It turned out that Brents had followed my work. A few months before he was released from prison I had finished co-authoring an investigation into how the military mishandles domestic violence and sexual assault. It resonated with him, not because he was a perpetrator, but because the angry man-child within him, considered himself a victim.
Records and accounts from family members indicate that Brents’ father was a violent, sadistic man. The two children from his second marriage were removed from the home because of his abuse, and Brents and his brother, the product of his father’s third marriage, were also removed from the home, although for unknown reasons, Brent was returned.
This is Brent’s first grade picture. His father had been raping him for three years by then. A few weeks after this next picture was taken,
BRENT J. BRENTS — At age 13
when Brent was 12, his father beat him so badly that Brent suffered what medical records described as a left orbital blowout fracture—his left eye socket was broken. He’s had seizures ever since. I will spare you the details of the sexual torture he endured. He said his father told him that he himself had been beaten and sexually abused as a child by his father, Brent’s grandfather.
And so the pattern repeated. Pain, degradation, shame. Brent Brents did to others what had been done to him as a boy, and while he was still a boy, like many victims, he blamed himself. He once wrote, “I can’t remember much about when I was real young except fear and shame and lack of courage.”
Shame is an enormous trigger of violence. Brents told me that after that detective said to him, Turn yourself in you little punk, he, Brents, worked himself into a rage. Then he went on his final horrifying crime spree.
I’m not saying these factors are an excuse for the violence Brents inflicted upon others. He made choices. He absolutely deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison. But knowing what happened to him helps explain why someone like Brents committed such violence with a lack of empathy–that his brain was predisposed toward it, and the abuse inflicted on him was his model.
It’s human nature to want to distance yourself from someone like him. Label him as a “monster,” dismiss him as evil, because we don’t want to have anything in common with such a monster–it could mean we, too, are capable of monstrous things.
It also makes it too easy. When we put rapists in the category of “monster” it may make us feel safer today but it’s more dangerous for tomorrow. Because then we won’t believe that the “monster” can be a neighbor, a good friend, a coworker. That enables them to hide in plain sight.
The dominant theme of how to prevent sexual assault today is cloaked in helpful advice, like don’t walk alone, don’t drink, don’t put yourself at risk—and the message, primarily to women, is, Don’t. Get. Raped.
How about we turn the spotlight to a different population and say, Don’t. Rape. And then take it one step further and ask, what are we doing wrong as a culture that we continue to produce rapists? Because whether it’s the ex-convict who attacks a stranger, the college boy who rapes his girlfriend or the celebrity who drugs and assaults his victims—they’re all choosing to exert their anger, power and control over someone else. With that choice, they are all the same, and they all leave pain in their wake.
I’ve interviewed more than fifty survivors of campus sexual assault in the past two years alone and the details I learn about their perpetrators paint a picture of SO MANY young men being deliberately predatory. They isolate their intended victim, ply them with alcohol or drugs, lock doors, ignore tears, ignore pleas to stop or ignore the fact their victim is limp with fear or is unconscious.
Ten years ago, Brent Brents was sentenced to 1,509 years. Today all over this country we are seeing new generations of serial rapists. Why is this still happening?
Why do we continue to reinforce the message to boys and young men that their worth is linked to their ability to dominate?
What if we prized compassion more than power?
When they’re little, we tell our children to play nicely in the sandbox.
As they get older, we say, don’t get in fights on the playground. Take a breath, count to ten, walk away.
Then they get even older and we teach them about the biological aspects of sex—health and reproduction.
What if we evolved those conversations with our youth, and teach them how feeling shame, feeling powerless or feeling angry–all of which cover up hurt and rejection—COULD cause them to want to dominate someone else?
And that they can learn to recognize triggers and not act upon them.
At least start that conversation.
And then speak up if you witness predatory behavior—and you’ll know it when you see it. Don’t make excuses. Don’t look away. Don’t cover it up.
And because sexual violence happens on a continuum—escalating from verbal harassment to physical attacks–Speak up when you hear or read a joke about sexual assault, or victimization. It’s not funny, it’s not sexy. It’s dangerous.
If someone confides in you they’ve been assaulted, believe them–false reporting is extremely rare, so yes, believe them. Listen to them without judgment. Help them find resources, and then support whatever they decide to do.
For perpetrators– Brents told me that group counseling for sexual offenders in prison does not work. For an inmate to even be seen going to sex offender group risks their safety, and once there, they don’t want to be seen as vulnerable. It’s hard to change when you’re living in fear. And if we really do want to help them try to change, let’s offer more of the respect and compassion that can be felt with one-on-one, focused attention—something a damaged person desperately needs.
Instead of building more prisons and focusing only on punishing the perpetrators, why don’t we try to prevent them?
Reader: I honestly believe that he wanted to be different than the person he became
I read your book and have followed the blog on and off over the years but not every post. In the book I noticed that one of the themes was that Brent “fell through the cracks” and that he never got the support for his own abuse.
My question is if he ever spoke about being locked up as a teen in a Youth program for violent and sexual offenders. C.A.T House. (Closed Adolescent Treatment Center)?
