Evil at Our Table

My life amongst monsters.


Evil is unspectacular and always human

And shares our bed and eats at our own table.

–W. H Auden

Disclaimer

The stories in this book are true. All of the facts of the cases are based on my first-hand knowledge; I have not exaggerated to heighten drama.  

In telling these stories, however, I have confronted constraints.  A psychologist’s obligation to keep her client’s information confidential is a legal one. I have therefore changed all of the names and altered many of the details so that no individual could be identified. In addition to using pseudonyms, I have changed ages, birth places, location, and races. I have not altered the facts of the crimes or my experiences with the clients and in the prisons.

I have made the changes I did for many reasons: to protect psychologist-patient confidentiality, to protect the families of both victims of crimes and the criminals who commit them (even the families of sex offenders are entitled to privacy and respect), to conceal the identity of those who would not want their association with me revealed, including correctional officers, other psychologists, friends, parole agents, judges, and prosecutors.  

Finally, I have also changed the names of the members of my family.  While they are both an integral part of my story and a source of pride for me, I thought they were entitled to lead a private and “normal” life in spite of the intense nature of the work I do and my desire to write about it. I have endeavored to write an honest memoir without revealing confidences, so I have told my story (and the stories of others) in a way that is faithful to the truth as I see it, as well as to the people they feature, without betraying their trust. 

Final Note

This book may contain content that is triggering or upsetting to people. I have done my utmost to leave out unnecessary details of events and crimes to prevent psychological harm to my readers. That said, for some, it may trigger traumatic memories, feelings, thoughts, or associations. If so, I encourage you to seek help and support from a qualified source. 

I have written this book, in spite of it’s challenging material, because it is my utmost hope that ultimately this book will be deeply healing, and encourage a deeper level of conversation about the issues within. 

Part One: Committed

The world will not be destroyed by evil,

but by those who watch them without doing anything.

–Albert Einstein

1.

I wake in the dark hours of the morning to head out to the prison where I’m scheduled to interview a violent sex offender in a few hours. By then the house will be filled with light and commotion, Josh getting our eleven-year-olds Eva and Rachel and our eight-year-old Kye up and ready for school. But at this moment the house is dark, still, and quiet. Even Jesse, lying sideways on her ratty dog bed, lies motionless. I’ll be long gone when they wake.

I meditate, then slip quietly out of the bedroom so not to wake Josh. I dress in the bathroom where I hung my clothes the night before: button-down shirt, blazer, dress pants, glasses, and comfortable black shoes. My forensic psychologist uniform doubles as an emotional barricade, and as I look in the mirror I do feel armored. I’m not wearing tan, denim blue, or orange by decree, to ensure that in the event of a fight or prison riot, I won’t be mistaken for one of the inmates and accidentally shot by a correctional officer attempting to restore order.

Pretty quickly I’m over the bridge and out of San Francisco, and I-80 is deserted in the wee hours. Cool, dark, and lonely, which is just how I like it. As for me, I’m wide awake and ready for whatever’s ahead. A day in prison never goes exactly how you think it will, and the men I meet are always more than their files portray. But I’ve done this many times before, and the one-and-a-half-hour drive passes without much thought as I drift between stations on the radio.

I arrive at the California State Prison, Solano at 8:00 a.m. The sun is up. I reach the vast parking lot and stop for a moment to take in the trees and fields and order my thoughts. The area surrounding this prison is serene. There aren’t many people who want to live close to prisons, so that’s not actually unusual. A left turn up a bucolic road and suddenly the compound appears behind the trees: a large asphalt parking lot and a twelve-foot high metal fence topped by a roll of barbed wire surrounding a collection of gray, ugly concrete buildings.

I park and clip on my prison ID, grab my bag and walk through the lot to enter the small office at the front of the building where I show my badge to the correctional officer. He is chatting with another officer and continues the conversation as he checks my ID, gives me a nod, and searches my bag. He hands it back to me after I walk through the metal detector. On the other side, I stand and wait patiently for the door to be buzzed open along with the group that has accumulated. We step through and wait for the door to click behind us. After a few beats, the second door clicks open and we enter.

