PAT WALTERS: Maybe all of us can sit on the couch.
KEVIN: I can pull that chair over.
JAD ABUMRAD: So we're gonna to start off with a story from our producer Pat Walters about a couple.
JANET: Oh my word!
JAD: That's the lady.
JANET: I'm Janet.
JAD: This is the guy.
PAT: So I don't need you to introduce yourself. That's usually the thing we do, but we're not telling people who you are.
JAD: We're gonna call him Kevin.
KEVIN: Kevin. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That's -- yeah, that's my name. Not suspicious at all.
JAD: It's not his real name. It'll make sense why we're not using his real name in a second.
KEVIN: Okay, you know ...
PAT: So this one starts a few summers ago. It was July, 2006. Jan and Kevin were at home.
PAT: And some people you don't know show up, and maybe I'll start with you.
JANET: When they show up at the door? So we were -- it was -- we were getting ready to go down the shore. It was a Friday. So we -- so we're in the kitchen, and they come to the back door.
KEVIN: I thought that -- I thought that they were fundraising. I thought they might have been fireman just by, you know, the blue -- the blue shirt, and then realized that they were -- they were law enforcement.
JANET: Two women and I think two men.
KEVIN: More came up from around the -- you know, the side of the house.
JANET: And they show us their badges.
PAT: Were they cops? Or ...
JANET: They were Homeland Security.
KEVIN: They took me outside.
JANET: And they kept me and they asked me to stay in the kitchen. And they had a woman with me. I didn't know what was going on. Nobody said anything to me.
PAT: What are they saying to you on the porch meanwhile?
KEVIN: When they -- when they showed up, I got to the door. They said, "You know why we're here." I said, "Yeah, I do. I was expecting you." And I showed them where everything was.
ROBERT: This story about Kevin and his wife Janet inspired us to do the entire hour.
JAD: Mm-hmm. Because one of the most basic things that we do as people is we judge. We judge one another.
ROBERT: We judge what's right.
JAD: We judge what's wrong.
ROBERT: But this story and the two that follow ...
JAD: They will make you judge how you judge. Or at least they had that effect on us.
ROBERT: And we're calling our show Blame.
JAD: I'm Jad Abumrad.
ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich. And we'll go back to Pat.
JAD: Before we do, you should know that this show contains some graphic, difficult descriptions in a few spots. If you're not in the mood or if you have kids around, you might want to sit this one out.
PAT: Okay. So what happened in that first scene and what happens next only makes sense if we go back a little first. About 15 years. It's just an ordinary day. Kevin's going home from work.
KEVIN: And I was driving home, going about 65-70 in the fast lane when suddenly there was a thump in my chest. Then heat. Just a heat burning.
PAT: After that, he said suddenly he had this thickness ...
KEVIN: In my tongue, in my throat.
PAT: Then a foul taste in his mouth.
KEVIN: Then my hearing faded out.
PAT: And he thought [bleep], it's back.
KEVIN: When I finally did come to ...
PAT: He sees his car has smashed into the side of an apartment building.
KEVIN: I do recall the officers telling me, "You've been in an accident. You've been in ..."
PAT: And he remembers one of them ...
KEVIN: Insisted that he smelled alcohol, and I was talking through clenched teeth because I had bit my tongue and my cheeks. I was saying over and over again, "I had a seizure. I had a seizure."
PAT: Kevin's got epilepsy. He's had it since he was a teenager. But two years before this all happened, he'd had surgery to remove the part of his brain that was causing the seizures, and it seemed to have worked. He was doing great. Essentially wasn't having seizures anymore. Until suddenly ...
PAT: You ...
PAT: He was.
PAT: Lost your license?
KEVIN: I lost my license for a year.
PAT: Things had kind of taken a nosedive. Like, here he is, he's 35 years old.
KEVIN: I'm living with my brother. I'm divorced. And I have to call my daddy and ask him now to drive me to and from work.
PAT: And you think, "I need to do something. This is not sustainable."
