Predators: Stories about confronting danger

This week, we bring you two stories about predators, from one man’s attempt to confront his fear of sharks to an attorney's experience with the complicated psychology surrounding sex offenders.

Part 1: Drew Prochaska decides to confront his fear of sharks -- by going swimming with them.

Drew Prochaska is a two-time Moth StorySlam winner, who has been featured on the "RISK!", "Dear Show", and Audible's "Stories in Session" podcasts. A graduate of The Tisch School of Arts Dramatic Writing Program, Drew's writing was regularly featured on the website of Running with Scissors author Augusten Burroughs. He lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with his dog, Lula.

Part 2: Attorney Heather Cucolo must navigate the complicated psychology surrounding her sex-offender clients.

Heather Cucolo is an adjunct professor at New York Law School and the current director of New York Law School’s Online Mental Disability Law Program. She has contributed to the development of courses for the program as well as assisted in collaboration with Asia-Pacific partners to foster international distance learning. Her academic work has afforded her wonderful opportunities, such as addressing mental disability law issues at the United Nations and allowing her to travel domestically and internationally to lecture and teach.

Heather Cucolo's story was produced as part of a partnership with Springer Storytellers. Find out more at www.beforetheabstract.com/

 

Episode Transcript

Part 1: Drew Prochaska

Growing up, I had these really liberal filmmaker parents and because of this, I was exposed to a lot of movies at a very young age that I probably shouldn't have been, you know? The first one I recall was a made-for-TV movie in the mid '80s called Adam. Does anybody remember this? It was about a little boy who was abducted from a shopping mall and murdered. Basically, my mom turned to me after this movie was over and was like, "I just want you to know that if you don't get home before dark every night, someone is going to murder you and chop you up." I really believed this, but the movie that really messed me up as a little boy was Jaws. I saw Jaws when I was seven years old and when I saw that scene with the little boy on the rubber raft who just turned into this fountain of gore, I knew that I was going to get eaten by a shark. I didn't need anybody to tell me my fortune; I knew I was going to be chewed to death by something hideous with gills.

It's an irrational fear, but my friends will tell you this: Irrational fear is the force that binds my atoms together. It wasn't just sharks. It was everything under the ocean. The ocean just seemed like this hellscape to me, of things with tentacles and beaks and spines, like, filled with poison. I would have gladly boiled it if I had the means. Being afraid of the ocean isn't such an easy thing when you have two parents who are avid sailors, you have a brother who is a sea captain and a scuba instructor, a sister who teaches marine biology and builds submersible robots in her spare time for fun. I have this family of Ahabs, and Nemos and Cousteaus, and I'm the chicken of the sea.

You can't have these kinds of irrational fears as you grow older and still call yourself a man. I'm a grown-ass man. [Laughs] Seriously. Every year I take a trip to another country and I try to confront one of these fears. Four years ago, I booked a trip to Cape Town, South Africa, because if you've ever watched the awesome Air Jaws documentary during Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, you'll know that in Cape Town, South Africa, great white sharks can fly.

In the panicky weeks building up to the trip, I started Googling shark statistics like “how many people every year are killed by a great white shark?” The answer is one. One person every year is killed by a great white shark. That's a really eerie number, you know?

I'm like, "I'm going in May. Has it happened yet?" Ever since I was a little boy, I was told that if you're ever attacked by a shark, what you're supposed to do is punch him in the nose, but apparently that's not true anymore. Apparently that just really pisses him off. So, like, what you’re supposed to do is if you're found in the mouth of a great white shark, you're supposed to, like, gouge at their eyes with your thumbs. Like really? Come on. I just decided if I was ever attacked by a great white shark I would just soil myself with such volume that they’d just spit me out and swim off in search of less pathetic prey.

When I get to South Africa, I book a trip on the exact same boat that was in the Air Jaws documentary. The reason I did this was because the crew of this boat devised this method to get the great white sharks to breach out of the water, and they do this by towing a foam rubber seal behind the boat. The reason why great white sharks jump out of the water in South Africa specifically is because, in the Cape Town Bay, there's an island with a very uninspired name of Seal Island, and it is covered with thousands and thousands of seals. Now, a seal can outmaneuver a great white shark. So what the great white sharks do is they swim to really great depths in the bay and they wait for a herd, I think? A murder? A school of… I should have researched that… of seals to swim above them, and they wait for a straggling seal to lag behind them, and then what they do is they launch towards that seal was such velocity that their entire bodies leaves the water.

