A True Story of Incest and Justice.
By Shelley Sessions with Peter Meyer.
316 pp. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons $21.95.
By John Crewdson
Wait too long and just about any issue -flag‑burning, cold‑fusion, the ozone layer- will work its way to the top of the public agenda. Incest has never even made it as far as the bottom, which is not to say that the problem of sexually abused children hasn't had its moment. During that moment, which lasted for about a year and a half in the middle of the last decade, the debate focused on whether children should be believed when they said they had been sexually abused. Almost always, the context was some setting outside the family: the classroom, the Boy Scout troop, the church, the daycare center ‑ especially the day‑care center, as reflected by the headlines about the not‑guilty verdict in the McMartin Preschool case.
To the extent that we are still interested in the phenomenon of grown‑ups who like to have sex with children, the object of our concern remains the dangerous stranger or the seemingly benevolent caretaker who secretly abuses the trust of a child's parents, but not the parents themselves. Sex between parents and children is difficult to think about, difficult to talk about, more difficult still to know what to do about. By comparison, keeping unrelated "child molesters" away from children is easy. We know how to fingerprint daycare workers and produce coloring books that fill the reader with a dread of unshaven men in raincoats, but most child‑abuse prevention programs don't give advice about what to do when dad climbs into bed. The fact is, we really don't have the least idea how to protect children from their parents.
Not knowing what to do about incest might be tolerable if incest were rare. Just a few years ago, students of social work were told that there might be one case of incest in America for every million people. The number now appears to be far larger. By the most reliable estimates, there are nearly eight million Americans over the age of 18 who are the victims of childhood incest, more than the population of New Jersey; how many children are currently being abused by family members is anybody's guess. But while there are doubtless many times more incest victims than those from day‑care centers and preschools, those incest cases that do find their way into the criminal justice system almost always end with a quiet plea bargain instead of a jury verdict and headlines. When they do make news, it is only because there is some sensational aspect, as with the case of Cheryl Pierson, the Long Island schoolgirl who hired a classmate to kill her sexually abusive father, or Elizabeth Morgan, the Washington physician who spent more than a year in jail to keep her daughter away from what she claimed was an abusive former husband. For a Texas teenager, the headlines came after she sued her stepfather in a civil court for $10 million ‑ and won.
A therapist uses anatomically correct dolls to help a child describe sexual abuse.
As told by Shelley Sessions and Peter Meyer, a reporter for Life magazine, her story raises all the questions that should be inspired by any detailed account of prolonged incest. What sort of father is capable of carrying on a sexual relationship with his stepdaughter? What kind of mother fails to see what is taking place in her own house, often in the very next room ? Why does father‑daughter incest go on for so many years? On the question of when the sexually abusive personality takes shape; Mr. Meyer offers the testimony of Bobby Sessions' younger sister, whom he molested repeatedly while still a boy. As for whether an abusive parent begets abusive children who then grow up to abuse their own children, see the portrait of Mr. Sessions' own father as a supremely unempathic man who mercilessly beat his young son.
Even without such insights, the story of the Sessions family might be worth reading as a modern Texas Gothic with elements of "Blood and Money" and "The Last Picture Show." But the real value of this book lies in the finely detailed narrative that answers most of the important questions in a far more convincing way than any textbook abstraction. Like most sexual child abusers, Bobby Sessions is a classic narcissist, suffering from a personality disorder that carries with it the profound conviction that rules are for others. With the help of court records and many hours of on‑the‑record interviews, Mr. Meyer has drawn a wonderful portrait of the true narcissist in action, a man who can lecture other parents on the need to keep their daughters off the streets and out of trouble while he and his own stepdaughter are having sex several times a day.
