I Came Forward…On Oprah.

 

She turned to the teleprompter, looked out into the sea of men in the audience.  Each of us held a large childhood picture in our arms.  “It’s hard to see all of your pictures,” she told us as she wiped the tears from her eyes.

Then taping began…

For the next three hours I grieved amongst a group of 200 men who were all survivors of child abuse.  Some at the hands of strangers, most by adults we knew and trusted.  Most of the men here today, and Oprah, were abused by more than one adult.  Some were abused by other children, and some went on to be abused into adulthood.

Many of our abusers lived complete lives, free from incarceration.  Free from having to answer for their horrific acts.   They live in your communities.

When I wasn’t crying I was trying to stay present, in this moment.  But I often did what I do whenever my trauma approaches.  I disassociate.  I felt myself watching the studio of men from a safe distance even as I was sitting in the middle of it.

Oprah began the discussion with Tyler Perry, a film producer who recently disclosed his personal history of abuse.  I could see this audience of 200 men collectively unhinge itself.  I saw men all around me crying and exhibiting incredibly pained expressions of grief.  I felt like I was at a funeral for a close friend.  I saw old men crying inconsolably, just like the little boys who died in their hearts.

There was a man sitting across from me.  His face was bunched up so tightly and he hunched over again and again sobbing.  All I wanted to do was walk across this studio and give this boy some reassurance.

I looked down at the picture sitting on my lap, then turned it face down.  It was too painful to see that boy’s false smile.  Like a pulse, the words of Tyler Perry kept slicing through my heart.  “I felt like I died as a child.”

If Oprah would have allowed us to hold up a picture of any child I wouldn’t have held up my own.  I’m still alive.  I can look into the eyes of my baby daughter.  I have a beautiful and supportive wife waiting for me at home.  No, I would have held up a picture of my best friend Eddie.  When he died, the police report indicated that he hung himself with a bed sheet.  They said he “suffered from depression” or that “drug use contributed” to his death.  The newspaper never says “he died from child abuse.”

Eddie had a beautiful daughter of his own.  She was just a child when he passed.  Now we are both the caretakers of his memory.  I will never have the priviledge of having his quick wit and infectious laughter fill up my soul with life.  We were once just two abused kids, just trying to make it through.  Now he is gone and I am here.

The studio was filled with lights and cameras.  The film crews shuffled around, doing many things all at the same time.  Oprah was the calming presence in the middle of it.  She looked us in the eye and in her eyes I could see an underlying message to all of us men.  Just stay with me a little longer.

I struggled to keep my eyes open.  The exhaustion was so great my body was shutting down.

Twin brothers, about my age, got up from the front row and joined Oprah in the center.  They began to disclose the story of their abuse.  Molested by priests for 13 years.  I felt this anger and rage fill my body, every hair rising up.  I looked around at the other men in the audience and saw a reflection of outrage.  These boys told their mother, but they weren’t believed.  So the abuse continued.

I looked up, from time to time, at the cameras around me.  One camera stood directly at me for the entire taping.  I wondered if my face would be broadcast.  I wondered about all the people in my life who didn’t know.  Imagine the shock if you just turned the channel on the Oprah Show one day and saw your son, brother, nephew, friend, or uncle sitting in that audience.  Would you mourn for him?  Would you wonder who his abuser was?  Would you believe him?  Would you reach out to him and offer support?  What if you were his abuser?

Towards the end Oprah opened it up to questions.  My body became a tangle of pins and needles.  I had something to say.  We all had something to say.  I saw a man in his 50’s stand up to speak and wondered how many decades he had waited to finally say something here.  There would never be a moment like this again for any of us.

We filmed two shows that day and were only barely scratching the surface of all that went on.  I think Oprah saw this so she let us speak.  The Q&A session was never aired.  I’m not sure that it mattered.

