My first chapbook is for sale at Amazon. I get $0 but I hope you will buy it. It’s only 13 poems but one of them is among my favorites.
I was emotionally (and probably sexually) abused at a very young age by my mother. Then when I was 10 years old, I was the victim of a violent sexual assault by an older boy. I kept these things secret for most of my life, even from myself. It’s not that I didn’t know they happened. It’s that I was very good at keeping certain memories tucked away in the dark recesses of my mind.
I have had emotional difficulties throughout my life. Depression, paranoia, uncontrollable rage and suicidal thoughts were constant companions. It was only through many years of off-and-on therapy that I was able to break my silence.
In 2012, at the age of 52, I heard about Weekends of Recovery and immediately wanted to go. I still hadn’t told my whole story. Not to my therapist and not to myself. But I was beginning to understand that doing so was going to be necessary if I ever wanted to be free of my demons. I also knew I was close to being ready.
I got a recommendation letter from my therapist and registered for a Level 1 Weekend of Recovery to be held in Hope Springs, Ohio that October. I was simultaneously excited and terrified.
The workshop would take place Friday through Sunday but I made a trip of it by driving from Atlanta a few days early. I spent one night at a remote cabin in the country that I had booked online. It was beautifully serene with crisp, cool air and I was surrounded by the rich golden colors of fall. In spite of my nervousness I felt somewhat at peace, like I was on the final stage of a very long journey.
When I met the woman who owned the cabin she asked me what brought me there. I hadn’t planned to do so but I told her the truth, simply and directly, “I’m on my way to a workshop for men who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse.” I almost couldn’t believe I spoke the words aloud. It was the first time I ever said anything so revealing to a stranger. Her reaction was perfect even though I don’t remember her exact words. She simply accepted what I told her with compassion in her eyes and wished me well. I think what was most comforting about the exchange was the realization that she didn’t see me as a freak. I just felt seen and accepted.
I spent a couple days in Columbus. A therapist I had worked with before was based there so I spent a few hours with him preparing for the weekend. In my last session with him on Thursday I finally was able to speak out loud what had been done to me in the attack. I hadn’t known it was going to happen. I wasn’t sure I was ever going to be able to say those words aloud to another human but they just came out. It was sudden and unexpected but it also felt natural and safe. We decided I was ready for the workshop and called it a day.
I arrived at Hope Springs the next afternoon. The retreat center was as remote as the cabin and just as beautiful. I had an odd mix of feelings as I approached: relief, sadness and anticipation. Also hope and terror.
During check-in I met Howard, one of the workshop founders. Howeard is a large presence, physically and charismatically. He exudes happiness and joy. I’ve never seen a bigger smile and he immediately put me at ease. After checking in I had just enough time to get my stuff settled in my room before dinner, which was to be the first time the workshop participants would meet each other.
The atmosphere at dinner, which was served buffet style, was casual. The men who had arrived before me were making small talk. I was nervous and on high alert. It seemed remarkable that everyone was so calm but as I joined the chatter and introductions I began to relax. Everyone just seemed so…. normal. I returned to my room after dinner feeling more hopeful than afraid.
The workshop began Saturday morning. There were approximately 32 people sitting in a large circle. The group included 5 moderators, 3 of whom were women. We were guided through a simple process of introductions where we stated our name and a couple words about our hopes (and fears) for the weekend.
For my whole life I felt as if I didn’t belong. To anything. I never felt safe in my family. I was awkward at school and didn’t make friends easily. As an adult, my identity always shifted and adapted according to external circumstances. I felt alone and apart. As I watched and listened to each man say his name and his two words I recognized him as being like me. For the first time in my life I felt like I belonged. It was as if I found my tribe.
The youngest person appeared to be in his twenties and the oldest in his seventies. I would discover later that these men were teachers, cops, military, therapists, professionals and a couple of artists. And however much we wouldn’t have chosen it we all had something in common. Something that was integral to our identity. Something that we were ready to share. It was a moment I’ll never forget.
