The Real Story of Assault

Hope

Hope. Photo by Callen Harty.

The way that America’s media and Americans’ attention span works it will likely be another couple or few weeks that everyone is fascinated by all the sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and child sex abuse stories popping up every day. Because the Harvey Weinstein story caught fire journalists started looking for more stories like it and there were women and some men who had been victims of assault who started to realize that maybe for the first time in their lives and in our country’s history they could share their stories and would be believed. So they spoke out and they were believed and people like Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and many, many others were suddenly being held accountable.

The thing is, the hunger for these stories is not because the general public suddenly cares about sexual assault. It is a result of our celebrity culture, a culture that elected a reality television star President, a culture that focuses all of its attention on the rich and famous, a culture that loves to build up stars and then rip them down. The attention is all on the famous perpetrators–Spacey, Al Franken, Louis CK, James Toback, Roy Moore, and about two dozen others–but not on those who suffered at their hands. The focus is on what the famous people did, not what their victims suffered. How many can even name more than one or two of the accusers? Likely a scant few.

The discussions raised because of these stories are about the effects of the accusations on the careers of these well-known and powerful men, not on the effects on the women and men abused by them. If the country’s attention can be held for a bit perhaps some laws will be passed that will make perpetrators think twice about their behavior. One can hope. Or perhaps, and maybe more likely, some other unexpected hot story will come along and journalists by then can only find B list celebrities accused of sexual assault, so the sexual assault story line fades into the background. It has happened before. Think of Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, R. Kelly, Jerry Sandusky, Bill Cosby, Josh Duggar, and many others. Stories about them held our attention for a few brief moments and then faded away into nothingness and all was forgotten. And again, how many can name the people they hurt? Likely not many. Maybe this time some things will change. Maybe not.

Meanwhile, in cities and towns across the country there are countless boys and girls, women and also men, who are sexually assaulted on a daily basis, and they don’t get headline stories in the New York Times. Their perpetrators often keep them silenced through threats and intimidation. As many as one in three girls and one in five or six boys is sexually abused before the age of eighteen. There is approximately one rape every two minutes in this country. One rape every two minutes. It is not just the rich and powerful who commit these acts. It is an epidemic that reaches every layer of this society.

We cannot let this moment pass. We need to shift the discussion from the perpetrators to the victims and survivors. We need to shift the focus from the sensationalized headlines of the famous falling from grace to the needs of those who are rising out of shame and fear. We need to pass laws like the Child Victims Act and Erin’s Law in every state and at the national level. We need to take care of those who have been victimized and work hard to make sure there are no further victims. We owe it to each other. We have let this behavior go for far too long.

While these salacious stories of the powerful have brought attention to the issues of assault and harassment we need for the attention to help cause a fundamental shift in our thinking about behavior and the culture in which we live. If it doesn’t, thousands upon thousands more voices will be silenced than the dozens that have recently spoken.

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The Political Pendulum

Capitol

The nation’s Capitol at sunset. Photo by Callen Harty.

Back in 2003 Wisconsin’s former governor, Lee Sherman Dreyfus, won the first-ever Courage Award from OutReach, Madison’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) community center. It was a long overdue recognition for his signing of the nation’s first gay rights law in 1982. In his remarks at the awards banquet that night Dreyfus talked about the Republican party and how he didn’t recognize it anymore. He more or less said that his party had been hijacked and was no longer the party that he knew and loved.

Two decades before that night there was an article in Madison’s Isthmus about how the conservative Christian movement intended to take power in this country. They felt that things had swung too far to the left and they had a grand plan to change that. They would start small, by winning seemingly inconsequential local elections, many of them uncontested, such as school board seats, city council seats, and the like. Once they became entrenched there they would start running for seats with a little more power, such as county boards. After securing places at the table at that level, they would start running for state offices and follow that with national offices. They would be patient. It could take decades to get into the most powerful positions in the country, but it was a long-range goal and they could wait. They knew they didn’t have the numbers or the support to start big, so they would start small, gain positions which would allow them to appoint and anoint others and little by little insert themselves into the political scene at every level. Their patience paid off.

Already by the early 2000s Republicans like Dreyfus had become aware that their party had been infiltrated and taken over by people whose agenda no longer resembled anything they had spent their lives working for, but they recognized it too late. The Republican party had become the party of religious zealots who were determined to undo Roe vs. Wade, the gains in LGBT rights, unions and workers’ rights, and any other progressive milestones they could. The Christian right had entrenched themselves so thoroughly into the party that there could no longer be such a thing as a liberal Republican and even moderate Republicans became afraid of opposing anything the right-wingers supported. They gave in and followed like herds of mindless sheep. Those who didn’t were challenged in elections in which races were judged by the media according to who had the largest war chests, not who had ideas or who cared the most about their state or nation. Whomever could raise the most money became the way to determine who was the best candidate and most likely to win. When the Citizens United decision was handed down by the U. S. Supreme Court it made the money mandate even clearer.

As the years passed the right-wing became even more determined. The Republican party kept pushing farther and farther to the right and along with it the Democratic party also tilted further right. They felt they had to in order to survive. The Christian right had convinced the country that “liberal” was an evil word and those who had previously considered themselves liberal tried to deflect any association with liberalism in order to woo voters. They no longer wanted to claim what they truly believed. Even if they remained liberal they chose to hide that instead of proudly proclaiming it because the word had become anathema to the masses of voters. To win elections they pandered at best to the middle and at worst veered off-center to the right. For votes and power, they sold themselves out. With the exception of a handful of politicians like Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich, Paul Wellstone, and a few others, most politicians in both parties were shifting further and further toward more conservative and archaic views. Bill Clinton led the Democrats to the middle and then to the right of middle in order to ensure getting elected and staying in power. And as the Democrats abandoned their heritage the Republicans gained more and more power. It began to feel like a return to the Dark Ages.

