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.

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After the blood red moon

After the blood red moon had passed
left to find the horizon,
find your place among the stars,
your life
like a long lone sliver of light
falling into the darkness of the sky.

I wish–
though I know that wishes are meaningless,
like falling stars fading into nothingness–
I wish that you could know
how beautiful you were,
how much you meant to so many people.
I wish that you could know
I never wanted another hashtag.
I never wanted another queer trans youth of color to go
before your time.
Know that you were loved.
Know that you should be here
changing the world
the way you already were
changing the world.

When the moon comes back into light
I wish, I hope that it shines upon your soul.

Skylar. Photo by Callen Harty.

Skylar. Photo by Callen Harty.

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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:

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Labor Day Visit

Mom. Photo by Callen Harty.

Mom. Photo by Callen Harty.

This Labor Day weekend when I walked into my mother’s bedroom she smiled as if she recognized me. Sometimes her memory is good and other times it is not, and I never know which it will be. I sat down to chat with her and she asked if I knew her kids, referring to the stuffed animals resting on her belly. I said yes as she has had them for quite a while and they keep her company nicely. She looked at one of the stuffed ducks and said to it, “Do you know who this is? This is my brother.”

My heart sunk a little. I knew she wasn’t going to be as good on this visit as she was the last time when she knew my name and my brother’s name, even though she had not seen either of us for a bit. A couple minutes later she let the ducks know that I was her nephew. This time I corrected her and said, “No, I’m your son.”

“You are?” she asked, then she looked at me deeply and said, “I guess you are.” She didn’t seem fully certain.

She went silent and just stared into space for a minute or two, then started looking deeply at her hands. Finally she said, “My hands look like an old lady’s.”

I said, “Well, you are an old lady and your hands are beautiful. You’ve earned them.”

She kept studying her hands and her arm. “There’s not much skin on my arm,” she said. I didn’t have a response to that, so I let it go.

Later as we were talking I mentioned that I live in a suburb of Madison. She asked how long I’ve been living there and I told her I moved to Madison thirty-three years ago. She seemed a little stunned and confused by that and asked, “How old are you?”

I told her I’m fifty-eight, that I have a forty year class reunion coming up this month and all she could say was, “What?” She seemed very confused by it.

“Why, how old did you think I was?”

“Well, you’ll always be a little child to me.”

Indeed I will, and despite the stoic man in me the little child in me is sad when my mother is like this, when I witness her disappear little by little. Despite that, though, I can see in her eyes that she is still there. I think that she also is a little child, and these days she is connected with the person she was when she was a little girl. Old lady or little girl she will always be my mother, and I will always love her, whether she knows me or not.

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On Marriage and Equality

Marchers carry a rainbow flag in Madison, Wisconsin after the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2013. Photo by Callen Harty.

Marchers carry a rainbow flag in Madison, Wisconsin after the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2013. Photo by Callen Harty.

It was the late 1970s and I was struggling with my identity. I knew I was gay but I didn’t know how I could be gay. The Stonewall Rebellion, considered the watershed event of the modern gay rights movement, was not even a decade past. It had only been about five years since homosexuality was removed from the diagnostic manuals as a disease. I knew no one who was gay or lesbian. There were no role models. There were no married couples to look up to as role models. There was no instruction manual. I floundered about searching for information, secretly reading a few paragraphs here and there in books in the public library without checking them out because I didn’t want anyone to know what I was reading. I came across books like Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask which made being gay seem like a horrible disease. I was led to believe that my life was destined to be one of utter loneliness.

I finally came out in the spring of 1979 and was accepted by those who meant the most to me. Shortly after I joined the campus gay group at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, which had been formed around the same time, and became one of its most active members. I also finally found some mentors, particularly my friend Randy who helped me become more confident in myself. I served on the Speakers Bureau and was willing to be out and open because I knew even then that the only way the discrimination against us would ever end would be when all of us were out and everyone else realized they had queer friends, family members, co-workers, and others in their lives. It can be easy to hate a group of people when you know nothing about them, fear them, and don’t understand them. It can be difficult to hate a group when one of their members is someone you know and love and their behavior doesn’t match the stories you have been told and the image you have developed about the group.

When I went into classrooms to talk it struck me as odd that the thing that seemed to disturb the students the most was not the idea of gay sex, but the idea of gay love. They could understand sexual experimentation and sexual relations–though they didn’t understand the preference part of that–but they could not wrap their heads around the idea of two men or two women loving each other. They often asked what we most wanted and when I inevitably answered “to find someone I can love, with whom I can spend the rest of my life” there would be looks of utter confusion.

I never answered that I wanted to get married because that concept was not even a possibility, not even a thought, in 1979, at least not in the world in which I lived. It didn’t occur to me that any gay person would ever be able to do that. At best, I hoped to find someone to love and to be able to live in happiness and peace with them. We were fighting to decriminalize sexual relations, to end discrimination, to get society to understand that we were not “less than” but “equal to”. If someone had asked about same-sex marriage I would not have known how to answer because it was so far removed from reality.