I walk through the prison, a woman alone in a male world. Men in identical prison denim stride through hallways in organized lines monitored by correctional officers in olive drab jumpsuits and black boots. Surfaces are hard and naked, so voices echo loudly and constantly and a kind of noisy controlled chaos reigns. On my first visit to prison I was shocked to find myself in such close proximity to inmates in hallways and in the yard. I’d imagined the inmates were kept segregated from everyone else. Instead, prison is more like a small town, inhabited mostly by men, all wearing the same clothing with “CDCR INMATE” lettered across the back. Only the inhabitants of this town can never leave.

I’m surrounded by the men, the constant sound of voices, of metal, of heavy doors opening and slamming shut. I’m not anxious anymore, but I’m not completely used to it, either.

I’ve already reviewed most of the records of the man I’m about to meet—criminal records, police reports, court reports, psychological evaluations, prison records, and medical records—but I read through some additional paperwork on site. The officer in charge of coordinating these visits walks me to the interview office and goes to get the inmate. I sit down at the desk, pull out my interview forms and a pen, and wait. The chair is hard and uncomfortable. It’s a medium-sized office with bare white walls, a desk, two chairs, a phone. A small window covered with a grate lets in a bit of natural light, but the room is flooded by bright fluorescent bulbs. The place is clean, almost sterile.

I’m prepared and relaxed, mostly at ease, but I have yet to meet this particular man, and his files are replete with violence. I click and unclick the top of my pen. I’ve read the victims’ reports in detail, so I know the violence he’s capable of. I’ve studied what his life as a criminal has been like and how he has behaved in prison. But I also know that a man rarely looks like his prison records—most often he looks pretty ordinary. Dissonance is always a part of this job: the backstory, the violence, and the history versus the person, the human, the face, the eyes, the posture, the thoughts, and the feelings in front of me. Ultimately, I know I’m not the person in this meeting who’ll feel most nervous today. The stakes are significantly higher for him. For these inmates, my evaluations mean the difference between indefinite hospitalization or being released on parole. My “yes” or “no” decisions could determine the rest of a life. This means that every so often my introduction is met with anger. But most of the men are well-behaved and polite, answering my questions to the best of their ability. They desperately want to go free.

**********

After a weapons search, Joe is led into the room. He’s more than six-and-a-half feet tall, his bulky arms, muscular chest, and broad shoulders visible under his prison uniform. His bearing is formidable, despite being on crutches due to missing the bottom of his right leg—shot off during a fight, according to his file. His presence is a visceral reminder of his lengthy history of brutal violence against others, especially women.

In spite of the obvious match between his presence and the description in his file, I ask to check his prison ID. Early on in my work, I started an interview with a man who had the right name but was the wrong person—the prison had summoned a different inmate with the same name. I can still remember my shock when I discovered the error. This evaluation has severe consequences, so it’s a mistake I won’t be making again.

The ID checks out. I nod to the correctional officer, who leaves. Joe sits down across the desk from me, and I study him as I hand back his ID. He has an intensity akin to charisma—his pale skin, slow-blinking blue eyes, and incredible calm in the face of what, for most, would be an extremely anxiety-provoking circumstance. I’m aware as I study him that he is studying me in return. I’m not afraid, but I’m on alert. My senses feel close to the skin and my mind sharp as we assess one another.

The correctional officers down the hall and the personal alarm on the desk are part of the reason I’m not afraid. The alarm looks like a garage door opener, I sit with it directly in front of me. I could grab it if I needed to. I’ve yet to use one, but I’m glad it’s there. Sometimes men know in advance why I’m here to see them, but often they don’t. I explain to Joe that I’m a psychologist with the Department of Mental Health.

“I’m here to evaluate you,” I say to him, “and I’m going to read an explanation of why I’m here. If you have any questions, I will be happy to answer them.”

