As I post this, it is the first Sunday of Advent, 2011. I’m posting it today as a gift to myself. It’s also God’s gift to me, as it is through grace that my journey has brought me to this place and this time. It may not read much like any gift you’ve ever received or, for that matter, ever wish to receive, but it’s probably the best I could be given in my life. It’s the gift of a retrieved life. It’s the gift of finally wanting to be here among the living. It’s the gift of tears that are capable of healing hurts carried too long.
And in a way, it’s my gift to a great many men who have lived the same secret – probably also for far too long. My hope this Advent season is that they will find the peace I’ve found in the midst of a great weariness. Writing this has brought on a sadness I’ve perhaps not allowed myself to feel at any time in my life. It’s worth it, however, because it allows me to reach out – to say I understand. My gift is one of hope, perhaps the only thing I have that I can really give away. It’s the gift of being able to say to so many, “You are enough, just as you are. You have always been enough in the eyes of God.” It’s time to breathe again. It’s time to live again.
If you know someone you think could be helped by this story, please share it with them.
Hidden Things – Kept Secrets
Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!
– Margo Channing in All About Eve
No one keeps a secret so well as a child. – Victor Hugo
Secrets. We all have them. They may seem insignificant, something we’d rather not reveal about ourselves for any number of reasons – like stealing a pack of chewing gum as a child. Some are silly things if we bother to think of them, wondering why we’ve hesitated to mention them to anyone. For some of us, though, there are those we’ve carried like an aging, leaky bomb waiting to explode at any moment. Waiting to obliterate us if we look too closely. In the meantime, they poison use little by little, unnoticed, with only a faint ticking sound if anything at all. Hidden things. Things we don’t want to admit, even to ourselves. Things, in fact, we may not realize we’ve never really admitted to ourselves. We’ve been unable to accept that the actions prompting the secrets weren’t as dangerous to us as the secrets themselves because holding on to those secrets kept us trapped helplessly in the dark.
I was encouraged to rewrite the first half of this story. I was told the original version as told was cold, soulless, and clinical. In other words, in relating what happened, it appeared I’d still not actually dealt with it. The description of what happened was wooden – designed to get past it so I could go on to talking about what’s changed for me today. Guilty as charged. I’ve not thought about that night in any real, truthful detail in over forty years – in fact not since the moment it happened. The more I wrote, the more I remembered. The more I remembered, the less I wanted to talk about it – again. It’s important, though. It’s important to me so I might, finally, see it for what it was and then release it. It’s important to say out loud because there are so many others out there living with the same, dark, life-draining, life-taking secret. That said, this story is a bit graphic and probably more than a little disturbing. Please feel free to stop reading right here in this paragraph.
I originally started this story with an apology. An apology for if it disturbs you, an apology for showing you something you may not want to see. I’m trying to stop apologizing, though. The story is, after all, my story. It’s painful sometimes but that doesn’t change what happened. All of us are a part of the legacy of pain in this world. Sometimes we’re the recipients of that pain, other times the givers of that pain. You’ve heard the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? What a crock. Sometimes, if you’re not very careful, the pain can kill – if not the body, at least the spirit. The lucky ones live long enough to use that pain to become stronger.
I was thirty-two and sitting in an alcohol rehab facility before I finally began to admit to myself that I’d been raped when I was seventeen. It’s not that I didn’t know what happened, just that I’d chosen not to remember it – or to try not to remember it. I hadn’t realized then that my life had changed forever. In fact, it’s hard even now to fathom just how much my life had changed. By the next morning, the whole thing had become my dirty little joke. As too often before and since, I tried to protect myself behind a make-believe version of what had happened. It was already fifteen years after the fact and I’d only just ventured to see what had happened – to say what had happened. But that was too much.
I stayed sober for about three years after that stint in rehab. I’d been offered help and decided I couldn’t accept it. I was special, you see. I was different. And, in fact, by that time I felt so different from “normal” people, there was no real question of asking for help. No, that would just be one more instance where I looked weak. One more thing people could use to hurt me again. So, after hanging on to a fragile sobriety by just the tips of my fingers, reality (or my version of it) again became just too much for me. I picked up a drink. I’d convinced myself I could be a social drinker, though I’d never been a social drinker. From my very first drink, the goal had not been to be social. It had been to allow me to interact with the world to some degree on my way to oblivion. It allowed me to be whatever you seemed to require of me at that moment. The truth was that I didn’t want to be sober. Too many things threatened to makes themselves known to me. Being drunk was really the only thing I wanted. I hoped it would be the only thing I needed, also, because there seemed to be nothing else left.
