This is Mitchell Gaff. Mitch lives in a special place. A facility the state of Washington created for sexual predators. Mitch’s therapists think there’s a chance that Mitch won’t go raping again next time he has the opportunity. Which is a good thing. Because, soon, Mitch and the thirty men who live with him are getting out.
The Rapist Says He’s Sorry
By Tom Junod
The first thing that strikes you about Mitch Gaff is his voice. The voice is not merely soft, not merely sincere, not merely considerate, not merely kind—it is the essence of softness, sincerity, consideration and kindness. It is the kind of voice that seems incapable of telling a lie, mustering aggression or even allowing itself the freedom of an insult. It is the kind of voice that begs you to trust it, that pleads with you to trust it, and if you heard it on the street, or in a bar, you would trust it, immediately. It is the voice of the nicest guy you’ve ever met. It is a voice Mitch Gaff has put together—has devised and constructed—with great care, great courage, great effort, and at the cost of great pain, and that is why he is horrified and heartbroken when he opens his thoughtful mouth, starts speaking in his thoughtful syllables and scares the living hell out of people.
This is a story about how hard it is to be good—or, rather, how hard it is to be good once you’ve been bad; how hard it is to be fixed once you’ve been broken; how hard it is to be straight once you’ve been bent. It is about a scary man who is trying very hard not to be scary anymore and yet who still manages to scare not only the people who have good reason to be afraid of him but even occasionally himself. It is about sex, and how little we know about its mysteries; about the human heart, and how futilely we have responded—with silence, with therapy, with the law and even with the sacred Constitution—to its dark challenge. It is about what happens when we, as a society, no longer trust our futile responses and admit that we have no idea what to do with a guy like Mitchell Gaff.
Who is Mitchell Gaff? Well, he is that which, at this moment in our history, frightens us the most—about ourselves, and about our democracy’s ability to contain what is worst in us. Mitch is a sex offender, but not only a sex offender; he is a rapist, but not only a rapist. He is, in the words of a law written in 1990 by the Washington state legislature, “a sexual predator”—that is, someone who “suffers from a mental abnormality or personality disorder which makes [him] likely to engage in predatory acts of sexual violence if not confined in a secure facility.” Now, never mind for the moment that this law created a category of mental illness unrecognized by modern psychiatry, and that it did so for the purpose of enabling the state to achieve in the name of mercy what it couldn’t in the name of justice: the removal of men like Mitchell Gaff from the face of the earth. What’s important to know right now is that Mitch Gaff is or has been a human being who hurts other human beings for sexual pleasure: not out of need, not to gain the dire exigencies of food, shelter, money, transportation and status, but out of want—because he likes it. It’s the wanting that scares us the most, of course, because of what we know about our own wanting—that it rises from someplace deep within us, that it is immune to intention and that it doesn’t just go away. We want Mitch to go away. It hardly matters that he has done his time; that he has, in that quaint old phrase, “paid his debt to society”; and that his continued incarceration is probably unconstitutional. We want him to go away for as long as his wanting lasts, and that’s why the state of Washington invented something called the Special Commitment Center.
It is late afternoon, and Mitch Gaff is giving an interview in an empty room. He is just beginning to talk when there is a knock at the door, and a longhaired man wearing a knit Rasta cap and a tie-dyed T-shirt and the identification tag of a state worker asks him to move, because some other men want the use of this room, the room with the coffee and the computers and the paperbacks and the big, merry pool balls painted on the walls. “That’s fine,” Mitch says, “but why didn’t they ask me themselves?” He gets up and walks out into the hallway, where he sees one of the men, a serial rapist named Joe Aqui. “I think you’re having trouble expressing your feelings, Joe,” Mitch says. “You know, sex offenders have a lot of trouble with confrontation, and you should watch out for that.” Mitch moves to another room, a concrete cave that serves as an indoor basketball court, and starts talking again. Then there is another knock on the door, and it is Joe Aqui, agitated and stiff. He says, “I just want to tell you, Mitch, I did confront you. I did express my feelings.”
“Joe, I’m doing an interview now,” says Mitch. “We’ll have to process this in group.”
This is the Special Commitment Center, in Monroe, the “secure facility” envisioned by the Washington state legislature in its Sexually Violent Predator Law; the prison that is not a prison, because its guards are not guards, but rather “psychiatric security attendants” who can wear knit caps and tie-dyed T-shirts instead of uniforms; the hospital that is not a hospital, because its fondest wish for its patients is that they never get out. A slant-roofed bunker anchored in the earth like a tree stump and circled by endless fanged coils of razor wire, the SCC presently houses thirty-one men, and each of them, like Mitch Gaff, has the distinction of being what newspaper writers like to call “the worst of the worst”—men who have managed to emerge from the thousands of sex offenders under the supervision of the Washington prison system to become candidates for social experimentation.
How did Mitch thus distinguish himself? In 1984 he raped two sisters, ages 16 and 14, with a savagery at once gluttonous and patient. He did seven years in the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla and then twenty-eight months in the Sexual Offender Treatment Program at the Twin Rivers Corrections Center, in Monroe. He completed treatment; he, indeed, excelled at treatment. And then, on the day he was scheduled to go free, he was identified as a candidate for commitment, and detained. Five months later, he received a hearing, lost and was then remanded to the SCC for an incarcerative experience intended to last between one year and the rest of his life. He was offered the opportunity to receive further treatment because, in order for the SCC to exist—in order for it to preventively detain rapists and child molesters in the face of constitutional constraints on preventive detention—it has to provide what its administrators like to call a “therapeutic setting,” and funnel its punitive intent through the language of benevolence. It’s as if our society so prides itself on its compassion that we can’t come right out and say we’re just going to lock up people like Mitch Gaff forever. No, we have to say we’re going to help them forever. And if helping them requires locking them up, that’s OK, just so long as we can do it endlessly, just so long as we can keep helping them for the rest of their miserable earthly lives, until, finally, God gets his crack at them.