Like many extreme narcissists who also have the intellectual wherewithal to succeed, Bobby Rowe Sessions was a self-made man. He made his millions as an oil trader in the hot Houston market of the late 1970's, then took his money and his family ‑ Linda, his second wife, her daughter, Shelley Rene, and Shelley's little brother, Michael‑ back home to semi‑retirement in the central Texas town of Corsicana. Although he made his first sexual overtures to the girl when she was 8 (the age ‑ nobody knows why ‑ at which most father-daughter incest begins), the two did not begin having regular sex until she was in the eighth grade. As father and daughter discovered a mutual interest in breeding and showing prize‑winning bulls, their relationship moved from the family homestead to plush hotel rooms along the so‑called Fat Stock circuit.
Bobby Sessions admitted in court to having had sex with his stepdaughter as many as 500 times ‑ 500 "turns," as he called their encounters, sex exchanged for privileges or as punishments for breaching the household rules.
One reason for Shelley's failure to break away sooner must have been her recognition that her mother could not ‑ would not ‑ protect her from her stepfather. As with the mothers of many incest victims, Linda Sessions simply chose not to see what was happening in her household, even after she found her husband and her daughter in bed together. Linda, who married Bobby after divorcing a first husband who beat her regularly, has what therapists call a victim's personality. Although the concept makes some feminists uncomfortable, that such women do indeed exist becomes clear when Linda, rather than proceeding with a divorce, takes sides with her abusive husband against her whistle‑blowing daughter.
Like most cases of father-daughter incest, this one was brought to an end by the father's increasing possessiveness in the face of the daughter's growing adolescent interest in boys. Before the dramatic denouement in Corsicana, however, Bobby Sessions had bugged his daughter's telephone, run her teen‑age suitors off the family ranch at gunpoint, even (narcissistically) threatened again and again to take his life. What comes as a surprise is the almost pathological reluctance of those outside the family to "interfere," long after everyone had begun to suspect the worst about the rich daddy who drove his cheerleader daughter to every football game and took her home again straightaway.
But it is what happens after the incest is publicly revealed that says most about society's difficulty in confronting this problem. As one of the county's wealthiest and most civic‑minded citizens, Bobby Sessions was allowed to plead guilty to a single count of having sex with an underage girl and sentenced to spend a year in a luxurious private hospital in Dallas. As many child abusers do, he quickly found God and announced to the psychiatric staff that the Almighty had forgiven his sins; six months into his sentence, he had charmed his way out the door.
Shelley Sessions, her life indelibly marred, her only offense having been to tell the truth about the principal financial contributor to the local sheriff's child‑abuse prevention program, was shipped off by her mother to a fundamentalist "home" for the troubled children of the well‑to‑do –in reality a private prison where teen‑age girls were beaten regularly. It was Shelley's realization, she said later, that she was locked up while her stepfather was free that led her to seek her revenge in court. Although the therapeutic value of such lawsuits is in doubt, no one can dispute Shelley's reaction on the day in 1985 when the jury awarded her $10 million of her stepfather's fortune. "Justice," she told the reporters,"is justice."
John Crewdson is a reporter for The Chicago Tribune and author of "By Silence Betrayed: The Sexual Abuse of Children in America."
An Unpaid Debt.
Even after winning her $10 million lawsuit against the stepfather who sexually abused her, Shelley Sessions is still living in Corsicana, Tex. ‑a few miles from her mother and stepfather.
"It's unorthodox and it seems strange to me, but not to Shelley, "said Peter Meyer, who wrote "Dark Obsessions" with Ms. Sessions. "She decided early on that it was not her problem, it was Bobby's problem. And since she liked Corsicana, she was going to stay."
On Ms. Sessions' instructions, Mr. Meyer never met the stepfather, Bobby Sessions, and remains intensely curious about him. "Shelley is enormously strong and resourceful," Mr. Meyer said in a telephone interview from his office in New York. "The irony is that those are attributes she got from Bobby. But she also got a lot of help from one of her lawyers, who truly treated her more like a daughter than a client."
After a brief marriage to a physically abusive husband, Ms. Sessions is now remarried and has a child.
"I'm optimistic about her life,' said Mr. Meyer. "Her problems continue, but they're primarily financial; after the lawsuit Bobby immediately declared bankruptcy."