I take a deep breath as I launch into a legally required explanation of the ramifications of the conversation we’re about to have and say, “You are being evaluated to determine whether you may be a Sexually Violent Predator under Section 6600 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code.” I explain that the purpose of the evaluation is to decide whether he has a mental condition that makes him likely to commit sexual crimes in the future. If he meets the criteria, he could be sent to court for trial—and if he is then found to be a Sexually Violent Predator, he will be sent to a sex offender treatment program at a state mental hospital. His commitment will end when the court determines he’s no longer likely to commit sexual crimes. Then, and only then, will he be released.

I am, in effect, telling him this: Instead of being released from prison at your upcoming parole date (for which you’ve been waiting months, years, decades), you may instead be locked up, indefinitely, in a mental institution. And I’m here to figure out which to recommend. Release, or lock up.

I pause from my reading and look up. The information comes as a shock to most men, so the moment can be unnerving for them, to say the least. And for me, it’s the moment when the weight of the responsibility and power of my role hits me with full force, every time.

These men know why they’re in prison. The sex offenders I evaluate know they’ve been convicted of committing a sex offense. But my evaluation still comes as a shock, because most of them are not aware of the Sexually Violent Predator Act—the law that requires them to submit to a psychological evaluation whose outcome could prevent their release until they are considered at lower risk of reoffense. Even those who are aware of the law seldom think of themselves as “predators.” Most prisoners, like most people, tend to see their lives as a series of random events rather than viewing their actions as part of a malevolent pattern. They are like the rest of us, with problems big and small: the alcoholic who wakes up with a hangover but thinks, “Well, next time I won’t drink so much,” or the mother who feels guilty after smacking her child but thinks, “Next time she’ll think twice before mouthing off.” In the back of their minds, they wonder if they might have a problem. But facing that problem is overwhelming, like trying to swim to a shore you cannot see.

I’ve tried to imagine what it would be like if the tables were turned—if I were the one sitting down with a stranger whose diagnosis could so radically alter the course of my life. How would I process that weight of this moment? How does he process it? I look into Joe’s eyes, and he meets my gaze coolly and simply nods. He has understood and gives off only an eerie calm.

I look down and continue to read, explaining the SVP process. There’s no confidentiality, I tell Joe. Anything he says could go into my report and be heard in court if I testify. I tell him the interview is voluntary, but that if he doesn’t consent, the evaluation will still be completed using only legal and prison records.

While they don’t want to incriminate themselves by saying the wrong thing, most men agree to the interview. They’re either afraid to look uncooperative or looking to tell their own side of the story. Joe simply shrugs, agrees with a nod to sign the consent form. “Let’s do it,” he says.

**********

Joe’s life reads like the stories that compel lawmakers to be “tough on crime,” a criminal record that starts when he is thirteen and only gets worse as time goes on. Between the ages of eighteen and thirty-eight he was arrested nineteen times. For burglaries, drug possessions and/or sales, selling stolen property, battery, kidnapping, attempted kidnapping, robbery, battery/assault, and others. Most notable (and the reason I’m here) among the crimes are his multiple sex offenses, which are brutal and intense. He has beaten women and raped them in violent ways. One time he broke a woman’s jaw and then forced her to perform oral sex.

I ask Joe to tell me about his criminal history. He replies, “I’ve got too many arrests to count.” And it’s true. Even though his last prison sentence was for twenty-five years, his criminal activity didn’t stop once he was on the inside. They never caught him doing anything that warranted new charges, but it’s clear he has never been terribly concerned with following rules, regardless of where he has lived. And now he’s about to be released from prison, a man past the middle years of his life, a life spent as a thug, inside and outside of prison.

Joe is casual while talking about himself and forceful about portraying his life from his perspective: full of contradictions and completely different from the records I just read. Each time I ask him about a discrepancy, he throws back his head and laughs.

“Some people just don’t understand me,” he says, or “People exaggerate,” or “People just don’t understand what’s going on.” He stares directly at me when he speaks, a smile playing across his face, his unwavering eye contact daring me to contradict him.

“It says here in your records that you got kicked out of a therapy group for lying,” I say, “Would you tell me about it?”

“Nah, I quit,” he replies.

“How do you explain the contradiction? Are the records wrong?”

