It’s late March when Lauren Book and I head into the bowels of the Florida Civil Commitment Center (FCCC), armed with loose-leaf paper, pencils and the knowledge that we are about to sit face to face with three of the most dangerous sexually violent predators in the state. “This is the most manipulative crowd on the planet,” says Kristin Kanner, director of the Florida Department of Children and Families’ Sexually Violent Predator Program. And one of the men we’re seeing today has been sending Book and her father angry letters for the past few years.
The FCCC is surrounded by seemingly endless stretches of sugar fields, cow pastures and orange groves. Wrapped in 12-foot barbed wire fences and guarded with more than 200 cameras, it is where Florida keeps 640 of its worst sexually violent offenders. About half have committed crimes against just children, a third against just adults.
Visits like ours are rare. Aside from prosecutors, defense attorneys and legislators, the last time anyone from the general public was granted this kind of FCCC access was in 2013, Book’s first visit. Her father, Ron Book, routinely referred to as one of the most powerful lobbyists in Florida, was not happy about that trip. “I just don’t like exposing her to the population,” he explains. “These are people one step away from killing a kid. People who stole children’s childhoods.”
Lauren Book, who’s 30, is one of over 42 million adult survivors of child sexual abuse in the U.S. For six years, starting when she was 11, her family’s live-in nanny sexually abused her. Today, she teaches children, parents and educators about child sexual abuse and prevention through her nonprofit, Lauren’s Kids. “There was a prevailing thought that child sexual abuse only happened in those neighborhoods over there, with those kids, not in our private school, in our gated community,” says Book, who grew up in a wealthy part of South Florida. “It was important to say, ‘Yes, it does happen to blond-haired, green-eyed kids who go to the university school.’”
When we walk into the FCCC’s main entrance, the first thing we see is a large poster announcing a sexual-abuse awareness fundraiser among residents and staff. Book, Claire VanSusteren (communications director of Lauren’s Kids) and I had already agreed to background checks, so all that was left to do was present our IDs to the guard and hand over our personal belongings. We walk through a metal detector and into an interior hallway, where a reassuringly large security guard leads us to the visiting room. “Do you stay for the interviews?” I ask, hoping his answer is yes. He nods.
The room is large and sterile, with white tables, blue chairs and vending machines pushed up against one wall. Defense attorney Jeanine Cohen; Brian Mason, a lawyer with the FCCC; and the security guard sit nearby, but it’s clear that Book, VanSusteren and I will be the ones sharing a table with each of the sex offenders. I immediately flash to a piece of advice an expert gave me: “Odds are, in a facility you’ll be safe. But don’t let [the sex offenders] sit between you and the door.” He added, as if reading my mind, “It’s right out of the movie—Hannibal Lecter!”
In Florida, it’s legal to lock up sex offenders after they’ve served their sentences, as long as they’ve been deemed too dangerous to rejoin society. The process, called civil commitment, has existed here since 1999, when the Jimmy Ryce Act took effect in honor of a 9-year-old boy who was abducted on his way home from school, then raped, decapitated and dismembered. When sex offenders complete their time in prison, Florida’s Sexually Violent Predator Program reviews their cases, looking for evidence of “a mental abnormality or personality disorder—something that makes them likely to reoffend,” Kanner says.
Once civilly committed, residents spend six to seven years, sometimes longer, undergoing extensive treatment, and they need to show rehabilitation before they are considered for release. While it’s unlikely someone would be let out without participating in treatment, special situations do occur—as when a resident is “severely medically compromised,” Kanner says, or “‘ages’ out of the risk to reoffend.” For some residents, refusing treatment means spending the rest of their lives inside those 12-foot barbed wire fences.
Today, civil commitment is legal in 20 states and under federal law, and it’s deeply controversial. “If you ask any psychologist involved in [civil commitment], they’ll tell you that treatment is the only thing we know that will change someone,” says Kanner. Since 1998, 932 sex offenders have been civilly committed at the FCCC, and on average, 85 percent of them opt for treatment. “Research shows that sex offenders who receive specialized treatment services reoffend at lower rates than those who don’t get treatment,” says Jill Levenson, an associate professor of social work at Barry University who researches sex offender policy and treatment. “Is it perfect? No. Treatment doesn’t work equally for everyone. People die after getting chemo, but we don’t say it doesn’t treat cancer.”