Before I knew it I was in a bus heading to the airport.  There were so many guys I wanted to say goodbye to but never got the chance.  But I had nothing left to muster.  So I buried my head into a pillow on the flight back.

From flying to Chicago, filming two episodes of The Oprah Show, and flying back to Seattle, it had all happened in less than 48 hours.  Even now, i’m still recovering from that short and great impact on my life.

One thing I realized is that when we hold secrets we hold back a piece of ourselves.  We deprive our friends, family, and spouses from the true joy in our hearts.  They can never know our stories unless we tell it.  So many men and women went to their graves having never told anyone.

So I think of all the people in the past who weren’t given the opportunity to grieve.  I think of my abuser.

I am not sure what happened to him.  I don’t think he will ever tell us.  I know what he took away from me.  There were men his age in that audience.  These men were born from a generation even further entrenched in the silence.  Their presence brought me hope.

I do believe that men who tell are the exception, not the rule.  That is what made this Oprah special a very unique experience.  We have always been told that boys don’t cry.  Yet they always do.

These men stood together, in front of millions, despite our society.

These men stood with a powerful female advocate.

I am not sure of the long term impact of these shows, but what I do know is the extraordinary effect the show had on the lives of the men.  We are telling our family and friends for the first time.  We are confronting our abusers.  We have started campaigns to combat abuse.  We are going into therapy.  We are telling our stories.

200 of Oprah’s Men.  I am proud to call myself one of them.  They say that one motivated soul can affect change on an entire society.  Imagine what 200 can do.  Imagine if we all finally woke up and began to really talk for the first time.

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Not In Our Community

It’s always a measure of a real community when they hear about news of abuse.  How will they respond when they learn their community may not be as safe as they thought?  Will they react defensively then eventually begin the real discussion?  Or will they never have that real discussion?  Ideal communities consist of well-intentioned individuals who advocate their way of life and will address safety issues directly and productively.  But we know that not all communities are ideal, so we must work with what we have.

As a public speaker I am never truly surprised with the mixed reaction I sometimes receive in the communities I have spoken in throughout the years.  Whether it be at a church.  Or a college.  Or a corporation.  There are always some who wonder “why are you here, speaking to us about abuse?  This doesn’t happen in my backyard.”

Yet it does.

If abuse didn’t occur in your community I would be doing something else.  I would be rock climbing.  If I had my choice I could retire early and rock climb for the rest of my life.  But I work in abuse for two reasons:  I am a male survivor of childhood abuse and because IT’S HAPPENING in your community.  When abuse, and all attempts to hide it’s presence, in our communities ceases to exist, then I will happily retire and move on to a happier profession.  Until then, you can guess where I’ll be and what I’ll be doing.

The tendency of the ‘not in our community’ types is to attack the messenger.  To scrutinize their every word.  To attempt to break them down and discredit them and all they say.  WSO has been under scrutiny more than a few times.  We come to expect it.  This is the defensive reaction.  Yet, it’s our hope that the real discussion takes place at some point.  Maybe not when I come to your town to talk about abuse.  Maybe later that day.  Maybe a week later.  Maybe a year.

But at some point if we can get you talking about abuse in your community then we are happy.

Growing up as a boy, nobody talked about abuse in my community.  Actually that’s wrong.  No parents or adults talked about abuse in my community.  My childhood best friend was one of the few souls who told me that he was abused.  He was 16 years old at the time.  Oh, and my classmate and his little brother who lived next door told me of their sexual abuse.  They were 10 and 6 years old respectively at the time.  Also, my other friend who was beaten bloody when he was 5.  He was 15 years old when he told me.

Adults don’t want to talk about abuse.  Kids do.  But they are too scared.  They don’t have a safe person to tell.  They don’t have a safe place to go to tell it.  For those children who haven’t been touched by the scourge of abuse you, as an adult, are doing a grave disservice to them by pretending it doesn’t happen in all communities, all societies, all cultures, and among all religious faiths.

