The Silent Face of Zeke Thomas
A musician shares the complex experience of being an activist.
Posted Jan 03, 2019
“I'm not beggin’ for forgiveness;
But this time I've come undone;
Let my spirit leave this palace;
I can't find the strength to run;”
— From “Deal’n With It” by Zeke Thomas
“I’m famous for rape.”
By definition, an activist’s role in society is to bring our attention to topics that not only are disturbing, scary and uncomfortable but also have no easy solution. As such, activists may either be embraced as heroes fighting for a noble cause or vilified as agitators who should just leave well enough alone.
Accordingly, activism can bring a range of benefits and costs to the activists themselves. On the plus side, working to raise awareness on an issue—particularly an issue that affects an activist personally—can help the activist work through difficult personal emotions and effect concrete social change. And yet being an activist can be grueling, as the activist has to repeatedly talk about difficult topics only to be at times ignored, challenged and attacked.
But regardless of whether or not an activist is revered or castigated, one of the challenges of being an activist is the risk of having one’s identity fused with a specific issue—and is only seen by others through the lens of their cause. When Thomas went public with his story of being sexually assaulted, he soon found that he would have to deal with some people still being able to see him as Zeke Thomas, the man with many dimensions—including his career as a musician—and others seeing him through the narrow lens of Zeke Thomas, the sexual assault survivor. Coming to terms with how to integrate his traumatic experience into a broader identity has become one of the core issues of Thomas’ ongoing recovery.
To understand Thomas’ journey and struggle both with his assault and his consequent activism, it’s important to recognize his early experience as the son of National Basketball Association legend Isiah Thomas. Isiah Thomas has lived in many cities as a basketball player, coach, and executive. As a result, Zeke Thomas moved around a great deal as a child to accommodate his father’s professional life and therefore felt that it was more difficult to develop and sustain longstanding friendships.
“All of your life, you have general traumas that you deal with. For me, it was moving. I’ve moved to various cities in various homes. I counted I’ve lived in 13 different houses in my life between 13 and 29,” Thomas told me. “So that was very traumatic for me for whatever reason… I feel very disconnected and I have a hard time keeping a hold of friends and picking a solid friend base.”
Thomas feels that he never addressed his feelings of abandonment that stemmed from his early years and felt vulnerable to having those feelings triggered by his assault. “I’ve been in therapy the majority of my life. But actually having to unpack that baggage I don’t think I ever really did… I’ve been in therapy and dealt with surface issues,” Thomas explained. “Moving and abandonment issues were something I’m still working through… Whatever traumas people are dealing with in their life, it seems that whenever you get that big trauma, which for me was my assault… it brought on other things that were unresolved… feelings of abandonment or feelings of failures. All those other little traumas that you’ve buried away for years… they all come back.
“And they come back with a vengeance.”
The concept of abandonment became particularly relevant because Thomas was not sure how people would react to his publicly sharing having been sexually assaulted. And his fears were unfortunately well-founded as he continues to face difficulties with family and friends.
“I’m a sexual assault activist. I talk about rape and male sexual assault and dealing with this trauma every day… I’m OK with that… I thought if I spoke about it I’d be a change-maker. It was good because it allowed me to speak my truth. And in turn, I realize I have impacted and helped a lot of people,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who are close to me that are not OK with that. I can say that it’s their problem, not mine—but it really puts me on an island… Has it been better for the people around me? If I go through the trauma, my family goes through the trauma, my friends go through the trauma. Has it helped them? I don’t think so at all.”
The difficulties that Thomas experienced were different with his family as compared to his friends. Specifically, Thomas felt that his family was more overtly concerned, even encouraging him not to share his story, because of their perception of the stigma attached to men being victims of sexual assault.
“My family wasn’t comfortable with me going public with it. And the reason they weren’t comfortable, they said, is because they didn’t think I was ready to handle everything that was coming my way,” Thomas said. “I have people who have been assaulted in my family—mostly women. My family told me, ‘Your assault was different because you’re a man.’ So I had to play with that stigma from my own family—which has been hard. It’s been hard to deal with not having that fundamental emotional support from my family.”
In contrast, Thomas’ friends didn’t overtly discourage Thomas from sharing his story but were so uncomfortable with it that they passively encouraged him to avoid talking about his assault. “A lot of my friends didn’t want to hear about my assault. They didn’t want to hear about me being broken,” Thomas said. “They just wanted me fun and happy.”