Of course, what makes Mitch Gaff interesting—what makes him, in fact, a rather heartrending test of the intractability of human nature—is that he believes he can be helped, that if he just applies himself he can be, in his word, OK. “I am not what I’ve done,” he says, again and again. “I have to believe that I can be OK. If I am what I’ve done, why do therapy? Why do therapy if I’m not OK—if I can never be OK? What’s the point?” He has chosen to remain in therapy, then, in the hope that evil is a behavior, like smoking, rather than a condition, like height; that he is not an evil man, but rather a man who has done evil, and who can be taught not to do it again. From the very start of his therapy, in 1992, he has pursued this hope with the same devotional fervor that once fueled his deviance. “That’s a personality thing with Mitch,” says one of his therapists from Twin Rivers, “but I’d rather have him obsess about treatment than obsess about little girls.” He has made himself over into an invention of the therapeutic process—the Therapeutic Man. He has been relentless in his quest to find some good in himself, and one day, toward the end of his time at Twin Rivers, he says he found what he was looking for: “A giant cog turned inside me, and I was like, ‘Yeah! I got it!’ It wasn’t, ‘Oh, I hope I never rape again.’ It was, ‘I know what to do now so that I don’t rape anymore.’”
So—do we believe him? Does anyone believe him? Is he, in the words of one of his victims from 1984, “just a dirty man who did a horrible thing”? Is he, in the words of his victim from 1979, “a bad seed, defective, a mistake”? Is he, in the words of Paul Stern, the Snohomish County prosecutor who argued the case for Mitch’s commitment, “bright, articulate—and one of the most dangerous sex offenders I’ve come across”? Is he, in the words of Arthur Gordon, who directs the treatment program at Twin Rivers, “a risk that can be managed” in the community? Is he, in the words of Margaret Moore, a facilitator in the Quaker Church-run prison program called Alternatives to Violence Project, “on his way to becoming a very good person—with a level of integrity higher than the rest of us”? Is he, in the words of his mother, back to being “the way he used to be … with a stability and a strength that would many any mother pleased”?
The fact is, we don’t know the answer to any of these questions, and we won’t know until Mitch gets out. Hell, we wouldn’t have to bother with any of these questions if we knew that the Special Commitment Center could just do its job and hold Mitch until his wanting goes away … until he gets old, and his testicles shrink, and his dick dangles and the blue surge between his legs disappears. As it turns out, though, Mitch’s wanting is going to outlast our ability to contain it. As it turns out, a judge on the federal bench in Seattle, John Coughenour, ruled the Special Commitment Center and the law that created it comprehensively unconstitutional on August 25, 1995. As it turns out, there are inmates in the SCC who have packed their bags and are just waiting around for the day Washington State loses its last appeal and they can be set free. As it turns out, what will stand between us and Mitch then is not a sunken stand of concrete and steel and razor wire, but rather what he has found in his own heart—and that is why, on the day of Coughenour’s ruling, he didn’t celebrate or pack his bags, but rather went back to his cell, to cry and then to pray.
Mitch Gaff is 37 years old. He is short, around five feet six, with small white hands and small narrow feet. He is barrel-chested and wears muscle tees under his shirts. He is thickening in the thighs and hips, in an almost womanly way, and his pants are often tight. He wears, in his left earlobe, a small hoop earring. He has a jaunty walk, and he is in the habit of tossing his hair over his shoulder—hair that is long and shiny and has the look of hair brushed one hundred strokes a day. Mitch is proud of his hair, and proud of his appearance in general. He is the sharpest dresser in the Special Commitment Center, with a penchant for wearing Ultrasuede blazers and pinstriped vests and silver tips on his shirt collars. He keeps his mustache neatly trimmed and has grown a graying beard over his uncertain chin. He has reddish cheeks and a reddish nose. There is a faint pink stain of psoriasis between his eyebrows. His eyes are deep set and dark gray, at once kind and fathomless, with pupils that present themselves as inklings of a greater darkness. His brow is often crooked with quizzical concern, and when his face and eyes are red from crying—as they often are—he has the look of a put-upon cartoon character. He has changed his appearance many times in the course of his life, and when he is released from the Special Commitment Center he will probably change it again: he will probably cut his hair and shave his beard so that people who might recognize him from photographs will recognize him no more.
