Sunday, November 13, 2011

prompted by Penn State's Criminal Conspiracy

The following essay, Pictures of Boyhood, may be of use to those who are asking the hard questions about the relationship of American sports culture — some would say the American cult of sports — to the sexual abuse of boys. It first appeared in The Literary Review Vol. 45 #4, in 2002, where it received their Charles Angoff Award for Best Essay of the Year. It was later adapted to become a second "afterword" to the New Rivers Press edition of Half the House: A Memoir.

Pictures of Boyhood

Virtue consisted in winning; it consisted in being bigger, stronger, handsomer, richer, more popular, more elegant, more unscrupulous than other people—in dominating them, bullying them, making them suffer pain, making them look foolish, getting the better of them in every way. Life was hierarchical and whatever happened was right. There were the strong, who deserved to win and always did win, and there were the weak who deserved to lose and always did lose, everlastingly.

— George Orwell, Such, Such Were the Joys

I have tried to be done with this.

I am one of five boys in the picture. There is a ballpoint arrow coming down from the sky, from outside the frame of the photo, and it points to me. I don’t remember the names of two of the other four boys. We’re all in baseball uniforms. Although the photograph is black and white, I remember that our caps were black with orange letters — NE for North End — and that the trim on our uniforms was a thin black and orange brocade. I don’t remember this particular day although I know the spot where the photo was taken, just behind the handball courts at Jordan Park in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It is 1960 or 1961.

The coach of the North End team, Tom Feifel, the man who fixed us here, forever 12 or 13 years old, was arrested, convicted, and incarcerated largely as the result of the publication of my memoir, Half the House, published in 1995. He had been arrested twice before for sexually assaulting young boys but had never been sent to jail. This time, with a number of boys and their families determined to testify, and with corroborating phone calls from men in their 40’s, 30’s, 20’s whom he had also victimized as children, he agreed to a plea-bargain of 8 to 15 years in the state penitentiary. He was 68 at the time. It has been determined that he violated upwards of 400 boys during his nearly four decades of coaching.

On June 20, 1997 Dateline NBC aired an eighteen minute segment on Half the House and its impact. The program, shaped by Dateline correspondent John Hockenberry, was several weeks in the making and included lengthy interviews with me, with my father, and with a twelve year old boy named Michael, one of Feifel's most recent victims. The segment was completed nearly a year before it finally aired, a year largely given over to the O. J. Simpson trial.

On the third day following the broadcast, I came home to a message from Detective Gerry Procanyn saying, simply, "I thought you should know that Mr. Feifel died yesterday morning after two days in the hospital." In other words, he had been admitted to the prison hospital the morning after the Dateline broadcast. He was soon transferred to the local hospital, where he died.

I was immediately suspicious. I have worked as a volunteer in prison substance-abuse and violence prevention programs. There isn't much to do in most prisons: lift weights, watch TV, and brutalize child rapists known as "skinners," "short-eyes," and a number of other terms.

I traveled to Pennsylvania to talk with Detective Procanyn who suggested we get together for breakfast. I thought I remembered where the diner was where we agreed to meet, but I left extra time in case I got lost. After all, more than thirty years had passed since I lived in that town. I got there early, of course. I sat in a booth where I could see the parking lot.

Gerry Procanyn was as I remembered him, short and stocky, sporting a trim VanDyke. He was wearing a suit and tie a little out of fashion and cowboy boots. As he approached the diner from his car, he ran a comb through his white hair and patted it on one side.

We ordered our breakfasts and Procanyn wanted to talk about “the TV show,” what he thought was good about it and what he wished they hadn’t left out. “I showed them all the evidence we had, all the stuff we collected from his house,” he said. “I think there’s a real story there. You heard anything else from those guys? Because when they were here a couple of them were talking about a movie. I think this would make a great movie. Nobody said nothing to you about that?”

I shook my head.

“You don’t hear from them at all anymore?”

I shook my head again.

He talked about his passion for restoring antique cars. Our food arrived. He asked about my dad whom he’d met at Feifel’s sentencing. He talked about his girlfriend, said he thought they might come to Boston one day and would it be okay to give me a call. Eventually I was able to ask him if he could find out how Feifel died.

“The death certificate from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania says that the deceased Mr. Feifel suffered heart failure.” He was cutting a piece of ham; as he leaned forward and brought the fork to his mouth, he looked up as if to see if I’d noticed his change of tone.

“You don’t buy it,” I said.

His mouth was full. He shrugged, made a face. “That’s what it says.”

I poked at my homefries. I imagined Feifel watching the broadcast and understanding, really understanding, the nature of his crimes against children. Viewing his entire monstrous career compressed and focused in an eighteen minute account, I told myself, might have been too much for his heart, stripped of the denial that had allowed it to go on beating. I wanted his depravity and his death to be instructive. I wanted to conscript his disfigured spirit to squat eternally, a gothic grotesque shouldering one pillar of a better future. I wanted to believe in a justice not administered by men but by conscience itself. I wanted him dead from the force of unobstructed truth, not a victim of murder.

“Remember that Mr. Feifel has living relatives.” Gerry was holding his tomato juice in front of him as if he was about to make a toast.

“What do you mean?” It took me another moment before I understood what he meant: there was no way the state was going to invite a lawsuit from Feifel’s family.

He drank his juice. “Richard, my friend.” He wiped his lips on a napkin and leaned forward, gripping the table. “One day every person in this diner — you, me, everybody — will die of heart failure. Come on, finish up.” He raised his hand and looked for the waitress. “We’ll go up the station. I want to show you something.”

At the station I saw for the first time the evidence the police had assembled for Feifel's trial. In addition to the pornography you'd expect, and the sex toys, (including a long, clear plastic tube I first thought was a bong, but was really a "penis pump") there were the "adult" comic books I remembered: Popeye and Olive Oyl, Dagwood and Blondie, even Mickey and Minnie Mouse. There were pictures of women with animals, and women penetrated by guns. I was about to turn away, to tell Gerry I'd had enough. What was the point of this anyway? Then he directed my attention to a long narrow box. "Have a look in there," he said. "I'll bet you find that interesting."

The box was filled with index cards. Each card had a picture of a young boy on it (unless the photo had fallen off), name, address, parents' phone, height, weight, and on the back, a coded system of notations about what acts Feifel had committed on each boy — when, where — amounting to, I guess, a card-catalogue of masturbatory memories, or else a kind of trophy case. (Later, trying to tell my brother Joe about it, I said that maybe if Feifel could have had each of us stuffed and mounted, he would have. That was the feeling anyway.)

Thumbing through the cards, which were chronologically ordered, I started to recognize names. I was shaking by the time I came to my card. I wasn't halfway through the box, not even close.

"What do you think?" Procanyn asked me.

I couldn't speak. I squeezed his arm, turned, walked out, and drove back to my father’s house. Think? I have been thinking about that box for nearly five years now. It is the truth about child sexual abuse. In the face of talk about "man-boy love," about "child-abuse hysteria," about "witch-hunts," about "false memories," it is the truth. Inside it, in the darkness, are hundreds of boyhoods; inside it, in the silence, are hundreds of stories.

That is also how I came to have this photograph, printed for me by the police department’s photo lab. The copy has a greenish tint to it that I don’t remember from the original and is much larger. I don’t think I can say why I asked for a copy; that arrow started me to shaking when I first held the small snapshot in my hand. I knew I should have it; simple as that.

