Say Something

The most common question I get asked after our speaking events is “what can I do?” Or “how can I become an advocate?” There are many ways of answering a question like that.  But then it got me thinking while I was having lunch at the local pizza place.

I walked up to the server, took one look at the oil drenched offerings and told him I wanted two of the pepperoni.  Now it was clear that the slices had been sitting on the counter for a while.  Normally the server takes the slices, puts them in the heater, and passes it along.  This time he didn’t.  He put the pizza on a plate and passed it to the cashier.

Excuse me, can you heat those up for me?”

He knew he should have put them in the heater.  I knew he should have.  But he didn’t.  So I had to put my advocate hat on so that I would get what I was about to pay for.  That’s essentially what advocacy is.  It’s the difference between what is happening and what should be happening.  Depending on what the issue is it can be a monumental difference.  It could be the difference between life and death.

A survivor of abuse may have handled that scenario a little differently.  She may have taken those two slices as is.  I mean, if you don’t think that you amount to much or that you are deserving of respect, then why would that change at the pizza counter?  We don’t always get the slices we deserve.

You are the person behind her saying, “hey, don’t you think you ought to heat those up for her?  You want hot slices right ma’am?”

When it comes down to the fundamentals our job is the same, from the counter to the streets to the courtrooms and on.

When I first began speaking about my abuse I did it for a number of reasons.  I only realized after a man once told me that when I spoke he felt like I was speaking for him.  I was speaking the words that he had been meaning to say.  I felt grateful to hear that my story had this effect on him.  You never truly know until people tell you.

It made me think of the second part of the pizza story.

“Thanks, I really wanted them hot, but I didn’t think to say anything.”

Advocacy?  It’s a snap.  All you got to do is say something.

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The Day I Became An Advocate

A number of years ago I was asked by a college to speak about my personal experience with abuse. This was the first time I ever spoke about what had happened to me in a public forum. I remember the weeks leading up to the speech I felt a mixture of dread, anxiety, shame, and empowerment. It was then that I got a taste of what it really meant to be an advocate. I was preparing to advocate for the little boy that represented who I was, and am still today.

On the day, I had every intention of talking about myself. I took the podium and began to speak. But what came out wasn’t about me. It was about my best friend. You see, my life was filled with people who were looking to take advantage of me. As a child and survivor of abuse, I wasn’t very good at sticking up for myself. I was routinely pushed, prodded, and pummeled by the bigger kids in school. I think in my heart that they knew something was different about me. I was just another easy mark.

That all changed one day when a kid came by my house and introduced himself. His name was Eddie. He was only a year older than me, but he was a kid in a man’s body. We became fast friends. I soon realized that this kid, who I proudly called best friend, had a huge heart.

Eddie had a reputation as a a troublemaker, but he was simply misunderstood. I noticed the more I hung out with him the less I was bullied. Somehow my best friend Eddie also became my best advocate. From the day that I met him to the day that he took his own life he was always trying to protect me. Most of the time I didn’t even know he was.

I think he knew I was a survivor even though I never told him. I remember the day he came to my house and told me his dark secret. His mother had physically beaten him from as long as he could remember. It was then that I knew why he would go out of his way to help a little defenseless kid like me. I was the first person he told. I never knew if he told anyone else.

Chris speaking about male survivorship at a college keynote.

I realized that it was impossible to tell my story without first telling his. So I told the audience about Eddie. I wanted them to know that he deserved an advocate in his life. He didn’t have one. He had been my strongest advocate and I was grateful on that day to be his. He gave me something so simple yet so needed. The feeling that I wasn’t alone in this world. The more I told the story, the more stories I received from other men. They didn’t have the power so they wanted me to speak for them.

There isn’t much incentive for men to speak out about their abuse. They have to deal with the ignorance of other men and women. Men are often the subject of ridicule, having our manhood and sexual orientation called into question. There are even people who don’t believe boys or men CAN be abused against their own will. Certainly not by a woman. These are only some of the reasons why we don’t see men speaking out about abuse.

There are even female advocates who believe that men should be excluded from the resources that are provided to women. Men shouldn’t be in groups designated for women. So it’s no surprise that our men are continuing to suffer in silence. It’s no surprise that our communities are not confronting change as a united front. The abuse will continue as long as we decide to fight it apart.

It was in that spirit that I started a non-profit organization with my wife Ophelia, a survivor herself, to ensure that all survivors of abuse, rape, and gender violence have a voice when they need it. We decided that the best way to achieve a true end to abuse is by including women and men together in this fight. We are mutually supportive, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or color.

Abuse occurs everywhere. So it’s going to take everybody to fight it. Women have been fighting it for so long. They have won many battles. Now is the time to empower our men to come forward and share their experiences. I sometimes wonder if Eddie’s life would have turned out differently if he had a strong male advocate in his life. For now, I am resolved to speak his truths and stand by strong women and men when I do it. Advocates simply speak out for those who can’t. Men. Women. Together.