He is—if you accept for the moment the popular but rather hopeful notion that the thirty-one men incarcerated in the SCC are the thirty-one worst examples of depraved humanity in the entire state of Washington—the best of the worst. He lives in segregated privilege on Tier One, along with the five other inmates who have accepted the state’s offer of treatment, and away from the twenty-five inmates who have declined it. He is the only inmate in the whole population of the SCC who has undertaken and completed the state’s treatment program at Twin Rivers, and for this reason, he says, when he first arrived at the SCC, “I said to a counselor, ‘Why am I here? I feel like I have a master’s in therapy, and I’m here in the seventh grade.’ The counselor said, ‘Don’t sell yourself short. You have a Ph.D. You’ve got it. You’re screwed down tight. We just have to screw a few bolts down tighter.’” Group therapy? Mitch has done it. Drama therapy? Mitch has done it. Role-playing? Mitch has done it. Hell, he’s done it all; he’s done everything—he’s read all the books, he’s taken all the courses, he’s studied Stress Management and Anger Management and Family Dynamics and Human Sexuality and Victim Empathy and Understanding Sexual Assault and Understanding Co-Dependency and Relapse Prevention I, II and III … He’s opened his heart like a freaking sardine can; there’s nothing he can say that he hasn’t said before …
And yet he stays at it. He stays at it becomes he sometimes consoles himself with the notion that he has been called to the SCC to teach someone, to help someone, maybe an inmate who is struggling, who is now where Mitch was a couple of years ago. He stays at it because he sometimes allows himself to dream that he will leave the SCC by the virtues of his own merit—by virtue of what’s inside his heart rather than what’s inside his lawyer’s appeal. And he stays at it, most of all, because really, in the end, he has no choice—therapy is just what he does. It’s his life, it’s his religion, and he’s addicted to it, the process and the promise and the possibility of improvement. He participates in not one, not two, but five 12-step programs. He says the serenity prayer, over and over, all day long. He is a vegetarian. He does Tai Chi in the morning and meditates in the afternoon. He keeps a shoe box of sacred Native American sage and sweet grass and feathers, although he is not in fact Native American, but rather full-blooded Irish. He can quote Carl Jung, Albert Ellis, Fritz Perls, Kahlil Gibran, John Bradshaw and The Celestine Prophecy; and he can recite, from memory, the poems he has written: “A man of thought/Not ape of society….” He watches Ghandi on his VCR. He’s the SCC’s facilitator for the Alternatives to Violence program. He plays classical music on his boom box instead of the aggressive rock and roll—Aerosmith, especially, with that song “Big Ten Inch Record”—that made the monster inside him start to dance; and when he is not playing the music for himself, he is playing it for the benefit of the lonely orange marigold propped in the niggardly slot that serves as his window. Improved? No, Mitch Gaff is not merely improved. He is the Most Improved Man in America, and even now, if you visit him at midnight, you’ll find him at it again, improving himself in the dark, in the quiet, behind the sealed steel door, in his sliver of a cell; you’ll find him in his bunk, near the decal the pleads RENEW ME and under the marigold, improving himself by jerking off.
“How do I show you something as intangible as my heart?” Mitch says. “How do I give you evidence of my future? How do I show you what I think about when I lay in bed, compared to what I need to think about?”
Of course, we know what he used to think about, because he was a sexual predator, and as is the case with virtually all sexual predators, what he thought about became what he jerked off to, and what he jerked off to became what he did. From the start, Mitch jerked off to “very, very bad fantasies, very bad stuff,” mostly involving the anal rape of teenage girls, and before long he was jerking off six or seven or eight times a day.
OK, then—what does he think of now, now that he is determined to convert the lonely ritual of self-abuse to the cause of becoming a better person? He thinks of the woman who waits for him. Who is this woman? Well, she doesn’t exist, not yet, but she is out there, somewhere, the phantom who will help him dodge his shadows, and he will know her when he sees her, because she has certain characteristics. She is around 35, for one thing, because she has to be, because she can be no more than five years younger or five years older than he is, or else she would be … inappropriate, and he would not be allowed to love her. She has dark hair, because Mitch was one fixated on blondes, and it was his fixation on blondes that helped lead to his crime, and so he dreams now of dark hair as an exercise in restraint. She has a sweet ass, because, well, a sweet ass is what Mitch likes, what he has always liked, the decree of his history. He just has to be careful not to like her sweet ass too much, because that would be “body-parting” her, that would be “objectifying” her, and such practices are, for Mitch, “high risk”—that is, they can start the cycle of thought that winds its way to rape. No, this woman is not just a sweet ass to him, and when he comes home, after a hard day at work, he makes sure to ask about her day, so that he recognizes her “personhood.” They eat dinner together, and after dinner Mitch helps with the dishes. And it is there, over the sink, that their hands touch and there is, between them, a soapy spark. “I would like to make love to you,” Mitch says, and then waits for her explicit verbal consent before taking her into the bedroom, to find ecstasy in the appropriate and passion in the permissible, with no anal sex (high risk, for Mitch), no bondage (very high risk) and no participation in ménage a trois with an imaginary buddy (off the freaking scale of risk), just a lot of sharing, ending in the satisfaction of mutual needs—sex that corresponds to the candied acronym CERTS, sex that is Consensual, Equal, Respectful, Trusting and Safe.
