Introduction, Empty Playground: A Survivor’s Story

Cover of Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story. Cover photo and design by Callen Harty.

Cover of Empty Playground: A Survivor’s Story. Cover photo and design by Callen Harty.

This is the introduction to my next book, Empty Playground: A Survivor’s Story, scheduled to be released on November 14.

After years of self-examination and self-discovery and after suffering a major heart attack in late 2008 I decided that I needed to share my story publicly. We all have life stories. However, they don’t all necessarily make for stories that others want or need to hear. But I felt that my story needed to be told and as the author of more than twenty plays and a good number of published articles and essays I knew that I could find a way to tell it. I knew that I needed to find a way to tell it.

The result was a play, Invisible Boy, that was produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin late in 2010. The play examined years of childhood sexual abuse and years of its aftereffects. That was my story. Unfortunately it is the story of about one in four girls and one in six boys and probably more because so many people don’t share the stories of their abuse, so it really wasn’t a unique story, except in the details and in the telling. What was unusual was maybe not the story, but my willingness as a man to tell it in such a public way. My hope was to open up a discussion about surviving childhood sex abuse. I understood that not very many men were willing to talk about their own stories and that my voice might help others come to terms with their own abuse or at least start to get much needed help to deal with the abuse and its effects. I wanted to end the silence.

The run of the play was only moderately successful as far as attendance goes, but had a significant impact on those who saw it. Many of the actors and others involved in the production admitted their own sex abuse for the first time in their lives during our rehearsals. One of the women in the play even confronted her abuser for the first time. On Sundays we had talkbacks where audience members could ask questions, comment, or talk. Many, many people opened up and shared their own devastating stories, their hurt, and their healing publicly for the first time in their lives. Other audience members pulled me aside afterwards to tell me their stories or wrote e-mails to thank me for opening up and helping them by being honest with my story. I know that lives were changed because I was willing to talk about what happened to me through a dramatic production. The impact is still rippling. The play is still getting about a view a day online.

Because of my experience with the production of Invisible Boy my life was rededicated in part toward a different direction as I sought other ways to end the silence about male childhood sex abuse (and really, child sex abuse in general). I wrote articles that were published in Our Lives, the Progressive, Wisconsin Gazette, and elsewhere. I created a Facebook page, “Solidarity with Child Abuse Victims/Survivors”, as a clearinghouse for news stories and information about child sex abuse. I was the driving force behind a conference on surviving child sex abuse–Paths to Healing–that is now an annual event in Madison. Finally, I became a speaker on the topic as I did a presentation entitled Healing through Creative Expression, one called Survivor Story, and another entitled Survivor Activism, and also simply appeared before audiences to share my story.

Each one of those things brought me more evidence that child sex abuse in general, and male child sex abuse in particular, are still mostly hidden. As a society we know it exists, but we don’t want to look at it or talk about it. We don’t want to admit that it could happen in our towns or in our own families. It’s easier to pretend that the monster isn’t in the room and blithely go about our lives as if nothing is wrong.

Occasionally a news story such as the Penn State scandal around Jerry Sandusky or the BBC scandal around Jimmy Savile will shock us into reality, but even then the focus tends to be on the celebrities involved and not on the children who were hurt. As soon as the next hot news story comes along the story disappears and we go back to our lives, conveniently forgetting that these are stories that play out every day in every city and town across the country. Every day in every city in this country.

We need to talk. We need to be open about child sex abuse. We need to have community discussions and we need to speak candidly, share ideas, and really examine the issue if we are ever to have a chance of ending the problem.

To that end I decided that I needed to share my story more widely. A couple hundred people saw Invisible Boy in its first incarnation in Madison, more saw it in a student production in San Antonio, and nearly 1,400 people have watched a video of it online. But more people need to know that there are survivors in every group gathered anywhere and that they are mostly silenced and that they mostly accept that silence as the reality and the price of victimhood. I refuse to be silent. I refuse to be a victim. I am a survivor. And I want all victims to become survivors. I also want there to be no more victims.

That is why I decided to write this book, to more widely share my experiences so that others might recognize themselves and might possibly move toward a place of healing. Continuing to share my story also helps me to continue to heal. I hope, too, that those in positions of power might be convinced to use that power to do a better job of passing laws to protect children and get predators off of the streets, off of their computers, and away from possibly harming more children. I dream of a world where children are only harmed by skinning their knees while playing safely in their own back yards or on playgrounds.

Please note that parts of this book may be triggering. If you are a survivor please, first and foremost, take care of yourself. Check in with loved ones, therapists, spiritual guides, mentors, or anyone else who can help you get through the tougher times.

Parts of the book are pretty raw and parts of it are pretty damning not only about the person who abused me but about some of my own behavior. It is all part of the story of the abuse I suffered, my denial, my coming to terms with it, and my own path toward healing. A few of the names and identifying information of certain individuals have been changed for their anonymity and protection, but other than that everything in this book is true to the best of my knowledge and recollection.

It is also important to note that I do not purport to speak for all survivors, or even any other survivors. I can only speak for myself and my experience.

Note: The book was published on November 12, 2015.

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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