Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

The Choirboy


Lessig believed Hanson utterly. He had yet to learn that pedophilia is an illness, an all-consuming compulsion. At 17, he was flush with the sense of his power to defuse such a delicate situation. “I knew all these things that nobody else did,” he recalls. “I was keeping the institution together. I really wanted it to succeed. And the picture of the institution succeeding with Hanson continuing as choir director was really what I thought should happen.”

But in the fall of 1981, Lessig got a call from Stephen Howard: Hanson had been accused of molesting two students. Lessig by then was an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, studying economics and management with an eye to following his father’s path and going into business. Lessig drove up to Princeton for an emergency board meeting, where he learned that Hanson had tried to kill himself by putting his head inside a gas oven. Lessig thereupon told Howard everything he knew about Hanson’s history of abuse.

In March 1982, Howard sent a letter to the school’s parents, informing them that Hanson had resigned “for reasons of personal health.” Without mentioning the scandal, the letter lauded Hanson for his service: “He alone held the school together in the early seventies . . . hiring and firing staff, running the admissions and concert offices, from time to time driving the bus and even washing the dishes . . . His story at the Boychoir School is one of total devotion to the boys and dedication to the best interests of the School.”

After his dismissal, Hanson retreated to Canada, while Lessig gave up his seat on the board and got on with his life. His academic brilliance now unfurling in earnest, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied philosophy for three years before entering law school. For a time, his attitude to what Hanson had done, he says, was, “No harm, no foul.”

Then, at Yale Law School, Lessig took a course taught by arch-feminist Catharine MacKinnon and began to ponder his relationship with Hanson in a different, more sophisticated light. “There was this moment when I realized that I had been, in the traditional way, a woman in all relevant respects—totally passive, an object of sexual aggression,” he says. “I’d adopted this supportive, protective role with respect to him.” Among his many other afflictions, Hanson was an alcoholic. “There was this one time I literally saved his life,” Lessig recalls. “I came into his bedroom and he was passed out, vomiting, and I had to flip him over to stop him from suffocating. And this, I felt, was my role. I was his wife.”

Lessig had been involved with a number of women in college and graduate school. And he began to see self-destructive patterns in his relationships. “I remember throwing tantrums,” he says, “as I recognized how this thing had intruded in my life.”

After landing a plum professorship at the University of Chicago Law School, Lessig entered therapy. “The therapist was really great,” he observes with an ironic chuckle. “He said, ‘This is very significant, but you’re lucky—at least you didn’t become a homosexual.’ ”

What happened next is something Lessig refuses to discuss. But according to Hardwicke’s lead attorney, Keith Smith, Lessig sued the Boychoir School and received a settlement. Both the suit and the settlement are officially under seal, with a confidentiality agreement that bars either side from disclosing their existence, let alone any of the details. What Lessig can say, however, is that the school and its lawyers are aware of his abuse by Hanson. And that, in his interactions with them before the Hardwicke case, he thinks that “they behaved well.”

Hanson would call students out of class to satisfy his cravings. Piano and voice lessons quickly turned to other things.

In the next decade, Lessig had almost zero contact with the school, as his legal career went supernova and his personal life settled happily. From Chicago, he moved on first to Harvard Law School and then to Stanford. He married, had a son, and set up digs in a rambling Spanish house not far from the ocean in San Francisco. Soaking in the hot tub on his balcony at night, watching the fog creep in, Lessig believed, with good reason, that he had put the Boychoir School behind him.

And then one day in 2001 came the e-mail from John Hardwicke.

The distance from Lessig’s to Hardwicke’s house is vast in every sense. In deepest rural Maryland, not far from the Pennsylvania line, it’s a small Cape Codder with rickety shutters and a mudslick for a driveway. On the day I visit, in February, the front walk is covered with snow; horses graze in a pasture next door. Inside, John and his wife, Terri, pad around in stocking feet, smoking Marlboro Medium 100s one after another. There are stuffed toys strewn around the house—Terri’s creations. In the living room, a court jester sits amid a metric ton of bric-a-brac, next to a full-size harp.

After a while, the Hardwickes’ 15-year-old daughter bounces through the door in a pair of pink Chuck Taylor high-tops. Her father worries about her taste in music—the Velvet Underground—and the fact that she has a steady boyfriend. “When I hear her listening to ‘Heroin,’ well, I don’t know,” Hardwicke says. “There’s only two things that can ruin your life: drugs and sex.”

Hardwicke pours a cup of coffee and sits with his legs tucked underneath him on the floor of the TV room. At 47, he is tall and thin, with pale-pink skin, a snow-white beard, and watery blue eyes. He begins by telling me about the first time he discussed his abuse with a reporter. “I felt this incredible evil hovering around me that I just knew was going to kill me,” he says. “And then this evil communicated, ‘No, it’s not you, it’s your wife. We’re going to start with her.'”

If the effects of Lessig’s abuse were subtle and slow to emerge, for Hardwicke they’re glaring and have plagued him relentlessly throughout his life. After he met Terri at Catholic University, they were married and started a business together doing freelance PR, graphic design, brochures, and such. But Hardwicke, who was told repeatedly by Hanson that he was gay, has struggled for many years with confusion over his sexual orientation. Well into his marriage, he found himself engaging in anonymous trysts with men.

“It made me feel awful,” he says, pulling his knees up to his chest. “It became sort of this thing that I couldn’t control, and I’d literally want to throw up afterward . . . I was pretty convinced that it was some kind of demonic possession, almost. I mean, I can remember several times after the event where I’d get gas for the car and it would be, like, 16 dollars and 66 cents.”

At one point, Hardwicke concluded he was gay and announced he was leaving Terri. But a friend who knew of his experiences suggested he seek therapy instead. Because he felt complicit in the acts, he didn’t think of them as molestation. But his therapist, Dr. Emily Samuelson, a trauma specialist, disagreed with that assessment.

Within 24 hours after Hardwicke told Samuelson about being raped by the school’s cook, Hardwicke’s mother was killed in a car accident, propelling his paranoia to imponderable heights. His daughter was in the car, too, but she “walked out unscathed,” he says. “And I got to thinking later it was a metaphor for molestation. Some are killed, some are scarred, some are crippled. Others walk out untouched. It all depends where you were sitting in the car.”

Current Issue
Subscribe to New York

Give a Gift