Indeed, the civil commitment system doesn’t always work as it’s supposed to. A recent investigation by the Sun Sentinel found that over a 14-year period, Florida considered committing but then released 594 sex offenders who were later convicted of other sex crimes. These men went on to molest over 460 children, rape 121 women and kill 14, the Sun Sentinel reported. The rate of recidivism among child sexual abusers is 13 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and research shows that sex offenders with stable jobs, housing and social supports are far less likely to reoffend. Yet Florida does not offer supervision programs to offenders after they are released from the FCCC. “They’re just let out, which I think is counterintuitive and counterproductive,” says Kanner. “You’re setting them up for failure.”
Civil commitment is also expensive—the FCCC cost $62 million to build and now needs about $24 million a year to operate. In 2010, the 20 states with civil commitment programs spent nearly $500 million on 5,200 offenders, according to an Associated Press analysis. Another concern is that civil commitment violates offenders’ rights. In Minnesota, a federal judge recently ruled that the state’s sex offender treatment program, which holds more than 700 people, is unconstitutional. Since the program launched in the 1990s, no one has been fully discharged.
David Lisak, board president of 1in6, a nonprofit for male victims of child sexual abuse, is a leading psychologist who studies child sexual abuse and non-stranger rape. “What frightens me,” he says, “is when I see people winking at each other so we can all pretend this really does pass constitutional muster, because—wink, wink—we’re treating these people for a mental illness, when the same people will tell you in the next breath, especially off the record, that they view these people as untreatable.”
A man starts walking toward Book, VanSusteren and me. We don’t know much about him other than he’s 51 years old and his public record includes two offenses, one for kidnapping and the other for lewdly fondling, assaulting, or committing or simulating sexual acts on or in the presence of a minor. Since he asked to remain anonymous, I’ll call him Jesse. His shiny bald head, thin mouth and short-sleeved collared shirt make him look more like a wimpy uncle than one of the state’s most dangerous predators. Book stands up, extends her hand and says, “Thank you for taking the time to talk with us.”
“Anything to give back to the community and advocate for the kids,” he says, shaking her hand, then mine and then VanSusteren’s.
We sit down, and Jesse adjusts his chair, smiling hesitantly. “What led you here?” Book says.
“My awareness,” he says, sounding as if he’s regurgitating treatment literature. “Realizing the pain I’ve caused in my victims’ lives and in their families and communities. Everyone is affected. I didn’t want to come here, but I knew I needed help.” He explains that he was raped at 13, sexually abused by his brothers and beaten by his father for over a decade. Later, he drank. “Offenders don’t go out and rape someone because a lady in the bar won’t have sex with them. Realize [that] there’s always something going on in that person’s life that they never addressed.”
When he talks about his father’s abuse, his mouth starts quivering. “Feeling that inadequate, I didn’t know how to ask for help. My dad always taught me to resolve things through anger, and I became a master at that. I’d go to any length to get what I needed.” It dawns on me that Jesse was exactly the kind of child Book now works so hard to reach.
He looks at us with hazel eyes that seem to be getting bigger, sadder and wetter with each second, and as I scribble down his words, I remember something Kanner told me a few days earlier: “Listen to what they say with a grain of salt. Most psychopaths are very charming. You want to like them.”
‘That’s What I Did Wrong’
Growing up, Lauren Book was the eldest and self-professed “goody two-shoes” of the three children. Her father was often traveling or working long hours, and her mother was busy running a chocolate shop. As she writes in her memoir, It’s OK to Tell: A Story of Hope and Recovery, she often dreamt about breaking her leg “so I could be the center of attention for a day.”
