Part 1 of a series.
What do we do when those who meant so much to us are found guilty of the worst of crimes? There, but for the grace of God, go I…
Many of us, if we were lucky, had people in our lives when we were young who shaped us, molded us – important, vitally influential characters without whom we would be less than we are. Teachers, coaches, perhaps church leaders, family friends or relatives – we learn values from these figures that we never unlearn, and we can feel their presence, if we concentrate, decades later, in both our most pivotal and banal moments.
Can you name the five most influential people in the history of your life? I can, sort of. There’s about a ten-way tie for fifth, but the first four are my grandparents, my former teacher and now S&R colleague Jim Booth, and a junior high coach and teacher I’ll call Mr. C. This post is about him, and it’s one I have dreaded writing because I really have no idea what to do with my feelings.
Like a lot of kids in their early teens, I had no idea who I was.I was smart, hyper-energetic (if I came along today they’re surely pump me full of every ADHD medication they could find), socially awkward, insecure beyond all reason, loud, and, as it turned out, not a bad athlete for a slightly taller-than-average country white boy. This meant that I not only got to spend an hour or two a day in the classroom with Mr. C the teacher, I also spent more hours than I can probably recall with Mr. C the coach.
During those three incredibly formative years no one was more central to my life than Mr. C, a 30ish man who was so committed to teaching and coaching school and youth league teams it seemed like he had no life at all beyond the baseball field and the basketball court. He was utterly dedicated to us.
He was a godsend. Since I grew up with my grandparents, I didn’t have a male figure in my life of “dad age.” For all Granddaddy did for me, there was such a gulf between his experience and mine that we never had a conventional father-son bond, so there was a gaping developmental hole in my personality. Anyone who knew me back then probably realizes this, even if they never thought about it at the time. So Mr. C became, when I was around 13-14, my surrogate father, and I, moreso than most of the other guys on the team (who had real fathers at home) very nearly worshiped him.
I’m not sure I have ever fully been the man I feel like I ought to be, but thanks to Mr. C I have managed to be far more than I would have been otherwise.
In 2015 Mr. C pleaded guilty to five counts of sexually abusing male students. He was sentenced to six years in prison.
When I learned of these developments last year it was like a sledgehammer to the gut. I have always understood that people are infinitely complex, capable of both great good and terrible evil. But never, I think, had such a cruel contradiction hit so close to home. How can I resolve in my mind the knowledge that one of the most important people in my life, someone to whom I owe a debt larger than I could ever repay, is a pedophile?
Even more vexing is the fact that … I’m not sure I’m surprised. I mean, there were signs, weren’t there? Mr. C spent every available moment in the company of boys in their early teens. He had access to the locker room where these boys were dressing. He wasn’t married and if he ever had a date I never heard about it. If he wasn’t teaching or coaching he was probably reffing.
None of this proves anything, but you could be forgiven if you added it all up and asked the question.
But I never saw it. Mr. C never said or did anything inappropriate with or around me, unless you count the occasional dirty joke, but what kid of my generation didn’t get that from a coach? (Or was this more than it seemed? Keep reading.) If he ever abused one of my teammates I never knew it. Perhaps at that point a young Mr. C was still winning the battle with this particular demon and only submitted to it later? Maybe he was in denial and was fighting it harder? Maybe he thought he could eventually find a normal life for himself and those urges would go away? Or maybe it was happening and the victim never spoke up?
Ever since I heard the news I have wrestled with ambivalence unlike anything I’ve known in my life. The Mr. C situation isn’t a simple case of people are both good and bad. It’s one of extremes – for myself and I’m sure dozens, if not hundreds of others, he was centrally important in our development as young men. We didn’t just learn how to play baseball and basketball, we learned values that would serve us the rest of our lives, values like teamwork, like sportsmanship, like respect for ourselves and others, like respect for knowledge. He wasn’t just good, he was an exceptional role model who made us better human beings.
The flip side of the coin, though, is that he wasn’t just bad in the way we all are, with our petty daily failings. Pedophilia is as exceptionally evil as the things I list above are exceptionally good.
Cognitive dissonance drives us to resolve psychological turmoil and pursue consistency when faced with conflicting signals about a person or a situation. In the Mr. C case, part of my brain wants desperately to ease this conflict by figuring out “the truth.” Either I was wrong about him all this time or he’s not really guilty at all. Our brains need it to be one of the other.
I originally heard whisperings that maybe the case against him was fishy in places, and I think you can understand how much I’d like that to be the case. But that wasn’t the case. There was ample and incontrovertible evidence and several victims, four of whom were willing to testify. Some of that testimony sounded disturbingly familiar: the dirty jokes and sexually explicit language – prosecutors said he was “testing the waters” to see who might be a potential target.
In other words, the charges against Mr. C were consistent in most ways with what I know of him personally. I can’t say there were never signs. I can’t reject the idea out of hand because it makes no sense. I can’t say there isn’t evidence. I have to admit that what we know about him – what I know about him – aligns with the methods of other sexual predators we have heard so much about in recent years, including the many scandals of the Catholic Church as well as the crimes of Jerry Sandusky, Graham James and the various named abusers in the horrible English football pedophilia case, which so far has implicated 311 clubs, with 252 identified suspects and 560 potential victims (and counting).
The charges against Mr. C do make sense.
At the same time, I can’t deny the good Mr. C did in my community growing up. I can’t deny what he meant to me and I can’t deny the fundamental truth that I would be less than I am, by a good margin, without all he did for me back in the early 1970s.
I say this conditionally, though, because I understand the twisted complexity of pediphilia: the service to the community, the role modeling, those probably weren’t a function of altruism. In all likelihood they were the means to an end. If he did good, it was for a bad reason.
There’s one more profoundly terrifying thing. I was a naïve, deeply religious boy. Prosecutors said Mr. C’s dirty jokes and “locker room talk” were “grooming” behavior designed to figure out who might be amenable to his advances. But that behavior embarrassed me visibly, and I remember him even making fun of me for it. Not harshly, not condescendingly, though. But friendly and understanding.
Now, though, I sit here wondering: did my innocence rule me out as a target? Did my blushing save me?
There, but for the grace of god…
It goes without saying I hope, when he gets out, Mr. C finds help for his illness and that he’s able to live out his remaining days as a productive member of society. I hope he can find a way to atone, both to his victims and to the community whose faith he broke. I doubt that’s possible given the depth of the betrayal, but I hope he will do what he can.
I hope those he abused are well and that they have not been irreparably damaged by his actions, although this, too, I have grave doubts about.
Finally, the most doomed hope of all – that no one ever has to write anything this painful again.
UPDATE: I initially wanted to obscure the identity of “Mr. C,” primarily in an attempt to make the story more universal. However, some readers objected to this approach, feeling it provided undue cover for a convicted felon. Additionally, it became immediately apparent that anyone with any connection whatsoever to the community served by Ledford Jr. High School in Davidson County, NC, was already familiar with the entirety of the sordid story.
As a result, I have chose to add this brief update to note that Mr. C is Thomas Tilman Cridlebaugh. In November of 2015 he entered a guilty plea to “five counts of felony indecent liberties with children and received a six-year active prison sentence and 60 months of probation. He is also required to file with the North Carolina Sex Offender registry for the next 30 years.”