Nov. 10, 2014 (PDF)
It was something about the way she flopped into the chair and cried, all raw innocence and seething emotion, that sent Jim Cunneely back.
The 15-year-old girl was having a problem with her father. When she rushed into Cunneely’s empty classroom at Kittatinny Regional High School that morning in 2006, she was looking to vent. She was looking for consolation.
Cunneely, a French teacher, said he felt like he was looking at himself.
He was 15 when his own French teacher, a 42-year-old woman, had consoled him after the death of his best friend’s mother in 1991. In the weeks that followed, consolation had turned to kissing, he said. And kissing had turned into a smothering, two-year sexual relationship that carried into his senior year, Cunneely said.
The alleged abuse, outlined yesterday in a special report on NJ.com and in The Star-Ledger, is now the subject of a probe by the Sussex County Prosecutor’s Office. Authorities opened the investigation into the teacher, Carol D’Annunzio, after recent inquiries by NJ Advance Media.
Cunneely said he didn’t intend to sleep with his student when he placed his hand on her shoulder. But it was all so familiar, he said.
Cunneely was one of the most popular teachers in school, just as his own French teacher had been. He recently had been named teacher of the year, an honor once bestowed on his alleged abuser. And now one of his students had come to him in crisis, landing him in the role he says D’Annunzio had played for him.
“She was the psychological representation of my world,” Cunneely says of his student. “She was 15-year-old Jim, and I was my French teacher. It was almost like the same play with different characters.”
For seven months in 2006 and 2007, he said, he had sex with the girl. Eventually, she told a friend, who told a teacher, who told the superintendent, who told police.
Cunneely, now 37 and living in northern Sussex County, pleaded guilty to second-degree sexual assault in 2007 and spent a year in prison. He is a registered sex offender, a stain that will carry through his life. He has hurt his wife, his three children and, not least, his victim, who was ridiculed by her peers and who transferred to another school.
But Cunneely says he is also a victim, one whose adult decisions were influenced by his childhood experiences.
He is the embodiment, psychologists said, of the cycle of sexual abuse. While most victims do not go on to become offenders, more than one-third of adult males who abuse others were sexually assaulted as children, studies show.
Victims who confront their experiences and receive counseling are far less likely to harm others. But left to fester, the traumas of the past can emerge from dormancy years or decades later, subconsciously shaping thought, impulses and behavior, experts say.
Cunneely did not seek counseling until shortly after his arrest in February 2007. When he became physical with his victim, he said, he believed he could “rewrite the script” in a way that would not make her feel smothered and dirty, as he said he felt when he was allegedly having sex with a woman older than his mother.
He said he refused to heap guilt on his victim for spending time away from him. He told her she did not have to keep it secret because, he said, he didn’t want her to lie to her friends.
“It sounds crazy, because I was molesting this child, but I did not want to impede her from being OK,” Cunneely said. “I didn’t want her to feel that she was on that treadmill that I felt I was on. I was driven by this desire to do things better for this 15-year-old than were done for Jim as a 15-year-old.”
His victim, now a college graduate student, declined to comment for this story. NJ Advance Media is withholding her name because she is a victim of sexual assault.
Cunneely, who is barred from contacting her under the terms of his parole, said he is openly discussing what happened in part to explain to her why he did what he did. He has sought an explanation from his own alleged abuser. He said she has not given him one.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about how my actions have affected my victim,” Cunneely said. “I hope sincerely she has sought the help that I never sought when I was dealing with the trauma of my childhood, the help I was not able to get until my life was in a much darker place. I would hope an explanation provides some peace for her.”
Echoes of the past
Like mileposts on a highway, birthdays are the markers of life.
When Jim Cunneely turned 30, he took stock. He loved his kids. He loved his wife, though he kept an emotional distance from her. Professionally, he was doing well, winning a series of teaching awards that culminated with his selection as Kittatinny’s teacher of the year in 2005.
Yet he was profoundly unhappy.
He had studied French in college because, after two years tethered to his French teacher, he was so immersed in the language and culture he didn’t consider other options, he said. He had gone into teaching because jobs were not abundant for someone with a degree in French translation.
And while he enjoyed the classroom, ensuring his lessons were fun and instructive, Cunneely said he realized he was living the life of the woman who allegedly abused him.
“Everyone thought, ‘Hey, Jim Cunneely. He’s a nice guy, well-adjusted, wife and kids and teacher of the year and a good coach,’” he said. “But inside was this incredible gut-wrenching turmoil. When I was 15, I felt smothered because I was living for someone else, and when I was 30, I felt smothered because I was living out someone else’s life.”
When his victim cried in his classroom that day, something shifted inside him, he said. He had barely known her. He’d called on her from time to time in his freshman French class, but they’d never had a conversation of any substance.