Wanting to be done with this story is a kind of denial. To “move on” seems, at least to me, to suggest that an entire chain of events, having come to some resolution, has now become inconsequential, as if the hard fruit of those branching consequences does not arrive over and over in its season. To hold that a return to silence now would not also have consequences is denial as well. In fact, I believe it would be a kind of suicide to so radically refuse the story of my life.

A journal entry from the month after publication of my memoir, well before Feifel’s arrest:

The danger for me, after Half the House, is to retreat in fear and stop remembering, to strike a pose toward the past that calcifies it, as if it has now been successfully packaged, boxed, wrapped, with no further pain nor wisdom for me. The danger is that I have sealed the well, or re-sealed it, put the lid back on it and walked away. It doesn’t matter when you seal the well, or even if you have ever unsealed it; when the well is sealed, you either begin your version of dying — a jerky choreography of compulsions and rationalizations — or you go off looking for someone else’s water to steal.

I have, in fact, moved on; what I have not done is try to move back, to a time before I understood the truth of my boyhood. Slowly and uncertainly, I am moving forward, trying to understand the ways in which my own boyhood is representative of many others’, how it was shaped by ideas and institutions that continue to enforce men’s estrangement first from one another, then from themselves, and finally from women and children. To the extent that “manhood” is a set of anxieties not congruent with the needs and concerns of women and children, to just such an extent is manhood dangerous, even death-dealing.

I learned this from the men in the prison where I ran a weekly substance-abuse group for two years. Working toward release to a half-way house, many of these men were at last ready to face their lives honestly. They had much at stake. Many of them had been violated as boys. They were at the time living in an environment in which the threat of sexual violence was very real. Yet, sitting around a table in a windowless, cinder-block room, they spoke of women in ways that objectified and demeaned them, turned them into prey. Unable to move beyond the wall of gender, unable to empathize, several said that to be sexually victimized would mean that the abuser had robbed them of their manhood; others nodded silently. The idea of "manhood" was so strong that they could not see that sexual violence is the most elemental violation of one's humanity, regardless of one’s gender.

When I first agreed to lead this group, the program was designed as an 8-week course called “Tools of Recovery.” About the sixth week, after a great deal of grief expressed as anger, as blaming, as fantasized violence, one man, thundering and rising from his chair, suddenly became silent, sat, and head in his arms on the table, wept. As if it were a signal of some kind, a permission granted, a brave act that could only be honored by honesty, the men began to talk about boyhood.

With each new group of men, I lengthened the program, until the course ran for twelve weeks. I learned to wait. Usually the tears and the truth arrived together.

The other boys in the photo are my teammates but not my friends. Of the four of them, I remember the names of only the two taller boys. I’ll change them here and call them Kenny and Phil. It would not be improbable for either or both of them to have turned, immediately after this picture was taken, and thrown me to the ground right there on the asphalt parking lot, one or the other crying out, “Cherry belly!” while they sat on me and pulled out my shirtfront and smacked my stomach while I kicked and yelled until it was a mass of red welt. One or the other might finish by spitting down on my face, even saying, “What are you going to do about it?”

I have talked to many men who remember both getting and giving these “cherry bellies” and who seem to have accepted them as a normal feature of boyhood. That these assaults, which happened to me frequently, were a kind of rape is borne out by an incident a couple of years after this photo was taken, in 9th grade, on the bus to an “away” baseball game.

I had been subjected to the usual bullying, I suppose, because I can recall very clearly that my right arm hurt that day, my “pitching arm” I would have called it, though I was by no means one of our main pitchers; in fact, Kenny and Phil were our starters. I can see each of them on the mound. Nobody ever threw more overhand than Phil. His was a bizarre windmill of a delivery, more like a pitching machine than a baseball player. Kenny was what we called a “sidewinder”; he had a wicked fastball that cut across your body from left to right if you were a right-handed batter.

I can recall that painful knot between elbow and shoulder from their once again refreshed mark on me, kept black and blue and sore by knuckle punches there at every opportunity. To soothe the bruise by touching or rubbing it was the signal that would invite a fresh punch there.

Some time into the ride I discovered my glove was missing. Kenny and Phil were sitting two seats behind me, along the back bench of the bus.

“Hey, Hoffman. Where’s your glove?” No way I was going to turn around. There was a lot of laughter. “Should we give him his glove back?”

Kenny’s voice: “Can’t you see I’m not finished with it yet?”

“Me next! Me next!” More laughter.

After a while my glove came flying at me, smacking the side of my face. Something wet, viscous on my cheek. At first I thought they had all spit in it.

Now I see that I was targeted in a different way. After Feifel’s violation I seemed marked in some way that was visible to other boys. I’m reminded of that Far-Side cartoon of the two deer; one has a target of concentric circles on his chest, and the other says, “Bummer of a birthmark, Hal.” Boys do not walk up to other boys who are passive, cringing, and sad and ask what’s the matter. Not the boys in this picture; not the boys, adjacent strangers, with whom I passed my boyhood. I had a target on me.

The boys on the back of the bus knew that the adults riding up in front — our freshman baseball coach and the assistant principal, a priest — would have to disapprove if their behavior came to light. They also knew that their aggression was congruent with a set of manly virtues, martial virtues, really, that they had learned, chief among them the ability to nullify empathy. “How would you like it?” the outraged question asked by a woman — in our case most often a nun — asking us to take some lesson from our transgression, would be missing from the response of the aging warrior who was our high command, sitting up next to the driver, talking to the priest, his boss, and studiously not turning round. In fact, his ignorance was dependable. From time to time, if things got too loud, he would bellow, “Don’t make me have to come back there!” What would he have done had their cruelty and my ignominy been brought inescapably to his attention?

On the day this photo was taken, if Feifel had offered me a ride, I would have hesitated before saying no. I would have had to find another way to avoid Kenny and Phil, some way either to placate or elude them. Maybe this was the day, the day of this picture, when I was dragged to the creek and thrown in so that on my way home I had to make up a story about going deep for a fly ball in right field, running it down so intent on robbing the opposing batter of a home run, that I kept right on going, right over the retaining wall into the creek just as the ball smacked into the pocket of my glove. It seems I already understood how stories push against others’ expectations, desires, needs: what they want to hear; not to mention how they might be made to take the shape of what I want to be true.

I don’t know, can’t know, whether I am imagining or remembering the sting of my own sweat in the corners of my eyes, the invisible cloud of heat when the big round trunk of the car is opened and the musical clinking and clonking of hickory baseball bats as the canvas duffel is thrown in, the fine brown dust in my nostrils as the trunk is closed — whump.

The park where this picture was taken was the closest thing I ever experienced to paradise. These days I go there when I return to Pennsylvania to visit my father. We walk his dog there. I have written about this already, about the creek, about the white roaring rapids above the bridge at 7th street, the trout fanning in pools and eddies. Have I mentioned the benches along the creek, and the weeping willows’ long fronds trailing on the surface of the cloud-capturing water? The red and blue damselflies we called matchsticks? The cool darkness under the bridge, the lacework of trembling light on its walls? The way that the echo there taught me that silence is sound stretched thin by time?

But paradise is a myth made necessary by its loss. Paradise was simply the world, the real one. By the time this photograph was taken, however, I could only enjoy it alone, and after a while I even started to believe that my love for these sensual things was unmanly, that I was wrong to find pleasure in them. Certainly in the shrunken world of boyhood’s approved concerns there was no place for simple delight. Sneers were in ample supply.