For all intents and purposes, my family was what one would consider a model family, with model parents, in a model community of people who cared for their children.  That model community was a complete illusion.

As an adult, I went back there, to that model community.  I spoke with many of my old friends from model families.  I told them that I survived abuse.  It was only then that I learned of their abuse.  At the hands of their fathers, mothers, uncles, neighbors, and teachers.  Admissions from the most shocking places and from so many who I never would have suspected.  We were all harboring that secret, and our community wasn’t talking.

As a speaker, I rarely set foot in a venue filled completely with ‘not in our community’ types.  Usually there is one survivor in the audience.  Often in our Q&A sessions we will get skeptics who don’t believe in our message, who don’t believe in our statistics, who can’t stand our presence because talking about abuse in their community is felt as an indictment on them.  Then a friend of there’s stands up and announces that they are a member of this community and they were abused.  All it takes is one to quiet a room.  One courageous soul.

So if you believe that abuse doesn’t happen or is too overblown or too minuscule to really matter in your community, invite me to come speak.  I have a feeling you may be in for a surprise.

Chris de Serres

christopher @ womenspeakoutnow.com

Corey Haim, Lost Boy, Dead at 38

I never liked Corey Haim.  Growing up I used to see him and his buddy Corey Feldman in movies and on TV, usually acting obnoxious in some way or other.  Smug.  Brash.  Cocky.  Just a few words to describe this duo.  They were The Corey’s.  Teenagers given too much money and fame too fast.  As a teenager myself growing up in the 80’s they had everything that I wanted.  Money.  Girls.  Fame.  But like them or not, they were  a product of the 80’s, and I own the Coreys every bit as much as I own the 80’s as my teenage formative years.  So Corey Haim was a part of my generation.

You often wonder what makes these young stars so wild and crazy.  I used to wonder if Corey Haim was always like that.  In a manic state, floating from party to party, girl to girl, gig to gig.  Somewhere it all stopped, and we didn’t hear much about Corey Haim anymore.  It was almost like he just got swept under the rug of Hollywood, like so many child actors are.  He hit the peak of his life before the age of 18 years old.  How does one go on living knowing that the best has already past them at such a young age?

I thought that this was probably Corey’s struggle.  You hit it big, then you are yesterdays news.  What do you do with the rest of your life now?  I didn’t know that there was much more to this story.

A few years ago A&E aired a reality show called The Two Corey’s.  It reunited Corey Haim with his old pal Corey Feldman after all these years.  Cameras followed them around as they were making what was supposed to be their triumphant comeback filiming the sequel to the classic vampire flick The Lost Boys.

From the opening episode it was apparent that time hadn’t been very kind to Corey Haim.  He was unemployed, slovenly, and an addict.  His behavior was erratic.  He couldn’t keep himself together.  Corey Feldman struggled to find a way to keep his friend afloat.  In the end, his drug-induced anxiety led to Corey being almost completely written out of his last comeback movie.

Now Corey Haim is dead.  Probably because of a drug overdose, but probably from so much more.

I scoured the internet to see what people were saying about Corey.  One media source cited Corey’s 2007 Nightline interview where he admitted drugs hurt his career.  Or his 2004 Sun interview where he admitted that he smoked his first joint on the set of The Lost Boys.  Another outlet offered how his cocaine use led to crack.  In his Larry King interview in 2007 he explained how he was “a chronic relapser for the rest of (his) life.”

All of these reports coming out covering his prescription medication and drug abuse, as if this was the explanation for why Corey is no longer here.  I couldn’t believe how we all missed it completely.

The answer to the question of why took me back to the The Two Coreys.  In one episode, they decided to see a therapist together.  Corey Haim and Corey Feldman shared a terrible secret.  An adult friend of Feldman’s raped Corey Haim.  A friend Feldman kept around after knowing what he did.  During the therapy session you could see the pain that this had caused Haim.