Then her parents hired Waldina Flores through a reputable nanny agency. At first, Flores doted on Book, giving her extra dessert, letting her stay up late and telling her how pretty she was. This is called grooming: A predator identifies his or her prey—typically a lonely, shy child whose parents aren’t paying attention—and showers him or her with special attention. Book latched on to Flores as a surrogate parent. “Love and consistency and stability, that’s all I wanted in my entire life,” Book says.
One day, Flores told her to stop chewing gum. “I said in my 11-year-old sassiness, ‘What are you gonna do about it?’” Book recalls. “She proceeded to stick her tongue in my mouth and take the gum with her tongue.” The abuse escalated from there.
Over the next six years, Flores performed oral sex on Book and forced Book to do the same on her. She penetrated her young victim with vegetables and forks, threw her down a flight of stairs and urinated and defecated on her. Flores was so controlling, she chose Book’s clothes, did her hair and picked which feminine hygiene products she could use. “She wanted me to use pads because she wanted to be the only thing inside me,” Book says. Flores also convinced her that they were going to get married and have children one day. The sexual, physical and emotional abuse occurred daily, in bedrooms, bathrooms and closets, often with Book’s parents and siblings in the next room.
“Waldina didn’t hurt me 24 hours a day. If it was an hour a day and 23 hours being wonderful, it doesn’t make the one hour less bad, but that’s what I had to pay for being loved and having consistency,” Book says. “To be honest, the trade-off was OK.”
Book was 17 when she told her boyfriend about the abuse, then her therapist and finally her father. “My dad is not a crying person,” she says. “He was hunched over and said, ‘I’m sorry, Pip. I’m so sorry.’ I knew that it was gonna be OK. It would be over, and I didn’t have to do it anymore. Those were three of the best words in my life: I’m sorry, Pip.”
Book was lucky; many parents side with the abuser, especially if it’s a spouse or family member, or they are immobilized by guilt for bringing a predator into their family. Ron Book immediately filed a police report and forced Flores out of their home. She was arrested three months later in Oklahoma City, where she’d gotten a volunteer job coaching a girls’ soccer team. In January 2002, the Books offered Flores a plea deal of 10 years in prison. Her response (through her attorney): “Please tell Mr. Book to go fuck himself.”
Ten months later, just one day before Book’s 18th birthday—the same day the trial was set to begin—Flores decided she wanted to take the original 10-year offer. “On behalf of Mr. Book, no deal and please tell Ms. Flores to go fuck herself,” Ron Book said through his lawyer. Flores ended up accepting a 15-year sentence for child molestation charges and had to apologize in open court. In 2004, she received an additional 10 years when she wrote Book love letters from prison, violating an order not to contact her.
Even after Flores was arrested, Book’s suffering continued—anorexia, self-mutilation, depression, sleepless nights, post-traumatic stress disorder. Her recovery stretched out over years, and she still experiences night terrors. Even her upcoming wedding this summer carries an extra heavy weight: She may never be able to carry a baby to term due to the scarring from Flores’s abuse.
Despite all this, Book considers herself one of the lucky ones. “I have tremendous support from my family, and without them I couldn’t do this. I wouldn’t have lived,” she says. “Those really tough years made me the person I am today—not just living through them but living beyond them.”
This year marks Book’s sixth annual Walk in My Shoes, a 1,500-mile, monthlong journey that takes her and tens of thousands of survivors and supporters from Key West to Tallahassee. Her robust education curricula, Safer, Smarter Kids, is in over 16,000 kindergarten and pre-K classrooms across Florida and select schools in New York, California, Georgia and Illinois, and across the Caribbean through a partnership with UNICEF. Experts don’t always agree on the success of such educational programs, yet testing shows that Book’s has improved kids’ safety knowledge by 77 percent.
Ron Book, who still cries when he talks about everything his daughter endured, has spent more than a decade transforming Florida’s sex offender laws, making it one of the harshest states for sex offenders. Along with his daughter, he has been an advocate for nearly two dozen legislative victories. As Levenson puts it, “If Lauren Book had been shot by somebody, we would have very different gun laws in Florida. If she was hit by a drunk driver, we would have very different drunk driving laws.”