All summer you could find Tom sitting in his car, a ‘51 Chevy, in the lot near the swimming pool, not far from where this picture was taken. The radio played — Come on, let’s twist again, like we did last summer — while Tom sat, left arm out the window, aviator sunglasses on, watching. Watching. I think now that down below the angle of our vision he was stroking himself, recalling encounters with some of us, fantasizing — and planning — encounters with others.

The boy in this picture, the boy I was, hands covering his crotch, seems to be asking “Why me?” Psychologists who study the behavior of men like Feifel suggest that the world of such a person is both obsessive and opportunistic. Far from simply stumbling into temptation, those who assault children generally position themselves where they will have continual access to them, and their crimes are the result of a single-minded calculus.

Our uniforms, the finest of any team in town, came complete with those baseball undershirts, white with colored sleeves, and major league style baseball socks with the high thin stirrup of the big leaguers, not those two-tone, low-down little league socks that the other teams wore and that looked like the kind of socks Ty Cobb or Roger Hornsby wore back in ancient times. Tom bought the uniforms, clothed us, with what he earned at his foreman’s job at the nearby shirt mill. He bought our bats, balls, catcher’s equipment. We were his team. We wore our hats with NE on them proudly, unaware that we had been bought, too. Every kid in town saw those uniforms and wanted to play for us. Parents, thankful that “somebody cares enough to do something for these kids” mistook Feifel’s reticence, his lack of eye contact, for modesty, or as embarassment at their expressions of gratitude, and this meant to them that “his heart’s in the right place,” that he wasn’t trying to make a reputation for himself, wasn’t asking for their votes, their business, their money. “He does it for the kids.” In our black and gold spiffy uniforms (“your baseball suit” my mother called it) we flacked for Feifel as surely as the other teams who had the names of banks and beer distributors and bowling alleys stitched across the back of their shirts. The man knew his business, even if nobody else did.

Anna Salter, in her landmark study, Transforming Trauma, p. 67, quotes one predator as saying,

"I guess it’s hard to, it’s really hard to say how you decide what child is appealing to you because, say, if you’ve got a group of 25 kids, you might find nine that are appealing, well, you’re not going to get all nine of them, but just by looking you’ve decided just from the looks what nine you want. Then you start looking at the family backgrounds. You find out all you can about them, and then you find out which ones are the most accessible, and eventually you get it down to the one that you think is the easiest target, and that’s who you do."

There is no question about it. I am, in the photo, hardly there. My posture shrinks from the camera’s attention. I had contracted; somehow I no longer came all the way to my skin. I saw the world as if from deep within a cave. I was like a gangster who will sit only facing the door with his back to the wall. I mean this as a metaphysical position I’d assumed: call it mistrust, call it fear, call it alienation. I am hardly there. I had been emptied, gutted like a fish. I had forgotten myself. I had begun to assemble myself, piecemeal, as I would be thereafter, trying on this man’s scowl, that man’s walk.

As a boy, I loved the story of the child martyr Tarsisius. A Roman boy, he had been entrusted by the persecuted early Christian community to carry the consecrated Eucharist to a catacomb where, among the hidden faithful, the word made flesh would be consumed. On the way there, he was accosted by thugs who demanded to see what he was carrying under his cloak. “Next to his heart,” the nuns said. The bullies beat him savagely but he would not surrender the tiny incarnation of the divine that had been entrusted to him.

I was trying to be good. I was devout in my prayers, obsessive in my observance of the liturgy (gilded pages of exquisite thinness, purple grosgrain ribbon, every single day with its feasts and prayers and colors of the priest’s vestments and place in the seasons of the liturgical year) trying to be the best altar-boy at St. Francis of Assisi school. “What are ya, buckin’ for sainthood?” my father would say, a locution that makes me smile but also opens the doors of history to me, the world of my parents, the scarred consciousness of their generation with its critical mass of trauma survivors, raised in the Great Depression, sent off to the butchery of World War II, ready, on their return, to settle for any rung in the hierarchy except the bottom-most, any drug for the pain, any empty promise about the future.

I remember my ninth grade music teacher, a former bandleader in the Marines. One day when I was especially pleased with having mastered The Merry Widow Waltz on my trombone, he leaned into my face with his teeth gritted and a sneer curling his lip. "You think you're some pretty bird. Oh you’re so smart! Oh you can do it all! You preen all day because you can sing. Because you think you can fly. Well let me tell you. Your song's the same as any other: you sing for your supper. And you aren't flying anywhere. You're right here in the cage. With the rest of us. Get it?"

I learned nothing the year this photograph was taken, not even the things that mattered to me, like how to throw a curveball or how to pop a wheely on my bicycle or the Confiteor and Suscipe in Latin that would qualify me to serve at the altar even though I knew I was unworthy. Nothing would stay in my head. There was nothing wrong with my eyes, but the world was out of focus. I was the kid walking down the street staring into the middle distance, waking when a car-horn warned me to snap out of it. I’m lucky I didn’t get killed.

Worse, I could no longer play baseball. Oh, I could field all right, and throw; but at the plate I “stepped in the bucket,” down the third-base line instead of into the pitch. To some extent I think my debilitating fear was in response to a physical injury, although my constant state of distraction may have been the cause of it. I’d been beaned was the problem. I hadn’t been wearing a helmet and the ball hit me on the left cheek and I went down and then oh man it hurt. It hurt like hell even with an icepack on it. So after that, no matter how many fantasy homers I hit in my backyard, no matter how much excited commentary I supplied for my imaginary triumphs — And the crowd is on its feet! It’s going… going… gone! — I kept “stepping in the bucket,” down the third base line, afraid; "bailing out” we sometimes called it, and I struck out over and over again. I went from the starting line-up to the bench and stayed there. Finally, I quit and joined a rag-tag team without uniforms run by the Police Athletic League

Marty Romig was a cop, although I didn’t know anything about him in that respect. I seem to recall something about his having had a motorcycle accident on a slick road and that’s why he was no longer in uniform. Instead he ran — he was — the Police Athletic League, or PAL.

He spent Saturday mornings gathering us together from all over town, collecting bundles of old newspapers and rags in the process. It was a big, dark blue delivery truck with the PAL insignia on the side, a police badge with PAL inside it, the same badge sewn on the peaks of our caps. This ongoing paper-drive was how the program bought balls and bats and caps. I remember the stamped metal floor of the truck, and how we spent all morning wrestling one another on its waffled surface as the space shrank, filling with bundles of newspapers and magazines.

Marty was no baseball player. I remember him pitching batting practice with no form or grace to speak of, no oomph on the ball, and not much control either. Marty was a bowler. His right forearm looked like Popeye’s. That whole right forearm and hand were so hypertrophied that his left looked withered by comparison.

This was around the time that some kids were starting to throw a roundhouse curve, and it was humiliating when I ducked or stepped away from a ball that curved down and across the plate for a strike. I had had enough jeers. I was primed for self-hatred, and now I turned it on myself. I was a disgrace. I was a coward. I was a phony.

One day Marty asked me to stick around after practice. Just me. I remember I was bringing in second base. That was always the signal for the end of practice, when Marty would call out, "Okay, that's it; bring in the bags!"

He squeezed my shoulder. "Don't go anywhere. We're going to try something, just you and me."

I dropped the dusty base, picked it up, dropped my glove, bent to pick it up and tripped on the canvas strap hanging down from the base. My face was hot and dust was in my eyes.