If you watch any of these documentaries it's always the same. You hear this drumbeat like, "Bump bump bump bump bump bump bump bump bump bump bump bump," and you see the seal just sort of darting through the water for dear life and "Bump bump bump bump bump bump," and then you see this mouth emerge from the water with that teeth like broken glass and these eyes just sort of roll back inside the shark’s head and your heart just starts going, "Bump bump bump bump bump bump," and the entire shark’s body leaves the water, and this enormous tail whips around and you see this expression on the seals face like, "No!!!” as two and a half tons of great white shark just bear down on it with its teeth. I saw this. I got to see this at sunrise standing on the deck of the Air Jaws boat and it looked like this: "Boop."

It was like a half second. I turned to the captain of the boat and I'm like, "Hey, man, aren't you ever afraid that one of these sharks is going to jump out of the water and land in the cockpit?" He's like, "Mate, that's my biggest fear." (I can't do a South African accent.) He's like, "It happened like three years ago on this German boat. This great white jumps out of the water, lands in the cockpit of this boat and crushed this guy's legs." I was like, "Oh my God," and he's like, "Right?" And I'm like, "But what a bad-ass way to lose your legs!"

It's like a while before we see another great white and the captain throttles down the engine to this low growl, and they start lowering the shark cage into the water and deckhands bring out this cooler, filled with chum, just guts and gore. They lift this tuna head out of the cooler and they pluck its eyes out with a knife, and they take a rope and they thread the rope through the eye sockets and they throw this tuna head out into the water, and it's not long before the first dorsal fin appears and there, circling the boat, is Jaws. Then another dorsal fin appears. It’s Jaws 2.

And the captain, he turns to us and he says, "You guys have no idea how lucky you are." He said, "We've actually been doing these tours all spring and this is the first time this spring that the sharks have actually come up to the boat," and I'm thinking, "It's because they know I'm here." You know?

Everybody is getting their scuba gear on, and I find the exact center of the boat and I stand in it. I can't move and I can't breathe and I can't do anything. The captain sees this and he comes up to me and he says, "Are you all right, mate?" And I said, "No, I'm really not okay." He says, "What are you afraid of?" I said, "I don't know if you've been paying attention, but there's two fucking great white sharks circling this boat right now." These were fourteen-footers. These were big great whites. He puts his hand on my shoulder and he says, "That there? That right there? You're afraid of that?" I was like, "Yeah," and he goes, "Mate," he says, "That's just Tim." He points to the other shark and he goes, "That there? That's just Sally."

He just gives these sharks names, and all of the fear that was in my body just sort of drains out of my toes at once, you know? And I take a breath and I put the scuba gear on and I walk to the edge of the boat and I step into the shark cage. For a moment, there's just bubbles and this red cloud of chum. Then Tim, Tim the shark, blasts by the cage like a subway car. He is so close, I could touch him. He looks so big under the water, I felt like I could have stood up inside of him. Then I look down and at the ocean floor there's this dark spot, and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger until it turns into the mouth from my nightmares. This open mouth just comes up, and Sally the shark soars just past the cage and she just sort of grabs at the tuna head, and it's so quiet and it is so beautiful. It's so beautiful, and it is the most amazing thing I've ever seen in my life. And I wasn't afraid.

That evening, I had a friend who just happened to be in Cape Town at the same time as me on a business trip. We arranged to have dinner at a restaurant, at the waterfront. It's a little after seven o'clock and the sun has come down, and I start walking towards it and it's about a mile walk. As I'm walking, this homeless guy starts walking next to me and he says, "Do you have any money?" I only had big bills on me so I'm like, "I'm sorry, man. I don't." He keeps going, "Can I have some money?" I'm like, "No." "Can I have some money?" I'm like, "I'm sorry, no." Then we finally turn a corner and there were no people and it's a dark street, and he gives me a little shove and he says, "Don't do anything fucking stupid." He motions down and he's holding like a shiv, like a filed-down piece of… like a spike.

There is nowhere for me to go, and he is younger and more fit than me. I wasn't going to run away. I said, "Fuck you. Fuck you, you asshole. You fucking piece of shit." Don't get me wrong. I gave him my money. I'm not an idiot. All I could do was just curse at him. I'm like, "I hope you drown in shit." I give him my money and he holds the knife up and he says, "Give me your keys," and I said, "Fuck off!" And he does. He leaves. I'm standing there on the sidewalk and I'm shaking. I'm so full of adrenaline and I am feeling so many things at once, you know? The one thing, the one thing, that I am not feeling at that moment though is fear. Because that guy who just threatened to kill me… that was just Tim, you know? That was just Sally. Thanks.

