Time for solidarity. With the Sandusky trial beginning, the still raw memories of abuse in the Catholic church, and last Sunday a cover story in the New York Times Magazine about predatory faculty in a top East Coast prep school, it's one more time for those of us who experienced sexual exploitation as children to stand together. It has been something, in the past, that our society has chosen to hide, repress or deny, and I'm glad to see it out in the open, where it can no longer be ignored, excused, or glossed over.
Both physical and sexual abuse affect a truly shameful number of children. In my nearly twenty years of work in men's groups and training weekends, I have acquired some sense of the number of men who were victimized in childhood, and who carry the wounds into their adult life. As one of them, I know that it can seem preferable to repress or minimize the memory and allow it to fester rather than to expose it to the light of day. As children, we often feel too embarrassed, too guilty, or find it too risky to reveal these secrets to the more responsible adults in our lives. As we grow older, we say things like "It was not so bad," or "It was my fault," or "But I enjoyed it, really." Or "Others had it much worse," or--as in my own case--"It only happened once." We tell ourselves that it's not worth dredging up what happened long ago, that we're better off finding excuses for our abusers than licking the old wounds.
The problem, of course, is that to repress or minimize the residual effects of such experiences on the psyche is to invite them to show up in other ways in our lives: in addiction, dysfunctional relationships, debilitating mistrust and anger, and mirroring patterns of abuse. I suppose there are some who escape unscarred; and there are certainly many who suffer the consequences far more than I have ever done. I was for many years a minimizer, unable to recognize in myself the symptoms of emotional distress or its repression. I never sought the help of a professional therapist, nor did I think I needed it. It was only after hearing other men share their stories that I began to acknowledge that yes, indeed, the abuse I had experienced at the age of twelve had left its scars, and that I needed to address them.
I am not one to encourage the kind of clinging to old wounds that results in endless victimhood. I have learned not only from my experience in working with other men but also from my meditation practice that, while those wounds may never entirely heal, we need not be the victims that we were at a more defenseless age. Once brought to consciousness and given the kind attention that they need, our wounds can be the most effective of our teachers. If we can learn to observe our former selves with compassion, it becomes a great deal easier to exercise compassion for those who have shared some part of life's often difficult journey with us.
It must take a huge amount of courage for those who were subjected to serial abuse to take the witness stand in public--and in front of their abuser--and to tell their painful stories. I trust that the jury will listen to them rather than the suave denials of the man who had such power over them when they were impressionable and defenseless boys. And I wish that those in the Catholic church who have been so swift to deny, protect and cover up could be brought to public trial in the same way as Sandusky--not in the spirit of revenge, but to purge our culture from its darkest and most shameful secrets.
I have written elsewhere about my own story, and about the problem of forgiveness for the perpetrators of child abuse. I am not empowered to forgive those who have not offended me personally, but there is still an important question to be asked: can I find compassion in my heart not only for the victims of abuse--that's easy--but also for those who exploit children in this way? For those, more broadly, who subject them to neglect and violence? For those--and here I must in all good conscience include myself--who stand by and allow them to die of malnutrition or disease? This is truly a hard one for me. I search my heart in vain. But at least I can wish these worst of people the wisdom and humanity to desist. Does that count as compassion?