Note: This article appears in the Self Help Packet for Jersey Care Leavers Association. For the full packet of great articles and resources go to http://www.jerseycareleavers.com/ and download the packet today.

My Sister Maggie

I had a dream last night. It was about my sister, Maggie. It’s been almost 9 years since my sister passed away but every now and then she comes to me in my dreams. Last night, she met up with me in a room filled with people and asked me to sing with her. I am a singer, though sadly, my sister never heard me sing.

In my dream, we sang together, a beautiful melody. She smiled and laughed with me, her face filled with happiness. I could feel her arms embracing me; I could hear her angelic voice harmonizing with mine. A dream so real, I could almost taste it. I was aglow until I awoke and realized she was gone and there would be no more singing.
To awake to the reality left me feeling empty and filled with sadness.

I wrote a song about my sister called “Maggie’s song.” It was my way of coming to terms with the immense loss of losing my sister. A sister I loved so much and knew so little about. Ours was a complicated relationship. Maggie and I shared the same father but different mothers. It was our father who abused both Maggie and myself as children and into adulthood. Though she seldom ever spoke about her experience, she did share it with me before she died. Her disclosure affirmed to me that I was not alone.

She lived a complicated life, filled with complex relationships and a continued cycle of violence. In many ways, she and I were very much alike and in many ways, very different. Those who have seen Chris and myself speak will know Maggie’s story, as I speak about her often. She has become a constant in my advocacy and holds an important place in my message to other survivors of abuse.

For many survivors of abuse there are questions that remain unanswered. Many of us are unable to speak with our abusers because they are out of our lives by design or by circumstance. For those whose abusers are still alive, there is often no conversation to be had, due to a complicated list of reasons. That list can be endless and so we go through life making sense as best we can of what happened to us and why.

When it comes to my sister Maggie, there is no answer good enough. I was tasked with going through Maggie’s things after she died. What I saw was a life of addiction and isolation. The newspaper read that she went to sleep one night and never woke up. That’s what the autopsy says and so that is what people admit. Though, most of you know that the nature of abuse is not as black and white. Far too many victims of abuse, including myself, will find themselves searching for reprieve through addiction. After years of this, Maggie lost the fight and with it her voice.

Many people have asked me why I continue to talk about an experience that brings up such upsetting emotions. My answer is always the same. I tell Maggie’s story because her life had meaning, more than I think she even realized. Through her story, others will know that they are not alone and that there can be life after abuse.

We must fight for each other and ourselves and never stop believing that change is possible. We must do the work and break free of our addictions, tell our stories and allow healing to take place. I believe that this is what Maggie would have wanted. I believe that she is up there looking down on me, joyous in knowing that people will learn from her life and that she will never be forgotten.

Tyler Perry Breaks The Silence

You may know Tyler Perry from many of the films he’s produced, directed, and starred in over the years. It seemed like every year I would see a new Tyler Perry movie coming out of the box office. I can’t say that I have seen any of them, though he is a clear success story being one of the highest paid men in Hollywood.

Tyler Perry - Survivor

What I did see on 60 Minutes recently was the startling admission that, like myself, he is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. The reason why this is shocking isn’t that he IS a survivor of abuse. The statistics show indeed how common abuse is in our culture, with 1 in 4 women being victims of abuse before the age of 16 and 1 in 6 men.

What is of note is that Tyler Perry is a high profile black man admitting that he was abused as a child. It’s the coming out that has always been hardest for us men. One of the basic virtures of early manhood is being able to successfully defend yourself from harm. For male victims it is this perceived failure that is sometimes the hardest thing to come to terms with.

Tyler is coming to terms with this specter that has hovered over his life for so long. He spoke of a friends mother who molested him as a child. She locked him in their house and only provided the key to leave if he ‘had sex’ with her. Tyler later shared additional details about living with a physically abusive father. After his admission, his father passed along the message to Tyler that “…If I had beat your ass one more time you probably would have been Barack Obama.”

You may be horrified by that comment. Yet, its so telling of how parents so often confuse discipline with outright abuse. Or maybe it’s just his fathers way of rationalizing the abuse and suffering he inflicted on his defenseless children.

These admissions from public figures are inspiring and courageous but to people who want to make real change in our society we can’t leave it at that. We have to explore the questions raised by the personal accounts from survivors of abuse.

I was always a big fan of the comedian Richard Pryor growing up. He would often compare men with women, and how black culture differed from white culture. He once mentioned quite fondly about the time his father gave him an especially violent physical beating because he came home after his curfew. The audience laughed. Pryor’s genius was in being able to make his misery funny. I have all of Pryors tapes. I think he’s the most gifted comedian, yet I never laughed at those jokes.  Pryor joked on how it taught him character and professed his admiration to his father for making him hard.

