Peeping Toms' Voyeurism Scars Victims' Psyches In 1999, Debra Gwartney's daughter saw a man taking photos outside her window. Gwartney talks about the lasting scars of that event, songwriter Nikki Lynette shares the open letter she wrote to her Peeping Tom, and clinical social worker David Prescott explains what motivates these individuals.
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Peeping Toms' Voyeurism Scars Victims' Psyches

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Peeping Toms' Voyeurism Scars Victims' Psyches


Peeping Toms' Voyeurism Scars Victims' Psyches

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. And we begin with a note to explain that we're going to be talking about sex crimes, and the conversation may not be appropriate for children.

In 1999, Debra Gwartney's 14-year-old daughter saw a man taking photos outside her window. When the police arrived, they found evidence that someone had climbed on a bucket to peer through that window, and had done so many times. The unsettling discovery was just the first in a long series of disturbing details that Gwartney and her daughters would learn about a peeping Tom.

While the act is reviled, it's sometimes dismissed as relatively harmless, a victimless crime, some say. But there are victims. And these days, they can find themselves exposed on the Internet, and their computer webcam can be hacked to serve as a digital window into their bedroom.

If this is your story, give us a call. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, Haley Barbour on the state of the Republican Party. But first, victims of peeping Toms.

We're going to begin with a caller, and Ann(ph) is on the line, Ann calling us from Tucson.

ANN: Hello?

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Ann.

ANN: Yes, hi. About 10 years ago, when I lived in Los Angeles, I lived in a ground-floor apartment. And I was driving home, and I saw this young man walking down my street. It was late. And something about him, I noticed the shape of his head, and just the way he was walking.

And by the time I got in my apartment about 15 minutes later, I saw a shadow by my window on the sidewalk, and I said: That looks like him. And why is he so close? And then I went to look out the window, and there he was, staring back at me.

And so I ran into my hallway, called - because I was so scared and terrified, and then called the police. They came, but by the time the first set of cops came, he was gone. And for some reason, I guess they dispatched a second set of officers, and while they were talking to me, I could see him slinking down the block again.

And so I screamed there he is. There he is. And they took - you know, chased (unintelligible) but unfortunately, he was small and wiry, and they had on all their gear, and he got away. But I remember from the experience just feeling so frustrated and angry, you know, and just completely violated, even though we'd caught him - I mean, you know, nothing major had happened, but just the fact that he did this to me, you know. And all these years later, it still haunts me. And yeah, that's my story.

CONAN: I can still hear the anger in your voice.

ANN: Yeah, yeah. It just - because, you know, you're home. You're supposed to be safe. And lucky there were bars on my window, but the idea that - you know, and I would come home late at night. But I was just glad that my hackles went up, and I was immediately suspicious of him, because the way he was walking just didn't feel right.

CONAN: Any lingering effects?

ANN: No, not really. I mean, I do pay close attention. I live in a very safe suburb, and my husband often forgets to lock the door. But I get up in the middle of the night, and I double-check and triple-check. And I close my curtains, because, yeah, like you said, you know, someone could be taking pictures and putting them on the Internet now.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for sharing your story. We appreciate it.

ANN: Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: And with us from Tucson. Joining us now is Debra Gwartney. She's at member station KLCC in Eugene, Oregon. Her piece about her family's experience appeared in the New York Times last month. She's the author of a memoir called "Live Through This."

And nice to have you with us today.


CONAN: And I know the details of your story is different from that we just heard from Ann. I guess the details of everybody's stories are different. Some of the emotions, though, are the same.

GWARTNEY: Absolutely, yes. I certainly understand her anger and the lingering effects of what happened to her.

CONAN: What went through your mind when you heard your daughter scream that time when she saw someone taking pictures outside her window?

GWARTNEY: Well, I - you know, it was a video camera that she saw, and so I knew that somebody had actual footage of her. She was undressing for bed, and she saw this light in her window and went over to investigate, and saw the man's hand and the video camera.

And I, of course, I was terrified. I'm a single mother of four teenage daughters, and I ran outside to see what was going on. I was really scared to do that, but - and he was gone. And when we called the police, you know, they came right over, and they were very assuring, but they kept saying oh, it's just a prank. You know, these - kids do this. Don't worry about it.

And that was the story we heard for the next year or so. We saw him several times. One time, my oldest daughter was in the backyard at night, and she saw him climb the fence and just heard right toward her, as if he was just going to knock her over. He didn't care she was there. This was a man who was going to look through the window, and he was going to videotape.

And I should mention here that when he was caught, finally, by the police, and they searched his home, they found dozens and dozens of videotapes, and he had taped 120 girls in our town.