Soon, Thomas realized that whether he was being criticized, ignored or supported for his activism, being a victim of sexual assault and the associated activism was consuming his social identity. “I felt like a had a scarlet ‘A’ or ‘R’ so to speak on my chest. Everyone could see it. The first thing that you see when you Google my name is rape,” Thomas explained. “Being recognized for the assault—I realized I’m getting recognized for something horrible. I’m nominated for and receiving these awards. But I’m receiving these awards for speaking out about it—but it happened to me. And that played in my head a lot. I’m struggling with how people view me and how I view myself. It never goes away. It’s never something that you can completely heal from or attempt to heal from because I’ve made the choice to go public.”
Eventually, the combined stress of everything Thomas had endured resulted in his body physically shutting down. At that point, he felt that his activism was resulting in his discussing his trauma, publicly, but not dealing with it in a deeper way personally.
“I was neglecting my mental health and not speaking to a professional. Going through the motions, dealing with trauma—not remembering. I’m bringing up these demons for myself constantly and not really having an outlet. Just having a silent face on a television show or a magazine isn’t really speaking about it. You’re talking about it in a happy way, in a surface way. And it definitely drags up a lot of demons. So in doing that, my mind literally started to play tricks on me,” Thomas recalled. “There was a time I went to the hospital because my entire body shut down—I couldn’t walk. My entire body swelled up as if I’d broken my leg, I’d broken my foot. I had to call 911. And when the paramedic got there, they’re like 'what did you do?' I’m like, I literally didn’t do anything… I knew nothing was broken. But it was my mind telling my body to swell because that’s how much pain and trauma I was dealing with. My body was saying you have to do something or we’re going to have to shut you down.”
Thomas eventually became so depressed that he made a suicide attempt. In retrospect, one of the reasons that Thomas feels he became so depressed was that the experience he had with his social network triggered the feelings of abandonment he had as a child when he was forced to completely overhaul his social network.
“I would say that my family was right—I wasn’t ready. But I feel like with their support, I would have done much better,” Thomas said. “I don’t feel like anyone should be abandoned at their lowest. I felt like I was abandoned by my family and by a lot of my friends at my lowest time. That’s why this felt like a move. There are times when I would go into tears after interviews. I would go into deep depression. That’s why this assault feels like starting over—having to meet new friends, having to make new friends, having to build new relationships.”
But start over he did. Thomas feels that he is coming to terms with his identity as an activist, and working to establish new connections with people who can give him the support that he needs—specifically to balance viewing him as a multi-dimensional person who can accept that his assault and activism do not define him.
"I’ve had to accept that activism is my number one thing. I’ve grown into it, but it’s been hard. I’m anxious about what’s next in my career. I’m depressed about what’s occurred in my life,” Thomas explained. “In the last two years, it’s been a rebirth. And rebirth in the sense that I need to know who’s close to me and who I trust and who I rely on. When you have had close friends since you were very little—those are the things that you miss when you move around a lot.”
Thomas specified what he feels is the most helpful is the support he receives from his friends.
“It’s just checking in… Why is the person with the trauma supposed to reach out? Everyone says we’re here for you… It’s almost like a firefighter not going into a burning building because no one called them yet,” he said. “It’s not somebody’s job to be somebody’s therapist. It’s not somebody’s job to heal that person. It’s just letting someone know that you’re there… It’s about being consistent. It goes so much further than you could ever imagine.”
To be sure, Thomas is far from resolved on all of these issues. He has received a great deal of praise for his activism—including being named the first male spokesperson of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and receiving a GLAAD Rising Star grant.
Yet he is still struggling with his career focus, including how to balance his activism with his music career. And he is hoping that the people in his life continue to recognize his work as an activist, while still embracing all parts of him.
“Do I do advocacy full time? Do I make this my life? Those are questions that I’m still playing with… Am I taking on too much? Am I ready for this? Have I healed totally?” Thomas asks. “I’m happy that I’m letting my hair down so to speak—this is me take it or leave it. I have people in my life who see what I’ve gone through… the steps that I can take to stand on my own two feet and not be broken.
“And they let me know they accept my flaws just as they accept my greatness.”