It made me wonder. How can any physical beating ever be a point of pride in any culture, any society? What extremes and rationalizations are parents willing to employ to make sure they have well behaved children?  What should our response be when this is too often the message we are sending in our society?

I may have not known about Tyler Perry’s admission if I had not known about his work with a new movie coming out called Precious. It’s about the struggle of a 16-year-old survivor of abuse. You don’t see too many films about abuse streaming out of the Hollywood lot. This is one of them. Go see it on November 6th.

And remember, there is courage in breaking the silence, but change only comes when we decide to respond to the brave stories of those like Tyler Perry.  How do you plan on responding?

Polanski Raped Her

Each morning on my drive into work I would hear the latest radio report on the apprehension of Roman Polanski recently in Switzerland.  Each morning for the past week it was reported that “Polanski pleaded guilty for having sex with a minor…” I guess a part of me accepted what I was hearing reported even as I knew it wasn’t accurate.

Roman Polanski

This morning I heard the much needed correction.  A listener called in to express how disappointed she was in the reporting of what Polanski did.  She was under the impression that when you drug and liquor up a 13-year-old then have sex with her throughout the evening that what we may be talking about isn’t “sex with a minor”.

It may be rape.

The case of Roman Polanski is not one blurred by ambiguity.  We know what happened.  We know how the guilty ran.  We know his celebrated career for the ensuing three decades afterward.  Yet, we still don’t know if we should call it rape?

We are afraid of that word aren’t we?  It was just a year ago that Tory Bowen wasn’t allowed to use the word ‘rape’ by a judge in court when describing how she was raped by her perpetrator.

Even Whoopi Goldberg, this morning on The View had to inform us that what Polanski did wasn’t “rape-rape.” Going so far as to tell the rest of the panel that she wanted to talk about “what he did” and not to speak out of a sense of “passion…when we don’t have all the facts.”  That’s interesting Whoopi.  Here are the facts.

From a legal standpoint, we know that Mr. Polanski plead down to a lesser charge.  He raped the victim, but he got a break.  This happens all the time.  Regardless of what he did, our legal system watered down the charge to the puzzling and much more friendly ‘sex with a minor’.  You can certainly water down what is, but does that ever change what is?

It seems there is a bit of confusion among society at large as to what exactly rape is.  I guess the only way to clear this up is to take our case straight to the most agreed upon definition we can find, courtesy of Funk and Wagnalls.

Rape – any act of sexual intercourse that is forced upon a person.

If your one and only idea of what ‘force’ constitutes is violent, physical brutality than we really need to have a discussion about the nature of abuse.  Quaaludes and alcohol in a 13-year-old girl functions in quite the same way that Rohyphol, known commonly as the date-rape drug, works in adults.  It makes it easier for a perpetrator to rape their chosen victim.  The more altered she is, the less force that is needed to apply.  Sometimes it takes such little force that it can almost seem like it’s not rape.  But it is.

There is a greater awareness in our communities about the dangers of date-rape drugs.  Yet, we still fail to apply what we know to Mr. Polanski’s case.  I understand the delicate nature of rape.  It is a serious charge.  It is equally a serious offense.  If Roman Polanski ‘raped’ a 13-year-old would we be so worried about his well-being?  Would we be less likely to ‘cut him a break?’

If you want to make excuses for poor Mr. Polanski you are entitled.  If you think it’s been 30 years and he needs to be cut that break, then go ahead.  But there can be no question about what we are talking about in the first place.

In 1977, Polanski got what he wanted.  He raped and sodomized a girl and pleaded down to the lesser charge of ‘sex with a minor’.  Then he ran.

Now three decades later we are still struggling with what to call his offense.  Some call it sex with a minor.  I call it astonishing.

What Your Gut Tells You

In your minds eye, how does a perpetrator look?  Would they appear disheveled and transient?  Maybe have a evil snarl with lined faces and bloodshot eyes?  We’ve all seen the mugshots in the paper or on the television, from those perpetrators that LOOK like they are capable of violence.  The newsreel confirming their guilt, we imagine we could clearly see it in them.  It oozes out of them.

Then we read about Jon Pomeroy and his wife, Rebecca Long.  Mr. Pomeroy recently pleaded guilty to ‘mistreating’ his daughter.  He was accused of sitting passively by while his wife ‘disciplined’ his daughter.  At 4 ft 7 inches and weighing 48 lbs, this severely starved girl was taken from their Carnation home.  The trauma most probably stunting her growth permanently and the rotting of all her teeth, not to mention the irreparable emotional and physical harm she will have to come to terms with for the rest of her life.

