I've been reflecting on the increasingly shard-infested subject of adult sexual abuse of children, as I prepared for chairing a panel discussion next week of a documentary film, Boyhood Shadows: I Swore I'd Never Tell. It happens at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in San Diego.
Preparing my comments, cached memories kept popping and bubbling for renewed attention and respect. "Oh, yeah, oh, yeah, oh yeah", my mind keeps stuttering.
Continual revelations in the media about Vatican missteps and misstatements on clerical child abuse
keep the subject and outrage lurching from one Catholic dioceses to another, one country to another, carrying the banquet of media frenzied coverage in tow.
Yes, this provides needed light on this dark and dirty institutionalized plague. But there's a take away problem to all this notoriety: the sensationalized focus on the church too narrowly circumscribes the problem. It is pandemic, timeless, ageless and sexless and knows no occupational or religious boundaries.
My wife is fond of seeing our little family as a cultural barometer. "If it's happening to us" she says, "it's happening." Is everybody thinking about rampant pedophilia a lot more than 20 years ago? Maybe. I'm not certain. More immediate economic and security worries may supersede thinking about child sexual abuse.
I know this, though: I don't think I know a single family where one or more of the children didn't have at least one uncle or grand father or friend of the family, or trusted authority figure, who they didn't talk about, years later -- but not always -- who didn't rub up against or grope them, or fondle them, or bounce them on their knees or hold them in their laps, and grow interested. Mostly men -- but not always. Mostly with girls-- but not always.
We're not talking about strangers on a crowded subway or bus, or in crowds at public gatherings. That's common and the abuse is generally anonymous and fleeting. I'm talking about people the kids knew and whom their parents knew and often considered good friends.
Years later, for example, my older girl cousins, laughing, chuckling, guffawing, told me about "Uncle Leo," who, it turns out, was a MAJOR letch. But an innocuous, buffoonish, pathetic, ineffectual letch...at least as far as they were concerned...30 years hence.
But my uncle Billy went a whole lot further with his three daughters. They were not laughing about his relentless advances 30 years hence. Hardly. They never got past it.
When they broke the news to me it put a lot of what I knew about their roadmaps of misery into perspective. Their revelations finally made disparate pieces of anecdotes, rumors, whispers, suicides and puzzling fragments I carried around in memory's backwater, suddenly crystallize into a coherent and abhorrent whole.
Growing up, I didn't slide along untouched by kindred incidents. Going to Boy Scout camp each summer was always shifting gears and taking a bus into a sort of sexual twilight zone. I'm not talking about what my psych prof called "hormonal, adolescent male homoludic behavior" (essentially non-consciously sexual antics such as cock fights, circle jerks, and other strange rites of passage).
No, I'm talking about camp counselors strutting their nudity in front of puzzled or wide-eyed campers or offering group lessons in masturbation. I'm talking about kitchen-white-clad cooks inviting you to their cabin for some special dessert, well after dinner in the mess hall; then bringing out the pre-Playboy nude photos and then coming up behind you as you and your buddy took this exciting journey into the world of female flesh while he got off right near you and you heard his breath as you inhaled rare and exotic images of women, breasts and buttocks, and all that jazz.
Hey, the extra food was great, the pictures greater, and if he wanted to beat off, so what. Other scouts in search of "afters" followed. Consensus was, it never went beyond that a cook's background panting.
Then there was my Explorer troop leader who always had gifts for us when we went on overnights and always managed to accidentally grab a feel or a squeeze when he was showing you how to use or wear that outing's largesse.
There was my Hebrew teacher when I was studying for my bar mitzvah. He loved to find reasons to hit you on the butt with a yard stick when you hit wrong notes when practicing your major opus, your haftorah. How else to explain his near-blissful smile as he listened to the crisp snap of the wood on your corduroy pant seat.
For most of us in the class it was "what's the big deal." It didn't really hurt; we faked yelps, and he gave a lot less homework than the last teacher. So, we never told our parents. Later on, some kids did and he was gone in a Bronx minute.
It was sexual, it was bizarre, but, in toto, it left amused memories, not scar tissue.
But then came that certain summer... when buffoons gave way to serious players.
I was 17, working in the mountains, at various resort hotels. In uncomprehending succession at one hotel the entertainment director and the lifeguard made a stab at trying to pull off my clothes after luring me into the room they shared adjacent to mine. My screaming, punching, flailing objections quickly stopped whatever they really had in mind.
I was never quite sure if they were stupidly kidding or curious about how far they could go with an ill-conceived seduction/rape plan. There was no replay. I eventually brushed it off but gave them wide berth.
