With her bubbly laugh and serene blue eyes, it's hard to imagine that anything terrible ever happened to Katherine Tarbox. "I wouldn't trade my life for anything," says the round-faced 18-year-old as she sweeps her wispy blond hair off her cheek and snuggles into the dark green living-room sofa in her home in New Canaan, Conn. Yet this is the same girl who, at the age of 14, found herself alone in a Texas hotel room with a 41-year-old pedophile she first met in an AOL chat room about six months earlier. As he groped her breast, she tried to pull away but could only think to say, "I love you."
In her memoir, Katie.com (Dutton; 196 pages; $19.95), Tarbox explains in simple but revealing prose how she had come to see the man who claimed to be just 23 and called himself Mark (his real name turned out to be Frank Kufrovich) as her best friend and soul mate. "He cared about me," she writes. "He listened to my feelings... And he always supported me with encouragement and advice." In contrast, "home was a place where I always felt alone." Alienated from her workaholic mother, she had only one other friend and hated her grueling workouts on a nationally ranked swim team. She obsessed over fashion magazines and couldn't figure out why her life in affluent New Canaan was nothing like that of the beautiful rich kids on Beverly Hills, 90210.
While Tarbox tends to overexplain herself, leaving little room for nuance, Katie.com is nonetheless an impressive work that reveals not just the danger of online pedophilia but also the tormented psyche of a young teen who seemed to have it all. Although Kufrovich eventually spent 18 months in jail, Tarbox remained racked with guilt about turning him in. It was only her even stronger guilt over not telling the truth that led her to admit to the molestation. In a classic case of blaming the victim, Tarbox was then characterized by her family, friends and town as a promiscuous teen looking for trouble. In the book, she quotes her elder sister as saying, "I'm really disgusted with you. You've ruined our family. You've ruined our lives."
The question of who is to blame lingers to the end. In a recent online chat, Tarbox got slammed by people who accused her of cashing in on an incident caused by her bad judgment. But what kid hasn't taken risks or ignored parental warnings? "I think 13-year-olds are allowed to make mistakes," says Tarbox.
Her mother, an executive at a high-tech consulting firm, sees her daughter's isolation in very different terms from the way it's portrayed in the book. "I thought Katie just wanted to be aloof and more independent," she says, denying any blame on her part. As Tarbox writes, however, "Every girl says she is doing fine. But if you just spend the time, you might hear the rest of the story." Only Kufrovich, it seems, was willing to do that.
Tarbox's conclusion feels right on the mark: "Girls who have goals, real connections to family and friends, and a sense that a world of opportunity awaits them seem to be inoculated against this danger." As she prepares for her first year of college, where she plans to major in English, Tarbox says she has that now. But while she's all smiles on the outside, it's clear the emotional scars will take much longer to fade.
--By Anita Hamilton