In trying to look back, I began to wonder how it was that I ended up in Houston that weekend. I was still in high school, after all, and my mother would never have allowed me to ride with a friend to visit people I didn’t know – she didn’t know. How did that happen? And then I remembered. I had been trouble for a while already. I did things like walk out of school to hike across town to the bus station, then hop a bus back to the little town where I grew up. I stayed out late, ignoring curfews. I simply refused to do anything I was asked. When enough had finally become enough, my mother asked me to leave. Truth be told, I pushed and pushed until she did what I wanted her to do. I’m not proud of it, but that’s what I did.
A friend, Don, and I ended up renting a little trailer that sat in the back yard behind a rental house. It was small – really small. But, we were grown up, right? I could do anything I wanted to do. No one there nagging me to do my homework, clean my room, have a little respect for a woman who was doing everything she could to keep a roof over our heads. My sister was also very unhappy with me. Didn’t I see how much trouble I was creating? Hey, I was tired of being told what to do. Case closed.
I didn’t make it to school very often during that time. I had other things to do, you know. I also didn’t care to be there. My life had been turned upside-down and I didn’t care to be a part of it anymore.
So, we ended up in Houston. Don had a friend there. It’d be fun. We’d just hop in Don’s living-room-sized fifties Buick and head on down. An adventure, you know? Only it didn’t work out quite like Don thought it would. Don’s friend’s roommate didn’t want me staying in their apartment. Not enough room or something like that. He had a friend, though, who would let me stay the night. It seemed odd, but I didn’t seem to have any say in the matter. So, instead of spending time with Don and his friend, I was packed off to another place. Louis, the roommate, drove me there. There was a very short introduction, then Louis was gone and I was left with some guy at least twice my age and considerably larger than I. At seventeen, I weighed at most 125 pounds soaking wet. The guy gave me a drink, then another. What happened next is a little unclear to me now. Gradually, things took a nasty turn and I found a bottle of amyl nitrite shoved up under my nose. Amyl is also called poppers. The effect of inhaling the vapors is a light-headed feeling and a rush of heat as your muscles relax and your head spins.
When this guy finished with me, he suddenly realized he had somewhere to go. He’d need to drop me off at another house – a friend would make sure I had a place for the night. I don’t think he even thought there was anything wrong with what he’d just done. Unfortunately, I was in for more of the same, only worse. What I remember most of the night was the continuing feeling that I was going to throw up. The attack by this second person seemed like it would never stop. As soon as I thought it might be over and I might be allowed to doze a little, it began again. It didn’t stop, in fact, until it was time to clean me up and take me back to where Don was staying the next morning. This guy could have had no question I was not consenting. It didn’t matter. I had no fight in me. He dropped me at the apartment and drove away.
As with so many other things in my life, I have often taken a tragic event in my life and turned it into a joke. By the following morning, I had already made a repeated rape into a joke – what little I was willing to even mention. I will spare you the question I was asked and, most assuredly, my answer. What’s important is that I knew I could not afford to see this for what it was, so I’d already flipped it in my mind in a desperate attempt to protect myself – once again. I’d done this for years already. Keep it as high up near the surface as was possible. Put the walls up even higher. DO NOT FIGHT! Retreat. And, certainly, keep the jokes coming so I could keep from going over the edge. The tape playing in my head said, “You put yourself in a position where this could happen.” I don’t think I was even aware that I’d already gone over the edge. There was a me who disappeared around that time and I wouldn’t see him again for a very long time.
I was left with the answer to a question I was pretty sure had already been answered before that night. Now, it had been confirmed. I was inconsequential. I was a thing to be used and discarded. I was a thing to be looked past, never really looked at. That was the only shield I thought I had left. To look at me directly meant you were looking at the mask I’d chosen for the occasion. There were many times over the years I was aware of being able to actually see the mask between you and me. I could see the cut-outs for the eyes and I stood just far enough behind them to see the edges. The eyes, though, were what was left I had to try to shield most. I tried never to allow you to see in my eyes the real story behind the mask.
I moved back home with my mother and sister shortly after this happened. My experiment of being my own man had failed. I was allowed to make up the work I’d ignored at school and graduated at mid-term as planned. I had them mail the diploma. Something had died inside me and I no longer wanted any part of anything that made up my life prior to that weekend. A suicide attempt wasn’t long in the future.