“Not too long ago, the penalty in Florida for failure to report animal abuse carried a stiffer penalty than failing to report child abuse,” Ron Book says. Legislation he lobbied for made it mandatory for all Floridians—not just parents or guardians—to report known or suspected child abuse. Those who fail to do so are charged with a third-degree felony, and colleges and universities face up to a $1 million fine for not reporting. He also advocated for laws that make it a crime for convicted felony offenders to contact victims or their families (the Lauren Book Protection Act) and imposed mandatory 50-year sentences on those who knowingly sexually assault individuals with disabilities. When his local-residency restrictions prohibited registered sex offenders from living, on average, 2,500 feet from schools, day care centers and other places where children gather, a colony of homeless offenders popped up under Miami’s Julia Tuttle Causeway.
For all Ron Book has done to protect Florida’s children, he carries an immeasurable grief from what happened to his family. He has never been able to read more than a few pages of the official police report, but he’s pored over thousands of photos and 100 hours of video, looking for a clue he might have missed. “I probably have stayed in a state of denial about guilt. Why else would I be crying?” he says through tears. “I’ll tell you about what I did wrong: I told my children, all three of them, ‘The nanny is in control. Do what the nanny says. Follow her lead! Obey! Respect! Listen to her!’ My middle daughter and son would say, ‘She’s mean to us.’ And I attributed it to them simply wanting to be children. I wasn’t listening. I didn’t hear them. That’s what I did wrong.”
‘The Land That Time Forgot’
“Girls and boys, why do we have rules?”
Lauren Book is standing in front of 30 kindergarteners in a colorful classroom at Glades Academy, a charter school in Pahokee, Florida. She’s wearing black sweatpants, running shoes and a teal Lauren’s Kids T-shirt with the organization’s signature butterfly on the front, and her blond hair is pulled back in a tight ponytail. “Because rules help us stay...” She pauses. “What?”
“Safe!” the children shout back. They sit in pairs and wear matching khaki pants and collared shirts—one of a few sets of uniforms the school gives each child at the start of the school year.
“Yes, rules help us stay safe. I’m here today to talk about some of my favorite rules to help all of you stay safe, OK?”
In unison: “OK!”
Book is almost monomaniacally focused on keeping children safe. In her sweet, high-pitched voice, she asks the kindergarteners to close their eyes and imagine what a stranger looks like. “Is your stranger tall or is your stranger short?”
“Is your stranger a man or a woman?”
Book asks about his eyes (“Angry!”), nose (“Pointy!”), mouth (“Mean!”) and clothes (“Messy!”). Then she asks what he’s holding.
“Guns!” shouts one boy. “A knife!” says another. “An ax! A shotgun!”
“Now let me ask you a question, boys and girls,” Book says. “Am I a stranger?”
“No? When did you meet me?”
“How many minutes ago? Like, five minutes ago! Why do you think that I’m not a stranger?”
“’Cause you’re nice and pretty!” says one girl.
“No pointy nose! No knife!”
“Boys and girls, let me tell you something. I am a stranger! Just because I have neat hair, that doesn’t mean I’m not a stranger. A stranger is just someone you don’t know well. Can you tell if someone is good or bad from how they look on the outside?”
For the first time all morning, the room goes silent.
Book hasn’t come to preach about stranger danger; she talks about trusted adults and what children can do if someone makes them feel “icky, confused, scared or not quite right.” These are important, although rare, lessons here at Glades Academy.
Surrounded by thousands of acres of sugarcane, Pahokee is a place where churches abound and poverty reigns. In 2009, the Palm Beach County Economic Development Office announced that Pahokee had reached “Depression levels,” with 32 percent unemployment—nearly three times the countywide rate. All that for a city that’s just an hour west of glitzy Palm Beach.
“This is the drug and sexual abuse capital of the world out here,” says Don Zumpano, principal of Glades Academy. “These children, the great majority of them don’t have fathers in the house. The mothers or the grandmothers raise them as best they can. As far as parent participation, it’s just hurting. I don’t know exactly how to explain it.... It’s the land that time forgot.”