Today, the age is even darker. Neither of the two major political parties resembles what they were even thirty or forty years ago. Imagine a George McGovern being nominated today. It’s out of the realm of possibility. Ronald Reagan would be too liberal for much of the country these days. Politicians who half a century ago seemed conservative would now be considered left-wingers. The Christians of several decades ago are also unrecognizable. While there are some ministers and churches that still preach love, compassion, generosity, and other teachings that used to be the cornerstones of Christian theology, Christianity today is dominated by megachurches and ordained men and women who preach the gospel of prosperity. Pastors who are supposed to be men of god denigrate the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, the wretched refuse of society, the homeless, and the tempest-tossed. Their god is not a merciful, loving god. Their god is money and power. If Jesus were to return as they say he will he would upend the altars of the money-changers in the temples. This modern-day Christianity is unrecognizable. It claims the Bible but only uses the book to justify political positions. The passage of rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s, will likely disappear from newer translations of the Bible.

We are living in a time in which church and state are colluding to rob from the poor to give to the rich. Every gain that has been made for the betterment of society in the last one hundred years is being examined and overturned. Laws that protected common citizens, the environment, and more are being reversed so that the money-lenders and the wealthy have more and more while most of the citizens have less and less. Somehow the citizens elected a reality television star to the Presidency and he has thrown us into the most unreal of times, where racism is on the rise, common sense laws are being trashed, and we are sinking into a political, social, and moral abyss. It feels like we are witnessing the decline and fall of the American empire.

It’s amazing how the press is now calling the battle between Mitch McConnell and Roy Moore the battle for the soul of the Republican Party. As if it hadn’t already lost its soul. As if either man, whether it be the heartless party leader who sold his soul to corporate America ages ago or the man who sold his to the devil and molested teenage girls decades ago, could claim any kind of moral compass or standing. If these are the claimants to the soul of the party, then there is truly nothing left to salvage. We are sinking, and sinking fast. Maybe, like an alcoholic hitting rock bottom, we had to fall this far–and hopefully no more–before we could rise again a renewed and better nation.

One can hope that this is the furthest right reach of the political pendulum. Perhaps the grand plan has succeeded too well and Americans will wake up to the reality that the far right-wing politicians and ministers in this country are leading us into hell so that they can reside in a heaven of their own making. There are some signs that maybe there is a new morning in America. The recent elections in which several women and minorities were elected around the country, another Democratic state Senate win in Oklahoma, the few Republicans standing up to Trump and naming him for the charlatan he is are all hopeful signs that the end of this far right-wing reign of error is about to start its decline. Those who care about the tired, the poor, the huddling masses, those who care about the future of this nation need to do their best to see that it happens. It is time for the pendulum to swing back. It is time for Democrats to return to their roots or for a new progressive party to rise from the ash heap of our modern society. It is our only hope.

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Generic Mass Shooting Response

Newtown and Oak Creek

Remembering the victims of the Newtown, Connecticut and Oak Creek, Wisconsin mass shootings. Photo by Callen Harty.

With more than 300 mass shootings in the United States so far this year (defined as four or more people  being shot or killed in the same general location and time) we are averaging about one a day. Two of the five deadliest in history have occurred in the last several weeks (35 days). It just seems it is getting to be too many for the National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers to keep up with press releases and responses, so it seemed like a good idea to offer them a template for responding to the next one, which should be no later than tomorrow or the next day at the current rate. This way they can spend their money on lobbying and advertising instead of wasting it on explaining their positions.

[Company name/organization] was saddened and horrified today to learn about the loss of life in [insert city name] by a terrorist [if person of color]/mentally unstable man [if white]. Nobody expects this kind of thing to happen in their [home/school/place of worship/workplace/movie theater/vacation spot/favorite nightclub/army base/restaurant/post office/neighborhood/etc.].

But we strongly encourage citizens not to get hysterical and clamor for an end for all Americans’ right to bear arms. If there had been a good citizen with a gun present this would have been stopped before so many were killed [Note: in the event that a citizen with a gun was there and was killed, injured, or was unable to do anything to help, this line may be skipped]. We believe the Second Amendment is sacred and it is critical to a free and safe citizenry. It also protects us against our own government. An occasional life lost to someone who uses a gun for a reason it was never intended is the price of freedom. [If only children are killed this line may be skipped.]

Further, guns don’t kill people. People kill people. If an assault weapon hadn’t been available this murderer would have killed these [insert number from four to 58, unless the next incident is more than 58] people with knives, baseball bats, rocks, fingernail clippers, or whatever was available to him.

Our prayers are with the victims of this incident [never refer to it as a mass shooting or refer to guns] and their families [in the event of the mass shooting taking place in a place of worship this entire line may be skipped]. If you want to protect your family, the best way to do that is to go out now and purchase a firearm. There will be a sale tomorrow and likely a rush, so make sure to get there early. Maybe even buy two, just to be doubly safe. We sincerely wish peace to all in this difficult time and God Bless America.

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Bolton Refuge House Fall Gala Speech

Self-portrait

Self-portrait.

I was invited by Bolton Refuge House to be their keynote speaker at their annual Fall Gala. Bolton is the oldest domestic violence shelter in the state and is located in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. They also provide services for sexual assault victims and survivors. This is the speech I gave:

Good evening. I’d like to start by thanking Bolton Refuge House for inviting me to be a part of this evening and to help support their important work. Special thanks to Tanya Potter who initially reached out to me and coordinated the event with me and to Executive Director Pat Stein. If you weren’t aware of it, Bolton was founded in 1976 as a domestic violence shelter and was the first domestic abuse shelter in the state of Wisconsin. Since that time the organization has expanded to include sexual assault services and now serves all of Eau Claire, Jackson, and Buffalo counties. They provide advocacy, education, shelter, support groups, and more, all in an effort to help those who are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. It is unfortunate that these services are still necessary, but incredibly fortunate that there are places like Bolton Refuge House where victims can get help when they need it. Thank you for being here and for supporting that important work with your presence.

