We All Make Mistakes. Some Are Just Bigger Than Others. I Can Relate.

You probably don’t remember what was on cable news the day before Coronavirus went around-the-clock. Same goes for 9/11, but it’s easy to understand how once the terrorist attacks took place, whatever was on CNN disappeared and was forgotten.

Arguably the biggest story in the world of justice on 9/10 was the first day of the trial for many people involved in the rigging of the McDonald’s Monopoly Millions Sweepstakes.

The what?

As it turned out, between 1989 and 2001, while McDonald’s customers were saving game pieces from the French fry boxes and drink cups hoping to match them up and win a prize, almost every major winning game piece was sold by a small group of people with access to the winning tickets. The FBI estimated that more than $24 million in prizes were diverted to this criminal conspiracy.

Then the planes hit the buildings and people largely forgot about the trial.

I don’t recall if I heard anything about this story when it was happening. In 2001, I was in my first big-deal lead editor job at a newspaper, which for a man-child of 24 with no college degree was impressive and rare. I was also living on my own, recently out of a long-term relationship, and was at a point in my life when I partied much too often, much too hard. When the owner of the company sent us home around noon on 9/11, I spent the next four days in front of the TV doing very little other than smoking weed, drinking beer, looking at porn and sleeping. There were probably harder substances or prescription pills mixed in that I just don’t remember. It’s easy to understand why I may have missed that story. I missed most of the first half of my 20s.

I first read the entire story about the McDonald’s game rigging in a magazine a few years ago. I remember it was convoluted to read because of how many people were involved, and the fact that the two guys most responsible were both named Jerry. But it was a crazy story because it was not a story of organized crime by well-connected mobsters. There may have been an element of that here or there, but it was mostly regular people in varying circumstances justifying getting themselves involved in a scam unlike any other in history.

The entire story, from its genesis to where people are today, was recently chronicled in the excellent HBO documentary series McMillions. If you have HBO, or you cable system is giving limited access to HBO during the pandemic, as many are, I urge you to watch this series. Unlike Tiger King, which was entertaining in a car-crash way, this is actually a well-told story with a beginning, middle and end. Sure, like any six-hour documentary, it drags in places, but I believe the final episode is one of the best hours of TV I’ve seen in years.

While I was convicted of a very different crime that was all of my doing, I drew many parallels to the situations of many of those who were part of the scam as depicted in McMillions, both as they were participating in and how they now look back on the ordeal years later.

There’s the single mother who always had trouble making ends meet or the LDS foster father who wanted to give his foster son a leg-up in life. There’s the crazy wife of the one guy in organized crime too scared to leave or disobey him and his oblivious flight attendant mistress who was just along for the ride. The show is rife with characters who are concurrently deeply flawed, yet sympathetic; smart and cunning, yet dim-witted and convincible.

I’ll try not to provide too many spoilers, but it’s my guess that most people watching will say that, depending on how the participant was presented in the documentary, the justice system was either too lenient or too harsh in its sentencing.

I heard a lot of that after I was sentenced, when my book came out and when I first started sharing my story on podcasts. For unintentionally, yet negligently engaging with a teenage girl in an online chatroom in 2013, encouraging her to behave sexually and taking two screen captures, I served six months in jail and three years of probation. I obviously never wanted anything like that to happen in my life, but I caused the entire thing to go down. While my mind was clouded by addiction, it’s not any excuse for my heinous behavior. I just was not of a mindset where I saw it happening to me in real time, nor one where common sense overrode my poor choices. All of these years later, I bet I still actively regret my decision a minimum of five times a day. It stays that front-of-mind, always.

There were people who openly called for decades-long sentencing for my transgressions and others who thought I shouldn’t have served a day based on my clean history, mental illness at the time and rehabilitation prior to sentencing.

What is the proper sentence for someone who convinces a teenage girl to expose herself online and takes a picture of it? There was no physical contact and I couldn’t actually make her do anything she didn’t want, right? But I was also taking advantage of a situation and manipulating it with depraved indifference against someone who was still a minor, right?