Dr. Z, as the students call Zumpano, has worked as a special educator for over 40 years, the last 10 at Glades Academy. “What we do here is not all about reading, writing and arithmetic,” he says in the privacy of the teacher’s lounge. “It’s a lot of socialization. Feeding the kids. Buying them clothes.”
He lets out a full-bellied sigh when I ask if abuse is a problem among his students, then tells the story of a boy who came to school with a large burn on his stomach. It looked to be the size of a curling iron. Zumpano struggled to contact the boy’s mother—many parents in the community work multiple jobs, or have disconnected phone lines, or don’t have transportation to get to the school. When he finally reached her, she said she had no idea why her son had a burn on his skin. “We did the best we could,” he says.
Like Book, Zumpano’s childhood inspires his work. “My mother raised four boys by herself. So I know what...” he pauses. “I was once one of these kids,” he says, eyes filling with tears. He stares at the ground, then quickly stands up, apologizes and walks out.
Down the hallway, Book and the Lauren’s Kids team help the kindergarteners come up with three trusted adults (what Book calls their “Trusted Triangle”). “How do I spell Grandma?” one asks. “How many M’s in Mom?” asks another. In the back row, a girl with braids is zoning out. VanSusteren kneels down and asks her whom she wants to put in her Trusted Triangle. The girl rests her head on her desk. “Who are the adults in your life who make you feel safe?” VanSusteren asks. The girl covers her head. “Your mommy or daddy?” The girl shakes her head no.
After class, VanSusteren mentions the exchange to the teacher, who explains that the girl had just been removed from her parents’ home and now lives with her aunt. It’s not the first time one of Book’s school visits has led to such a discovery. “I’m glad to know the teacher is in the loop, because sometimes when we’ve done activities like that, unsafe situations have been disclosed that were not previously known,” says VanSusteren. “So many times, children want to tell you something isn’t quite right, but they don’t have the words to do so.”
Just 10 Percent of the Problem
The myth of stranger danger—“dirty men” lurking in parks or malls, luring our children away from us with puppies and candy—is itself a danger. The reality is, the overwhelming majority of predators are in the victim’s family photo album or social circle. Ninety percent of children who are sexually abused know their abuser. A 2000 study found that family members account for 34 percent of people who abuse juveniles, and acquaintances account for another 59 percent. Only 7 percent were strangers.
Yet conversations about child sexual abuse often focus on horrific examples of stranger danger. We find comfort in searching registries to find out whether registered sex offenders live in our neighborhoods. We tell our children not to talk to strangers. And we label men and women who abuse children as monsters. This demonizing of strangers is extremely dangerous, considering that 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys are sexually abused by the time they turn 18, and around 90 percent of individuals with developmental disabilities will be sexually abused at some point.
“We have an idea that I would know [a sex offender] if I saw one, and I can avoid it and keep my child away,” says Karen Baker, director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “We need to get over the idea that we can tell who’s a good and bad person.”
The Catholic Church sex abuse cover-up and the Jerry Sandusky case, in which the former assistant football coach at Pennsylvania State University was convicted of sexually assaulting 10 boys, prove just how wrong that notion is. So do two more recent revelations: Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert allegedly paid a former student millions of dollars to cover up allegations of sexual abuse, and Josh Duggar, the eldest son on 19 Kids and Counting, TLC’s popular Christian family values reality show, molested five girls when he was a teenager, including four of his sisters.
“It’s a hard idea to keep in the forefront of your thinking,” says David Finkelhor, who directs the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire and has been researching child victimization and family violence for nearly 40 years. “You can’t be interacting with your neighbors and then thinking all the time about whether they’re molesting your kids.”
The good news is that, for more than two decades, the rate of child sexual abuse has been declining in the U.S. Between 1992 and 2013, the number of cases fell 64 percent, according to a study headed by Finkelhor. Costly criminal justice initiatives—like sex offender registries, community notification and civil commitment—are often credited for this dramatic change, but Finkelhor argues that “these came online after the decline had already started.”
