If you know the name Joel Johnson, it’s likely because he invented the gadget blog. From his reign as editor-in-chief of Gizmodo to his stint as BoingBoing’s gizmo-and-videogame guru, he’s brought humor and passion to a corner of the blogosphere only too happy to rehash press releases and drown in its own geek-drool.
But last week, Joel leapt genres and made a revelation that shocked many of his friends and fans: For many years during his childhood in Missouri, he was being sexually abused by his stepfather, Glen. In a piece he called “Why I’m Funny” and posted on his Website, joeljohnson.com, he recounted in surprisingly even tones the mind games, manipulations and lies that pretty much wrecked his family. Dadwagon recently spoke with him about dealing with the past and trying to figure out the future.
One of the things that amazed me about your piece is how free of overt anger it is. Are you not angry?
I’m still angry at times. But the further I’ve gotten away from my family, both emotionally and physically, the more my anger turned into plain old worry and fear and pain. I felt like in the story it was important to be honest, but clear.
Worry about my brother, anyone else who might be at risk. And worry about my mother and what her years of denial have done to her. Worry that putting this in public might make things worse for everyone and not help. That’s part of the reason it took me years to decide to speak about this openly.
What finally made the decision for you? Was it the death of Timmy [a relative who had a long-term relationship with Glen] or something more than that?
It’s hard to say for certain. I do know that a confluence of things in my life has gotten me thinking about mortality and regret; I do specifically recall thinking, “If I die tomorrow without talking about this, I will feel like I’ve failed.”
It’s impressive that you could convey a sense of Glen as both a monster and your best friend. Was that your intent—to humanize him—or was that just a byproduct of being honest? In other words, did you see him that way before you wrote him that way?
It’s just the way it is. While I think Glen is mentally ill, I don’t like to believe that people are monsters. That humans can do such terrible things, that we all have the potential for being so fucked up… I guess I’d agree that it “humanizes” him, but not in the sense that it softens my perception of him.
That said, at this point, I don’t have much compassion left for him. He clearly is so broken that he either doesn’t see the repercussions his action have on those around him or he simply doesn’t care. He can be human and still reprehensible.
Are you expecting any legal repercussions to what you’ve written?
In what way?
I’m not sure—but the things you’re describing are criminal acts. Has the statute of limitations expired? Will this affect Glen’s professional life? Are there potential adverse effects for you?
Well, one thing that’s come to my attention is that charges were apparently filed. I got that part wrong. The difference was that without my testimony, the state accepted a plea bargain that kept him out of prison.
So I don’t think there’s anything else that might directly affect Glen or Mary Beth [my mother] legally. I don’t even know how much I care about that. My hope was never that he’d go to prison (although in retrospect that probably would have been better at the time), but that the situation would be dealt with openly and with full acknowledgement of the potential danger that others around him may be in. Clearly they’ve gone through great lengths to “put it behind them”, but in a way that I feel completely glosses over his lack of any true remorse or ownership of his responsibilities to the community.
As for me, I’m not worried about any legal whatevers. The only side-effects of telling the truth for me are the personal ramifications.
Now, the piece is called “Why I’m Funny,” but you don’t make the connection explicit. What is your sense of humor, and how does this explain where it came from? Or did you mean “funny” in a different way?
It’s the same old story as a lot of people with good senses of humor: mine developed in part as a way for me to deal with all the trauma at home. I’ve always been socially awkward, though, so I wouldn’t say that being abused was the singular genesis of my propensity to make dick jokes.
But I definitely meant “funny as in weird” as the subtext.
You’re famously a gadget guy, and a lot of your early experience with gadgets and videogames came from Glen showing you how to shoplift them. Not sure what question I’m supposed to ask. Maybe “Is it strange that your realm of expertise owes something to your abuser?”
I’ve been steeped in computers and technology for as long as I can remember. My grandfather was a programmer and tinkerer. I think having so many gadgets around due to our thievery certainly contributed to my fascination — or at least familiarity — with technology, but I suspect it would have happened even if Glen had never been in the picture.
Which sort of brings up your biological father, who appears only briefly in the story. When you were young, did you ever fantasize he’d show up and put Glen out of the picture? What’s your relationship with him like now?
You know, I’ve thought about that. Why I never told him. As silly as it sounds, I think it was that I didn’t want to move to Florida and leave my friends behind. I made a lot of decisions then that were short-sighted, but when you’re in a situation like that during your teen years, it’s hard to think of the bigger picture. I was just as busy worrying about girls and getting a job and wanting a car as any other stupid kid.
My relationship with my father is sort of goofy, but not because of anything that happened in relationship to the abuse. He’s just a kooky guy who is torqued differently than me. But we spend a fair amount of time together — drinking and scuba diving mostly — and talk on the phone here and there. I’m not going to be buying him a World’s Best Dad coffee mug anytime soon, but that’s just because we’re more friends than father-and-son. I know that had he known what was going on he would have done whatever he needed to do to help me. I know he feels a lot of guilt about what happened, but I don’t see the point in holding him responsible for something that he had no knowledge of.
Fair enough. Now, one of the obvious questions here would be the standard “What should kids in such situations do?” But this is a blog for dads, so: What should a father do if he realizes he’s becoming Glen?
If you are abusing your children: leave and seek counseling. Alone. You’re too broken to have a family. You don’t get to have them around for support while you try to fix your brain and your life. I mean, come on.
But I doubt very many fathers that abuse their children really second-guess their behavior. They probably are living in such a delusion of privilege that their ego doesn’t even let them consider that their failings might take self-sacrifice to fix.
So — no offense — but it’s a weird question. I just have a hard time conceiving of a person that would abuse their children having the humility to turn themselves in. But I’m not an expert. I just know what I’ve experienced. And in my case I have seen a man who has a sickness hurt ruin his family because of his selfishness, who, even when forced to face it head on. The conniving that he used to protect his sickness didn’t go away, because his own psychological issues were never addressed. He was instead forgiven by his church and his wife and, as far as I know from both personal experience and observation, went right back to his own selfish behavior.
It’s hard for me to square, because I personally believe in redemption. I think the attitude espoused by our society’s perception of crime and criminality is disgusting and shames us all. But if you’re a father who abuses his kids sexually, physically, or psychologically? I hope you find peace — but you’ve given up your moral right to be a father.
Final question: Are you planning/hoping for kids of your own?
I’m certainly not planning anything right now. I just got out of a relationship with a woman whom I hoped would become my wife.
I do feel like I want kids at times — especially when I get to spend time with my sister’s kids, who just fill me with light, even when they’re being precocious bastards — but I’m also not broken hearted that I don’t have any yet, either.
Being abused can make you really uncomfortable around kids, though. You hear people talk about the cycle of abuse, that most abusers were themselves abused, and you pause before giving a kid a bath or changing a diaper and have to check yourself: Is this weird? Am I doing something wrong? Am I feeling something wrong?
But, you know, I’m 32-years-old and haven’t abused any children, so I think I’m probably in the clear. (And for the record: No, I don’t feel any inclination to do so.) As I continue to explore and unpack my own guilt and shame about sex in general, I’m increasingly able to work through what I suspect is the self-loathing about sex that, in abusers, can only manifest by expressing their sexual needs on the powerless.