Men are the least likely to report a sexual assault, even though they make up 10% of all victims. Ten percent! I had no idea. Refusing to talk about what happened left me feeling even more alone and unlovable than I already did. It helped confirm what I thought I already knew – I was worthless and good for only one thing. But, how could I talk about it? And with whom? Looking back, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a suicide attempt was only months away and that I would end up considering becoming an escort (a fancy word for prostitute) by age twenty-five. I could have, after all, made a good deal of money using the only asset I believed I had. Thankfully, I survived the suicide attempt and my own fear helped the escort idea, thankfully, fade fairly quickly. The repercussions, however, lasted year after year.
If you’ve been around in this world for even a little while, you surely remember when rape was regularly blamed on the woman who was raped. She shouldn’t have been dressed that way. She must have been asking for it, right? This ridiculous notion was common even in our court system. Sadly, it’s still there and, I think, regaining momentum as there is a growing tendency to, once again, blame the victim in so many areas. That tendency, I believe, is society’s effort to fool itself into believing we’re safe in what certainly appears to be an ever more dangerous world – like the little boy whistling in the dark.
Many, many years later, a friend said to me, “Ben, ‘no’ is a complete sentence.” I swear to you I didn’t know that. Frankly, I thought he was lying to me. I’d learned over the years to work around people, but that wasn’t the same as saying no. I needed people to like me in order to feel safe. So, I thought that saying no would result in being disliked. That, sadly, resulted in my saying yes too many times to too many things.
So, what’s the point? Why bring up this awful subject? The point is that we all need to find the courage to talk about things that may scare us. I wasn’t taught to be frightened by strangers and I’m grateful for that despite what’s happened to me over the years. The trend for many parents seems to be to scare their children half to death about all things sexual. Trust no one. Remember that everyone is a potential predator. While it may be true that everyone could be a “potential,” I think the only thing this accomplishes is to show a child there’s no one who can be trusted. The child is left with an anxiety that may never leave them. How much better, then, to explain to them that their body is their own? That their bodies are inherently good. Explain simply what is and is not appropriate touch. The problem in this area, of course, is that what’s appropriate is too often tied up in the guilt feelings of the parent doing the teaching. If you have been taught that the body is somehow “bad,” it’s likely the conversation will head in that direction, if at all. We somehow seem to have become a country that believes it’s someone else’s duty to teach certain things, at the same time indignant that someone else would try to teach our children much of anything. The insanity is in not teaching children responsible, age-appropriate information. The fear is that, if they know, they’re more likely to engage in sex. The problem with that reasoning is that many of them already know far more than you may think – even if that information is wrong.
Here’s how my sex education went. At age 12, my mother brought me a book called, For Boys Only. I still have it. Sadly, for one who’s been abused, twelve was far too late in the game for this discussion. Of course, there was no actual discussion except the one running in my head while reading the book. There was an ample slice of guilt served up in the book (this was the early sixties) and I’d already received so many conflicting signals in my life, I was ready to embrace that guilt. I was already hiding so many things. I wanted to be good but, well, I wasn’t. And what I was learning seemed to tell me I would never be good. I would never be enough.
Of course, lots of us got our sex education from other kids who, of course, knew no more than we did. It’s just that they, perhaps, had a better imagination or an older brother or sister who’d told them all sorts of things that turned out not to be true. But I already knew what was in that book – and considerably more. I already knew about right and wrong and was convinced I was wrong. I was already less than. No amount of dressing up for church was going to change that. That meant that church had already become a double-edged sword for me. How was I supposed to know at age five that I was already sexually inappropriate? How was I to know, even, why I was sexually inappropriate?
I’ve not thought about this incident in this much detail since it happened, at the same time have probably in some way thought of it every day since. Yes, I talked about it in therapy, though I see now I was still skating along the surface of it. The effect of hiding things can be devastating. The feeling that you have to hide things, I think now, is even more devastating. Even now, it’s easier to refer to it as “the incident.” See the difficultly we seem to have in talking about rape? See the difficulty I have talking about rape? We couch conversations about rape in moral terms – too often aimed at the victim as much or more than the perpetrator. I suppose that makes it easier to put the thought of it safely away from our active thoughts. The two are equally in the wrong. Whew, I can stop thinking about that now.
