The Cavia Porcellus Method
Updated: Nov 13, 2020
The lecture hall looked toothless. Empty seats, empty rows even, separated the students who were defying a pandemic in order to come ask the man questions. It was not for a lack of interest. Those who didn’t attend in person were observing through a double camera livestream, meaning that everyone in the hall, interviewers and interviewee alike, had a camera pointed at them.
There was an added element of performance that evening. The man was going to guide the audience through what it means to conduct an interview about a very personal matter, by having them ask him questions in rapid-fire tempo, interrupting the process for some meta-critique, and leaving room for second chances, if the original questions were a bit off the mark. Nobody in the room knew him, or each other for that matter, for longer than the one-month period they had been having classes together. And yet, he was going to allow them to ask questions about the sexual assault of a fourteen-year-old boy by his dodgy, hippie-looking music teacher. Forty years ago, the boy had been him.
I found the whole concept electrifying. Secretly, I had wanted to try my luck at suggesting a one-on-one interview with him. After all, he was a magnificent story-teller who not only happened to be my journalism studies professor, but, also, a journalist professor. One thrice rewarded in the Netherlands for his investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, in fact.
Besides, the guy was interesting in other ways too. A big part of teaching is all about showmanship which, with his quickness to read the room, impressive voice, and on the nose, always delivered with a warm smile comments, he had plenty of. But he had a bit more than that. He might have had a masterful control of his words, but, every once in a while, when it came to what other people said, micro-expressions would surface for a split second, like reflexes to certain stimuli he had registered. The effect was not unnerving. It gave his boyishly pleasant demeanor a genuine touch that one can hardly afford when having a career in journalism and academia. More importantly, it meant that he was exceptionally attentive. He wasn’t just a good listener; This guy could probably echolocate you, if need be. And as I would soon find out, this acquired skill was linked to the sexual assault from 40 years ago.
So, anyway, there we were, cameras pointed at everyone, sort of ready to ask about private stuff, kind of ready to hear about it, sitting in my-neighbor-has-leprosy formation. I asked the first question, throwing my net around the area I estimated the fish was going to be.
“What was growing up in the U.S., in the 60s, like?”
He grew up in a lively household connected to his parents’ business, a liquor store; Lots of brothers running around, friends visiting, the whole place bursting with energy, making it hard for the parents to keep track of who was doing what and where they were. The family moved when he was 5, from New Jersey to Miami, in South Florida, where alligators would casually swim in the canals behind the house. What stood out the most from that period was the freedom of being a kid, the excitement of playing outside in the streets. He seemed happy to reminisce about his childhood. ‘It’ was not there.
Indeed, ‘it’ would happen a year after his bar mitzvah, and, in a cruel twist of irony, because he was the only one of the children about whom his father had insisted on continuing his religious education; the assailant, as it turned out, was his synagogue’s music teacher. A near-sighted guy in his forties who wore all of his facial hair long; A rock-loving, electric guitar and piano player, the epitome of coolness for his students because he was so unlike what they had expected… Taking into consideration the pejorative term which also rhymes with his real name, he shall hereafter be assigned the letter ‘P’.
Up to that point, the man had taken the initiative to explain that the rape had happened when he was 14. He was also the one who had brought up the assailant’s identity. Breezing through the process, he was staying in control of the narrative and readily offering commentary on the relevance and quality of the questions, in his usual, pleasant tone. Looking up at us in the amphitheater, must have had a depersonalizing effect on faces that were familiar to him. Perhaps, talking to a generic, spread-out audience made it easier to revisit unpleasant memories. And yet, there is a reason why judges sit in an elevated platform. Upon closer inspection, the man’s shoulders seemed locked in place, and, even though he was coloring his speech with hand gestures, his hands never moved too far away from each other.
“How did he approach you?”, I asked.
Upon hearing the question, his expression immediately changed. As if a truck was suddenly swerving and coming straight at him, he became wide-eyed and his upper body stiffened, slightly hunching over and then bending backwards in one swift move. A deeply visceral reaction, as the body was remembering violence. He didn’t break eye contact with me until he finished narrating the whole episode, in an uncharacteristically wobbly voice.
Growing up in a hectic household with lots of older brothers meant that a lot of the time, Robert’s parents weren’t aware of his whereabouts. Sometimes, like on the first time P. offered him a ride, they forgot to pick him up from in front of the synagogue where he would wait for them, or one of his brothers, for a ride.
“Do you need a ride?”. P. must have seen him waiting there hopelessly.