Just for a brief moment I understood what underlied this cocky and obnoxious persona I resented back in the 80’s.   The drugs only masked the deeper pain that none of us male survivors ever want to deal with.

But Haim did deal with his trauma in the only way that men know how.  In 2008 he explained, “It’s something that will be addressed in my inner soul for the rest of my life, and it’s something that truly affects me . . . It’s just like, it happened, it’s over, and move on. Let’s move on to the next subject.”

But he never could.

Corey Haim, the Lost Boy, passed on March 10,2010.  A drug overdose is suspected as the cause of death.

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.

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?

The Man Code

Okay I got hooked on The Bachelorette this season.  Reality shows are sort of like Lays potato chips with me.  You can’t just watch one and be done with it.  Without contaminating you too much into the universe of this show let’s just say they had a ‘reunion show’ last night.  The Bachelorette, Jillian, and most of her male suitors were who had been previously eliminated in the show, were there.

As bad and scripted as they sometimes are, reality shows often reveal surprising realities of how badly men and women can behave and treat each other.

This year in The Bachelorette, more than any other, there was a bit of a controversy.  You see one of the male suitors, Wes,  had an agenda.  He was a country singer who already had a girlfriend.  He got on the show under false pretenses in order to further his career.  Not something exactly new in the land of the reality show, but it wasn’t exactly what he did that struck me as curious.  Apparently throughout the show he would brag to the other men that he already had a girlfriend and how he was going to hit it big with all the TV exposure.

All these guys knew, and kept quiet about it.  They all were vying for Jillian’s love and affection, yet never said a word about Wes.  Even as Wes made it through each ensuing round nearly to the end of the show.  Until finally one guy spoke, only after being eliminated by Jillian.

During the reunion show there was this weird energy among all the men about this one whistleblower, Jake.  They all spoke in a roundabout manner, but I got the impression that Jake had broken some sort of code among men by telling Jillian she was being played by another man. I call him a whistleblower sadly because in the culture of men, that’s what he did.  He went against the convention.

Then the other guys began speaking up, but not condemning Wes’s actions on the show.  They began making excuses for his behavior.  One man even professed doubt that Wes was playing Jillian at all.  Mind you, this is after we all watched video clip after video clip of Wes saying he was there to promote his music and how much sex he was going to have with his girlfriend after the show.

Wes, of course, didn’t attend the reunion show to answer for his actions.  But he almost didn’t have to.  Other men were piling on the defense for him.

So why is this important to us in the abuse community?

Well, it brings to light something that has been going on for quite some time among men.  Men don’t hold other men responsible for alot of bad behavior.  Most often this is out of fear of losing our own social standing in the process. There is this consistent scrutiny among men regarding how manly our behavior is in the eyes of others.  We hold each other to this standard.  We even have our own internal censor which comes as a result of all our younger years trying to live up to the male ideal that all of our early male role models instilled in us.

So we’ll see a male friend trick, manipulate, harass, and maybe even hit a woman and let it pass.  We hold our identity so closely to that of our manhood that we will watch others do atrocious things rather than risk stepping in and being considered less of a man.

One male suitor actually spelled it out for us on the show.  He called it the man code, that most bogus construct we wield to keep each other from speaking out and being our genuine selves.

You really want to know why there aren’t alot of men speaking out about abuse?  Or even the millions of male survivors who won’t speak out about their own trauma?  It’s the man code.

We would rather die broken and wounded than violate the unlivable set of rules which have been passed down from father (and mother) to son for generations.  It’s the reason why men are often reluctant to seek medical attention, much less a therapist.  I always think of the bullrider mystique, when a rider gets bucked off of a bull and, despite broken ribs, fends off medical attention and walks out of the ring of his own accord.  We all clap for that don’t we?  It’s harkens to the code.  When I read of the genocide in WW2 Germany and Rwanda I see the man code all over it.  Some say the man code helps keeps society running smoothly even as we destroy ourselves from within because of it.