I’d like to take a moment to tell you a little about me and my background, which I believe are the reasons the organization invited me to speak at this event. I come here as an adult survivor of child sex abuse. I was raised in a small mining town in southwestern Wisconsin, one of the oldest cities in the state and a place where my great-great grandfather had settled the year it was founded, in 1827. I came from an Irish Catholic family with a strict, but loving, mother and a father who had died of a heart attack when I was just two years old. As a result, I was the only child in my class from a single-parent household the entire time I was growing up. It should be noted that my childhood was back in the 1960s when people held onto loveless and horrible marriages rather than divorcing. Many things were much different then compared to today. I was gay, but that was also back in the time when people didn’t admit it or sometimes, like me, couldn’t even acknowledge it to themselves. It took me until I was almost twenty-one to come out, but when I did I kicked the closet door down and vowed never to go back in. Along those lines, I would like to note an important lesson I’ve learned along the way. I am not gay because I was abused. And, I was not abused because I am gay. Abuse isn’t about sexuality, gender, or sex. It is about power, control, and violence.

Back in my youth, I knew by second grade that I wanted to be like my great aunt, Leona, and become a writer. Much of my childhood was spent in my bedroom quietly contemplating the world and writing bad poetry and short stories. When it came time to go away to college I decided I wanted to be a journalism major and chose UW-Eau Claire as the place to study that, so this is a sort of homecoming for me. It took less than a semester to drop the journalism idea—once the professor in one class noted that to be a newspaperman one had to write down to a fifth-grade level (it’s probably a third-grade level or less by now). That was not the kind of writing I wanted to do.

I did become a writer. I have three books to my name and a newly finished novel that will hopefully be published soon. I’ve also written two dozen plays and about fifty monologues that have been produced. In addition, I’ve had numerous articles and essays published both in print and online. I’ve written more than 275 posts on my blog, A Single Bluebird. To my mind, among the most important of my works are a play detailing my own survivor story and a memoir, Empty Playground, that shares that story in more detail, as well as blog entries and articles on the topic. Sharing my story has become a major part of my life work. That is why I am here tonight, to share my story with you, to share some of that writing with you, and to share some hope.

When I came out as a child sex abuse survivor I also kicked that door down. As a result, I have done a lot of writing and speaking on the topic. My life, whether as a gay man, a recovering alcoholic, or a survivor has always been an open book. I have always believed that sharing my experiences may help others with their own issues. In particular, as a male survivor, I felt it was important for me to speak because so many men can’t, or won’t, due to our cultural brainwashing on masculinity. There are few men willing to talk, so I have taken up that mantle. With that said, I should note that I do not speak for any other men, gay men, recovering alcoholics, or survivors. Everyone has their own story. What I can share is my story and my experience and hope that it resonates and helps in some way.

We are living in an interesting time at this moment in our history, with the #MeToo movement and with survivors every new day claiming their stories and their truth while men who have perpetrated unthinkable acts without consequences are starting to understand that they can no longer get away with what they have kept hidden for years. As a gay man I understood early on the importance of coming out. I fully bought into Harvey Milk’s idea that we should all come out and that when all of us did the rest of the world would realize that there was not one of them who did not know at least one queer person in their family or circle of friends and acquaintances. He believed that once that happened the rights that we were demanding by ourselves would start to be granted because our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and others would join the fight with us.

Not everyone who is gay is comfortable coming out or maybe cannot do so for their own safety or for very personal reasons. But like Harvey Milk I believed that if most of us, or even many of us, could do so that would pave the way for a better understanding of who we were and lead to an acceptance that could not have been imagined before. It has taken decades, but it is working. Harvey Milk was right.

For me, that lesson translated to my survivor experience. It occurred to me that if people who could speak out were able to do so then more and more people would realize what an epidemic sexual assault and domestic violence are and perhaps new laws could be passed in an effort to protect everyone’s children, friends, and neighbors. Awareness would be raised and survivors would gain allies in the struggle to heal and to prevent these things from happening to others. Again, not every victim or survivor is able to speak publicly, or even open up to those closest to them, but the more of us who can, the more of us who claim #MeToo, the more society at large will understand the scope of the problem and realize that something must be done about it.

I have two primary goals in speaking and writing about sexual abuse. One is to help empower all victims to become survivors. The second is to help us move into a future where there is no need for the first goal because there are no longer any victims. These are lofty goals, but that is as it should be. As Henry David Thoreau said, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” I see my work as helping lay that foundation for the future.

One of the things I was told about speaking tonight is that it would be best if my message were hopeful, and I think it is. But as we all know one can’t have a rainbow without the rain. Sometimes hope rises like a phoenix out of the ashes of despair. The point of that is that the story of what happened to me as a young boy is not an easy one. The way I moved through the pain of that is not easy. But the fact that I am standing here before you tonight is evidence of the movement from victimhood to survivorship, from depression to joy, from horror to hope.

My standing here is evidence of hope. It is evidence of the power of the human spirit to survive. When I was two years old I almost died after contracting meningitis, the mumps, and scarlet fever within a two-week span. My earliest memory is of the doctor carrying me to the bathroom during that time. I have survived car wrecks, alcoholism, suicidal ideation and attempts, threats to my life, a major heart attack, and childhood sexual abuse. I’m like a cat, but a lot less finicky about food and with even more than nine lives.

What I intend to do tonight is share my story of abuse and survival. Though I will not share all the horrid details of the abuse I will share some, so this is a trigger warning about that. If you find that you are triggered by anything I say I apologize in advance, but I believe that sharing such a story has to be honest and real or it loses truth and meaning. If you are triggered or anything I talk about is uncomfortable for you, please take care of yourself. Check in with someone, step out of the room, do what you need to do to take care of yourself first and foremost. There are employees from Bolton here and they can help you out. My intention is not to add pain onto an already difficult situation, but to talk about how a person can move through that and come out on the other side into the light.

Also, while my story is about surviving childhood sex abuse and is unique to my lived experience, I believe that there are universal truths that all survivors experience, whether you are a survivor of child sex abuse, sexual assault as an adult, or violent domestic abuse. We may not be able to identify with the particulars of one another’s experience, but there are things that we all understand and can relate to about those experiences. After sharing my story I’m going to share some writing with you from my books, playwriting, and blog around these topics. With that said, this is my story.

When I was nine or ten years old I was touched inappropriately for the first time. It was a very quick, brief touch, through my pants, but it felt very uncomfortable. So I did what every little child is taught to do when things like this happen. I told my mother about it. She looked at me and said, “Oh, you shouldn’t let him do that to you.” Because of that response I went away both blaming myself in some way and feeling like it wouldn’t do any good to tell my mother about anything like it in the future. She passed away this past summer and I do not blame her for not knowing how to deal with it. It was a different time.

