My Cousin is a Duck, and I Am Loved

Mom and her fuzzy friends. Photo by Callen Harty.

Mom and her fuzzy friends. Photo by Callen Harty.

Some days when I visit my mother she thinks I’m her brother or someone else. Most of the time she knows who I am, but not always. Going to visit can be saddening or it can bring me joy–I never know which until I’m there and engaged in conversation. Sometimes you can tell she is not quite sure who you are, so she acts as if she recognizes you so as not to give it away that she doesn’t know. It can make it difficult to tell where her mind is at any given moment.

Last night when I stopped in she seemed to realize it was me, but she didn’t call me by name or anything, so I thought maybe she couldn’t remember. I asked how she was doing and she said she hadn’t been well. She is normally not a complainer in any way, so that surprised me. When I asked what was wrong she couldn’t really define it. When I told my brother about it later he mentioned that about a week ago she said to him that she thought maybe she was dying.

Of course she is dying. She has for years now been on a slow, steady decline, but she has also shown incredible strength and resolve each time we thought she was near the end. She received Last Rites almost a year ago and was kicked off of hospice because she had been doing so well after it looked pretty bad there for a while. She is 90 now and has been bedridden for about a year and a half or more.

This weekend’s visit was mostly good. Mom has several stuffed animals as friends and she acts as if they are family. They lay in bed with her and keep her company and brighten her days for her. They can be there when the rest of us can’t. There are two bright yellow ducks with large orange bills and because this is Wisconsin they have a friend that is a Holstein. Today I took a picture of them watching over her and it drew her attention to them. She asked how they were related to me. I said, “I’m not sure. I think they might be cousins.”

“And him?” she asked, pointing at the Holstein next to them. I said I thought it was a friend.

She asked where they live and I said, “Here, with you.”

She wanted to know about the Holstein. She said, “And him?”

I answered that he was staying here with his two duck friends. She asked, “What about his parents? Are they sick?”

I could only say that I didn’t know and then I thought about how sick my parent has been for so long and how her mind has slowly abandoned her. Dementia can be so cruel. We sat there silently for several minutes. She just stared into space as if pondering some deep philosophical question, but eventually whatever thought it was gave way to her eyes closing and her body settling into sleep again. I sat watching her for a while until I moved a bit and accidentally startled her awake.

“What was that?” she asked. I let her know I had moved suddenly and that I was sorry I woke her. She started laughing, embarrassed that she would be so frightened by a little movement. Her laughter can brighten the darkest day.

I stood up and kissed her on the forehead and said, “I need to get back home and I don’t want to keep bothering you when you’re tired.”

She looked me in the eye and said, as seriously as I’ve ever heard her say anything, “My children are never a bother to me.” She took my hand and we held hands for a couple minutes. Her hands are so thin and frail I was afraid of hurting her.

I bent down and kissed her again. “I’m going to go now. I love you.”

She replied something along the lines of, “I love you as deep as love can be.” It took me by such surprise I wasn’t exactly sure how she had phrased it. I looked in her eyes and I knew she knew who I was at that moment.

It didn’t matter if my cousin might be a stuffed yellow duck, or that earlier she had asked if her own mother was still sleeping. It didn’t matter that on another day she thought I was her brother. All that mattered was that moment. I looked deeply into her eyes and said, “That is the best gift I could have gotten today.”

I kissed her again and left, somewhat reluctantly, but also wanting that to be my last memory for the day. I said I love you again and she repeated the same to me. As I turned around one last time at the door she lifted her hand in a weak wave. I never know if my visit might be the last one. If it proves to be this visit was certainly a gift that I will treasure for the rest of my life. If not, I hope the next one is as good.

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On the Josh Duggar Case

Ripples. Photo by Callen Harty.

Ripples. Photo by Callen Harty.

The Josh Duggar case has once again brought the issue of child sex abuse to the forefront of America’s consciousness. It will likely stay there for a couple weeks until the next hot story comes along and then it will be relegated to the back pages where no one will notice any longer. Eventually it will not even be a story any longer and everyone will soon forget it ever happened.

