In the opening scene of Russell Banks’ latest novel, Lost Memory of Skin, a young man - wiry, shifty, quiet - approaches the reference librarian with a strange inquiry: how do you access the online sex-offender list? How do you know if one is living in your neighborhood?
The librarian dutifully clicks through the website’s instructions: zip code, street, house, offender name. And when a face appears on the screen, the librarian looks between the computer and the young man, who cannot stop staring at the screen, his own face staring back at him.
"I’m really sorry," he mumbles, frantic, paralyzed. "I shouldn’t even be here." And the young man races out of the library, running until he is out of the librarian’s sight.
Lost Memory of Skin depicts the difficult story of the Kid, the novel’s protagonist, a 22-year-old sex offender who lives a secluded life, clouded by crippling guilt and a vague inability to understand the circumstances that mark his life.
His real name goes unknown; he is christened “the Kid” by his neighbors at the Causeway, a stretch of gravel by the expressway where other sex offenders pitch tents and sift through trash. It is the only place that will accept them. With court orders to remain 2,500 feet away from children and ankle bracelets tracking their every move, these men spend their days working jobs that don’t require background checks. They drink Bud Light and scan the highways for the police, who like to raid the shantytown at dawn, camera crews documenting the swing of clubs, the excused violence towards “incurable” men.
It is a strange, desperate place to live. And at the same time, it is the only place that these men can go. Their offenses are serious; the Kid knows that his neighbors have molested children, that they have destroyed marriages and careers. That they have destroyed lives. And the Kid knows that these offenses cover each of them like a second skin, that there is no peace to be had among them or between them:
“They have nowhere else to go. They ignore the Kid and he ignores them. Nothing new - that’s how they usually act. Like they’re covered with shame and are shamed of each other as well. Him included.”
The Kid knows that these offenses cover each of them like a second skin, that there is no peace to be had among them or between them.
The Kid’s own offense - attempted sex with an underage girl he met in an Internet chatroom - follows him every day. So does his childhood: his sex-crazed mother, who let naked men walk around the house, who rarely bought groceries, who “gave herself extra credit” for leaving soured milk in the fridge for the Kid’s cereal. The Kid discovers Internet porn at an early age and spends his days buying pornography on his mother’s credit card. The addiction follows him, too, until he finds himself in prison, then under the Causeway, where he spends his days staring out at the Calusa Bay, “thinking not of where he is but of where he would like to be,” which is how “he has learned to endure being where he is without bawling like a little lost boy.”
For that is what he is - a boy, a young man who is punished for a sex crime while still a virgin. Who was broken before his life really started and whose culpability is not simply shaped by fetish or mental instability. And when a local professor takes an interest in hearing the Kid’s story, the Kid is forced to examine the story he believes about himself: what does a sex offender look like? What is required of him, and what factors - the ones he controls and the ones he cannot - will determine the way he will live?
The Kid’s story is a powerful witness to the dark complexities of what creates a “perpetrator,” and how “justice,” rather than being restorative, quickly becomes something that scapegoats, isolates and damns. It is a difficult, graphic read, but in our time - where sex offenses seem to pile all around us and where the perpetrators are villains to remove and ignore - Banks’ novel can move us to examine what kind of justice moves through us, and to ask: when it comes to sex offenders, what story will we believe about them?
What Do You Think?
- Have you read Lost Memory of Skin? What did you take from it?
- How do you feel about the way society deals with convicted sex offenders?
- How can Christians balance justice with grace when it comes to this issue?