“People lie,” he says, and shrugs. His eyes meet mine. We pause a beat.

As the interview proceeds it becomes clear that he has no empathy for anyone he has harmed. I ask him about his early years. He chuckles.

“I remember one time,” he says, smiling, “I was little. Maybe five years old. I used to love to play tricks on my family. One time I hid out in the backyard after dark. I could see all the lights on in the house, and I could hear when they started looking for me. They all freaked—yelling for me, tryin’ to find me. I was laughin’ when I finally went inside.”

He tells story after story like this, and it becomes clear that he is very likely psychopathic—someone who truly experiences no empathy for others—and that even childhood physical abuse, though likely, can’t explain how he turned out this way. There’s some new research that points to a difference in the brain structure (amygdala) of psychopaths, but it’s still mostly unknown why the rare individual comes along who is unable to feel anything for others. However it happens, this man seems to be one of them. He clinically tells me about severely beating a boy in high school with a rope just because he was “curious what it would be like.”

One could say I’ve been presented with a rare opportunity to interview a subject who is a likely psychopath and a potential sexual sadist, and to be honest, I am fascinated. But the interview takes a toll; it’s an effort to stay detached. Not because of how alien or frightening the situation is. But because there are ways in which Joe is charming, funny, and direct. His lies are clever part-truths, which at times seem almost plausible. I have to continually check my records to stay grounded in the facts.

“It says here you have struggled with a cocaine addiction,” I say.

“Nah,” he replies, “I was never really addicted to any drugs. I just happened to be around the wrong people and that’s the way it is in life.”

“But even in your most recent case you admitted you were using cocaine,” I cock my head sideways and use a puzzled tone, confronting the contradiction without confronting him.

He doesn’t miss a beat. He leans forward in his chair and props his elbows on his thighs, his biceps flexing. “Some people get off with claims of being high or temporary insanity,” he says. “For some reason that didn’t work for me.”

As I write all of this down, I become aware that he hasn’t actually answered the question, or many of my other questions. His answers lead in circles, or to insinuations, rather than to conclusions. He lies without lying. He talks but says nothing.

There are times when he seems like an ordinary man, and it almost feels like we make some sort of connection. He smiles easily. He’s disarmingly warm and charming, if prone to the occasional cliché. “People are capable of change,” he asserts at one point, “and I have changed for the better.” His smile is expansive. I can see how some women might be seduced by him.

It’s work to retain perspective, to figure out who he is and what he’s about. He’s good at knocking people off-balance, off-topic, off-center. He talks about a teacher he admired, or how much he loved his wife. It feels ordinary, until I ask him about charges for almost beating a man to death, or the time his wife came to visit him in prison and he lost his temper and began to beat her.

I ask him, as I do all men I evaluate, in detail about each of the sexual offenses he has committed, each of the women who accused him of approaching them seductively before he turned brutal and violent.

“There’s a case here in 1994,” I say, “when you were reported to have forced this woman to perform oral sex on you, which you alternated with raping her anally until she vomited. Do you remember this case and what happened?”

He laughs. “She was a liar,” he says, “she was a prostitute who just wanted to get paid.”

He laughs off each of the sex offenses, one by one, casually denying any of them happened. It’s not unusual for someone to deny committing offenses, laughing or not, so I push him a bit to see what will happen. I’m not expecting much, but offenders with a conscience will sometimes open up when pressed a little.

“Wow,” I say, in a puzzled tone, looking up from my paperwork, “what bad luck that all of these women have lied about you. Is none of this true? Maybe some of it is true?” I pause and look him calmly in the eyes, waiting.

He sits back and folds his arms, equally calm. “None of its true,” he says, and looks at me with eyebrows slightly raised, daring me to try to get more out of him, confident I’ll back down.

His eyes are cold and without any detectable feeling, and now my skin prickles. I know that in this moment it wouldn’t take much for him to turn violent on me. He is in control, visibly calculating his every word and move. And he doesn’t give a damn about consequences.