Still, those big-ticket criminal justice efforts tend to get all the money and attract all the headlines. Yet these initiatives, Finkelhor says, “mostly pertain to people already identified and arrested—and only about 10 percent of new cases of abuse involve someone who has a prior record. Even if you lock up everybody who had been convicted of an offense, you’d only be taking care of 10 percent of the problem.... We need more prevention and treatment in this area, but that costs money and legislators don’t want to do that.”
Sex offender registries, for example, demand huge fiscal and human resources, yet “the abundance of research appears to say they aren’t really successful,” says Levenson, who has met more than 2,000 sex offenders in her 25 years as a licensed clinical social worker. “However, they are successful in making people feel safer.” By comparison, sex offender management and prevention programs receive far less funding.
“Wouldn’t it be better to stop child sexual abuse before it starts? Everyone says yes, and then I hear we don’t have the money for that,” says Elizabeth Letourneau, director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We have money to spend millions of dollars on [prosecuting and punishing] sex offenders, but no money to prevent these things from occurring in the first place.”
‘I Am Fearless’
By 10 a.m., the hot Florida sun is beating down on all of us—Book, the Lauren’s Kids team, the pack of walkers. It’s the 22nd day of Walk in My Shoes, and we’ve all but stopped traffic on a local road in Bradenton, Florida. Behind us rolls Book’s souped-up bus, a confection of pink, teal and white with a gigantic photo of Book emblazoned across the side and the phrase “Walk in My Shoes: Come Walk With Us.” Miley Cyrus’s pump-up anthem “Party in the U.S.A.” blasts from its speakers.
Some days, the walk attracts hundreds of people. Today there’s about two dozen, and Book cycles through the small crowd like the Energizer Bunny, introducing herself to newcomers and hugging walkers who have become part of the extended Lauren’s Kids family. Everyone is wearing a teal Lauren’s Kids T-shirt, each with an empty white box on the back for the person to write his or her reason for walking. “For my wife :),” says one. “I’m a survivor,” says another. Book’s T-shirt reads, “For all of our kids.”
A tall, beefy young man with a black bandana over his head wrote one word on his T-shirt: “Kriss,” with a heart over the “i.” That’s his girlfriend, and they’re walking hand in hand. “I was molested as a child, and I was also raped twice, so I walk for that,” says Kriss, 26, who has short blond hair with streaks of pink. “In my family, they don’t understand so they blame me. It’s OK to open up. It’s gonna suck, but that’s the first step: admitting what happened. It took me almost 10 years.”
This is a familiar refrain today. Ken Followell, 57, was sexually molested by various family members starting when he was 2. The abuse continued until he was 14, and he didn’t speak up about it until his late 30s. Followell was raised in a large extended family in Gary, Indiana. “They kept all the female cousins away from [one male family member] because they knew he had abused” girls before. “They never thought boys would be at risk, but he was flexible,” says Followell, who is a board member and former president of MaleSurvivor. “Because he was a pedophile, he wasn’t interested in gender. He was interested in children.”
I’m walking with a young woman named Patty when we hear the indie rock hit “Pompeii,” by Bastille, with its recurring chorus, “How am I gonna be an optimist about this?” She explains that she was sexually abused by her father but repressed the memories until her younger sister, then 4, told her she was being molested by their mother’s boyfriend.
“I had flashbacks to what I had to endure—my mother not believing me and me having to deal with it for 10 years. It was at that point that I said, ‘I’m not going to let this child go through what I went through,’” Patty says, breathing heavily. “By the grace of God, I had the strength to call [Child Protective Services] on her and take my three sisters.” Patty still has custody of one of them, but the other two live with their mother. “Maybe I couldn’t help all of my sisters, but one is OK.”