Part 2: Heather Cucolo

I graduated law school, and I was twenty-seven years old and I was young and blonde and wide-eyed, and ready to embrace the profession and basically save the world. So I went into a small litigation firm in New York City where we did personal injury work. It became very clear to me very quickly that A) that was not the job for me, but B) more importantly was, rather than embrace the world, I really got to understand the world a little better and especially how I was being perceived and how the perceptions of me based upon my appearance and based upon what people assumed I was capable of very much played into the belief as to whether or not I would be a competent attorney, or whether or not I would do the best job for my client.

This became quite clear because oftentimes when I would walk into court rooms, I would hear whispers from sort of the old boys' club, and these were the older white males with grey hair that would stand there and say, "Isn't that cute that they sent their paralegal in?” and “Wow! The judge is going to be happy with that one." That was sort of an understanding of, again, how it was assumed that I certainly couldn't be an attorney, and if I was an attorney I certainly was not going to be very competent in my job.

Well, it lasted about a year or maybe less, and I decided again that no my passion is not, again, helping people who have been hit by an automobile, but my passion is to make a difference in the world and to help those who truly need representation and so I decided to work with sex offenders. I went to the New Jersey Public Defender's Office and I had an interview. This was in the civil commitment unit—sex offenders’ civil commitment. And in twenty states in the federal government, after an offender has served their time in prison, these states and the federal government have enacted statutes to commit them. Meaning they're in civil commitment, indefinite commitment based upon the fact that they have committed an offense and that they are suffering from a mental abnormality or personality disorder, and they are therefore ... there's a connection that means that they're going to be highly likely to commit future acts of sexual violence.

I decided that this is what I want to do. This is where I want to be and I went for the interview. It was a wonderful interview. I think I was the only person that actually came to the interview saying, “This is what I want to do. I want to work representing sex offenders.” The interview concluded and I was asked whether or not I was going to get pregnant any time soon. I believed that that was because they were so impressed with me that they wanted to make sure that they weren't going to lose me. Again, regardless—young, maybe twenty-eight, twenty-nine years old, and apparently that's what we do. We're going to get pregnant, and I can't be an attorney and pregnant at the same time.

I got the job, clearly. Because the ADA would have forced me to get the job no matter what. I got the job and I went running right into it. I had my first case in court, and I won the first case. You don't win these cases—you lose. You expect to lose. You walk in—"I'm going to lose." Well, I won this case and I went back to the office and they said, "Well, weren't you lucky? That was luck. Definitely luck. There's no way otherwise. The judge must have taken pity on you." Well, I'm pretty sure that I won the case because the judge, who was a sixty-something male who was one of two judges who'd heard every single sex offender civil commitment case in the state of New Jersey, looked at me and didn't expect me to do anything in cross-examining the psychiatrist. When I walked up with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual—the DSM—and started questioning them on the diagnosis, I think the judge was just so shocked and blown away like, "Well, you know what? We've got to release this guy. That's just the end of it." Again, the perception.

In that sense, that perception worked for me in many ways. But what had occurred and what I realized was that it seemed to me that my colleagues and the experts that I talked to and the treaters in the institution seemed to be very concerned about my ability to handle these very difficult scenarios. Am I going to be able to deal with these extreme sexually infused types of crimes and situations? Could I tell the seventy-year-old female judge what anal beads were? Yes, yes, I could. Again, this idea that I was delicate or that I was fragile, that I wouldn't be able to handle these types of cases. This continued throughout my representation of my clients.

I would get questions such as, "Aren't you afraid that your client is going to hit on you?  Why aren't you afraid that your client is going to be attracted to you or do something inappropriate?" Of course, understanding that sex offenders is a wide range of individuals, most of my clients really would not have been interested in me anyway. Again, that was the belief, that somehow I was going to be sexually assaulted or treated poorly by my clients. In fact, though, my clients didn't care that I was young and they didn't care that I was blonde and they didn't care that I wore skirts instead of a pant suit. What they cared about was that I was empathetic and that I cared about the predicament they were in, even though they were seen as the worst individuals of society, the lowest of humans, and I cared. I cared about their past, their histories; how they were suffering, what they were going through.