The second "event" was darker still. High turnover, semi- to low-skilled hotel employees and kitchen help, many of them transients, quasi-alcoholics and ex-cons (oh, yes, and college students -- a fine mix), lived in group cabins just off the kitchen garbage area. One night the salad chef, ordinarily toting a professional if temperamental demeanor, came back from town drunk and in a strange mood. It was a warm night and I was sitting on the cabin steps smoking a cigarette. Most of the cabin was asleep.
The chef mumbled good night, gave me an odd look, and went inside. A few minutes later he came out again, stood near where I was seated and then leaned down and tried to kiss me. I pushed him away and told him to fuck off. He walked a few paces away, then turned around and pulled a gun. He began cursing, waving the gun at me, threatening to shoot me if I didn't, he mewled, "just kiss me, just kiss me."
I didn't think he would actually shoot me but I picked up a nearby piece of 2x4 and stood my ground while I screamed for the guys in the cabin to help. They came out running. The boozed, staggering salad chef dropped the gun and, cursing all of us, slumped to the ground. He was fired the next day. Moved on to other hotels, other cabins, maybe other 17-year olds.
Scars? Yeah a little. But really, just a little.
Which brings me back to the extraordinarily well done documentary, Boyhood Shadows. A very affecting, well produced and illuminating exploration of adults coping with effects and memories of childhood sexual abuse looking at how victims transform into non-victims.
For many appearing in the film, it has taken a lifetime to try and figure out why the adults did this to them and, tragically and predictably, what role they fear they may have had in allowing the abuse to go on.
The film has had a lot of difficulty getting reviews or distribution or picked up by PBS stations or venues like HBO, Showtime, IFC or Sundance Film Channel. I spoke with Steve Rosen who, along with along with Terri DiBono, produced and directed the film through their production company Mac + Ava Motion Pictures, in Monterey, CA. We talked about the difficulties in getting exposure for the documentary. In an email, he had this to say:
"As for television, we've been told by everyone that we've sent the film
to (to KQED San Francisco, our past PBS presenting station, and twice to
HBO) that it's already been done - that they've adequately covered the
subject in the past.
In fact there have been several shows focusing specifically on priest
abuse, and several about serial perpetrators, but literally nothing has
been done about the fact that the great majority of men (and women, for
that matter) were abused as children by people close to the family -
trusted family members and friends, people who would normally never show up on the "radar".
So the coverage that has been done has left the public with the sense
that if they're not Catholics - and if they monitor their children's
internet activities - they don't have to worry. - a very dangerous false security."... And even with those shows mentioned, little has been done to address the life-long consequences of the abuse...
No one wants to think of this having happened to them or their friends - or happening to their child. ... A respected surgeon, who I've known for several years, asked me about my most recent project. I told her about Shadows... she shivered and said, "I don't want to see that, I have a 9 year old son".
Rosen added that two other friends, both college professors, a professor of languages and a parents of teenage girls, avoided watching the DVD he gave them for 4 months and 6 months respectively. Both gave the same reason. I'm a parent. It's too painful. One said, "I'd probably become paranoid about all people who even look at my son or daughter."
I ran into the same see no evil, hear no evil reflex with two of my friends when I told them about the documentary.
So, it seems that parents, the very people that should be opening their
eyes to this, may be the ones that are the most reluctant to see it. And,
unfortunately, the great majority of people are parents.
Does that account for why no educational and premium pay cable TV stations turned down airing Boyhood Shadows? Too scary a topic? But, as Steve Rosen noted, the holocaust is scary too yet TV networks and film studios seem to turn out new ones on this well-plowed fields annually.
My guess is this: yes it's true that being forewarned is being forearmed. But what if you think there is really nothing you can do to absolutely prevent someone from molesting your child? What do you do short of living in a psychological police state and physical cordon sanitaire, beyond instructing them about unwanted touching, too-friendly strangers, yelling for help, guarding your body, etc.?
How do you fully protect them from the Internet and cyber-prowlers, Facebook, MySpace, teen forums, etc., when you're a two-working-parent family, and when there are no telltale signs on the faces of your friends, family, church, school, sports authorities and acquaintances? As another lyric from a 60's song goes, "smiling faces sometimes don't tell the truth."
Round the clock, cross-situational child protection is an overwhelming monitoring task. It would demand a life style of suspiciousness. It would anoint paranoia as reality testing. Few parents would want that vigilant a life style.
Perhaps for some, many, most, all that the news media and movies on this subject do is vivify a parent's sense of that impotence and electrify that back-of-the-mind, omnipresent sense of fear. Whatever it is, it makes it hard for a valuable film to get the audience it deserves.
What are your thoughts?