I have my own man code.  It’s rooted in men like Ghandi and in the marches of Martin Luther King Jr.  In between all the status quo you can see it sometimes, if just for a second, in the Jakes of the world.  Don’t blink because you may miss it.  My man code is sometimes difficult to execute, as a man, so I try to execute it instead as a human being.

I have learned that physical courage is the easiest kind of courage to embrace.  Moral courage?  That is the most difficult.  It requires true sacrifice.  It requires us men to act, despite society, in order to save society from itself.  From letting boys be boys as they hit, abuse,  and harrass others, each other, and themselves.

Moral courage is the man code.

To my brothers out there, if you see it on display, don’t destroy it.  Don’t try to judge it or censor it into submission.  Get behind it.  Remember there are alot of young boys and men who are watching us and learning how to behave like men should.  Feed them the kind of courage that changes minds, rather than the one that reinforces old destructive habits.

Children Should Know

The overwhelming majority of children are abused by a family member or family friend.  More often than not the abuser is a parent, step-parent, or guardian.  I think that’s a reality we haven’t quite come to terms with.  I know we didn’t when I was growing up.

Probably the only education I ever received as a child about the danger of abuse was a  30 minute session in a 5th grade class once.   I remember that it was taught by my English teacher.  I could tell how uncomfortable and awkward she felt in front of the class, trying to talk about what to say if a stranger came up to us and asked us to follow ‘him’ down an alley.  I was taught to say no, but I wasn’t quite sure why I was saying no.  Just that it was important that I did say no.  There was no context, just that this fictitious ‘bad guy’ wasn’t to be followed.  I thought of some of the supervillains I read about in comic books.  On the off chance that Dr. Doom showed up on my afternoon walk home from school I knew what to say.

Education hasn’t improved much since that day in grade school.  We are still uncomfortably limping into inadequate conversations with our children about what to do, when, and who.  Except we are so leery about the ‘who’ part because the ‘who’ may be attending PTA meetings, may be more close to us than we would like to think.

Educating our children about how to speak up for themselves is not an always popular proposition to a parent.  Parents want obedient children, and it’s those same obedient children who are most vulnerable.  If there is anything that is most obvious in looking at the statistics it is that children aren’t using their voices.

There are arguments that children shouldn’t know about abuse.  They are too young to be exposed.  Yet we already know that millions of children are already being physically and sexually abused right now.  I guess the above philosophy has, in a sense, already written off those children as damaged goods.

Parents aren’t comfortable with the idea of their children telling them no, in any case.  That is precisely what education provides for them, the option to say no.  An option to defend themselves.  This rarely comes up consciously in my discussions with parents, but it always rears it’s ugly head in the periphery.  The argument against abuse education that never quite makes itself known.  This is why our parents should be educated as well.

Our expressed priority is to protect our children.  But there is a catch to this.  We don’t want to protect them from us.

So we still ask ourselves why our children are so vulnerable.  We wonder why there are millions of victims of abuse out there.  It’s because the children don’t know.  Organizations, like (Wo)Men Speak Out, exist to educate our men, women, boys, and girls about abuse.  Boys and girls are the most vulnerable demographic to the scourge of abuse.  Are they too young to know about abuse?  Millions learn one way or the other.  Sadly, it seems that, for most, the most harmful way is ruling out over the other.

This may make you wonder what your school is doing to educate their students.  You may even ask yourself what you are doing to educate your children.  It’s worth an inquiry.  Talk to your kids.  Check in with your school.  It’s worth a call.  It’s worth raising your hand at the PTA meeting and starting a discussion.

If you believe your children are ready to be given the tools that may save their life one day, then bring an organization in that knows how to talk to the kids.  Not the awkward English teacher I had way back when.

Abusers rarely look like Dr. Doom.  Yet, that may be all the protection we are providing our children.

DrDoom