The night I met Walter* we were both booked on a storytelling show. Storytelling shows—if you're unfamiliar—are a lot like stand up comedy shows except if someone tells a joke and if falls flat they just pretend they were being interesting. Occasionally people will eschew humour entirely in favour of dramatizing personal anecdotes: a deathbed confession of a curmudgeonly uncle or maybe a particularly poignant moment from a grade school production of Cats. The gig that night was a slog. Performers came underprepared, mumbling through half-thought-out tales with little response from the crowd. But all of that changed when Walter got called up.
He came barrelling from the back of the room with his arms outstretched. Before getting on the stage he high fived the first two rows of patrons, greeting everyone with a toothy smile accompanied by little Ric Flair woos. The audience came alive, starting to laugh before Walter had even begun his set. The vibe of the place changed instantly. For the next ten minutes Walter had the audience in stitches with a heartbreaking and hilarious bit about childhood bullying. The story was masterfully told, punctuated with cringeworthy self-deprecation and thoughtful reflections on growing up. I could totally see why Walter had earned the headlining spot for the show. Afterwards I introduced myself. From there we became friends.
The comedian was as warm on stage as he was off. He was the type of guy who would help you move apartments without complaining about it. He listened attentively when you spoke and supported gigs regardless of whether or not he was booked. One time during a set he described himself as the friendliest man in comedy, which would have seemed like a weird thing to say if it didn’t feel kind of true. In a scene that was fraught with bitterness and resentment, Walter was beloved. People genuinely wanted him to succeed. During the two years we knew each other I watched him parlay his winning attitude into commercial bookings, independent film parts, and auditions for big name producers. It seemed like a rare case of a nice guy getting ahead, which is why it was such a shock to see his name on the local news.
Walter was charged with the possession of child pornography.
I found out about the charges from a screen in a subway station. There beside an advertisement for Burger King was an announcement from the police. It had Walter’s name, age, and a location close to his house. The screen said that he had accessed, made available, and possessed child sexual abuse material. Then it flipped over to another story.
Putting together this piece I debated about using Walter’s real name, but ultimately decided against it. The reasoning was simple enough: using his real name might cause problems for people who were formerly a part his life—family members, partners—and just because I made the decision to talk about this, doesn’t mean they should have to.
At first I assumed there had been a mistake. It was impossible to reconcile the person I knew and the charges I had seen. This wasn’t him. It couldn’t be. Walter was the pal you called if you got a flat tire. He was the comedian with the perfect head lice joke. The guy who had equally funny takes on pro wrestling and different types of apples. But more than that he was my friend.
When I stepped out of the underground my heart was racing. I thought about calling Walter directly, but when I went to punch in the number I couldn’t do it. Instead I looked for his social media accounts. Each one of them was gone. OK. Not good. From there I started to text our mutual friends, but by the time I began typing my phone was abuzz. Did you hear what happened? Do you know what’s going on? Is it true? We all grasped at straws, running through hypotheticals. Eventually someone confirmed the worst. Yes, it was him. Yes, he’d been arrested. Something in my stomach dropped and I waited for an explanation. In some ways I feel like I’m still waiting.
During the months that followed there was a lot of gossip. What exactly was on the computer? What about his girlfriend? Would Walter be going to jail? I was told he pleaded guilty and was later released to the custody of family with severe restrictions/probation, but I never followed up on the exact details. People expressed their feelings in a lot of different ways. The comedians made jokes about it. Industry people bemoaned the fact they’d have to pull entire ad campaigns from the air. Others thoughtfully spoke on the victims in the pornography. During this time, the term pedophile got used a lot. While it was the appropriate term I still cringed whenever I heard someone say it. Walter was a pedophile. That was impossible to believe. It was also true. That fact was just one of many contradictory thoughts I held about the subject.
I didn’t know the specifics of the crime or who else was impacted. What I had pieced together is that Walter had acted on his impulses. He made a horrible, life-altering, choice. The consequences he was facing were nothing compared to the kids who were likely harmed by the pornography he consumed. I couldn’t imagine how that had impacted their lives or how they might be harmed by it. But I could imagine the emotional consequences for Walter. What he did was awful and living with it meant the end of what had come before.
In the course of a few days he had gone from among the city’s top young talent to someone absolutely reviled. He lost his friends. He had become completely unemployable in his field and more or less every other occupation. That must have felt incredibly lonely. Even if he deserved to deal with all that, I still felt sympathy… then as soon as that sympathy would pop up I’d feel disgust with myself. That disgust would lead to more anger with Walter.
I understood everyone who felt angry. While not every pedophile is a child abuser or even acts on their impulses, Walter was responsible for downloading material preying on some of the most vulnerable people within society. Friends had also let him around their kids. Were I put in that situation I could see how anger—rage, maybe violent rage—would be an appropriate response. I understood the feelings of betrayal. Walter had given himself the title as the friendliest man in comedy. We had all believed him, booking him on shows and sharing the stage…and now this? There was also the despair of the whole thing. The fact it brought up terrible memories for some people. How it messed with others’ concept of trust. And I understood all that, I really did, but still amongst everything there was still a part of me that felt intensely sorry for Walter.
If you’re offered a situation as a hypothetical it’s easy to say how you’d deal with it. If you told me a stranger was downloading child porn it would be easy to write them off as a monster. It’s one of the most vile things I can think of. When it’s someone you’ve dealt with personally it gets more complicated. Not that the action is excusable at all. It’s not. But despite what he did, I still remember good things about Walter. His actions weren’t carried out by someone cartoonishly evil and without remorse, they were done by someone who has nuances, and I can’t decide whether I think that’s better or worse.
Since the incident I’ve tried to compartmentalize the feelings I had both about Walter and his actions. At some point it was too much to give attention to. There wasn’t anything else to be done except try to move on. This would have been easier if not for two things.
Months after the incident I got an email from Walter. He apologized for how his actions might have impacted me. He said that if I wanted to get coffee, to tell him anything, he was willing to listen. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to say. The email sat in my inbox as a reminder of just how much things had changed. I replied asking when. I didn’t know if I’d show up, but figured at the very least it was a chance at closure. After two more emails talking exclusively about time and location nothing ever came of it.
A few weeks after the email there was a phone call. It was my friend Peter*, a well known stand up in the comedy scene. Peter sounded distraught, talking quickly and with a lot of breath in his voice. He had just run into Walter. He was standing at a red light and up walked Walter on the other side of the street. Peter explained the range of reactions he had. He’s got a kid himself and it had made the charges that much more visceral. He had considered physically harming Walter, roughing him up as comeuppance for what he had done. He thought about following him down the street, yelling about what had happened, letting everyone know a pedophile was among them. But what Peter actually did was different.
As the light changed and the two began walking towards each other. Walter tried to make himself as small as possible, crumpling up his body and hunching his shoulders as he moved forward. As the two were briefly beside each other Peter turned to Walter and said, “Hey man, we all just want you to get the help you need.” Apparently Walter nodded and then walked away.
On the phone Peter apologized for calling me. He just wanted to know whether I thought he had said the right thing. He wanted to know if he should have done something differently. I told him I didn’t know. I still don’t. But I think about it all the time.
*Some names and details in this story have been changed.
Graham Isador is a writer in Toronto. @presgang