Now she was visiting his classroom most mornings before school, chatting about music, food, her weekend — echoes of conversations he’d had with his own French teacher. The girl sat at his desk and used his computer. She doused him with Silly String. One morning, after she brought him a bowl of Cookie Crisp cereal, Cunneely realized he had developed a crush, he said.
He should have stopped it, he knows now. Nothing improper had happened. But just as he did during his teenage years, he said, he felt like a character in a movie, watching a plot twist unfold.
Soon they were texting so frequently, she was the first person Cunneely spoke with each morning and the last person he said goodnight to before bed. They talked about his marriage and his past sexual experiences, including his alleged relationship with D’Annunzio, he said.
Cunneely’s wife, Dawn, said she noticed her husband leaving her presence more often, offering excuses about an errand or a call he had to make.
“He just started to get distant, and we were never like that, so your mind starts turning,” said Dawn Cunneely, who has since divorced her husband. “You think, ‘Oh, there’s a new Spanish teacher at school. Could he be doing something? You picture garden-variety infidelity. But this? I never saw this coming. Never.”
The summer after the girl’s freshman year, Jim Cunneely and his student grew closer. He met her on weekends, taking her to mountain-biking races in which he competed. It was on one such trip, outside a diner, that Cunneely kissed her for the first time. Inside, during breakfast, she talked about Care Bears, he remembers.
Cunneely’s betrayal would soon take on another dimension. The girl, whose parents were divorced, regularly saw a therapist, and she asked him to attend a session with her, he said. She needed a mentor. She wanted him to be part of her therapy team. The girl’s mother and the therapist agreed, Cunneely said, with the stern proviso that he “not be another male in her life who lets her down.”
“I will not let her down,” Cunneely said he promised.
Instead of mentoring her, he bought condoms and took her to bed.
Over the next six months, Cunneely had sex with the girl dozens of times, sometimes in his own home when his wife and children were out, sometimes at her home when the girl’s mother was upstairs. Three times they went to motels.
The mother, Cunneely said, knew the relationship was more than that of a teacher and student. She knew because the teen told her, Cunneely said.
“She texted me one evening and said, ‘I told my mom,’” Cunneely said. “So I wrote back, ‘You told your mom what? That you got an A on your chemistry test?’ And she said, ‘I told my mom about us.’”
Panicked, Cunneely said he considered driving to the highway and leaving the state, though he had no means of support, no getaway plan and three young children at home. The girl tried to allay his worry.
“Mom’s OK,” Cunneely said the teen told him. “She would just like to talk to you to make sure you’re not harming me in any way.”
Four days later, Cunneely said, he was face to face with the mother in her condominium. He said he and the girl told the mother they loved each other.
“Talk about a surreal situation,” he said. “I sat on the couch with my victim and her mother and it was almost like I was being interviewed for the position of her daughter’s boyfriend.
“‘What do you see for the future? And what about your marriage?’” Cunneely said she asked him. “And at the end, she just kind of gave us her blessing and said, ‘Please be careful.’”
Later, after Cunneely’s arrest, a judge noted in court that the mother had described her daughter’s interactions with the teacher as a “romantic relationship.”
The mother declined to comment for this story. In February 2009, she filed suit against the Kittatinny Regional School District in federal court. Eighteen months later, records show, the case settled for $2,500.
As a teenager, Cunneely came to loathe secrecy.
To keep the alleged affair with his teacher hidden, he said, he lied constantly to his parents, his friends, his brother and sister. He crouched on the floor of D’Annunzio’s car when the two pulled out of the parking lot at Lenape Valley Regional High School in Stanhope, he said. He concocted so many excuses for outings, he couldn’t keep them straight, he said.
Cunneely didn’t want his own victim to feel the same pressure and regret.
“It’s what I wanted to hear when I was 15, that I had some control that wasn’t a fallacy,” he said. “So I tried to give her that control. I told her I will respect whatever you have to do, and that, of course, is what led to my arrest.”
She confided in a friend. During a lunch with a teacher out on maternity leave, the friend repeated the story, court documents show. Once it reached the Sussex County Prosecutor’s Office, the end came quickly.
Cunneely knew it was coming. On Friday, Feb. 2, 2007, one of Cunneely’s students, a teenage boy, told him detectives were planning to interview his girlfriend. The girlfriend had been the one to tell the teacher during lunch. Rumors were coursing through school, the boy said, assuring Cunneely he didn’t believe them.
By that Monday, Feb. 5, detectives were in the hallways at Kittatinny, pulling students from classes and interviewing teachers. Cunneely’s victim was questioned for hours, her phone taken for examination. Desperate to protect him, she lied about the relationship, saying nothing had happened between them, according to a transcript of her statement.
The detectives persisted.
Ultimately, she convinced the investigators that while she and Cunneely had been involved in sexual situations, they had never engaged in intercourse, the transcript shows. In a series of text messages on her mother’s cellphone, she told Cunneely what the detectives believed, preparing him for his own inevitable interview.