“Sure”. Robert hopped in the car and P. drove off. On the way to Robert’s house, P. turned up the volume as an Allman Brothers Band song was playing on the local radio station.
“You could learn to play like this, you know”, said P.
Music was a big deal in Robert’s house, at the time. Everyone in the family played a musical instrument – the oldest brother, Larry, was an accomplished sax and clarinet player, whereas the second oldest, was a skilled drummer-, and the parents encouraged the kids to become musicians, regardless of what other professions they would eventually choose. P. was aware of the effect he was having on a teenager who was coming from a musical family with lots of older brothers; a teenager who was not used to getting an adult’s undivided attention, let alone the attention of a “cool” music teacher. Indeed, the car ride left a deep impression on Robert: it made him feel special.
On the second or third such car ride, P. took it upon himself to enter Robert’s house.
“Where is the piano?”, he asked, assuming that it was just the two of them. Impressed, Robert pointed at his brother’s piano. P. sat down and started playing. As Robert watched in silence, he felt a bond developing between them. Then, his 16-year-old brother, the piano player of the family, came in. All of a sudden, P. got up and left.
The man paused. “To this day, I still remember how shocked I was at what my brother said next”, he told us. After only meeting the guy once, the brother had sensed something that he himself was completely unaware of.
“What a faggot!”, scoffed his brother.
Robert couldn’t believe what his brother had just said. He certainly hadn’t ever thought of P. in that way. At that time in the U.S., and certainly in Robert’s family, homosexuality was not discussed openly. You just weren’t a homosexual and that was that. As easily influenced by his older brothers as he was back then, Robert still felt protective over P. He continued hanging out with him.
On one of the car rides, P. suggested a sleep-over. He brought up the blues rock style of the Allman Brothers Band.
“I can teach you that style. I have guitars at my place and I live not far from here”.
Robert couldn’t believe his ears. The opportunity to get private lessons from P. was almost too good to be true. He felt super privileged.
“Also, we can smoke a joint. And you can spend the night at my place. But don’t tell your parents about any of this”.
It kept getting better and better. He was chosen, he, alone, to be P’s special pupil. No, it was more than that. P. was taking him seriously. Paying attention to him, spending time with him, initiating a special relationship that included only the two of them. Naturally, Robert didn’t think of telling anyone they were spending time together. Besides, there was the pot as well.
Robert had smoked a joint before, but he wasn’t going to advertise that particular activity to his parents. As he sat in the car smoking with P. in the parking, he assumed that P. had asked him to keep quiet because of the pot.
There were thousands of records waiting for Robert, inside the house. As he was looking around, occasionally focusing his attention on cool LP cover art, P. walked into the room holding a glass of coke and a pill. He offered those to Robert, and matter-of-factly downed a pill himself. Robert was scared. But he took the pill.
“Biggest mistake I ever made”, said the man to the students in the lecture hall. Each word came out sounding heavy somehow, weighed down by years of silent regret and self-accusation.
After taking the pill, things became very hazy for Robert. He remembered stumbling around; being in the bedroom; lying down completely unable to move. When he regained his consciousness in the morning, he was by himself, with no clothes on. Completely freaked out, he could remember what happened to him the previous night.
Very quietly, his voice almost cracking, the man said “I wanted to go home”.
I think there’s a moment in our lives when time kind of splits. Outwardly, it goes on: we age, we change, tooth health deteriorates depressingly, and, ultimately, our soul abandons ship before our hair if we’re lucky; -the end. But inside, we remain frozen in a different age. For most people this happens because of some bad, bad shit. A splintered self like a testament to said bad shit.
Of course, a man was standing before me. A professor, rewarded journalist, accomplished adult I didn’t even know that well. But, just for a moment, clear as a bell, I heard the fourteen-year-old boy say “I want to go home”. And at the same time, I heard the adult retrospectively say “all I ever wanted was to go home”.
It took a while, but in the end, Robert went home. He moved to another country and became successful thanks to investigative work which required of him to look deep within himself. He got happily married and had kids, kids he listens very carefully to, for non-verbal signs. He told his family about what happened and went looking for P. in order to confront him.
Do you realize you could have killed me when you drugged me?
Do you realize how much pain you put me through?
Did you do this to others?
Of course, the most important thing Robert is doing these days is teaching us. And, goddamn, the man is determined to teach us how to ask hard questions.
Even if it means turning himself into a Cavia porcellus.
Also known as a guinea pig.