The charged moment passes as I casually move on to the next question, a benign one. I continue to take notes, the evaluation taking shape in the back of my mind. It’s my task in this interview to get as much from Joe as possible, both from what he says and from what is left unsaid. I have more than twenty pages of questions to get through, and the rest of our time together moves swiftly. By the end of the two hours I have a pretty good sense of what Joe is like. A man who does what he wants, looks out for himself, and has little empathy or care for anyone else.

After my last question I ask if there’s anything he’d like to add or ask, but he just shrugs, half smiles, and shakes his head. I push back my chair and walk by him to the door to alert the officer in the hall that the interview is finished, careful not to leave my back exposed to him in the process.

I’m relieved the hours-long interview is finally over. My mouth is dry and I’m itching to get away from prison’s antiseptic smell and cold filtered light. I’ve been up since before dawn, and the intensely focused state I must inhabit to conduct these interviews has worn me down.

***********

The weak winter sun is still high, but has moved to the other side of the sky when I step outside the prison. I shiver a little but am glad to be out in the air—relieved to be free.

I don’t notice the scenery on the drive home. I’m thinking about Joe and the case as a whole. What I said, what he said, what the records said, sifting through it all. There’s no question he fits the profile of a psychopathic individual, someone who is completely without empathy. But as far as my job is concerned, that’s only part of the question and not even the most important one. The question I’ll have to wrestle with for my evaluation is, Why did he commit the sex offenses specifically, and will he feel a powerful urge to do it again? The law is designed to capture only those who feel compelled to commit sex offenses over and over again because of a mental disorder related to the crimes. I’ll have to decide if he fits this profile. It’s not a question of whether or not he’s a dangerous man. Or a bad man. The question is whether or not he’s likely to rape a woman again.

I must take into account the fact that despite his long, violent history, he has not committed any acts of violence in almost twenty years, and that he’s now in his fifties. He may not have changed much psychologically, but physically, he has. Even though he’s fit and muscular, research indicates that something happens to men as they age—perhaps related to testosterone production—that slows them down and makes them less aggressive or prone to violence.

This case is complex, and I decide to consult a colleague or two. In cases where someone is brutal and violent but may not meet the criteria, it’s always good to have a second opinion.

There was something haphazard to the way that I got into this work: the opportunity presented itself, and I found that I was good at it. But what a supervisor said to me years ago also rings true for me: When a sex offender makes changes for the better, it could mean trauma prevention for would-be victims.

The sun is lower by the time I cross the bridge back into the city. I fiddle with the radio and absentmindedly sing along, shifting my mind toward home, my kids, my life.

2.

I arrive home in time for predinner chaos. Eleven-year-old Rachel and Eva are in their bedroom at their desks, chatting noisily over their pop music as they do homework. eight-year-old Kye stands in the kitchen talking to their dad loudly over the rock music Josh is playing while he cooks.

“Hi Mommy!” they exclaim in their excited eight-year-old way when I walk in, throwing their arms around me.

“Hey sweetie,” I say, grateful for the contact, squeezing them back with a deep breath and a smile. “How was your day?”

“Good,” they say, releasing our hug. “I got an ‘A’ on my math test!”

“That’s great, Kye!” I exclaim, walking over toward Josh.

“Hey,” I say, hooking my arm around his middle and kissing him hello.

“Hey,” he says, kissing me back. “Dinner’s almost ready.”

“Great,” I reply, meaning it. I’m very happy that I don’t have to start cooking right now. “I’m gonna go put my stuff down and change, and then we can meditate?”

“Yup.”

“Okay kids!” I yell. “Almost time to meditate! Let’s get ready!”

I walk into the small office I share with Josh, drop my bag by my desk, and head for the bedroom. There, I peel off my professional armor down to my underwear, replacing it with my favorite evening wear: flannel pajama bottoms, a tank top, and a sweatshirt. I can feel my body begin to loosen and unwind and I stretch to pull it even looser. The house quiets as Rachel, Eva, Josh and I sit down to meditate and Kye begins their walking mantra. The kids were introduced to twice-daily meditation when they were four years old, so they know the drill. It’s part of our routine.