I can’t provide details about what exactly transpired during the weekend. Partly because it would be too difficult but also because what happens at a Weekend of Recovery stays there. But I will describe the format.
The full group gets together in the morning and afternoon for moderated discussions and exercises. The moderators are experts at making everyone feel safe and supported. There is no pressure from anyone about anything. Every participant is encouraged and trusted to know how much they are willing to share.
The group is also broken down into smaller groups of 4-5 people who meet and talk a couple times a day. Each small group is moderated by two members of the therapist staff. (I believe the therapist are also survivors.) They are the very best of the best in this field and many of them are widely recognized as such. The level of professionalism, empathy and compassion is a huge part of what makes these weekends so successful.
A key focus of the Level 1 workshop is learning how to tell your story. It’s challenging but extremely rewarding. In the small groups we spend time with exercises designed to help us get to know each other and to feel safe in this small group. We practicing listening as much as we practice talking.
There’s a wide variety of experiences among survivors and everybody’s story isn’t the same. The ages at which we were abused and the ways in which we were abused varied widely. But we don’t compare, measure or minimize anyone’s experiences. One of the ways I felt most changed by the weekend was in how I felt seen and accepted when I let my guard down and allowed myself to be vulnerable in front of other men.
On Sunday, after the final group activity, I was sitting by myself crying. Bawling, actually. Sobbing. A therapist approached me and asked if I was OK. Did I need anything more in order to prepare for my return home? I told her I was fine. I was crying because I didn’t want to leave. I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to hold on to what I was feeling. I felt free for the first time in my life.
I went home to a wonderful thanksgiving with friends who remarked on how at ease I seemed to me. I told them a little about my weekend and they all said I was glowing.
The Story Continues
My story doesn’t end there. I had setbacks. My depression gradually returned. Some of my old demons continued to visit me. I continued with my therapy and dug up a few more repressed memories. But through it all, I was stronger than I had ever been. I had more good days than bad days. I had a new confidence about the future.
Fast forward a few years. I have attended two Advanced workshops and one Day of Recovery. They have all been fantastic experiences. My depression is mostly gone and when it comes I’m OK with it. I allow myself to feel sad. Bad things happened to me and I am allowed to feel sad about those experiences. But they no longer define me. My sadness isn’t overwhelming any more. It’s just a visitor that wants me to sit with it once in a while. I feel in control of my life. I feel… normal.
I’ve stayed in touch with some of the men I met through these workshops. I know of others who have done the same. I have a community that I belong to. It feels good.
This past Sunday I opened the NY Times to see the screaming headline, “The Internet Is Overrun With Images of Child Sexual Abuse. What Went Wrong?” I then read the article which as impressive as it was disturbing.
The first thing that impresses is the formatting, layout and presentation. The headline was dramatic enough but the experience of clicking through it and scrolling through the introduction was brilliantly effective, sensitive and powerful. After clicking the headline I saw a single sentence (the lede, I suppose) in large black type on a blank white background.
“Last year, tech companies reported over 45 million online photos and videos of children being sexually abused — more than double what they found the previous year. “
As I contemplated the enormity of the statement four small and colorful abstract images slowly appeared in a reverse fade. The images were anonymized photographs of children— presumably, but obviously. Without the context of the headline and lede the images look benign, as if they could be simple, innocent snapshots. Then the words, “Scroll to continue” appear.
As I scrolled through three more screens, each with a single sentence, the number of images surrounding the words increased until the white background was completely obscured with the color of dozens of similarly abstract snapshots. The entire introductory sequence was, in effect, an elaborate and effective trigger warning that let me know that what I was about to read was going to be dramatic, disturbing and possibly overwhelming. Which, as the article details, is the exact effect on the investigators who must endure witnessing the original photos in order to investigate the crimes they represent.
I’ve been reading the Times for forty years and during that time I have been critical of some of their editorial decisions, especially of late. I have been disappointed enough to cancel my subscription at least three times in the last couple years but I always resubscribe and an article like this devastatingly profound story illustrates why. Such a story must not only be told, it must be told while balancing the need to convey hard facts with sensitivity to the victims, the investigators and the readers. This the Times does with aplomb.