KEVIN: No. No, don't -- don't need that. So I walked into the office.
PAT: Asked the HR person where he works for a list of all the employees.
KEVIN: "Give me a list of everybody and where they're from." So she pulled it up. I go down the list and I get to Janet Woodruff Bloomfield. Only one that's really close to me. Five minutes away. So I walk to her cube, knocked on the -- on the wall and introduced myself.
PAT: Like, "Hey, my name is Kevin. I also work here. I've got this thing, though. It's kind of awkward. I can't drive, and I was wondering if you'd give me a ride."
KEVIN: And she said yes.
JANET: I really pass by his street I mean, on the way to work. So it was ...
PAT: Like, right on his street.
JANET: Pretty much. But I made it clear, you know, I'll do it when I can.
PAT: And as they drove together, they ...
JANET: Started talking. Finding out little bit more about each other.
PAT: Noticed pretty quickly.
KEVIN: We liked the same music.
JANET: And that was unique, because I sort of liked music that was probably more in his era.
PAT: Kevin was seven years older than Jan.
PAT: What kind of music were you listening to?
JANET: Jackson Browne, mostly. A lot of Jackson Browne. James Taylor. Bonnie Raitt. You know, Elton John.
PAT: They found themselves singing along to the lyrics.
KEVIN: You cannot sing with somebody day in and day out and not have something happen.
JANET: We wound up as the spring came, you know, it's getting nice out. So now it's like well, let's not go home. Let's go out for a beer after work.
KEVIN: We're becoming good friends.
JANET: We liked each other.
PAT: But for Kevin, it was a little more serious than that.
KEVIN: I'm thinking about her, and I'm starting to wake up at night.
PAT: And one day in May as Janet is dropping him off, Kevin turns to her and he says ...
KEVIN: Hey, I really appreciate what you've done for me. Let me take you to dinner, just as friends. Just as friends.
PAT: Janet says sure.
KEVIN: So ...
PAT: May 30th, 1992.
KEVIN: Highlawn Pavilion.
PAT: Nicest restaurant in town.
JANET: So your friend takes you to a four-star restaurant, you're thinking right away ...
PAT: He thinks this is a date.
KEVIN: We're going on a date. Come on!
JANET: So now I'm panic-stricken.
KEVIN: We have our dinner, we leave.
JANET: We had a wonderful time.
KEVIN: She drops me off and I handed her the poem.
PAT: What did the poem say? Do you still have it?
KEVIN: Yeah, I do. Okay. This is "A Little Slower." Each time we sing on the way home, I pray that traffic backs up so we can sing together just a little longer and the harmony can go on forever. And each time we reach my door I feel robbed, because we're always in mid-song or mid-thought. If only I ...
PAT: He gets out and goes inside and probably thinks, "Awesome. I gave her that poem, she's gonna be so smitten with me." And you go home and what?
JANET: Want to throw up. I just thought, "Oh, God. I -- you know ..."
PAT: Next day.
JANET: I just looked at him and said listen, "We got to clarify. This is clearly just gonna be a friendship." He was seven years older than me. He had these brain -- you know, surgery, he has epilepsy. He's divorced, he has two children.
KEVIN: Are you catching the compassion here? Are you catching the compassion here?
PAT: I'm trying.
JANET: And he's just like, "I'm not asking you to marry me. I'm asking you to go out on a few dates."
KEVIN: Exactly. If you go out with me, like, four times in the next six months, I'm ahead of the game.
JANET: He just handled it. And I don't think it was long at all. I can't even remember, but it wasn't long at all before we were, like, a couple.
PAT: And Kevin?
KEVIN: I'm dopey. Dopey in love.
JANET: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
PAT: He's doing romantic things for her all the time.
JANET: Flowers, poems and ...
KEVIN: An illustration of the Jackson Browne cover.
PAT: And within a year ...
JANET: We were engaged.
PAT: But all the while, Kevin is having seizures.