"I can't, coach. I have to get home." My throat was tight as when I put my fingers down it to make myself throw up so my mother would let me skip school.

The next Saturday, he ended practice just as I was about to embarrass myself again at batting practice. "You stay," he said.

When the other boys had gone, he took me by the elbow, walked me to home plate. “Tell you what,” he said. “Put the bat down a minute.” Then he drew a line with the toe of his shoe. (He didn’t wear baseball spikes, or even sneakers, just plain black oxfords and sagging trousers he stepped on at the heel.) “Now when I throw the ball, I want you to step down this line with your left foot. That’s all. Just step. Ready?”

He backed up only about 6 or 8 feet before he lobbed one past me. Underhand. Then another. And another. At first it was easy. I didn’t look at the ball. I looked down at my foot. After a while I looked at the ball and still managed to step along the line, toward the pitcher, not the third-baseman. Marty backed up a little each time. Every 15 or 20 pitches I gathered up the balls and threw them back to him.

“Okay,” he said. “Pick up your bat. Don’t swing though. Not till I say. Just keep stepping along that line.” The ball went by at nearly a normal speed. I stepped along the line. Again. Again. I wanted to swing so badly I could have screamed. Finally, he gave his permission.

“Crack!” I had forgotten how good it felt to hit the ball. Again, “Crack!”

I might easily have been left, if it were not for Marty, believing that adults all wanted something from me, no matter how they presented themselves, and that whatever I wanted or needed I was going to have to get for myself, without help, and probably at someone else’s expense. I don’t know anything about how he helped other kids though I believe he must have. What I know for sure was that he cared about a frightened eleven year old boy enough to help him overcome one fear that he knew about, and at least one other that he didn’t.

That Fall I showed up for football, of course. It was one thing to quit Tom’s baseball team, quite another to quit his Downtown Youth Center Bears, perennial champs of the 110-lb. league. To lack the “balls” to stick it out on Tom’s football team was a disgrace impossible to live down.

There was a drill most of us were unwilling to admit we dreaded called “bull-in-the-ring.” Twelve or fifteen players would form a tight circle and count off. Then Feifel would call out a number and that boy would jog into the center of the circle. Then he would bark out another number and that boy would charge and try to knock the boy in the center down. As soon as one charge was over, sometimes as the boy was still getting to his feet, Feifel would call out another number and let another “bull” into the ring. The boy in the center would have to whirl and be ready or he would get slammed, blindsided. You were there, in the ring, until Feifel decided you’d had enough. Often, after he’d administered the coup de grace by calling the number of a particularly ferocious favorite positioned directly behind the player struggling to his feet, he would step into the ring and help the boy up, taking off the kid’s helmet, grabbing him behind the neck and pulling him forehead to forehead with him. “Damn good job. Damn good. Ya all right? Good. Get your helmet back on.”

Disgrace loomed over us, always. One flinch or cringe and Feifel was likely to blow the whistle. “You’re done. You don’t wanna play. Turn in your uniform.”

“No, coach, please. Please, coach. Give me another chance!”

“All right then. Show me what you’re made of. Get back in there.”

On only one occasion do I recall a boy who decided for himself that he’d had enough. He staggered away with Feifel yelling after him, “You come back here now or don’t come back at all! You hear me?” The boy kept walking, weaving and wobbly, until he sat down under a tree near the parking lot, took off his helmet, and put his head in his hands, waiting there, an emblem of shame for the rest of us, for his father to come and pick him up. We never saw him again.

By the time I became a high school senior, I had remade myself, or at least constructed a new version of myself that hid the target. Looking back, the process seems no more complex than the ten or twelve panels that made up the cartoon ad for the Charles Atlas chest-expander on the back of nearly every comic book (on the inside back cover were mail order offers for telescopes, sea-monkeys, Chihuahuas, genuine rattlesnake rattles, jumping beans, and ant-farms.) The skinny guy with the rounded shoulders and concave chest is on a towel at the beach with a dazzling young woman in a two-piece bathing suit. The bully comes along and kicks sand in his face and unlike most of the women I have had the luck to know, the object of this poor scarecrow’s affections sneers at him and goes off on the arm of the grinning, armor-plated Neanderthal. Of course you know the story: our antihero buys the Charles Atlas chest-expander and transforms himself in the space of two panels into a radiant beachboy with an adoring young woman on each arm.

Before you decide that deconstructing an ad on the back of a comic book is a silly exercise, know this: I believed it. I believed it as surely as my mother believed a television and screen actor named Ronald Reagan who flacked for the Chesterfields that killed her at the age of 55. I believed it as surely as I believed that our spiritual father, Pius XII, whom we would later learn had betrayed the Jews of Rome to the Nazi ovens, was the benevolent presence of Christ-like gentleness whose countenance graced every classroom I’d ever sat in. I believed it as surely as I believed that I was responsible for every sin and shame, for keeping my own soul pure and innocent, from the age of seven, as I was instructed in accordance with the Baltimore Catechism, 3rd edition, memorized and delivered flawlessly upon examination under threat of being cracked across the knuckles with a wooden stick.

For two years, from 15 to 17, I daily disappeared into the basement where, in what had been the coal-bin, I weight-lifted myself into an armored pose. My barbells were concrete poured into coffee cans, the bar between them a length of pipe. I constructed a system of pulleys to lift other cans of cement. I went at it with religious devotion. I gained forty pounds, all of it muscle.

In the final panels of the comic-strip ad, the young man stands up to the cruel bully and regains his self-respect. Authenticated by a female caricature — “He’s a REAL man!” she squeals — he beams with self-satisfaction. More often than not, however, the story unfolds differently.

Anybody who came out for the high school team for early practice in August and made it through the double workouts, the dozens of laps, the thousands of calisthenics, the blocking and tackling drills, the boot camp presided over by coaches riding the blocking sleds with whistles clenched between their teeth, growling at us that we were weaklings, queers, sissies, made the team. Anybody could wear the uniform of which we were so proud if he were simply tough enough to not quit.

I knew Teddy. He had once played, briefly, for Tom’s football team, the Bears, but after having his lip cut open one day at practice, he quit. The word was that he’d needed stitches and wouldn’t be back for a week or so, but that stretched out until it was clear he wasn’t returning. Teddy was a chubby kid, knock-kneed, nervous; Feifel had always teased him mercilessly for having “titties.”

“Sweat, you lard ass. You got titties like a sow. We’re gonna buy you a brassiere for those titties.”

I believe I was in college or had just graduated when my mother told me, on the telephone, that Teddy had taken his own life. “I don’t know if you knew him. It said in the paper that he was on the football team the same year you were.” I think I must have thought at the time that suicide was simply the final evidence of Teddy’s cowardice or lack of character. I don’t know, but I believe now that that is what I would have thought then. I don’t remember having any feelings about it. Now I believe that he “came out” for football compromised by his having been a “quitter” and trying, as I was, to regain or recapture his self-respect and the respect of others. He was no good at football. He was not at all aggressive. He was soft and sweet. He simply refused, as a point of honor, to quit, no matter how many double-teamed tackles flattened him, no matter how many times he took a deliberate blow from someone’s forearm to his Adam’s-apple that left him gasping and choking, no matter how disdained he was by the older members of the team. No doubt he consoled himself with the myth that he was simply being “hazed” by the upperclassmen on the team and that it was all a part of coming, eventually, to belong. But Teddy never belonged, and I believe now that the day when he found himself on the floor of the shower, pissed on by his team mates, the fuse of his ultimate despair was lit, a fuse that in his case was only a few short years long.