Not many years ago I wouldn’t have been able to read past the introduction of such a story. I was the victim of a violent sexual assault when I was a young boy and I kept that secret until I was almost 50 years old. For most of my life I even managed to hide the event from myself, such is the power of mind and imagination.
The people who object to trigger warnings are ignorant at best and perpetrators at worst. I have never needed a trigger warning. But if I told you that I found discussion of rape to be traumatizing what does it gain you to initiate that discussion? And on your, or someone else’s, terms? I don’t need trigger warnings but many people do.
When what happened to me happened to me my brain was re-wired to be on constant alert. In one violent moment my mind was programmed to hide the memory of a specific experience while simultaneously registering and recording a myriad of factors that were henceforth designated as existential warning signs.
What is intuition but an instantaneous register of signals, usually of the subtlest kind, by the subconscious mind. I cannot tell you how many times I have been overtaken by a sudden and surprised expectation of imminent annihilation by being exposed to a set of certain unconscious stimuli. The end is near, indeed. I have always trusted my intuition. I continue to trust my intuition. The signs might mean something different than I expect but the signs are very real.
Trigger isn’t even the right word, although I can’t think of a better one, except maybe trauma. A trigger warning is a trauma warning. A trigger (noun) is an “event or circumstance that is the cause of a particular action, process, or situation.” That sounds so benign. How about this: a trigger (verb) will “cause (an event or situation) to happen or exist.” Put another way, exposure to trauma, even by merely reading about it, can feel like a recurrence of the original trauma. Trauma triggers trauma. Triggers traumatize.
Duly warned, I read the entire article and I was not triggered in the sense I have suggested. I was able to read it without suddenly choking up, without suddenly surprising myself with a cry of shock or despair, without punching my fist through drywall, without pouring three fingers of bourbon, without forgetting where I am or what was I doing. I thought, “good!” I thought, “this redeems the Times for Dean Baquet.” I thought, “finally, the world is going to be talking about this.” Then I went about my day.
Pam and I walked to the pop-up farmer’s market nearby. Halfway there she said, “Oh shit, I forgot to bring money.” I had asked her to bring cash because I didn’t have any. When she told me she forgot I became angry. I didn’t tell her so. I said, “No big deal. Some of the vendors will take credit cards.” But inwardly I seethed. We didn’t buy anything. We walked the market loop one and a half times and left. It was a pleasant walk on a pleasant sunny day. I kept quiet about my feelings because the anger seemed inappropriate. Pam didn’t do anything wrong, she just forgot to bring cash. After I asked her to. But still. No big deal.
We got home and I went back out by myself to a market nearby. The store kind. I picked up a few vegetables and a protein. Then I checked in with myself on the walk home. Still angry. What the fuck was going on? I never get mad at Pam, especially not for something so trivial. Oh, right. The article. I read the article. Of course.
I cannot tell you how many times I had done this. Been exposed to trauma and failed to realize that I had been triggered. Re-traumatized. Because when you spend most of a life hiding from trauma it owns you. Once I made the connection between the article and the disproportionate anger I was no longer angry. I was very sad. I started crying behind my sunglasses and kept walking.
Approaching a corner I saw an older couple idling on the sidewalk in conversation and was glad for the sunglasses. I make it a point to make eye contact when passing people on the street but made an exception in this case. As I passed I outwardly pretended I didn’t see the couple. Inwardly, though, I took off my glasses, looked them each in the eye, and spoke through my bawling, “I was raped as a young boy. Can you please tell me I didn’t deserve that?” I pictured her saying the words. I pictured him saying the words. As I continued to walk I had them each repeat the words to me several times. It helped.
Later that day I told Pam that the article had traumatized me. Not in as much detail as I’ve written but by then I had decided I was going to write this and let her read it.