McMillions shows that even when people are doing the wrong thing, how they should be dealt with is not always a matter of black-and-white. If the “ringleader” gives a million-dollar winning game piece to his friend that will help pay for healthcare he wouldn’t otherwise receive and that friend cashes in the ticket with a phony story, is he any better than the former drug dealer who is given a winning ticket by the same ringleader, and is going to tell a similar story, yet spend his winnings on a yacht? What about if the ringleader sends a million-dollar winner to St. Jude Children’s Hospital? That actually happened.

I understand both sides of these kinds of debates. Instead of wading into the debate whether I got a lenient or tough sentence, I accepted it and tried never to question it too deeply. The judge decided what was proper, and radical acceptance was the fastest way to deal with it. I see both sides of the debate. You cannot get away with what I did, but did six months in jail teach me anything three months, or two weeks, wouldn’t have? Those questions can never be answered, so why waste energy asking? Because it makes for an interesting debate, I guess.

The most important theme for me in McMillions, though, was forgiveness and understanding. No matter how you feel about my ultimate punishment, I think we can all agree I made a mistake worse than most people ever will. Ignoring my professional life and the fallout there, my mistake was the kind of thing that echoes throughout relationships with family and friends, causing them to face introspection over what I did. Many friends dropped me and will never give me the chance to prove I’ve changed. Some family members are just starting to talk to me after 6-7 years and some still won’t. It’s nothing I can control, but it certainly is a situation I created, not them.

My transgressions caused a world of embarrassment and shame for my close relatives. My daughter had to switch schools. My wife was released from her job under BS circumstances. Emotionally, those close to me felt a lot of heartache seeing me in such dire straits, not knowing my legal fate. I’m sure it caused anger, pity and scorn that they hid well. My crimes, and the attention brought to them because of my community stature at the time, rocked a lot of people’s worlds. I didn’t really care what happened to me through most of it. I cared about what happened to all of the people who didn’t deserve the pain and inconvenience my horrible decision making caused because I knew none of them would ever do that kind of thing to hurt me.

When I was going through the legal process, I met many officials who I could tell thought I was just a piece of shit, didn’t give me a second thought and saw the world in black-and-white. I was a statistic, a charge on the docket or just another inmate. These are the kind of people who have helped make this world so divided. They refuse to see nuance in situations that deserve it. Thankfully, I also met a lot of deeply decent human beings in both the justice and law enforcement side of things. They understood I made a horribly rotten choice, but it didn’t make me a horribly rotten person. I just made a mistake I’d have to pay for, but it was not a reason to condemn me for life. It’s telling when a stranger working to prosecute you knows this, but someone close to you refuses.

Understandably, the web of people – dozens and dozens – who were involved in the McDonald’s Monopoly game scandal, saw many fractured friendships and relationships, but one of the final montages in the documentary showed that nearly two decades later, many bonds can be mended… some can even be forged. The lead federal prosecutor is now good friends with the first person to ever cash in a game piece, the stepbrother of the ringleader. That made me smile.

Speaking of the ringleader, he understandably got the longest sentence, and predictably, some thought it was appropriate and some thought it was far too short. He refused to participate in the documentary and is now living out his remaining years (he’d be around 80 now) with his seventh wife in Florida.

They show the horrible fallout of his choices. Companies went under. Many people lost their jobs and reputations who did nothing wrong. His lapse in judgment hurt so many people.

I thought about if he should have got more time and I thought about if he should have participated in the documentary as he is clearly the antagonist, but I respect the fact he did his time, has not reoffended and wishes to be left alone. It’s his right.

I’m guessing I enjoyed that last episode the most because it’s where I find myself now and where I’ll be the rest of my life: trying to live with a choice that hurt people both close to me and who I will never know, having to live with the consequences, fallout and limitations created by that choice and still trying to believe things can be better than they were before any of this happened. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s never black-and-white. Nothing ever is.

