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The Dark Side of Boys

Shedding light on boyhood sexual abuse.

By Tarah Knaresboro

Director Steve Rosen had no desire to make a film about childhood sexual abuse. He and co-director Terri DeBono have made many documentaries, but their usual topics have clear solutions and hopeful endings. Male sexual abuse, on the other hand, felt pretty bleak. Their film Boyhood Shadows was recently released in DVD.

It all started with a 30-second public service announcement about adult support for male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Once they signed up to produce the PSA, the floodgates opened. The therapist who funded the PSA felt a longer film needed to be made, and convinced Rosen and DeBono to take on the project.

The directors' own experience with the film mirrors that of the viewer. "We were as ignorant as everyone else is," says Rosen. If you'd asked him to guess how many boys are sexually abused, he would have said about one in a thousand. He soon discovered the statistics to be one abused child out of six (for girls the estimate is one in three).

Not trained as psychologists to compartmentalize the emotional demands of the job and distance themselves from their troubled subjects, they empathized deeply, and the work was consequently rough going. As they got to know the film's subjects and listened to their broken life stories, they internalized the suffering so much that they emerged from the project with some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. For Rosen and DeBono, befriending the people in their films is standard--Rosen estimates that the majority of his Christmas cards are sent to subjects of his documentaries.

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Boyhood Shadows centers around Glenn, a man the directors chose for his guy next door look: personable, good-looking, the guy you want to have over for supper. Glenn reflects on his destroyed childhood and the path it burns throughout his adult life. Other victims tell their similar side stories as well.

As someone initially roped into working on the film, Rosen is earnest and explicitly clear about the documentary's goals. Foremost is awareness: He wants society to wake up, to recognize child molestation among boys as a serious and rampant problem. He wants mothers and teachers be aware of telltale signs; a perpetrator could be the boy-scout leader, the family friend, an uncle, or even a brother.

Next, he wants to get perpetrators to stop, plain and simple. The film shows that many abusers are addled themselves, deluded into thinking they aren't doing anything wrong. Lastly, he wants to de-stigmatize the issue among men. After all, the original PSA was made for the support group, but more groups like these should be created for men to realize that they are not alone.

The subject of the film is certainly not fun or uplifting, but many do see it as hopeful and characteristic of Rosen and DeBono's style. Rosen knows this is not something that's just traumatic during childhood, it's something that seeps into every aspect of the adult's life, as well as the lives of their family. He says, "It's a subject no one wants to hear or talk about." But thanks to people like Rosen and DeBono, it's finally getting at least a sliver of the attention it deserves.

Tarah Knaresboro is studying neuroscience at Brown, she is also an intern at PT.

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