When I was ten years old the abuse started in full force. The first time it happened I was asked if I wanted to play a game and being ten I excitedly said yes. I was then told that I would need to be tied up to play the game and being ten that didn’t seem unusual to me. We played cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians back then. So my feet were tied to a piece of furniture and my hands to another. I struggled mightily, but my pants were pulled down and I was molested. He sat on my chest and I couldn’t see him or what he was doing. All I could see was his back and a crucifix on the wall above him with Jesus looking down upon it all and doing nothing. I’ve often said I lost both my innocence and my faith that day.

For the next seven years or so I was abused many times, in many places, and in many ways.

As I grew up, the abuse impacted me in ways that I was not even aware of at the time. Oftentimes victims of sexual abuse suffer from any number of the following (and more): Alcoholism, anger issues, drug abuse, life-long fears, post-traumatic stress disorder, promiscuity, prostitution, self-abuse, self-hatred, and suicidal ideation or attempts. I pretty much fit the bill on every one of those, but through a lot of work, a positive attitude, and some loving people in my life survived despite the horrors of my youth and the self-abuse of my adulthood. I haven’t had a drink since April 18, 1989 (and quit doing drugs before that), have not had casual sex in ages as I’ve been in a long-term committed relationship, and have not had suicidal thoughts in many, many years. This doesn’t mean I am fully healed. There are still occasional issues that flare up. I think you are never fully over the effects of abuse; it is a matter of controlling the effects most of the time, and learning self-care to handle the triggers when they arise.

There are many roads to recovery. Some get there through therapy, others through spirituality, others through internal exploration, or sharing with friends or family. For me, recovery came primarily through loved ones and a lot of internal work, mostly through research and through my own writing, as that is the way I have always learned and grown. It’s the same way I went about coming out. I could not have survived without the ability to process creatively. The arts can be incredibly healing and a great way to explore oneself and the meaning of life, suffering, and more.

I have to admit a heart attack also had a lot to do with it. It happened during the opening night of a play in which I was acting. If you’re going to have a heart attack you might as well make a story out of it, right? This one made all the papers in Madison—“Actor Survives Heart Attack on Stage”. In the middle of my first of two scenes an incredible pain shot through my chest and down my arm. I thought I had pulled a muscle, which I guess I did as the heart is the largest muscle in the body. I finished the scene, got changed, and went on and did my last scene. You know, the show must go on. When it was over, as the other actors were taking a curtain call, people backstage were calling for an ambulance. I even ended up getting a good review for my one night in that production.

Being faced with the threat of death causes one to relook at everything in life, what you’re doing with it, and what still needs to be done. It was after my life-threatening heart attack that I decided I had to share my story in a play, which is why I wrote Invisible Boy, my autobiographical play about surviving my abuse and coming to a place of forgiveness. The other thing that my heart attack changed was that I now listen to my heart, both figuratively and literally, in ways that I never used to be able to do. If my heart tells me to write a play to share my story I do it. If it tells me to work on a conference on child sex abuse survival I do it. If it tells me to speak out, I do it. I trust myself and my instincts a lot more now and I believe I have done a lot of good work in the last several years because of it.

I want to share just a bit of advice for allies of those who have suffered abuse. Here are a few important words: Listen, don’t judge, believe. Allow the survivor to talk. Accept their story and their truth.

Be available and let that be known. Most survivors have to come to therapy or their friends or wherever it is they ultimately turn at their own pace. When they are ready to talk they need to know you’ll be there and what you can do for them.

Let the person know they are not alone. Unfortunately, statistics say one in three or four girls and one in five or six boys is abused and the numbers are probably way higher because of the under-reporting and silence around it. I don’t believe in silence. The more survivors who come out and share their stories the more others may recognize that they are not alone and that their stories are not entirely unique, though the particular circumstances might be. More and more famous survivors are coming out publicly with their stories and that can only help.

Childhood sex abuse can be a life sentence if the victim does not ever acknowledge the abuse and deal with the effects, but any man or woman who becomes a survivor instead of a victim does so because they deal honestly with their history, their emotions, and the effects of the abuse. One can live a powerful, full life and take control back by dealing openly and honestly with the abuse. I have many people to thank for helping me get to where I am today, especially some dear friends and family members whose large hearts were able to hold me when I needed it. A large part of my recovery and movement toward healing from abuse was also because of my writing. It is the way I process. It has always been the way I process. It’s the way I create order out of chaos and make sense out of a sometimes senseless world. It’s the way I look honestly at me and my world in an attempt to understand it better and maintain hope. It is my escape and also my mirror.

Much of my writing has focused on my abuse and recovery and generally on the topic of sex abuse. I would like to share some of that with you now. This first piece is a poem. A while back I was in a group setting and one of the young people there shared something that told me that he had either been sexually abused or was still suffering it. He didn’t come out and say it, but I knew it from the way he said what he said. That night I went home and wrote the following poem, hoping that he would see it when I posted it on my Facebook page so that he might know he was not alone.

I know what happened to you

even though you cannot say it,

because I hear it in the words you do not say,

and I see it in your eyes,

in the way your body hides its secrets.

I see me in your eyes

and the way your body hides it secrets.

And I know.

I know the truth that your eyes

want to hide from the world.

And I want you to know

that the man who touched you,

who hurt you, abused you,

doesn’t want you to know

that it was not your fault.

It was not your fault.

It is his burden, not yours.

But he wants you to believe

that no one will believe

you

if you say a word.

I believe you, even in your silence.

He wants you to believe that it was you

who invited his hands, his mouth, his . . .

other parts of his body

to join with yours.

Know that it was not you.

It was not your invitation.

It was not your fault.

It was not what you wanted.

He wants you to believe that because your body

reacted naturally

that you shared equally in the act.

Know that it was your body reacting naturally–

not your heart, your mind, your soul.

Not you.

I know it was not something you wanted.

You know it was not something you wanted.

Believe yourself.

I know also that you feel shame,

that you are afraid to speak,

that you are afraid,

and I understand the fear.

