Reflections: Part 1

ReflectionA good friend, recently told me the burden of his friendship: “I reflect you back.  People don’t like that.  It makes it hard to be my friend.” (I could be paraphrasing, but I think that’s what he said).

Though I immediately understood what the words meant, I understood the man who spoke them a few days later, when the din of conversation had ended, and the fragrance of the Thai restaurant at which we met was then a pleasant memory.  He’s right, of course, not just about himself, but about the process of social reflection—real, discomforting, reflection.

You see, it’s easy to love someone who can wield the gift of social insight like a surgeon’s scalpel, applying razor perspective and understanding to our lives.  It’s liberating, like breathing free for the first time.  That’s a dizzying, euphoric feeling:  to be so immediately and completely understood, vulnerable, under a knowing gaze.  The burdensome weight of lies drops at our feet, the walls of pretense crumble.  We no longer are preoccupied first with worrying what someone one sees in us, and instead, just let them see.  I think that’s remarkably rare, and when it happens it’s a gift, the beauty of which is not in its giving, but in its taking away.  It’s easy to love that person.  It’s easy to love my friend.

But it’s hard to like the process of loving him.

You see, I carry a bag of faces with me, just like you do.  Some are beautiful and some are not, and we put them on like armor to soften our appearance in the world.  To hide, I guess.  Sometimes, we think if we wear them long enough, the contours of that face will become our own, but they never do.

I brought my bag to the Thai restaurant that day, with all my faces. It’s almost like an offering, I guess.  I held them out, “Pick one.  I can wear them all.”  My friend emptied the bag on the table between us.  He looked briefly, sipped his diet Coke, then reflected back a man without a face from the bag.  Honest.  Frightened.  “You don’t need them.”  He said.  “Not here.”  And he brushed them away.  Discarded.  That’s what loving him is like.  Exposed.  Like that dream of going to the pep fest with no pants.  And that’s why the process of loving him is hard, and that’s what he meant about the burden of his friendship.paper bag face

And so he saw me that day.  Just me.  That’s not easy to do, for any of us.  It’s uncomfortable, invasive, and penetrates the armor that we all thought was impenetrable.  So instead, we don’t see.  We look.  Briefly, superficially, and certainly without a conscience of obligation to know each other.  A brief smile, a genial, affirming nod, and a responsive chortle hold us clinging precariously to a conversation without consequence.  It ends, as it ends.  Then we reflect the face from the bag and move into the day, unknowing and unknown.

But not Mark.  He sees.  And that’s good, but it’s the reflection that’s remarkable.  The honest, awful, gracious reflection of I am, not who I want you to think I am.  When, on that rare occasion in life, we look in the mirror of friendship with a face from our bag, and the reflection that is returned is simply, completely us.  And the face is gone.  That’s when you know its friendship.  That’s a rare heart that can do that.  That’s a heart shaped and touched by God.  Run from it, or don’t but it doesn’t change the honesty of that reflection, or that fact that you saw it.

So on that day, he reflected me.  Thai food is great, though my friend had never tried it before.  But even the familiar tinge of curry and Thai pepper couldn’t distract from the process of being seen.  He’s good at it, practiced.  Naturally, intuitive about what hurts and what doesn’t.  He’s gentle, too, though I suspect he would argue that point.  And he assures frequently.  But also sets boundaries.  “No lies.”  He said.  “Not between us.”

Can that be done?  I mean when you cut away the lies we use to soften our walk in the world, to ease our appearance in the face of others, and avoid the impossible-to-ignore confrontations we face every day, how can we function in the company of others?

He believes it can.  His life is walking testament to that belief, and his relationship to God is premised on foundations of personal honesty so weighty that they would drown a lesser man.  At least that’s what I see.

“Ok”.  I said.  “Agreed”.  A pause.  Maybe understood would have been a better choice.  Dear God, it is hard to like loving this man.

(Coming:  Reflections, Part 2:  What He Showed Me)

Pornography Through the Eyes of the Other

tearsI wandered onto the “Church Leaders” Facebook page today to see what people were commenting about on the anti-porn link they had posted.  Their post read:  “Too many Christians think that porn is harmless.”  A lot of people had commented, and I read them all, along with the replies.  You see, I really am interested in what people see as the “harm” of pornography.  As a detective who has investigated pornography cases, and their link to sex trafficking, I want to see what the world sees.

