The Labyrinth of Molestation and Denial
The following is an excerpt adapted from the Epilogue to my 2004/5 memoir, Never Let Me Go, Red Hen Press, Pasadena, California.
One of the differences between stories and life is that stories end and life goes on, even after death. Even after you die people have to bury you or burn you and fold up your stuff and look at your pictures and tell stories about you or ignore you or forget you, all things I tried to do with the boy, Chuck Rosenthal, who at nineteen stood at the edge of admitting what had been done to him, yet managed to deny the horror for thirty more years.
Because you don’t start having sex with someone at thirteen and just stop at nineteen. You don’t just walk away. You carry it inside and live with it, hide it, go back to it, ignore it, fail to ignore it; you live with shame; you try to normalize what happened. From age nineteen till forty-five, I told myself that it was homosexual sex and there was nothing wrong with it. That I had consented. That sex was the price of the friendship and patronage of my molester, William P. Garvey, the President of Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania. That his unresolved sexuality was his business. My unresolved sexuality was my business and my responsibility. For thirty years I stood where Chuck Rosenthal stood at the end of my memoir, having just quit playing college basketball and refusing to have any more sex with Garvey. I’ve got hundreds of pages laying around somewhere, pages where I tried to write about those thirty years, the time it took me to figure out that I was sexually molested, pages that I eventually abandoned.
Having lost my athletic scholarship, I finished college by securing student loans. I turned down several scholarship offers to play basketball, including one from Mercyhurst. It was 1971. The current vocabulary for sexual gender and orientation did not exist. By my senior year I’d learned the term transsexual, and in my twenties I was convinced that I was transsexual and bisexual, a conviction that I hid from my girlfriend to whom I was briefly married. I buried it under more shame and guilt. I was confused and ashamed of my transsexual fantasies and ashamed, too, for hiding them. As my marriage fell apart, I experimented with homosexuality and heterosexuality, as often as not with equal inconsistency and frustration. I drank heavily every day. I took almost every drug you can name. I began to take risks with my life.
After getting an M.A. in philosophy, I returned to Erie. Garvey was Dean of Mercyhurst then and hired me to teach. He was now my boss. Though I turned down his sexual overtures, I remained his friend. He was my boss. But I grew tired of his sexual manipulation and denial. I quit teaching and went to work at the Boys and Girls Club. Then, after my mother died of cancer, I left Erie for good.
For three years in Northern California I pushed the limits of drug abuse and sexual conduct. On a number of occasions, dangerously fucked up, I took tremendous risks, diving from bridges and cliffs, climbing girders at construction sites, taking acid on my motorcycle. I told myself that I was just a wild guy who couldn’t face turning thirty. I didn’t think that these were symptoms of sexual abuse, that sometimes you’re willing to kill yourself in order to kill a part of yourself you can’t live with. In those years I began to build some sexual confidence and became somewhat notorious, though one night after a party my roommate, a gay man, said to me, “You spent the night dick teasing my friends.” When I didn’t respond he said, “Quit trying to be gay. You’re heterosexual. It’s all right to be straight.” And he was right.
A year later I was in grad school in Utah where I met Gail Wronsky who I’ve been with ever since. But for another ten years, though I never had sex with Garvey again, I remained his friend. Gail and I got our Ph.D.’s from the University of Utah and took jobs at Loyola Marymount. By then, Garvey had become president of Mercyhurst and I became a published novelist. He brought me in for readings and book signings. I’m embarrassed to admit that Gail and I were married one summer in the vestibule of Mercyhurst’s chapel. During some of my visits home I would sometimes drop in on Garvey. A young boy would show up and I would leave and he would stay or, on an afternoon, a shy, freshly scrubbed boy would stalk Garvey’s living room, eyes cast downward. I recognized that shame. Except for my parents, who I never told, I was honest about my sexual past. I’d had sex with my basketball coach and mentor for ten years, I was bi-sexual for another ten. That was that. Gail was skeptical, but she gave me that space. Then, well into my forties, a number of events changed everything. My brother, Peter, who’d come out to Los Angeles for his job, had a nervous breakdown and moved in with us, almost helpless, for a year and a half. My daughter was growing up and I began to ask myself if I’d permit her to have sex, like I did, with an adult. My closest friend at the time, my horse riding partner, was a lawyer. When I told him about my having sex with Garvey he said, “You were sexually abused.” No one had ever said that to me. “I consented,” I said to him. He said, “You were a child. You couldn’t consent. It was statutory rape.”
Now, in my mid-forties, I began to reconsider my sexual childhood. Soon after, while I was beginning to write about it, Peter broke down in our living room, sobbing. He talked about Garvey’s physical abuse and sadism, the hand jobs, the Vaseline, the humping face to face. Suddenly I saw Peter, now forty, with no job, no home, no lover, a man broken by something in his past, and I felt the horror for him that I had never felt for myself. The next day when Gail turned to me and said, “Peter was sexually abused. He was raped and so were you,” the tenor of my memoir changed. I spent two years writing my way toward trying to understand what happened to me, hundreds and hundreds of pages. I began to see a psychotherapist, who I yet see to this day.
