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Play tackles child sexual abuse

"Love Jerry"

Maiken Scott, whyy.org/cms/news, June 16th, 2010

When it comes to sex offenders targeting children, the phrase "lock them up and throw away the key" sums up how many people feel. A play now running in Philadelphia takes a different tack: It delves into the family life and feelings of one pedophile. The play has stirred some controversy, as Maiken Scott reports from WHYY's Behavioral Health desk. 

We think of them as the scary man in the park, the stranger offering candy, the terrifying face on a sex offender registry. But who are pedophiles, really?

Chris Kirchner from the Philadelphia Children's Alliance [ http://www.philachildrensalliance.org/ ] says the answer is often much closer to home. Kirchner:

"Almost all of the cases, the largest percentage of cases that we see the child knows the alleged offender, and it's often a family member: a parent an uncle and aunt, it could be a sibling;  about a quarter of cases that we see involve a juvenile offenders."

A new production called "Love Jerry" by the "Nice People Theater Company" takes audiences inside a family torn apart by child sexual abuse.

When Mike, his wife, Kate, and their 8 year old son Andy move in with Mike's brother Jerry, everybody seems happy. Jerry: 

"A toast to my stupid brother, his gorgeous wife, and my beautiful nephew Andy, who looks just like me."

But the good vibe does not last. 

Jerry, who is shy and isolated, was sexually abused by his uncle as a child, and is sexually attracted to children. He is ultimately caught abusing Andy. His brother Mike must now decide if he will try to help Jerry as he undergoes treatment. 

Mike: "He is my brother, Kate: Andy is your son! He's got nobody else in his life." 
Kate: "Yes, but you do, and if you stand by him, you'll be betraying us."

The play takes audiences uncomfortably close to the predator, inviting compassion while making clear that his acts are appalling. After reading the play, co-artistic director of the Nice People Theater Company, Miriam White, had mixed reactions. 

White: "I think we were 75 percent excited and 25 percent terrified."

"Excited," says White about the play's depth and humanity, "but terrified of touching a taboo."

White and other staff say reactions have been mostly positive.

There's been criticism, including in an article in the Inquirer, that the play humanizes pedophiles too much, and asks audiences for sympathy were none is due.

Playwright Megan Gogerty says her intention in writing "Love Jerry" was not to make excuses for pedophiles, but rather to open up a conversation, and dispel dangerous myths. 

Gogerty: "By not being honest and face the facts about this issue and who these people are, by painting them as monsters and boogie-men rather than flesh and blood people, it feeds into this cycle of denial that allows us to close our eyes to something that is uncomfortable, which in my view makes children less safe."

Dr. Barry Zakireh of the Joseph J. Peters Institute in Philadelphia treats pedophiles. He says another myth is that these sexual predators inevitably will offend again and again. 

Zakireh: "The rates of recidivism are far lower than commonly believed or stated in the media, so I think there is a huge misconception about how often people with sexual offenses re-offend."

Zakireh says up to 25 percent of child sexual offenders commit abuse again. He also says that treatment, usually a mixture of individual and group therapy, is effective for the majority of offenders - especially in getting them to monitor and control their behaviors.

Family ties and social support are crucial for treatment to succeed, says Zakireh. But that's what many pedophiles lack - even before their offense. 

Zakireh: "So once they are caught, I think you can imagine, they lose friends, they lose family, and in a very rapid way they lose all of the social support that they might have had even in a limited way, and that has a tremendous impact on them, negatively."

The title of the play, "Love Jerry," is meant as a question. Watching the play, you find yourself grappling with the choice faced by Jerry's brother Mike. Could feel compassion for a sex offender, or even provide support.

One Comment

Erica S. says: June 16, 2010 

Kudos to WHYY for this thoughtful, well-researched story.

While I appreciate that this story focuses on the important and complicated issues of the play, I feel compelled to also mention the incredibly effective artistic merits of this production. 

The performances from the cast are nuanced, subtle, specific, honest and full of emotional depth and integrity. 
The set is evocative and supportive of the ideas in the play without ever slipping too far into metaphor. 
The lights and costumes are so intelligently and effectively integrated into the emotional journey of the piece, that you might not notice them until you are left wondering how you got quite so caught up in the story. 
The orchestration is at turns spare and lush, always supportive of the emotional turning point, confession, or exploration happening in each song.
The direction is a brilliant mix of delicate emotional builds, and brave movement-based choices, all of which made me feel as an audience member that while it was going to be a bumpy emotional ride, I was in good hands with this artistic team.

Basically, this play is absolutely worth seeing if you are interested or invested in the subject matter as described above. It is equally worth seeing if you just want to experience an exceptional night at the theatre.

One thought: It will not not serve you as an audience member to go into this piece looking for 'the voice of the playwright' or even, necessarily, the 'message of the play'. One of the strengths of the writing in the play is that each character is unflinchingly, unfailingly themselves - consistent in their own delusions, denials, self-doubt, and belief systems.

When Kate sings about her own "failings" as a mother for not stopping the abuse sooner, is the play saying she's a bad mother? Of course not. It's giving that character a space to express the (taboo) feelings that a mother might feel, but be afraid to express in that situation. 

When "Clowny" (whose name and costume clearly reinforce that we are not meant to identify with him) reads a manifesto absolving himself of wrong doing, is the play "apologizing" for pedophiles? Obviously not. It's shining a light on a hidden and all-too real underworld in which sick people delude themselves into believing they are not hurting anyone. The play is a portrait of a family and a situation, complete with the flaws, confusions, delusions, questions, and tangled up loyalties present in this far too common scenario.

Likewise, when those in the play who have suffered abuse explore the complex and troubling feelings they felt for their abusers, the play is on no way 'blaming the victim' - it is instead pointing out that sexual abuse is not only a physical abuse, but an abuse of trust, of intimacy, and of innocence.

Though some reviewers have noted that the absence of a physical child on stage turns the child, his pain, and by extension all victims of abuse into an 'abstraction', I would heartily argue that we see plenty of victims in this play. 

Mike and Jerry are that child, and all the various ways in which that pain can grow, harden, flourish, and consume. If the 'present absence' of the child turns him into an abstraction for anyone, it not for us as an audience. It is for Jerry who has turned the child into a representation of intimacy, desire, and conquest that the child is an abstraction rather than a person.

Finally (yikes - this comment got much longer that I'd planned!) I think that while all the attention focused on the issue of a support network as a key component of treatment and decreased recidivism for abusers is worth discussing, I ultimately feel that this is not Jerry's play. This story is Mike's - the brother who must answer the entreaty posed by the title. And his final decision of whether or not he can "Love Jerry" is not so much about Jerry's healing, but about Mike's own.

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