Too simplistic? Please, offer me another explanation. I pissed on that boy. I pissed on him to not be seen, to buy insurance, to not be him.

Could it be that every single one of us in the solitary storm of the shower felt the same need to not be the one victimized, each of us with a fear whose roar could drown out any scruples we might have had? Even Kenny, the cruelest among us? No. He was the instigator, but he was no more cruel than the rest of us. The evil, the ugliness, the cruelty arrived there that day carried by Kenny, our Lieutenant Calley, but we all took part.

Our collusion and our memories of the event, along with any questions about what it meant, or meant about us: about who we were, pretended to be, wanted to be, feared we were, coursed down the single drain in the center of our circular assault where now I remember Teddy sitting, face in his hands, sobbing as we left the showers, all of them, for him to turn off. “Last one out turns off the water!”

Our moral education requires that we feel shame about the things we have done to others, but a child who is made to feel shame constantly has no choice but to inhabit a defiance that refuses shame entirely. In this case the work of learning, of becoming a more sophisticated moral agent, is undermined and replaced with a slavish adherence to rules on the one hand, or a renegade sociopathy on the other, unless the child can find, and take, the difficult path of art with its balance of ritual and experiment, its satisfactions of symmetry (a kind of justice) and improvisation (a renewal of courage).

As a boy, I loved to paint and draw. My first paintings were the paint-by-number kind you could buy at the same hobby shop where I bought model planes, ships, cars to assemble with a tube of Testor’s cement that you opened with a straight pin. All the scenes were exotic: a woman wearing a mantilla, a pagoda viewed through a foreground of cherry blossoms. It required an even more

obsessive obedience than the schematic diagrams of the model aircraft carriers and submarines with their tiny people who had to be painted with a brush like a single eyelash under a magnifying glass held in a vise.

But I wanted to paint the things I had drawn, either from nature or memory, things that conveyed — if not accurately then at least satisfactorily — something I was either looking at or recalling. I might have continued in this vein — drawings and paintings of trout streams and weeping willows and the covered bridge that crossed the Little Lehigh, using the little plastic containers of paints from the paint-by-number kits and throwing away the numerical map, but one day my father brought home for me a bird’s eye maple case of real oil paints. Weber colors they were called. They came in tubes, maybe fifteen of them, and you mixed them to make the color you were after, not a color that had a number and was on a sort of jigsaw puzzle drawing by someone else. It was a miracle in my life. The smell of it, the smell of oil paint, of linseed oil, of turpentine, remains one of the sweetest scents in the world to me. I envy painters the scent of their studios and I don’t understand why anyone would choose to paint in acrylics which only seem to me to be a kind of scentless, denatured oil paint.

Some of these paintings have survived and remain in the attic of my father’s house. Among the landscapes and sports figures are religious paintings derived from the art instruction we received at St. Francis of Assisi School, especially a painting I did around the same time this photograph was taken. As an artifact of my childhood, it is as stunning to me, in its way, as this photograph. The painting is the precise expression of my deepest wish at the time. It is a panoramic landscape: three crosses on a hill, Jerusalem in the distance, soldiers and crowd tiny as the sailors on the model atomic submarine I’d painted the year before. The sky, swirls of gloomy gray, is full of angels — weeping and winged toddlers, really — and the father, the ancient-of-days, a white-bearded wizard, Rex Coelestis, is apoplectic with rage. Yellow bolts of lightning tear the clouds around him where he glares from on high at this atrocity:

How DARE you do this to my son!

I can recall hearing, when I was 12 or 13, that some coach or scout leader was arrested for “contributing to the delinquency and corruption of a minor.” What this meant to me was that the world, if it ever discovered what Tom had done to me — and what he had convinced me we had done together — would see me now as a “juvenile delinquent.” A “JD,” as we called them, was someone who was headed for his just destiny — jail: first juvenile detention, then prison.

I was not about to admit I was such a character. In fact, I told everyone — my parents, my neighbors, the priest, the nuns — that I had a vocation and was going to be a priest. I had been “called.” The nuns taught us that even among the many who wished to give themselves to God, “Many are called but few are chosen.” A little bit, I have to say, like an arrow coming down from the sky and pointing at your head: this one. There’s something about this one.

In any case, I hoped that this assertion on my part would cover the stench of my corruption. The charge suggested that an exploitative adult like Feifel only contributed to a minor’s delinquency, meaning, I supposed, that there was something, some predisposition to delinquency that already existed in the child, something underway to which the adult was merely contributing, in relation to which the adult was merely an accomplice or accessory. In other words, the minor was responsible; the child was wrong; the adult had only abetted him — the crime was the child’s and had less to do with any specific action than it did with a state of being: delinquency and corruption.

In a similar way, I set out to prove that I had not been changed by Feifel. The prevailing view, vile in its impact on innocent men, was that men who preyed upon young boys were attempting to “recruit” them to homosexuality. In fact, if you scratch the word corruption in this context, you will find this hateful misapprehension beneath it.

Feifel was booked on a charge of “sodomy and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.” The sodomy laws have since been struck down, at least in most states, because they are the chief instrument of persecution aimed at gay men. The charge of sodomy equates the rape of a child with gay sexuality, stirs biblical connotations, and cedes categorical ground to homophobes. To my horror, as Feifel was led away after his sentencing, the father of one of his young victims shook his fist and roared, “And we’re going to get the rest of you faggots, too!”

The consequences of such hatred include the continuing risk to all boys of sexual violence. Boys who are routinely using the term “faggot” as a slur by the time they are eight or nine years old cannot be expected to disclose that an adult male is exploiting them sexually, even if they do understand that something is wrong. Homophobia teaches them that the something that is wrong is them.

Those of us who are appalled at the criminalization of consensual adult sexual activity wince when anyone is charged with a crime of “deviance.” So when the serial rape of children is seen as a kind of sexual deviance, a situation exists in which a person who has wielded immensely abusive power over one weaker than himself can somehow be viewed by those of liberal conscience as a kind of underdog persecuted by the state. Most people, fair-minded and tolerant, are paralyzed by this way of configuring the issue. Most people haven’t thought very much about it at all, but when they do, when events demand that they do, they can’t get very far, because these premises, the roots of the discussion, the way the issue is framed, the way the disk is formatted if you will, allows only the most circular “yes, but” thinking and the wringing of hands and helplessness we have seen time and again.

Almost daily the newspapers offer us demoralizing reports of children forced to bear on their bodies, and in their souls, a bitter knowledge that adults, with their state-of-the-art denial systems, refuse. The stories — of convicted coaches, teachers, priests — are brief and buried mid-paper, between the front page pictures of men in dark suits with red ties planning conquest and the millionaires in Sports. To ask such men to turn their attention to the welfare of children feels like asking a tree to uproot itself, a stone to lift itself, a bomb to defuse itself. Still, I have no choice but to wait, though with much less confidence than I felt when counseling prisoners, for men to begin to tell the truth about boyhood.

Looking at this photograph, one might think that these boys in their baseball uniforms, in front of a handball court, with a Chevrolet behind them, are emblematic of that golden age of America, the years of prosperity after the Second World War. Their uniforms are spiffy. It’s summer. Their coach is taking their picture.

They are studying how to choke off empathy. They are getting the hang of hatred. They are dividing the world into victors and victims. They are running a phallic gauntlet. They are dying inside of fear.