After reading through the posts and replies, I realized that I am much more the “other” than I ever thought I was.  You see, I understand that porn is first and foremost an offense to God, as it attacks the body, which as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6, is kind of a big deal:

“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.” (v 19-20)

But I realized I’m the other when I read through the comments and saw that the vast majority–and I mean but for maybe 1 comment–were focused on the “harm” to the viewer, his family, and the church.  You can’t argue that it’s not true, but when I think of victims, when I think of harm, I think first of the exploited body of the man or woman who is used for another’s entertainment, who is being filmed, and posted, and watched over and over to satisfy a depraved fantasy not their own.  Their suffering, or at least the harm to them eclipses everything else so that I don’t even imagine the harm to the viewer in terms of regret, struggle, or sin.  I can’t see past the feigned consent, and mock enthusiasm in the faces of the abused, to see the broken heart of a wife, or the confusion, and disgust of a teenage girl who just learned that her father watches porn.

It wasn’t always this way for me.  There was a time when I saw the persons in the smallish rectangle on the computer or smart phone, who lingered in suspended animation behind a red “play” icon as one dimensional human characters.  They existed only now.  Not in the past.  Not in the future.  Their life was suspended between ends of a gray line that gradually filled from left to right with red as the video played.  I always knew there was harm there, I just didn’t consider their’s.

But then I met a woman.  A woman who told me a story about being forced by people she had never met to make “sex” videos.  This woman, who by all accounts was as independent and intelligent as any of us are, had fallen to a ruse that played out in social media.  She was lured by feigned friendship–actually not just friendship, companionship!  Of the kind that doesn’t come along very often.  Her  trafficker, her abuser, was known to her only by a Facebook username, the sum total of their communicative history captured on nearly 70,000 lines of Facebook messenger.

“You’re so pretty.” Her Abuser said, early on.  “You’re such a good person.  I think we’re meant to be friends.”

Those are words we’ve all longed to hear at one time or another.

One day, Her Abuser sent her a pic of her in a bra and underwear.  “I think this makes me look fat.”

“Lol!  Are you kidding!  U are beautiful.”  The woman responded.

“Aw.  UR sweet.  Send me one of you.”

The woman blushed as she told me she really didn’t want to.  She said no.  At first.  Eventually she sent the photo, because that’s what friends, real friends do.

This woman told Her Abuser–who actually posed as two different people, but was in fact, only one–all the things that you tell a friend.  Her hurt, her joy.  The love of her children.  The problems with the ex.  One day, she told her she was on backpage, turning “tricks” as she called it.  “Just trying to make ends meet.”  She said.  “I can’t afford to live without making some extra bucks.”  She wasn’t proud of it.  She hated it.  But the woman told Her Abuser.  Maybe she told because the burden was too heavy to bear alone.  Maybe it was because she wanted to hear someone tell her to stop.  Or that it was ok.  “I understand.”  Something she needed to hear.

“That’s hot.”  Her Abuser remarked.

“Really!?”  The woman shot back.  “I thought you’d be disgusted.”  But this was a real friend.

“Naw…it’s cool.”  And then:  “Send me a video of you with one of the guys.”

Of course the woman protested.  “Why would you want to see that. It’s weird.”

“Come on!” Again and again.  And again.

Finally the woman sent the video, and you can imagine what happened next.

Enter Abuser #2.  Another unknown Facebook friend request.  This time with a message:  “I saw your sexy video.  I posted it online at XXXvideos.  Send me more.”

The woman, understandably frantic, messaged Her Abuser.

“Just do what this guy says.  He’s dangerous.”  Her Abuser said.

Threats of exposing the woman, sending the video to her ex, who could use them in an ongoing custody battle, and posting them on her Facebook page followed.  Relentlessly.  Then more threats, and eventually, a message to a family member.

The woman was beaten.  This was too much to imagine.  Who could help her?  Who would?  “Just stop!”  She pleaded.  “I’ve never hurt either of you!”