This happens repeatedly with our star-crossed media. A famous person is accused of having sexually abused young boys or girls and there is an immediate frenzy–not because a child was hurt, but because it was someone rich or famous who perpetrated the abuse. The story becomes about the abuser and not about the victims of it. There are rumors, innuendos, denials, and then the famous person is tried and convicted or–as happens more often–the story just goes away (often due to out-of-court settlements or expensive lawyers who know how to work the system; sometimes, as in the case of Duggar, because the statute of limitations has passed or victims are unwilling to speak).

In the silence after the story dies down thousands of nameless children continue to be abused by people who are not rich and famous. Unless a particularly heinous case comes to light we never hear about these. Often the abuse remains a dark secret and the perpetrator is never caught. Lives are shattered, families destroyed, and the earth keeps spinning into new days with no one noticing.

It is easy to notice when R. Kelly, Michael Jackson, Jimmy Savile, Gary Glitter, Roman Polanski, Jerry Sandusky, Will Hayden, Cliff Richard, Stephen Collins and so many others are publicly accused of these crimes. People take notice because of their celebrity–not because a child has been hurt and our natural instincts should be to protect our children.

One in four girls and one in six boys is sexually abused by the time they reach eighteen years old and unless they are abused by someone famous the vast majority of these crimes go unreported or unnoticed. Being abused by someone famous is statistically unlikely, if only for the fact that most of us will never know someone famous. Stranger danger is also unlikely; contrary to popular perception, it really doesn’t happen that often. We only think it does because those are the stories that draw media attention similar to famous people getting caught committing heinous crimes. A story about a brother molesting his sister for ten years or a church deacon molesting several boys is generally not considered newsworthy, unless that brother is well-known or unless the details are so lurid that the media believe it will pique the interest of the average consumer.

In reality, not on reality T.V. shows, most child abusers are members of the family or close trusted people and in most cases the perpetrators get away with it. If the abuse is even discovered many families, if not most, will do their best to hide what happened to protect the family. It may not be that conscious; they may just truly not know what to do. They deal with it–if they do at all–by considering it a private matter and trying to handle it without getting authorities involved.

Unfortunately, the Josh Duggar case is not that unusual. The only thing unusual about it is that it happened in a family that much of America feels they know because of their television show. The specifics of the case are not that different than the kinds of abuse cases that happen every day in cities and towns across this country, in rich families and poor ones. As detestable as the media handling of these stories can be, what stories like Josh Duggar’s do is bring light to a subject that is usually avoided in our society. It allows us to talk about the issue for a brief moment in time before the story fades away. Hopefully, in that brief span, some consciousness will be awakened. Maybe a mother or father who has suspicions about possible abuse in the family will sit down and talk with their children. Perhaps some boy or girl will recognize similar circumstances in the news reports and finally tell someone, “That happened to me.” That, at least, would make all the media hype worth it in the long run.

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A Sun-Filled Garden

A couple of young men hold hands near St. Stephen's Green, Dublin. Photo by Callen Harty.

A couple of young men hold hands near St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin. Photo by Callen Harty.

“Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead.”–Oscar Wilde

Today the island nation of my ancestors made history by becoming the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by a popular vote of the people. Few would have thought that the typically Catholic and conservative country of Ireland would become the first country to do this. Not only did the “yes” vote win, but it was overwhelming–62% to 38%–and it was nationwide.  While the largest margins of victory were in the larger metropolitan areas the “yes” votes finished on top in all areas of the country, large cities to small towns, coastal to inland. There were only a few places where the “no” votes finished ahead, and even in those places it finished barely ahead.

I have always had that pride that those in America with Irish ancestry tend to have. We feel a connection to the ancestral homeland and proclaim ourselves as Irishmen even though we are generations removed. My great-great grandfather and great-great grandmother came here during the potato famine years in the 1840s. Still, we feel a connection to the land and a yearning for it as if it were the home where we grew up. Many of us feel called to visit the old sod. I did so and celebrated my 50th birthday there. We wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, sing Irish songs, and boast with pride that we are Irish. Today, maybe more than ever, I am incredibly proud to have that Irish blood coursing through my veins.

Here in the United States the polls show more and more people believing that lesbian and gay Americans should be allowed to marry. We can do so now in a large majority of the states in this country, but it has been through judicial decisions and legislative action, not by votes of the entire population. Despite the polls showing approval of same-sex marriage at all-time highs I am not sure that I would trust my fellow Americans to vote on the issue.