I do know that he was there for rape and that he was given every opportunity possible for some sort of rehabilitation and a chance to steer himself to a different life. The program at the time was the most successful program for youth offenders in the country.
I struggle with the idea that he had been totally cast aside because the truth is somewhat different from my perspective. Each individual is affected differently and someone wanting to change is critical but I do know he had the opportunity. I may have missed it in the book but was curious if this was something he spoke to you about?
I have thought about sending this on and off over the years because I am torn in the idea that it is important for people to understand but also in the idea that he does not deserve a platform to manipulate and seek further attention. I do know that we have to help change the culture and environment that creates predators/victimizer’s and most importantly victims.
I appreciate your diligence in bringing a story forward that nobody really wanted to know or hear but is important to be told. Not for Brent but for all of the victims and for all of those who were abused and never found a voice.
January 5, 2018
I will try to address your questions and concerns in order.
The first is that one of the themes of the book is that Brent “fell through the cracks.” While I do believe the facts of his case support that statement–that he was removed from an abusive home, and then returned–I don’t know that I would call it a theme. The themes of the book, in my opinion, are abandonment, generational patterns of abuse, the effects of both victimization and predatory behavior, and transformation that involves compassion and empathy.
Please do not misunderstand that I feel sorry for him. If you’re looking for clarity on how I feel about him and his case, you may want to read “The Story” on the website, in which I say in part:
“Where does the blame belong? It belongs to Brents, certainly, for his choices. And what of his parents, and their parents before them, who perpetuated the cycle of incest, domestic violence and child abuse?”
The book does not say, nor have I, that he never got support for his own abuse. He has said that he was given the chance for therapy and treatment–I do not recall him specifically mentioning the C.A.T. House, although I could ask him–and that by the time it was offered, he was not interested.
I do not believe that he was totally cast aside. I do believe him when he says that by the age of 9, his brain was broken, and that he chose to be a predator because it gave him a feeling of power, and that was more appealing than feeling like a victim.
I stay in touch with Brents, and post blogs from him, not to give him a platform to seek attention or be manipulative, but to show some of the causes of why he became predatory; that he is, indeed, human; and to illustrate his case, because so many elements of it are indicative of what’s wrong with our social justice system. I understand you object to the blog, and I appreciate you taking the time to tell me; however, please know that I will continue it.
I also appreciate the fact that you have obviously had some experience with this topic and cared enough to write. I now have a question for you: Would you object to my posting your letter on the website? I would not include your email address, of course. Let me know.
Last, I absolutely agree with you that we have to change the culture that creates predators and therefore, survivors.
Here’s to hoping for a brighter future.
January 5, 2018
I had a chance to talk to Brents today, and he does remember being in the C.A.T. House. And he remembers a Jason who was serving time there, too, and spoke well of him.
If that’s you, then he sends a greeting.
Also, please let me know if it’s OK with you if I post your letter.
January 12, 2018
I do not want to create any issues for any of his victims or for you or lastly Brent, so I will leave it to your judgement as to what is appropriate to post.
I was in the C.A.T House with Brent. I know that the program, truly gave him/myself and others the chance to be better people and to change. While I do not think we can ever make amends for the wrongs we have done, we can live a life that serves others as well as ourselves. Has accountability and promotes healing of our own damage and demons. That was a fundamental part of the program.
I do understand that some people were not in the place to change, did not want to change or perhaps were too broken to change. I can not say for anyone but myself. I just wondered why it was something he never mentioned as it was a large portion of time for him (2 plus years I believe of intensive daily 24-7 treatment)
I can say that I have seen both sides of Brent from the perspective of a child, it breaks my heart that he continued to create more victims and I am beyond angry at who he chose to become. I am grateful that he is in a place where he has less opportunity to cause harm to others.
That being said,
I also mourn for that young man who never lived a different life, he had hopes and dreams and at least then… I honestly believe that he wanted to be different than the person he became. I understand a minuscule amount of that abuse he suffered and I appreciate him being open about it. My hope is that it will help to stop those who abuse children and those who will become abusers. I hope that Brent finds some peace and can make what remains of his life valuable to himself and those that he involves himself with. He still has a choice how he faces each day. I do think he can still use his life for the better, perhaps if he is being true this forum is just that.
I am going to read your book again tonight for some additional clarity. I watched your T.E.D talk and I applaud you for continuing to wade into a subject that most people who have not experienced have little interest in talking about as it is not shiny and pretty. More so for those who have experienced it and were/are to broken and ashamed to think they might deserve/need help before it is too late for themselves or someone else.
Thank you for the clarification and answers to my questions. In reading over them I think I could of been far more articulate and specific and have used less of a broad brush. I was mostly referencing my experience with Brent in his teens but I was about as clear as mud. I apologize for not being clear, it was uncomfortable to write and I should of taken more time. I do not think you felt sorry for him. I appreciate the balance you were able to find. Much like the Staff at the C.A.T house, my perspective is that while condemning the acts and behavior, you were able to set that aside to see the larger picture and why it is important to share and attempt to educate. But also to see a young boy who before becoming a predator was preyed upon.
January 13, 2018
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