Sylvia Peterson wasn’t thinking about a book when she began visiting the most dangerous female sex predator in the state. She was hoping to resolve her own personal horror.
“I thought it might be possible to get information that would help explain my grandfather, who abused me when I was 7 years old,” Peterson said.
So in 2003, she began visiting Laura Faye McCollum, a Tennessee woman convicted in 1990 of repeatedly raping an 18-month-old Tacoma girl and trying to suffocate her with a pillow.
McCollum is the only woman — along with 264 men — housed in the Washington Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island. She is one of only three women in the country considered a violent sexual predator.
“My husband, John, was a volunteer chaplain there and met Laura. He thought she would benefit from talking to another woman,” said Peterson, a Foursquare Church chaplain who lives in Steilacoom.
“My mother and family were upset that I was seeing Laura,” Peterson said. “A large part of society believes Laura is beyond God’s grace.”
What began as a near-impossible relationship — McCollum admits she ‘tested’ Peterson during their first visit by pushing her away — became an emotional friendship that helped both women.
It also became a book, the newly released “Laura and Me,” that detailed conversations both touching and chilling.
“I have genuine affection for Laura the person, not for Laura the offender,” Peterson said. “Did that surprise me? Yes.”
“She’s my very best friend, and I don’t think she’d do anything to harm me,” McCollum said by telephone from McNeil Island. “But if she thought I might harm someone, she’d lock my butt up in a heartbeat. She doesn’t condone anything I’ve done.”
Though Peterson wanted to understand what made a child predator, listening to McCollum at times was unbearable.
“When she started to tell me her stories, I didn’t process it very well. It was so horrifying I mentally checked out,” Peterson said. “There was no remorse, no ability to feel compassion.”
Over years of conversation, however, Peterson began to understand McCollum.
“She was the victim of a psychological perfect storm. She suffered prenatal problems because of an alcoholic mother. She was neglected from birth — the ninth of nine children — and once told me she could never remember anyone ever holding her as a child unless it was to do her harm.
“She was a victim of long-term sexual abuse.”
In time, McCollum and Peterson came to share opinions about predators.
“The staff here will never be able to ‘fix’ me,” McCollum said. “They don’t know why I’m the way I am, so how can they cure me?”
For Peterson, that belief was reinforced throughout her friendship with McCollum.
“With all she had been through, Laura thought affection and abuse were connected,” Peterson said. “She didn’t see her victims as victims, and I don’t believe she knows how many children she abused.
“As much as we spent time together, I believe if given the opportunity, Laura would be sexually inappropriate with me. She doesn’t know affection without inappropriate desire.”
Seeking a way to understand her grandfather, Peterson had an emotional breakthrough talking to McCollum, and she believes McCollum had one as well. All of her life, Peterson said, she had blamed herself for her abuse, believing if she had fought harder it would not have happened.
“The breakthrough for me was when I understood there was a difference between understanding and healing,” Peterson said. “Victims have to have enough empathy to forgive. My grandfather didn’t see the humanity in me, but to be free of it I had to see the humanity in him.”
Peterson wrote a letter, she said, explaining her rage at her grandfather but forgiving him.
“Then I had to forgive my parents, who could have protected me but wouldn’t believe it had happened,” Peterson said. “I had to forgive myself for thinking, at age 7, I could have prevented it. And I had to forgive God, who allowed it to happen.”
McCollum wrote and shared a similar letter, and the two women wept together, crying for themselves, and for McCollum’s victims.
McCollum will not be allowed to see the book, ironically, because it deals with children — and rules of her commitment forbid that. Nor can she benefit from book sales. Peterson is sending what would have been McCollum’s share of royalties to a Tennessee center for abused children.
Peterson said she loves McCollum as a new Christian, but never lost perspective of who McCollum was and remains. Neither did the Pierce County Superior Court judge who last year denied a request for McCollum to be released to a halfway house.
Having seen both McCollum the woman and McCollum the predator, Peterson doesn’t believe she should ever leave the Commitment Center.
“Will she ever be free?’ Peterson asked, repeating a question. “I hope not.”