From all accounts the debate in Ireland was much more civil than we might expect here. There were a few nasty signs and billboards and in the waning weeks the opponents tried to steer the discussion to a plebiscite on the safety of children, as if allowing a loving couple to marry would somehow be dangerous to Ireland’s children. But the people of the Emerald Isle were not fooled by the rhetoric of the right. They were not coerced by their Catholic bishops as they have been in the past. Instead they heard the words of their lesbian and gay compatriots and decided that their fellow citizens should be treated as equals under the eyes of the law. They decided that love is greater than hate and they voted to enshrine that in the country’s Constitution.

Gra anois agus go deo. Erin go bragh.

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On Finding an Agent

Cover of my first book, My Queer Life.  Design and photo by Callen Harty.

Cover of my first book, My Queer Life. Design and photo by Callen Harty.

Writing a book may prove to be much easier than getting one published. Part of the reason for this is that with a book a man might create a deep philosophical treatise or aim to create a great piece of art, yet still remain unpublished. It could even be a great book, but that may not matter, because publishers are not interested in art as much as money. Publishing is a business and whether a book can sell is of far more import than what it has to say.

I don’t know that what I’ve written is a great book or a great work of art. I do know I’ve written a book that is important to me and I believe important to get out into the world. I know that I’ve written it with all the honesty and ability I have. I also know that it could languish for a long time before ever finding a publisher. Or, it might find the right place tomorrow.

To get noticed by publishers these days one pretty much has to have a literary agent to even get a foot in the door. Some of the smaller publishing houses still deal directly with authors but most of the larger ones do not have the time to wade through thousands of submissions and they count on agents to winnow the field for them. Twenty or thirty years ago authors would query publishers and get rejected. Now authors must query agents who then query publishers and the authors face rejections on both fronts. One has to be a bit tough to handle the rejection.

I’ve received six rejections from agents so far and have quite a few more queries out there just waiting to hear one way or the other. Some agents do not bother even writing a form letter to say no if they are not interested. They just leave the author hanging and wondering if they are ever going to hear back. I’ve been doing a lot of research on agents and querying and am okay with the process because I’ve learned enough to know that it is just the way it is. They may get dozens or hundreds of queries in a single week and simply cannot respond to all of them.

I understand that a book about surviving childhood sex abuse is not going to appeal to everyone and that there may be a limited market for it. I knew that even as I was writing it, but I knew I had to tell my story and I knew I had to try to find a traditional publisher for it once it was done. I understand that publishers and agents who want to make money also want to pursue books that have a built-in market. While one in four girls and one in six boys are survivors of sex abuse that doesn’t mean that one out of every four, five, or six people would buy a book about it. In fact many of them may want to read anything but someone else’s experience of their own worst nightmares.

Still, I believe there is an audience for it. I believe that many other survivors would appreciate hearing from a fellow survivor. I think there is also a potential market for professionals in the field, family and friends of survivors, and others. I also know there are scant few books out there from men who have survived that kind of abuse. All I need is an agent who is passionate about the subject and the importance of getting it out there. They also have to love the book. I am confident I will find the right person. The early rejections are simply eliminating the wrong people to represent my work.

Most rejections from agents or publishers are a variation of “This isn’t right for us.” I have seen writers on message boards and websites complain about that “excuse”. I don’t see it as an excuse or a bad thing. If it is not right for them, for whatever reason, then they are not going to do their best to represent you. It doesn’t matter whether it’s because they don’t think it will make money, they don’t deal with the subject, they don’t like your writing, or something else. If it is not right for them they will not be able to convince a publisher it needs to be published.

The last rejection I got came with a nice personal note from the agent who said she applauded me for my “human resilience and the urge to help others.” She then told me that she deals primarily with larger commercial publishers and she believes they are less inclined to do such a book because they don’t believe there is a market for it. She added that she felt that publishers of religious or inspirational books might be the route to go, but that she was not familiar with that part of the book market and would have to pass. To me it was a great rejection. It was personal and gave me encouragement when she didn’t need to do so, it offered suggestions, and it ended with a regret about declining. It wasn’t right for her. Why would I want to sign with her if she didn’t have the tools or connections to approach the publishers who would be best for the book? Why would I want an agent who wasn’t 100% behind the book? She made a decision that was best for both her and me.