 

 

 

Documentary Forced Me to Revisit My Use of Porn Movies in the 1990s

Despite taking two different medications for it, I will inevitably wake up in the middle of the night at least twice a week because of my acid reflux, or as I’m told it’s more correctly called, GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). Usually I’m forced to eat a popsicle and just sit up for an hour or two.

This happened over the weekend. When it happens during the week, I know what shows play in the middle of the night, so I don’t need to peruse the movie channels we have like HBO. On weekends, however, the schedule is all messed up and I usually end up flipping through the movie channels with the remote.

As I was going by, there was a woman in a white lab coat who didn’t quite look like a doctor saying something like, “It was a race to find Patient Zero.” I’m a fan of any epidemic or pandemic documentary, so I stopped.

Then it became quickly clear what this was about. In the late 1990s, adult films followed a trend of being very extreme with what was shown on screen. The industry had a very poor system for testing its workers for communicable disease and all of a sudden, women started testing positive with HIV. Ironically, the doctor who finally instituted a real testing system was a former adult star herself in the 1980s.

I clicked on the info button and found the documentary was called Porndemic and it was recently released.

I quickly asked myself if I should be watching the Showtime documentary. While I didn’t see any nudity in the first few minutes, it still was about pornography. I decided to give it a few more minutes and ended up watching one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in years that I think should be shown in rehabs, in every Sex Addict Anonymous meeting and to anybody who has a porn addiction.

It was the furthest thing from triggering. There was nothing sexy in this film. It profiled a bunch of sad, often mentally ill people who usually had a bunch of other issues, and showed what their reckless behavior and ignoring their own health (both physical and mental) can result in.

It wasn’t an indictment on the industry itself, and it certainly wasn’t designed to be an anti-porn documentary, but the interviews done recently with those people who were stars 20 years ago are borderline tragic.

Most look like they’ve aged 50 years, not 20. A good portion still clearly have issues they can’t deal with and almost all regret being part of the industry. I found these interviews to be more powerful than any anti-porn program I’ve seen. This documentary didn’t attack the industry, it just shows what happens when you’re a part of it.

The late 1990s was when I made the transition from the kind of films these actors were in to Internet pornography. I recognized some of the names and faces. It was actually heartbreaking to see what happened to them. Instead of ending up rich and happy, they’re living in trailer parks, now have dead end jobs and regret so much of what has happened in their lives.

These people turned to porn for escapism, the same reason I did. They were just on the other side of things, and we both ended up having porn radically and negatively affect our lives. We really weren’t all that different back then, and in some ways, even now.

While I wouldn’t want kids to watch this documentary, and it might be difficult if you’re just getting into recovery, I think this film is a power wake-up call to pull the curtain back from what you’re watching if you’re a porn addict. There is a stray body part here or there, but it’s clear the documentarians tried their best to keep it nudity-free.

Patient Zero is eventually found, but not until he infects five or six women. It’s such a sad and scuzzy story that it has evolved my outlook of porn and made it even worse than it previously has been.

I don’t like anti-porn documentaries because its usually crazy people screaming incoherently and that isn’t the way for me to get a message. Allowing these poor, broken souls to share their tales really struck me in the heart. Hearing directly from the people who were involved and where things stand now, it’s tragic in most cases. I think about all of the time I spent watching those movies 20 or 25 years ago with those exact people and feel like I was part of the problem for the first time. I think that’s a good wake-up call for me.

I didn’t care about the real people behind the naked bodies on screen. I didn’t want to think of their real lives when I was watching, just like I didn’t want to think about mine. Now here we all are, 20 years later, and porn destroyed so much for us, and so much of us.

Would anything have changed had I seen this documentary 20 years ago? I have a suspicion the answer could be “Yes.”

Porndemic could be a wake-up call for a lot of people.