I did eventually find that someone to love and live with in happiness and peace and even without the blessing of marriage we have lasted longer than most married couples. As time went by the concept of same-sex marriage was introduced but seemed all along like a far distant dream, a wish unfulfilled. When the people in my home state started to debate the issue and I saw the absolute hatred unleashed from my own fellow citizens I knew that it would be many, many years if it ever happened. When Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage I could not believe it. When other states followed suit it blew me away. When it was passed by a legislature I was stunned. Still there were many places where I could not marry Brian, including our state of Wisconsin.

But something magical happened and it wasn’t just queer people fighting for the right to marry. Other citizens saw that the world didn’t end when men married men in Massachusetts and elsewhere. They saw marriage equality come to fruition in other countries. They saw the military become integrated and the world didn’t fall apart then either. They saw the end of the Defense of Marriage Act. They saw the writing on the wall. They saw, most of all, their brothers and daughters, fellow church members, co-workers, dear friends, and others in their lives come out, proclaim themselves proudly, and saw that yes, if those people can be gay then we need to rethink what it means to be gay and we need to reexamine all the things we have been told over the years about the way those gay people are. They concluded that allowing their loved ones to love and commit to the person they cared most deeply about in the world was nothing but fair and just. In a short time public support for same-sex marriage shifted until today when nearly two-thirds of our citizens support it.

So now, today, the Supreme Court of the United States has heard the voices of the electorate, they have listened to the stories of gay and lesbian partners, and they have affirmed that we–that I–have the right to marry my partner of almost 25 years.

I cannot even describe how I feel at this moment. I cannot stop tearing up. Brian and I would be together with or without marriage, but without it we stay together as second class citizens. We remain together as unequal participants in a country where all people are said to be created equal. We would be considered as “less than”.

We are not “less than”. We are “equal to”. We are full citizens in this country. In about a year, when we reach our 25th anniversary as a couple, we will commit to each other in marriage and we will live in happiness and peace as we have for a quarter century already. The difference will be that our union will be blessed not just by us and our loved ones but by the state and country in which we live.

We will also not stop fighting, because we understand that marriage equality for gays and lesbians is just one piece of a larger puzzle. There are still about half of the states where we can be fired simply for being gay. There are reactionary politicians like Wisconsin’s own Scott Walker who will now push for a Constitutional amendment to undo the progress that has been made. There will be a backlash and continued violence against queer people from those who still choose hate over love.

We also understand that we have never just fought for our queer brothers and sisters. Until all people are equal in this land of ours–African-Americans, immigrants, and all who are oppressed in any way–we will use our lives to work toward that utopian vision of all men and women being created and treated equally under the law and in reality. We have much work to do. Today I revel in this one victory, but I understand it is just that–one victory–and there is a long road yet to travel to reach the point where we are all truly equal. That day will come, but only when we all see each other as fully human and treat each other with the respect and dignity that every human being deserves.

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An Open Letter to Madison Mayor Paul Soglin

Madison, Wisconsin mayor Paul Soglin. Photo by Callen Harty.

Madison, Wisconsin mayor Paul Soglin. Photo by Callen Harty.

Dear Mayor Soglin,

Let me start with a simple question: Who are you? What happened to the Paul Soglin I thought I knew?

You just vetoed a unanimously passed amendment that would have added Madison’s homeless population as a protected class in the city in the areas of employment, housing, and public accommodations. According to Channel 27 you stated that more study was needed on the cost to the Department of Civil Rights. You also noted “the impact on existing protected classes by the dilution of the impact on protecting a class where the nature of the classification is not always continuous.”  I call bullshit. Adding a protected class does not diminish any of the other protected classes (and I am in one of those). Please do not pit groups against each other to achieve your ends (whatever they may be). Did you recently veto a similar bill that made atheists a protected class? I would contend that atheism is not always a continuous state either. Just as a homeless person may find a job and housing and come out their circumstances an atheist could convert to any of the world’s religions at any moment. A homeless person being relieved of their circumstances would take them out of the need for protection, but those who stay homeless still need the protection the amendment would have offered.

What is your deal? What is your issue with homeless citizens? A couple years ago you suggested that you’d like to see all of them shipped out of the city. To become someone else’s problem? What kind of resolution is that?

You need to get your humanity back.

A short while back you tried (and it wasn’t  the first time) to have an ordinance passed that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for homeless people to sleep around the City/County Building and also to face possible arrest for loitering in or around the building. A couple days ago you started snapping pictures of the people around the building and then called 911 when one of them took umbrage over it. Why are you so afraid of these people? Seriously. What is your deal? What happened to the liberal Paul Soglin (or the radical Paul Soglin who helped lead anti-war protests back in the Viet Nam days)? Did you spend so long as a financial adviser to wealthy clients that you forgot that there are poor people in the world who need help?

I can tell you this. Fining people who have no money is ridiculous. Passing laws to prevent people with no homes from sleeping in one particular place will not solve the underlying issue that they have no homes! Moving them out of downtown or out of the city does not solve the problem. It only removes them from public view or shifts the problem to another municipality or government entity.