CONAN: And after that, it's what you describe in your moment as the crossroads of the story. You were invited down to the police station to see if you could identify some of the pictures and if you would ask your daughter, 14 years old, to help them identify some of the other victims.

GWARTNEY: Yes, that's why I decided to write the piece. I know it was many - this all happened a long time ago, but I've been compelled to write about it for a long time. And finally, with the whole Penn State situation, it just kind of roiled around in me, and I realized how difficult it was at that time to decide how involved to allow my daughters to become in his prosecution.

They very much wanted him to be convicted. They wanted to be involved. But as a parent, I thought: Do I want this voyeurism to continue, where he's staring at them in a courtroom? And do I want them to be grilled by attorneys? And it was super-painful to decide that.

I'm glad they were involved, and they - all four testified against him. But the thing is that it was disappointing at the same time, because videotaping a child through her own bedroom window is only a misdemeanor, and most of those charges were dropped.

CONAN: And so did the man go to jail?

GWARTNEY: He went to jail because he eventually was - it was discovered that he been breaking into my home and about 10 other homes in our town of Eugene, Oregon, and he was setting up his - when we were gone, he was setting up his video equipment in the girls' bedrooms and taping himself masturbating in their beds and splicing that footage with the footage he'd caught of them undressing.

CONAN: So breaking and entering, yeah.

GWARTNEY: Breaking and entering is what put him in jail, prison.

CONAN: Looking back on this, there's a moment you said in your piece that you sometimes regretted that you went down that road.

GWARTNEY: Well, sure. I mean, the, you know, the judicial system is complicated, of course, and I understand that it is. It was - what you talked about at the beginning, this idea of a victimless crime, there was just - it felt to me all along that it was just sort of gosh, all he did was look. He never touched them, you know, 120 girls who were about 11, 12, 13 years old.

But nobody seemed to be so worried about it because they weren't actually physically accosted by him. But his crimes were obviously escalating. He was breaking into homes. He was stealing underwear, bathing suits. He was taking very private things from the girls' bedrooms and saving them.

So, you know, he was on his way to doing something, I believe, that would be very dangerous. But it was interesting to me, through the process, how so much of it was downplayed or dismissed because he was just looking.

CONAN: David Prescott is a clinical social worker. His work focuses specifically on those who've committed sexual abuse, and he joins us now from a studio in Portland, Maine.

Good of you to be on the program with us.

DAVID PRESCOTT: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: I just wanted to follow up specifically on that point that Debra Gwartney was just talking about. Do - she clearly believed her voyeur, the peeping Tom, was escalating. Is that typical?

PRESCOTT: It actually - it certainly can be typical. There hasn't been a great deal of research, unfortunately, to determine who's most at risk to escalate and who isn't. The good news in all of these situations is that people who do wind up being caught and brought to justice do tend to refrain from further abuse afterwards.

CONAN: So they stop?

PRESCOTT: A majority of them do.

CONAN: What motivates this behavior?

PRESCOTT: Well, there's several components. And as you've just heard, the details in each case differ. But the response tends to be - or the - what people notice is that the person didn't care that they had done this dozens of dozens of times before.

I think we have to break it out into several different components, and the first is some men are very interested in looking at women. And we certainly know that there's lots of pornography available on the Internet, and so on. At the same time, there are people, as we've just heard, who are very interested in looking at women or girls, and they're willing to break the law in order to do so.

And then there are some who are willing to break the law in order to do so, and do this in a very, very flagrant fashion. So just as there are no two people that are exactly alike, likewise there are lots of different kinds of sex offenders in the world. And, in fact, when somebody tells me that another person is a sex offender, in fact, that actually doesn't tell me very much.

CONAN: Is this always classified as a sex crime?

PRESCOTT: When it comes to somebody being arrested, that would really vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and what kinds of plea deals people accept in court situations. As far as I'm concerned, it is very - it is indeed a sex crime and should be treated seriously, just as any other sex crime.

CONAN: And what about the victims?

PRESCOTT: Well, you've heard from a couple of victims, and I think one thing - one point that's important to make is that everybody who experiences sexual abuse responds in a slightly different way. And so I am reluctant to make any presumptions about how anybody could or should respond to a crime like this.

Just the same, in my experience it's left people with several years of wondering: Where exactly does safety lie in my life if I can't be safe in my own bedroom, in my own bathroom? And after this, how should I respond when a man looks at me? Because people can be returned to the same kinds of emotions that they experienced with a look or a comment or a gesture or a glance from just about any man.