 

Getting Trivial Things Off My Chest – August Edition

A couple weeks back I saw the Mr. Rogers’ biopic that’s been in movie theaters lately. It’s actually the highest-grossing documentary this year thus far. For me, Mr. Rogers was a signal that I was in the clear. My parents would pick me up at the abusive babysitter’s house around 3:45 p.m., when they were done with their elementary school teaching jobs. After being in a tumultuous environment for the previous eight hours, there was something calming and soothing about being able to sit in the safety of my home and a kindly gentleman telling me that everything was OK. My mother called him “Mr. Boring” but after the days I had, I was totally ready for Mr. Boring. I got choked up watching the movie several times because of my admiration for how truly decent a human being he was. Truth be told, I find most children irritating. I think those people who don’t and can be their mentors are very lucky.

I went to see that movie with my son. Since he’s on school vacation, I try to find at least one or two things a week for us to do so he doesn’t get too bored with his summer. He just started driver’s education this week, so I don’t have to work as hard at keeping him occupied. The fact he will be driving soon is a reality – and age – check for me. He read my book when it came out in January and he’s had a few questions here and there, not necessarily about my crime or even my addiction, but about things that happened in my childhood that may have contributed to where I ended up. I think at nearly 16 he’s ready to hear non-graphic accounts of what happened to me and my opinions about it. I grew up in a family where we didn’t talk about a lot of things. Feelings and “the past” were tops on that list. I’m hoping that my openness with my son will carry through to future generations. I know older people lament the good old days being gone when children respected their elders and blah, blah, blah, but I think our interpersonal communication skills are better than they’ve ever been as a people and while far more work needs to be done, we are finally accepting mental health as a real thing. I know there’s a tendency to romanticize the past and ignore its problems, I have a lot of optimism for the next generation. Sure, the younger generation utilizes electronic communication devices and platforms that I will never integrate into my life, but that’s not a reason to dismiss them. There’s still plenty of work to be done in areas of accepting all people regardless of race, religion, sexual orientations, etc., but if I compare my grandparents’ generation to that of my children, I’ll pick the new generation every day of the week, even if I still don’t understand the point of Snapchat filters. My parents and grandparents did not come from “The Greatest Generation”. They came from the most self-righteous, and you reap what you sow.

Do you ever wonder who the heck is reading your website? I mentioned at the beginning of last month that my numbers were exploding, but that was nothing compared to what happened through the rest of July. I saw overall users for July grow by 39% and hits grow by 45% and the numbers may be even better for August. Who are these people finding my site? Are they reading anything helpful? Am I being duped by robots and crawlers who aren’t actually real people? I know there are plenty of companies that can tell me exactly what’s going on if I drop a load of cash on them. Not going to happen. So much of my life has been about trying to manipulate and overanalyze results and I kind of like the organic nature I feel this whole thing has taken on.

I’ve been working pretty steady on the second book over the last couple of weeks. I still find it a challenge to balance my freelance and ghostwriting work, which pay the bills, with my pornography addiction work, including this blog, which are my passion, but aren’t putting a roof over my head. I think this book, both in structure and content, will be like nothing else the pornography addiction recovery community has seen. I’m very excited, or at least more excited than I am about writing healthy eating blogs at $50 a whack for people who claim it’s their own work. That balance between passion and responsibility is a tough one to manage for me at times, and those people who can blend the two are truly lucky.

You may have seen the entry I made recently about resentments and how I think there are still people in my area who are resentful against me less for the things I did and more for the fact they see the entire episode as a betrayal of trust. I mentioned an Amazon review that had recently gone up that was an attack on me as a person, not a commentary on the book. As expected, it was pulled quickly. A few days ago, I got what you might call my first “bad” review, and you know what? It didn’t bother me nearly as I thought it would. I think the reviewer missed the bigger picture of what I was trying to do, but who cares? I don’t need to explain the nuance. They didn’t like the book. I can’t count the number of books or movies people have liked that I can’t. I’m sorry, but The Big Lebowski is asinine. There will be plenty of people who say I don’t “get it” but that’s fine. I still think Jeff Bridges is a fine actor, I just didn’t like the movie. It’s reassuring to know that a negative review on the actual subject matter won’t get me down. Negative reviews of me as a person just make me feel bad for the other guy.