My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol.3, # 31,
February 2, 1998


I've never spent an entire column talking about one book before, but I've just finished one that horrified me, at the same time it crystallized my thoughts about our failures as a society. The book is Our Guys, by Bernard Lefkowitz. It explains how a group of well-off, suburban high school athletes came to commit gang-rape with a broomstick and baseball bat on a mentally retarded young girl, and how they and their families came to feel aggrieved when the boys were arrested and tried for the crime.

You see, I'm not into fatalism, and I don't believe in "bad seeds." Whether children grow up believing that "you should pick on somebody your own size," or that "you should never give a sucker an even break" depends on what they're taught, and what they're shown, by the grownups around them. Children WANT to be like their parents, WANT their parents to approve of them. The greatest punishment we can give them when they're little is to be terribly disappointed in them. But they won't go by what you say alone. They will always test your limits, to see whether your rules matter to you enough for you to enforce them.

The girl in this particular case (the author calls her Leslie) had an IQ of 49. Like many mentally retarded children, she had an intense need for approval and love. The children around her may not have understood how deeply retarded she was, but they knew she was "different," and that Leslie would do just about anything if you promised to be her friend. When she was 6, the same boys who later raped her talked Leslie into eating dog feces. The difference between the two acts, separated by 10 years, is one of degree, not kind.

What is horrifying, from this point on, is this: adults did nothing to punish these boys for any of their actions.

Put yourself in the position of Leslie's mother when she found out about the dirty trick played on her retarded 6 year old. Wouldn't the scenario have gone something like this? 1) You call the boys' mothers and tell them what their sons did. 2) The boys' mothers summon them and say "I can't believe you'd do something so mean to a child. How COULD you take advantage of someone's weakness to hurt them like that?" 3) The mothers would then dole out punishment, or talk to the other mothers about a group punishment, to show their boys how unforgivable their actions were. 4) They would tell the fathers what the boys did, and the fathers would have a heart to heart talk with their sons about decency and fair play.

It didn't happen. Leslie's mother found it so hard to believe that she never told the boys' parents. Failure number one.

This rape case was played out in the media as a story about "good boys" from good homes--golden boys, athletes, studs who had to clear worshippers out of their way in order to walk down a hall. Which made it seem all the more improbable that they could have done such an awful thing.

But they weren't good boys. Throughout their school career, they disrupted their classrooms and intimidated their teachers, who did not punish them and did not flunk them--partly because they didn't want to face the wrath of well-connected parents, and partly because the last thing they wanted was to have those kids back in their class for another year. One of the boys routinely pulled his pants down in class and played with himself whenever the teacher's back was turned. The teacher never reported this behavior to anyone, nor did any of the kids in the class. (And no, I don't believe for a minute that the teacher didn't know what was going on, not when the behavior continued for an entire year.) Failure number two.

They were good-looking young men, who could get any girl they wanted, but they were abusive and coercive to the girls who weren't in their crowd, making sexual comments, grabbing at them, even using their big muscular bodies to barricade the girls against their lockers and fondle them. When they took girls into bedrooms for sex, at least half their pleasure in it was arranging for their friends to watch and telling the girls afterwards. They even bragged in their yearbook about the pleasures of "voyeuring."

This is not all these "good boys" did. They partied hard, getting as drunk as they could as fast as they could on booze they weren't old enough to buy. When one shy girl mentioned her parents were going to be gone for a weekend and she was going to have a party, they invaded her house, stove in walls, broke windows, stripped off woodwork, destroyed most of the furniture, and made the house unfit to live in. Because the party was across a state line, and none of the kids would testify, the police didn't pursue it. The guys were not caught, or arrested, or punished. Not even when they bragged about this too in their high school yearbook. Failure number three.

That they did all these things is not in doubt. Lefkowitz had no difficulty finding many students and teachers who told him these stories and many others. And there is also no question that no adult ever intervened in any of these activities.

(There is also no question that no kid ever intervened, either, but I find their failures somewhat less deplorable--teenagers' morality has rarely advanced beyond the notion that it is unforgivable to rat on somebody else. The few kids who dared to go against these boys were punished with social exclusion and were physically threatened.)

Do you wonder that these boys thought they could do anything, and never be called on it? They never had been in their entire lives, so they just continued, getting a little more outrageous all the time. They became intrigued with the notion of making their own private little porn film, so two of the boys enticed Leslie into the basement of their home, promising her that the boy she had a crush on would date her. The basement was set up like a stage, with chairs around so other guys could watch while they stuck a broom handle and a full sized baseball bat into Leslie.

Did they know it was wrong? How could they not have? At least 6 of the 15 or so boys who were there at first left. They didn't tell, and they didn't testify, but at least they refused to be part of it. And when the police finally came to question the boys about the rape, none of them were convinced enough of their rightness to admit it. Instead, they all claimed that it was Leslie's idea, that Leslie had stuck the broom handle and baseball bat into herself, that she had in fact ASKED one of the boys to help her do it--an idea that could only be believed by those who have never undergone a gynecological exam.

They were shocked when they were arrested, shocked when they were found guilty. For the first time in their lives they had been officially told that they had done something awful, something beyond the bounds of civilized society. For the first time, they were going to be punished.

Except they weren't. Their case was immediately appealed, and the judge saw no reason why "good boys" should have their lives disrupted while the appeal process went on. They were released on bail. All of them. Even the one the judge KNEW had been accused of another rape. When Leslie walks down the street in her home town these days, she has a pretty good chance of seeing the boys who did this to her. Failure number four.

When grownups fail to act like grownups, when they decline to teach children what is not permissible, they turn children into monsters who will go forth and prey on society. The grownups failed Leslie. They created the monsters. They let her be victimized by the monsters. And then, in order to free the monsters, they hired lawyers to say it was Leslie's own fault that she was victimized.

But the grownups failed these boys, too. They were not born monsters. It is possible, even likely, that they don't want to be monsters. They were allowed to become monsters by irresponsible adults--parents, teachers, lawyers, judges--who shunted off their primary responsibility: passing on civilization. Which means teaching children to repress their ugly impulses, teaching them to care about other people's feelings, teaching them that they will be held accountable for their actions.

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