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One man who was sexually assaulted as a child told the group that he abused other people “so I could hurt them, too. So I wouldn’t be alone.”
Another said he kept his own sexual abuse hidden for nearly 60 years. “If I opened up back then, when I was young,” he said, “I probably wouldn’t be in this situation.”
“My personal experience, what started it all,” another said, “was feeling unloved.”
Sheldon’s story, as well, starts with the abuse he suffered as a boy.
The way his counselors describe it, he became intensely “sexualized” by those incidents (Sheldon says he was abused by a man and multiple women in his village as a boy) without understanding what that meant. That doesn’t sound uncommon. I spoke with an Alaska state trooper who said authorities have responded to rape cases where the perpetrator is a boy of 7 or 8. It would be years before Sheldon would rape someone, but his patterns of abusive and inappropriate sexual behavior and touching began very young. Sheldon dived underwater in swimming holes so he could touch the genitals of his female classmates without their knowing what happened. He ran up to girls at school and fondled their breasts.
He was able to get away with it, he told me, because he lived in a remote village. Dozens of villages in Alaska have no law enforcement presence. Troopers must fly in by plane. Some victims of Sheldon’s abusive touching tried to turn him in, he said, but they either weren’t believed or no one thought to take action. Authorities were never involved. Either the acts were unspeakable, or worse: They were too common.
Nearly every square inch in Ruth’s living room is put to use: In the center of the floor is a trash can full of ice Sheldon harvested from a river, and which they use as drinking water after it melts; the kitchen table is a swap meet of dried salmon scraps, coffee mugs, a bowl of seal oil and a Crisco jar; triangular sticks of firewood are stacked in the corner near the wood-burning stove; seal-skin mittens, which Ruth sews, are on the coffee table; and, most eye-catchingly, family photos are everywhere — papering the walls, even hanging from a rope.
Video: Visit Nunam Iqua, a remote village with no local law enforcement presence.
Above a bay window, which looks out toward the shack next door, there’s a portrait of the entire family taken in 2001, before Sheldon went to prison.