According to the National Center for Victims of Crime website, about 3% of American men – a total of 2.78 million men – have experienced a rape at some point in their lifetime.1 If you’ve never thought about it, it may seem unbelievable the number of men who have had to live through it. One in ten. That’s a lot of people we’ve never thought about. That’s a lot of men who were left feeling degraded and denigrated. Try to put yourself in the place of a woman who has been raped. Now consider this society’s view of masculinity and imagine how devastating it must feel to go through the same thing as a man? Society doesn’t even consider the possibility. See, rape is when a man puts . . . It’s high time we redefine rape as any unwanted sexual act. Look at the way female victims are often portrayed, then imagine why men rarely ever report their own rape. Rape is rape. Violence is violence.
Raped men are angry men. Raped men are also frightened little boys who don’t know who this means they’re supposed to be. These little boys don’t know where to find someone to talk to – someone to tell their secrets. They think the secret is just too awful to be even whispered. That’s the tragedy. It’s one of those “I’ll carry this to my grave” types of secrets. Relationships are often difficult for any victim of rape. Relationships often end because the victims don’t even understand their own anger completely. But anger doesn’t dissipate on its own. Unacknowledged anger continues to grow. Anger certainly doesn’t disappear overnight. It will not ever subside, however, unless faced head on.
Many men – and women, for that matter – can’t seem to get their heads around the fact that rape is about violence and control, not sex. Until we take the idea of sex out of the rape equation, we’ll never know how to deal compassionately with its impact. How can we expect any victim to feel able to ask for help when we’d rather pretend it doesn’t happen?
But sometimes, raped men become redeemed men. The little boy is allowed, finally, to grieve. And a grieving process is necessary. Grief for what’s been lost. The man can be able to look the anger square in the face and realize how much damage its done to hold on to it. Forgiveness becomes possible. We’re allowed to stop renting out space in our heads to a tenant who constantly leaves the same mess year after year. Forgive and forget? Oh, no. The two don’t, or shouldn’t, go together. All these years later I’ve not forgotten, though I would have preferred to do so. I tried forgetting. All it got me was the time to get even sicker. Forgiveness is allowing myself to know that what was done was bad, perpetrated by yet another hurt man – well, men. But forgiving them releases me. It is my gift to me. More to the point, it’s God’s gift to me. Judgment isn’t my job. Writing about this has brought a great sadness to me, but it allows me to say something that needs to be said.
If you’re a man who’s been raped, tell someone. Find someone to trust. Waiting almost 40 years to finally try to release this demon was not worth it. I suppose I just didn’t know I had a choice. Many men, in fact, take their secret with them to their graves because an inordinate number of them take their own lives. Suicide is anger turned inward instead of placed outward where it belongs.What an incredible waste. I’ve spent most of my life with little concern whether I woke up the next morning. I can’t tell you the toll that’s taken on the people around me. But, there are people around me because some of them simply refused to walk away – even when that would probably have been easier to do so. In their own ways, they wanted to help me remember I’m worth more than I was willing to believe.
Perhaps you’ll understand why it was so important for me to hear these words when I was baptized a couple of years ago: “Benjamin Edward Eakin, child of God.” Maybe I’ve always known that God knew my name. Maybe you have, too. If not, let me assure you, he does. That’s what grace is about. God loves me because of who God is, not because of who I am. I am now surrounded by people who act as mirrors, showing me a little how God sees me – allowing me to see a little the way they see me. I can’t always recognize what they see, but I desperately needed to know there’s something salvageable left. But I had to first begin to allow those others in – if only a little.
Redemption comes out of our brokenness. It comes to us the way the good Samaritan came. While others pass us by, God stops to help put the pieces back together again, using other Samaritans around us. The hollowness begins to fill again as the assurance of grace returns, acknowledged now. I thought God had been stolen from me way back then – little by little. What I know now is that they couldn’t steal God away. The best they could do was hide him from me for a while.
I hear people wonder out loud about why God allows terrible things to happen. I happen to believe we were granted free will. The evil in the world is not of God, but of man. We are petty little creatures when left to our own devices. We have the capacity, though, to rise far above that. That’s why it’s true that it’s better to give than receive. When I reach out my hand, I become a part of a community. I become something larger than I can ever be alone. I learned it’s not necessary to be the center of everything. It’s far better to be small part of a greater whole.
I’m back. Perhaps you can help keep them from trying to hide God from me again. Perhaps I can help you know that God isn’t the one hiding – we are.
1 Tjaden & Thoennes, 2006.