WARNING: This post deals with sexual abuse and contains graphic content.
I zigzagged between the cold tile of the kitchen and the living room carpet, headphones in and listening to my Best Songs Ever Written Playlist, absorbed with reading about the Harvey Weinstein scandal on my phone. I was only interrupted once when my foot stuck on my daughter’s latest juice spill.
I only stopped pacing when my right calf cramped and my phone battery died. It was probably only a couple minutes, but it felt like decades.
I was finishing the New York Times Op-Ed by Lupita Nyong’o when something she said struck me, nudging me to share this secret about myself: I am a victim of sexual abuse too. It wasn’t just Lupita’s words, but all of the courageous women and men currently speaking out who have inspired me.
Still, what Lupita said clicked: “I also did not know that there was a world in which anybody would care about my experience with him.”
My first thought was, “Yet another famous, talented, and charismatic woman who feels like horrible actions committed against her by a famous man aren’t worthy of attention?
Her words hit me like a brick. I froze and stared at the wall for a couple minutes before blurting out to my empty house, “What does social status have to do with this, Dustin?” I realized that I might finally be ready to share, but I needed time to process and build up my courage. I went back to reading testimonies online, looking for a better understanding of what and why people were sharing.
I worried that it wasn’t my time to share, because I felt like my story was not technically a part of the same systemic failure women experience in our society, one in which women’s problems are mysteriously separate from human problems. Still, I felt compelled to come forward because there are so few examples of boyhood sexual abuse in print.
People deal with the effects of sexual assault and abuse differently, so the more experiences that are shared, the greater the odds that someone will find something they identify with. Before today, I, like so many others, held my story close to my chest. As I type there are only three people who are aware of what happened to me.
My story begins in 1989, when I was eight-years-old. My family moved from our Section-8 apartment complex in Tulsa to a beautiful, new house that my parents built in safe, suburban Oklahoma. I was an outgoing kid so it didn’t take long for me to make friends in the neighborhood. This, of course led to sleepovers, which were exciting and finally possible with our new house.
Everything started out normally. At first, because of the school year, sleepovers were limited to the weekends. There was one friend in particular that I stayed with a lot. I couldn’t know it then, and would spend years dismissing it in my mind, but the father of this new friend had a profound effect on my life.
I don’t remember much of my childhood — I often wonder if my missing memories are a coping mechanism for dealing with trauma. Still, I will always remember the first time.
It happened in the summer of 1990. I’ve always been a morning person. Even as a kid, I would wake up at 7:00 am with a couple of hours to kill before my friend woke up. He and I were close neighbors and fast friends so when summer rolled around we naturally transitioned to the occasional weeknight sleepover.
On weekdays, however, my friend’s mom was already gone before I woke up.
One day I woke up, thinking that my friend’s parents were gone for the day. Leaving two nine-year-olds alone for the day in suburban Oklahoma didn’t feel dangerous, so I didn’t know to be on guard. Suddenly, everything changed.
The TV was big for 1990, 50+ inches, which in the old box style felt massive to an eight-year-old boy. When I sat down in front of TV, I had this thing where I would sit on my butt and my knees would bend out to sides like a W. That day, I was close enough to the TV screen that my mom would’ve warned me to back up if she’d been there. Maybe I remember those details because I really wish she had been.
I was watching the Dennis The Menace cartoon; I really liked that show because I got compared to him a lot. Like Dennis, I was a hyper, little, blonde boy with a cowlick, though I remember that at the time I had a burr cut. I don’t know why we had recently shaved it, but I remember my friend’s dad rubbing my head with these large hands that showed he had experience as a mechanic.
The squeak of the master bedroom door caused me to jump up, hoping my friend was awake so we could play. Instead, I met his dad in the middle of the hallway that connected the living room to the home’s three bedrooms. I was not sure of his intention at this point, but I remember he was wearing a poorly-fitted pair of tighty-whities.
He said, “It’s too early to be up, you should go to bed,” then he turned his back to me and walked into the bathroom behind him, leaving the door open while he relieved himself.
As a child you’re supposed to do what the adult says, so as he finished I walked towards my friend’s room, which was next to the bathroom.
As my hand reached for the doorknob, his father softly put his hand on my shoulder and gently guided me away from my friend’s door to the master bedroom across the hallway.
I remember hearing that Dennis the Menace was about to return from a commercial. The living room was 30 feet away — did I have the volume up too high?
Upon entering the master suite, I noticed that his parents had a waterbed. I thought that was cool — I had never been on one before. When he removed his hand from my shoulder to close the door behind him, I immediately ran to the bed and belly flopped onto it. He remarked casually, “Careful, it’s not a toy.”
He walked around to the opposite side of the bed as I was riding the wake from my bellyflop. The bed was returning to a calm state when he climbed in on the other side, meaning that I got more waves.
