A Gift

Scene from the play "Invisible Boy". Photo by Callen Harty.

Scene from the play “Invisible Boy”. Photo by Callen Harty.

Over the last several years I have spoken to a lot of groups about child sex abuse. Typically I relate my own survivor story and then open it up to questions and answers. I am not clinically trained or a therapist in any way. I am an expert on surviving child sex abuse because I have lived it. I have spoken to groups as small as a handful and as large as hundreds. I do it for a couple reasons–I want other survivors to know they are not alone and I want to educate the general public about abuse and about issues surrounding healing from it.

There is one night that stands out for me in a different kind of way. I was invited to speak to a small group. Normally at some point during the introductory part of a speaking engagement I will give a trigger warning and let people know that parts of the story may be difficult to hear, particularly for those who have been abused. I let them know that if they need to step out of the room it is okay, that I won’t be offended, and most importantly that their self-care is first and foremost. On this day it turned out to be a two-hour session and during it I talked in some detail about my abuse and about the effects that it had on my life: alcohol and drug abuse, promiscuity, self-hatred, suicidal tendencies, and more. The group of half a dozen men and women listened intently, asked really good questions and made insightful comments. A couple of the men in the group ended up talking about their own childhood abuse and bravely shared their stories.

At one point with about a half-hour to go in the session one of the other men got up and stepped out of the room. Throughout most of the evening he had been mostly quiet. He had asked one or two questions but in general seemed to be taking it all in, although I had noticed him looking down at the floor with his head in his hands several times. After about ten minutes one of the other members decided they’d better go check on him and make sure he was okay. They came back shortly and said he was going to be fine. I said something about being sorry if something I said had triggered him, but was told it was all okay.

The session went about another ten minutes. Overall it felt like it had been a very good evening. There were some powerful moments of sharing, questions that brought up some really good things to talk about, encouragement, support, and love. I thanked them for their time and they thanked me for mine. The group stayed in the room to wrap up as I headed out the door.

When I stepped out into the hall the man who had left the room earlier was standing there. I reached my hand out to shake his hand and thanked him for coming. He quietly said, “Can I talk to you for just a moment?” This happens a lot when I do these events. A person will be reticent to share their reaction or their own story in front of a larger group, but will want to reach out to me individually. In those moments I have heard some hard stories, I’ve been thanked and hugged, and sometimes there is more real sharing afterwards than in the rest of the event. I told him I’d be happy to talk with him.

He very gently said, “I want to thank you for coming here tonight and sharing your story. As an abuser I don’t get to hear that side of it and I needed to hear it.” He then paused for a moment and said, “I’m sorry from all of us.”

I was incredibly moved at that moment. I looked at him and said, “That was a really brave thing for you to do, to open up to me about that. I really appreciate it and I thank you for trusting me with it.” I could see in his eyes that he felt as if he had wounded me personally and that there was deep remorse for whomever it was that he had abused. I understood that I was a surrogate for that person in that moment. I asked if I could give him a hug and we embraced–a deep, meaningful hug that was filled with pain, shame, forgiveness, compassion, and an elemental human connection.

I had never had this kind of thing happen before. Oddly enough during the session I had been asked the question by one of the other group members whether any abuser had ever talked to me after one of my speaking engagements and I said no, that had never happened. They asked what I would do if an abuser talked to me and asked for help. I answered that having done this for several years I had a lot of contacts and that I would put them into contact with someone who could help them. I said I would do whatever I could to make sure they got whatever help they needed.

Also during the meeting I had talked at one point about how perpetrators are thought of as monsters and there is a myth about stranger danger when in fact most abuse is perpetrated by someone close to the victim. I had looked around the room and pointed at each of the people and said an abuser doesn’t look like a monster, he looks like you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and me. In retrospect I’m sure that was difficult for him to take in at that moment.

The other thing I tend to talk about is forgiveness. While not all survivors can or want to get to a place of forgiveness it is something that was important for me in my healing. I thought about how it seemed as if the universe had put everything into place in order for this man to be able to move a step forward in his own process.

I stepped back from the hug and looked at him and said, “I want to check in with you about this. Is it something you are still dealing with? Are you seeing someone about it?” I wanted to be assured that he wasn’t still perpetrating and that if he was that he would do something to change that right away. He assured me that he was getting help and that it was something in the past and he was doing his best in the world. I told him that was good and thanked him again for sharing before I left.

It was no more than a minute or so of connection, but it had a huge impact on me. I started crying almost as soon as I got out the door. I felt strongly that it was a moment of grace, that it was a gift both for him and for me. I have never gotten an apology from the person who abused me and at this point in my healing journey I no longer need it. It might be nice, but it is not necessary. Still, this man offered that for him and it touched me deeply. I believe I gave him forgiveness in my response, which I’m guessing is what he needed at that moment. My only regret is that I didn’t talk to him a little bit longer. I feel like I should have talked to him about the need to forgive himself. It is critical in order for him to continue his movement forward. I hope that with his therapist he gets there. In the meantime I’m glad I was able to be some small part of his journey.

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 A Gift

  1. cjkup7123 says:

    Incredibly moving. Thank you for sharing your story.

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