How do we know? How do we know whom Mitch dreams of when he’s jerking off, and what he dreams of doing with her? Well, because he’s telling us. Because he has to tell us. Because there’s a tape recorder next to his bed, and its wheels are turning, and there’s a microphone next to his pillow, and it picks up his every word. Because for a phase of treatment known as Sexual Arousal Modification (SAM), Mitch has to narrate his fantasy. And even after he ejaculates, he can’t go silent; he has to talk about the afterplay, all the cuddling, snuggling, laughing and love. Because, in the morning, he has to turn the tape over to his therapist, who has to listen to it and then provide instruction and comment, three times a week for twenty weeks, until Mitch has made sixty tapes, one side given over to what is appropriate, the other given over to his deviance …
His deviance, yes. That’s why he has to ejaculate on the first side, make sure that ejaculation has tendered him resistant to arousal, because on the second side he has to explore his crime, and the desires that led to it, and he can’t tempt himself. You see, it’s always there, his potential for getting off on what he used to get off on. And that’s why he’s grateful for his orgasm with the woman who waits for him, because it makes him safe, it makes him immune to arousal when he flips over the tape and ties a bandanna around his eyes in preparation for sleep and goes back to the home he entered eleven years ago and listens again to the sound of his old voice, his native tongue: I’ve seen the way you walk down the street, wiggling your little ass … I came for you, but then I saw that little treasure on the couch and I couldn’t resist … You like big cocks, don’t you? Say it; say you like this big cock …
Mitch does not have a big cock. He has, by his own estimation, an average-sized cock, middling. For a long time, however, he was obsessed by the notion that he had an abnormally small cock, and so, to compensate, he bought a pink plastic dildo in a Seattle sex shop, ten inches long and nearly three inches across—“nothing excessive,” he says now, at least “in the context of dildos,” at least compared to what he could have gotten. The dildo became his friend—“my surrogate.” He used it on a girlfriend and on the woman he married. He used it on himself—anally—while he masturbated, a practice that now shames him more than any of his crimes. He stuffed it in his pants, when he wasn’t stuffing his pants with socks; he exposed it to women on the street, as though it were his own; he made obscene phone calls and told women what he was going to do to them, all the terrible things that could be accomplished with his outlandish manhood.
The first time he got caught trying to use the dildo in the commission of rape was 1979. Mitch was 21. The day before Thanksgiving, he hid in the garage of a woman named Jackie and sprang on her when she was putting away her lawn mower. He had a gun, a knife and a duffel bag. He beat her, pistol-whipped her and slashed her across the palm with his knife. She fought back, and because she was in law enforcement, she knew how to fight dirty, and she bowled him over and ran into the street. The police put a dog on Mitch’s trail, and the dog found the duffel bag stashed in an abandoned house. The bag contained the dildo, a pig mask, black gloves, some duct tape and the clothes that Mitch had worn during the attack. When the police picked him up, he had so thoroughly changed his appearance that Jackie had to identify him by the sound of his voice.
He served some time in the Snohomish County Jail and then was sentenced to five years of probation and put on work release. He also bought another ten-inch dildo, and he had it in his pocket when he was walking around a working-class neighborhood of Everett in the early-morning hours of August 28, 1984. Did he go to the neighborhood with predatory intent? Well, as one of Mitch’s therapists from Twin Rivers says, “You don’t put a dildo in your pocket to shoot pool.” Mitch, though, is careful to present the rapes as an instance of improvisation and opportunity. Indeed, as Mitch sits at a table at the Special Commitment Center, making what he calls his “disclosure,” there is a dreamlike quality to his recollection of his crime, and even when his eyes turn red and blurry with the rise of his tears, there is in his voice a strange and patient reverence for the way things happened, and there is in hi words the force of some dreadful conjury.
“As I walk along, each house is exactly identical to the last and there’s no difference between them…. I get to the end of the street … and right here on the corner is a house that’s the antithesis of the rest. It’s larger; it’s light blue with white trim, sitting in the middle of the yard…. I look in…. The television is on, and it seems to me like Johnny Carson is on or something like that…. I lean way over and I see a couch and blonde female under the blanket. The blonde hair is an immediate signal for me. Its what we would call a shopping list. Any sex offender has to some degree a shopping list of the perfect items…. If you were going to buy a car, you would have a specific shopping list of what your needs are, right?… Well, blonde hair is pretty high on the top of my list…. I open the screen door…. I really take my time opening the door. I spent so much time and so much patience turning the door handle that if you were watching me from inside you wouldn’t know it was moving…. I went into the kitchen and I look into the refrigerator for a beer and there’s nothing in there. If I had a beer, I might have been happy with taking a drink of beer and leaving…. I opened a drawer and pulled out a steak knife, a small serrated steak knife…. Now I’m a little more directed towards what I’m thinking I’m going to do…. I walk back into the hall and I see the phone cord on the wall…. So I unhook it and wrap the cord up…. Then I come up behind the girl on the couch and I place the knife against her throat and my hand over her mouth…. I gagged her, blindfolded her and hog-tied her. Feeling that she was secured, I got up and went to the end of the hall, because there was a shut door there and I wanted to know who was behind it…. I found another female asleep in the bedroom. A brunette. I did the same thing to her…. I put a knife to her throat, threatened to kill her….”
The two females were sisters. The blonde on the couch, Angela, was 14. The brunette in the bedroom, Myra, was 16. Their mother was sleeping downstairs, in the basement. She never woke up, and Mitchell stayed with her daughters for two and a half hours, after stuffing socks in their mouths and putting pillowcases over their heads. In his words, in the language of the Therapeutic Man: “I went to the bathroom; I found a jar of Vaseline or something and I cut [Angela’s] clothes off and I raped her orally, with my mouth, and digitally, with my fingers. I raped her with my penis, and I raped her with the dildo, vaginally and anally. The girl on the bed, much the same. I don’t know if I raped her with the dildo. I’m not positive; I’m a little vague.”