Every person I meet during the walk has a similar story of tragedy and resilience. There’s Chuck and his son, Chris, who has Williams syndrome, a genetic disability. They came up from Sarasota to walk because, three years ago, Chris disclosed that he had been sexually abused by a relative. There’s also JR, a 41-year-old woman with an intellectual and developmental disability. As a child, she was adopted by a family that treated her as a sex slave, forcing her to endure sadistic sexual, physical and emotional abuse. When Book first met her a few years ago, JR weighed 90 pounds and refused to speak to anyone other than Ninja and Ozzie, her stuffed animal penguins. Today, thanks to trauma therapy and Book’s friendship, she’s gained about 20 pounds and talked to me while we walked. She was one of less than a dozen people who crossed the finish line that day, and she did so holding Book’s hand and saying, “I am strong! I am brave! I am fearless!”
In the evening, after walking nearly 25 miles, hosting a children’s event at a bookstore and talking with families at a cookout in a strip mall, Book collapses in her bus. She wraps a pink blanket around her shoulders and places enormous bags of ice on her shins. After calling her fiancé and doing a quick FaceTime with her father, Book says to me, “Do you know how many people came to my first wedding? Eight hundred! This time, we only ordered 125 invitations.” After gushing about the guy, the dress and the locale—and explaining that, in her early 20s, she was briefly married to her high school sweetheart—she tells me about two of her favorite things: “Spoelstra and Birdman,” she says.
“Birdman, the movie?” I ask, because at the time I had no idea what a Spoelstra was. (Erik Spoelstra, the coach of the Miami Heat, apparently.)
She looks at me as if I had suddenly sprouted three heads. Her Birdman, I learn, is not the 2015 Academy Award winner for best picture but rather a heavily tattooed, mohawk-sporting basketball player on the Miami Heat named Chris Andersen. She explains all this, then bursts out laughing. It’s the first time in three days she hasn’t been on. (Ironically, in 2013 Andersen was ensnared in an elaborate Internet hoax involving underage girls and child pornography. He was cleared of all involvement.)
“The walks are so hard,” says Book, who has trekked across Florida on scorching hot days and through downpours, all with severe shin splints and other injuries. “I’m in pain, but that doesn’t matter, because that’s what matters: Being there in that moment to help set JR on a better path.... There is a greater purpose for us, with what we’re doing. It’s JR. It’s Ken [Followell]. It’s Chris and Chuck. Just because these terrible things happen, it doesn’t mean we’re not still incredibly strong, powerful people. We’re not damaged goods.”
‘Your Triggers, Your Fantasies’
“I have five victims—two minors and three adult females. I’d walk up from behind, grab their breasts and then flee the scene.” That’s what Jesse says when Book asks him about his crimes. Later, we can’t help but wonder whether he committed any others, because, as Book says, “you don’t end up in civil commitment just for groping a few women and children.”
Jesse, who is in treatment and close to being considered for release, believes in the civil commitment process. The FCCC’s four-phase treatment program aims to help predators learn control. That means increasing their empathy for other people, helping them understand the factors that led them down a path of abuse, and teaching them to recognize their triggers, like drinking or feeling lonely.
“It’s changed my life and changed my future,” Jesse says. And he has a lot to work for: a 31-year-old daughter in Pennsylvania and a grandson, who’s 5. He talks to them every day, he says, and dreams of getting better, getting out and living with them. “Success is having a support group, and they have to be fully aware of your past,” he says. “They need to know your triggers, fantasies, dislikes.”
Book is sitting perfectly still, listening to Jesse talk about what his life will be like on the other side. I can already tell she’s concerned about his grandson—and the fact that he’s putting the onus on his family to keep watch on his weaknesses, not himself. She asks him how he’ll keep his grandson safe if he moves in with them. “I wouldn’t trust anybody,” he says. “You really need to know the people your kids are with.”
The next resident we meet—I’ll call him Michael—looks like a guy you’d find at a Brooklyn coffee shop wearing Warby Parkers and sporting a 5 o’clock shadow too manicured to be the result of laziness. As Book put it later, “If you met him at a Starbucks, you would have been like, ‘Hmm, he’s kinda cute.’” But Michael, 41, says he’s spent just nine months outside of prison since 1998; it all started when he was 25 and served two years in California for what he calls “the first felony offense I was ever caught for.” His victims ranged in age from 8 to 50.
