It’s estimated that one in six boys is sexually abused in childhood. Victims are more likely to suffer PTSD, anxiety disorders, and depression than those who have not been abused, and they’re 80 percent more likely to have problems with drugs and alcohol in adulthood. Exposure to sexual trauma can lead to risk-taking behavior during adolescence such as running away or other delinquent behaviors. Empowering male survivors to put their lives back together is a process that takes time. It begins when silence is broken and takes off when there’s resolution of the past in the interest of the future. Dan Gottlieb and his guests Joel and Nina Hoffmann and Dr. Howard Fradkin share stories of survival — how male victims of sexual abuse are recovering and thriving. Joel and Nina Hoffmann are co-editors of The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse. Psychologist Howard Fradkin is the author of Joining Forces: Empowering Male Survivors to Thrive. He chairs the MaleSurvivor Weekends of Recovery program and is a co-founder of MaleSurvivor.
Photo by Flickr user Mixy Lorenzo
The disease that hurts everyone
Note: The following personal essay by Dan Gottlieb was shared during the 12/10/12 broadcast
He was a respected teacher and father. He was a scout leader, and in 1958 he was the idol of most of the children in middle school. He was relatively young and a powerful man who cared about children and quickly became a father figure for many of us.
He seemed to like me and saw great potential in me. He was the first adult who really believed I had something special. By age 12, I had already experienced difficulty in school because of what turned out to be a learning disability. But back in the 50s, under achieving children were generally regarded as lazy. He saw me as having leadership potential. And because of him, I felt good about myself for the first time in my life. He had a bachelors degree in psychology and always wanted to become a psychologist. When he taught me about the field, I really felt this was something I could do well and help lots of people. At age 12, I knew I would become a psychologist because of that man’s influence.
The following month, he invited me to join a special “leadership club.” I was honored by the invitation so I went to his house after school for our first private meeting. He told me the first rule of leadership was to be able to take orders without questioning them. 30 minutes later I was naked in his bed.
Like most children who are sexually abused, I didn’t feel anything that day, nor did I feel anything for next week when I went back for what was to be my last visit to his home. Nor did I feel anything for the next decade.
When I was in graduate school, I bumped into him in the cafeteria. After all these years, he was finally taking some graduate courses in psychology. I didn’t really feel anything then either. I didn’t wonder if he was still acting on the sickness. I didn’t wonder about all of the other children who were in his “leadership club” being affected by the sickness. I didn’t feel anger or fear, I just felt like a graduate student bumping into an old teacher of his. But as I’ve learned over the years, buried feelings are always buried alive.
Later that semester when I was driving back to campus from my internship at a local rehabilitation hospital, I heard a news flash on the radio that almost caused me to have an accident.
The announcer said that this man, now a principal in a middle school, had been caught with child pornography. And before he could be arrested, he went home and murdered his wife, his children, and killed himself.
Nearly blinded with shock, I pulled over and got out of the car to try to get my bearings and catch my breath. Minutes later, I was bent over with the dry heaves. I don’t remember what happened after that, but I imagine I felt very alone. Most children who experience any kind of abuse feel very alone in the world not knowing how to cope with all of the emotions that surround this kind of violation.
For some reason, we feel the shame that the abuser should rightly feel. But because of our shame, the story goes underground. And for many, that shameful secret begins to inform our personalities. For some, intimacy is too frightening so it gets rejected. For boys, many wonder about their own sexuality and become hypersexual just to prove something to themselves. But like anyone who has experienced any trauma, what we really need is understanding, compassion and safety. Sexual abuse, more often than not, is a betrayal of a relationship that was once trustworthy. And real healing can only take place in the context of a relationship that is again safe, understanding, and trust worthy. But because of the shame, the silence continues until….
Many years later I was teaching family therapy in graduate school and was becoming very anxious after class was over. After examination, I realized I had been sexually abused. Kind of amazing for a professional psychologist not to realize what happened to him when he was 12-years-old. But once I realized, I knew what I had to do. I felt a responsibility to use my experience to help others. And the more I talked about it, the less shame I felt. After all, when anything stays in the dark too long it develops mold which can become toxic. Exposure to sunlight helps kill mold. So I decided to expose my story to sunlight.
I felt comfortable that my experience in seventh grade was understood, worked through, and became an experience I could use to help others.
And then I began to prepare for Monday’s (Voices in the Family, Dec. 10, 2012) radio show and I felt emotions I have not felt before. It’s as though all of the scar tissue was torn away and I saw and felt things for the first time. I felt the anguish of little 12-year-old Danny living with this shame for all those years. I felt the anguish of all of the other children affected by the sickness.
When I thought of his wife and children who were killed because of the disease, I began to cry. This man had a terrible sickness that harmed so many people and killed at least five.
May he and his family rest in peace. And may all of us affected by that sickness live in peace.