The dildo, during the attack, was Mitch’s silent partner. At one point, he tried to make the girls believe that he had an accomplice, so he started talking to the dildo, enviously commending its size. You’re too big for her, man, the girls remembered him saying. I don’t know if she can handle you. Let me try…
How does it get there? How does something like that—a fixation with dildos and anal rape—become one’s sexual métier? Mitch says that when he was a young boy, one of his baby-sitters, a teenager, “did things” to him—that she forced him to strip and inserted various and sundry objects into his anus, among them, a marble, a penny and a buttonhook. Did that do it? Did that make him angry at women, and teenage women in particular, and establish, in his innocent libido, the anus as the seat of stimulation? He never knew his father and grew up desperate for male guidance and in awe of images of male strength and size. Does that account for the dildo? His mother, Anne, was a strong woman, a journalist, a single mother before the idea of single mothers was fashionable, or even acceptable. She moved Mitch around a lot, and although Mitch describes his mother as “very lowing and validating,” he says he never felt at home anywhere; he never felt settled. There was some pornography at the house, and when Mitch was in grade school, a teacher called Anne in for a conference, because Mitch had cut all the breasts from the pictures in the Playboy magazines she kept under her bed and was selling the disembodied mammaries around school for a penny a pair. Was Anne upset? Did she think that maybe her son’s behavior was somehow unnatural? No, she says—she thought it was kind of cute and showed an enterprising spirit. Indeed, as Mitch says, “a lot of this early-childhood stuff is not atypical; it’s normal enough. It’s the fact that ‘Well, God, later on you raped,’ and then it all seems to become significant…. I think, ultimately, you can look at a guy who’s never raped, and he might have a past almost identical to mine. And what it comes down to is, I chose to step off on another path.”
In fact, we will never know precisely what accounts for the toxic calamity of Mitch’s desire, and according to John Money, a professor emeritus of medical psychology and pediatrics at Johns Hopkins who has been studying sexual abnormalities since the 1930s, “the real issue is not how it got there, but rather, once it is there, is it immutable or can it be changed?” Money says that the best analogy is that of language: “you didn’t have it when you were born, but it’s there now, and it’s there with pretty strong cement.”
How strong? Well, for a long time, therapists depending on shocking the wanting out of guys like Mitch. They would show the offender pictures of deviant acts or read him stories of deviant adventure, and then, when a mercury-filled noose around his penis betrayed his arousal, they would zap him, or break a cap of ammonia under his nose, or give him a whiff of potion vile enough to make him retch. A lot of people liked this idea—even strangely, many offenders—because it was so tidily undemocratic, because it promised to relieve offenders of the burden of freedom, the weight of choice, by squeezing their deviance out of them. Too bad it didn’t work, and doesn’t work; too bad that the imprint of orientation—of what one likes—is indelible; too bad that if you’re going to treat Mitch Gaff, you’re going to have to assume that some little part of his self or soul will always perk up at the prospect of sodomy, and that instead of eradicating his desire, you’re going to have to show him how to live with it.
“For Mitch to say that he doesn’t like anal sex anymore, that would be like Oprah Winfrey saying that she doesn’t like sweet-potato pie anymore,” says Gerry Hover, one of Mitch’s psychologists from Twin Rivers. “Now, Oprah Winfrey may say she’s not going to eat sweet-potato pie anymore, but she can never say that she doesn’t like it.”
Can a sex offender be cured? No, no more than an alcoholic can be cured. Can a sex offender be treated? Yes, just like an alcoholic can be treated, with a “treatment modality” known as cognitive behaviorism. Oh sure, there may always be a place in Mitch Gaff that has the capability to inspire sexual violence, but in therapy he can learn how to avoid going there; he can learn the techniques of “relapse prevention”; he can learn to understand his “offense cycle,” and to avoid the kinds of thoughts and dreams and behaviors that place him at risk of offending again; he can learn to “self-intervene,” to police himself, with the tools and skills that his therapists have provided him, to be the cop in his own head, ever vigilant….
And still, the moment he’s back on the streets and feels the old pull and the old surge and the old thrill, he can tell the cop to fuck off. He will have that choice. You see, that is what we must understand about treatment; that is what we must accept—that there are no guarantees, that the choice is always with the offenders, and if they want to rape you, they can rape you; they have that freedom, and that is the source of their power.
On October 10, 1994, Mitch Gaff was supposed to walk through the steel doors of the Twin Rivers Corrections Center a free man. He had done his time, he had gotten his treatment, and now his mother was waiting for him, and they were going to get in her car, drive south and walk the beaches of California, together again, Anne and her little “Mickle”….
Mitch never made it, of course. The state didn’t set him free, because it didn’t have to set him free, and it didn’t have to set him free because, in 1989, a sex offender named Westley Allan Dodd exercised his choice about what he learned in six years of outpatient treatment programs, and he chose to slaughter two young brothers for the sexual thrill and then rape and torture a 4-year-old boy over the course of two days before finally hanging the child in his closet like a trophy. A few months later, in response to the horror of Wes Dodd and the horror of a pedophile named Earl Shriner—who upon his release from Walla Walla promptly raped a 7-year-old boy and cut off his penis—the Washington state legislature, as if to concede sexual predators their snaky power, seized a measure of power for itself and passed, as part of the 1990 Community Protection Act, the Sexually Violent Predator Law.
So…therapists couldn’t guarantee that treatment worked, and that men like Mitch Gaff wouldn’t rape again? Well, the legislature could remedy that, by God, and so it was that one the day of his scheduled release, Mitch Gaff was sent on his way not to the beaches of California but rather to the Special Commitment Center—the one treatment program guaranteed to work, because it had permission to work on him for the rest of his life.
