voices in the family

Male survivors of sexual abuse

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.

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  • Denise

    What an excellent show. My thoughts are with you all and please extend my gratitude to your guests, and you as well, for your courage in telling your story.

  • grateful

    I only caught the last half of your show, but wanted to thank you so much for your honest, provocative, thought-provoking story about such an important topic. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable after such a violation is a huge undertaking but as your guests (and yourself) showed us, it is possible. It is SO important for people to not hold this shame in silence, because it WILL perpetuate if we don’t deal with it! THANK YOU for bringing light to this dark topic, so timely and local with regards to the Sandusky tragedy.

    A question: can you recommend sources for talking points/wording about this issue, like you suggested for the therapist “Have you ever been touched in a way that made you feel uncomfortable?” but in an even less threatening way? For asking a friend or family member if we have concerns? How to address this?

  • http://whyy.org Ruth

    Just an incredible show. Please, I would like to have a copy of Dr. Dan’s essay that he read on the air today. There doesn’t appear to be a link to access the text. I would like to share it with somebody very important to me.

    Thank you so much.

  • chris

    Thank you for having this show and thank you Dan for having the strength to admit your own abuse. My husband was abused as a kid and although he we able to overcome the abuse, it still haunts him. I find it hard to deal with myself. As you said, talking about it and bringing it out in the open as a family has helped us heal these terrible wounds and has helped us to try to protect our own children. Thanks again.

  • Frank

    I’ve been trying to start to write for over an hour. I honestly am not sure if I was abused. A Catholic, Religous, Brother aat a summer camp where I worked took me to dinner on my 16th birthday and we stayed at a motel that night. We sleep in the same bed but I don’t think anything happened.

    I remember the next day seeing him in transparent, red underware sun bathing in the dunes.

    The two of the guys I went to camp with must of said something to our parish priest because he came to me and suggested that I spent time with people my own age.

    I’m 62 now. I have a fantastic wife and grown son. I’m sure I could have been a better husband. I think I did a better job as a father.

    I am amazed at your courage.

  • http://www.liveinjoy.org Edie Weinstein

    I joined the portion of the show when the gentleman was questioning whether he was impacted by sexual interaction with a nun in his childhood. I have been a therapist for 30 years, working with abuse survivors among other folks I have counseled and found myself (right before you responded to him) thinking I would want to ask him how he felt it affected his life, his choices, his beliefs about himself and his relationships. Glad to be on the same page with you. Over the years, I have had many abuse survivors in my life and honor the courage it takes to keep on keepin’ on in the face of the emotional and physical scars it can leave, even if they aren’t overtly aware of them. I also appreciate YOUR courage Dan in sharing that poignant story from your own history. You are (no surprise) a resilient thriver. Blessings on your work in the world.

  • http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com Nina Hoffmann

    Thanks to WHYY and Dr. Dan for talking about this issue. Philadelphia Weekly is still accepting essays from survivors and their loved ones for our site and for a possible Volume II of “The Survivors Project.” Please email me at nhoffmann@philadelphiaweekly.com. We want to tell as many people’s stories as possible.

  • Chris A

    Thank you Dr. Dan, Guests and WHYY. Thank you so much for today’s show and the courage and openness of your guests. The essay at the end of the show from Dr. Dan was one of the most powerful radio commentaries I have ever heard. So brave for you to share. You are offering up so much good and insight from these horrific events. Thank you.

  • http://www.theresiliencycenter.com Elizabeth Venart

    Thank you for your courage in sharing your own story and bringing much compassion and light to this very painful, all-too-common experience in the lives of boys and young men. As a Licensed Professional Counselor, I have been working with male and female survivors of childhood sexual abuse for over twenty years now – offering individual, couples, and group counseling. I have witnessed the devastation – and the heroic overcoming and healing – of hundreds of survivors and continued to be awed by the resiliency of the human spirit to prevail. My colleague Jeff Katowitz, LMFT, and I are currently offering a weekly group for male survivors and encourage anyone interested to contact us to learn more. I can be reached at elizabeth@theresiliencycenter.com or 215-542-5004, and Jeff can be reached at jpkatowitz@verizon.net. Thank you again, Dr. Dan, for this very important program and the support you continually offer so many.

  • http://www.DrDanGottlieb.com Dr. Dan

    am so deeply touched by the response to today’s show. I am so very proud of WHYY and our producer Jennifer Lynn and the rest of our team.
    Nowhere on the radio will you hear such an unflinching look at such an important subject.
    It is an honor to be part of this. And if I’ve learned anything over these last 33 years that I’ve been a quadriplegic, it’s that every one of us has the power to help every one of us feel more connected. All we have to do is open our hearts and face our vulnerability fearlessly.
    Have a good week my friends!

  • http://www.howardfradkin.com Howard Fradkin, Ph.D.

    Thanks to Dan and Jennifer, and to Joel and Nina for an incredibly powerful show today. Thanks especially to the male survivors who found the courage to call too, and the survivors above who have found the courage to also speak their truth. Know there is plenty of support and resources available at our website, http://www.malesurvivor.org

    Grateful above asked about questions you can ask a man to help him talk about possible abuse. Here are some additional questions you can ask.

    Children normally need and seek attention and want affection from others. When people in your life gave you attention by touching your body, was there ever a part of you that felt uncomfortable or ambivalent about them touching you, even if you may have wanted their attention?
    What messages did you hear about sex? About sexual orientation?
    How were you taught?
    Did anyone ever make fun of or comment negatively about your private parts, your body, your genitals? Or commented positively in a way that felt uncomfortable?
    How do you feel about your masculinity? Your sexuality?
    Did anyone ever coerce or force you to do some act you didn’t want to do?
    Did anyone ever tell you they were treating you special or doing you a favor, yet you felt bad or wrong or worried about what you were doing together? Or worried that there could be bad consequences if anyone ever found out?

  • Jennifer Lynn

    I feel so many who stepped forward to share their stories today are more than survivors. They are pioneers who are powerfully emotionally in touch in a culture that has been so unforgiving and confining. Thank you so much for telling your story. I am certain it will inspire others who may only be in the early phases of discovering what happened to them.

  • Andy

    I was raped by an older boy when I was 5 years old, as another older boy held a knife to my face. It became a part of who I was. I deserved nothing but shame. When you realize many years later that you didn’t deserve that, it is way too late to take back what already happened. You can try to fix it, but so much damage has already been done.

  • Barbara

    I appreciate the courage that you and your guests have to speak the truth about these experiences. I know it will encourage many people with similar feelings to get help. Thanks so much for this broadcast.

  • Lawrence

    Dr. Dan, Thank you for your personal revelation. What strikes me as most impressive about your story is that, although the horror of the abuse is stunningly clear, you have not demonized the abuser. Instead, you show extraordinary compassion, giving him credit for your becoming a therapist and expressing genuine concern for a very sick man. No doubt, your ability both to courageously talk about the abuse and to view the abuser as someone other than a demon has helped you as a person and as a very special therapist. You are a model for us all.

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