Sugar Ray Leonard Survives

I was watching the video of his presentation at Penn State this past week.  It makes you think of alot of different things.  I thought of the timing of the abuse.  It happened around the time that he was training for the Olympics.  He was a powerful man, a powerful boxer.  As any former Olympian could tell you, training for and getting through the rigors of the trials requires a supreme mental and physical effort.  It requires toughness.  You have to overcome the best amateur athletes in your sport.  Sugar Ray did just that.  He got his gold medal.

In that journey he lost something much more precious than medals and accolades.  He was betrayed by those he trusted the most.  There are few trusts more sacred than that of a student and mentor.  It is especially sacred to the student because the student is exposing all the vulnerabilities to this one person.  For men, there are few opportunities to exhibit our vulnerable side to another man.  Sports is one such ‘socially accepted’ avenue. 

When you take away that sacred avenue it permanently alters our ability to function in the world.  We can’t get that back.  We can build something new, but it will never be what it was.

Ray Leonard, the fighter, was abused sexually.  Not Ray Leonard, the child.  This is the crucial part for society to absorb.  Male abuse has nothing to do with our ability to defend ourselves.  It has to do with trust because when you trust someone you will do anything for them. 

Ray Leonard, the fighter, had a child at home to protect.  He was struggling to pay the bills.  To make ends meet.  To “pay for diapers” as he put it.  He was vulnerable.

This notion that only children and women can be victims of sexual abuse is a lie.  It is perpetrated by a society that fears the vulnerability in men.  Finding that fragile nature within us is the only way to heal our wounds.  It allows us to be truly powerful. 

That Sugar Ray Leonard that took the stage is a strong man.  He told his truth.  Believe it.

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Turn The Car Around

A couple of years ago, I remember driving home from a camping trip.  There was something in the middle of the road.  As we came closer I could see that it was a deer.  It didn’t move an inch as our car came closer.  We circled around it and kept driving up the road.  As the road curved I took one last look in the rearview mirror at the body and right as the deer came out of view, it lifted it’s head up from the ground.  It sent chills down my spine.

We didn’t go back.  We had all kinds of reasons not to.  We had a long drive to get home.  The area was too remote.  Someone else will stop and help it.  We didn’t have a gun or a knife to put the deer to rest.

As the miles accumulated between our car and that poor dying deer I felt tremendous guilt well up in me.  It’s just an animal.  It’s probably already dead.  Right?

When I first heard about the allegations of abuse against Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky the first thing I thought about was the deer.  A graduate student saw him sodomizing a 10 year old child in the showers.  He told Joe Paterno, the winningest football coach in college football history.  The longest tenured and most influential figure on the campus and in the community.

Joe reported the story to a Penn State official.  Then he moved on.  Jerry Sandusky continued doing what he had been doing for years.  Grooming little boys and sexually abusing them.  Joe wouldn’t have known of course, because he did the bare minimum to keep himself out of trouble.  Maybe that was enough to assuage any guilt he would have had.

I understand Joe.  After driving 100 miles, I had my friend pull to the side of the road.  I got animal control on the phone.  Reported to them that I saw a deer on the road which seemed to be alive.  I told myself that I did my best.  It is now in their hands.  What more could I do right?  I did my part.

For some reason, I have never been able to forget that split second.  Seeing that scared and vulnerable creature lift it’s furry head off of the bloody concrete.  In that moment we made a choice.  Keep driving.

It was a choice.  Much like Joe.  If there was anybody on that campus who could have put a stop to Sandusky’s horrific exploitation it would have been Joe.  You don’t say no to the biggest man on campus.

He never followed up.  He never made sure the police knew what was going on.

He didn’t turn the car around.

Watch Me Burn: Domestic Violence Made Personal

Just gonna stand there and watch me burn
Well that’s all right because I like the way it hurts
Just gonna stand there and hear me cry
Well that’s all right because I love the way you lie
I love the way you lie

Videos have always been a very powerful medium for me. I have read hundreds of books on trauma.  I’ve attended countless conferences and worked in the field of abuse for almost 10 years. But nothing says “this is your life” like seeing an abusive relationship played out on camera. Eminem and Rihanna collaborated in a music video called “Love the Way You Lie.”  It is an amazingly accurate portrayal of the cycle of violence that exists in abusive relationships.  It mirrored so closely to my own past experiences that I needed to walk away from it the first time I watched it.

A paradox is a situation which defies intuition and presents a seeming contradiction. To me, love and domestic violence is one such paradox. I can count the intimate relationships I have been in that have been abusive. Relationships where I fell in love with partners who continually abused me. Growing up in a family that was emotionally, physically and sexually abusive, it’s not surprising that I would find myself living what I learned to be “normal”. Somehow though, contrary to my actions, I always knew that “normal” shouldn’t include suffering.

I fell fast for a man who, from the first day I met him, treated me like I was disposable. He had an extremely violent past with jail time to prove it. Everyone viewed him in his circle as unpredictable and dangerous. One day he was the most loving, funny, charismatic and romantic man I’d ever dated.  Like the flick of a switch he could be a womanizing, drug using, alcoholic, male chauvinist.