They are learning the national pastime.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Penn State Criminal Conspiracy

I have been getting a lot of email from people who want me to, expect me to, write about the recent revelations at Penn State. I cannot. That whole world, that whole milieu, is still very real to me. I have tried to parse it out over and over again: the linkages between hypermasculinity, locker rooms, coaches as models of manhood, misogyny, homophobia, repression, secrecy, loyalty, and obedience. It’s a knot. In the bowels of our culture.

In any hierarchy, especially those with a king on top, obedience and loyalty are primary virtues. Everywhere else they are secondary to honesty, compassion, and justice. Obedience and loyalty are only primary virtues if you’re a dog.

I shouted myself hoarse about this for ten years, at conferences, on commissions, on TV and radio programs, in op-ed pieces. People would rather continue to make minor adjustments and be able to keep the structures of power and money in place, structures that depend guessed it: obedience and loyalty, secrecy and silence.

The best writing I did about this was the two “afterwords” to Half the House. If I could, I would buy a copy myself for every person at Penn State. Hell, the NCAA.

What I can do right now is post a speech I gave to a conference in 1999. Even typing that date is disheartening. When nothing has changed since then, why would I have anything new to say?



TO TELL THE TRUTH Conference 1999,
Rhode Island College, 7 November 1999

Good afternoon. Like many of us here, I am a survivor of sexual violence in childhood. I am also a father, a husband, a teacher, and a writer. When my memoir, Half the House, was published in 1995, it became instrumental in the arrest, conviction, and incarceration of the man who raped me when I was ten, a revered youth sports figure who, it turns out, victimized nearly 500 boys over a forty year period. He died in prison last year.

The whole experience of the arrest, the court proceedings, the media attention, the meaning the book has come to have for others, has been an incredible education for me. Although I haven't used the word since the sixties, I would have to say it "radicalized' me; that is, it made me begin to think about the deep roots of sexual violence against children in our culture. This afternoon I want to try to share some of those thoughts. 

Like many of us here, I have been trying to understand the enormity of this evil for a long time now. I have come to few conclusions except that we have to begin with a different set of terms if we are to avoid the same fear, helplessness, and despair that have incapacitated us so far and continued to place children at risk.

I believe we have been misled by the language we use, by the way we talk about those who would harm our children. We speak of them as “sick”. We use names that accept their denial and distortion. Our words are important. Words are how we think. Too often we become tangled in language that does not reflect reality, but hides it until, over and over, child after child, it is too late.

Let's begin by refusing to use the word "pedophile." The word comes from Greek and means, literally, “one who loves children.” What an Orwellian inversion! To use this word to describe those who violate children, and in many instances kill to silence them, is to help the wolf into his sheepskin.

This term, pedophile, is more than a poor word choice; a clinical—that is, pseudo-medical—term, it asks us to see such evil as arising from disease or illness, evil in its effect, perhaps, but no more intentional than other natural misfortunes such as diabetes or muscular dystrophy. This makes the violation of children a part of the natural order and the perpetrator one who cannot help himself.

In place of the term pedophile, then, let me offer an alternative: pedoscele, from Latin scelus, meaning “evil deed.” Try it. Pedoscele: one who does evil to children.

And let's stop calling them "sex offenders," as if their crimes had anything to do with sex.  If a man assaults me with a baseball bat, it is not about baseball. If I am stabbed through the heart with a bread knife, it is not about "baked goods."(Perhaps Jeffrey Dahmer was a "food offender.") As the poet Linda McCarriston once pointed out, "Saying 'the man had sex with the child' is like saying, 'The man had dinner with the pork chop.'"

The rape of a child is a violent act of contempt, not an expression of sexuality or affection. Pedosceles want us to believe otherwise. This is why they talk of “love” between men and boys. This is why, after Nabokov's Lolita, pubescent girls are called, winkingly, "nymphets." All too often we fall for it. For example, in a newscast about the man who had devastated the childhoods of several generations in my hometown, including mine, a TV commentator said that the defendant had "admitted that he is overly fond of young boys." (The word "pedophile" is there, in the shadows.) At that pre-trial hearing, one boy said the man had threatened to cut off his genitals if he told. Another boy testified that the man threatened to shoot his little brother. Overly fond indeed.

Not long ago a pedoscele named Thomas Hamilton massacred a kindergarten class in Dunblane, Scotland. He had been driven, unwelcome, from one community to another for decades, it seems, but police were not able to find parents unashamed to take a case to court. Instead, he was shooed along, referred to as a "misfit," and became, each time, the next community's problem. The subsequent slaughter, like the murder of Jeffrey Curley in my home town of Cambridge, unmasks the real nature of sexual child abuse. At its core is a hatred of that naivete and vulnerability we call innocence. Men like Thomas Hamilton, or Jesse Timmendequas who killed Megan Kanka, or Salvatore Sicari and Charles Jaynes, the murderers of Jeffrey Curley, cannot stand that quality and must defile it. Failing that, they must kill the child who represents it.

While we’re at it, let's retire the word "molest." Look it up. It means to bother. Excuse me, sir, you're bothering my child.

Even speaking informally we communicate mostly ignorance, discomfort, and confusion. I have heard the word diddle used to describe (and dismiss) the violation of children, as in “He likes to diddle little boys.” It is a word that seems made to order, silly sounding, sniggering, naughty. Diddling, fondling, fooling around—great foggy euphemisms into which real children vanish.

There is language that sheds light, and language that hides reality in fog. Honoring the truth means matching words to things as honestly as we can so the listener or reader sees what we are referring to, not an abstraction that has taken its place. Honoring the truth means not using language to evade responsibility.

Honoring the truth is a political issue, just as it is everywhere else in the world, whether it is in Chile, Cambodia, Guatemala, South Africa, or post-holocaust Europe; in fact it is THE political issue of our time since we live in such a mediadrome that reality can be processed, denatured, distorted, polished, and recycled almost as soon as something has happened. Psychology that uses terms like “the incest family,” “inappropriate touch,” and “the cycle of violence,” plays its part in that snowballing untruth. Psychotherapy that restores victims to the truth of what happened and helps them to regain their power to make change in the world is part of the solution. Psychotherapy that pretends neutrality, that offers palatable euphemisms for what is a great evil, is part of the problem.

I was not "fondled." I was not “loved.” America was neither “discovered,” nor "settled." Guatemalan peasants were not "pacified." Kosovo was not "cleansed."

Orwell had it right about language. It's always first of all about language. That's what it means to "come to terms" with something. Some people use euphemisms to make the intolerable tolerable, others to sow confusion and rationalize their actions. I understand that, for many, calling anything evil in our psychocratic age is blasphemy; nevertheless, when language masks reality, instead of revealing it, then we traffic in delusion and create suffering.

As you can see, I am reluctant to talk about the sexual abuse of children as if it were in each case a private tragedy, a kind of accident.

Much of the time, when we talk about recovering from the trauma of childhood sexual abuse, we talk about healing. The metaphor of healing a wound is only so useful, however - the truth is even simpler and more terrible: the sexual violation of a child is a violation of the child's history, not merely the child's psyche. It is a lie told to the child about his or her worth, a lie that disrupts the story as it had been unfolding and establishes new premises that engender a different narrative or make a coherent individual story not congruent with the master narrative, the story of power over others, nearly impossible. The psyche, with its grief and outrage, is exiled, and there is no spirit left, no power, to withstand the profferred false narrative telling you who you are and what you must become. This is the story of childhood in patriarchal culture. This is the sacrifice of Isaac, complete with his initiation and induction into the bloody warrior's covenant with the god of conquest, a covenant sealed by means of a genital wound (which, compared to what almost happened, and to what happened to that hapless ram, by now looks like a good deal.) This is the story of Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, sacrificed to the gods in return for winds to sail warships to Troy.