PAT: Since the car accident more and more.
KEVIN: There was a point where we were obviously dating.
PAT: She's helping him make his bed.
KEVIN: And ...
PAT: He says she pulled off the pillowcase ...
KEVIN: It's covered with bloodstains. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. You can count the number of seizures that I had and bit through my tongue and bled.
JANET: I knew nothing about epilepsy. I had never seen anybody have a seizure. In my past, those would have been big red flags that I would have just walked away. But I just went with it.
PAT: And they both went with it for a few years, until finally Kevin and Janet decide this is enough.
KEVIN: I wanted to be done with it. I just needed to be done with it.
PAT: So they schedule a brain surgery. Which sounds like a big deal, and obviously it is, but they had every reason to think that this wouldn't change him.
JANET: I honestly thought that he was gonna come out of it fine, better.
PAT: Because that's what happened the first time. Kevin had actually gone through a brain surgery much like this one once before, and he'd come out pretty much the same guy.
JANET: He was still himself.
PAT: In fact, he made sure of it.
KEVIN: I had a -- I was awake for the surgery. And ...
PAT: That's crazy.
KEVIN: Yeah, it was. I had to be awake.
PAT: It had to do with music. Kevin is a musician, and the doctors told him ...
KEVIN: They said that if I lost anything I was gonna lose my appreciation for music. That it would be like music would be white noise. I said, you know, "No, for me music was -- no, is part of my personality." It was how I coped with my darkest moments in dealing with epilepsy and seizures. At 18 years old, I'd have a seizure. I'd take my harmonica and I'd find a place with decent reverb somewhere and be right where I needed to be. I didn't want to lose that part of me.
PAT: So as the doctors were doing the brain surgery, they had his head open. They asked him to sing.
PAT: Do you remember what you sang?
KEVIN: End of the Innocence, some James Taylor.
PAT: And while he's sang, they would tickle different parts of his brain. And if they ever touched a part that made him stop singing they'd say, "Okay. That's a part we cannot take out."
PAT: Yeah. And in the end ...
KEVIN: I think they ended up taking out, like, four and a half centimeters. Like a -- you know, a little bigger -- bigger than a golf ball.
PAT: But afterwards as he was recovering ...
KEVIN: I had my keyboard in the room and I tried playing right away. Da da da da da da da da. And it worked.
PAT: The part of him that he really cared about was still there.
JANET: Yeah. He was the man I fell in love with after the first surgery. So I thought well, you know ...
PAT: Now that they've got to do a second surgery ...
JANET: He's already been down this road. We're fine.
PAT: And after that second surgery, he did seem fine.
KEVIN: Janet didn't have her brother sneak my keyboard up to the room again.
JANET: He was very, very adamant that he wanted that keyboard.
KEVIN: I played a little. Just noodled a couple of notes, played a couple of things and it was like, "Okay. I'm there."
PAT: Still me.
KEVIN: I was ready to go.
PAT: So you go home and, like, it seems to have worked?
JANET: Yeah. As far as seizures go we thought, "Okay, this is it. We're home free." And I was just happy to have some normalcy.
PAT: But then in the winter ...
KEVIN: By beginning, the middle of January ...
PAT: Kevin noticed he wanted to eat ...
KEVIN: My physical appetite ...
PAT: ... a lot more than usual.
KEVIN: ... got, like, insane.
JANET: This is a guy who didn't eat breakfast, he had minimal lunch, and he'd have a sensible dinner, maybe a snack. That was it.
PAT: But now?
KEVIN: I could eat the couch.
JANET: It just was odd. It was not him normally but, you know, you're like, "Okay."
PAT: She thought maybe it's just a side effect from the medications. But then ...
JANET: The piano. He'd play the piano for hours.
PAT: The same songs they used to sing in the car together.
JANET: If he was stuck on a piece, he would play it for hours.
PAT: Like, how many hours?
JANET: Eight. Eight, nine.
PAT: And then there was sex.