I can’t tell you what it really is, I can only tell you what it feels like
And right now it’s a steel knife in my windpipe
I can’t breathe but I still fight while I can fight
As long as the wrong feels right it’s like I’m in flight
High off her love, drunk from my hate, it’s like I’m huffin’ paint
And I love it the more I suffer, I suffocate
And right before I’m about to drown, she resuscitates me, she f**kin’ hates me
And I love it, “wait, where you goin’?”
“I’m leavin’ you,” “no you ain’t come back”
We’re runnin’ right back, here we go again
So insane, cause when it’s goin’ good it’s goin’ great
I’m superman with the wind in his back, she’s Lois Lane
But when it’s bad it’s awful, I feel so ashamed I snap
Whose that dude? I don’t even know his name
I laid hands on her
I never stoop so low again
I guess I don’t know my own strength

I was attracted to the “bad boy.” The guy who would both protect me but inadvertently would become more and more obsessive over me. The label of “abusive” and “obsessive” did not exist in my reality however, not until later. This is because on some level I believed all the things he said to me about who I was and how I affected the relationship negatively. Each violent outburst was a direct consequence of something that I had done to invoke it. That’s the cycle of domestic violence.  Ever escalating. Manipulative. Demoralizing.

You ever love somebody so much you can barely breathe
When you’re with ’em
You meet and neither one of you even knows what hit ’em
Got that warm fuzzy feeling
Yeah, them those chills you used to get ’em
Now you’re getting fucking sick of looking at ’em
You swore you’d never hit ’em; never do nothing to hurt ’em
Now you’re in each other’s face spewing venom in your words when you spit them
You push pull each other’s hair, scratch claw hit ’em
Throw ’em down pin ’em
So lost in the moments when you’re in them
It’s the rage that took over it controls you both
So they say you’re best to go your separate ways
Guess if they don’t know you ’cause today that was yesterday
Yesterday is over, it’s a different day
Sound like broken records playing over but you promised her
Next time you show restraint
You don’t get another chance
Life is no Nintendo game
But you lied again
Now you get to watch her leave out the window
I guess that’s why they call it window pane

There was a moment in the relationship that, to me, was the beginning of the end. We had gone out for a night of drinking and dancing with friends. At the end of the evening, I playfully threw a pretzel at him as he walked away from me. Before I knew what was happening, he turned and lunged at my face with his fist. I knew in that moment that if he would be that violent in front of others, there was no line he wouldn’t cross behind closed doors. The violence had in that moment become unmanageable and I knew I had to get out.

There are people who would ask why I didn’t leave at the first sign of violence. Why it took him becoming violent in public for me to decide I had enough. Pointing out that violence whether in private or public is unacceptable. It’s true.  It seems so black and white, but it’s not. For me, abusive behavior was intertwined with love. The first man in my life, my father, was a violent man. His behaviors laid for me an understanding that love and violence were normal. My mother herself was abused. I saw this day after day in my home. That all was forgiven and forgotten until the next time that it was forgiven and forgotten.

Now I know we said things, did things that we didn’t mean
And we fall back into the same patterns, same routine
But your temper’s just as bad as mine is
You’re the same as me
But when it comes to love you’re just as blinded
Baby, please come back
It wasn’t you, baby it was me
Maybe our relationship isn’t as crazy as it seems
Maybe that’s what happens when a tornado meets a volcano
All I know is I love you too much to walk away though
Come inside, pick up your bags off the sidewalk
Don’t you hear sincerity in my voice when I talk
I told you this is my fault
Look me in the eyeball
Next time I’m pissed, I’ll aim my fist at the drywall
Next time. There won’t be no next time

I apologize even though I know its lies

I had been in relationships that were non-violent but could never function properly in them. I didn’t love myself, didn’t believe I deserved to be loved and couldn’t receive that which I know now to be real love.  I did everything I could to get out of those relationships, to hurt before getting hurt myself. Though I didn’t know it at the time, it’s these relationships that reminded me that there was something better out there.

Abuse doesn’t just start the first day you meet someone.  It is a gradual, ever changing pattern of events that are rationalized and forgiven until the next time and the next and the next. Until one day, you find yourself so entrenched in the pattern, so emotionally dejected, that by the time you realize you are in a domestic violence situation, you feel powerless to leave. Hopeless.

I wish I could tell you that after that experience,  I never again found myself in another abusive relationship.  Years later, I would find myself in another pattern of emotional abuse. I recognized it, I excused it. It repeated itself. This time though I reached out to friends and when I did, I was able to get the help I needed to start a path to healing myself and open up to healthier relationships.

It saddens me to think that I wasn’t strong enough to see through the piles of teddy bears and chocolate the second time around. That I didn’t love myself enough to demand respect. That I rationalized again and again for behaviors that were completely unacceptable. Despite these feelings, I know now that I was not responsible for their behaviors and that none of what happened was my fault. Because I reached out for help I didn’t stay as long the last time, recognizing more readily what was happening to me. I left and made a promise to myself that I would never again be in a relationship with anyone who would treat me that way.

If you are in an abusive relationship it is important to know that you are not alone and that the abuse is not your fault. There is a better life waiting for you. One free of suffering.

No one deserves to be abused. Get the help you need and deserve. You are not alone.

National Domestic Violence Hotline 1−800−799−SAFE(7233) or TTY 1−800−787−3224

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?

WSO Sponsors Male Survivor Conference!

We’re proud to announce our sponsorship of The 2010 Male Survivor Conference on March 18-21, 2010.  It will be held at John Jay College in New York City.  This conference brings together advocates, professionals, and survivors to share new knowledge in the area of male sexual trauma.

We hear the lineup of presenters this year is going to be quite engaging.  WSO plans to be a presenter in 2011!

If you are in the New York City area make sure to attend.  We need to support new research in helping male survivors in their recovery process.  This conference supports breaking the silence about abuse.  Our men need our help more than ever.

For more information:

http://www.malesurvivor.org/conference-2010.html

Chris & Ophelia

WSO

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