I’ve told you all this but I left something out. Pam immediately wanted to read the article but I urged her not to. If you’ve read the article you know what I’m about to tell you. If you haven’t, don’t worry. I’m not going to tell you. What I will tell you is that, with words, the writers created some pictures that I cannot unsee. I don’t fault them. It was necessary. These stories must be told. We are surrounded by them and nobody wants to see. I get it. Neither do I. But we must.
I can feel the skepticism when I tell people that 1 out of 6 men and 1 out of 4 women have been sexually abused as children. Who wants to believe that? Then I add, “that’s only that we know about. The number is probably higher.” Where are you right now? Are you able to look around? Do you see any people? We are everywhere. We might be you.
Read the article or don’t read the article but I want you to know that it’s there. That the Times did something important by publishing it. I trust you to decide for yourself if it’s safe to read. I’m going to continue thinking and talking about this stuff for the rest of my life. I don’t have a choice. But some of you do. I’m not laying a trip on anyone who does. I’m just telling you a small piece of my story.
It’s Friday. Five days after the article ran in Sunday’s paper. I haven’t seen a single reference to it again anywhere. I guess there are more important things to talk about.
Upon hearing the title of Tarantino’s new movie I became excited. The two previous Sergio Leone movies, “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “Once Upon a Time in America” were both great, memorable films. Knowing Tarantino’s knowledge of and love for film I had confidence that whatever he was up to with this new title was going to be good.
I try not to read much about any movie before seeing it. I love the feeling of sitting in the theatre as a movie begins without knowing exactly what I’m about to experience. It’s why I hate most trailers (I admit to watching them in the theatre because I like to arrive early enough to get a good seat but I almost never watch them online). Trailers done well, meaning those that don’t give away anything at all, are extremely rare. Trailers done badly, meaning most of them, make me feel like I just saw the cliff notes version of the movie.
I also avoid reading reviews of movies until after I have seen them. I want to know very little about a movie before seeing it. Director, stars, setting, theme, all fine but. Don’t. Tell. Me. The. Plot.
All I knew about “…in Hollywood” was: Tarantino; DiCaprio, Pitt, Robbie (Sharon Tate); Hollywood; 70’s. That was enough. As much as I hated “The Hateful Eight” I was excited to see Tarantino’s latest, and hopeful that it would be as good as “Reservoir Dogs” or “Pulp Fiction.” Then he opened his mouth.
It goes without saying that reviews should not contain major spoilers. That means it doesn’t need to be said! It also goes without saying that revealing the end of a movie is a major spoiler. Reviewers know this. Everybody knows this. So when the director of a movie goes out of his way to say, “please don’t reveal the ending of my movie,” he’s pretty much giving it away.
Spoiler alert. Did I say that too late? Blame Tarantino.
I tried not to think about it so hard that I postponed seeing the movie for as long as I could. But we’re talking Tarantino here and I couldn’t miss seeing it on the big screen. So I tried to surprise myself and circumstances supported me in that endeavor.
It was Friday, 12:05 pm, and I had just gotten back from an errand. I had no plans for the day and decided to see a matinee. Any matinee (within reason). So I searched by location and showtimes and decided that the first movie of interest that was available to me would be it. And there it was, “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” at 12:15 pm just three miles away. I ran out the door, jumped in my car and was on my way in seconds.
Traffic in the Bay Area is always heavy so I was able to avoid thinking about what I feared my own thoughts would betray while driving. Mostly I wondered if I would make it (I don’t enter movies late.) But during the brief walk from the car to the theatre it happened. I figured out the the ending. Damn you, Tarantino. All it took was the juxtaposition of three simple facts: The movie’s title, Sharon Tate, and “don’t reveal the ending.” Of course she doesn’t die. There’s no way it could happen. Not with those three clues. The title: it’s a fairy tale. Sharon Tate: died in a horrible way. “Don’t reveal the ending:” she won’t — she can’t — die.
As last minute matinees go, this one was perfect. Spur of the moment. A compelling movie. So few people attending that I got my ideal seat. Which I sat in just as the opening credits began. I even missed the previews.
