Was Senate staffer Ryan Loskarn a victim of child abuse, an abuser or both?

Petula Dvorak
Columnist January 30

We have to face the ugliness and deal with it.

Jesse Ryan Loskarn couldn’t, and because of that, one tragedy became another and another. And yes, the Senate staffer is a victim — and an abuser, too.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Loskarn, 35, spoke from the grave this week in a sad, searing letter he apparently wrote before hanging himself in his parents’ basement.

The chief of staff for Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) was arrested last month after a child pornography investigation led to his Capitol Hill home, where he tried to hide a computer hard drive that contained seriously horrid films of children being raped.

Loskarn had these films for a couple of years. After going to committee meetings, campaign fundraisers and Hill happy hours, he came home and watched, according to court charging documents, a video of a young girl being raped in the woods. And hundreds of others like that. While watching them, he wrote in his letter, he “felt a connection.”

He spent 30 years feeling alone. And then he found others like him.

“He found out that he wasn’t alone through the child porn,” said Curtis St. John, a sexual abuse survivor who tries to help others through a network called MaleSurvivor. “He found the same scenarios that he was put through.”

Loskarn didn’t find a sense of belonging through support groups or Politico Playbook microfame or in the bottom of happy-hour glasses. He found companionship in child porn.

“I found myself drawn to videos that matched my own childhood abuse,” he wrote. “It’s painful and humiliating to admit to myself, let alone the whole world, but I pictured myself as a child in the image or video. The more an image mirrored some element of my memories and took me back, the more I felt a connection.”

I know. Ugly. Really ugly. And that’s the problem.

Loskarn used that letter, which his mother posted online this week, to divulge that he had been sexually abused when he was ages 5 and 9, somewhere in the Maryland suburb of Carroll County.

We don’t know who abused him. It could have been anyone. Statistics say it was someone he knew and trusted — about three-quarters of abusers are a friend, teacher, coach or family member.

We don’t know if Loskarn’s parents knew about his abuse. Sounds like they didn’t because Loskarn said he hadn’t told anyone until he was on suicide watch at the D.C. jail after his Dec. 11 arrest, and one perceptive counselor drew it out of him.

Before that, he felt alone, even though he never was.

“If you know more than six men, then you know someone who has been abused,” said St. John, who kept silent until his abuser, middle-school teacher Albert Fentress, went on to abuse, kill and cannibalize a teenage boy in his home town of Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Then, when St. John showed up to testify at a parole hearing, he ran into his best friend, who had been abused, too. They were both in their own private hells, keeping quiet, being stoic, sparing everyone from the ugliness.

Loskarn did that, too.

“As a child I didn’t understand what had happened at the time of the abuse,” he wrote. “I did know that I must not tell anyone, ever. In my mind I instigated and enjoyed the abuse — even as a five and nine year old — no matter the age difference. Discussing what had happened would have meant shame and blame.”

The cycle of abuse continued when Loskarn bought and watched child porn.

Certainly, most victims do not go on to become abusers. And all abusers weren’t once victims, said Scott Berkowitz, president and founder of RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, based in Northwest Washington.

But the culture of silence is the most dangerous incubator of abuse.

Loskarn was not innocent and made it clear that he knew what he was doing was wrong. His history as a victim is an explanation but not an excuse.

He’s guilty, but so are we. Because we are a society so reluctant to confront sexual abuse, to go beyond oversimplified “good touch/bad touch” explanations, to call police, we are perpetuating the cycle, too. Being a victim of sexual abuse is so taboo in our society, Loskarn made it a badge of honor in his mind.

“I told myself that I was superior to other people because I had dealt with this thing on my own,” he wrote. “In retrospect, the qualities that helped me succeed on Capitol Hill were probably developed partly as a result of the abuse and how it shaped me.”

He did not, in the end, succeed in dealing with repercussions on his own. Instead, he became an abuser himself, trafficking in other children’s misery and then taking his own life amid the guilt and shame.

If only it had been okay for him — and for us — to talk about the ugliness. Maybe Loskarn would still be alive.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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