Note: the following article has a personal anecdote on the grooming of minors. Trigger warning and so on, so forth.
Update: A previous version of this article stated that USA Archery mandates SafeSport training for children. This was incorrect, and has been edited out.
When I was a little kid, we would go to visit my Godfather (we’ll call him “Mordecai”) in the boonies of Georgia. Mordecai was a rotund oompa Loompa of a man, a love child of John Belushi and Danny DeVito who happened to be a successful doctor that moonlit as a professional photographer. Mordecai was single, never married, and treated me as if I was his own son. Or so I thought.
It was a trip I’d dread every time, because there was always overtly hostile tension between my Godfather and my mother. Needlessly, constantly, and maliciously, he would attack her with snark whenever she opened her mouth, look to me like a peer for affirmation, and continue his barrage of disdainful insults with his unique brand of misogamy. I was five years old when this all began.
Mordecai had a weird mission whenever we’d visit, and was hellbent on doing what he could to undermine my mother, strengthen his relationship with me, and block her out of the picture completely. Mordecai would gift me with random, expensive things. For example, one day, a giant TV probably 55 inches big showed up at our doorstep. It was given to me so “Sonic the Hedgehog would look bigger when I played.”
At his house, Mordecai had a computer upstairs, secluded from the rest of the house and right next to his bedroom. He’d bring me up there, and discretely show me videos and movies and shows that I was otherwise not allowed to watch. South Park, Alien, other R-rated flicks that were probably not super appropriate for a kid my age. But hey, Mordecai was showing these to me, so I thought he was pretty cool! And best of all, I could use that computer whenever I wanted, and so that I did. There was always one condition: “don’t tell your mom!”
I was an early riser as a kid. It was when I could get up, play video games, and do the stupid things kids do without being interrupted by the watchful eyes of my parents. I’d rise with the Georgia sun, pop up to the office, jump on the computer, and play around. Whenever Mordecai heard the tapping of keys, he’d emerge from the adjacent bedroom.
And he was usually butt naked when he did.
The first time, we made eye contact, and he pretended to be bashful, retreating to the room. I remember thinking, “gee that’s weird, but it’s Mordecai, and he’s an adult my parents like, and I trust him, so it’s all good.”
Nude Mordecai became a staple of my Georgia visits, and the naked frolicking around his house got closer and closer each time, to the point that I’d often be having “normal,” casual conversations with Mordecai face to face.
Each time I’d have a foreboding feeling overcome me that was balanced to net neutral, because this was Godfather Mordecai, friend of my parents, and the cool guy I watched naughty shows with. And that boner he’s marching around with? Okay, maybe the feeling wasn’t net neutral at all. I cringe today thinking about it. I cringe even more typing this.
Sometime around my Bar Mitzvah, my mother and father pulled the plug on Mordecai. The constant barrage of abuse towards my mother was enough for them to finally end the relationship for good. I was sad—angry even. I thought this was an opportunity for the adults to reconcile, let bygones be bygones, and he’d show up at my Bar Mitzvah. I liked this guy a lot. I didn’t want to say goodbye.
Moredecai sent me an IM over AOL Instant Messenger (my screenname was PresidentOfChina, one word, spelled exactly like that, in case you were wondering). “Your mother is trying to drive a wedge between us,” he told me. “Your mother has always been crazy. You can come visit me in Georgia anytime.”
I don’t know why, but this was the moment I realized something was amiss. Not the nakedness, not the undermining of my mother, but this. This was weird. My gut told me to go tell my mother, and I did. That burning bridge got a dose of napalm on top of it, and Mama Bear went off on Mordecai worse than the bear did on Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, we would come to find out from a mutual friend of Mordecai’s and my parents that Mordecai would often take trips to third world countries, molest children, and photograph them in lewd positions.
So when I took my mandatory SafeSport training decades later, I had a revelatory moment: “HOLY SHIT, MORDECAI WAS GROOMING ME!”
