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
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
that you shared equally in the act.
Know that it was your body reacting naturally–
not your heart, your mind, your soul.
I know it was not something you wanted.
You know it was not something you wanted.
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.
And good night, and thanks again. Much love and peace to all of you.