When I attended federal court in mid-June for the sentencing of Antonio "Tony" Cardenas, I was struck by how he said he wanted to help stop children from being victimized by child porn. I went to the jail holding him prior to his being shipped out to begin a 35-year prison sentence. Yes, he said, he'd talk to me.
In total, we
talked for nearly 13 hours. The first 90-minute interview was off the
record, an opportunity for each to assess the other. He set certain
limitations on my research: I was not to approach his family members for
But the question I quickly realized when we sat down was, how do you talk to someone whose crimes revolt you? How do you talk to someone where the language you use -- predator, abuser, molester, pedophile -- is unacceptable to him? How do you look in the mirror afterward and justify investing so much time in someone the world sees as a monster?
The interviews took place in a private meeting room, Tony sitting on one side of a glass barrier, myself on the other. I took written notes, with the exception of one recorded interview that I had hoped to post online, until I realized both he and I had used his victim's real name through out. (The victim's name, and his family's name, were changed in the story for their protection.)
Tony is likable, polite, friendly yet neutral, cautious but firm, his intelligence clear from his diction, precise vocabulary and frank gaze. He wanted me to understand what it means to be a "BL", a "boy lover," as he conveyed, at my request, his perspective on his journey from a childhood in Mexico to a Utah jail.
During that first off-the-record interview, language quickly came up. He didn't like terms like predator and pedophile. He sought neutral language. Where many would talk of sexual abuse, Tony used terms like "sexual encounter." Interestingly, he also avoided the word masturbation, preferring "going crazy" or "finding pleasure."
When I went back for the first on-the-record interview, Tony talked through his sexual experiences in some detail, recalling encounters with a 35-year-old woman who said she was a porn star and picked the 14-year-old up in South Central Los Angeles.
So many of the things Tony talked about, he seemed to contradict himself, but the biggest contradiction was his feelings about what he had done with, or rather to, the boy who was his primary victim. He sought to both justify what he had done in the terms of it being boy love—a relationship—and yet also to recognize that in some sense, however tentatively, it was wrong.
At the end of the first on-the-record interview, he described the first time he sexually abused the 9-year-old boy. I tried again and again in various drafts to recreate the horrific experience of listening to him telling me about those moments, but nothing could come close to the feeling I had of, from one moment to the next, jumping out of my skin.
When I returned for the next interview, Tony wanted to talk about my reaction to his description. It seemed to interest him. He remarked on the intense physical change I had undergone—had I changed into the Incredible Hulk, I mused momentarily?—and I acknowledged the reaction I had experienced, the intensity of the rejection, of the horror that seemed to bolt up through me as I realized what he was describing to me: the rape of a child.
After each interview, touching a child seemed almost a dirty act, even as I hungered to hold and hug my own children simply as a way to push out of my head—out of my heart—the darkness that hours of conversation with Tony had tainted me with.
He took me to places I could never imagine, into communities I did not want to know existed. He also created within me a deep, abiding suspicion of any men who work with my children.
When I dropped my children off at their summer camp today, I realized I could not bring myself to look at the friendly 30-year-old bus driver who ferries them around town. I felt that if I looked at him too hard, I might see something, suspect something that wasn't there.
In some way, I suppose, as nonsensical as I knew it was, I was frightened I would look directly at this stranger's features and see Tony's flat, dark gaze staring back at me.