When I first read the story I imagined Pomeroy and Long as the seedy character I always stereotyped abusers to be.  Recently the Seattle Times posted a picture of Jon and Rebecca walking to the courtroom and I was shocked.  They looked so… normal.  I couldn’t reconcile this outdated image of what an abuser is ‘supposed to look like’ with how they appeared in the

Jon Pomeroy and his wife, Rebecca Long, were arraigned last fall in King County Superior Court on charges of mistreating Pomeroys teen daughter.

Jon Pomeroy and his wife, Rebecca Long, were arraigned last fall in King County Superior Court on charges of mistreating Pomeroy's teen daughter.

photo.  Not visibly someone you would think capable of these atrocities.  They could easily be someone living next door in some residential area , saying hello and being neighborly.

But isn’t it so often how a perpetrator either fits or doesn’t fit our expectation of what an abuser should look like that determines whether we follow our gut instinct? Obviously there is no such thing as ‘should’ when it comes to abuse.

For Jon and Rebecca, we may completely ignore our instinct.

If we heard the cries of a child in that dirty mobile home at the end of the block we  just may make that call to Child Protective Services.  But would we do the same if it came from the 3-bedroom, 2.5 bath, well manicured, freshly painted home next door?  It certainly wouldn’t be very neighborly.

In this busy modern world, we have become good at dismissing, delaying, or debating our core instinct into submission.  It’s the reason why we stay up an extra hour when our body is telilng us to go to sleep.  Or when we have that extra donut as our stomach protests.

Looking at Jon and Rebecca, it didn’t surprise us to read the testimony of neighbors and people who knew them.  Friends and family were ‘shocked’.  Neighbors thought they were ‘always such a nice couple.’  Some even now indicating that they ‘aren’t capable of this.’  Ignoring our instinct when we need it least has caused us to second-guess it when we need it the most.

Pomeroy is looking at 2.5-3 years behind bars.  His daughter doesn’t get her life back in 3 years.  She also doesn’t have a parent anymore.  Mr. Pomeroy sat idly by as Rebecca Long starved his daughter nearly to death.  All too often we are content to sit idly by, ignoring the twisting of our gut,  while the people we know as ‘nice folks’ abuse and torture defenseless victims.

It’s interesting.  I look back at my life and when it comes to gut instinct I can look at the worst mistakes I have ever made and it almost always was a result of ignoring my own gut feeling.  Follow yours and speak up when you see something  that isn’t quite right.  We can always judge wrongly, but wouldn’t you rather be wrong than right and not say anything?

Talking To Children About Their Bodies And Abuse

When it comes to talking to children about abuse, it’s safe to say that most parents have a hard time starting the conversation. I’ve received emails from people who aren’t sure how to introduce the topic of private parts in general, let alone the topic of abuse and what that looks like. Admittedly, talking to your child about their body is a delicate task. However, without open and honest dialogue and clear definitions, we can’t expect children to protect themselves if these conversations have never taken place.

When talking to children about their bodies, I think it’s really important for parents to outline what they want to cover and terms that they will use to talk about body parts. Personally, I feel that body parts should be termed, as they would be at the doctor’s office. Cutesy terms, or “comfortable names” can sometimes cause confusion in children, as well as embarrassment about their bodies. Children needs to know the technical terms for their parts and that there is nothing dirty or shameful about them. In creating a safe and honest starting point, communication can become easier and gives children the respect they deserve regarding their bodies.

I was taught that private parts are considered that which is covered by a bathing suit or undergarments. Picturing this and explaining it will allow a clear picture for children. Any area that is not visible is private and is “off limits” to anyone else. Children should have a clear understanding that they have the right to voice their opinions and ask questions when it comes to their body. People such as healthcare providers who may need to assist during medical visits and exams, but children should still be able to voice any concerns they may have, just as you or I would.

Role-play and other games can be a good way to create scenarios with children that allow them to ask questions and think about things they may say in circumstances where they are uncomfortable. Additionally, the use of dolls with removable clothing can be a good tool for parents and caregivers to talk about body parts and inappropriate touching.

You don’t have to go it alone. Feel free to use literature and sites already in place as aids for discussion. You know your children better than anyone. Some children respond better to dialogue and others are more visual learners. Figure out what works best for the both of you.

Remember to relax. Children are like sponges and will often react to your reactions. If you are nervous or uncomfortable, they will see that and find it more difficult to ask questions. Take your time and leave the topic open for discussion down the line. Casual check-ins can also be helpful as they allow for further discussion and more practice for you. You never know what additional topics may come up, simply because you created a safe place for them.

Lastly, talk to other parents and see if they are talking to their kids. You may find that you are not alone in your fears and anxiety surrounding the topic. By talking with others, you may learn other fun ways to talk to your kids or help others to do the same.

Remember, we are all responsible for creating a safe community. Thanks for doing your part.