But know that I have heard you speak

despite your silence–because of your silence–

and I will hold it all with you.

When you are ready

I will be ready with you.

I will hold it all with you in brotherhood,

and when that time comes

his lies, your fear, the shame, guilt, horror,

all of it,

will start to slip through your fingers

and you will be able to touch

the truth that is now hidden behind your eyes.

Know that I will be there with you,

that I will hold it with you,

and that it will be the beginning of healing.

Your eyes will open, tears will fall,

and you will know then with certainty

it was not what you wanted.

This next piece is a short monologue from my play, Invisible Boy, which I think accurately describes what abuse and recovery can feel like, especially early in the process of healing. This is the main character speaking.

“Sometimes this process is like taking a broken piece of glass—a window maybe, shattered—and trying to piece it back together. There are so many fragments scattered in my mind, so many broken moments strewn about that I find it difficult to pick them all up, to find them, let alone figuring out where they fit. And maybe I have to be okay with that, maybe I have to accept that I may never find everything that was lost. But if I find enough, if I remember enough and connect enough pieces together I can at least peer into the window of my own soul and see me hiding in a corner there. I need to find that frightened, cowering child. I need to connect with him and let him know that it’s all right, that no harm can befall him now. I need to put these pieces together to be whole again.”

The next piece I’d like to share is also from Invisible Boy. It is at a moment when the main character has been contemplating suicide, and it’s a good example of the importance of being there for others.

“I was dying. In many ways. Sometimes, taking a breath hurts because you know that every breath you take is that much longer in the world. I wanted to stop breathing. Jon did it. Why couldn’t I? He was abused as a child, too, turned to prostitution, alcohol, sex addiction. But he got to a point where his pain was unbearable, so he gave it away. To me, to some others. I still hold that pain for him. That’s the unfairness of suicide. I wanted to give mine away, too, but always there were angels in my world. Always there were people who took care of me at just the right moment. Lauren never did ask what had happened that night. She never intruded. She just let me be with my emotions. If there hadn’t been a light there, if she hadn’t answered, if she hadn’t been so understanding . . . well, I think that knife may have cut deeply. But that was a turning point. The other times I tried to kill myself I simply failed. This time I made a choice. Something inside me, some little part of me, perhaps that wounded child who survived everything back then, something made me stop. Some voice made me put that knife down and try to make a human connection. In the middle of a period when I trusted no one, when I was at the lowest and darkest moments of my self-abuse, when there seemed to be nothing left but despair, something made me stop. There was a little voice of hope that carried me down the hall where I saw a light beckoning and that little sliver of light saved my life. But a little light can build; it can grow to illuminate things unseen. Oh, it has taken me years, but there is so much light in my life now that I can see and feel in ways that I have not known in a long, long time. I have love now, I have a partner who cares deeply and who sits in silence when I need it, who holds me when I need holding, who doesn’t touch me when I am remembering unwanted touches, who loves all of me. I am healing. I have work to do yet, but I am putting the pieces back together. I am becoming a whole person. Now I am working on loving myself and loving that child inside me who needs protection. I promised him, way back after the last time I was molested, I promised him never again and I have the strength now to assure that promise. I think maybe I have reached the last step that I need to reach, and one of the most difficult things in my life. And so I welcome him back for a moment, just to let him go again. [To the perpetrator] You have no power over me any more. I forgive you. I forgive you because it is not my place to judge you, condemn you, explain you, or anything else. It’s not about you now, for the first time ever. It’s about me—because as long as I live without offering you that forgiveness you still have power over me. So, I forgive you. I let you go. I stopped hating you years ago and now pity you at best. You’re the one who has to live with what you did, not me. I am letting you go.”

I’ve been invited to speak at the State Capitol a couple times for Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s Denim Day during Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The following is what I said to the crowd the first time I was invited.

“I stand here before you today as an adult survivor of childhood sex abuse. From the time I was ten until I was midway through my seventeenth year I was repeatedly abused. But I am not here to recount the horrors of that abuse. I am here because I have survived that abuse. As a little boy I suffered but as an adult I have reconnected with my inner child and I am protecting and loving him now. He is beautiful. I am beautiful. You are beautiful and nobody deserves to be hurt or abused. Ever. My childhood was taken from me but I tell you today that I own my personhood now. My innocence was stolen but in my recovery as a survivor I have recovered my soul. I am here as a survivor and I stand proud as a survivor.

“I speak because silence steals our power. I speak because silence shrouds us in shame. I speak because silence protects no one but those who would do us harm. It is in giving words to my past that I can live in the present and look forward to the future.

“Today, in the here and now, I have come to be with you because I recognize that we are all in this together—men, women, adults, children, survivors of every race and class, allies of every creed and color—we are all in this together. We need each other. Many hands have lifted me up over the years and now it is my turn to offer my hand to others. Many words have touched my heart and now I offer my voice to others. All who have suffered abuse in its many unfortunate forms are brothers and sisters or others in recovery and survival. Those of us who can offer hands or voices or ears need to reach out to those who can’t yet do so.”

Of course, not everything I write is about my survivor story. Especially on my blog I write about a lot of subjects. This is a post that shows that for me life really is about surviving in many ways and about staying positive.

“I was two years old when my father died at the young age of 41.

“I almost died that same year, suffering through scarlet fever, meningitis, and mumps in a two-week span.

“Two and half years ago I suffered a major heart attack, one that the doctor later told me had been a major life-threatening event.

“And yet, I still breathe. I breathe deeply. I breathe fully. I revel in the breaths I have and the life I live because it is filled with wonder. Right now there is a duck nesting in our front yard, with chicks about to hatch. There are people standing up for their rights in a way that I have not seen for many, many years. There is Brian, a beautiful, gentle soul, who loves me fully for who I am. There are family members who mean everything to me. There are the youth of Proud Theater—incredible brave and giving souls, each of them, who teach me every day. There is sunshine (yes, even behind the clouds!). There is rain, refresher of life and all that lives. There is light and dark and each has its place in the circles of the universe.

