21, going on 6

Anna Quindlen

December 15, 1992|By Anna Quindlen

Newark, N.J. -- NONE of it makes sense without subtraction.

If you sit in the courtroom and watch the star witness in the Glen Ridge sex assault case and assess her body language, her affect, her testimony in light of her chronological age of 21 years, it is all strange. The nose-wrinkling grimaces, the ingenuous answers, the singsongy voice -- it does not parse.

And the story she tells makes no sense from that vantage point, either. How she went into a basement three years ago with an audience of teen-age boys and masturbated and performed oral sex.

How she heard them yell "further, further" as her head was pushed down into someone's lap. How she let one put a broomstick and another a bat into her vagina. How she didn't tell anyone right away even though her "bottom" hurt afterward RTC when she went to the bathroom. How she still thinks of the four who are on trial here as her friends, "sort of."

It only makes sense if you take away 15 years. Think of her as a needy 6-year-old, wanting desperately to be liked. Think of her as an anxious 6-year-old, afraid of giving the wrong answer, but still not entirely sure what the answers are. They say she is mildly retarded and has the mental capacity of an 8-year-old, but 6 is more like what she seemed when she was testifying last week, 6 and childlike about most things except the crudest terms of a "sexual nature."

"What does that mean?" she said when a defense attorney used those last two words during cross-examination.

You've probably known someone like her and like the boys now on trial, charged with a group assault that one witness, who couldn't stomach it and left, likened to watching piranhas feed. The defendants are the superlatives from your yearbook, all broad shoulders, varsity letters and smooth haircuts. The Jock Kings, who can act as they please, and often do.

She, on the other hand, is the one we knew as the slow kid. Dummy. Retard. You remember the nasty names. Her sister testified that when they were all little, two of the defendants, twins named Kyle and Kevin Scherzer, were part of a group who got the girl to eat dog feces. Most neighborhoods are divided into three kinds of children: those who torture the slow kid, those very few who defend her, and the great majority, who stand silent.

You've probably heard the defense in this case before, too. It's an old familiar one: She said yes. Given female sexuality and male hormones, suggested defense lawyer Michael Querques in his opening, what happened was inevitable -- and consensual.

"Boys will be boys," he said. This is insulting to young men of character, since it presumes that the ability to say no is the exclusive purview of women. And it doesn't explain why some left the basement. Perhaps they didn't believe testosterone was an easy excuse for exploitation.

It's an old story, why the slow girl did these things, and it has nothing to do with female sexuality. She wanted to be wanted. They promised her a date, she says, with one of the Jock Kings; one of them even put his arm around her.

"Romantic," she called it. Then they set up the chairs in the basement "like a movie" and she let them do what they pleased with the broomstick and the baseball bat -- boys will be boys -- because she "didn't want to hurt their feelings."

She showed more humanity in that than any of them did. They behaved as though she were an inflatable doll, an inanimate object. Subtract the stereotypes about loose girls and uncontrollable male urges, and you come up with a clear picture of what went on in that basement: young men doing a cruel and reprehensible thing to a woman they chose specifically because they knew her limitations and her tractability.

This case is not about boys being boys; it's about boys being predators. I guess it wasn't much of a leap, from the dog feces to the broomstick.

When she recalls in her reedy voice that she hung around afterward waiting for the dream date that never came, it makes no sense if you think of her as 21, much less as some hypersexed temptress.

A 6-year-old trying to make friends no matter what the cost -- then you understand. The prosecution in the Glen Ridge case alleges a group sex assault of a teen-age girl. Watching her, listening to her, it seems like child abuse as well.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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