I want an agent who is as passionate as me about the project. I want one whose enthusiasm for my work will make a publisher listen and make them want to take a chance on a book that may not sell millions but that is important enough that they want to be a part of it. I know that the publishing universe is unfolding as it should and that things are moving in the right direction. I am passionate, determined, and confident. I know that things will fall into place when and as they should and I know that at some point in the near future my book will be in the hands of those who need it.

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Paths to Healing 2015 press release

Paths to Healing.  Poster design by Steven Montagna.

Paths to Healing. Poster design by Steven Montagna.

For the third consecutive year several Wisconsin organizations have partnered to put together Paths to Healing, a one-day conference on surviving childhood sex abuse that will be held this year from 8:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. at the Goodman Community Center in Madison on Thursday, June 11.

Sponsored by Solidarity with Child Sex Abuse Victims/Survivors, Rape Crisis Center, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault (WCASA), OutReach Inc., Canopy Center, Proud Theater, and UNIDOS the day-long conference will focus on healing and survival, particularly among male survivors, an often underserved population in the sexual assault advocacy community.

Conference organizers are very pleased to present Matt Sandusky as the keynote speaker this year. Sandusky is a motivational speaker, child sex abuse survivor, co-founder of Peaceful Hearts Foundation, and an advocate and activist for the issue of child sex abuse. He is the son of convicted child sex offender Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant coach at Penn State University.

The Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal was one of the most highly publicized sex abuse cases in history. During the trial Matthew Sandusky disclosed that his adopted father, Jerry Sandusky, had sexually abused him between the ages of ten and 16. His disclosure interview to police was leaked by the media and he and his family were placed in the center of the media firestorm. After that traumatic experience he decided to take on the role of advocate for sex abuse survivors.

Matthew Sandusky works to give survivors a voice to raise awareness of an epidemic that is still mostly silent. He also shows survivors there is hope and that healing does happen. By speaking publicly he hopes to bring more awareness to the fact that males are sexually abused and that help is needed. As the co-founder of Peaceful Hearts Foundation, along with his wife, Kim, he works to promote stronger statute of limitation laws, education for children and adults, stronger mandated reporting laws and other legislation, and has created a survivor fund to help alleviate the costs of treatment for child sex abuse survivors.

The conference will open with socializing and networking from 8:00-8:45 a.m. That will be followed by an introduction to the day’s events by Dane County Supervisor Kyle Richmond at 8:45 a. m. Matt Sandusky’s keynote speech will follow and officially kick off the day’s presentations. Throughout the day there will be breakout sessions geared to both professionals and survivors, with a lunch midway through the day. The afternoon will close with a community panel discussion, which Sandusky will also join, on engaging and empowering survivors.

Breakout sessions are split into a community track and a survivor track. Attendees are welcome to choose between tracks.


Latino Survivors, by Veronica Lazos/UNIDOS Against Domestic Violence

Transgender Survivors, by Michael Munson/Forge

Human Trafficking, by Tyler Schueffner/Briarpatch


Coping Skills, by Lucy McLellan and Owen Karcher/Canopy Center

Mindfulness Meditation, by Amanda Hellenbrand/Red Tail Hypnosis

Healthy Boundaries, by Shelby Mitchell/Safe Haven

The conference started in 2013 when survivor Callen Harty decided he wanted to bring the film, Boys and Men Healing, to Madison. He approached Kelly Anderson at the Rape Crisis Center and together they decided to expand that idea into a one-day conference on survival. He then contacted other organizations for sponsorship and support and several decided to partner to put on this important event. Harty, Anderson, Angie Rehling of OutReach, and Peter Fiala and Naomi Takahashi of WCASA comprised the planning group this year.

The sponsoring organizations are non-profit so funding is always needed to ensure expenses are covered. Donations may be mailed to OutReach, Inc., 600 Williamson Street, Suite P-1, Madison, WI 53703. Checks should be made out to OutReach but must be marked for Paths to Healing to ensure the funds go to the right account.

The cost of the conference is $40 in advance or $50 at the door and covers the entire day, including lunch. For more information on the conference please visit the WCASA website ( and click on the events link or visit the Facebook event page, Paths to Healing. Advance registration is through the website or contact WCASA directly. Some scholarships are available.