“With this second (or more) chance at life I have dedicated myself to living and giving as fully as I can. There is so much joy for me in this world—I have been blessed with good friends, good health, much love. And there is so much sorrow in this world—others have not been as blessed. From my joy I can offer comfort. I can be there for others, because I believe the sorrow of one is the burden of all.

“I don’t know how much time I have left. I could have another heart attack tomorrow. I could live to be over 100 as my great-great grandmother did. I’m not going to worry about it. It doesn’t matter. The moment we are born we begin to die, and none of us can know how long the journey will last. All I know is that I must make the most out of each second I have because it is a truly precious gift. When you face the end of it and come back to this life, even with its sadness, even with grey skies, it has a sublime beauty and value. I revel in it all, and when I finally go nobody will be able to say that I did not live.”

I would like to close with a couple pieces that emphasize the kind of hope that places like Bolton House perpetuate. Organizations like Bolton and the people who work there are striving to make this a better world for all of us. Their work is about hope. My life is about hope, and so it seems fitting to close with some words of hope. The first piece is a short speech I gave to close out Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s Voices of Courage luncheon several years ago, and I think it is fitting for tonight’s celebration also.

“Today we celebrate survival.

“Today is about the indomitable human spirit that soars.

“It is not about abuse or victimhood or pain. That was yesterday.

“Today is about moving past hurt to a place of peace or even profound joy. Sometimes finding that place comes after a long journey over a treacherous road; travel filled with travails. It comes from releasing pain, sometimes from forgiveness (for ourselves or others or both), sometimes from letting go, from sharing our stories, from therapy, from our own inner strength and beauty, but we know we can get there when we focus on honestly confronting our past, our hurt, and the things that happened to us that were beyond our control. It happens when we accept that we were not responsible for the sickness of others. It happens best when we are surrounded by love. This is a place of love. Today is a time of love.

“Today we gather to celebrate each other, to revel in the incredible beauty and uniqueness and gifts of all of those gathered, to thank those who have lit a candle in the darkness, who have held us up when we were falling, who have guided us along the path to recovery. We celebrate the courage and the compassion of all of those who are lifting themselves up or are helping to lift up others. It is in this courage and compassion that we become more human.

“Today we celebrate our humanity. We celebrate survivors and supportive allies. It is in survival that we thrive, so we celebrate thriving and living. I celebrate myself. I celebrate my survival. I celebrate you and your survival.

“Today we celebrate survival.

“Tomorrow, we will wake up and rise up; we will spread our wings and soar even higher.”

My last piece tonight is another blog post and I hope it rings as true for you as it still does for me. It is called Changing the World. I invite all of you to be a part of that effort and I thank you again for being here tonight.

“This is something I have always known, but which just struck me in a new and profound way. And it is not really about me, but about the collective spirit of all. I realized that I have changed the world for the better. And I understand that as a profound utterance. I realized again that everyone who enters this world has an impact on it and changes it in some way and that the vast majority of the people who enter life on this planet are good and decent people whose very lives change the world for the better. And all those beings, living good lives and impacting those around them, are moving this world ever more toward a world of justice for all.

“This is not to say that I am perfect, or that everyone’s lives are solely good, or that there is no evil in the world trying to move it in the opposite direction. It is to say that if each of us creates a ripple in the pool of life and that the majority of us are good people trying to make ourselves and the world better, then we are creating waves of love and positive energy that cannot fail to propel the world toward healing and toward a better becoming.

“This is a realization of hope. Because sometimes it feels like the forces of evil, the messages of despair, the hopelessness of hope is what is winning. But when you think about it, when you consider all the people you have met in your life and all the goodness that has come from them, and how very little real evil or bad energy you have witnessed compared to that, then you have to believe that the positive, beautiful beings in this world are moving it toward Paradise.

“I have seen bad things. I have opened my door to a man who had been stabbed in the gut. I have met a man who killed someone else. I have listened to people spew hateful rhetoric. I have looked my own childhood abuser in the eye while he lied about it and put it back on me. I have lived through assassinations and 9/11. But when I look at the totality of my life, when I really look at it, I see that the good that I have witnessed so outweighs the bad that the math is astronomical. I have seen neighbors band together after disasters. I have seen people give of their belongings when they really had nothing to give. I have seen people stick up for others over and over again. I cannot even really think about listing all of the good I have witnessed. I have seen so much love that my heart cannot hold the memory of it.

“All of these things change the world by their very existence. I am reminded that the world is changing for the better. I am reminded again that I have changed the world for the better, that you have changed the world for the better, and that the long march toward equality and justice and some crazy Utopia only dreamed of in centuries past is getting closer and closer. It may not happen today; it may not happen this decade; it may not happen in my lifetime, but we are moving toward it. It is simply up to me, up to you, up to all the good people in this world, to stay positive and to keep moving toward that place.

“Peace.”

And good night, and thanks again. Much love and peace to all of you.

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A Haircut

Lake Owen

Diving into Lake Owen from a fallen tree. Photo by Callen Harty.

Tonight I got my hair cut and it triggered a rush of memories and good feelings. Perhaps it had never occurred to me before that triggers can be good as well as bad. The sound of the clippers and the feel of that tool against my head always sends me back to my childhood sitting in the barber chair with that white barbershop cape wrapped around my neck. When I was a boy there were two barbershops in town–Harry’s and Del’s. My family went to Harry’s, probably because he was older and there was already an established loyalty to him. Loyalty meant a lot to my mother when it came to where she shopped or did business. She liked Del–he was a nice man–but we had always gone to Harry’s, likely before Del even opened up shop, and that was where we would continue to go.

On haircut days I was always there early. There were dozens of comic books laying around that any boy could pick up and read. I can still smell the colored ink and see the amazing artwork of the Superman and Batman comics, as well as my favorite–the Elongated Man. Maybe because there was only one person in my class shorter than me the Elongated Man appealed to me in the way he could stretch his arms and legs out and become bigger than anyone else and use that to help save the world. As I sat there paging through those comics and dreaming about sea monkeys and spy glasses and all sorts of wondrous gadgets advertised in the back pages there would always be several men sitting in chairs and talking while awaiting their turn, or sometimes long after they had gotten their haircuts.

