I keep thinking about the little bits of heaven I tasted in the summer of 1971. I was 15, working as one of four males at a girl’s summer camp in northern Michigan. I built a horse corral out of cedar logs we felled and stripped in a nearby swamp. I spent several weeks as a chaperone of sorts on canoe trips down the Au Sable River. And, one memorable night, I lost my virginity to M., a counselor who was 18.
How did the sparks first begin to fly between M and I? We’d meet sometimes after the rest of the camp was asleep. M. would desert her tent full of charges and find me near a campfire at a distant part of the camp. I often slept there, trying to count the stars and breathing free and deep. I had spent the whole of my life before that summer in tenements and cramped quarters in Chicago and Detroit. A world without doors and locks was a wonder; M., however, was a miracle, my miracle.
The camp was devoted to providing young girls and women with a wholesome and Christian experience. A church youth-group director who knew that my home was filled with trouble arranged my employment. I wasn’t practicing what was preached.
I think of M. now not with longing, but with sorrow. Had what we shared that summer become known to law enforcement, she could well be prosecuted for statutory rape. She was more than two years my senior; I was under the age of 16. As a matter of law, at least under Connecticut law, I could not give consent to what we shared. Were M. sentenced for this “crime” today, she’d face a mandatory minimum of nine months in prison. This is madness.
Was I a crime victim? My will was not overborne, although my hormones certainly were. I will never forget a certain night, the night M. went back to her tent in tears, and I went skulking deep into the forest, awaiting a thunderbolt to extinguish me. Surely I had sinned and fallen far short of the glory of God. I shuddered in the twilight, hovering somewhere between despair and exultation. As guilt yielded to pure fatigue, I drifted off to sleep with the abiding conviction that whatever I had done that night, I was not truly sorrowful: I had crossed a threshold and entered a place to which I would return.
I still recall long afternoons when M. and I would walk along sand dunes, sometimes sitting together for hours dreaming of a future we would never share. And I laugh now, too, at how naive we were. We spent time off together deep in the woods. When we returned to camp once, someone noticed with something like shock that M. was wearing my jeans and I had on hers. How could that have happened? A lawyer might call it circumstantial evidence.
I never saw M. after that summer. I don’t know what became of her, although I do know she was affianced and planned to marry.
I tell this tale not to engage in unseemly exhibitionism. I am neither proud nor ashamed of the summer of 1971. I tell the story because whatever happened that summer between M. and I was not criminal. I was not a crime victim; M. was not a rapist. We were two kids, experimenting with fire and behaving irresponsibly, risking all in the sort of routine passion play that has for millennia been a rite of passage.
My tale is little different from the stories I hear from clients. An 18-year-old makes love to a 15-year-old. Lawmakers demand that a prison cell be filled. It is wrong, wasteful and hypocritical. Judges smirk sometimes during pre-trials in these cases. “My hands are tied,” they say, relying on a mandatory minimum sentence set by lawmakers. And so folks are sentenced to prison as felons and become registered sex offenders. Yet I wonder how many other lawyers, judges and lawmakers can tell stories similar to mine. How many sins have gone unconfessed and so-called crimes gone undetected.
I thought I loved M., although, truth be told, I was but a boy. She thought she loved me, but she, too, was really still a child. We experimented, and there was pain. But I will go to my grave knowing there was no crime. I wonder what Puritanical impulse requires us to count such behavior criminal now.
Norm Pattis is a criminal defense lawyer and civil rights attorney in Bethany. Most days he blogs at normpattis.blogspot.com.