The movie was great. It took a little while to pull me out of the feeling that I was watching a movie but I got there. By the time Cliff visits Spahn Ranch I was all in. The scenery was so evocative, the acting by all so eerily realistic and the tension so palpable I was transfixed in the moments as they revealed themselves. At that point the ending didn’t matter because I was right where the filmmaker put me — in the middle of it all. Until the final sequence of events, which was marked by the introduction of time stamps, on the fatal night we all knew was coming.
Believe it or not, I’m going to ruin the ending for you, even if you think I already have. Because Tarantino, in this movie, is as good a filmmaker as it takes to portray something that is so ingrained in our cultural memory, so obvious, so known, in such a surprising and yet predictable way that I thoroughly enjoyed it as it played out.
Because even though I was back in my head as the fateful evening began, by the time it was over I had been treated to a roller coaster ride of shock, surprise, disbelief, horror and delight. It wasn’t until just now, writing these words, that I realize how similar this ending was to the ending in “Reservoir Dogs.” Tarantino’s mastery here is evident in the way he simultaneously fulfills and subverts the familiar conventions of expectation and suspense.
Tarantino, I forgive you. And welcome back.
My impulse upon discovering the #MeToo campaign was to join the chorus because I am also a survivor of sexual abuse. Speaking out has been helpful to my recovery. By being outspoken I want to let other sexual abuse survivors know they are not alone and maybe even to encourage some of them to break their silence. After a few minutes reflection, though, I recognized that the current campaign was about and for women and so I remained silent. Sometimes, listening is more important than speaking.
However, now that some time has passed I have decided it is appropriate for me to say #MeToo if only to shed light on some of the reasons a woman might wait years to come forward about her abuse. My #MeToo focus here isn’t the specifics of my abuse but the fact that I waited 30 years before I told anyone what was done to me. After breaking that 30 year silence it then took me another 10 years to be able to tell the whole story. Sadly, the fact that it took me 40 years to be able to talk about my abuse is not uncommon. Many people take their story silently to the grave.
I was molested inside and outside of my family at a young age and there are two different dynamics — not unrelated — that prevented me from saying anything. Young children learn primarily by observation, mimicry and reinforcement. Such learning begins when we are pre-verbal infants and continues until whatever age we discover that we are individuals, apart from our families.
Both of my parents were abused as children and both of them were abusive to me and my siblings. This is how the legacy of abuse is perpetuated. I learned from the onset of my life that 1) violence was normal and 2) sexuality was dirty and, more importantly, secret. This latter factor explains why, later in life, I would experience bouts of paranoia. What is paranoia, after all, except the belief that there is a hidden and sinister reality that exists beneath the veneer of “normal” social interaction? Every child in my family grew up knowing that there were some things that just. were. not. talked. about.
When I was nine or ten I had the added misfortune of being the victim of a violent sexual assault by one of the older boys in our neighborhood. In this instance my silence was reinforced with a knife at my throat and the threat of death. But even without the explicit threat I didn’t have the faculty to be able to tell anyone what happened. Violence in and of itself wasn’t a remarkable occurrence. I didn’t see either of my parents as a protector. And anything of a sexual nature was just. not. talked. about.
The important thing about all this is that I never sat down and made a conscious decision not to tell anyone what was done to me, within or without my home. I just took it for granted that silence was the only option. In fact, it wasn’t really even an option — it was just the way of the world as I knew it. Living my life in silence wasn’t a choice. It was the only way I knew how to live.
I’m not saying that my experience is the same as most of the women who are now coming forward with stories of their harassment, abuse and rape at the hands of powerful adult men. But the dynamic of surviving is similar at whatever age the abuse occurs and however traumatic it is. The instinct for self-preservation is strong — stronger than most social contracts.
Think about it this way: what do you suppose is the single most important thing a person can hope for while in the midst of an assault? That it be over. Then, when it is finally over — providing you’re still alive — what’s the next thing to hope for? That it never happened. Living with this kind of denial isn’t like living a lie. It’s just plain survival. We absolutely cannot fault any human being for being unable to over-ride that instinct until a time that is convenient for their abusers or anyone else.
