James Millar was born by the sea in 1965. His father ran his own building business and his mother taught children with learning disabilities. His sister Sarah was six years older and always had her head in a book. Three times a year they would go on holiday, once to another part of England, and twice abroad. The Millars liked their English lives. They were well enough off to spoil their son, who has strong memories of being taken sailing when he was three, of having a Chopper bicycle at the height of their fashion, and of loving Gary Glitter at the height of his. James’s favourite toy was the Six Million Dollar Man, which had a bionic right arm that could lift things. When you peered through the back of the doll’s head you suddenly had bionic eyes, too, eyes that could take in a magnified, wide-angle version of the world outside. James is a child again when he talks about the doll, its bright red jumpsuit, the way the bionic eye made things look different.

James is a paedophile who has abused a number of boys, including one aged six and one aged eight, and another who James says was 14 but had a mental age of six. It’s impossible to be certain how many children he has abused because he tells lies, but he has admitted to seven. He has served three prison sentences since he was 18. He was released on licence in July 1998; he says he has not abused any children since then.

He doesn’t look distinctive, you wouldn’t pick him out as having something ‘odd’ about him. He is tall and better-looking than average, with cropped dark hair, brown eyes and a bit of a tan. He dresses like a young boy, wearing shorts, ankle socks, trainers, a T-shirt and sometimes a baseball cap. He wears a Gucci watch, an ostentatious metal one with a square black face. James said it wasn’t a fake, his sister had bought it for him on Bond Street. They hadn’t been in contact for ten years, he said, and it was a present to seal their reconciliation. I asked to see the watch, but it wasn’t heavy enough to be the real thing and the word ‘Gucci’ was set off-centre.

So what is the story of this man? He has been abused, he has been an abuser. He has been involved in paedophile rings. He has a history of refusing to undergo treatment and then changing his mind (sex offenders generally are more likely to comply with treatment and supervision conditions than other offenders); so far he has been on three courses of treatment. The Sex Offenders Treatment Programme encourages offenders to confess to their crimes, and then tries to help them learn how to control their behaviour. This involves teaching them to watch out for and to try to avoid things that might trigger their abusive acts. They are also taught – if this can be learned – to have sexual fantasies that don’t involve children. The intention of this programme is to reduce risk – paedophiles can never be ‘cured’. Only a fifth of released offenders have completed the SOTP, which runs in 25 prisons and treats 670 prisoners a year. Although James has completed the SOTP he is classed as being at a high risk of reoffending. He, on the other hand, declares that he will never do what he used to do again. Whatever he says, he will remain on the Sex Offenders’ Register for the rest of his life.

It is hard to listen to James’s story. This man has a compulsion. He wants to have sex with people who are too young to have sex, people who don’t know what sex is, and who must become his victims in order for him to feel whatever it is he wants so much to feel. He is very frightening. Even in his ordinariness he is frightening: his desires are unknowable and his satisfactions ungraspable. But how much of what is true about him is true of other paedophiles?

Things changed for James when he was six; except for favourite toys and flashes of beaches, nothing was very vivid in his life until then. One day he was playing at a place called Hoggett’s Ditch with his friend Donald when a man happened on them. The man was middle-aged and James, the child-threatener, remembers nothing so well as the threat this man posed to him. ‘He said this is what I want to do to you, and he got his out and pulled our shorts down. My friend tried to run away and he grabbed hold of his arm but I just froze. He committed oral sex on both of us then masturbated. Then we just sort of walked home and my friend Donald said it didn’t happen and I said nothing happened at all.’

James has told the story many times before, and he seems to like the sound of the words and the short parade of images. He admits he’s boasted about the experience to other paedophiles. He’s told the story to people in therapy groups, but seems pleased to have the opportunity to say it all over again to somebody new. He says the incident was very frightening and changed him. Frightening, you can understand. It changing him, you can understand that, too. But how did it come to change him in such a way as to make him forget the terrible insult of that fear? If it really happened (and he doesn’t reply when I ask him if he’s telling the truth), what was it about the experience, or about him, that allowed him to re-enact it?

‘I was just a run of the mill kid till then and had no big problems,’ he says. ‘After that I started playing up. I was argumentative with my parents. I was being ill all the time, saying that I had a headache and that I didn’t want to go to school.’ James started to lose interest in normal things like school and toys. His parents took him to see a child psychologist but he never told anyone what had upset him. It more or less sorted itself out, he says, without explaining any further. ‘I was just a normal kid after that,’ he claims. James wants to defend his own family’s part in all this. He says he was never emotionally deprived, rather the reverse: his parents were always there and were a very touchy-feely lot.

There is no way of knowing whether James was really abused. His story is plausible, but so is the notion that a sad story of childhood abuse would be a help to him. (The figures vary, but something like 28 per cent of offenders describe sexual victimisation in childhood.) Treatment programmes of the kind James knows well are interested in understanding the reasons for offenders’ behaviour, in reconciling past injuries with present states of mind. This can mean that offenders develop a way of going on – they learn that they, too, are victims, and in some cases this is certainly true. A language exists for this sort of thing. James has it at his fingertips. He tells his stories with equal measures of relish and hurt (as the newspapers do). It can seem as if he’s lost any real sense of who did what to whom, or of it mattering. Although his own abuse wins the lion’s share of his confused pity, he does own up to the damage he has done. The newspapers also have their own notions of victimhood and James, for all his unacceptability, has unquestionably suffered at their hands.