Mitch went “numb,” he says—he went blank, and he doesn’t even remember his mother kissing him good-bye and telling him, with an indulgence of the family weakness for quotation, “What doesn’t destroy you makes you stronger.” Mitchell Gaff, committed? How could that be? He was one of the leaders, one of the models, one of the stars of the treatment program at Twin Rivers, and indeed, when word spread to the inmates about what had happened, “the response,” says Gerry Hover, “was electric. Everybody got very agitated and very depressed. It was like, ‘He was the best guy here. If Mitch can’t make it, I can’t make it.’”
He received his commitment hearing five months later, in front of a jury, in a courtroom filled with people—mostly civilian participants in the Alternatives to Violence program—there to support him. “I rushed my commitment hearing,” Mitch says, “because I believed, honest to God, that who I was would show and what I did would mean something. It didn’t. And I was devastated.”
He never had a chance, even though he testified in his own behalf, in his beautiful, considerate voice…even though he told the jury about his treatment, and about the cog that had turned…even though he listed his high-risk behaviors and his interventions…even though he would be given support and supervision once in the community…even though he wept, freely and copiously. He didn’t have a chance, because, in the end, Paul Stern, the prosecutor who made the case for commitment, knew that all he had to do was put Myra and Angela on the stand, and then ask the jury to consider the risk if Mitch Gaff—with is rows of supporters, with is talent for making people believe in him, with his determination to look so good, to do everything so right, all the time—happened to be lying.
He keeps everything in a cardboard box—his journals, his poems, his sexual autobiography, the cards and letters he’s received, his workbooks from the program at Twin Rivers: everything he brought to his hearing in the hope of making the jury believe him—and he lugs it around the Special Commitment Center, doggedly, as though carrying the blueprints for a new soul. He plops the box down on a table set up in the makeshift concrete basketball court, pulls some handwritten sheets of paper from a manila folder and begins to read aloud: “Myra. My name is Mitchell Gaff, and I’m writing this letter to ask your permission if I may talk to you about what I did and how I think I have hurt you. Of course, nobody knows for sure how you’ve been hurt except you, and I imagine that remembering who I am and what I did could be very painful for you…. You are a special and unique person, Myra, and deserved to be and to feel safe in your own home, the world in which you were loved, grew up in and played. I had no right to try and rob you of that…. By my entering your bedroom and hurting you, I tried to steal away your specialness….”
He never sent the letter. He wasn’t supposed to send it. He did not write it for Myra, but rather for himself, as part of his treatment, as an exercise in “victim empathy.” And yet now, as he reads it, his little hands start to vibrate like plucked strings, his bearded chin starts to sink to his chest, and he starts to cry. “I tried to steal your specialness…. I did not want to admit your humaneness…. I did things to you that no human being should have to endure…. When I think back to all the ways in which you resisted, I now realize how strongly you fought for yourself and your sister. You were very brave….” It is here, toward the end, when he gets to the part about Myra’s bravery, that he lets out a short scream, as though he’s been gored; it is here that he crumples, that he finally gives himself over to his sobbing, that he starts blubbering and shuddering and keening, his tears crossing his face like rain on a windshield, his red nose an engine of squealing breath. He finishes the letter—with the sentence “I hope to never create another victim”—and with a final strangulated howl, he pushes it away and stands up, wiping his eyes with a folded tissue, staggering around in his tight white pants and speaking between gasps of air:
“I would do anything to take away this hurt, but this is how I want to feel when I think about it. I hope I always feel this way. I believe the fact that I can feel this way says something—means something—about me…. If I could have felt this way then, I never would have done it.”
Mitch believes in his tears. He believes in their power, he believes in their meaning, he believes that they can purchase something—expiation or mercy or at least understanding. When he was an infant, you see, he couldn’t cry, and his mother used to listen to his dry whimpers and wonder if there was something wrong with her son. He always thought that he would lose something if he cried, until he got to Twin Rivers, and a therapist asked him to “describe your monster,” and Mitch described this glowering cowled figure with red eyes … until he realized that someone was behind the monster, and that it was the little boy who had been victimized by the baby-sitter—it was “Mickle.” It became clear that the monster all along was just trying to protect him, to help him, but didn’t know how, so had done hurtful things instead…. “From that moment on, I cried harder than I had ever cried,” Mitch says, “because the monster had gone away, and I had never thanked him; I had never mourned his passing….”
