“In a Town This Size”
(No kid music content here.)
I lived in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, until I was 12 and we moved to Minnesota. Bartlesville was an oil town, the worldwide headquarters of Phillips Petroleum (for which my dad was a research scientist). It was a relatively well-off town, with strong schools (my dad was on the school board, in fact) and a stronger cultural core than you might expect for an Oklahoma town of 35,000. It even boasts the only Frank Lloyd Wright designed skyscraper, the Price Tower, and hosts the annual OK Mozart festival (which was launched while we were living there). It was a good place to grow up.
Like most families who moved to Bartlesville, my parents asked around about the best pediatrician when they got there from Arkansas, and received the consensus advice that the doctor to see was Dr. Bill Dougherty, Jr., who was a young and skilled pediatrician, respected in the community.
And, it turns out, Dr. Dougherty engaged in the consistent sexual abuse of children, patients and otherwise.
I first heard a bit about it maybe five or ten years ago (or perhaps even earlier); at that time, what I heard was that his abuse was solely of kids in a scout troop. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that it was far more extensive.
A new film, In a Town This Size, tells his story and, heartbreakingly, the story of his victims. I watched the movie (made by one of his victims, Patrick Brown) this morning, and it was chilling.
Neither my siblings nor I were among Dougherty’s victims; my mom never left us in the examination room with him alone.
But it was striking — and rather intense — to see people my own age, people I easily may have been in school with or played on soccer teams with, discussing the abuse. One talked about the visual that haunted him from his visits, that of one of those cat clocks with the eyes that go back and forth, and it made me remember that same clock in what must have been the same examination room (a room that, like all of Dougherty’s, had doorknobs too high for a child to reach). The victim speaks of focusing on that clock during the abuse. To a person, the victims in the film — and there are quite a number who shared their stories — have stories about how intensely Dougherty’s abuse affected their relationships, their professions, their families — their lives.
The film also includes an interview with a person, probably mid-70s, who was close friends with Dougherty and whose kids all went to him as their doctor. In one of the toughest parts of the movie to watch, he describes his growing realization that this friend of his — a person he trusted entirely — had abused and stolen the childhood of at least three of his six children. He later discusses his struggles from within his faith to consider forgiving Dougherty. (The filmmaker speaks frankly about how low on his list of priorities “forgiving Bill Dougherty” is. I can’t argue with him.)
Sometime in the ’80s, Dougherty’s crimes became slightly known and he retired from medicine. The local paper published a story about “a local pediatrician” — not naming him — and his victims. Due to the statute of limitations in Oklahoma, and the lack of recent victims speaking at the time, he was never criminally charged, and evidently still lives in Bartlesville, only leaving at night, in disguise.
The movie was obviously of particular interest to me because of the personal connection. But it’s also a good reminder that pedophiles don’t come with name tags or signage, and that part of our job as parents is to be aware of everyone who’s around our kids. That doesn’t mean assuming everyone is wicked, but it does mean being cognizant, speaking with our kids, and listening to our kids. I am so grateful to my parents for doing that (and that doesn’t mean for a second that I’m blaming victims’ parents, or the victims themselves, for abuse). I hope we’re doing the same.