I was ten years old when my family moved into a new neighborhood in our little Midwestern town. That summer, an older boy who lived a couple blocks away befriended me. He wasn’t an international superstar but he had something common with the antagonist in the documentary film, Leaving Neverland, Michael Jackson.
This boy could sense I was lonely and vulnerable. My little brother, Dave, had died five years earlier. I couldn’t understand why he left me. My five-year-old self likely presumed I wasn’t a good enough big brother. It was my fault. But, I did have hope I wouldn’t be alone forever. My mom was pregnant at the time with another little brother, Peter. Sadly, he was born prematurely and didn’t make it.
There was no grief counseling back then. You just sucked it up and pushed it down. Somehow my parents carried on. I honestly don’t know how. But, I do know my dad became angry, intolerant, and emotionally unavailable, leaving me to fend for myself.
So, my new friend sensed an opening. He paid attention to me. He liked me. Then, one night he slept over with me in the fort I had created in the loft of the family garage. That’s when he crossed the line. But unlike the stories of James Safechuck and Wade Robson, I hadn’t been groomed and seduced so patiently and wickedly over an extended period of time. Thus, my immediate reaction was to pull away. This didn’t feel right. I froze. Panic set in. I didn’t know how to get out of this real-life nightmare.
He was amused. I was terrified. But, he reassured me this was “normal.” He insisted I was old enough so he took it upon himself to coach me. Yet, his instruction wasn’t for my benefit. It was for his own pleasure and self-aggrandizement. In short order, he charmed me over the ensuing days and weeks into becoming an almost willing participant. Almost. I craved attention. He craved sexual exploration and chose me to be his guinea pig. He exploited my naivety, loneliness, and desire to please, leaving me enveloped in fear, shame, and guilt.
But, I was convinced I couldn’t tell anyone, for if I dared, I would become an outcast. Nobody would believe me. I’d be called a liar or fag. It would be my fault. I was a skinny little nobody. Thus, if I wanted to survive in this small town, silence was the only option.
A couple of years later I was taken advantage of again. It was worse this time because the entitlement of institutional power was introduced into the equation. I remember every detail of my first encounter with molestation, but my memory of this night was and is spotty. I don’t know exactly what happened on my overnight stay at a Catholic seminary. But, the images I have been able to recall are disturbing. To be honest, I guess I know damn well what happened, but my brain has protected me by repressing the mental imagery.
Again, I was forced into a shroud of silence. Who would believe something this diabolical was perpetrated on a 13-year old at a learning institution of the Catholic Church? Today, yes, but this was the late 60’s. No one would dare make such an accusation, especially with incoherent and incomplete memories. So, I quickly learned to dissociate and disconnect these secrets from my conscious mind. And I became damn good at hiding behind the masks and armor I used to survive.
I also learned to distract myself from my shame and pain with a veritable pupu platter of maladaptive behaviors and coping mechanisms: performance, achievement, shame, perfectionism, co-dependency, hyper-control, workaholism, binge drinking, pornography, nonsensical risk-taking, and victimhood. Whenever harmful feelings would make it past my protective shield, I’d divert them by drinking, doing something risky, or immersing myself in a creative project so I wouldn’t have to feel.
But secrets never disappear. Secrets fester, become bolstered by shame, and infect every part of our emotional and physical being. Secrets erode our resistance and lead us to descend down a path of no return. It happened to James Safechuck and Wade Robson, and it happened to me. I embarked on an untenable journey of self-destruction that culminated with my arrest and public excoriation. I lost my wife, my job, business relationships, financial security, my reputation, my career, and nearly my life. Sadly, my shocking fall from grace is an all too common phenomenon for survivors of childhood trauma
“If we don’t address the abuse it will shadow and darken our future,” says Psychologist Dan Allender. “It is usually a crisis and/or trauma that sets the pilgrim on the path of healing. Trauma awakens trauma… Their lives start a precipitous slide downward. But it takes time to feel the thud of hitting bottom.”[i]
That’s what it took for me to finally break my silence and utter the secrets I had been harboring for more than forty years. It took an all-out cataclysm to get my attention. And, like James and Wade, I didn’t connect the dots. What did childhood trauma have to do with present-day dysfunction? I didn’t get it. Saying the words, telling the story, and speaking the truth, was the first step.