Besides the bars, which were reserved for the evening and night hours unless you were one of the town drunks, the barbershops and gas stations were the places where men could go to be around other men in that town. It was where they met to talk about sports, hunting and fishing, cars, and probably women, though they didn’t have in-depth discussions about women when young boys were around. Their conversations were always intriguing to me. Growing up without a father I didn’t understand much of anything about the things they talked about, but I took it all in as well as I could. I listened to their stories, even though I didn’t hunt or fish or know anything about cars and it would be years before I would teach myself about sports. Their conversations seemed like a foreign language to me, but I could tell that it all had deep meaning to them.

Harry was a good guy. It turned out that he was the grandfather of one of my best friends, Robbie. When I sat in his chair I felt like one of the men. He would find things that he and I could talk about while he worked. Sometimes he would talk about those manly things that he and the other men talked about, but in a way that a kid without a father or a lot of male influence in his life would understand. It felt like I was being introduced to a new world, like something from a story in a book at the school library. As he worked he would gently turn my head, snip away at my hair with his lightning quick scissors, and ask questions and ask me how it looked when he was done. It always felt like he really cared about me and what I thought.

His son and Robbie’s dad, Earl, was also a really good guy. At my house we had one small toolbox with my dad’s name stenciled on it and inside were a handful of tools, most of which seemed alien to me. I didn’t know what most tools were or how they were used, except maybe for a hammer and saw, and even then I didn’t know how to use them properly. Earl had tools. Lots of tools. The garage had pegboards on the walls with countless tools and I couldn’t even imagine what their possible uses might be. Robbie and I would often watch him work on one project or another. We would go down to the other side of town at night and watch Earl and his friend, Jerry, work on welding metal on stock cars or we would watch Earl work on his 1950s Ford Thunderbird. Getting a ride in that beautiful blue car was always a thrill.

One year when Robbie was sick Earl invited me to go with him to the annual father/son dinner up at the Methodist Church and all the men there welcomed my as if I were really a part of Earl’s family. Another year when I was a little older Earl and his wife, Dorothy, one of the most influential women in my life, allowed Robbie to invite me to go camping with the family. His sister got to invite a friend, too, and it was one of the most memorable times of my youth. We went several hundred miles up north in Wisconsin. We talked, sang, and played travel games all the way there and it was the first time in my life I had ever gone camping and I loved it. We went to state parks and I think that trip was where I really developed my love for nature and being in the wild. We went swimming in Lake Namekagon and dove off a tree that had fallen into Lake Owen, a natural diving board created by mother nature. We ate camp food and listened to the sounds of animals in the forest at night. We took a boat out onto the water and I fished with Earl and Robbie, something I didn’t like all that much but which somehow connected me with that fraternity of men who shared their stories at the barbershop. After that trip I knew that if any of those old men tried to bring me into the conversation I would now have stories to tell.

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An Open Letter to Pope Francis on Funerals for Queer Children of God

St. Matthew's

Dear Pope Francis,

Years ago I left the Catholic Church. There were several reasons, but one large part was because I could not reconcile my sexuality as a gay man with the official teachings of the Catholic Church. While I was told as a boy that all of us were created in God’s image I was told as a young gay man that apparently not everyone was created in His image. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people were not welcomed at the altar. We were not welcome to partake in the sacraments because in the eyes of the Church we were sinners just for being who we were.

When I lived in Denver I found a group called Dignity, which was an organization for gay Catholics. I saw more men and women of deep faith in those meetings than I had seen in any other Catholic church I had ever attended. It was clear that the congregants were people who were truly devout believers in the Church who wanted deep spirituality in their lives. I went for several months, until it started sinking in again that despite the joy of the services we were still really not welcome. The group was meeting in a Protestant church with Masses said by priests who came as a favor but were secretive about the fact that they were holding Mass for gays and lesbians. I stopped going again, unable to believe in a Church that refused to believe in me and in the idea that I am created in God’s image.

Then you came along. While I don’t agree with many of your positions it has been refreshing to hear some of your comments about gay people. Although you have been clear that you believe in traditional marriage–despite the fact that there really is no such as traditional marriage–you have held out civil unions as a potential compromise. There has been research showing that the Catholic Church itself may have performed same-sex marriages in its earliest days and clearly marriage as an institution has evolved throughout the millennia, so I believe that marriage is the correct word and you have a different viewpoint on that. We don’t have to agree on everything. We can still discuss our differences in a civil and respectful manner.

You have publicly stated, “If someone is gay and searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” You have also said, “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?” Under your leadership the Synod of the Family determined that the Church should create a more welcoming space for LGBT people. In fact, you have welcomed gay people at the Vatican and embraced them. While I believe the Church still has a long way to go to fully understand and accept God’s queer children it has moved further along that path under your papacy than at any previous time, and I thank you for that.

Today I was shocked and angered to read of the actions of the Madison, Wisconsin diocese, under the leadership of Bishop Morlino, a man who seems determined to return the Church to a previous century. A letter from James Bartylla, the diocesan vicar general, was sent to parish priests to give them guidance about funerals for gay parishioners. It was intended to be confidential but was somehow leaked to the press. It is also said to have the bishop’s approval.

Imagine my surprise and anger to read the following things:

  • Was the deceased or the “partner” a promoter of the “gay” lifestyle? What is the attitude of the deceased’s family members, especially towards the Church?
  • Did the deceased give some signs of repentance before death?
  • If ecclesiastical funeral rites are allowed, should they occur without a Mass?
  • To minimize scandal, should there merely be a short scripture service at the funeral home?  Or maybe merely a graveside service? Maybe a later “Mass for the Dead” with or without explicit mention of the name of the deceased or “partner” could alternatively or in addition be offered at the parish or even at another parish (to avoid scandal), with or without family members present.
  • Any surviving “partner” should not have any public or prominent role at any ecclesiastical funeral rite or service.
  • A great risk for scandal and confusion is for the name of the celebrating priest and/or the parish to be listed in any public (e.g., newspaper) or semi-public obituary or notice that also lists the predeceased or surviving “partner” in some manner. This can’t happen for obvious reasons.
  • There should be no mention of the “partner” either by name or by other reference (nor reference to the unnatural union) in any liturgical booklet, prayer card, homily, sermon, talk by the priest, deacon, etc…
  • It may be wise to keep the priest or deacon involvement to the minimum (i.e., limited to one priest or deacon and at merely essential times of a service or rite, if one occurs).

