Sometimes I Cannot Speak

Me as a child. Photographer unknown.

Me as a child. Photographer unknown.

When I was a young boy and being molested on a regular basis I sometimes fell into an emotional paralysis. I would be physically unable to move and unable to speak. Essentially I couldn’t function in any kind of way at all. It carried into adulthood and during times when I felt threatened, either physically or emotionally, the same thing would happen. My mind would be bombarded by thoughts and I couldn’t figure out what to say or how to say it and I would pretty much be mute, unable to utter a word or even a sound. It has been several years since the last time, but today it happened again.

I recently finished writing a book on my survivor story and I have been struggling with what will happen when I find a publisher. Several years ago I found forgiveness in my heart for the person who did those things to me. The abuse severely impacted my life and led me into hell and back, but the only way I could move past it on my healing journey was to come to a place of forgiveness. That doesn’t mean I think that what he did was okay; just that I was letting it go. I wrote a play that shared those experiences and forgiveness, but I have not been able to talk with him about the abuse and how it affected me. I figured I did not need to do that. I don’t need apologies or explanations. I have arrived at my healing without needing anything from him.

With the book, though, I feel a responsibility. In all fairness, even though I know intellectually that I don’t owe him anything, I feel I owe it to him to let him know that I have written the book, am looking for a publisher, and that in the book he is named. With the play I made the perpetrator a masked character because it was important to the play that the character was a universal everyman, so that audience members could project whomever they needed to upon the character. In the memoir it is essential that I name him and the relationship because I need readers to understand that child molesters are rarely strangers in vans or creepy old men lurking around school grounds. In most cases they are family members or close trusted adults and we need to talk about that and understand that as a society.

Despite the things that happened to me I don’t believe it would be fair to publish the book without giving him some advance warning as it could (and very likely will) affect his life. While I know that what he did affected my life in an extremely negative way I want to believe that I have a better sense of right and wrong than he did all those years ago. I am not doing the book to get even with him. I am doing it to help others. The only way to do that is to be completely honest in the telling of my truth, and I understand that the sharing of my story could hurt him. He lives in a small town, people know us both, and word could travel fast. He could be shunned by the community or worse. My moral code tells me that I must talk to him before it is published.

I have been struggling with this for a long time. How do I bring it up? What words do I use? How can I make it so that he allows me to say what I have to say without interruption? What do I do if he denies it or puts it back on me? We have only talked about the molestation once–about thirty or so years ago–and that time he did not take responsibility but engaged in victim blaming. What if he does that again? What if he threatens me as he did when I was a child? I thought about making sure that he would know that other people have access to the manuscript and that it would get published even if something happened to me. How could I make that clear without letting him know that on some level I was scared that he might do something to me?

Today I had the opportunity to take this step, and I froze again. We were alone and in conversation. We talked about many things and every time I had a notion to say, “I need to talk to  you about something” I could not get it out. My tongue was like a stranger to my mouth and I could not make it work. When I left I almost cried because I was so disappointed in myself. I think I was scared in several ways. I was afraid of where the conversation might go. I was afraid of hearing him deny it all. I was afraid in the deep recesses of my mind that there could be a violent reaction–either physically or emotionally. As I was driving away, even ten or twenty miles down the road, I kept thinking about turning around and going back to get it done but my foot stayed on the gas pedal and I kept moving away from the possibility of that conversation.

Maybe it just wasn’t the right time for it. Maybe I need to be better prepared for many different responses. I don’t know. I know that I will have this conversation at some point, and I know that I need a reservoir of courage to do it. Today wasn’t it. I need to look deeper at why I couldn’t and prepare myself better for the next opportunity.

My book is available here:

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 (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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2 Responses to Sometimes I Cannot Speak

  1. Debbie Zehren says:

    Callen, you are the strongest, most self aware person I know. You have lived through a hell that most of us can’t even imagine. I also know that you are feeling pretty weak right now because you could not tell your abuser about the book. Don’t let it set you back!The fact that you were able to go to where this person lived and talk to him takes tremendous courage and strength. I feel he should know that he will be mentioned in the book and when the time is right you will do it. I can’t begin to tell you how honored that I have you in my life. You and Brian give me strength when I need it most. You are a true gift to us all. Much love!

  2. debikayo says:

    You just weren’t ready my friend. It’ll happen, but you weren’t ready. Give yourself space around those feelings. It wasn’t the right time for you. hugs.

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