Last Thursday, a straight-faced Ariel Castro told his judge: “I am not a monster. I’m a normal person. I’m sick.”
Many, I venture, would disagree. Castro, with 937 counts and a life sentence now against him, has pleaded guilty to holding three women — Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight — for over 10 years against their will in his carefully crafted house of horrors: boarded windows, rusted chains, alarm trips. But as the world watched Castro explain himself Thursday, stunned by his self-assurance if not by his actions, his words shockingly evoked the distant echo of another man: of all people, San Diego Mayor Bob Filner.
Filner is neither a kidnapper nor a rapist — far, far, far from either. But this month he too is reckoning with charges of his own: a whirl of sexual harassment claims from now over 10 women, one of whom is a former military rape survivor. The allegations range from goading employees to work without panties on to forcing himself onto women in what is now the infamous “Filner headlock.”
Undeniably, the character, form, and magnitude of abuse from these two men are starkly different. Castro has created one of the most visceral horror stories to rock our country in recent years. By comparison, Filner is embroiled in what, at least these days, seems like political routine.
But their justifications ex post facto strike a remarkably similar undertone. Just as Ariel Castro hid behind claims of sickness and addiction when confronted with his past actions, so too is Bob Filner now, at least implicitly. On Monday, amidst fervent calls for him to resign, Filner instead checked in for two weeks of “intensive therapy” at an unnamed behavioral counseling clinic. The only assumption we are left to draw is that in two weeks’ time Bob Filner will magically emerge a cured man from whatever illness or condition is conveniently responsible for sexual harassment.
To the farsighted, however, this story does not end with Filner either. His statement is in fact another echo of other men. As psychologist Dr. David J Ley wrote last year, “Sex addiction is the psychological disorder du jour.” It has percolated through the celebrity world, a trademark playbook now for powerful people confronting marital infidelity — Tiger Woods most obviously among them.
I do not deny the possibility of sex addiction, and I do not want to discount the weightiness of mental illness either, which is very much real and can be very much debilitating. But when either is appropriated as a cop-out for sexist behavior, for violence, or for sexual abuse, it is dangerous. It shifts the subject of focus from the person to the disease. It absolves the culprit of any responsibility — veils them, in fact, as a victim. And in the worst blow, it makes their actions more palatable to the American imagination.
When Castro justifies torturing three women for 10 years by declaring himself a porn addict, we are floored. We know he is not sick, he is a monster. But when Filner justifies his own actions with a similar excuse we are only disgusted, and when Woods says it we are bemused.
The truth, however, is that while neither Filner nor Woods are monsters in the sense that Castro is, social discourse works like nesting dolls: The logic Woods lays down a month ago becomes the center for Filner’s logic two weeks later, which becomes the center for Castro’s logic today. They support each other and form the infrastructure that allows people to validate — or at least explain away — actions that should under no circumstance be tolerated.
And so it is not enough to be outraged by Castro. It is not enough that Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight finally found their much-deserved justice. Complete justice would be finding a new way of thinking. The problem, then, is much, much deeper than Ariel Castro, and the deeper we dig, the more subtle it becomes — and the harder it will be for us to find it. But undeniably it is there, and if we listen to the echoes, eventually it cannot hide.