Sitting down to it isn’t always easy. I’ve been practicing Transcendental Meditation for close to thirty years, and still sometimes at the end of the day I think, “I don’t feel like meditating today,” or “I don’t have time.” I do it anyway. I have to.

When I first started working with sexual and violent offenders, one of my coworkers said he made it a ritual to go home right after work and take a long, hot shower to cleanse himself from the hard things he’d heard that day. I get it. What’s a “normal” reaction to interviewing a violent sex offender? My feelings are what anyone else’s might be: sometimes there’s empathy, fascination, enjoyment or fulfillment; often there’s horror, anger, and deep sadness.

To be effective at my job, I have to partition these experiences. I observe what I feel and think in the same way that I observe what I hear, see, and understand during my interviews. My focus, effort, and concentration are on paying attention to all cues, both external and internal, and reacting to none of them. It’s a deeply felt and rigorous process that goes beyond vague platitudes about maintaining professional boundaries.

Leaving my interview with Joe today, I walked out to my car and started the process of lifting that partition dividing my inner experience from my observing mind. As the partition lifts, I feel ungrounded for a while. My thoughts swirl as I remember things Joe said, how I felt, moments between us. I think about what’s in the files, how he’ll score on the risk measures, but I also think about what it means that someone like him exists in the world. What if my children meet someone like him someday? I’m integrating all the information gathered during the interview and forming a picture in my mind, but I’m also integrating the experience into my life, and placing it in my knowledge of the world.

My homecoming is the final stage in my process of reentry. Kye throws their arms around me and I breathe in their smell, taking in their joy at seeing me, their excitement, my overwhelming love for them. I yearn to be fully present with them, Josh, Rachel and Eva, to give them my all. But I am still thinking, integrating, and observing.

So I sit down. I sit down on the big king bed that fills our little room and close my eyes. The mantra comes. Thoughts come, feelings come. The mantra returns. Each time I think the mantra, my mind gets quieter, more settled. My body relaxes. The mantra comes and I’m transcending until there is nothing. There is only silence. And being. My heart unwraps like a present.

When I open my eyes, my mind is quieter. I have landed, here. Everything in my day—Joe, the prison, his victims, the drive home, my children, Josh, my dog—they’re all real, and important. And at the same time, they’re all ordinary, and part of life. I’m home. I’m fully me, again.

**********

We finish meditating and rise for dinner. Josh and I have been married for our entire adult lives, and we move in a shared rhythm as we go about the evening. Dinner is put on the table, kids are called in to eat, everyone sits and takes a quiet moment to appreciate the meal. Then Rachel launches into a critique of the outfit her math teacher was wearing today.

“Why would she wear that jacket with those pants?” she asks. “They didn’t even look good together and were terrible for her body shape. I mean, really.” She rolls her eyes. Creating a new look every day is her driving passion, so she is acutely aware of the fashion choices of others. Today her hair is fuchsia, her outfit a study in black and white.

“It’s true,” Eva smiles, validating her twin’s perspective. She has a very different look, the neurodivergent, understated tomboy to her sister’s girly punk, but she can appreciate a good outfit.

Rachel and Eva have entered middle school this year, and we are all adjusting. Feeling grateful not to be a middle school teacher, I wonder how long I have before my style comes under the microscope.

“There are a lot of complicated factors that go into choosing your outfit,” I say, “and not everyone knows how to do it well.”

Kye tries to chime in with their own opinions. “Maybe she thinks it looks good,” they say.

       As dinner continues, I feel my heart loosen another notch in my chest, and I am grateful. Grateful for how these four people root me in the ordinary. There is bickering from time to time, but no one worries about being loved. No one at this table is guarded, including me. I don’t have to be careful in choosing my words here, or maintain an emotional distance from what’s being discussed.

There’s nothing magical about this dinner. We pass the salt, we tease and laugh, listen and support, or talk over one another and sometimes lash out in frustration. We connect or fail to connect in all of the everyday ways that families do, and don’t. But it is this ordinariness that allows me to breathe and open again. For most of that preciously mundane half-hour, I leave the dark, dangerous, and ugly world of prisons and sex offenders behind.