Well, two stories. I had a client who was not allowed to have female attorneys. This is what I heard. My office was so poorly staffed and it was where they sent the bad attorneys. If you were in trouble, you had to go represent sex offenders. So nobody really paid all that much attention. Now, there were some great attorneys, don't get me wrong, but nobody paid that much attention. As soon as I heard that this client wasn't allowed to have female attorneys, when no one was looking—and we were so understaffed—I just snatched that case up, because I was curious.

I ended up having a really great rapport with this client. I intended to work very hard to help him get through treatment. One of the things that we talked about was that when he was having these fantasies and desires, these feelings, that he should write it down in a letter because he was afraid to share it in treatment because anything you say in treatment is going to be entered into court, so there's no confidentiality. I said, "If you need to share these things, you write them in a letter, seal it, legal mail, and you send it to me. And at least you're able to express it.” That was that.

For whatever reason, there was a spotlight on me and a spotlight on the clients and as I learned later, a concern for my safety and well-being. The Department of Corrections, who run the safety and care of the institution, claimed that one day they found one of his letters that was open. So they opened the letter and they read it, and it contained these thoughts or these fantasies. Immediately they told the Department of Human Services and the treaters, and it all went that I cannot represent this individual because he is writing fantasies to me. Now, the fantasies had nothing to do with me. It had nothing do with anything in reality, to be honest with you.But the client was removed from my caseload.

I remember going back into the institution and they said, "Aren't you glad that we're looking out for you?" No.

Well, it works both ways. Again, I was constantly seen as someone who was delicate, fragile—you know, not someone tough enough to be able to handle this population. Those types of perceptions also work on the other side. I had a client who was one of the first individuals to be civilly committed in the state of New Jersey. He was very special to them. They did not want to let him go. He was young, he committed his offenses when he was really… it was a peer offense; again, a sex assault. He was I think on the cusp of like seventeen or eighteen when this occurred and he had been incarcerated and then in civil commitment ever since. When I got his case, he'd probably been institutionalized now, or in the civil commitment center, for I'd say about nine years, ten years.

I took this client on and I won his case. I won his case, and the institution fought me, or fought the court order, in not wanting to release him, saying, "He's not ready, we have to go with this." Well, we had a number of hearings arguing this, and at one of the hearings the judge dismissed everyone but me and the head of the Department of Human Services. In hindsight, I should have said, "No. Anything you say should be said in front of my client," but I allowed this to happen. The judge said, "Let me tell you, this is what I'm worried about. This guy is so good-looking that he's going to get released and have all this opportunity for sex." I said, "Your honor, I've got to be honest with you. He can have as much sex as he wants as long as it's consensual and legal."

Again, though, this perception that somehow this was going to heighten his risk or somehow this was going to be a problem for him because he was attractive and because therefore women were going to be attracted to him, which I guess, in turn, would make him want to assault them sexually? Well, anyway, that was one of the instances. We fought and fought this case. In sex offender civil commitment therapy, it is recommended that it's a group therapy situation, and individualized therapy is oftentimes seen not to be beneficial. We're going into maybe eight, nine months of continuous hearings, continuous fighting to have the court order recognize that my client would be released. A high-ranking female psychologist decides that she's going to start doing individualized therapy with my client. I'm thrilled. They start doing therapy for a couple months, and she comes into court with an order saying that it's time for him to be released. Wonderful, great. My client is released.

In about a month or two months later, I get called into the facility back into the institution from the office for a meeting. The meeting is because one of the corrections officers, who was moonlighting at the Jersey shore in New Jersey as private security, allegedly took pictures and witnessed my client and this female therapist holding hands and kissing as they were walking along the boardwalk. Well, the female therapist was soon after fired, let go, and my client was brought back into the institution under the guise that he had, I think, driven with a suspended license. He was brought back into the civil commitment setting institution, and basically the whole focus of his treatment from that point on was the fact that he had manipulated this high-ranking female psychologist, who was married with children, into having this affair with her and thus ruining her life. He's still there today. This was about five, six years ago now.

In addition, it is very clear and it makes so much sense when we're looking at sort of how we judge people based upon their labels, how we judge people based upon  their appearance, and how we make improper judgments and improper opinions that are not beneficial to any aspect of finding the truth and the worth in each and every one of us. Thanks.