We need to examine the underlying economic issues that lead to homelessness and try to solve those issues. Until that happens we need to treat all of our fellow citizens with compassion and understanding. Perhaps you have never been without a home. Perhaps you have never been unemployed. Perhaps you have never been hungry. Well, bully for you. But there are countless people across this entire country–a country that is filled with enough wealth to feed and house everyone–who have nowhere to rest their heads at night. You are an elected representative and in a representative government you are elected to represent all of the people, not just an elite class that is made uncomfortable by the sight of their fellow citizens using the grounds of the City/County Building as a temporary shelter because they have nowhere else to go.

Where is your compassion? Instead of snapping photos of what you consider “littering” around the City/County Building you need to sit down and talk with the people who are staying there. You need to hear their stories. You need to connect with their–and your–humanity and get off of your crusade against them. Please, look into your heart and see if you can find the young activist who cared about everyone and bring that part of your nature back to this issue. Find the compassion you lost and become as human as your brothers and sisters who sleep outside in the city you say you care so much about.

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The Dennis Hastert Truth in Sentencing Act

Capitol in Fog. Photo by Callen Harty.

Capitol in Fog. Photo by Callen Harty.

From Matthew 23:  Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”

Tonight I am proposing a new truth in sentencing law that is aimed at hypocrites–not the Pharisees of the Bible but our contemporary Pharisees, the religious and political leaders who rail against our modern sins while hiding their own sins from public view. Our modern hypocrites are the people who rail against same-sex marriage because of the sanctity of traditional marriage, yet are divorced multiple times themselves. They are the ones who kill abortion doctors because they believe the doctors are killing babies and killing is just plain wrong. They are the men and women who call for stricter laws on drug usage while doing drugs every day. They are the people like Dennis Hastert, the longest-serving Republican Speaker of the House in history, a man who, according to the Washington Post on June 1, was quoted in 2003 as saying this about child molesters: “But it is equally important to stop those predators before they strike, to put repeat child molesters into jail for the rest of their lives, and to help law enforcement with the tools they need to get the job done.”

My proposal, The Dennis Hastert Truth in Sentencing Act, would automatically sentence wrongdoers to whatever sentence they have declared is appropriate for the sins they were hiding behind their hypocritical facades. So Hastert, who it now appears may have molested as many as three teenage boys while he was a high school teacher and wrestling coach in Illinois, would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole if he were found to be guilty of the crimes. Unfortunately, due to the statute of limitations, he is not likely to face trial for anything but the current federal charges related to his hush money case and any “past mistakes” that he made with high school boys will get a free ride. But if he could be tried and found guilty, that would be the sentence.

He would not be the only one. According to a February 21 Daily Kos article Bill Maher called out Jeb Bush for smoking and dealing pot in college, while later as a politician saying that drug dealers should get mandatory jail sentences and no treatment. Bush would now be an ex-convict running for President. The list of politicians who represent a government actively pursuing a “war on drugs” who have admitted to using illegal drugs could run several pages. Besides Jeb Bush it includes Bill Clinton (who didn’t inhale; yeah, right), Barack Obama, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clarence Thomas, and Jesse Ventura, just to name a few.

In 2002 Jim Bob Duggar stated during his campaign for Senate that incest should be punishable by death. He was quoted as saying that it should be a capital crime. I wonder if he is willing to pull the switch on the electric chair, or perhaps being a good Christian man, would prefer stoning his son to death now that it has been revealed that Josh Duggar molested several of his sisters (and a neighbor).

There are many politicians who virulently oppose LGBT rights but who end up getting caught in compromising situations with members of the same sex. Larry Craig of Idaho opposed same-sex marriage and opposed extending hate crimes to include gay citizens. He also was vocal in his displeasure with Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, saying–and, believe it or not, this is a direct quote–“The American people already know that Bill Clinton is a bad boy – a naughty boy. I’m going to speak out for the citizens of my state, who in the majority think that Bill Clinton is probably even a nasty, bad, naughty boy.”  The quote is from an interview with Meet the Press, January 24, 1999, as quoted by WikiQuotes. Craig was caught trying to pick up men for sex in a public restroom in an airport in Minneapolis, effectively ending his political career by getting caught being a naughty boy. While he may not have proposed legal punishment for LGBT citizens he certainly worked at making lives more difficult.

These hypocrites are revealed on an almost daily basis in this country. I can think of several more religious and political leaders, as well as celebrities, just off the top of my head, who have been caught doing things they should not have been doing. We are all frail. We can all succumb to temptation or do something that we might not want to share with our neighbors. I don’t fault anyone for making a human mistake. What I find objectionable is the hypocrisy–those who loudly profess how others are heathens, immoral, or flawed when they themselves are engaged in the same conduct they so loudly condemn. They deserve their own condemnation and, if they propose a punishment for a crime that they themselves are guilty of, then I believe they should perhaps suffer the very fate that they so publicly endorsed.

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