the pervert in the wires:
pedophilia and the "internet menace" My Story
Katherine Tarbox
(Dutton, 196 pages)
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From the shock-horror tone of the jacket blurb - “...the harrowing true story of one teenager’s descent into the seductive world of the internet.” - to it’s misleading title, the packaging and publicity for seventeen-year old Katherine Tarbox’s memoir of her brush with an internet pedophile distracts the reader with a sinister red herring: “internet predators” and the amorphous, frightening new medium in which they are supposed to thrive.

The pedophile menace has become the new bogeyman for a generation of parents convinced of their own lax parenting and the inadequacy of schools and childcare, often by the same media that grimly relishes the latest molestation case, spreading it out over endless column inches while casting a gimlet eye over the perceived fads and absurdities of youth culture - as if sensationalism and generational despair haven’t always been staples of the popular press. 

The truth of Katie Tarbox’s story - and the unusually skillful way that she tells it - is much more simple, and compelling. The story begins with a familiar litany of pre-teen misery: broken home and overworked, absent parents; an affluent peer group enforcing conformity with consumer rituals and body-image obsessions. By the time Katie meets “Mark” online, her hunger for affection makes the outcome obvious, and their sordid encounter in his hotel room at her Dallas swim meet is just a cringing halfway-point in the story.

The first few chapters of the book can be hard going, especially if you’ve little sympathy or understanding of the fragile world of teenage girls - a catalogue of school and extracurricular activities, fashion magazines, the contents of closets and the uneasy detente that keeps most young girls hovering between “popular” and “freak”. It’s only after the swim meet that Katie’s circumstances grow teeth and reveal their brutal side to her. 

According to the attitudes of her teachers, parents, and the law, Katie is as much to blame for what happened, and within a day of the hotel room incident, she’s publicly apologizing to her swim team in a kind of show-trial where everyone - parents, coaches, her own mother - ritually pass the blame along to Katie, a 13-year-old girl. The constant reminders of her transgression, the social ostracism, and the dubious status of victimhood, wear her down till, like a prisoner never told what charge keeps them confined, she becomes obsessed with her own guilt: “I needed to say that I was guilty, maybe even as guilty as the man who was going to jail for our relationship...I had friends and family who loved me. In getting involved with that man named Mark on the Internet, I had betrayed them.”

In the end, is a compelling, raw read, and we learn that while Katie still uses her AOL connection, her younger sister “isn’t allowed anywhere near the Net.” It’s a logic that, brought to its logical conclusion, would blame flight simulators for air accidents, or day traders for stock market crashes. Technology, as ill-understood as it’s widely used, makes as decent a scapegoat as a 13-year-old girl and, in any case, can’t write a book to explain itself.

©2000, 2002 Rick McGinnis