In her book, Broken Open, author Elizabeth Lesser wrote, “To face our shadow — the dragons and hags that we have spent a lifetime running away from — is perhaps the most difficult journey we will ever take. But it is there, in the shadows, that we retrieve our hidden parts, learn our lessons, and give birth to the wise and mature self.”[ii]
To avail ourselves to this “birth,” we must first enter the abyss. Only then can we truly reflect on what has occurred and deconstruct the arc and trajectory of our story. What went wrong? Scientists have determined that childhood trauma can stunt the healthy development of the brain’s frontal lobes, which regulate our judgment, self-control, and emotional management. According to Dr. Gabor Maté, “People with impaired prefrontal cortex function will have poor impulse control and will behave in ways that to others seem uncalled for, childish, or bizarre.” [iii]
Those symptoms are precisely what I experienced, but it took a lot of work for me to make the connection. It seems neither James nor Wade made the connection either. Hence, we remained silent until our eyes were cast open by a sort of epiphany.
My silence was self-imposed. Nobody threatened me, either overtly or covertly. My instincts told me silence was the only way to survive. It was different for James and Wade. Their perpetrator was meticulous in his message. It was an ominous threat of doom. And let’s be candid. Michael Jackson was a cultural phenomenon, an icon. He had privilege and power that most of us can’t even begin to comprehend. Yes, he was dead when James and Wade finally came forward, but they still did so at great peril.
Wade Robson reached the point at which he could no longer keep the secret. It was sucking the life from his soul. He was headed down that same path to oblivion that I traveled. So, he ventured into that foreboding chasm of fear. His brave disclosure gave James Safechuck the courage to at long last break his silence. That’s how it works. You’re ready when you’re ready. Thankfully, we are finally beginning to experience a burgeoning wave of valor. There is strength in numbers and acceptance in community. Courage begets courage.
Author, podcast host, and fellow childhood sexual abuse survivor Lewis Howes revealed his secret in 2014. “When we think we can’t talk about something, we become a prisoner to that thing. We become a prisoner of the unspoken. When we bring it to life, when we speak it to the world so that others can hear it, then we’re not a prisoner to it anymore.” [iv]
That, in essence, is the message of Leaving Neverland. The film isn’t about Michael Jackson. Yes, his name and brand give the film a celebrity-level platform, but without question, the focus of the film is the sad, sordid stories of James Safechuck, Wade Robson, and their families. Fortunately, as insidious and unnerving as the narrative is, it has laid the foundation to craft a happy ending. The men are no longer prisoners of their secrets.
They are true survivors in every sense of the word. They did it. They broke their silence. They took an enormous risk and opened themselves up to ridicule, lawsuits, and even death threats. But, It was the only way they could become free.
The truth is, they still have a long way to go. We all do. James readily admits he will be on a journey of healing the rest of his life. So will Wade. So will I. So will Lewis Howes and every other person that has faced this torment. But if we’ve learned anything it is that we must speak the truth. Silence leads only to the agonizing death of spirit, hope, connection, and eventually life itself.
The impact of what does occur in any form of sexual abuse can be devastating and lead to ongoing emotional, relational, and physical distress. Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk explains this phenomenon in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: “We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on the mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism managed to survive in the present.”[v]
“It takes a long time — years, the rest of our lives — to work through the process and to undo the damage,” adds survivors/authors Cecil Murphy and Gary Roe. “Molestation works like an undetected virus that invaded our souls, went systemic, and infected every part of our psyche… abuse destroys our ability to see ourselves as we are. Everything becomes skewed and produces a ripple effect that spreads through our entire personhood.”[vi]
Watching this film, as a survivor, was difficult. Tears flowed. My heart raced. It forced me back into my own story. But I’m exceedingly grateful I did watch Leaving Neverland. It moved me. I learned new information. I bonded vicariously with two men I’ve never met. Lastly, I worked through a jumble of complex emotions while writing this essay. And, that is the essence of catharsis.
The road to healing and wholeness can be grueling. It’s littered with formidable obstacles that can shake us to our core. Maybe the concept of wholeness itself is an unrealistic goal… a pipe dream. But, I do know it’s worth making the journey for it’s the journey that heals.
[i]Healing the Wounded Heart by Dan Allender, Ph.D. | Baker Books | © 2016 by Dan Allender
[ii]Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser | Villard Books | © 2004 by Elizabeth Lesser
[iii]In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Maté, MD | North Atlantic Books | Copyright 2008 by Gabor Maté
[iv]The School of Greatness podcast by Lewis Howes | © 2019 by Lewis Howes
[v]The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, MD | Penguin Books | © 2014 by Bessel van der Kolk
[vi]Not Yet Healed by Cecil Murphey and Gary Roe | Kregel Publications | © 2013 by Cecil Murphey and Gary Roe