The horror sounds so familiar, so trite even, that you scarcely pause to pay attention. A successful man with a secret compulsion. In this case, one of the worst compulsions of all, to download and view child pornography.
The authorities arrive at Ryan Loskarn’s Capitol Hill apartment. Chief of staff to Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the 35-year-old Loskarn is arrested and led away. The overcoat concealing his cuffed hands fools no one. It is a feint to the illusory presumption of innocence. Within hours, he is fired.
The tragic denouement, when it arrives six weeks later, is jarring but unsurprising: Loskarn is found dead in the basement of his parents’ home in a Baltimore suburb. He hanged himself.
Case closed — except this case has a postscript that makes you think again. Several days later, on a Web site called jesseryanloskarnslastmessage.com, there appeared a haunting two-page letter by Loskarn, posted by his mother. In it, Loskarn described his humiliation, preserved for all time on the Internet, the engine of his downfall. “There is no escape,” Loskarn concluded. He apologized to family, friends and colleagues. He revealed “my deepest darkest secret.”
It is a remarkable letter, intelligent and haunting.
“The first time I saw child pornography was during a search for music on a peer-to-peer network,” Loskarn wrote. “I wasn’t seeking it but I didn’t turn away when I saw it. Until that moment, the only place I’d seen these sorts of images was in my mind.”
What put them there? “I found myself drawn to videos that matched my own childhood abuse,” the letter continued. “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 . . . .
“As a child I didn’t understand what had happened at the time of the abuse. I did know that I must not tell anyone, ever. Later the memories took on new and more troubling meaning when I became a teenager. They started to appear more often and made me feel increasingly apart from everyone else. In my mind I instigated and enjoyed the abuse — even as a five and nine year old — no matter the age difference.”
Let me emphasize: There is no excuse for viewing child pornography. It is the antithesis of a victimless crime. Those who seek it out are culpable, along with those who produce it. As Loskarn wrote to the children in the images he viewed, “I perpetuated your abuse and that will be a burden on my soul for the rest of my life.”
The matter-of-fact language of the court documents in Loskarn’s case belies the revolting substance of the videos he downloaded. Postal inspectors reported video of “an adult male partially undressing a prepubescent girl approximately 6-9 years of age, with the male subsequently masturbating the girl and anally and vaginally penetrating her.”
To read the briefs in a child pornography case now before the Supreme Court is to understand the continuing harm, especially in an era when images can be so easily accessed online. “Every day of my life I live in constant fear that someone will see my pictures and recognize me and that I will be humiliated all over again,” the victim, identified only as Amy, wrote in explaining her effort to collect damages from a man who viewed her pictures.
Yet Loskarn’s example requires us to recognize the uncomfortable truth that damage is not always one-sided. Victims can become victimizers. Some people do terrible things because they are purely evil, others because they are terribly damaged.
We should use this sad episode to call attention to the need for mental health services — although Loskarn’s problem was not lack of access but lack of willingness to accept the help available. “I told myself that I was superior to other people because I had dealt with this thing on my own,” he wrote.
We should use the case to consider the societal implications of a technological environment that has facilitated an online epidemic of child pornography, increasingly violent and exploiting increasingly young children.
But we should also use the moment to remind ourselves that reality is more complex than our cursory assumptions acknowledge, and that before we rush to condemn we might pause to consider the possibility of compassion.