For additional information or questions contact Peter Fiala at WCASA at (608) 257-1516 or Callen Harty at (608) 469-6686.

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On Mother’s Day, 2015

Mom at 87. Photo by Callen Harty.

Mom at 87. Photo by Callen Harty.

You dressed me in yellow

and it became my favorite



it was

the color of your love

for me.


I sat on your lap

and you held me,

and in those moments

I could believe in God

and Heaven

and eternal happiness

and the simple comfort of love.


I need holding


if you can remember

who I am,

if you can remember

that I am your son,

if you can remember . . .


When I call


seem happy to hear from me.

I tell you that I’m thinking of


and that I love


and you

say that you

love me, too.

I hope that you know

who you are talking to.


I hang up the phone,

tears at the corners of my eyes,

and seek comfort

in the memory

(the fleeting, fading memory)

of the color of your love.

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Forgive the Shooter

The Peace Treaty. Summer of Peace, Milwaukee. Photo by Callen Harty.

The Peace Treaty. Summer of Peace, Milwaukee. Photo by Callen Harty.

On Sunday evening in the small Wisconsin town of Menasha a man apparently distraught over a recent breakup and argument with his former fiancée took two guns with him on his bike and went for a ride. On the middle of the Trestle Trail Bridge over Little Lake Butte Des Morts, which literally translates as “hill of death,” he pulled out two guns and started shooting. By the time it was over four people were dead, including Jonathan Stoffel and his eleven year old daughter Olivia, 31-year old Adam Bentdahl, and the shooter, Sergio Daniel Valencia del Toro, who shot himself in the head. Erin Stoffel, Jonathan’s wife and Olivia’s mother, was shot three times and managed to get two of her other children to safety off of the bridge. She is recovering in the hospital.

When senseless violence like this occurs we often react with deep sorrow at the innocent lives that are shattered for no apparent reason. We also tend to focus on the acts of heroism and selflessness that often accompany such events because we want and need to take something positive out of such a negative moment. Many of the newspapers are calling Erin Stoffel a hero because of the way she saved her two small children, and they are calling her seven-year old son a hero for running to get help, and it appears they are right to do so.

What strikes me about this horrific event is the immediate reaction of those most closely affected by it. Here are three quotes that stand out:

“I don’t know why it happened. I don’t know the motive. I feel sorry for the shooter’s family.”–Jim Campbell, Erin Stoffel’s brother

“Our prayers go out to the other family who lost their father and daughter, and mother who is struggling for life along with the man who took his own life.”–statement from the Adam Bentdahl family

“Forgive the shooter.”–Jonathan Stoffel’s last words

There were other quotes from members of the Stoffels’ church in which it was noted that people were praying for all of the victims, including the shooter and his family.

In a world where many of us, if not most, have a hard time forgiving little slights that we might receive even from those closest to us the magnanimity of the victims’ families is all the more surprising and refreshing. All of the quotes I am reading from the families and friends most affected by this crime are about compassion, love, and forgiveness. For Jonathan Stoffel’s last words to be “Forgive the shooter” is breathtaking.

All too often the first reaction is the Old Testament “eye for an eye.” Too often we think first of retribution, how much we hate the person who could commit such an act. In this case the Stoffels, who are Christian, are living their faith. The Bentdahl family, too–whatever religion they are–speaks of praying for the shooter.

This kind of empathy is not limited to those who are Christian, but I admire those who can be that confident in their faith–whatever it might be–or their belief in our shared human experience, or whatever else it might be that allows them to see the humanity in a person whom others might perceive as evil for his actions. It is an example for all of us.

If these families can try to understand the motivations of the man who killed their loved ones, if they can find forgiveness for such a horrible act, if they can see that he, too, was a living and breathing man with his own life story filled with love and loss, joy and sorrow, then who are we to hold grudges for words that wounded us or actions that hurt us? Might we not look also at the motivations or the life circumstances of those who have hurt us in some way? Might we not look for that shared humanity and leave the petty hostility and negative energy behind us?

It is not an easy path, but the path that bridges one side with the other, even when fraught with fear or danger, is a path worth taking.

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