JANET: You know, we were a happy, healthy couple.
PAT: Kevin's nodding.
JANET: Yeah. Yeah, it was fine. But what was abnormal was it was -- it was anywhere. Clearly it wasn't like, "Oh, we're in the supermarket. Let's have sex here." I mean, it wasn't like that. But I mean it was like I could just walk in the kitchen from being out of work and he'd be like, "Oh, you -- let's go here."
PAT: Which struck her as weird. But then again ...
JANET: We were thinking, you know, let's try to have a family.
PAT: So the timing made things confusing. And more than that, it wasn't like any of this stuff was out of character, exactly. In fact, it was all stuff that she liked about him.
PAT: Except now it was all turned up to 11.
JANET: All the things that were wonderful became chores.
PAT: And that's pretty much where things were at when those federal agents showed up in July of 2006.
JANET: I was just completely blindsided.
KEVIN: They said, "You know why we're here." I said, "Yeah, I do. I was expecting you."
PAT: Kevin took the agents upstairs.
KEVIN: I took them right into here where my computer was.
PAT: And they arrested him for what was on that computer.
KEVIN: I gave it up to them right away.
JAD: Warning: this next passage contains some graphic imagery.
PAT: I mean, I hadn't -- I don't know if I had fully, like -- I think I had just, like, let child porn be this kind of vague thing that meant someone younger than 18. But then I read some of the court documents and there were, like, toddlers. There were pic -- videos of two, three and four year olds.
KEVIN: There -- there -- these sites had the most despicable, disgusting things you can -- you can imagine. Infants on through. You know, preteen and, you know, pre-adolescent and adolescents.
PAT: And you bought these things and put them on your computer.
KEVIN: I -- yeah. Yeah, it bothers me. It bothers me. Like I said, initially it was -- you know, it was just your base -- your basic, you know, hetero -- heterosexual Playboy-like, Penthouse-like sites. And then windows would just start to open up.
PAT: And pretty soon he says, he was going everywhere.
KEVIN: There was gay sex. They were -- I mean, there was -- there was bondage, there was defecation sex. There was animal sex, xeno sex. I went everywhere that a button came up to push. I -- I still don't understand it. I still -- I still don't understand it.
PAT: You say it disturbed you and you feel terrible, but I just, like, wonder, like, how do you -- do you tell yourself, like, that wasn't me? Like, how do you explain it to yourself to -- so that you can kind of, I don't know, not feel like you're as bad as the person who goes there without a brain injury is, you know? Like ...
KEVIN: I -- say that again? Ask that question.
PAT: I guess I'm just wondering, I don't know, like, knowing that that's a thing that you did and it sounds like obviously you know that that was bad, it was a wrong thing and it was a terrible thing. But it was -- it was you who did it, or was it not? I don't know. You know what I mean?
KEVIN: No. It was -- it was me who did it, but it was me with a complete lack of neurological control. I mean, I know -- I know who I am. I did idiotic things that I couldn't stop myself from doing. I didn't want to do it. There would be nights where it would be four, five, six hours of going to the same site and -- and downloading one or two files and then deleting them. Going back a minute later, downloading the same files, deleting them. I would download those files a dozen times and delete them a dozen times because I didn't want to be there, knew I shouldn't be there, and couldn't help myself from going back. I'm not an idiot. I mean, I'm a smart guy. I'm not an idiot. But I know I had no control.
PAT: And that's what he would argue in court. Kevin would plead guilty, but at the sentencing hearing he asked the judge to be lenient, arguing essentially that the person who did all those things in some sense wasn't him. It was some other part of his brain that he couldn't control. At the hearing he called one witness.
ORRIN DEVINSKY: Orrin Devinsky. I'm a neurologist and epilepsy specialist at NYU Medical Center.
PAT: He's been treating Kevin for decades.
KEVIN: 20 -- 20 some odd years.
PAT: And he says as soon as he found out what Kevin had been doing ...