In the case of boys, this toxic proto-narrative, inscribed, tattooed as it were, on Isaac’s psyche, seems to be that the whole of the world is an arena in which one strives, and in which there are necessarily winners and losers, and that all the others one encounters there are either adversaries or allies against one's adversaries. This is the uber-ideology of “manhood.”

To the extent that manhood is a set of anxieties that are not aligned with the worries of women and the welfare of children, to just this extent is manhood dangerous and indefensible. When men remember their boyhoods, their childhoods, really, before they became enchanted by the dream of power, they grieve for the time they have lost to delusion, and they begin to work for justice.

This same violent disruption of a child's authentic unfolding story, in the case of girl children, teaches them their unimportance. And offers the delusion of beauty, of becoming once again valuable by transforming themselves into objects, sacrificial objects subordinate to the enterprises of powerful men.

In neither case is the child any longer the protagonist of his or her own story. Both boys and girls are, from then on, in uniform, so to speak; what's more, they are convinced that they are wearing it by choice. "If I feel isolated and alone, I can at least appear to be the same as everyone else.” Perhaps that is the same reason everyone wears a uniform. It certainly explains the terrible loneliness of crowds.

What I'm suggesting is that this induction into a culture of abusive, hierarchical power, a world of winners and losers, victors and victims, is accomplished in large part through sexual violence. It is not necessary that every child experience this violence explicitly and directly for it to be a constant feature of childhood.  We are learning, as disclosures mount, that somewhere between a quarter and a half of all children, girls and boys, are explicitly violated by a trusted adult.

We shall come to see, if we keep our eyes open, that all ways of gendering the sexual abuse of children are wrong; what's more, they are beside the point. I remember a group of men with whom I worked as a volunteer in a prison. Members of a substance-abuse group working toward release to a half-way house, many of these men were at last ready to face their lives honestly. They had much at stake. Many of them had been violated as boys. They were now living in an environment in which the threat of sexual violence was very real. Yet many of them spoke of women in ways that objectified and demeaned them. They were unable to see beyond the wall of gender, unable to empathize. When I asked what it would mean to be sexually violated, several said that it meant that the abuser would have robbed them of their manhood; others nodded silently. The idea of "manhood" was so strong that they could not see that sexual violence is the most elemental violation of one's humanity, regardless of gender.

It may be that a similar blindness hides the reality that children, both boys and girls, are also sexually abused by women. Once again gender stereotypes serve only to bewilder us. And once again, those who refuse the stereotypes, those with the courage to shatter the silence that allows continuing ignorance among people of good will, are those who represent children's best hope.

The abuse of a child is a lesson in power. It defines power for the child: it says that power is making others do your will. This message is congruent with many other lessons we receive from our culture. Real power, however, is what was taken from us, not only by acts of violence and violation, but by lies about the nature of, the meaning of, and the responsibility for those acts, lies about who we are.

Truthtelling is the arduous process through which we recover real power and free ourselves from the tyranny of the past. This liberation, this difficult extrication from lies, shame, and silence, this grief, anger, hope, and truth, has the potential to restore not only the souls of those of us who have suffered abuse and betrayal, but also our common life. The violation of a child, after all, is an offense against the community. It is a crime against the future. Through the cumulative effect of many separate acts of truthtelling, encouraging others to follow suit, we help to regenerate in our communities a respect for truthfulness, for honesty as a primary value. And THAT will make the world a safer place for children.

Some days I see hope in the actions of brave truth tellers who refuse to pipe down in the face of sneers and threats. Other days I feel that asking this culture to fight for the protection of children and against their exploitation is like asking a tree to uproot itself, a stone to lift itself, a bomb to defuse itself.

Society still responds to instances of child sexual abuse as if each were an exception from the way things are, generally; no doubt the vast majority of people find such acts repugnant in the extreme and so believe that their incidence is exaggerated, probably by well-meaning but overly zealous, and terribly damaged people. This position allows one who takes it to feel a mildly patronizing compassion, not unpleasant for being so "reasonable" in the face of potential "hysteria". The sexual abuse of children is, however, not only commonplace, but lodged at the intersection of certain cultural assumptions that, taken together, shield its prevalence from view.

1. sexual abuse of children is rare
2. sexual abuse of children is something only “those people” do
3. sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by a few sick, mentally ill persons
4. if a child is sexually abused by a priest, coach, caregiver, it’s the parents’ fault for not being more vigilant
5. children wish to be sexual with adults
6. most adults are focused on making the world a better place for kids

The necessary myth is that our society exists in order to sustain its members and to create health and abundance for coming generations, beginning with our children and grandchildren. This may indeed have been the function of pre-industrial, agrarian cultures, but it is emphatically not the purpose of our late capitalist consumer society. Ask any primary school teacher how much of their time is spent debriefing their charges, trying to countermand the toxic messages about their self-worth that indoctrinate entry-level consumers.

Now consider the corollary myth: that those who prey upon children are different in kind from the good middle-class souls who work hard to keep the wheels of commerce, religion, and politics turning. This myth insists that predators are out of alignment with society's values regarding children. This myth bodies forth in the form of the wild-eyed deviant in a trenchcoat lurking in the suburban shrubbery. (In the service of this myth, every child abuser who owns a trenchcoat will be photographed in it a thousand times, preferably with playground equipment in the background.)

It was Freud, of course, who helped supply this myth because he gave way to his own quite human need, and that of his colleagues, to make something safely "other" of what he rightly saw as vile and criminal. He decided, under pressure from his colleagues, that of course the good burghers of Vienna couldn't be exploiting their daughters and nieces in this unconscionable manner (let alone their sons and nephews.) We have been living with the consequences of that evasion for a century now, and we are accustomed to a conceptual framework, or at least a phraseological one, that cannot allow the truth, that in fact reflexively dismisses it whenever it appears. Unless, of course, it involves a guy in a trenchcoat.

With the North American Man-Boy Love Association marching in the gay Pride parade, crying out, wrongly, "we're gay too, and persecuted for our sexual preference," and, on the other, right wing homophobes busily scapegoating gay men for crimes against children, it becomes difficult to get anyone to see that these violations are first of all crimes of abusive, oppressive, exploitative power, and that they are a human rights issue. Add to that such psychobabble as "the incest family," "the cycle of violence," and statistically inaccurate representations that suggest to the public that those who are violated as children go on to violate children, all that "kiss of the vampire" crap, and you have a paralyzing confusion about who is responsible and what, if anything, can be done.

I believe this is similar to the confusion that reigned in our culture right up to the latter half of the 19th century on the question of slavery. People walked around wringing their hands and saying they were of course against it but what could they do? It was "too complex," "too politicized;" its opponents were "too fanatical." Many debates were held to discuss whether in fact slavery was "evil" or just an unfortunate economic and historical development. Some maintained that blacks were better off than they would have been in Africa. Others, saying they shared the same goals, but saw no reason to call good Christian gentlemen of the south "evil," created "African Colonization societies" that did nothing to interrupt the slave trade, but bought up slaves, mostly the sick and elderly, and resettled them in places like Liberia.