“I’m a public masturbator,” he says. “As I escalated, I graduated to touch victims and masturbating when they were sleeping and unaware.” The bolder he got, the less fulfilling these acts became. “I attempted to rape a woman in California. In Florida, I manipulated my neighbor’s teenage daughters into watching me masturbate through a window.”
“How did you do that?” Book says.
“I was smooth, charming and cool. I played on their desires to be liked, played on the fact that they liked attention from a 24-year-old guy.” One day, Michael heard someone singing a lewd song next door. “Instead of being an adult and ignoring it, I said, ‘Aha!’ I knew then I’d try to exploit the situation. I’d talk to [my neighbors’ daughters] at night through the windows.... I started getting out of the shower and dressing in my room so they could watch me.”
“Do you remember the song?”
“Something about balls,” he says. “I honestly don’t remember.”
This is Michael’s 10th year at the FCCC. He’s been in treatment for eight, and like Jesse, he links his crimes to his childhood. “I didn’t grow up in an abusive home, but my mom had a shallow emotional vocabulary,” he says. “As I grew up, I didn’t grow up.... I had secret sexual thoughts and horrible ideas. I thought what was otherwise normal behavior, like masturbating, was bad for me.” At the word masturbating, he looks us straight in the eyes. “That was my 12-year-old heroin.”
Michael wants to go to trucking school, but says leaving the FCCC “will be like a blind person seeing for the first time. This is like practice here, but only at half speed. I’ll have to get up to full speed, and that’s my fear. We’re not monsters. We were monsters.”
Our final interview of the day is with Donald (a pseudonym), who has been described as one of the five most manipulative men here. He’s the one who sends Book and her father letters complaining about Lauren’s Kids, civil commitment and the FCCC. He walks into the room wearing a checked shirt, a red tie and thick black glasses, looking like a used car salesman who woke up one day and decided to run for mayor. His gray hair is combed back, and before he sits down, he confidently reaches his clammy hand across the table and shakes Book’s hand, then mine and says, “I want to take the time to thank you for wanting to interview me.”
Everybody—defense attorney Cohen; Mason, the FCCC lawyer; and the security guard—has intense, visceral reactions to Donald. The guard gets up from his seat near the wall and sits next to Book and Mason. Another guard comes in, says we have five or 10 minutes, max, and then stands on the other side of the room for the duration of the interview. Even Jesse, when he learned we were meeting with Donald, chuckled and covered his eyes with one arm.
When Book asks Donald why he’s at the FCCC, he says he was convicted of four counts of sexual battery, committed against his girlfriend. “I was 39 and she was 46. She discovered I had an affair. We had a 50 Shades of Grey type of relationship. I must say, the movie is disappointing.” He looks at Book when he adds, “Have you seen it?”
She shakes her head no. (“Of course I’ve seen 50 Shades, and read it, but I wasn’t going to give him that satisfaction,” she tells me later.)
Donald continues, “We had a kinky relationship. She retaliated because of the affair, and I ended up being convicted of sexual battery.”
Donald, who’s 58, has not yet been civilly committed, but if he is, he plans to refuse treatment. “It takes six to eight years. I’ll be 65!” he says. “They call this a state-of-the-art treatment center. It’s a state-of-the-art prison under the guise of treatment. I’m gonna put my feet up and retire. A gated community in Florida is one hell of a way to retire!”
Before Book and I have a chance to ask many more questions, the guards signal that the interview is over. Donald looks at Book and smiles. “Tell your dad I say ‘hi!’” To VanSusteren and me: “Ladies, thank you.” Then he raises one hand up in the air and gives us a single, solid wave.
Back in the bus, Book sits cross-legged beneath her pink blanket and picks red and white gummy bears out of a bag. “When you start the day in Pahokee with these kids who are so underprivileged and at a greater risk for a lot of things... They had never seen you and didn’t know your name, but they run up and hug you,” she says. “Then you go to the center and talk with those guys and you’re looking into evil.... You unleash that [in Pahokee]? That’s a recipe for horrific, horrible outcomes....
“Seeing these men in plainclothes sitting across from me reminds me that they are people. But they’re lions in sheep’s clothing.”