When James was 12 he was raped by a man in a toilet at the sea-front where he lived, a place used by kids to change into their swimming stuff in the summer. ‘I was in there getting changed,’ he said, ‘when a note got passed under the door saying this guy would like to have sex with me and how about my friends. At that time I was thinking what’s this? I looked through a hole and saw that he was masturbating. He just opened the door and I opened my door and he came into the cubicle and that was it.’ James is convinced that violence started to appeal to him after this encounter. ‘There was a mixture of excitement and fear about what might happen with him,’ he says, ‘and he buggered me. I said, “Do you want to suck me off?” and he said, “I want to bugger you,” and I said: “I don’t understand.” At that point he grabbed my neck and pushed me against the wall. After it was finished I went outside and my mates were all there saying, “What kept you?” and I said, “I went to the toilet” and that was it.’ That was it. James used this expression a lot every time I met him. And always, and increasingly, I wanted to ask: ‘What was it?’ The way he described it you’d think it was simple arithmetic: I was buggered, it was frightening, there was nothing I could do, God knows what I’m capable of as a result, but I’m trying to get over it. And each time I spoke to him – in an office, on the lawn of the cathedral in his home-town, at a railway station – his story varied. James is a fast talker, his words leap about as if his mind doesn’t want to stay in one place for too long. Catch him out in an inconsistency and he dances around in a verbal panic. At our first meeting he didn’t say anything about having been abused as a child. He admitted that he had abused two boys aged six and eight. At our second he said that after he was buggered when he was 12 he was raped every night by members of a paedophile ring, who took him off to summer camp. At our third he said he was not raped and that the abuse was not systematic: it was just oral sex and masturbation. He then denied abusing the six and eight-year-olds, saying that he had told the police that he’d done it but really he hadn’t. Fabulation is part of his sickness, and part of the history of his sickness, but his lies are part of the truth about him.

James admits that none of the kids he abused himself wanted it. He says he was mixed up. ‘Nothing was going through my head. It was like a blank.’ But his mind wasn’t a blank. James’s mind, if anything, is a thing of extraordinary prolixity, a bundle of closely typed documents encrusted with footnotes. He thinks there is a justification in his case. He says he remembered his own abuse when he ‘was doing it to other kids. To abuse other children would give me access to the people who abused me and eventually I would get revenge,’ he claims. ‘If I abused ten children but through doing that I got my revenge and got some of my abusers jailed, maybe I could save a hundred children.’ James’s head is at its fullest when he’s being especially obtuse. At one point I straighten up in my chair and tell him he’s talking rubbish. He nods. ‘I am disgusted with myself, but I am not going to beat myself up over it. I have got my own life to lead in the process of sorting myself out. My justification was revenge.’

‘So tell me what you did,’ I said.

James committed his first offence when he was 18. He was having a pee in public and two women saw him. The shock on their faces gave him an erection. He went on to flashing at young children and then to abusing them. James would ‘groom’ children, taking them into his confidence, paying them special attention, eventually using his power against them. ‘I committed oral sex on them. It was exactly the same as what happened to me but I wasn’t thinking about it at the time. I think it was something at the back of my mind.’ That’s it. A version, at last, that sounds true, and that makes it clear he has been an extremely bad person, though a person all the same. Around this time, James’s father died of cancer; his mother died two months into his last prison sentence. ‘What else?’ I say. During his first prison sentence James came into contact with other sex offenders and when he was released got involved in a paedophile ring. He took photographs and made videos of the children he abused, giving them to other paedophiles. In 1993 he ran away to Amsterdam when he discovered he was wanted by the police. Caught and extradited, he was given a sentence of seven years – for offences against children, including child pornography, plus fraud, deception and theft – of which he served four and a half.

So what does it mean to have someone like James living round the corner from you? In the first place it’s very unlikely to happen: though he isn’t a killer, the manifestations of James’s paedophilia are extreme, and, despite recent press coverage, people like him are very seldom to be found. The people who commit assaults of the kind he has committed tend to be closer to home – they are fathers, grandfathers and uncles, or they are priests, teachers and care-workers: most children who are under threat are under threat from people they know who look after them.

A lot of people wish James was dead. During the News of the World’s campaign to out paedophiles, I met many people who couldn’t think of any punishment bad enough for him. They would even hate me to use his name, believing this makes him seem normal, human; paedophiles should be known by the tabloids’ favourite word for those deserving of collective disgust: ‘scum’. The use of this word in the British press offers a blunt lesson in contemporary mob rhetoric: members of the upper orders, in whose schools child abuse was once thought to be mandatory, can never be ‘scum’, merely ‘in disgrace’ after a ‘scandal’.

James knows he is marked. ‘A lot of the children that I abused, it wouldn’t be them that I was abusing. It would be myself. It would be my face on the child rather than his face.’ This won’t do, and even James knows it: he changes his story every other day. A complicated world is collapsing on the likes of James – a world of lynch-mobs and happy damnation – and the words he says to himself about what he has done are seen to mean nothing at all.

I ask him what happened to Donald, the boy who was raped with him two decades ago. Donald has Aids, he says, he’s a heroin addict. ‘He went his way and I went mine.’ Feeling sorry for James is not an easy business, but part of the sadness in this story is his. I don’t want to kill him and I don’t want to live next door to him, but I’d like to live in a world where James could tell his story. For the time being it is a story that he can’t even bear to listen to himself.

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