Sexual abuse is a betrayal of a relationship that was once trustworthy. And real healing can only take place in the context of a relationship that is again safe, understanding, and trustworthy.
He was a respected teacher and father. He was a scout leader, and in 1958 he was the idol of most of the children in my middle school. He was relatively young and a powerful man who cared about children and quickly became a father figure for many of us.
He seemed to like me, I could tell by the way he talked to me and gave me responsibilities in the classroom. He was the first adult who saw such great potential in me. By age 12, I had already experienced difficulty in school because of what turned out to be a learning disability. But back in the ’50s, underachieving children were generally regarded as lazy, and I was beginning to wonder if they were right.
But not my beloved teacher, he saw me as having leadership potential. And because of him, I felt good about myself for the first time in my life. He had a bachelor’s degree in psychology and always wanted to become a psychologist. When he taught me about the field, I really felt this was something I could do well and help lots of people. At age 12, I knew I would become a psychologist because of that man’s influence.
The following month, he invited me to join a special “leadership club.” I was honored by the invitation so I went to his house after school for our first private meeting. He told me the first rule of leadership was to be able to take orders without questioning them. Thirty minutes later I was naked in his bed.
Like most children who are sexually abused, I didn’t feel anything that day, nor did I feel anything the next week when I went back for what was to be my last visit to his home. Nor did I feel anything for the next decade.
When I was in graduate school, I bumped into him in the cafeteria. After all these years, he was finally taking some graduate courses in psychology. I didn’t really feel anything then, either. I knew what he did with me was wrong and shameful, but I felt nothing when I saw him. I didn’t wonder if he was still acting on the sickness. I didn’t wonder about all of the other children who were in his “leadership club” being affected by the sickness. I didn’t feel anger or fear, I just felt like a graduate student bumping into an old teacher of his. But as I’ve learned over the years, buried feelings are always buried alive.
Later that semester when I was driving back to campus from my internship at a local rehabilitation hospital, I heard a news flash on the radio that almost caused me to have an accident.
The announcer said that this man, now a principal in a middle school, had been caught with child pornography. And before he could be arrested, he went home and murdered his wife and his children, and then killed himself.
Nearly blinded with shock, I pulled over and got out of the car to try to get my bearings and catch my breath. Minutes later, I was bent over with the dry heaves. I don’t remember what happened after that, but I imagine I felt very alone. Most children who experience any kind of abuse feel very alone in the world not knowing how to cope with all of the emotions that surround this kind of violation.
For some reason, we feel the shame that the abuser should rightly feel. But because of our shame, the story goes underground. And for many, that shameful secret begins to inform our personalities. For some, intimacy is too frightening so it gets pushed away. For boys, many wonder about their own sexuality and become hypersexual just to prove something to themselves. But like anyone who has experienced trauma, what we really need is understanding, compassion and safety. Sexual abuse is a betrayal of a relationship that was once trustworthy. And real healing can only take place in the context of a relationship that is again safe, understanding, and trustworthy. But because of the shame, the silence continues until…
Many years later, I was teaching family therapy in graduate school and was becoming very anxious after class was over. After examination, I realized that what happened that day was sexual abuse. Kind of amazing for a professional psychologist not to realize what happened to him when he was 12 years old. But once I realized, I knew what I had to do. I felt a responsibility to use my experience to help others. And the more I talked about it, the less shame I felt. After all, when anything stays in the dark too long it develops mold, which can become toxic. Exposure to sunlight helps kill mold. So I decided to expose my story to sunlight.
I felt comfortable that my experience in seventh grade was understood, worked through, and became an experience I could use to help others who have been abused. And then I began to prepare for my radio show (“Voices in the Family” WHYY FM in Philadelphia) on the same topic. While doing my research, I felt emotions I had never felt before. It was as though all of the scar tissue was torn away and I saw and felt things as though for the first time. I felt the anguish of little 12-year-old Danny living with this shame for all those years. I felt the anguish of all of the other children affected by the sickness.
When I thought of his wife and children who were killed, arguably as a result of the sickness, I began to cry. This man had a terrible sickness that harmed so many people and could be said to have killed at least five.
May he and his family rest in peace. And may all of us affected by that sickness live in peace.
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