Do you know what the monster did, the monster whom Mitch has thanked, whom Mitch has mourned, whom Mitch has dignified with his tears? Do you know what the monster did to Angela and Myra, because he just wanted to “help” that poor little five-year-old boy? Well, he beat the living shit out of Myra, for one thing, because he didn’t like Myra, he wasn’t attracted to Myra, and so he punished her. No, the monster liked Angela, and called her his “little treasure,” because she was small and golden, and she was on the monster’s shopping list. Indeed, the monster liked her so much that this is what he did to her, after he came in her face and Angela scratched the word HELP in her sister’s thigh: He pushed the ten-inch dildo into her anus, as far as it could go, and commanded her to squeeze hard and push it out of her, as though she were taking “the biggest shit of her life.” Oh, she pushed as hard as she could, Angela did, until she finally peed all over herself, and the monster god mad, and wrapped the cord of a blow-dryer around her neck and started strangling her. Myra heard her sister choking and started kicking and flailing with her one unbound leg, and the monster go so involved in beating her up that when he looked again for Angela, she was gone, she was running out the door half-naked with the blow-dryer tied around her neck. She ran to her neighbor, and the neighbor grabbed an ax, and the monster fled, with no clothes on, leaving the dildo behind, the dildo that caused an old detective to remember a case from 1979…
Angela is drinking a cup of coffee at a Denny’s outside of Seattle, five days after Judge John Coughenour deemed Washington’s Sexually Violent Predator Law unconstitutional and raised the possibility that Mitch Gaff—and maybe his monster—will be leaving the Special Commitment Center. She is small, blonde, pretty, pink faced and chunky. She is wearing a flannel shirt and khaki pants. She is 25 now. She is raising a child on her own. “Un-con-sti-tutional,” she says, with a faint and bitter smile. She struggles with the word—its pronunciation and its meaning—because Mitch Gaff took the word away from her. She was just about to enter ninth grade when he raped her, and after the attack she went to school for three months, then quit and never went back. She’s not very well versed in political science, and so her boyfriend is at the table, explaining that, according to the Constitution of the United States of America, you can’t lock a man up because you think he might commit another crime, or because he can’t prove that he won’t commit a crime. Does Angela understand? Well, yeah, of course she does, but right now what the word unconstitutional means to her is that some judge might let Mitch Gaff out, and she doesn’t understand that at all. Sure, maybe committing Mitch is unconstitutional, but the Constitution was written a long time ago, and none of the men who wrote it contemplated anybody like Mitch Gaff, or imagined anything like what Mitch Gaff did to Angela.
Does she remember that night? Some of it. She remembers the clean-shaven Mitch Gaff as “turtle faced,” and she remembers that “much of the time, he wasn’t erect.” She remembers him more, though, by what he gave her, and what he took away. Mitch gave her something? Yes, Angela says, “Mitch brought me to Christ. You see, I thought I was going to die, so I had a white light with me the whole time. I was in and out. I guess it was how I survived the pain, because the pain was unbelievable.” She still can’t feel the pain, she says, and she can’t feel anything else, either, and that’s what Mitch took away, that’s what he stole. “I’m not happy; I’m not sad,” Angela says. “I don’t look forward to anything. If I’m depressed, I eat—that’s how I feel things. I get high on sugar or I get full—and then it’s, ‘Oh boy, I feel something now.’” Hell, Angela doesn’t even allow herself the joy of raising her daughter; all she wants to do is make sure that if someone like Mitch Gaff comes to her door, she’s standing right there, with her gun, ready to put a bullet in his nose. That’s in the Constitution, too, isn’t it? The right to bear arms? Well, Angela’s armed, and when someone tries to hurt her daughter, it’s going to be Angela who stops him. “It has to be me,” she says.
There are nights, though, when she dreams that he’s coming for her daughter, and she gets her gun and “I go to shoot it, and the bullet rolls from the barrel and falls to the ground. You know, like a cartoon. Plop—just like that.”
He has said, all along—to therapists, to journalists, to lawyers, to the jury—that if he had known that they were just children, he would not have hurt them, he would not have raped them. He has said that Angela was so “well proportioned” that he thought she was an adult. He has said that when he did find out, in his cell at the Snohomish County Jail after he was arrested in 1984, he was overcome with remorse. “You would think that a rapist would have no conscience, but I did, and I was horrified,” Mitch says. He has said that it was this spasm of conscience that put him on the road to recovery, that made him determined to get better….
He’s lying, Myra says. He’s still lying, after all this time, after all these years, “to himself and to us. It wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t a miscommunication.”
No, what happened according to Myra was this: Mitch worked in a flower shop in Everett, where Myra went to buy her mother a rose. She walked home, and Mitch must have seen her; he must have seen something in her, and he selected her; he stalked her. That’s how he knew that their mother slept downstairs, in the basement, and that he could stay with them for hours, with nothing to fear. That’s why, when he first bound and gagged Myra, he said, “I see the way you wiggle your ass when you walk down the street.” That’s why he said, “I came here for you, but then I saw that little treasure on the couch and I couldn’t resist.” Well proportioned? Good God, Myra says—“Angela was just a little baby, and I had the body of a young boy….” And now Mitch Gaff is saying he’s better? No, he can’t be better, unless he tells the truth, unless he admits that he didn’t rape Myra and Angela despite the fact that they were children but because they were children, because he was a predator and they were his prey. And that’s what they believe, and will believe, for the rest of their lives.
Mitch has a daughter. She is a teenager, the child not of his ex-wife but of one of his ex-girlfriends. She came to his hearing. She calls him on the phone. When Mitch is asked if he will ever match, in his life, the excitement, the sense of consummation he found when he was raping Myra and Angela, he says that the question is one of apples and oranges: The rape was an apple, and he can never eat it again; he can only replace it with oranges, and among his oranges, he says, is the experience of coming to the phone at the Special Commitment Center and hearing his daughter’s voice saying, “Hi, Daddy!”
“When I was sitting in trial, I’d turn around and I’d see my daughter and she’d mouth, ‘I love you, Daddy.’ Man! Whew! I have never had a feeling like that in my life. If anything beats what I used to do, it’s that—because I would never exchange one for the other. I would never exchange what it felt like to rape for what it feels like when my daughter says, ‘I love you, Daddy.’”
