Dark Secrets

Reflection.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Reflection. Photo by Callen Harty.

About eight months ago I set up a new Facebook page in response to the Penn State child abuse scandal. It was intended as a place to show support with the survivors there and survivors worldwide and as a clearinghouse for articles, information, and resources for survivors and allies. Since it was started more than 200 people have liked it and are following the page.

What I never expected to happen is that someone might find the page while searching for help and contact me to talk with them or help them through some kind of struggle. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me that it might because I have seen it before when I’ve opened up about my own experiences. In 2010 I wrote an autobiographical play about my own survival of my childhood sexual abuse. During the period when the play was in production I had numerous people write e-mails to me, both friends and strangers, and share their own horrible experiences. I did my best to comfort them and at the very least to listen, because so often those stories have never been told before and it is in the utterance and the sharing of stories that victims begin the path to survival. Once a story is told–and believed–a burden is lifted. While there may be many more burdens and many years of recovery none of it can start until the story is first shared and accepted.

About 24 hours ago I was contacted on the Solidarity with Child Abuse Victims/Survivors page with a brief, chilling e-mail that said simply, “I need. Help will you talk to me”. At first I wasn’t sure what to do. I clicked on the person’s name and went to her Facebook page. What I found were pictures of a good-looking young woman from a southern state, pictures of her with a nice-looking young man, and lots of pictures of inspirational quotes and a few testaments about Jesus. I had thoughts that it might be some kind of attempt to get me into a conversation to proselytize or perhaps a prank or something else and I wasn’t sure I could or should respond. But her words, a plaintive cry for help, kept calling to me, and I knew I could not ignore it.

Sometimes the pain and stories of others causes me more pain than anything I’ve experienced in my own life. I tend to take on others’ pain and can be easily triggered by hearing stories about others getting hurt. Still, I am naturally empathetic and can somehow take it on and move through it while unburdening others of the weight of their own pain. It’s a sometimes horrible gift. So I wrote back and made it clear first of all that I am not a therapist or expert in that way, that whatever expertise I may have comes from being a survivor myself, but I asked what she was looking for help with and suggested that I may be able to direct her to some more professional resources.

What I got back was horrific. In one short paragraph she told me that she felt trapped in a cult-like religious family, that her birth father and brother, who are thankfully in another state now, both raped her when she was younger. She’s nineteen now and new to the location where her family moved a year ago. And then she added that she had been raped just two days ago and her mother reacted by yelling at her and saying that it was her fault.

My heart ached for her. It would ache for her over any of the things she shared, let alone all of them together, and the fact that a mother would be the one to blame the victim left me angry for her. I sent the following e-mail back:

“First of all, as a nineteen year old you are a legal adult, so you do not have to stay in that situation. Do you have a boyfriend? Friends? A trusted relative? You need someone near you that you can trust and talk to so that you are not alone. Second, the police should be notified about the things that you have shared with me. If you didn’t report the rape from the other day I believe you should do so. I believe social services or the police should also be notified about the things that happened to you as a child. I would suggest finding a friend, minister, relative–someone you can trust–to share things with first, so that you have a support system already in place.
“Many of us have wanted to hurt ourselves, but I hope that you are only thinking about this and not taking any concrete actions. I lost a friend who hurt himself and I don’t ever want to see that happen to anyone else. Please find a counselor or crisis line you can call to talk you through those feelings.
“Please let me know if you find someone you can talk with and how things move along with this. You will be in my thoughts and I am sending positive energy your way. Take care.

She wrote back to let me know that she had reported it but that her mother is mad at her and she is not sure how to get out of her situation, as she doesn’t really know anyone in the city where she resides. I looked up some resources in that city for her and sent them off in the hopes that she would call someone there who might be able to help her better than I could from hundreds and hundreds of miles away. She is following up with at least one of the numbers and I am hopeful that she is able to get out of the situation and get some therapy and additional help. I’ve asked her to keep me updated, but I don’t know if she will, so all I can do is put out positive energy and hope for the best. Tonight I am going to write her again, just to remind her that none of the things that happened are her fault and that she is a beautiful and valued person.

Part of why I am so haunted by this is the way it happened, that this young woman from a city several states removed, had nowhere to turn but a stranger on a web page, and she is not the only one. Every day there are countless rapes, assaults, incidents of child abuse and so, so many go unreported. So many of them cannot even trust trying to reach out to someone on a web page a thousand miles away. Children and women sleep in shamed silence with dark secrets that no one may ever know. Too often there is no support, or those closest shut out the victim instead of being there for them. Too often the system looks at what the victim was wearing or how they were behaving instead of condemning the perpetrator of a violent and horrible crime. Being a victim of a sex crime can leave a person more alone than almost anything else in the world.

I will go to sleep tonight wondering what is going to happen to this young woman. If I sleep I may dream that we live in a world where this would never happen in the first place, but in the morning I will know that it was only a dream and I will know that I must keep working to help create a world where that dream some day becomes a reality.

The Solidarity with Child Abuse Victims/Survivors page can be visited here: https://www.facebook.com/SolidarityWithChildAbuseVictimsSurvivors

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on Amazon.com (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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1 Response to Dark Secrets

  1. Cindy Crane says:

    Thanks for sharing, Callen! I didn’t realize the extent to which you were making these kinds of significant connections. Someone once told me about being part of a cult growing up, and that it involved sex (sexual abuse) rituals with children. Truth be told, it was hard for me to believe something so horrific happened/happens. I know that’s not exactly what you referred to; you said the woman with whom you connected was part of a cult-like religious family, but I thought about the woman I met and her story about being part of an actual organized cult when reading your blog. It can be challenging to wrap our heads around how being successful in some relationships means getting the hell away from them completely when they include sociopaths and their enablers, but it’s true. This Holy Week thinking of your work I’ll pray for people of all ages in abusive relationships to find a way out.

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