ORRIN DEVINSKY: Had a terrible sense of responsibility.
PAT: This is because of the brain surgery. The surgery Orrin recommended he have. And he argued in court that this was not Kevin's fault.
ORRIN DEVINSKY: I remember looking at those agents right in their face and saying to them and to the judge, "This could be anybody. This could be those agents, judge. This could be you. This could be me. This could be anybody, and we would have no control over what we did."
PAT: And he explained to the court ...
ORRIN DEVINSKY: What the biology was.
PAT: That the way the brain is organized is that there are parts of our brain that are way deep down that control, like, base desires.
ORRIN DEVINSKY: Like hunger, sex.
PAT: Keeps us alive. But it's teeming with the nastiest thoughts.
ORRIN DEVINSKY: We all have these crazy thoughts in our head.
PAT: Now in most of us, those thoughts are kept in check because there are other parts of our brain that sit on top and act like a lid. But in Kevin's case, the brain surgeon who did that surgery removed part of that filter and suddenly ...
ORRIN DEVINSKY: The cork was off. I mean, there was just no lid on his sexual desires.
PAT: He says scientists have known about this condition for a long time. They first saw it in monkeys.
ORRIN DEVINSKY: In rhesus monkeys.
PAT: When the monkeys would lose roughly the same part of the brain that Kevin lost ...
ORRIN DEVINSKY: They became very hyper-sexual. Males that would only previously be sexually involved with females, now were ten times more sexually active with both males and females.
PAT: But it feels to me -- feels to me like there's a -- there would be a brighter line before kids, you know?
ORRIN DEVINSKY: I think there is a line for quote unquote "normal" individuals, but in a brain disorder case those lines get blurred.
PAT: And he told the court that's what happened here.
ORRIN DEVINSKY: It was black and white.
PAT: Kevin was sick and his behavior was out of his control.
LEE VARTAN: Well, that's not what the facts showed in this case.
PAT: This is Lee Vartan who was the prosecutor.
LEE VARTAN: We saw no evidence of impulsivity.
PAT: He says if you're claiming that he had no control, that his brain made him do it, then how come he had all this child porn on his home computer ...
LEE VARTAN: I believe it was 52 videos and 125 images.
PAT: And yet on his work computer?
LEE VARTAN: There were zero images, zero videos of child pornography on his work computer.
PAT: And he worked a lot.
LEE VARTAN: He held down a job. He was working every day. If he truly lacked impulse control, I would think you would see child pornography on both computers.
PAT: And so what he argued back was what, was the lid on at work and off at home?
LEE VARTAN: Seems to me to be an easy out.
ORRIN DEVINSKY: So the answer is that this is common with neurologic disease. They tend not to be 24/7.
PAT: He says take something like Tourette's. Some people ...
ORRIN DEVINSKY: When they're engaged in playing sports, they tend not to have tics.
PAT: Whereas when they're sitting around bored or stressed, they do tend to have tics.
ORRIN DEVINSKY: So you could say, "Well, Tourette's clearly isn't a neurological disorder," but no, Tourette's is a neurologic disorder. We understand some of the brain things that go on in Tourette's.
PAT: The prosecution didn't buy it.
ORRIN DEVINSKY: They just thought it was hogwash.
LEE VARTAN: What was hogwash was his level of certainty.
PAT: The prosecution asked that Kevin be sent to prison for five years, because in paying for child porn he was supporting an industry that does terrible things to kids. Kevin hoped he'd avoid jail time altogether and instead be placed on house arrest. Now as for Janet, right after the arrest ...
PAT: I have to imagine that you were in shock a little. Like ...
PAT: She'd gone to see a lawyer.
JANET: And one of the questions he asked was, is this marriage gonna survive this? And I said, "I don't know." And at that point, understand I didn't even know the level of pictures.
PAT: But she says the moment she heard Orrin say that this was a brain disorder with a name, it's called Klüver–Bucy syndrome.
