but then diminish the severity and significance of the act by placing it in a setting where people do far worse things.
Grisham and Holleman do not contextualize Holleman’s behavior in the context of the average person’s sex life, which would allow us to see it as alarming and awful. Instead, they contextualize it by placing it next to the behavior of child molesters. Grisham says that viewers of child pornography would “never touch a child” and Holleman expends significant energy in his interview refuting the idea that he is a pedophile.
They also use a contextualization strategy in which the offense is minimized so well, it can be passed off as something only slightly wrong. Grisham does this by saying that Holleman went to a site featuring “16-year-old girls who looked 30.” He is, in essence, saying that the images Holleman looked at were not that different from the “barely legal” images widely available online. It’s as if he is giving his readers a wink-wink-nudge-nudge and whispering, “Which of us hasn’t done that?”
Holleman minimizes his crime by saying that it was such a small thing it “consumed about five minutes of his life.” That would certainly match Grisham’s story in which his child pornographers are people who have just “pushed the wrong buttons” and gone “too far.” But I remember what the Internet was like in “late 1996 or early 1997,” the time frame in which Holleman admits to having committed the crime. Downloading images, at that time, was like trying to suck a steak through a straw. The incredibly slow download rate was why people like Holleman risked saving the images to their computers. Of course it took longer than five minutes for him to download and distribute the pornography.
Finally there are strategies of misdirection. This can be done in very obvious ways, such as claiming that the condemnation of NFL players who abuse their spouses is really an attempt to destroy the game of football. Or it can be done by changing the point of view in the story—making it all about the abuser and not about the victims. Holleman does this when he talks about how he cleaned up his life and now “serves others.” It is as if the whole thing was just something used by a higher power to make him a better person.
Grisham tries to misdirect us by counter-attacking, ridiculing the long sentences imposed on users of child pornography. In the same article that recounts his interview, the reporter notes that child rapists often receive a lighter sentence than consumers of child pornography. But this should not be seen as an indictment of sentencing guidelines for child pornography users. The relatively light sentences given to child rapists are what need to be raised.
I think that Grisham’s statements demonstrate how insidious and effective defensive strategies employed by abusers can be. It seems likely that much of what Grisham presented were the defenses that Holleman had used on him. But what should be of more concern to us, are the people who found themselves agreeing with part, if not all, of what Grisham had to say.
That brings us to the importance of educating ourselves and the public about the basic defense strategies used by abusers and sex criminals. If we refute defenses like the one made by Grisham by pointing out the defense strategy, we have not only shot down that one argument, but we’ve also given thinking individuals an ability to spot the same defense in the future.
As the old saying goes, forewarned is forearmed.
Lynn Beisner writes about family, social justice issues, and the craziness of daily life. Her work can be found on Role Reboot, Alternet, and on her blog: Two Parts Smart-Ass; One Part Wisdom. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.