They’d be at his house soon.
“If you’re going to run, you better run now,” he said she wrote.
Cunneely lay in bed, leaden and terrified. His children were asleep. His wife arrived home with groceries.
He asked her to lie by his side. He didn’t say why.
“I’m going to have to go,” he said. “They’re coming.”
The dynamics of abuse
Far more than sexual gratification, sexual abuse is about power, psychologists say. For the abuser, it is a means to an end, a way to control and coerce. For the victim, its loss instills feelings of helplessness that might linger a lifetime.
Powerless as abused children, some seek to restore their power as adults by taking on the role of the person who hurt them, identifying with their aggressor. The psychologist Anna Freud first wrote about the theory in 1936, describing it as a mental defense mechanism.
Michael J. Fiore, a Morristown psychologist who has treated Cunneely since his arrest, calls his patient’s transformation from alleged victim to abuser a classic illustration of the phenomenon.
By taking on the “exploitive, empowered traits” of the woman who allegedly molested him, Fiore said, Cunneely “was able to address his anxiety and feel less disempowered.”
“Essentially, he internalized his alleged abuser’s behavior pattern as an adolescent and replicated it as an adult with his student,” Fiore said.
The pattern is familiar to those who study the effects of sexual abuse.
“We have seen this stuff again and again and again,” said David L. Burton, a leading researcher on sexual abuse and a professor emeritus at the Smith College School for Social Work in Northampton, Mass.
The younger the abuser, the more likely he is to have suffered abuse as a child. More than half of teenage boys who molest others were molested themselves, Burton said.
The cycle is most stark among female sexual offenders. In study after study, Burton said, researchers found 99 percent of female offenders were abused.
Often, the result is a mirror image of what happened in childhood.
Females molested by another female are more likely to molest a female, for example, Burton said. Males abused by a woman will typically act out against girls. Victims of abuse by family members are more apt to target family members of their own.
The transformation typically plays out below the surface of conscious thought, blunting free will, the research shows. Like an addict who continually returns to the needle, some abuse victims are driven by internal impulses they don’t recognize or understand, Burton said.
“It doesn’t excuse the behavior, but it does help to explain it,” Burton said. “It’s important to understand why things happen. Punishment is appropriate. Treatment is appropriate.”
For boys and young men, the effects of sexual abuse are no less debilitating than for girls and young women, researchers say. Driven by bravado and hormones, some boys speak boldly about their desires or exploits involving older women, including teachers.
In most cases, however, adolescents are not emotionally mature enough to cope with the secrecy, the shame and the demolition of boundaries inherent in sexual abuse, particularly when the abuse is prolonged, said Elizabeth Newlin, medical director of the adolescent treatment program at the Menninger Clinic, a psychiatric hospital in Houston, and a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine.
“Sexual abuse has a negative impact on young people whether they’re male or female,” Newlin said. “Adolescent males are probably more likely to overestimate what they can handle emotionally and psychologically and then be overwhelmed by an experience.”
Law enforcement agencies do not track teacher-student abuse cases as a category. While it appears anecdotally that the number of female teachers charged with sexual abuse has increased in recent years, Newlin and other researchers say the abuse of male students is likely under-reported because of societal perceptions that teen boys who have sex with adults are not victims.
“Unfortunately, people tend not to have the same response to adolescent males as they do to adolescent females because of that bias, and that can actually inhibit the reporting,” Newlin said.
Fiore, Cunneely’s psychologist, said he hoped his patient’s cooperation with this story would bring more awareness to the issue of female teachers preying on students.
“Hopefully, the article can help prevent other adolescents from experiencing the alleged abuse and damage that Jim experienced as an adolescent, which he subsequently inflicted on his victim,” he said.
Seven years into therapy, Cunneely says he is not at risk to harm another child.
“I can sleep at night knowing what I’ve done because I’ve taken the steps to make absolutely certain that I will never do that again,” he said.
He says he is not the same man whom a court-appointed psychologist called immature, arrogant and skilled at deception after his arrest. The psychologist, in a report obtained by NJ Advance Media, said that during a six-hour evaluation in February 2007, Cunneely minimized his role in the sexual assaults on his victim, suggesting he succumbed to the advances of a teenage girl he meant only to help.
“Mr. Cunneely possesses an arrogant sense of self-worth, a talent for feigning dignity and confidence, an indifference to the welfare of others, and a facile, if not deceptive, social manner,” the psychologist wrote.
Cunneely, she added, “tends to be selfish and manipulative and justifies his amoral behavior by believing that others are selfish and opportunistic.”
“A guiding principle for him is probably that of outwitting others, controlling and exploiting them before they control and exploit him,” the report said.
Cunneely calls the assessment difficult to hear but correct.