JANET: Once I was able to get that, for me it clicked. Like ...
PAT: She couldn't blame him.
JANET: We have these experts saying that it was a disease, and I kept thinking they'll understand.
PAT: Not to mention that after Kevin was arrested and got out on bail, Orrin gave him some medication. And Janet says it was like flipping a switch.
JANET: That's exactly what it was. It was like I got him back.
KEVIN: I was able to sit and watch a movie with her.
JANET: You know, normal.
PAT: Janet actually says in a lot of ways those few months between the arrest and the sentencing hearing, they'd been the best months in their marriage.
JANET: He now was just so much easier, calmer. You could just talk.
PAT: The hearing took about three hours, and when it was over the judge took a recess, went into her chambers. When she came back, she delivered her decision. She actually wouldn't talk to me for this story, but I have the transcript from the hearing. And if you remember the prosecutor Lee Vartan was asking for five years.
LEE VARTAN: 63 months.
PAT: Orrin, Kevin, Janet were hoping for ...
JANET: House arrest.
PAT: Meaning no jail time.
JANET: There's no way they're gonna put him in jail. This is clear-cut.
PAT: And here's what the judge does. She says, "I do agree with Orrin."
ORRIN DEVINSKY: It is a neurological disorder.
PAT: No question. So he can't be held fully responsible for his behavior.
KEVIN: She was getting it.
PAT: On the other hand she said, the prosecution did have a point.
LEE VARTAN: That he was very much in control of his impulses.
PAT: At least some of the time. And so the question for the judge was: how does the legal system assign blame when a person is sometimes themselves and in control and sometimes not? Well, this was a crime, she said. A crime which ultimately leads to children being harmed. And considering that you did have moments where you were in control, then in those moments you had a responsibility. You could have done something. You could have asked for help. You could have told the people around you what you were doing. So even if you couldn't have stopped yourself, they could have stopped you.
KEVIN: She made it very clear that we had to do something here.
PAT: His sentence?
KEVIN: 26 months at a federal prison and ...
PAT: 25 months ...
KEVIN: ... of house arrest. And I believe -- I believe that she was fair, and I believe she was compassionate.
PAT: And about a week before Christmas in 2008, Janet drove him to prison.
ROBERT: How long was he in jail for?
PAT: About two years.
ROBERT: And she was -- even though the judge said, you know, he is responsible, did that change her attitude toward him at all?
PAT: No, they totally stuck together. She visited him pretty much every weekend the whole time.
JANET: I knew the route, and I had my own little routine down.
PAT: In between visits she'd send him notes.
JANET: And I'll never forget, he could send me mail. And they had a store where he could get some cards.
PAT: Super Hallmark-y.
JANET: And he would, like, alter them. And I remember the very first card I got, it was this very, you know, beautiful -- supposedly supposed to be beautiful, but it was like, you know, "If you need anything, you know, anything at all. Just let me know." And then he writes, "Of course, if it's pressing you might want to ask someone else because -- unless you can wait 24 months." And I remember getting that and just laughing. And then that became our thing. Like, listen this is a horrible situation, but we're gonna make the best of it.
PAT: Tell me a little bit about, like, where things are at now.
JANET: I think things are -- are almost normal.
KEVIN: You know, I am still on probation.
JANET: But he's home. He's working. Life is going on. We have our normal routines.
PAT: Kevin still takes those medicines that keep the other part of him in check.
KEVIN: I -- I have no libido at all. But I know who I am. I know what I am. I'm disturbed by that portion of my life, but I'm -- I'm trying -- I'm trying to move on.
JAD: Producer Pat Walters. Thanks also to neurologist Orrin Devinsky for connecting us to Kevin and Janet. Stay with us, we'll be exploring these questions of blame and responsibility even more deeply in the next segment.
ROBERT: Even yell about it a little.
ROBERT: Coming up.
[NICK: Hi. I'm Nick and I'm from Minneapolis. Radiolab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation and by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.]
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.