According to SafeSport documentation (as shared by the Northern California Volleyball Association), grooming occurs in the following six stages. I’ve added a column “did Mordecai do this?” to annotate my personal experience here:
|Grooming Phase||Definition||Did Mordecai Do This?|
|Targeting the Victim||“The offender targets a victim by sizing up the child’s vulnerability – emotional neediness, isolation and lower self-confidence. Children with less parental oversight are more desirable prey.”||Yeah, that pedophilic Oompa-Loompa predator absolutely did this. Each time he dissed my mom and looked to me for affirmation, or when he put me down with insults, he wanted to drive a wedge and measure his ability to get in the proverbial sexual door with me.|
|Gaining the Victim’s Trust||“The offender gains trust by watching and gathering information about the child, getting to know his needs and how to fill them. In this regard, sex offenders mix effortlessly with responsible caretakers because they generate warm and calibrated attention.”||Oh sure. This was Godfather Mordecai. He could do no wrong. We’d have these very intimate, serious conversations that absolutely encroached on inappropriate, and he mixed in effortlessly because we kept taking trips down there as if there were no forays into kiddy diddling from him.|
|Filling a Need||“Once the offender begins to fill the child’s needs, that adult may assume noticeably more importance in the child’s life and may become idealized. Gifts, extra attention, affection may distinguish one adult in particular and should raise concern and greater vigilance to be accountable for that adult.”||Every gift he gave me, every time he let me watch inappropriate shows, every time he told me ‘don’t tell your mom!” Mordecai was successfully walking down this path. And while he was certainly attentive to my older sister, she didn’t exactly fit the demographic he was trying to target.|
|Isolating the Child||“The grooming sex offender uses the developing special relationship with the child to create situations in which they are alone together. This isolation further reinforces a special connection. A special relationship can be even more reinforced when an offender cultivates a sense in the child that he is loved or appreciated in a way that others, not even parents, provide. Parents may unwittingly feed into this through their own appreciation for the unique relationship.”||Check. Office/computer upstairs right next to his bedroom, secluded from the rest of the house. This was our special time! Just us birds watching naughty shows without the knowledge of my parents.|
I’d like to isolate him in a room now and suplex him through a table, personally.
|Sexualizing the Relationship||“At a stage of sufficient emotional dependence and trust, the offender progressively sexualizes the relationship. Desensitization occurs through talking, pictures, even creating situations (like going swimming) in which both the offender and victim are naked. At that point, the adult exploits a child’s natural curiosity, using feelings of stimulation to advance the sexuality of the relationship.”||I’m not kidding when I say I have more lasting memories of Mordecai naked than I do clothed. He succeeded in normalizing his personal nudity to me.|
I honestly can’t remember if he ever had me follow suit. I blocked it out. And it’s an ongoing topic of discussion with my therapist. But something bad was happening there. I’ll leave it at that and let Alexis (my therapist) do the digging.
|Maintaining Control||“Once the sexual abuse is occurring, offenders commonly use secrecy and blame to maintain the child’s continued participation and silence – particularly because the sexual activity may cause the child to withdraw from the relationship. Children in these entangled relationships – and at this point they are entangled – confront threats to blame them, to end the relationship and toe end the emotional and material needs they associate with the relationship. The child may feel that the loss of the relationship and the consequences of exposing it will humiliate and render them even more unwanted.”||Like I said, I hated the idea of breaking ties to Mordecai. I still remember how awful it felt when he IM’ed me and tried to make me decide between him and my mom. Every joke he made ripping her, every time he made me keep secrets from her, these were ways that he sought to maintain control. And he would have kept that control, if not for the gut feeling my folks had that something strange was afoot with him.|
In summary, SafeSport training actually helped me realize far too late that I was indeed, the victim of grooming and sexual violence as a kid.
In the past month alone, two Fencing coaches have been accused of having inappropriate relations with minors. In the case of one of these coaches, he is alleged to have “…offered to help the victim with an essay for an award. He told her he would need something in return and used emojis with a sexual connotation to make his point, an arrest affidavit states. The victim sent explicit pictures over Snapchat, and a few days later, [the coach] slipped a $100 credit card in her back pocket, police said”
I suspect the young victim in the case I mentioned above had no idea these interactions were inappropriate at first. In fact, the story I cited says that she only realized it was grooming through therapy. Grooming doesn’t begin with sexual violence. It insidiously forces victims to place their trust in the predatory oompa-loompa’s like Mordecai out there, and you often don’t even realize you’re a victim until long after the sexual violence has ceased.
In Fencing, I have a personal theory as to why this behavior is prevalent. The unique Fencing coach-student relationship leaves the door open for this predatory kind of behavior. It’s far different from that of a team environment like basketball, as the coach must understand the psychology of each individual student in order to maximize their potential. This is a large part of why the coach-athlete bond in fencing is so similar to a therapist-patient one.
You have to tap into the deepest, darkest fears of a student to understand their motivations and why their mental game presents itself in a certain way. It leaves the student leaning on a coach in a vulnerable way that’s hard to describe unless you’ve been there.
99/100 coaches will take that vulnerability and use it to make that student stronger. The other 1/100 coach is Mordecai, who uses that vulnerability and exposure to prey on their students, having no interest in building them as people. It’s a beautiful thing when it works. It’s utterly terrifying when you open an article and you see the worst of it.
Offering this training to help victims spot the signs of grooming before it’s too late only stands to make our clubs stronger, and our sport safer.
These topics are hard to discuss. Hell, I hated writing this. Parents (understandably) want to believe that all people interacting with their children do so in good faith, and with the child’s best interest. Usually, that’s a safe assumption. But the unfortunate reality is, our SafeSport banned list in Fencing is now 19 people strong. There are bad actors out there, and we have to know how to spot them before it’s too late.
I wish I knew what the concept of grooming was when I was a child. I can only share my story and advocate for training with the hope that anyone dealing with their own Mordecai will be able to escape that relationship. I’m here to help anyone who needs it.