I was laying on my side, facing the wall that had the mirrored dresser he shared with his wife. I don’t really remember how much time passed between me excitedly jumping in his bed and when he started to spoon me, but I know it was not immediate.
His hands felt tough as they ran down the length of my pre-pubescent body. When he touched me, I froze. I didn’t know what was happening, but I knew I did not like it.
I had never been exposed to such a situation and all I remember in that exact moment was that I was frozen. My legs were locked causing sweat to build up between my knees, so when he gently separated my legs I thought he was trying help me. He was not. Though he had large hands, the elastic of my shorts gave him plenty of room.
The only emotion I can recall was confusion. I don’t remember feeling scared or hurt. In that moment, I didn’t cry — it took 20 years for that to happen. Mostly, I was confused.
At first he rubbed all of my body, but then he shifted to where all the focus was on my genitals. He guided my hand to his — but for only for a second or two.
Then suddenly it was over. He removed his bare chest from my arm, which had been pressed into my back, and rolled over. I laid there for an unknown length of time. I am unsure if it was fear or shock which paralyzed me. What felt like hours could have been minutes.
I don’t remember getting out of the bed, but I remember sitting on their couch. I did not go home. The only thing I remember about the rest of that day was a baseball game in the afternoon with some neighborhood kids in an empty lot of our partially finished neighborhood. I don’t recall how I felt later that day, but I do remember the self-scrutiny.
I began questioning myself secretly in my head. By the next day I stopped asking myself questions because I had no answers. At the time, I had no reason to believe it would happen again. Answering the confusing questions didn’t feel so important anymore, Unfortunately for me, this wouldn’t be the last incident in that house.
The abuse stopped when my friend and his family moved out of the neighborhood late in 1991. They didn’t move far away and I remained close to my friend; in fact, we are still close today. I continued to sleep over at his house, just not on weekdays in the summer. I don’t know if it was logistical issues or a conscious choice.
I don’t know why I never told my parents. I don’t remember even considering it. As a parent of two young children, I find myself thinking about that more than anything else. My parents had me as high school seniors, making a few mistakes because they were young, but they were good parents.
Perhaps it was because I was ashamed or embarrassed. Perhaps it was because I’d fibbed about other things before and was scared they wouldn’t believe me.
Maybe I never felt I had the right opportunity. My parents had given up on having a second baby, until we moved and my mom became pregnant with my sister. It was a complicated pregnancy, and my mom began staying home. Our family switched to a single income, which was stressful.
If I’m being honest with myself, though, our home situation wasn’t the reason I stayed quiet. Looking back, I realize that I buried my secret away, whether it was prioritizing my new baby sister, my father’s cancer or my parent’s divorce. I borrowed coping tricks from Saved by the Bell and began seriously playing hockey.
Hockey toughens a person up. I only realized much later that a stick to the side of the face or a blocked shot to the shin can be walked off, but the trauma of sexual abuse cannot.
It wasn’t until I was watching Spotlight with my wife that I remembered what had happened. Sitting down in the movie theater, I expected to identify with the heroes from the Boston Globe, but instead found myself identifying with the victims.
I had denied the abuse for so long that I literally forgot my own story. But watching Mark Ruffalo’s phenomenal performance as Mike Rezendes broke me. (Damn you, Mark Ruffalo!)
“It’s time, Robby! It’s time! They knew and they let happen — to KIDS! Okay? It could’ve been you, it could’ve been me, it could’ve been any of us!”
“It could’ve been me, it could’ve been any of us!” It was me. How could I have forgotten?
There’s no statute of limitations on feelings. I couldn’t stop crying. Something that night caused my brain to break its habit of deflection and distraction.
That first time I discussed the abuse with my wife was the toughest moment of my life. I felt hopelessly embarrassed. Broken. Saying that I was sexually abused for the first time to another person made it real. In my darkest moment I thought, “I will never be my son’s hero.”
I have learned a lot about myself as I’ve rediscovered painful memories and exposed my vulnerability. Primarily, I have learned that coping with my abuse shaped me in many ways into the man I am today. My humor and childish charisma were all developed as tools to keep myself closed off. Though what happened is horrible don’t feel sorry for me, it only discredits a piece of who I am.
I like me.
Surviving and recovering from abuse is an on-going negotiation for me — I am constantly having to remind myself that I do not have to be alone in this. It took me 24 years, therapy, three books, and a very strong wife before I could think to myself: “I am a sexual assault survivor” and not immediately dismiss it.
Hopefully, by saying something I can contribute to the conversation that will began to change the culture that allows such horrific experiences to remain in the dark.
My silence about my own abuse has made me more sensitive about handling possible abuse with my own kids. I remind them often that they can tell their mother or me anything regardless of what we are doing. Some day, I will share a shortened version of my story with them. I no longer want the burden of keeping this secret from anyone.
Today I feel that I can be my son’s hero.