“In taking responsibility for what I did, I’ve gotten to know the person I was,” Cunneely said. “I’ve worked very hard not to be that person.”
Cunneely’s growth notwithstanding, the consequences of his crimes have been profound.
Without his income or health benefits, his wife and children lost their home to foreclosure. Dawn Cunneely declared bankruptcy and, for a time, was forced to go on food stamps, she said.
For several years, she and the children moved out of Sussex County. The embarrassment was too much. Radio and television reporters aired stories about her husband’s arrest repeatedly in those first days. It seemed to be on the front page of the local newspaper all the time.
“I tried to protect the kids from it, but they really couldn’t avoid it,” Dawn Cunneely said. “A girl comes to school with the newspaper and gives it to my daughter and says, ‘Oh, look, that’s your dad!’”
Their children — 16- and 12-year-old daughters and a 14-year-old son — all know in age-appropriate ways what happened. But they still have questions and resentments.
The younger girl, she said, asks why, if her father loved her, he went away for a year.
“Weren’t we important enough to him?” Dawn Cunneely said she has asked.
“The oldest is like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” the mother said. “She’s appalled at that aspect of it. She’s appalled when she tries to conceptualize that.”
Dawn Cunneely, now 40, says she has become a harder person, less apt to cry. She has cried too much already.
She worries often about her ex-husband’s victim.
“To that girl, he’s horrible,” Dawn Cunneely said. “When I look at my own daughter and other children that age, it’s heartbreaking, and then you say to yourself, it was my life partner who did that.”
And yet she has learned to forgive him, she said. Like Jim Cunneely, Dawn Cunneely believes he will never commit a similar crime. She calls him a good father, and she has granted him joint custody of the children.
Over time, she has rebuilt her life. Once an actress and part-time theater director, she has found a new occupation that has made her financially independent. She asked that her place of employment not be disclosed. She returned to Sussex County, her longtime home, with the children in 2011.
The struggle to rebuild a life
Jim Cunneely’s evolution continues.
He said he has worked to regain his children’s trust, but he knows they will continue to have moments of embarrassment, confusion and anger. That is one reason he has remained in therapy, he said.
As a registered sex offender, he said, he has been unable to find steady work. He lives in Wantage with a former teaching colleague, Dan Stevens, and Stevens’ wife, Connie. He earns a small salary, along with room and board, by maintaining rental properties the couple own.
Dan Stevens, 69, is sympathetic. Molested by a priest as a child, he said he understands how abuse can twist a man. Stevens addressed his own demons by turning to alcohol for many years. He now finds solace in his faith. He said he considers Cunneely a second son.
It was through Connie Stevens, who worked in the office at Kittatinny, that Cunneely learned of his victim’s difficulties after his arrest. Some students blamed her for instigating the relationship, publicly shaming her and, in essence, victimizing her a second time, Cunneely said.
“When Connie went back to school the next day, she heard my victim was called a homewrecker,” Cunneely said. “She was kind of pushed around in the hallway. She simply regurgitated the rhetoric I fed her. ‘We’re in love, and we’re going to be together.’ Which only led to them piling it on worse. She wore the guilt for what I did.”
It wasn’t long before the girl left Kittatinny, Cunneely said.
On the night he was taken in for questioning, Cunneely confessed immediately, though he stuck to the script his victim had texted him, telling the detectives the two had never engaged in intercourse, according to a transcript.
The lie had little practical effect. Because both told the investigators about a single act of oral sex — penetration, according to the law — he was charged with first-degree aggravated sexual assault, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
His victim’s reluctance to cooperate, along with a plea for leniency she made in a letter to the sentencing judge, contributed to Cunneely’s lesser term of three years.
The judge, N. Peter Conforti, also took into account Cunneely’s claim that he had been molested by his French teacher years earlier.
“There was a certain degree of vulnerability on both sides,” Conforti said.
Cunneely was granted parole in a year.
At the suggestion of Fiore, his psychologist, Cunneely kept a journal in prison, chronicling his journey from alleged victim to victimizer. He later expanded it into a self-published memoir.
Cunneely titled it “Folie À Deux,” a French term describing a delusion shared by two people. In February 2012, he brought a copy of the manuscript to his alleged abuser, now a substitute teacher in Florida, and told her what it was about.
He changed D’Annunzio’s name in the book, though she is recognizable because, at the time, she was Lenape Valley’s only French teacher.
He said D’Annunzio declined to read it.
“Are you taping this conversation, Jim?” he said she asked when he arrived. He was not.
His own delusion is over, Cunneely said. He is not certain he will ever find redemption. But for the first time, he said, he is comfortable with himself.
“The ultimate irony of my life is that outside, Jim Cunneely is not a person people want to be around because of what I’ve done,” he said, “but on the inside, now I know who I am, what I am. I’ve done the work to get to a place where I’m happy inside.”