Those who argued on behalf of slaveholders contended that the Greeks had slaves. They argued that not all slaveholders treated their slaves violently. They argued that some slaves were thankful to their masters for educating them. They argued that truly sadistic masters were a tiny minority. I have heard every one of these arguments applied to the latter day “peculiar institution” of child sexual exploitation.

It took William Lloyd Garrison to say, unequivocally, that slavery was evil, and that while a man held slaves, there was nothing that could be placed in the other pan of the moral scale that would balance it out. Through his efforts, and in the face of accusations that he was preaching hatred, the entire north finally came round to his position.

Those who violate children are slave-masters, tyrants, especially when the child can make no escape from their sphere of influence. And while a person continues to harm children, there is nothing that can be placed in the other pan of the scale — nothing — that can balance it. It doesn’t matter if you are a winning coach, an inspiring teacher, a great provider for your family, a beloved priest, a pop star, or a poet. And to condemn the actions of tyrants is not hatred, but love.

As for the question of abusers who were themselves victimized — I am not sympathetic to those who have violated children even though they were violated themselves. Please note that I say “even though,” and not because. I know too many decent honorable men whose boyhoods, if we were to adopt this mechanistic theory, would qualify them to be axe-murderers.

Neither do I condemn anyone who is willing to look hard at the consequences of his actions, and make the penitential journey to restored wholeness. One would be a fool to do so; the literature of every land provides stories that attest to the possibility of redemption, and to the fact that even the most horrible torturers can once again find their place in the human community. But no one can make that journey while they are minimizing the horror they have inflicted, and I think it the very worst kind of "help" to offer them the debased and distorted language that allows them to do so.

For what shall they feel remorse? For doing evil? Or for "being inappropriate?” For "fondling" a child? (Most of us like being fondled!) For “offending?”  Last week I was "offended" when a friend gave his Celtics tickets to someone else. When I was ten my coach raped me. I have been bitten by both dogs and fleas, and I know the difference. But then I am not invested in softening the language to accommodate some new pseudo-enlightened view that dispenses with evil as a category to describe the selfish exploitation of the vulnerable.

I suppose that here is the part where I should talk about forgiveness. Over and over again, I am asked if I forgave coach Feifel. The answer is yes — I forgave him for thirty years; that was the word I used: forgiveness. I knew nothing about denial during those years while it was having its corrosive effect on my life. Forgiveness had a nice virtuous ring to it. And during the thirty years that Feifel enjoyed my virtuous amnesty, over three hundred more little boys were raped.

Those of us who were victimized by this ongoing atrocity, this pervasive secret institution in our culture, have only recently found the strength to claim, understand, and come to terms with what was done to us when we were at our most vulnerable. I am not alone when I say that not only do I refuse to be anesthetized any longer by the culture’s prescribed anodynes of booze, drugs, constant entertainment and distraction, but that I also refuse to be "amnesthetized" by bogus versions of forgiveness based on a no-fault ethical system.

If a man burns down my house, I do not owe him anything — certainly not the chance to do it again after I’ve rebuilt, and least of all forgiveness. On the contrary, he owes me. He owes me a house, along with a great deal more for the trauma and devastating interruption of my life his act has caused. He also owes the community for infecting it with fear and mistrust.

I believe that there is a dimly lit, demanding way that, followed, might lead not only to real safety for our children, but the reestablishment and strengthening of a community, a body politic, a nation, torn apart by deep moral divisions in other matters. Surely we all agree, across those divides, that adult sexual exploitation of children is wrong. (By the way, contrary to what some people would like us to believe, there is no nation on this planet where the sexual violation of a child is legally permissible. None.) So why not begin there, where we agree?

If we cannot come together across the barriers of race, class, religion, and politics — including the politics of sexual orientation, abortion, and capital punishment — to search for a way to protect our children from this scourge, then truly all is lost. Then we will have failed as a people no matter what else we may accomplish.

We will have to rethink things, rename things, reconsider positions with which we've become comfortable. We will have to be willing to admit ignorance, feel foolish, relinquish worn pieties. We will have to be fearless.

Which of our children doesn't deserve this? And what are we as a society if our first goal is not to protect our children — not your children or my children, but our children? Who are we if we turn our backs?

According to the Czech writer Ivan Klima, "The dreams of the powerless are either to flee to safety or to gain power." Looking back at my own life, it seems to me that its entire course, until recently, could have been plotted using those two coordinates.

I fled my home town, scene of my shame. I fled the working class background that marked me for sneers and dismissals. I fled the church that further shamed me. I fled the self whom I was taught to see as a loser. I looked for safety in muscular strength, weightlifting myself into an armored pose. I looked for safety in womens' arms. I looked for safety in the bottle's anesthesia.

The alternative dream, of wielding the same kind of power I had suffered under, was abhorrent to me. Stuck, I settled for a life in which time passed, meant little, and accrued to nothing.
Only when I'd understood that there was another kind of power -- not abusive power, not power over other people, but the power to speak the truth -- could I admit that the dream of safety is part of the problem. To feel the kind of safety the first dream promised would require me to betray what I knew just as surely as the second dream, the dream of power, would require me to deny the pain of my boyhood. Both dreams are one and the same: the first says "Now I can never be hurt again"; the second shrugs, "Better you than me." Both are as sterile and solitary as dreams must be.

When you speak the truth, you wake from this terrible delusion. At first there is pain, like the blood returning to a numb limb when we've slept too long, too drunkenly, too deeply. You wake to a world where others are suffering from the onslaughts of abusive power and where shame still drives the deadly machinery of disempowerment and disintegration. But it is also a world where, once you commit yourself to the struggle for wholeness, recovery, and justice, there is joy, solidarity, and strength.

More and more of us are coming forward, and coming together, not because anyone would want to claim such a history, but because with each new voice the need for continuing denial is diminished. What's surprising is that when the silence is broken the sound we hear is only briefly the sound of pain; soon after there is laughter, which any comic will tell you depends on knowing the truth and seeing the incongruous. And soon after that there is joy. The whole process is like drawing water from a pump: the terrible rumbling and gurgling sounds, the clay-colored, rusty sputter, and finally the water, cold, clear, life-giving: the honest, revitalizing truth drawn up from deep in the willing earth.

This gathering — and others like it — represents the stirring of a sleeping giant, the authentic spirit bequeathed us by our forebears but anesthetized by childhood violence, betrayal, and despair. May it be for each one of us more than a stirring, but an awakening.

I'd like to end with a poem of mine called MESSENGERS since I believe that's who we are, all of us here, bearing witness to the truth. It begins with a quotation from the tragic poet Aeschylus, from his play Agamemnon, written in about 450 B.C.E. —


"The house itself, if it had a voice,
would speak out clearly. As for me,
I speak to those who understand;
if they fail, memories are nothing."

Aeschylus: Agamemnon

We say what we know because we must.
You can cheer us or run us out of town.
It's nothing at first, like rain on dust,

a hairline crack in the faultline's crust,
a tentative first-person plural pronoun.
We say what we know because we must

recall, recount, redeem, and readjust
all that we've known, not for renown.
It's nothing at first, like rain on dust,

or the first few tiny flecks of rust
on barrels buried underground.
We say what we know because we must

talk back to histories we do not trust,
relearn our own, and set them down.
It's nothing at first, like rain on dust.

What does it mean to fear what's just?
You can cheer us or run us out of town.
We say what we know because we must.
It's nothing at first, like rain on dust.