CONAN: Stay with us, both of you, if you will. We're going to take a short break. We're talking about victims of peeping Toms. If this is your story, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: When we come back, we'll talk with a woman who wrote an open letter to her voyeur and promised she's nobody's victim.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about peeping Toms and the sense of violation that many victims feel after a crime that's often misunderstood. Debra Gwartney's our guest. She described her family's experience with a peeping Tom and the aftermath in a piece in the New York Times.

I hadn't protected my daughters, she wrote, neither Mary nor her three sisters, in their own home. That's a failure I've had to live with more than a decade now. We've posted a link to her full piece at our website. That's at

If this is your story, give us a call. Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Also with us is David Prescott, a clinical social worker and past president of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. Nikki Lynette is a singer, songwriter and producer based in Chicago. Last month, she wrote an open letter to her peeping Tom for the blog Chicago Now, and she joins us today from New York. Nice to have you with us today.

NIKKI LYNETTE: Hi, great to be here.

CONAN: I just wanted to read a bit from your letter. I am writing this to you to let you know that I intend to get you caught. You shouldn't have let me hear you moan at my window, sir. I make a living with my ears. You thought I wouldn't recognize the timbre of your voice. The fact that you know which window belongs to my bedroom and how to hop over my neighbor's fence to get to that window convinces me that I know exactly who you are. After all, I love my apartment. I won't let anyone run me out of it. I am nobody's victim.

That's - you're certainly not taking this lying down.

LYNETTE: Not at all, not at all. You know, I'm an abuse survivor from when I was a child. So when things like this happen that are a violation of my privacy as a woman, you know, I have to take it very seriously.

CONAN: And it changed your idea of home.

LYNETTE: It does, because, you know, you have to keep the windows closed. You have to - you know, I live in an area that is pretty much a family area, and in my city, I'm well-known. So I specifically chose this area because it doesn't have a lot of foot traffic, except for people that live there, and it's relatively quiet.

And I always really loved my apartment until this stuff started happening.

CONAN: And I understand it's not all that easy, given the layout, to get to that window.

LYNETTE: Oh, no, because there is private property next to my apartment. So they literally had to go climb onto that property and know which window to look into to be able to find me. Because when I'm home, I pretty much keep all of the lights on, except this one night I had the window open just because I wanted air.

And it's just unfortunate that that's something that you have to go through in your own community, in your own neighborhood, and you have to worry about that kind of thing. But it's not something that I intend to allow to go on.

CONAN: And how did the police respond?

LYNETTE: The police were actually very concerned. You know, they took a lot of information. They sat and spoke with me. They followed up. You know, they were concerned that maybe it was a guy that had been in that area routinely doing stuff, but they had reason to believe that it was not that guy specifically because of the details of what happened.

You know, I was sitting there writing an article, and I heard a guy moaning, like moaning. And when I jumped up and I yelled, I hear him running away. And when I told the police that, they believe yeah, that this is likely someone who knows who you are.

CONAN: And that's a little scary.

LYNETTE: It was horrifying. I had never had anything like that happen before.

CONAN: Obviously, given your profession, you're on the road a lot. In some ways, that must be a relief.

LYNETTE: It is. You know, I do enjoy being able to work from home. I like being able to work on my music, you know, at home in my room, not have to worry about it. That's one of the beautiful - I mean, anyone who's visited Chicago knows, like, you know, the residential areas where all the families are.

Like, we have neighborhoods, legitimate neighborhoods, and it's a really good feel to be there and work. But it does make me uncomfortable. I haven't been home much since it happened, but I will return in about a week. And I intend to feel comfortable in my home.

CONAN: What kind of responses did you get? Did anything change?

LYNETTE: I sort of believe that I know who did it, or I know someone who knows more about it than he's saying. And so, you know, a lot of people reached out to me as a response, just - I think that people really don't understand how big of an issue the peeping Tom thing is. Like, it's one of those things that you would think because of the Internet existing, they can just go online and have their voyeur experience.

But people still want to see the real thing, I guess. And one thing that people don't understand is that a lot of women experience this, and because you don't always catch them, you don't know how to resolve it. So a lot of women reached out to me and expressed that they had gone through similar things.

And I made a point of - on my social media, I have really good traffic on my social media. I posted these other women's stories so that people would know it's not uncommon. And I definitely made a point of letting everyone know on my social media the steps that I am taking to rectify the situation.

CONAN: Well, Nikki Lynette, good luck on your gig, and I hope you have a safe journey home.

LYNETTE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Nikki Lynette, a singer, songwriter and producer. Her piece, "An Open Letter to My Peeping Tom," appeared on the blog Chicago Now, and she joined us on the phone from New York.