I wish I had a checklist for avoiding sexual abuse, or a manual for surviving it. But if you are alive, then you have survived. I say this because many victims commit suicide. If you aren’t a drug addict, an alcoholic, if you aren’t hysterical or insane, then you’re better off than many. You might yet be sexually confused, several times divorced, helpless and broken. At worst, you might be a sexual molester yourself.
I don’t know how to teach someone to reach into their heart. I do know it’s okay to have been sexually molested as a child. It wasn’t your fault, though the consequences have likely been devastating. But if you are not to blame for what you have become, you are yet responsible for what you will become. Face it. Forgive yourself.
I hesitate to point to myself as a model of survival because I can’t tell you how or why I survived, nor do I believe that I am the one to assess the quality of my own life. Mostly I was lucky, lucky to not have died from drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or risks; lucky that I found a companion and lover; lucky to have a loving family. I am lucky to have a passion for writing that has kept me busy almost every day for over forty years. I found fulfilling work: teaching. I exercise daily. I love animals. These things keep me alive.
When I was twenty-one I discovered Buddhism. I seldom talk about it with anyone, particularly Buddhists, but I’ve kept a personal practice since. It has given me detachment from events, sympathy for all sentience, perspective on my past. So if I were to offer any advice at all it would be to find people to love, animals to love, things you love to do, help others, live religiously. Face your past. Forgive yourself. Get counseling.
No one gets through life undamaged or unscarred, but sometimes I go looking for the unmolested boy of twelve inside me who was inquisitive, athletic, religious, intelligent, and already a good writer. Those things, I think, have not changed. I don’t know if Garvey, as he contended, made me a basketball player. But contrary to everything he always told me, I believe that I already possessed the discipline to be successful athletically, intellectually, creatively. His constant underestimation of me, including his insistence of my “B+ mind,” was a means of keeping me dependent on him, because it was essential that I believed, even into adulthood, that I could not succeed without him, a strategy to keep me close and keep me quiet.
There are emotional scars that I feel are integrally related to my sexual molestation. For years, I lacked confidence in every aspect of my life, intellectually, sexually, athletically. Subsequently, to this day I am often incapable of taking credit for my accomplishments, including, Gail would argue, surviving my molestation. The years of living a hidden, unspeakable life, of day-in, day-out psycho-sexual dependence provided insecurities and made me very susceptible to over dependency in sexual relationships. The grave violation of my naive trust made me misanthropic. I do not trust people. I don’t know if I was a stoic child, but I became a stoic adult, so much so that to this day I often find it impossible to know what I feel, a result, I’m certain, of years of emotional repression. I later learned that many molested children, unable to face their horror of the act, create an alternative personality to get through it, thus my transsexual fantasies, now called transgender, which are yet a part of my psyche. I learned through study and counseling that transsexuality was not transvestitism. Neither necessarily implies the other, nor do your fantasies necessarily imply that you hope or wish for your fantasies to be real. Though you might. It can take time to figure all that out.
I don’t regret my homosexual behavior; in fact, I’m pleased to have had homosexual experiences, but trying to find my inherent heterosexuality beneath the maelstrom, well, it was long, hard, confusing, and painful. While a teenager, like many molestation victims, I often thought Garvey was the victim of my perversity because I knowingly used him for sex while he denied we were having it.
In the time after writing my memoir I have heard about other of Garvey’s victims in my hometown of Erie, and have spoken to a few. There are probably many. I think that most have been silenced to this day by shame, manipulation, threats, favors, dependence, denial, and repression. They were needy, working-class kids like me, Garvey’s terrain, and now they are silent adults. Because I came to realize my molestation in my forties, Garvey was protected by the statute of limitations, though a lawyer once told me that my accomplishments, my intelligence, my open-mindedness, mitigated my suffering and symptoms. So too, the men who ended up homeless, insane, in jail, addicted to drugs, were dangerously unreliable.
Though religious contexts have long been shields for sexual deprivation, many of our corporate and institutional hierarchies do the same, as the “Me too” movement has made very clear. But the sexual molestation of children, particularly of boys by men, is a silenced plague in our culture because men can’t be victims; they can’t admit it has happened to them and we can’t admit that it has.
Chuck Rosenthal, a novelist and essayist, has published seventeen books including his memoir, Never Let Me Go (Red Hen Press, 2005), about his sexual abuse by his basketball coach and mentor between the ages 13-19. His eighteenth book, The Hammer, the Sickle, and the Heart, a novel, will be published by Letters at 3 a.m. Press in October 2020. He is a Professor of Narrative Writing and Theory at Loyola Marymount University.