Some of the books listed are not specifically about male Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA) but I, being a male, write from that perspective. I believe that we men have a lot in common with women who were sexually abused as children but as we grow into teenagers and then adults our gender affects how we deal with things. I’ve been in mixed group therapy sessions but it wasn’t until I attended a Male Survivor Weekend Of Recovery (link below) that I felt like I found my tribe.
Before I begin I want to mention a book that is not specifically related to childhood abuse issues but was nonetheless an important book in the evolution of my self-consciousness: The Gurdjieff Work by Kathleeen Riordan Speeth. At the time I felt like this book found me rather than the other way around. I was browsing the paperbacks at a small drugstore in Woods Hole, MA circa 1978–79, looking for fiction when this book caught my eye. I had never heard of Gurdjieff nor had I any interest in new age or spiritual concepts but something compelled me to buy it. I didn’t become a follower of Gurdjieff but the ideas in this book started me on a journey of self discovery through introspection.
Reach for the Rainbow: Advanced Healing of Survivors of Sexual Abuse by Lyne D. Finney, J.D., M.S.W — This is the book that started me on my healing journey from CSA. I stumbled on it by chance in the mid-90’s and I had never fully acknowledged my abuse at the time. I was in therapy dealing with relationship issues and it was this book that woke me up to the reality that I had some deep work ahead of me dealing with old trauma that I had been avoiding.
I’m not going to talk about the issue of repressed and/or recovered memories here but I will say this: I have always known I was abused but I spent most of my life avoiding thinking about it. Most of my abuse memories were not readily available to me but there was the shadow of one specific event that was always present in the dark recesses of my brain. But I simply couldn’t look at it. It took many years of therapy to prepare myself to finally face this memory, and others. The following books, in no particular order, were part of that journey.
Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood by Wayne Muller
The Invisible Wound: A New Approach to Healing Childhood Sexual Trauma by Wayne Kritsberg
Victims No Longer: Men Recovering from Incest and Other Sexual Child Abuse by Mike Lew
Abused Boys: The Neglected Victims of Sexual Abuse by Mic Hunter
Rebuilding Your House of Self-Respect: Men Recovering in Group from Childhood Sexual Abuse by Tom Wilken
Come Here: A Man Overcomes the Tragic Aftermath of Childhood Sexual Abuse by Richard Berendzen (memoir)
Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A Guide and Map for Recovering from Childhood Trauma by Pete Walker — This is the book I am currently reading. I’m just getting started with it but it’s a book I wish I had found a long time ago. I have suffered from depression, social anxiety and mood swings my entire life. I have twice been diagnosed as Bipolar (Cyclothymia and Type II). This book explains how my mental struggles are directly related to my abuse and gives a name to my specific set of conditions and responses. Of all the books I have read this one is the most comforting and hope-inducing. I believe I am finally nearing the final stage of my healing journey.
Not Yet Read But On My Night Table:
The Male Survivor: The Impact of Sexual Abuse by Matthew Parynik Mendel
If the Man You Love was Abused: A Couple’s Guide to Healing by by Mariel H. Browne, R.N., PH.D, with Marlene M. Browne, Esq.
Also of Note:
There has been no greater fictional character or series that address issues of childhood abuse than the Burke series by Andrew Vachss. I have read most of these novels several times.
Of course, it goes without saying that I’ve had a lot of help in my recovery. Personal therapy as an individual, a couple and in several group settings has been key. I’m very luck to have worked with Henry Harsch, Jim Struve and Joanna Colrain (whom I continue to work with). I have also attended four Weekends of Recovery workshops organized by Men Healing.
Finally, my recovery would also not have been possible without the aid of a regular hatha yoga practice, a loving and accepting partner, and many books about Zen. Before becoming a daily formal meditator I had already spent tens of thousands of hours staring at walls or ceilings in deep contemplation of my self, which is pretty much the same thing. Some people call this Dissociation.