And Debra Gwartney, as you mentioned earlier, it turned out there had been 110 women and girls who had been the victims of the peeping Tom in your case. How did your town, your neighborhood, your community respond?

GWARTNEY: Well, it was a difficult time for the community. That's a lot of girls. I don't think there were anybody over about 15. He was very interested in young, the younger the better in states of undress. So there was a real sense of shock and horror, but I also heard a lot of people just in denial about it. They just really didn't want to believe that this could happen in our sweet little western Oregon town.

And we - you know, when we went to the courtroom, his side was jammed with supporters, people who wanted to testify about what a great guy he was. And my daughters and myself were the only people who testified against him.

CONAN: Really? No one else wanted to testify?

GWARTNEY: The other parents didn't - and I totally understand this completely. The other parents just felt like it was not something they wanted to put their children through.

CONAN: Here's an email from Claudia in Boise: One night I was reading on my bed and heard a rustle and looked out the window, and a man went running. When it happened again to my roommate at a different window, we chased him down. He was a man living in the complex.

We called the cops, and I'm quoting exactly what they said: Don't get undressed anywhere but in your bathroom with the door closed. You are single women. He's a married man. You need to not tempt people. And we don't want to cause problems in his marriage.

It was so insulting. It was a horrible, horrible experience. I can't explain how it feels to be violated like that. It's not a victimless crime. I was victimized, and it changed my life's course.

And David Prescott, is that a - we don't want to make trouble for the man's marriage?

PRESCOTT: I really believe very strongly, after nearly 30 years of doing this work, that people simply have to be held responsible for their actions. I understand the difficulty of going and testifying in court, and this is a deeply personal decision that every person has to make who's involved in these situations.

Unfortunately, a great number of people who go through the legal system attempting to bring about justice find the experience to be extremely challenging at best, and many say that they would never go through it again.

CONAN: Let's get Patricia on the line, Patricia with us from Lexington in South Carolina.


CONAN: Hi. You're on the air.

PATRICIA: Thank you, Neal. Where to start? I'm tense just sitting here waiting to talk and even to think about this. This happened when I was 12. I sensed that I was being watched as I was getting ready for bed, didn't see him at that time, but the landlord who lived upstairs over us was subsequently caught peeping in on a neighbor's daughter.

But as far as does it end there, he went on to actually assault me, managed - he came in one day and asked me to open - to unlock a door that he would have - that we had common access to. And my parents were gone, and so I went to unlock the door, and the next thing I knew, one arm was around me holding my arms against my side, and the other hand was down the front of my shorts. And Neal, that was 60 years ago. And I feel it right now the same way I felt it right then.

CONAN: I'm so sorry.

PATRICIA: And believe me, I've done a lot of therapy on it. It sticks with you. You know, this idea of somebody saying oh, well. You know, I can't - to this day I cannot sit with my back exposed because I can still feel myself being watched. It's not - you know, it's not an easy thing, not an easy thing.

CONAN: Debra Gwartney, again the details in your case are different, but the man broke into your house several times. Assault was not involved, but that escalation, that fear of escalation, you - the unpredictability of it, the...


PATRICIA: Exactly.

GWARTNEY: It's true that assault wasn't involved, but he took my daughters' underwear and masturbated with it. He took photos from our photo albums that I - pictures I had taken, and he made collages with pictures of himself with an erection next to the girls. Believe me, it was an assault. Even though he didn't physically touch them, it couldn't have been more violating.

My daughters were young teenagers just trying to understand who they were in their own bodies, and this man came along and disturbed their sense of - profoundly their sense of safety. And, you know, as this wonderful woman who just spoke said, all these years later - it's been 10, 11 years later - if a video camera appears in a room, my daughters are gone. They can't deal with any idea of the camera.

I also want to say that people say to me, well, why didn't you just close your windows or your shades? Well, we did, but he was breaking into our home and bending the blinds or moving the curtains in such a way that he could come back later that night. These are people who are determined to make this happen, and I just think people need to know that this is happening in the world.

CONAN: Patricia, thank you so much for sharing your story.

PATRICIA: Thank you for allowing me to.

CONAN: Here's an email we got from a woman: I would like to remain anonymous, though my email address states my full name. When I was 15 years old - I'm now 27 - I caught my stepfather videotaping me and my sister in the bathroom. I was drying off after a morning shower, looked down to find a camera staring back at me. At first I didn't think anything of it. Per my stepdad being electrician, I grabbed the camera, and it was hot. He was recording.

I got so scared, and the biggest wave of adrenalin crashed into my heart. I felt my walls caving in. No teenage girl should ever feel what I felt. Now when I'm at my parents' house, I don't feel comfortable. I find myself looking around. I never stay over, and I moved out at a very young age.

