Pictures of a Lost Youth


Me at 14. Photographer unknown.

Trigger warning: This post talks about child sex abuse. Please take care of yourself.

My sister has been looking through old photos that my mother had and posting some online for those who are pictured in them. Recently she posted a picture of me in the front yard of our house. Based on the year and the season it appears to be shortly after I turned 14. I shared it also because I don’t have a lot of photos of me in my teen years, but looking at that image has proved to be a bit unsettling. At 14, I was still short and thin, my hair was still red, and I was smiling. As a young person I was always told I had a great smile. It’s impossible to tell if it was a smile for the camera or if I was really happy in that moment. While I have many happy memories from my childhood, I also have some horrible memories that are sometimes brought up by pictures like this.

The photo would have been taken when I was approaching the middle of over seven years of ongoing sexual abuse. I look at that smile and I know that behind it there was lost innocence, sadness, fear, guilt, shame, and probably dozens more emotions that I couldn’t even begin to define. I look at pictures of me when I was around ten years old and I can’t help but think how innocent I was, and how small and vulnerable, and it makes me want to cry. That’s how old I was when it started. I look at my high school graduation picture, which would have been taken when I was still 17, and I think of how much pain was hidden behind that smile. The abuse ended at some point in that seventeenth year, but the aftereffects of it lingered for years, and clearly linger still even though I have gotten so much stronger.

One time as an adult I came across a man from my hometown who tried to seduce me. He told me that years ago, when he looked out the window at me playing in shorts (like the ones I wore in the picture my sister posted), he always wanted to rape me right then and there. He was not the person who abused me. He had never touched me, or even tried, but years later, finding out that he had those thoughts was unnerving. The picture of me at 14 reminds me again of that disgusting revelation, and it’s left me a bit triggered.

Looking at childhood photos and thinking of childhood memories should be a happy pastime and for some it is, but for untold thousands of survivors it can be difficult to revisit their past. For some, the memories are so painful they can’t even be recalled. Unlike those survivors, I remember well. I remember details that it might be best to block out and forget. But I also remember that despite it all the child in those pictures, from ten to seventeen, was a positive, hopeful, idealistic person. He was a boy who lived through those awful moments of abuse, but still appreciated life for the wonder it had to offer, who believed, like Anne Frank, in the essential goodness of people. Somehow, I still do.

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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