“You know what you have to do.  Stop playin’ and do it.”

Desperation eventually defeats all of us in this life, it’s just a matter of degrees.  This woman did what she was told and went to a downtown Minneapolis hotel where she was raped in a pornographic movie with 4 men, filmed by a 5th.  If she did the movie, Her Abusers promised, they would be out of her life.

In the aftermath, of course they weren’t.

“You didn’t do the positions I told you too!  You didn’t look like you were enjoying it enough!  You have to look like you really want this!”  Abuser #2 wrote in a profanity ridden message the next day.  “I’ll never be out of your life.”

So this woman  who would have never trusted a cop, let alone one who was a middle aged, fat white guy like most of her johns, took a chance on me.  She was desperate, afraid, depleted of any measure of human dignity by the malice of those she had never harmed.  To do nothing was risky.  But to trust me was riskier still, I suppose.   I honestly don’t know why she trusted me, but there I was across a small table, the din of her words falling like icy slivers, as she ran through the narrative.

Finally, she paused and waited.  I still remember the weight of that single moment.  I fought back tears and muttered the only thing I could think to say, “I’ll make them stop.”  Nothing had ever impacted me as a man and a Christian like her story did, and I’ve worked some tough cases with victims who remind me of my daughters.  And yours.

Four months, a wiretap, nearly 70,000 pieces of discovery, 400 hours of surveillance, 200 hours of overtime, 17 undercover operations, and over 120 legal demands later I handcuffed a man in a hallway in suburban St. Paul.  He was small, shorter than my victim.  And quiet.  He was smart too.  And arrogant, but also endearing.

In the interview that followed, which by the way garnered a confession owing, I think, to the multitude of evidence I’d assembled against him, I asked the only question I knew the woman cared about:  “Why.”

“I guess I was bored.”

That’s it?  That’s what destroys lives?  It destroyed hers.  Try to soften that one.  I almost felt like making something up.

While preparing for trial, I watched the movies made that day in the hotel room.  I can see the woman in my mind:  Alone and naked, pushed from one position to another and violated in ways that I try to forget.  She smiled, and feigned enjoyment.  I watched the movies to identify the 5 men.  Through tattoos, scars, that name that slipped.  And so that I could describe what happened when called to testify.  In that time, I was in the room with my victim.  I was there, among them, locked into the “now” that previously had only existed inside a smartphone or computer.  And in that room, I became “the other.”

The other who can’t seem to remember that porn hurts men.  Or maybe has stopped caring.  The other who can’t remember the wives.  And families.  The Church, that is morally “bleeding out” when over 50% of men who attend church, also report viewing pornography regularly.  I can’t see any of that anymore.  The woman eclipses it all.  She’s all I can see.  And her smile frozen on the screen that literally makes me sick with hatred for the evil that did that to her.  That made her smile.  I could probably forgive everything else.  Not that.

In the end, I found all 5 men.  That’s what I do.  I identified them, printed their pictures. Called my victim.  There was no doubt it was them.

On a brisk July morning, with impatient faces crowding the street and sidewalk, and just enough chill in the air to make you wish you’d brought a sweatshirt, I met her for coffee.   I was elated, proud even, and showed her the photos one by one.  I may have grinned expectantly.  As the line lurched slowly, and folks waited for their morning coffee, she looked pensive.  Then she said, “Nope.  None of them.”

“Umm.”  I was shocked.  Silent.  I wanted to correct her.   I wanted to say it really was them.  I knew it.  But I didn’t.  She looked at me with wet eyes, pleading.  As if to say, please just let this end.  No more.

I paused, staring at her.  Finally, “I’m sorry.  I must have made a mistake.”  It was the last time we would ever discuss the room, or the men.  With so much else for her to painfully recall, who and what am I, if I place my own priority of locking handcuffs on these men, above her need to forget, or let it go, or whatever she wanted that day.  If she ever changes her mind, I’ll be here and she knows that.  But I doubt she will.  She’s moved on.  But she left me in that room.

That’s what porn looks like.

Written with the explicit permission of the woman.