Let me ask a few questions:

  • What is a gay lifestyle? We gay people are all individuals with our own lives and spirituality. There is no “gay lifestyle”. There are gay people who live a wide variety of lives. There are even gay people who don’t have sex because of the Catholic Church’s teachings. Are they not to have a funeral even if they are celibate simply because they promote understanding and are thus considered by close-minded people to be promoting the “gay lifestyle”? Do local priests typically ask family members what their views of the Church are? My mother recently died and was a devout Catholic who wanted a Mass of Catholic burial. Nobody asked us children about our beliefs. Would her funeral have been denied if her children no longer were Catholic?
  • Do Catholics not all receive absolution and Last Rites if possible before death? And do they not ask forgiveness for all of their sins as part of that?
  • Do priests typically ask family members about the sexual behavior of heterosexual Catholics when they pass away? How do you think that would make anyone feel? Do they try not to mention the husband or wife of the deceased if that partner is not a Catholic or is somehow known or suspected to be a sinner?
  • Is it routine for a Mass for the Dead to be held without mentioning the name of the deceased? Or their wedded partner? Or to be held at a different parish, so as not to draw attention? Must we suffer this hatred and discrimination even in death?
  • Do local parishes typically refrain from having the parish or the parish priest mentioned in an obituary to avoid scandal? As far as I am aware in Catholic teaching all of us are sinners. If that is the case and parishes do not want to be associated with sinners then they should refrain from being included in obituaries of all who pass. They should also disband, as their purpose is to guide sinners to salvation. If they exclude sinners from their congregations there would be no congregations left.
  • It is incredibly insulting to have the vicar general specifically instruct parish priests to exclude the life partner of the deceased from any part of the funeral service, including the homily, the prayer card, and more. Seriously? If I were a Catholic and passed away, my partner of more than a quarter of a century would not be allowed to be a participant in the Mass of Catholic burial in any way according to the letter sent to the parishes. Is there any wonder that the Catholic Church is losing members?

As a child of God I and all of my queer brethren deserve better than this. Even if the official Church teaching is that being gay makes me a sinner we are all sinners in the eyes of the Church. We are all given the opportunity for grace and forgiveness. Jesus sat with prostitutes and others who were not welcomed by the religious leaders of His time. The Bible clearly states, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” It is not up to men to judge; it is up to God on Judgment Day.

This letter and the attitude it represents is what keeps people from coming back to home in the Church. I beseech you to learn more about God’s gay children and to do more to open your arms and the arms of the mother Church to all. I ask that you look into this matter and guide your bishops and priests to a more empathetic view of all of those who might look to the Church for spiritual nourishment.

For more on the directive, follow this link:  http://www.praytellblog.com/index.php/2017/10/22/bishop-morlino-on-funerals-involving-a-notorious-homosexual-union/

 

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On Living

Skydiving

Me skydiving in the summer of 2011. Photographer unknown.

While country music is not my favorite style of music there is one crossover song that strikes me every time I hear it. It is Tim McGraw’s song, Live Like You Were Dying. Every time I hear the line, “Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying” I acknowledge the truth of it in my heart. There is both hope and joy in it.

Growing up surrounded by death gives a person a different perspective on life. All of my grandparents, my father, my oldest brother, one of my uncles, and at least one of my cousins were all dead either before I knew them or had a chance to formulate any memories. My memories are photographs taken from times before I was even alive or old enough to remember. When I was just entering my teens another aunt and another uncle passed. A short time later another uncle left us. Around the same time, Etta Kelly, the old retired school teacher who was my mentor as a youth died of cancer. My cousin, Rick, died in Vietnam. The fall I graduated from high school my friend, classmate, and fellow altar boy, Ed, was killed in a car crash.

By the time I was eighteen I had experienced more death in my life than many of my friends did by the time they were thirty or forty. In addition I grew up in an Irish Catholic family, so pretty much every Sunday we were reminded that we had better be spiritually prepared for that day when we die. Every year at Ash Wednesday we received ashes on our foreheads with the priest uttering the phrase, “Remember, man, that you are dust, and into dust you shall return.”

As a result I grew up with a quiet acceptance of death. I understood at a very early age that life is fleeting, that at any moment God could pluck someone from your life and take them home. That doesn’t mean I didn’t grieve the loss. Even though I believed they were spiritually in the afterlife, they were no longer in my life and oftentimes that reality hurt a lot. But at the same time I understood that everything is tenuous, that today’s joy could turn into tomorrow’s tragedy. I understood that with everything in life so fragile a person had better appreciate what they have and live life with as much meaning as possible.

Nine years ago when I had a life-threatening heart attack I came to face-to-face with my own mortality and while the awareness was always there, having the reality of it come that close brought it to the forefront in a new way. After that experience I did do some things like the narrator of Tim McGraw’s song. I went skydiving. I flew a helicopter. I did some travelling. More importantly, I took stock of my life, what I had done with it, and what I had yet to do and I shifted some priorities and moved into some new directions as a result.

The thing is, once you accept the idea of mortality, that you and I are here for a limited time, you can do so much more with what time you have. Most of us trudge our way blindly through our lives, simply living for a paycheck to take care of ourselves and our families, but not taking the time to make the important connections, to do the important work of living and loving. Until you realize and acknowledge in a very real way that death is the inevitable end you won’t “live like you were dying.” Because, here’s the catch, once you fully realize that you are dying–that every day you are one step closer to that day nobody can predict or avoid–you can also realize that dying means that you are still living, that you still have that great gift to do with what you will.

One doesn’t have to be an old person or ill with a terminal disease to acknowledge, accept, and rejoice in the idea of death and the beauty of living. Give away your love while you can. For every bit of it you give it comes back to you tenfold and makes the living even better. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Understand that the clock started ticking the moment you were born, but it’s ticking still. There is time left to enjoy, to love, and to assure yourself that when you reach that last breath you can exhale knowing that you lived it as fully as you could and that you left more love behind you than what was there before you.

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