Let's go to Chet, and Chet's on the line with us from Albany, Georgia.

CHET: Hi. You - boy, you really covered everything that I wanted to talk about. Your guest brought up one of the most important points, is that - I actually work with law enforcement agencies. I'm a former cop, and I work in training now. And the mentality that most, especially older, police officers have - and, of course, they pass it on to the younger ones - is that it is a victimless crime.

And I agree with your guest that more research needs to be done, because I - it may be a bad analogy to some people, but it's almost like a serial killer or somebody who starts off killing small animals and escalates to something else. A peeping Tom sounds trivial to some people, but it can lead to other things, like the man breaking into the woman's house there, and then the woman who just spoke a few minutes ago. After 60 years, you can tell how traumatized this woman is.

CONAN: And so how do you get police to take this more seriously? Do we need lawmakers to take it more seriously, as well?

CHET: I think you just spoke on one of the best points. It needs to be - and your guest also talked about this - it needs to be classified as a sex crime, and maybe there could be different classifications, different levels. But that would be one step.

But the other thing is it's hard to get cops to change. I was one. Same thing with domestic violence, you know? In most states now, if you go up and you see physical evidence of bruises, they should grab the person, the perpetrator, and lock him up. And I still see it where they don't see that as - they don't - they didn't see the crime, and the woman's scared to prosecute. And it's the same mentality. And you've just got to retrain these guys, and it's hard to do.

CONAN: You'd think when minors were involved, you could write some - well, that people would be more exercised.

CHET: Well, it just - I think one of the most important areas is research. More research is needed, and your guest really talked about that. You really - I try to listen often, and this is one of the more interesting programs I've heard lately.

CONAN: Well, Chet, thanks very much for the call.

CHET: Thanks.

CONAN: Appreciate it. We're talking about voyeurism, peeping Toms. Our guests are Debra Gwartney, the author of the memoir "Live Through This." And her piece "Seared by a Peeping Tom's Gaze" appeared in The New York Times last month. David Prescott is also with us, past president of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And, David Prescott, I thought I heard you trying to get in there.

PRESCOTT: No, I wasn't.

CONAN: Oh, was it you, Debra?

GWARTNEY: It was. I just wanted to say that even though when my daughters first saw this man around our house, the police were very dismissive. We were very fortunate to have a particular detective here in Eugene take on the case, and he was determined that he was going to get this man into prison. And working with him was a marvel, and to have one police officer who was that dedicated to the case was fantastic. The problem was when we got to court, the judge basically said, it's a misdemeanor, so what, and pretty much dismissed all of the videotaping charges.

CONAN: Let's go next to Annette. Annette is with us from Boise.


CONAN: Hi, Annette.

ANNETTE: Thanks for doing this subject, because I think it's portraying to people how even though you're not touched, it can really violate your sense of, I don't know, security or trust. I am 52 now, and the incident I remember seems small in comparison with the things other women have told. But it was when I was 17, and I was in a boutique clothing store, and I was undressing.

And in between the sidewall and the door, there was a gap of about an inch, inch-and-a-half. And in the mirror, as I was undressed, not completely - I think I was in my underwear - but I looked and there was a guy staring at me. And I was stunned. I was shocked. And I quickly put on my clothes.

And when I got out, the guy was still at the counter, talking with the cashier/owner of the store. And, you know, he seemed, you know, like everything was fine, like nothing had happened. I couldn't believe his gall.

But after he left, I told the owner, and the owner didn't believe me and said: Why didn't you say anything when it happened? And also said: Look, he was just in the store. You didn't say anything (technical difficulties). I don't know if I was taught to be nice or what my programming was, but I didn't say anything until the guy left because, I don't know, maybe I didn't want to cause a scene or I really don't know what. But the lesson of that was that men - and the guy knew the other guy. I guess they were friends.

CONAN: Right.

ANNETTE: And I just felt like men will stick together and men will not believe you and men will turn it on you and ask you: Why didn't you this and why didn't you do that? Because they're looking at it from a man's eyes because maybe a man would have done those things. But a girl programmed to be nice or I don't know what, I still don't know the answer to why I didn't say anything at the moment. You know, I was afraid...

CONAN: Well, you can't blame yourself for the crime, and they shouldn't have been blamed on you in the first place. But thank you so much for sharing your story.

And we'd also like to thank David Prescott and Deborah Gwartney who joined us from member station KLCC, talking about her case and that of her daughters.

Coming up, we'll talk with Haley Barbour, the former RNC chief, from Tampa. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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