It was his daughter he thought of when the news came that the judge had ruled the Sexually Violent Predator law unconstitutional, when some of the other inmates slapped one another five and started packing their bags, and when Mitch headed back to his cell, to be alone and to cry. He cried with happiness, of course, and with relief; he cried because he imagined hugging his daughter and mowing his mother’s lawn; and he cried, at last, with trepidation, because “getting out has some scary potential,” because he realizes that of the thirty-one men there will be at least one who will get out and rape again and molest again, and he hopes it won’t be him. Hopes? Doesn’t Mitch know? No. He will never know that he won’t rape again until he doesn’t rape again. “Four years ago, the most dangerous thing about me was that I didn’t believe that I could ever rape again,” he says. “Now I know I could, and that’s safer—admitting the possibility that we could reoffend is safer than saying we couldn’t. It’s something we learned—a form of intervention.” Then: “What is the difference between doing it and not doing it? I don’t know, except that I don’t want to do it. Is that enough? I hope so, because the alternative is unthinkable.” Then: “Is time going to give me the chance to prove myself wrong? If I had a crystal ball to the future, and if I really knew I was going to hurt someone, I’d stay here. Because that’s better than hurting anyone.” He’s weepy now, as he says this, sucking in those short, shallow breaths, struggling to go on. “On the other hand—I want to make it. I’d like to have that chance.” He sighs. “That’s what I have to grapple with. Do I trust my heart, my soul—is that enough? What if it’s not? On the other hand—do I allow myself to be incarcerated for life because I don’t know?”
He’s crying again. He’s bawling, sobbing, bleating, squealing, squeezing his fists to his eyes, letting his hair stick to the puddles on his face, suffering like some slaughtered saint. What is he crying about this time? Who knows? He cries about everything. He cries about anything. Crying is what Mitch Gaff does, you see, to test himself, to prove himself, to believe himself. One of his friends at Twin Rivers will tell you that the act of crying—the emotionalism that it represented, and the penchant for self-pity—was part of Mitch’s deviance, Mitch’s stuff, and they used to try and get him to stop doing it so much. Still… well, you’ve never seen anybody cry until you’ve seen Mitch cry, and your instinct is to reach out to him, to give him a hug, to offer him the comfort of a human hand on his shoulder… but you don’t. You don’t because of who he is, and what he’s done. He has to cry? Let him cry. He has to keen, he has to wail, he has to strangle his beautiful voice and send shrieking to Heaven? Let him sing. Because that is the song of Mitch Gaff, and he should have to sing it forever.
“The Rapist Says He’s Sorry” changed my writing, and then it changed my life. It changed my writing because before writing it I was a first-draft writer. A year before, I wrote “The Abortionist” in a week, and what I turned in was exactly what GQ ran. It didn’t have to be edited, I didn’t have to change anything, and that was my standard for success. “The Rapist” was very different. My first draft was awful, and I knew it was awful as I was writing it. It circled around its point without ever stating it, and so — without the tension of trying to say the unsayable — it was lifeless. I wasn’t being hard on myself; my editor, David Granger, thought so too. So I wrote a second draft. I wrote it very quickly, over a weekend, and I wrote it as a way of _finding_ the point, which meant that I wrote it with energy but without discipline. It was better than the first; it had life. But it was well over 20,000 words, and was unpublishable. So I wrote the third draft, with the objective of reining the second draft in. It took a five-day work week, and I handed it in on a Friday. It wasn’t great, and I knew it wasn’t great, but I thought that I’d done enough to get Granger a publishable piece. He called me on Saturday morning, and told me that the piece I handed in he couldn’t hand in to his boss (yes, Granger had a boss back then) Art Cooper on Monday. In the guise of revising it, I’d taken the life out of it. But I’d written something like 40,000 words already, and so the following conversation ensued: Me: “What are you doing this weekend? You’re probably spending it with your family, right?” Granger: “Yes, that’s right.” Me: “And you’ll probably play a little golf on Sunday morning.” Granger: “I don’t know. Maybe a little tennis.” Me: “And you’re asking me to spend my whole weekend writing a whole new fucking draft of a story I’ve already written three times.” Granger: “That’s right. And you need to get me something by Monday morning. I need something to show Art.” Fuuuuuuuccck. But I went back at it, and since I didn’t know how to fix what I’d already tried to fix, I tried the oldest trick in the book: the “this is a story of” paragraph. And damn, it worked. The story came alive as I wrote it; I was able to say what I thought I couldn’t. This was also where Granger and I got the idea — well, came to the conviction, really — that if a story is about a murder, you have to show the murder, and if a story is about a rape you have to show the rape. In this case, we showed the rape three times: first, from a responsible “journalistic” point of view — the voiceover point of view –; the second from Mitch Gaff’s; and the third, from the point of view of the victims. I had not done that in any of the previous drafts; it was a structure I arrived at the fourth time around. I always hear about the John McPhee way of writing, from index cards, or the writing workshop way of writing, from an outline. I do neither. My index cards are what I remember; my outlines are the ruins of what came before. For better and more likely for worse, I don’t know how to proceed any other way. I still try to write perfect first drafts; but in general “perfection” usually means drafts rendered lifeless by the presumption of perfection, and the constrictions of structure. So I wind up writing fast, in fear and desperation and mounting self-loathing, until the death of the story allows it to live in a form different than the form I imagined and tried to impose. This happened most recently in the story I wrote on the 11 men killed on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig; but it happened first in “The Rapist Says He’s Sorry.”